Local Current Blog

‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ rewriters Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski talk demos, fine art, and what it was like to go viral

Josiah Lemanski and Lydia Liza (Nate Ryan)

“I still feel tired,” Lydia Liza declares, pulling in her chair. We’re at a Northeast Minneapolis coffee shop with Josiah Lemanski — her partner in the “Baby It’s Cold Outside” remake that went viral last December — and it’s early enough that all of us are rubbing our eyes. But Liza isn’t talking about right then. She’s going all the way back to December, when global media sent their version viral. “It was three weeks of non-stop,” she says. “Honestly, it was exhausting.”

Before the holidays last year, Liza and Lemanski took 1944’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside” — a holiday classic to some, a rape culture relic to others — and rewrote the half of the duet that’s traditionally been sung by men. The original features coaxings like, “Oh, baby, don’t hold out […] What’s the sense of hurting my pride?” Jay Gabler writes, “The male lyrics in ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ draw on a vocabulary that men have been using for centuries to pressure women into unwanted sexual contact.” So in the new version, when Liza tells Lemanski she can’t stay, he lays off the pressure: “You reserve the right to say no.”

Their publicity whirlwind started to kick up when The Current covered the duo’s remake, and it surged as TIME, CNN, NPR, and a few dozen other outlets picked up the story. Liza and Lemanski did at least 25 interviews for print and a few more for TV or radio, often in a row (when they stopped into The Current’s studios, they said their day was stuffed). “There were nights when we’d get done with one thing,” Liza says, “and then we’d have to get up really, really early to do interviews” (see: a 6 a.m. segment she did on the BBC).

Now that Liza and Lemanski are on the other side of the explosion, they share about its impact on their lives. First, they say, they’re thrilled to have been able to raise money through Rock the Cause Records. The official numbers aren’t in yet, but by releasing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” on the non-profit label, they raised at least $2,000 for the Sexual Violence Center and the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “Which doesn’t sound like much,” Liza says, “but we couldn’t have donated that on our own.”

Plus, their song’s success pushed them toward music as a career. Liza has been songwriting and performing music for years (under her own name and as the frontperson of jazz-folk band Bomba de Luz). Lemanski also has some experience, having played in the band Brothers. But according to Liza, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” pushed them to say, “Oh. We should actually try to do this now. Really start pursuing it.”

That looks like solo demos for each artist, and hopefully, more co-written music. “We’re thinking we’re going to write an album together,” Liza says, “but neither of us are very comfortable with writing with other people. It’s a really sensitive process.” “I’ve never done it before,” Lemanski chimes in, and Liza nods. “Yeah, so it’s hard to sit together and be like, ‘Okay.'” She pauses. “‘Well, what’s the next line?'”

The duo might struggle with co-writing lines, but they already finish each other’s sentences. “We’re two best friends. We spend every day together,” says Lemanski, and Liza adds, “And know each other so well.” “For like three years,” Lemanski finishes. (They’ve been dating for a good part of that time.)

“But I think it’s such an intimate thing to write with people,” Liza says. “It’s scary, because you feel stupid when you’re suggesting a metaphor or a song idea.”

When they’re not writing together, they’re working on their own music, which they’re both in the process of demoing. Liza calls Lemanski “a professional melody crafter,” and after she plays me some of his old music, I have to agree. The old material is unplugged, but with his new music, he’s aiming to sound something like emo punk band Brand New.

Although it created huge opportunities for Liza and Lemanski, going viral with “Baby It’s Cold” didn’t come without its ugly side. People found Liza online and sent her threatening messages. She says, “I forget to say that I was also in the process of being evicted, so it was very stressful.” Lemanski adds, “And I missed so much work.” He shrugs, dry. “We’re down a lot of money and got death threats, but.”

From here, Liza is slotted to play several shows in town, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Third Thursday event tonight. She’ll have 15-20 minutes in the Contemporary galleries (G374) at 7:30 p.m., and fellow locals Jay Smart and Lady Midnight will also pop up and play. Har Mar Superstar will lead a tour of his favorite art.

When I ask if they’re Mia fans, both musicians start to gush. “I grew up going every weekend,” Liza says, and Lemanski often went with his dad. “Whenever I think of Mia,” he says, “I think of the hallway […] with the whole jade mountainside. Jade is my favorite stone.” “Oh, yeah, that stuff’s stupid good,” Liza agrees.

China, “Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Poets at the Lan T’ing Pavilion,” 1784, light green jade.

They talk about Rembrandt’s Lucretia, which Mia bought from Lydia Jones in 1934. “I had an art teacher, and he was my best friend, I’m telling you,” Liza says. “He had one of those old slide machines, and he would take out a big box of slides and put them in. One time he put in a slide of Lucretia and didn’t say anything.” She pauses. “Usually he’d start talking right away, so we were all like, ‘What is this?’ He was just sitting there, looking at it, for a long time. Then he scans over the room and was like, ‘This makes grown men cry.'”

Liza mentions one more piece: “There’s a painting by Egon Schiele that’s been there forever. Portrait of Paris von Gütersloh. When my parents went on one of their first dates, they were like, ‘Show me your favorite painting.’ And they both went to that one.”

She’s ultra-charismatic as she talks about pieces she loves, and I’ve seen that energy carry over into her performance. If we’re lucky, she’ll keep sharing stories tonight, and she and Lemanski will keep sharing music for ages.