IT DOESN'T TAKE LONG to fall for Lia Ices. In the opening seconds of "Love Is Won," the first track of Grown Unknown, her second album, Ices' coldwater voice lays the bedrock for a record of painstakingly gorgeous music. A careful, nudging drumbeat gives way to soaring organ and Ices' wordless refrain, although the song's verses—and the lyrics on the rest of Grown Unknown—are striking, full of both ambiguity and refreshing detail in equal measure. (NBC news anchor Brian Williams, of all people, has become a fervent fan; an episode of his awkwardly titled music segment "BriTunes" contains an equally awkward interview in which Williams fawns over the New York singer/songwriter.)
Grown Unknown's second track, "Daphne," might be even more striking. Featuring a guest vocal from Jagjaguwar labelmate Justin Vernon of Bon Iver—earning his title as the Most Helpful Man in Indie Rock—the song is seemingly the story of a woman turning into a tree. It shifts its shape midway through, shrugging off the lilting, back-and-forth folk rhythms of its opening minutes to transform into a more grandiose, stately piece. Ices explains, "In many ways, I wanted the song structure to mirror the poetic structure, which is about dichotomy: flight and attachment, and earth and sky, and man and woman, and just opposites. That theme is so embedded in the story that I felt like turning it from acoustic to electric was a way of mirroring that, with sound."
Exploring the rewarding depths of the rest of Grown Unknown takes a little longer, but it's a record that puts together small elements—an easygoing guitar line here, some gentle finger snaps there, Ices' emotive vocals throughout—into large, encompassing pieces. Growing up, Ices studied dance and theater, and was part of the experimental theater wing at New York University.
"It was kind of a relief when I realized I didn't want to pursue acting," she says of writing music. "It was really empowering to realize that I could make my own work and somehow have the confidence to pursue it. [But] it was a gradual thing. I've always written poetry, and writing has always been a really important ritual for me. And I've always sung, so everything just came together. To be honest, the vocal training and the experimental theater wing is what really helped me put all these pieces together, because they really encouraged you to make your own work as opposed to ballet or classical training, which have a very strict routine—you're either doing it right or wrong."
Ices wrote Grown Unknown in relative isolation in snowy, wintry Vermont. After returning home to bustling New York City, she worked on arrangements for the batch of new songs and brought them to a studio in Rhinebeck, in Upstate New York. (Ices has since moved to the Hudson Valley, north of where Grown Unknown was recorded.)
"I think expressing myself through music is one of the most fulfilling and challenging and important things that I can do with my time," Ices says. "More and more, creativity becomes a spiritual practice. There's so much more to it than all of the material things that come with it. I'm in it for life."