"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 Righteous Babe Records label debut, "All is Forgiven" on December 1, 2023. All Is Forgiven was produced by Lewis and Mark Bingham with mastering provided by Kevin Blackley. The album was performed by Lilli Lewis on piano and vocals, with Carol Berzas, Jr. - guitar; Mark Bingham - guitar; Grayson Brockamp - bass; Dr. William J. Faulkner - voice; Jonathan Freilich - guitar; Glenn Hartman - organ; Wade Hymel - drums, percussion, guitar, vocals; Kirk Joseph - sousaphone; Doug Garrison - tambourine; Robin Sherman - bass; Bryan Webre - bass, guitar; and Cassie Watson Francillion - harp. In the two years while All Is Forgiven was being written and produced, Lewis played four sets at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; produced the Black American Music Summit for Folk Alliance International; played an official showcase at AmericanaFest (where she also met Lucinda Williams at an event Lewis co-organized); and supported her childhood heroes The Indigo Girls on five shows in the midwest and southeast. She also released critically acclaimed versions of “Woodstock'' by Joni Mitchell and “Creep” by Radiohead, and received the 2020-2021 Best Folk/Country/Americana Album Award from OffBeat Magazine, all while touring in her van across all but two of the contiguous 48 states.
(Lilli Lewis / Photo by Noe Cugny for OffBeat Magazine)
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.
"I think people who support my music appreciate my earnestness. I think they all know I secretly wish I could save the world with my "carrying on" as we say here in the southern states, and I connect them to parts of themselves that are tender and hopeful. I also think they support me because although I'm full of surprises, they know I'm always looking to take care of their heart of hearts." (Lilli Lewis / Photo by Noe Cugny for OffBeat Magazine)
You’ve one new release ‘All is Forgiven’ with Mark Bingham. How did that relationship come about?
I met Mark Bingham while he was living in my bass player's Katrina evacuee home in Henderson, LA out near Lafayette. Jimbo (or Dr. James Paton Walsh to document his paper-trained name) was the owner of the home and had taken interest in me as a composer a few years before he'd gotten to know my work as a singer/songwriter, but apparently as soon as he did, he had reached out to Bingham to see if he'd be willing to give me some time. I came out to the house, and we recorded a good number of tunes, just solo piano and voice. I thought it was just demoing work to see what might go on a full ensemble record, but Bingham took enough interest to co-produce a release based on those sessions.
I remember being struck by his "presence," meaning, he seemed completely attentive and in the moment with a gentle but penetrating patience that made me feel seen in unfamiliar but deeply welcome ways.
I felt so naked in those recordings, but it also felt like the first time I heard my own capital V Voice in full definition. He promised me there was nothing to hide, and we've been working together ever since.
Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album ‘All is Forgiven’ (2023)?
Bingham approached me about making a new record at a time when I wasn't sure I had any music left I me. I think we were both ready to break up with the music business in that particular moment, but he said all he really wanted to do was make another record with me.
He drove the 2.5 hours to my house where I very sheepishly played him half a handful of the new songs I'd recently been working on, and I kept sending living room demos of new songs as they came in, but the truth is, I didn't know what would end up on the record until the day I was heading out to his house for our first official session.
I had played a number in the middle of a set by Indigo Girl's Amy Ray's band at Tipitina's the night before the session. Amy has been a lifelong hero of mine and her band had been transcendent that night. As much as I love her, the fact that my hero let me play on her show was almost a side note to the alchemical shift her band generated for me and my wife Liz that night. So, on my way to my session the next day, I felt like a new person.
I ended up choosing songs that I felt reflected that feeling, and that's likely why the resulting record is my favorite one to listen to date.
"I hope there's still a role for that kind of exchange in the world of commercial music. I don't consider myself commercial, but I do hope somewhere out there the gifted and the chosen are taking it upon themselves to offer up emotional medicine. I think vanity gets in the way sometimes, but I think for the most part, most of us musicians do mean well." (Lilli Lewis / Ohoto by Liv Piskadlo-Jones)
What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?
I played a small room in San Francisco in the Fall for 2022 while on tour supporting my last album "Americana," and the mesmerizing Tuck & Patti showed up to the show, sat in the front row, and we're the absolute last people to leave long after the venue had kicked folks out. Patti has been a guiding light for me since I first saw them at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston back in the early aughts, so her showing up at my show floored me.
She called a couple of days later and told me she cried through my entire set she'd been so impacted. Something about knowing I could reach her in some of the ways she had reached me all those years ago gave me a new sense of self when it comes to this work, which actually gave me the confidence to ask Amy Ray if I could support her bill in New Orleans, which ultimately led to me opening five shows for the Indigo Girls in Spring of 2023, which I must say, has been the highlight of my career thus far.
Is there a message you are trying to convey with your music/songs? What is the role of music in today’s society?
I'm a self-centered artist so more often than not, the songs I bring to fruition are the ones I need to heal myself. I'm either looking for mirrors so I don't feel so alone in my neurosis, or I'm looking to climb my way out of some emotional hole. The good thing is I have found that if I manage to make a recording or performance compelling enough, then other people benefit from the medicine I made for myself.
I hope there's still a role for that kind of exchange in the world of commercial music. I don't consider myself commercial, but I do hope somewhere out there the gifted and the chosen are taking it upon themselves to offer up emotional medicine. I think vanity gets in the way sometimes, but I think for the most part, most of us musicians do mean well.
What is the driving force and inspiration behind your continuous support for your music?
I think people who support my music appreciate my earnestness. I think they all know I secretly wish I could save the world with my "carrying on" as we say here in the southern states, and I connect them to parts of themselves that are tender and hopeful. I also think they support me because although I'm full of surprises, they know I'm always looking to take care of their heart of hearts.
"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!" (Lilli Lewis / Photo by Noe Cugny for OffBeat Magazine)
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!" (Lilli Lewis / Photo by Noe Cugny for OffBeat Magazine)
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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