Q&A with New Orleans Folk Rock Diva Lilli Lewis, "the grand-daughter" of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Odetta

"Music is life-affirming, the breath moving through the body has the ability to remind the body that it lives, and that breath intoned can remind a voice that it matters."

Lilli Lewis: The Black Rose of Americana

Beloved New Orleans Folk Rock Diva Lilli Lewis is releasing Americana, her third full album for Louisiana Red Hot Records. The album was co-produced by Lewis and iconic indie producer Mark Bingham (Peter Stampfel, Hal Wilner, Allen Ginsberg…). Notable guest artists include cellist Rick Nelson, folk favorite Gina Forsyth, and Seattle Blues Legend Lady A. The album will be released on October 29th. Lewis has spent the better part of her 20 year career carving out space for herself in the music industry as an African-American queer woman of size. The Athens, Georgia native has recently been lending her voice to the industry’s need to diversify its precepts by facilitating Folk Alliance International’s “Committing to Conversation” initiative to provide safe space for developing diversity within the Folk community, and by frequently serving as a panelist to discuss challenges and solutions for the industry’s stated interest in diversity, equity and inclusion.                                        (Lilli Lewis / Photo by Liv Piskadlo-Jones)

Trained as opera singer and classical pianist, Lewis has been a composer, producer and performing artist for over two decades. After spending two decades carving out space for herself as an African-American lesbian of size, Lewis is lending her voice to the music industry’s need to diversify its precepts. Lewis has composed in every tradition inspires her, including soul, Americana, classical, folk, jazz, rock, gospel, blues, soul and R&B. Lewis integrated elements of New Orleans funk while singing lead for Dirty Dozen Brass Band founding member Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove. “If Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Odetta had had a baby, and that baby had had a baby, and that baby had had another baby… well that baby would probably be me,” she describes. Lewis serves as VP and A&R Head for Louisiana Red Hot Records, and often serves as a music industry panelist, production consultant, and advocate for fairness and empowerment in the musical community.

Interview by Michael Limnios        Special Thanks: Lilli Lewis & Howlin' Wuelf Media

How has the Folk & Roots Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Funny enough, my experience of the Folk & Roots community now is that it’s any but “counter culture.” It may be a movement that sought to challenge the status quo at some point, but these days, there are so many social milieus attached to that community of music makers that I tend to find myself counter to that culture. That said, I do have an affinity for those scenes I feel serve as “weight balancers” in the grand scheme of things...maybe it’s because I’m a middle child? I recently sang some “balancing” harmonies on a project for Peter Stampfel, someone who’s still representing the counter-culture of folk, roots, and music in general...and holding that position pretty hard. I think I feel safest in those spaces for the very fact that there are no expectations other than the one that demands you do your best to show up as yourself. I think folks who do what makes the most sense to them often end up behaving in a way that opposes expectation...but the funny thing is, we’re just being ourselves…I don’t know that we’re against much anymore, except being told what to do perhaps!

Where does your creative drive come from? What do you hope is the message of your music philosophy?

Well, the creative drive certainly comes from mysterious sources, doesn’t it? I mean for me, it changes from one year to the next, one season to another… When I started writing my own songs, I was obsessed with Rumi, Rilke, and chaos theory, so my process, in its own way, lived in the cross-section between what those worlds were trying to tell me. For me, there’s a physical sensation that comes with my enlightening… Time slows, my head fuzzes out, my spine is on alert, and I just become something of an antenna...while hoping desperately not to screw up the transmission on the way in from whatever quantum field the information is coming from. I almost always screw it up, but something beautiful and surprising (at least to me!) seems to always emerge.

I think if the language weren’t strange to my being an atheist, I’d say I’m probably chasing God, or inviting God… There’s an energy field in the world that makes me feel like there are answers and hope and naïve things like that. It’s naïve, but also delicious, and difficult to ignore when it shows up, at least that’s what it’s like when a new song is being born. In the studio, or when I’m working on a composition, it’s more of a process of tracking curiosity and registering humility…. Like I follow my curiosity to discover what feels most “right,” or sometimes what the right amount of “wrongness” facilitates “rightness.” But when the “rightness” emerges, it commands my attention and sort of stops time… I find myself feeling unspeakable humility and gratitude when that “rightness” or “in-tuneness” snaps into place… It makes me feel my part in the limitless story, connected to everything in my unfathomable smallness.        (Photo by David Villalta)

"I think I feel safest in those spaces for the very fact that there are no expectations other than the one that demands you do your best to show up as yourself. I think folks who do what makes the most sense to them often end up behaving in a way that opposes expectation...but the funny thing is, we’re just being ourselves…I don’t know that we’re against much anymore, except being told what to do perhaps!" 

