Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

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Who Gets to Define Americana? Lilli Lewis, That’s Who

Photo by Gabriel Davis Barreto

By Dale Henry Geist

[This is an excerpt of an interview that will appear in full in the next episode of our podcast, “Country Queer Spotlight”.]

Lilli Lewis’ new album, “Americana,” was released on October 29th. In it, she lays claim to a broad range of American musical styles and stories. Coming from a queer, Black woman, it’s quite a statement. We caught up with Lilli recently at her home in New Orleans.

One of the first things I knew about you was your song, “My American Heart”. And it really spoke to me. It was so direct and so compassionate that by the time it was over, I had some wetness around the edges of the eyes. Where does that song come from?

Well, maybe two or three years ago, I had an epiphany. Well, not really an epiphany, just a landing. And that landing was, “None of this is about you, Lilli.” Up until that point, I thought about music in terms of building a career and wanting to get the big stages and I suddenly got this landing that was like, all of that is vanity – which is all well and good, vanity is fine, but that’s not what you’re here for, you know? And it was a clarion call. So my band then took on the slogan of “practice radical decency.” Like, we made our whole thing, not about being a band, but about being just this community of people who are going to practice, trying to be good people, which these days is a radical act, you know?


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

And after a couple of years of that being kind of our slogan, our meditation, my inside parts just were constantly being softened. I kept having to lean in to new dimensions of what that might mean. And as a result of that, in the middle of the night, four o’clock in the morning, I think it was, I woke up with that song in my head. And it was just like, oh, what I really want is everyone to know that they’re loved, and having that experience is very basic. It’s not what people think it is. It’s not just codependent “complete me” kind of stuff. Right? It’s just simple stuff, like feeling safe in the world. being well housed, being fed with good food, your labor being meaningful, just all kinds of things like that.

Just wanting healthy children inside and outside, cause we’ve got inner demons and outer demons, right? And all of that – I want everybody to feel safe. I feel like if we felt safe, we wouldn’t feel compelled to impose all kinds of meanness and neurosis on one another. And I genuinely think that’s where my heart lives. I know *I* want to feel safe. And I wanted that for everyone. That’s in the song. You know, it’s just like your dreams will all work all that out for you and then wake you up and be like, “Hey, we’ve got something!” That’s where that song came from.

Not everyone will have been familiar with your larger bio. You’re obviously an artist who records and tours under her own name. And as befits the term diva, you have some opera – I’m sure you’re academically trained there. I know that you and your wife had a rock band with an all time great name, The Shiz. And I know you’re a record company executive right at this moment, you’ve got a lot of work to do making sure that your company stays afloat and so forth. You’ve got a podcast, “Folk Rock Diva Talk”. You have been involved in a number of diversity and equity projects. And so that’s a lot of different stuff. Those things feel different, yet, knowing you, you don’t come across as a fragmented soul, you come across as somebody who is reasonably well integrated. And I want to know, how do you do that? Is there a practice? Is there an attitude that you take towards your own mind and your own soul that lets you move in the world as an integrated human?

So trying to integrate is not easy, right? Confronting yourself, that’s never easy. And all the fragments that I am integrating within myself, externally many of them are at war with one another. So even if you just take the music, I was obsessed with classical music from a very young age, classical piano was my first best friend. It still gives me like those long pining, inner feelings of unrequited love. Just because I left that world long enough ago, that it feels like a distant lover that I’ll never kiss again, that kind of thing, you know? But then there’s all this antagonism around that, like it’s Western European art music and the ways in which that world dominated what aesthetics were considered of value here.

And so, you’ll have musicologists from that lens, saying all kinds of condescending things about jazz or, or even trying to claim responsibility for jazz. You know? And then, how much money goes into training those who end up being successful in that realm. So then you have that class war going on. And then there’s a part of me that’s like most people who knew me during that time, first they thought I was going to be a pianist, then they thought I was going to be an opera singer. And still to this day I have people who think that I’ve thwarted my destiny by embracing other types of music, because I’m really supposed to inherit the Jessye Norman place in the world.

