Carmel Liburdi politely declines an offer of espresso, instead choosing to sip decaf. She knows herself: Just talking about music — and what it means to her — will animate her to the point where she'll already feel caffeinated.
"Music has been such a friend to me throughout my life," the 26-year-old folk singer says. "But also, all creative outlets have always helped me to escape, or helped me better understand how I was feeling. I feel like everyone's had that experience where they're upset, and they might not know why, or what it is, but then they hear a song with lyrics that somehow perfectly captures it, and it makes you feel like your own feelings can't be that weird because you're hearing someone else who gets it."
The metro Detroit native will release her sixth full-length album this week, titled Yes! We're Open! That phrase is befitting of Liburdi's charismatic, refreshing, and engaging disposition. Her songs are like dialogues, giving melody, tone, and timbre, to what feels like a conversation (or, sometimes, a confession), coiled with super-catchy, often winsome-feeling choruses with wordplay that stands in for metaphors on anything from relationships to quiet, creeping existential panic. It's about being "open" to starting that dialogue, or at least inviting an audience, or a listener, to consider engaging in that dialogue.
"And sometimes it's even making me feel understood," Liburdi says. "It's like when I play the song, I'm asking, 'Hey, do you ever feel like this?' And when they clap, it's like they're saying, 'Yes, I do get like that sometimes!' So there's validation in that, but I want the validation to always be reciprocal. It's not all about my validation. I will really put myself out there to help people feel their own validation. [In] some of my songs, I'll say really personal things or really open up in a way that you might think I would hesitate to, on a stage, but ... I don't know, it's kind of liberating. It can really be liberating to say, in a song, 'Here it is ... here it all is!'"
Liburdi is a unique type of folk singer, blending an array of some of her lifelong influences from genres that are otherwise disparate from the standard songwriter-with-an-acoustic-guitar model, such as punk rock, turn-of-the-millennium emo, and hip-hop. At the same time, she's subtly weaving in those affectations so as to still stay in the lane of what would sound like "folk" to your ears, more or less, rather than coming off as too aspirationally fusionist. More than anything, Liburdi admits that her energy — her personality, and her tendency to purposefully make eye contact with individuals in her audiences — is what sets her apart from traditional "folk."
"I played acoustic guitar by proxy, 'cause it was what was around — it was what I had access to," she says. "Piano was my first instrument, but it was hard to bring into places to perform, so I became guitar-dependent. But I think all of that stuff — hip-hop, as well as my huge R&B phase in middle school, and the dance classes from when I was younger — I feel like that all comes through in my music. But I also had parents who were really theatrical and creative. I lost my dad when I was young, but he was really into '20s, '30s, and '40s ragtime and jazz. The first song I ever performed was actually about flappers. And then my mom — she's always been hip, she liked new music, and we listened to a lot of 89X, so I listened to a lot of alternative and grunge, which I still love to this day."
The songs on Yes! We're Open! were pieced together over a series of weeks, working with producer Steve Gualdoni, who also engineered Liburdi's 2013 album, Martyrs & Misfits. "Steve has been an audio engineer for a really long time, and it's fun to work with him," she says. "He's always teaching me new things, and we talk a lot about music. We've been doing a lot of listening to the new album. And this time, I've been doing more arranging on the songs. In the past, I think I was a little more afraid to push myself, but with these songs I tried to just dive into the fear of it and just do it."
After Liburdi graduated high school, her mom would drive her from St. Clair Shores to coffee shops in Ferndale, where she started her first live acoustic performances. "I would say that sometimes I'm almost more comfortable on a stage than off," she says. Of that proclivity of hers to make eye contact with audience members while performing, she says, "I'm just always trying to make connections with people ... trying to make a positive impact, or uplift them in some way, or make them feel understood. I personally value that when someone can give it to me, so I'm always trying to give it back. One of the main goals is to encourage people to get into their feelings and to empathize with other people. I think unity and connectivity are the strongest forces for good in the world. We're already detached enough as it is in our daily lives — and you can't go around making deep empathetic connections with people all the time. So the stage is this rare platform where you can make an announcement out of human emotions."
While she's aware that her stage presence might make her appear to be positive or even sprightly, Liburdi's lyrics suggest otherwise. "I had a lot of pain growing up, and loneliness," she says. "I was even kind of shy sometimes and had a lot of anxiety. I don't necessarily project those emotions as a person when you meet me, but the music is where it can come out. It's a necessary outlet ... The goal is never to depress anyone, but even just to acknowledge it can be powerful."
Going back to her earlier work from six or more years ago, Liburdi admits that more of her hip-hop influences were able to filter in, as she was working more on the piano, and indulging more of her spoken word and poetry sides. "And then on the guitar, I would write aggressively, and play more percussively, and my vocals were more dynamic and raw and intense, even if there was fluctuation in that intensity," she says. "But on a new song like 'Hell's Bathroom Floor,' my vocals are pulled back and more tender. I'm trying to explore those parts of myself and just let the guitar and the song have more of a versatile feel, as opposed to always sassing it up or doing whimsical things."
She's also deeply connected to a diverse cast of contemporary musicians around the local music scene, like folk singer Emily Rose, Mariachi punk duo Pancho Villa's Skull, and even Michigan-by-way-of-California funk fusionists Downtown Brown.
"I have a very deep love for the Detroit music community, and I feel like there's a really strong DIY spirit here," she says. "I've met all these people serendipitously. I really love the diversity we have here. And we have great house shows and DIY venues, which I adore. I love the close-knit feel of those [venues]. I really blossomed in communities like Trumbullplex and Crow Manor. They're utopias for self expression. And I've been exposed to so many different people, and styles, and places. It's been great so far — I've met some of my favorite people ever here."
Liburdi might also become one of your favorite people in Detroit.
Carmel Liburdi performs an album-release party with Emily Rose, Jack Oats, and Maray Fuego on Friday, Dec. 6 at the Trumbullplex, 4210 Trumbull Ave., Detroit; 313-832-7952; trumbullplex.org. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7.
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