How does activism affect your mood and inspiration? What do you think is key to a life well lived?

Interesting that these two are juxtaposed in one inquiry, eh?

I once said in an interview that if we had a just world, I’d probably be composing more wordless music, maybe even inaudible music...I’d just feel free to be a quantum string vibrating. But the unjust nature of the society we’ve created thus far does not afford me that luxury.

The truth is the older I get, the more intimidated I am by the word “activism,” because I’m becoming so much more aware of how easy it is to do harm, even when your intentions are in the purest place you can imagine. I sometimes think of what we currently view as “activism” in terms of feedback loops as it pertains to live sound, or the nervous system. We’ve all been in a club during a soundcheck when an unwieldy frequency lets loose its wrath. We need that frequency, we just need to be attentive enough that its desire to shine doesn’t steal the show!

I’m becoming more and more committed to the need to de-escalate these feedback loops. More and more, I’m seeing our collective distress, no matter who we are, as a function of generational trauma, and our collective nervous system is, in a word, fried. From my own trauma work I’ve learned that slowing down is the first necessary step to preparing a system for being able to tolerate, work with, and ultimately change that which feels intolerable. That slowing down, that willingness to discover and interjected a sense of space in the context of an inflamed situation has become the key to my experience of a life well-lived.

Through this, I’ve been learning the depth and sincerity of my value sets. I’ve come to see dignity (as opposed to pride?) is really the name of the game. The absence of dignity disrupts my mood but inspires me to act on its behalf whenever possible. I believe a sincere commitment to cultivating the inherent worth and dignity in all living things has become a life and death matter to put it plainly, and while I’m no longer certain I believe in our ability to grow up enough to put the pieces together with the degree of sobriety required, I am looking forward to chasing down this principle to the bitter end.

"Well, the creative drive certainly comes from mysterious sources, doesn’t it? I mean for me, it changes from one year to the next, one season to another… When I started writing my own songs, I was obsessed with Rumi, Rilke, and chaos theory, so my process, in its own way, lived in the cross-section between what those worlds were trying to tell me." (Lilli Lewis / Photo by Liv Piskadlo-Jones)

Do you have any stories about the making of the new album? How do you want it to affect people?

I know the initial intention for the music on the record was to put to bed the notion that my Blackness and my American-ness were somehow at odds with one another, so in some ways, it was a very selfish pursuit. Also, I sought to tell stories that don’t often get told in Country, folk and Americana, like immigration, gun obsession, historical queerphobia, the houseless, rural Black Americans, etc., even though I view these stories as very much the fertilizer for our American soils. I often have people, sometimes even fans, say to me “Lilli, aren’t we all just Americans at this point? Aren’t these stories identity politics? And aren’t identity politics fundamentally divisive?” My answer on the inside tends to be “Yes. We are, those of us who claim America (and some of us who don’t!) all Americans. But who gets to decide which stories are valid, worth hearing? Who gets to decide what counts and what doesn’t? What is their basis of authority?” But these responses fall on the def ears of those who would pose those questions in the first place, so instead, I make music… I write a song, I sing it as best I can, I dress it up and try to make it feel peaceful and elegant, and try to offer up that humble experience of beauty to the best of my ability and hope that the care, attention, intention, and hopefully beauty generates a little of that space I was talking about before. That’s how I hope to affect people. I hope to encourage a slowness that empties a full cup and facilitates a curiosity. I hope to reveal a few overlooked connections, readjust or renovate a few brain synapses, maybe even help a few folks feel seen…but that’s asking a lot. Really, the slowing down thing is where it’s at. 

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Honestly? I miss melodies!!! I feel like there’s important information embedded in the nooks and crannies of a well-crafted (or well perceived) melody that is getting lost these days. I fear that as the music flattens, so too do our minds. I have so many hippie woo-woo theories about music and its role in developing mind. I’m watching melodies reduce themselves to two notes and attention spans reduce from two minutes to two seconds! I fear we’re losing our ability to stay with complex thought, and I believe music has the ability to train us up in either direction on that spectrum. I also know music has played a profound role in my ability to develop emotion regulation, but current production and engineering styles may be threatening those pathways as well. I fear reductionist approaches to just about anything! So yes, there’s a lot of anxiety for me around all this!