And so there’s all this tension around the fact that I just started following my inner voice and doing the thing that made the most sense to me in spite of the fact that I still to this day have utter obsessive love for that music, you know? And so that’s like the simplest, most pure thing in my life, my love for music, and it’s at war, you know, externally speaking. So we could superimpose that across any number of tensions going on, like me being a woman centered feminist, but then having to contend with how white feminism has thrown Black women under the bus time and time again.

And now we’re in the same conversation when it comes to like, I’m a middle-aged queer and watching how upper class white men decided what the agenda was going to be for the rest of the community. I’m really glad that we chose marriage equality because I love being married to my wife. And at the same time, what else did we throw under the bus? We still have no working rights. Our trans community is still incredibly vulnerable. And so all of these elements are constantly at war and I have to be a “yes, and” person in order to navigate it all. And I think the thing that gave me the strength to do that was confronting my own trauma history and understanding, becoming committed to, the idea that my narrative is just as relevant as anyone else’s. And that means that everyone else’s narrative is also relevant, but again, we belong to each other. This isn’t a “yes, but”, this is a “yes and” situation, you know? And as long as I’m able to hold on to that, “Yes, you love classical music and you love jazz. Yes. You love jazz and you love RANTING. You like getting loud, you know? Yes. Yes, you have hurts as a Black woman and…” it just goes on and on and on.

That’s a great practice, being able to acknowledge the significant challenges, to put it mildly, to acknowledge them and say, “Well, what else is there? What more is there?” One of the things that you said in in your podcast was, “I’m an intersectional American,” which I thought was pretty awesome. And you mentioned a couple of there anything else that’s intersectional?

Let me see, the most significant…I’m a fat Black Southern left-handed grew-up-poor trauma kid trying to be a woman in this world.

That’s a lot. And here you are, you’re able to do it with grace and compassion, in my experience. And you did grow up in Georgia.

Right outside of Athens.

And you were able to make your way up to a pretty fancy prep school in Massachusetts.

Yeah. that happened by way of my sister. My sister was actually dating like one of the most powerful drug dealers in town when she quit high school. And he actually took me under his wing for a little while, because I was a little nerdy kid and I was getting bullied and sometimes he’d take me to the mall and people would be like, oh, Lilli’s with him. And then they would back off, you know? But my mom thought that that was a precarious situation for her to be in, and she was working in for the university, so she was around academics and found this program called A Better Chance and convinced my sister to apply for boarding school through that program. My sister got placed at the Asheville School in North Carolina, and I just thought that that was like the coolest thing in the world.

And I thought my sister was the coolest thing in the world. And, I grew up watching The Facts of Life. So I thought boarding schools were cool. I applied to boarding school to try to escape all the bullies that were, I mean, just life here at that time was pure hell for me on a lot of levels. And so yeah, I applied and I ended up at this obnoxiously prestigious school just north of Boston. And when it came to music, like that’s the best move I ever made there. The music department there was so stellar. So much chamber music. We did two operas every year, one by a Black composer. We were always doing standard repertoire alongside repertoire by Black composers because the head of the department at that time was a kind of a part-time musicologist, amazing cellist, amazing conductor, Black men from Louisville, Kentucky, named William Thomas, who’s now deceased, but for his tenure, I think he was head of that department for about 20 years total and anybody, anybody who studied under him, you say that name and, a billion memories come up. Just a really potent educator.

The first time I came to New Orleans actually was on a school trip. We came to New Orleans to sing the Mozart Requiem, and he was the kind of educator that like meant that 30 years after that experience, we still have the whole thing memorized, you know? So yeah, they saw my utter love. I never missed a concert. They met me there and paid for lessons. They paid for voice lessons. They paid for piano lessons. They took me to Italy, that’s the first time I went to New York, it was just like, they broadened my horizons. I grew up on a dirt road, literally outside of Athens, Georgia. We had chickens and hogs and cows across the street, like I came from that with this love and innocence and they met it, then they fed me. And they kept my innocent heart intact.

