by Len Lear
Lizanne Knott may just be one of the best singers/musicians you’ve never heard of, although you have definitely heard her music if you are a regular listener of WXPN Radio.
But you can see Lizanne perform in person with her trio, Ken Pendergast (upright bass) and John Conahan (keyboards), among several other groups at the Heartwood Music Festival this Sunday, July 12, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., at Awbury Arboretum, 1 Awbury Rd. in east Germantown. (When asked her age, she told this reporter, “Let’s just say I glided past my 50th birthday with an overwhelming sense of gratefulness.”)
Lizanne, a native of Horsham who writes brilliant songs that she performs — a mixture of folk, blues, gypsy jazz and country/rock (in other words, “Americana”) — is remarkably probably better known in the British Isles than she is in the U.S. How this that come about?
“A few of my songs somehow made it into the hands of a legendary radio personality on the BBC, Bob Harris,” she explained. “We exchanged a few emails and became somewhat fans of one another. The next thing I knew, I was getting airplay alongside Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones and also getting spins on his country programs. It was kind of funny.
“Within a year I had a label, distribution deal and a great touring agency, and I was headlining small theaters as a solo artist. I love it over there, my audiences are wonderful, the countryside in England, Scotland and Ireland is breathtaking, and the cities have such long, deep history. It’s amazing what radio support can do for you. Here in Philly it’s been Helen Leicht and WXPN, I owe much to that station.”
Lizanne, whose parents both played musical instruments, quit school after the 10th grade. Her grades were good enough, but “I had a disconnect with it all. My home life was pretty troubled, and I found solace in working with animals. At 15, I packed up and moved with my dog into a tiny apartment on a farm whose horses I worked with seven days a week, 10 hours a day. At night I’d sit in my room and write songs and play my guitar and read, I read lots of books. Eventually I did attend college, where I studied Liberal Arts.”
Lizanne, essentially a self-taught musician, grew up wanting to be one of those journalistic reporters who travel into war zones to tell the back stories of people who live in those dangerous places. That ambition still pulls at her, she maintains, but fate has put her on a much different path. She admires a host of singers but most of all Billie Holiday and Etta James. “Janis Ian was a major writing influence for me,” she said, “so getting to work with her and listen to her sing and play on my songs was an incredible gift.”
In addition to her career as a performer, Lizanne is a managing partner of MorningStar Studios in East Norriton, where she has recorded her music with Glenn Barratt, owner and chief engineer. She also lives in East Norriton with her youngest daughter, four dogs, two cats and a horse.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Lizanne’s career as a touring musician is that she has maintained it while also raising four daughters, a difficult task under any circumstances. “There have been a lot of challenges,” she said, “and I know they’ve suffered for some of the choices I’ve made. I’m a wannabe homemaker but a gypsy at heart.”
If Lizanne could spend time with anyone on earth, who would it be? “Jef Lee Johnson, my long time friend and guitar player, who passed away two years ago. I would like to spend a summer day on a park bench with him. If not Jef, then the Dalai Lama.”
Aside from her own projects, Lizanne has formed a duo, “Hey Harley,” with a singer-songwriter in LA, Bill Reveles. They have received interest from a heavyweight producer in Nashville, so they are hoping for a big breakthrough. “I always look forward to expressing my thanks for being able to do what inspires me in this life,” Lizanne said.
The Heartwood Music Festival is a new, one-day event that will feature music, food, crafts, etc. Tickets $10 in advance and $15 at the gate. The musical lineup at www.pfs.org/heartwood. Tickets at folksong.ticketleap.com/heartwood. You can hear Lizanne’s music at www.lizanneknott.com.