Lilli Lewis photo by David Villalta
Pushing fear aside, Lilli Lewis went into the process of writing and recording her latest album Americana with one initiative: craft songs that she wanted to hear. The result is a heartfelt and poignant exploration that highlights the stories of those who have moved the singer-songwriter, while simultaneously moving the listener.
Americana is available now via Louisiana Red Hot Records.
I recently sat down with Lewis to discuss loving music like a child loves cotton candy, healing America, and animating her wilting heart.
Americana Highways: What a powerful album you have crafted in Americana. What did you set out to achieve musically and lyrically with this album that, perhaps, you didn’t achieve on your previous two releases? Now that it’s out into the world, do you feel like you accomplished everything that you wanted to creatively?
Lilli Lewis: I’m not sure we ever achieve everything we wanted to creatively, but I am really glad this record exists. One of my guiding “mantras” over the last couple of decades comes from a Fanny Mendelssohn setting of an Eichendorff poem I used to sing in my opera days: “Mein Singen ist ein Rufen nur aus Träumen,” which I roughly translated as “My singing is a cry from among dreams.” That sentiment came with a sense of urgency, almost fear of never being seen or heard. On this record, I wanted to set aside that fear and just record the songs I wanted to hear for myself. I set out to make it as a gift to myself that reflected a heart that was more still, but also was still awake to my personal experience and that of kindreds I’d met along my way. Lyrically, I just wanted to tell stories of folks who had moved or humbled me on my journey, and then maybe tell a handful of my own stories—who I’d seen myself as being on the other side of these people. I wanted to embrace a fuller circle of what it meant for these stories to belong to one another, for us to belong to one another…. And I do think I accomplish that in my own little way.
AH: Mandy Patinkin has said your music is “like listening to light.” Beyond having Iñdigo Montoya praise your creative output – which I, personally, would be screaming from the rooftops – I agree with his sentiment. Americana has the capability of pulling listeners out of their darkest moments and ushering them to that light. Songs are powerful things, especially in the private moments people share within themselves. What does music mean to you and has that relationship changed throughout the years?
LL: Honestly, I’m not sure my relationship with music has ever changed. It’s always been this profound, mysterious thing that calls to me from beyond and has saved me over and over again. The piano was my first best friend. The wood and strings vibrating back at me cradled me during incredibly difficult times. Certain song I learned in my father’s church like “Let Us Break Bread Together” (on our knees!!!!) used to find me in times when I felt so broken I couldn’t get off of the ground. I’m actually tearing up just thinking about my gratitude for those moments right now. Moving the breath through my body to sing those songs would animate my otherwise wilting heart time and time again. This has never changed. I still love music like a child loves cotton candy at the fair. I still need music like my weary grandmother laboring alongside her children in the cottonfield under a punishing South Georgia sun alongside her children. Music still strengthens my spine and makes the impossible seem right within reach. I will never have words for it, and the older I get, the more disconcerting I find it to know that I will likely never be able to put my finger on what it is that makes making music such a necessity for me. How can you truly love a thing you can’t name? I think it’s like being in a perpetual state of falling in love…or maybe like the whirling dervish’s devotion to God?
AH: Americana is your third album with the label. Does it feel special to now have a full catalog of music and, in revisiting those earlier records, are they a bit like chapters of your life when looking back on them?
LL: Americana is my third album with Louisiana Red Hot Records and third collaboration with the glorious entity known as Mark Bingham (my co-producer). But I’ve been self-producing records since 2003. So this is my 10th solo record, and I have a few other records out with a couple of other bands, most notably, a folk-rock band I formed with my wife called The Shiz. The earlier records I did for myself can be hard to listen to because I remember what it was like not to have any help, especially while those coming up around me were being given assistance from virtually out of the gate. It was lonely and scary to think my entire career could go like that, but as I’ve already mentioned, not making music was never an option for me, no matter how little external validation I was getting for my work. Once I started with Mark Bingham, that story completely changed. It was really life restoring to be working with someone with his ear and experience who could not only see me but offer his expertise to reveal who I was as an artist with as much transparency has could be mustered. What a gift, right? Ironically, it was Dr. James Walsh, who first knew me as a composer, who introduced me to Bingham. He was another mentor who provided a powerful mirror for me, letting me know it was OK to be an alien, encouraging me to embrace my alien-ness like Sun Ra had to, if that’s what it took to make me feel brave enough to share who I was and what I was growing up to be. “Jimbo” as we call him, tried to get me to record with Bingham for almost two years before I took him up on it, but I was too shy and didn’t want to be a burden. The first sessions, which yielded our first collaboration The Henderson Sessions, was a real catharsis. They both held space for me that literally brought me to tears. I think my body was downloading the fact that everything, all my stories and fears about being unheard were dissolving. It took four more years for that awareness to become fully realized, but I feel like Americana is a culmination of what was started way back in the fall of 2017.
AH: What would someone learn about you today in sitting down to listen to Americana front to back?
LL: Probably that I secretly want to heal America. (Laughter) I hope they would learn that it’s OK to learn to speak enough languages to be able to talk to people who aren’t like you and get to know them from inside their worlds instead of “otherizing” them… but that’s not about me is it? I hope they would learn that I really love them and want the best for them. They might learn that I’ve been through some difficult times, but that’s sometimes what makes me able to hold other people’s stories of their own difficult times. They might learn that I have learned that it’s difficult being a human, that none of us are getting out of this alive, and yet I still have hope for us: for our survival and for what we can pass on.
AH: The record was recorded at various studios. Can you hear the personality of each space come through in the songs? How do different spaces impact you while recording?