That’s an incredible story. From there you end up here, and you end up having recorded an album that you titled “Americana,” rather provocatively. Can we talk for a few minutes about where the record came from, what were the origins and how did that process go?

Well the record itself was born with these two songs that kind of came through around the same time, “My American Heart,” which we already spoke about, and the song called “If It Were You,” which came through during that kids in cages crisis. I have known a number of friends who were refugees. And and everybody’s got a different circumstance. And as a musician, especially as a classical musician, it’s hard to imagine this country without its immigrant population, right? It’s like, it’s just a no-brainer. And so for all of this hostility to be aimed in that direction, and then for us to do what we did, like not a lot of people have seen chicken plants where they keep the chickens that those of us who are still meat eaters eat.

I mean, we raised hogs and took them to the auction, you know? So I know what cages look like firsthand, and it’s bad enough that we do that to animals. And that we’re doing this to children. It’s just such a kick in the gut and my brain just couldn’t process. And that tends to be when I have to write a song. And that song came from the point of view of the child who’s following their father to this new land where they hope to make a new life, and paralleling that with what it was like for me as a child, following my mother, trying to get away from my abusive father and just that sense of urgency. So that came spontaneously and then “My American Heart” followed shortly thereafter, just exactly one week before George Floyd was murdered.

And when “If it Were You” came through, I thought, “I really like the song, but it’s not the kind of song I get to sing here in new Orleans.” And I started looking at all the other orphaned, abandoned songs that I don’t always get to sing here. And just, seeing if I could dress up that song with some other songs, like “Copper John” that had been left on the shelf, or “Wednesday’s Child,” which is more of my story. And then when George Floyd was murdered, I was like, “Oh, I have to make this album.” It’s not just for me anymore. You know? So that’s kind of where it came from. And the name is as much about the stories as it is about the music.

I consider myself a folk and Americana artist, and so often there are just tons of narratives that are not taken on. And there’s a lot of like, “You never loved me” songs because those songs are timeless and that’s awesome, but my love life is awesome. I don’t know how to write those songs. So I tend to capture different kinds of songs, and I felt like there was a place for them, there is a place for immigrant songs in Americana, and there is a place for songs in Americana, you know, Black people, rural people, Black farmers, like there’s a place for us. We’re here. My family has been on this land for longer than there’s been an America. some were free, some were slaves, some were white, some were indigenous…like, we’ve been here!

And so I feel like so much of the American story is in my body, in my blood, and at the time I was having people tell me, well, aren’t we all just American now, aren’t you like being divisive by claiming that you’re a Black American or an African-American? I’m like, well, first of all, we didn’t create the divisions. We weren’t the ones that were so aggressively separatists, you know? And so now we’re in this aftermath, and yes, we’ve had a different experience because we’ve been socialized differently because we were told completely different things about what it meant to have our skin, and that doesn’t make me less American. In fact, I think it makes me even more American because I’ve been forced to know more about my story and therefore I’ve been forced to know more about American history than some of the people who would tell me that I’m not as American as they are.

So, yes, the title is provocative because I wanted to confront who gets to determine what it means to be an American. And, as a person who gets left out of a lot of conversations, if I were to have an identity at all, it would have to be self-created. So I get to determine who’s American. And I get to determine as a lover and obsessor and studier of music in all kinds of capacities and – devoted my life to it – I get to determine what Americana means to me. Both musically speaking and narratively speaking. And there you have it.

You get to embody a particular Americanness that is at least as valid as any other.

And I think if people slow down and pay attention to what the story has really been…I’m more right. [Laughs].

Photo by Liv Piskadlo-Jones

You are! But even setting the stories aside that are on that album and looking simply at the music, you managed to take a large number of seemingly diverse strands of American sounds and weave them together into something that feels like a very cohesive musical statement. Can you talk a little bit about that process and some of the other people that were involved? Because I love the way it sounds.