That said, I love that in commercial music, the role of the gatekeeper is virtually obsolete. I love that those pretending to know things about what connects are barely ever listened to and that folks just go out and make music as best they can, with whatever tools they have, sharing it with whoever they can and letting the chips fall where they may. That much content in the world has rendered it nearly impossible to earn a living by making music anymore, but in a way, that returns us to the indigeneity of the music-making process in the first place. Yo-Yo Ma tells a story about touring in Africa and being asked by some local villagers to play something. He tried to direct them to the concert hall where he’d be performing later and it didn’t make sense to them. Music was such a ubiquitous part of life that isolating a space specifically for that felt unnatural. I get that. I also get saving the motet for the cathedral and the concerto for the concert hall, but what about the mind-altering trance of a break beat in a warehouse rave?

I think what I’m saying is, music has returned back to the hands of “the people,” which tends to take it out of the realm of relic, and into weird soupy realm of organic process where you can never know what’s coming next!

"We map our stories, fantasies, hopes, intention on our melodies to make them memorable. Those melodies met with harmony makes one person’s hope the hope of many. I believe it to be true for all people, but it becomes necessary for those of us whom society tends to view as less than human. Music is how we say we’re here, we’re worthy, we’re joyful, we love, we celebrate, we mourn, we grieve, we strive, we triumph, we bleed, we care…and we’re not going anywhere!" (Photo by Liv Piskadlo-Jones)

If you could change one thing in the world/people and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I think, and I am not completely sure of this, but I think nearly every person born has a name. It’s completely ordinary to have a name. I want it to be as ordinary as having a name, to imagine that person’s dignity is as intrinsic and fundamental a human things as having a name.

I think acting on behalf of another’s dignity develops our ability to connect with our own, it deepens our awareness of what dignity looks like, it could deepen our willingness to strive for the survival of our species, which would require that we develop a singleness of mind about protecting the planet that houses us.

I want dignity be become so ordinary, that it becomes the water we little fish are swimming in. #normalizedignity. That’s it...there’s where I am these days.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

This is hard to narrow down since I feel I owe music my life. But some of the things I’m very thankful to have learned are that 1) It’s ok for something to feel impossible because repeated attention cultivates improvement. I won’t say the words “practice makes perfect” because perfection is a destructive pursuit. I have come to believe “practice makes sacred” works a little better for me… practice is just such a delightful thing. It doesn’t demand anything more than an idea of where you want to go and a willingness to slowly, gradually, organically walk towards it. It’s science, but it ain’t rocket science.

As an aging music practitioner, I’m also learning that letting go can be just as important as feeling in control. I’ve been learning that one of the advantages of excessive practice is that it prepares you for the spontaneous emergence of miracles. I sometimes get the feeling that letting go is a fundamental technique...that it’s not even really considered music until you’ve achieved that to some degree. Even though I never had a classical teacher tell me that, but I’m certain all the masters know it. In New Orleans, I kind of wish they had told me such rapture was coming down the line!

"I think what I’m saying is, music has returned back to the hands of “the people,” which tends to take it out of the realm of relic, and into weird soupy realm of organic process where you can never know what’s coming next!" (Lilli Lewis / Photo by Liv Piskadlo-Jones)

What is the impact of music on the civil & human rights, LGBTQIA and socio-cultural implications?

As I Black American, and a descendant of slaves on my father’s side, I grew up with the inherent awareness that music is how we survived those conditions and how we reclaimed our humanity when it was consistently threatened at virtually every turn. Music is life-affirming, the breath moving through the body has the ability to remind the body that it lives, and that breath intoned can remind a voice that it matters.

We map our stories, fantasies, hopes, intention on our melodies to make them memorable. Those melodies met with harmony makes one person’s hope the hope of many. I believe it to be true for all people, but it becomes necessary for those of us whom society tends to view as less than human. Music is how we say we’re here, we’re worthy, we’re joyful, we love, we celebrate, we mourn, we grieve, we strive, we triumph, we bleed, we care… and we’re not going anywhere!

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