In the world we live in today, we need trailblazers, and people who aren’t reluctant to speak up. Lilli Lewis does through her music, and by her commitment to creating greater awareness and diversity in folk, Americana and country. We spoke with Lilli Lewis recently, touching on what she's been up to during the lockdown, her newest music, her origins, and what she's looking forward to once COVID-19 breaks.
Andrew Daly: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. How have you been holding up over the last year or so? What have you been up to?
Lilli Lewis: What have I not been up to? Last year was incredibly busy. When everything shut down, the label I was managing, Louisiana Red Hot Records went into full-on public health advocacy work. We produced a public service announcement anthem called “Mask Up!” that featured a number of New Orleans [musicians] like Kirk Joseph and Glen David Andrews, and then another one of our artists put out a single on flattening the curve. At the same time, with the help of Folk Alliance International, I launched Committing to Conversation, a program designed to engage and empower DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] initiatives through the global folk community.
This year I focused on releasing a huge project from folk-punk legend Peter Stampfel, and a new title from virtuoso Zydeco [musician] Dwayne Dopsie. Those are both titles I’m really proud of, and of course, we finished up my album, Americana, which we started recording in the fall of 2020. I participated in a program called Global Music Match through Folk Alliance International, which connected me with artists from all over the world and has led to ongoing collaborations. I also launched the first season of a new podcast called FolkRockDivaTalk, and an inaugural Black Opry Fest, a virtual event that centered on Black artists in folk, roots, Americana, and country.
All of this happened while facing health issues with my mother that caused a pretty profound lifestyle change that re-oriented my life to her care and recovery. So, it’s been a huge couple of years for me, both musically and personally. I feel like the last 12 months in particular may have actually made a grownup out of me.
AD: What first got you hooked on music?
LL: As far as I know, there’s never been a time when I wasn’t obsessed with music. When I was three years old I dragged my family into our “fancy room” to give them an air piano performance of the music in my head, which proved awkward for them because unbeknownst to me, they couldn’t hear the music in my head.
For better or for worse, I think it’s been a lifelong obsession of mine to get that internal music out into the world. I’ve always been incredibly shy so the piano was my first best friend, and over time, music became the primary way I allowed myself to share how I see the world. I’ve been opening up a little more in recent years, but music has always been my safe space, the space I allow myself to be myself with no qualifiers or equivocation.
AD: Who were some of your early influences?
LL: My earliest recollections of music were in my father’s church. It was a humble shack of a thing by some people’s standards, but it was called Thank Baptist Church, and I’m still incredibly thankful for the short time I spent there. It had an aging congregation, and in that space, I was raised by the 65-plus--year-old deaconesses who would pinch my ample cheeks every Sunday as part of their painful but effective love language. The way the congregation intoned together before each service felt ancient and fortifying. It had the sound of joyful mourning if that makes any sense, and the stomping of their feet against the hardwood floor was the only percussion besides our heartbeats. Profound. It was at the church’s sesquicentennial celebration when I first sang and played piano at the same time. I was terrified and likely dissociated for half of that performance, but I understand now that it was enough that I just did my best.
Usually, when people ask about my early influences, I say something about my love for turn of the (last) century French music. I let everyone know about my obsession with Gabriel Fauré and something about how my innards dropped the first time I heard the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 1 performed live…but the most enduring aesthetic that I value, that I cling to, came from those early years in my father’s church.
AD: Tell us about your new release, Americana.
LL: The idea for Americana came with the birth of the song, “If It Were You.” This was during the kids in cages crisis in 2020, and I just found myself unable to reconcile the dismissive ways in which I heard [some] people talking about the circumstances. A lot of times when I feel helpless, songs come along to try to help me understand what I’m feeling. I couldn’t understand that at all, so the opening lyric was, “I don’t know anything about this.” By the time I got to the second verse, I realized I did know a little about the desperation that could lead to uprooting your family, but I never had any intention of singing the song because it was too transparent, sat too close to the bone, especially since, melodically, I was telling it from a child’s voice. Toi Derricotte, a poet I look up to and have had the honor of befriending, once said that with my art it’s imperative that I do what scares me the most, so once I committed myself to singing it, I knew I wanted to find other songs to [complement it]. A few short weeks later, the album closer, “My American Heart (Benediction)” showed up after waking from a dream.