Well, we really took our time with it. We started it right before hurricane season in 2020. So it was obviously it was already gonna be a quarantine record. But then it ended up being a quarantine and hurricane record. So we ended up being forced by nature to take our time. And that meant that we were able to recruit all of the people who might lend just the perfect angle on each tune over time. So my co-producer, a gentleman named Mark Bingham, he’s an indie producer, as an engineer, he’s worked with folks like U2 and Erykah Badu and…just everybody – he wrote a lot of string arrangements for REM, including “Shiny Happy People” and “Losing My Religion.”

So he had this Athens connection, and anyway, this is the third record that I’ve done with him. The first one was by accident. We went to record some demos and he’s like, oh, you should just release that. And that was called “The Henderson Sessions.” Then he recorded my soul band, Lilli Lewis Project, on a record called ‘We Belong.” And when I got the memo, that spiritual memo that said I was going to have to make this record, I called him up. I was just like, man, I think I gotta make an Americana record and I’m calling you first. Cause now you’re my production big daddy. And he’s like, yeah, let’s do it. I was like, “I know it’s the third record in less than three years, and I’m hoping that you’re not sick of me yet.”

And he’s like, Nope, let’s do it. So we recorded a lot of it here in New Orleans at Marigny Studios. And we got Rick Nelson who runs that studio, plays with The Polyphonic Spree, he played cello on some tracks. We got Gina Forsythe, who’s my local hero, one of my favorite songwriters ever, and just a powerful human, to play some fiddle guitar, she sang on it.

And then, at some point I got connected, ’cause the pandemic went on so long, with this a self-help group of Black women musicians working in Americana, blues, roots, and folk who were having like a weekly support group. And I showed up in that meeting and one of the first faces I saw was Patti Andress of Tuck and Patti, who is another one of my root musicians. First time I saw them, I was like, oh, this is the most perfect music on the planet. So she’s there. And I’m like, I’ve got to tell you, you changed my life. And then at the end of the call, this incredibly glamorous woman, deep chocolate, golden light of a person shows up and is praying for everybody. And it’s fricking Anita White, the real lady A, right here on this call! And I was just like, what is all this glory on this ridiculous call?! Like, I had no idea what I was walking into. And it just turned out like all these people, fiercely talented, seriously human, a lot of us in the same circumstance and not having the support network we needed in terms of booking or management or whatever. And so we started talking about collaborating together and maybe like using funds from our collaboration to fund administrative support for the women in the group.

And I had this tune that I wanted to be on the record. Another a capella tune nod to, again, my great-grandladies Sweet Honey in the Rock. And I said, “How about this be our first collaboration, an a capella thing would be easier than a full production.” And the most amazing people submitted tracks for it including Lady A, she’s the first to send her tracks. And she sent a backing part for me, but then she said, “Lilli, I made this other track of some ad-libs, you don’t have to use them. I was just sort of feeling the spirit.” She was totally modest about it. And that’s what made the track come alive for me, she’s that bottom, she’s the one there inserting all the meaning behind these words on that track, “A Healing Inside.”

And it was just so necessary to find as many opportunities as possible to remind people that yeah, Black women’s names do matter, you can’t just steal a person’s visibility and –

For anyone who may not get the reference, a certain very successful, famous, wealthy country band was forced to change their somewhat unsavory name – associated with slavery – and they stole a Black woman’s name that she was already performing under!

For 30 years! And they kept doubling down, and they even asserted that that name is more meaningful if they have it, than if she has it! You know, it’s like, give me a break. And, and here’s the thing about her, she’s the most graceful uplifted entity you could ever imagine meeting. So the fact that they feel compelled to take that kind of person’s identity just totally unapologetically is just gut wrenching, it’s gut wrenching. So I’m like, well, any chance I get to say her name… Lady A, Lady A, Lady A. And I’m just so blessed that she contributed to this.

And then I have Kyshona Armstrong on the opening track. She’s doing all this stuff with Adia Victoria. I know Kyshona cause we both were Athenians. When I left Athens, she was there in Athens doing this, like, folk music. And I was like, “See? Black people can do folk music!” It was just so, so amazing, to have that mirror. And it took us a number of years to converge on one another, but we actually finally converged in new Orleans at Folk Alliance and Jesus if she’s not a powerful person, and she’s doing this amazing work in Nashville, helping people basically turn their narratives, often trauma narratives, into song. And then another local sister, friend of mine, Mikayla Braun, sings with Kyshona and I on the opening track, and Mikayla added some vocals to this epic track called “Every Day.” So it’s really just a dream team.