LL: I choose my spaces very deliberately when recording. I need the space to feel like my living room in order for me to surrender enough for anything to feel honest. I was sad not to have been able to do the bulk of the recording at Mark’s place in Henderson, Louisiana, but for the most part, we chose the next best thing, Mark’s home studio away from home which was Marigny Studios in New Orleans. Rick Nelson, who runs that space, made us feel more than welcome every time we entered the space, and his 9-foot Baldwin was a joy to play. Of course the pianos in the spaces are as important as anything else, and I got to play two pianos Dr. John recorded on for the album, the Henderson piano that used to live at the famed Piety Street Recording studio that shut down after Hurricane Katrina, and an instrument that was gifted to Dr. John by The Recording Academy’s “Musicares” program also after Katrina. Mark did such a great job mixing that I can’t feel the different spaces, but I do experience a difference in my playing based on what instrument I’m on. For example, “Fly” and “Coffee Shop Girl” were recorded on the Henderson piano, the space where I had my first real “opening” in the early sessions with Bingham, and I feel almost a “lilting” humility in my approach to the instrument; it feels quite intimate to me. In contrast, the piano part for “Everyday,” was recorded on the Musicares piano that I discovered at a random session I was singing backup vocals on. The piano was whispering to me while I was “on the clock,” and when I finally got to play it, I was immediately taken by its open tone that had offered a layer of exuberance that some of the other pianos hadn’t really inspired. All I hear on that track is how much fun I had playing that instrument, even though some of the keys were sticking!
AH: You have said that the songs on the album were “meant to reflect the humanity of the forgotten.” What do you hope that those who feel like they are not being seen take away from what they hear?
LL: I hope they feel seen. I hope they feel honored. I hope they feel lifted by the compassion embedded in these tunes the way those old songs from my father’s church used to lift me. I feel like that’s asking a lot but there it is.
AH: You also work on the other side of the music industry table, serving as VP and the Head of A&R at Louisiana Red Hot Records. How has working in the industry on the business side impacted what you’re doing on the artist side?
LL: Honestly, working the business side of things has been a huge smack in the face. I’ve learned how indifferent both the industry and the public can be about your music, your story and your intention. I’ve learned that being precious about these things can slow us down in a huge way. I’ve learned to relax in the experience of irrelevance and invisibility, because so often this stuff is like ships passing in the night. What I create is a ship that sets sail, and time and the collective conscience and circumstance, etc. is its own ship. Sometimes we pass each other without being aware of each other, sometimes we catch each other’s path and get a nice “Ahoy there!” Sometimes one ship has rations and supplies that the other ship really needs. A lot of it is happenstance for musicians like me, but I’ve learned not to fear or resent that anymore. I’ve learned not to take things nearly so personally. In a lot of ways, the industry appears like it is because everyone that drives the industry work so hard! That fact really can’t be overstated. We are always on the clock. So often, artists have to build in R&R in order to create anything, but industry folks are almost never off, especially mid-level folks supporting the careers of independent artists. It seems like such an absurd structure supporting such a magical thing… But I think getting a sense of the reality of the situation has helped me navigate it a little better over time. (Laughter) That’s probably wishful thinking. Ships in the night. That’s probably more realistic….
AH: With your A&R hat on, what advice would you give to new artists trying to break into music in today’s ever-changing industry?
LL: There are two things that seem to matter most. One is, if you can’t place your work in the context of a larger conversation, your ship is less likely to end up interacting with the bigger ship in a meaningful way. That’s not to say that you should go about manufacturing some larger context in which to offer up your work—I believe humanity needs everyone’s true authenticity—I have just witnessed that the sense of hope that sometimes shows up as entitlement for fame causes an insatiable pain and hunger that is internally corrosive. Make your art, but try to see yourself in the larger context sometimes, and when you do, don’t be afraid to engage that. The second thing that seems to matter and is undervalued is the quality of your relationships. Some people may seem like they love you because they appreciate the music you make, but as the song goes “love is a two-way street.” Make sure that you preference valuing other people’s lives, other people’s stories, other people’s livelihoods, other people’s well-being, even if you want or need something from them. The ecosystem is stretched and tender, and your sense of caring and decency matter now more than ever. Good relationships last beyond fashion, and sustainable careers will require a healthy bucket of strong, authentically caring relationships. It’s not flashy, but it’s a lot like how things work in romantic relationships. The initial connection may be transactional…a date or more… but when you accidentally discover that you actually like that person, the unsexy work of creating a real relationship begins!
AH: We are just a few weeks away from ringing in 2022. Do you have any New Year’s resolutions that you’re going to put into effect and if so, how do you plan on sticking to them?
LL: I intend to start my new year in a new home in the country. I want to commit the next two years of my life to re-investing in my relationship with that which is quiet. I want to invite more silence into my world because I have a lot of music that has been rattling around in my brain begging for more silence so it can “tell me how it really goes.” (Laughter) I also want to focus on being gentle with my body, listening to its inherent wisdom for more movement, less work addiction, more rest, etc. How I’m going to hold myself to these intentions? I don’t know. Maybe being transparent about them so that my world can hold me accountable might be a start?
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
LL: That’s a resounding yes! I would take that journey. I’m really open to any journey life affords me. I’ve already been given so many gifts way beyond my wildest imaginings. I have profound love in my life that I wake up to with rainbow-unicorn energy every morning. With that as my foundation all the other ups and downs feel almost trivial. Still, lately I’ve been getting more and more messages that music is in fact as healing and necessary for others as it has been for me, and since my singing is fundamental to my own well-being, I feel invested in trying to use it to facilitate healing, joyful and restorative experiences for others. Building a life around even attempting to share that which I consider the best of what I have to offer feels like a life worth living, a journey worth walking, come what may.
For more information on Americana, visit www.folkrockdiva.com.