These songs reminded me of a style I used to find myself writing in a lot before I moved to New Orleans. They were more story-driven than backbeat-[driven], and I realized I had a lot of orphaned songs like that. I started making a list and discovered that not only was there an album there, but there was a unifying theme; all of the songs represented stories I’d been collecting during my walk as an intersectional American, meaning, one who occupies a lot of marginalized spaces, and that many of these kinds of stories aren’t often told in my chosen genre of Americana. They may get told in the folk world, with which I also very much identify, but usually more from an observer’s lens, not so much from the first-person point of view. That gave me the silly idea that the record could be more than just a vanity [project], but something that might prove to be of use in the context of the difficult conversation we as a society [find] ourselves in.
AD: Is your music intensely personal, or are you only telling stories?
LL: I find that even when I think I’m only telling stories, it either is or eventually becomes intensely personal. I have a song called “Kisses,” which we recorded for my last record, that was me trying to tell a story about loving someone who doesn’t know how to receive love, from someone else’s point of view. Sure enough, after a few years of singing [it], it became an absolutely lived experience (in the worst kind of way, I might add). On Americana, when I was writing what became “Coffee Shop Girl,” I was collecting the stories of the women in my life who liked to talk about their guns. I had five or six verses written before I encountered the coffee shop girl, who told me [about her feelings about] the Second Amendment, and that she [also] thought integration laws shouldn’t have been imposed on people who didn’t want to integrate. Suddenly, the whole song became about that encounter, and the other people in the song were just there to dress up at that moment.
I used to be self-conscious about how personal my songs were. The writing has always really mattered to me, and I thought that great writing required that I learn to be more abstract, or, if I couldn’t learn to be more abstract or broad, I should at least learn how to write a decent love song. I think now I feel more at ease with the fact that I’m just a steward for the songs that come through me. I’ll certainly keep trying to develop in the craft, but I also feel thankful for every song that has come through.
AD: How have you evolved as an artist since your first release, The Coming of John?
LL: Well, my voice has developed in important ways. Back then, every time I went to sing I felt like I was re-learning how to sing, teaching myself what my body needed in order to find a sound that felt authentic and transparent at the same time. In recent years, I’ve started to see that work come to fruition. I’ve learned that there’s a difference between making music to self-express, music to communicate, and music to connect. I’ve always been aware of the first two, but in recent years, especially during my time in New Orleans, I’ve started to try to learn more about the connection [part]. My social anxiety made that part terrifying to engage in in the past, but lately, I’ve been deepening in the practice my opera teacher, Dr. Gregory Broughton, opened up for me years ago when he commanded me to “stop hiding.”
AD: You’re trained as both an opera singer, and a classical pianist. How have you applied that to your career as a folk singer and artist?
LL: In my early years singing my own music, I tried hard to forget everything I’d been taught as a classical musician because I perceived us, classical musicians, as being rather limited [because of] our dependence on self-expressing through other people’s notes and words. I also found that our assumption that all music could be expressed through the language of Western European art music was shortsighted at best. I believed that the folk music I sought to unite myself with required that I learn something about music that “creates itself” -- music that comes from the ether and finds what it wants to say.
In recent years, my classical affinity seems to be rearing its head again, which seems ironic since my vocals now have blues and gospel inflections that they never had before, and my piano technique is practically nonexistent. What’s coming back is the reverence I had for the music as a classical musician. I threw that baby out with the bathwater when I started this journey of learning to play my own music, but the reverence is back in full force nowadays.
I want [audiences] to know that I don’t take their time or their souls for granted. I am not there for their attention, rather, I come to attempt to add value to their lives. I have to remind myself that music designed explicitly to provide healing is in fact high art, and that’s what I’m attempting to bring to the stage these days.
AD: In my opinion, minority artists do not get enough credit in the world of folk music. Why do you feel they are overlooked?
LL: Folk music means different things depending on where you are. For example, I notice that at folk music conferences, indigenous music from around the world counts as folk, and music that represents a specific geography counts as folk, but in the US and in markets impacted by US definitions of folk, the music of Black people has been systematically sectioned off over the last 100 years or so. Segregated America has meant that those in power have been willing to borrow and steal our art, but then un-invite us from the table when they commodified it. This can be the story of any minority group, but I think it is especially true of Black culture in America.
