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Volume 77, Number 22 | Oct. 31 - Nov. 06, 2007

Villager photo by Geoff Smith

Danny Molad and Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth and The Catapult, a band on the rise.

Elizabeth and the catapult to fame

By Lee Ann Westover

A Columbia Records A&R rep recently left a message for Elizabeth Ziman, the keyboardist and songwriter of Elizabeth and The Catapult. “Hey Elizabeth, gimmie a call back. Just want to chat.” She dialed him up, only to find him in a frantic mood. “Elizabeth, sorry, I’m going to have to call you back. About a million people are getting fired right now.” Danny Molad, Catapult’s drummer and producer, sitting with Ziman at a café in Greenpoint last week, summed up the exchange with heavy sarcasm: “Oh, that’s promising.”

Even though a label has yet to get it together to sign Elizabeth and the Catapult, there is no doubt that the band is a hot property. Together for just over two years, the three-member outfit is already being courted by the industry. They have struck a chord on NPR as well, where they appear regularly on nationally syndicated programs like Studio 360. WFUV has also named their EP one of the best albums of 2006.

The secret to their booming success lies not in a bevy of publicists and yes men, but in their original and refreshing sound. Bringing together Ziman’s classical vocal and piano training, Molad’s love of visionary pop like Beck and Jon Brion, and guitarist Pete Lalish’s edge and roughness, they have come up with a style that is at once technically challenging, harmonically interesting and bursting with pop hooks. But Ziman hates being lumped in haphazardly with piano goddesses like Tori Amos, Regina Spektor and Norah Jones. “This band is more about arranging and is more a band as a whole.” That said, her strong and velvety vocals oscillate from a playful Ella Fitzgerald staccato to a wave of ethereal harmonies reminiscent of Sarah McLaughlin.

On the back patio of Greenpoint’s Champion Coffee, Molad and Ziman talked about their ultimate goals as musicians, with a wide-eyed optimism that is emblematic of their youthful sound. “My ultimate dream,” said Molad, “is that I see our circle of musician friends growing like a tree.” He gestures with both hands moving upwards. “That would be the most beautiful thing to me. I mean, people being able to share and have this sort of collective — almost in a hippie sense of community.”

Molad and Ziman’s sincere ebullience extends naturally from their future wishes to their music. The airy, intimate “Right Next to You” is a spare and incredibly intimate love song. Said Ziman, “You pick up the newspaper any day of the week and see so much heartache and so many things that you can’t even wrap your fingers around that are going on in the world that feel so out of our control.” Then, shyly leaning in Molad’s direction, “The one thing that you can control — the one thing that I can rely on is that I have this great, loving relationship.”

Although Ziman, Molad and Lalish all attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music, it wasn’t until the last weeks of the final semester that Ziman and Molad met at a party. “The minute we met, we started recording — literally!” she said. Lalish became a part of the group soon after. “Basically I was in Boston at this really seedy, horrible bar packed with college kids. Pete just started ripping it.” Despite the fact that Ziman had been singing on tour with Patti Austin “and was in this jazz and classical place,” she was instantly drawn in. “There was something so melodic and so bad-ass about what he was doing. I went up to him afterwards and was like ‘we need to play together’ — and it worked out!” Cut to the beginning of 2005, and Lalish, Molad and Ziman are all living in New York City — Molad and Ziman as a couple in East Williamsburg, Lalish as a precocious dropout in Flatbush.

As sweet and sentimental as both Ziman and Molad can be, the group’s material is peppered with Ziman’s wicked sense of humor. The opening track, “Waiting for the Kill” is a subtly evil paean to the thrill of revenge. Over a lilting arrangement of pizzicato strings and a tapping high hat, Ziman sings, “Now I’m spineless, cowardly and blind, but revenge is oh so hard to find. I’m just a good, good girl with a troubled mind.” The song “Momma’s Boy” is steady and swingy, full of groovy hand claps and cool organ sounds from Ziman’s Nord keyboard. “Don’t expect the world to clean up for you, ‘cause they don’t have to. Don’t expect the stars to light up for you, they shine right past you. You seem to think you always get exactly what you ask for, but I’m not your mother.”

Ziman spent her youth perambulating the streets of the West Village, and perhaps therein lies the key to both her lyrics’ idealism and wit. “I grew up down the block from Café Wha and the Fat Black Pussycat, where Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell really made their debut.” Mix those folk influences with evenings spent practicing classical piano or singing with New York City’s Young People’s Chorus, and “consciously or not, that may have corrupted my whole being.”

The band name too is somewhat grounded in childhood. “We were just looking for a whimsical name... Mostly we were trying to come, up with something fun, like Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach.’”

That same sense of fun will be on display tonight, when the group will perform a Halloween show at Joe’s Pub (costumes advised). “We’ll have candy for all the kids,” said Molad. “You can come trick or treating to the stage.” Then as an aside, he adds, “I just decided that right now, and I am going to do it, but make it sound like I had already planned it.”

Catapult’s entire journey seems to be playing out this way — as something both inspired and improvised.

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