A hushed room 

Singer/songwriter Liz Durrett works for her strum

It takes a lot of quiet to hear Liz Durrett. During her recent gig at the Earl, the few people in the audience watched silently as she stood at a microphone, guitar strapped on her shoulder.

"I feel kinda crazy, y'all," said Durrett in a light Southern accent. "I took too much migraine medicine. So if I pass out or start convulsing or something, act natural." Her audience smiled but didn't laugh.

Then her cool, husky and rough voice echoed across the room, slowly at first, then with purpose. "On the long way home," Durrett sang as she stretched the chorus to "All the Spokes." Her bassist Jesse Slavin and drummer Rob Lomax provided a slow, steady backbeat, and she picked out simple, repetitive guitar lines that underlined the song's intensity.

Back in Athens and days after her appearance at the Earl, Durrett poked holes into her performance. "I feel like my guitar playing is fairly incompetent," she says. "But I've tried to develop some style of playing that will work for me." Despite the attention her two albums received, she still works part-time jobs to supplement her income. "I can't really afford to do music full-time right now," she says. "I can't say I've been terribly successful at selling records. But the press helps."

Durrett is a niece of noted singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. "I think he's amazing. It'd be impossible for me not to be influenced by him," she says enthusiastically. But while the heralded Chesnutt was performing and recording music by his late teens, Durrett abandoned it after making several demos while in high school. "I wasn't planning to do anything with it," she says of those early tapes. "I stopped playing music [publicly] for a long time, but I continued to write songs and play in my house."

Years later in 2005, Durrett, with help from Chesnutt, packaged the demos into a self-titled debut. The album drew reviews from several national publications like Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post, partly thanks to her famous uncle. But it is tentative-sounding when compared to her second album, The Mezzanine. On that disc, released last January, she seems alternately haunted and confident as she describes a contented life darkened by bouts of anxiety.

Durrett wrote most of The Mezzanine songs during a brief stint in Oakland, Calif., while her boyfriend (now her husband) pursued a master's degree at the San Francisco Art Institute. The album title refers to an attic in the couple's apartment where she would write, as well as to the "second floor" her album represents.

The music she plays is acoustic, spare and downbeat. Many of her song lyrics are deliberately cryptic and hide complex situations behind vague words fraught with meaning. For the aforementioned "All the Spokes," she sings, "I'll collect the evidence of the way home/It's safe in here, I know, I know, I know/But this is not the only battlefield." "Actually, while we were living out in Oakland, I got mugged at gunpoint and was almost abducted," says Durrett, chuckling at the memory. "['All the Spokes'] is about that.

"I'm trying to lighten the fuck up. I don't want to be a downer," she continues. "I guess it's just my nature. I've always used music as an outlet for depression and a therapeutic thing. But I need to branch out, because I've done that for so long ... I want to push myself a little bit harder, think about music in a different way, and use it for a different purpose."

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