I don’t know that we can say Black people invented folk music because everyone who landed on American soil brought their folk traditions with them. That said, we are the originators of a lot of traditions folded into the folk music lexicon. I know that my language here may seem loaded, but I don’t actually intend that to be so. I am simply trying to present a sober account of what happened to the Black presence in folk music. When I go to folk festivals and ask my audiences to define what folk music is, they [fail to mention] every genre associated with Black people, even though they have white artists at the same event playing the very music they discounted. And as of yet, no one has once brought up the invention of race records, or attempted to contend with how that might have impacted their perception of what folk music is, or who is allowed to define it.
AD: Easy ones now. What are a few of your favorite albums, and why?
LL: Easy? I’ve lived about 100 lifetimes so far, so it’s really hard for me to pick. The recording I’ve listened to more than any other is the Beaux Arts recording of the Faure Piano Quartets and Trio. Anita Baker’s Rapture is probably a close second. I also really like Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. There are too many folk albums I love to begin to try to choose, but I’m a huge sucker for early Indigo Girls and all things Amy Ray. We’re also very much a Johnny Cash and Neil Young household, although Tom Petty probably reigns supreme. My favorite Tom Petty record is Wildflowers, but there’s no big revelation! My second-favorite Tom Petty record is The Last DJ, and I stand by that choice wholeheartedly.
My favorite album of classical singing is Cecilia Bartoli’s Se Tu M’Ami, which I’ll always view as a singular achievement. Close behind that is a tie between Jessye Norman and Lilli Lehmann’s recordings of the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, and only slightly behind those is Kathleen Battle’s Honey and Rue, not just because of the rendering of the Toni Morrison song cycle of the same name [as] set by Andre Previn, but because of her terrifyingly stunning performance of Barber’s “Knoxville, Summer 1915” – one of my favorite poets meets one of my favorite composers as sung by one of my favorite singers. There are too many titles to name that send me to full swoon.
AD: I want to dig more into your involvement with online artist directory Country Soul Phonebook.
LL: The CSPB as we refer to it was built in response to some messages I received from [the] industry press after a virtual Black Equity in Americana panel presented by the Americana Music Association back in the fall of 2020. The general air of the inquiries was, “we would cover more of you if we knew about and could find you,” so the nerd/database geek in me thought I’d build a central location to make that possible. A few months later, online magazine Country Queer released a directory that in essence had the data structure I was looking for. I [contacted] Jeremy Leroux, the [site’s] developer, who [helped] facilitate a data home (for CSPB). The CSPB directory has since developed into a larger online community called countryeverywhere.com, and is now under the full stewardship of its original programmer Jeremy Leroux.
Our sister brand is Country Soul Songbook, an organization led by another AMA panelist, alt-Country artist Kamara Thomas out of North Carolina. They named themselves after Charles L. Hughes’ book of the same name, and their focus is intersectional activism in country-adjacent music spaces, so we named this iteration of the database the Country Soul Phonebook to explicitly mirror that intention.
AD: In your opinion, what is the state of the music business these days?
LL: Artists should always be hopeful. It’s our job and sacred duty to remain hopeful, even here at the end of all things! We think we’re society’s Frodo, but really we’re the Samwise Gamgees. It’s certainly a tough playing field, but it’s never been more democratized. If your goal is to make money with music, there are certainly specific paths to accomplish that. If your goal is to be self-expressed and get the music out to others, that’s also more accessible than any other time since maybe that of the troubadours. If your goal is to get famous…and maybe even rich…well, that’s a much narrower needle to thread, and that’s where I’d suggest some deeper study…maybe start with Robert Johnson at the crossroads?
AD: Last one. What’s next?
LL: I haven’t been on an extensive tour since I took over at Louisiana Red Hot Records, so I’m very much looking forward to getting back on the road…and maybe staying there for a bit. I will start next year in residency with the New Quorum in New Orleans, to finish a song cycle based on four poems by Toi Derricotte, followed by a lovely concert we’re planning at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Then we’ll be headed to Folk Alliance International in Kansas City, Missouri, with a number of festivals on the docket for the new year as well.
I think mostly I really am looking forward to supporting this record and finding more time to enjoy a quiet home life with the wifey. I’m going through a simplicity phase – I’m feeling curious about what pleasures a simple life can yield.
Header image courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media.