So I want to ask you a little bit more about your musical influences, just some of the artists that have been the biggest for you and who’s whose music you’ve studied and you’ve, maybe consciously or unconsciously brought into your own work.

Well that’s always a tough question for me because when I started this journey I was still a classical musician, and all of the things that I listened to were still classical music. So a lot of turn of the century French music was in there early on. And my mom had sort of inadvertently introduced me to Coltrane. And so there was this way in which the language of Coltrane started to intermingle with the language of Fauré and Debussy, and that became my playground musically early on.By the time I was five years old, I used to like make recordings of myself, singing with myself. So I had this long love for acapella music. So when Bobby McFerrin bursted through, [excitedly] “Yeah, yeah, yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!”

But then I discovered Sweet Honey in the Rock and it was like, whoa. And the funny thing is the first time I heard Sweet Honey in the Rock was by accident. I was going through the channels and I came across The Learning Channel and they showing a documentary about my great grandfather. And I was like, “Holy crap!” And I can’t find it anywhere, not even now in the age of YouTube. But right after that that documentary aired, a documentary on Sweet Honey in the Rock aired. And I was like…everything came together. I saw bodies that looked like mine. I saw voices that had resonances that could feed me. I was maybe 13 at the time. I was still a kid, but it just landed so hard. So having that convergence along with, like, going to that boarding school where I got that utter immersion in this other music that I was obsessed with, that was, that was like the ether from which everything was a precipitant.

And that’s already a lot of influences. But whenI was leaving undergrad and my mom sent me a flyer, Sweet Honey in the Rock was doing a workshop with the Atlanta symphony orchestra. My mom knew that I liked the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and she’s like, well, you might want to check this out. Cause she just saw Black ladies at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Hall and she thought, well, Lilli should know about this. And I was like, oh, this is Sweet Honey in the Rock! – mama didn’t even know who they were. And there was this name, this is where I’m getting to, there was this name, the daughter of the founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock was Toshi Reagon. And this mom and daughter team were doing this workshop.

I did not get to attend the workshop, but the name stayed with me. So when I ran away from home, meaning that I was running away from classical music for the most part, I started looking into this name and Toshi, Toshi is my beacon of… She’s so fierce, powerful she’s so self-expressed, like folk, rock, she doesn’t care. She speaks whatever language makes sense. Band full of beautiful women, beautiful Black women even. And everything she made just felt so essence-full to me. That I think regardless of whether or not my music ever sounded like hers, she’s been, she’s been the beacon of “Just be yourself, just like…fuck’ em, for lack of better word. Fuck ’em.

So I know this is an impossible question: could you name a favorite song of hers, by Toshi?

Well, I would have to say it might not be the favorite, because it’s just Toshi, you know, but I’ll say that “Mountain Top” is probably the song that has played the biggest role because that song hit know it was on the second album of hers that I heard. I first got “The Righteous Ones,” but then on the second one, which is just named “Toshi,” it starts with this track and it just takes you on this journey. And by the end of it, like, I felt like my chi grew like exponentially across the four and a half minutes it took to play this one little song. And when I first met my wife several years later – she’s a harmonica player and I kind of recruited her to play in my band. And I had this all woman band at the time, we were going to play this women’s music festival in South Georgia. And I pick her up cause she was in college at the time, didn’t have a car. So I picked her up and I’m taking her three hours to this festival. First thing I put on is Toshi singing “Mountain Top” and, and Liz started singing along and I was like, [emphatically] “Wait, you know Toshi!?” I had never met anyone else who knew Toshi. And she was like, “Oh yeah.” I was like, “This is the one for me!”

Totally! Lilli, this has been such a joy. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.

It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for talking to me today.