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Lilli Lewis illuminates 'the invisible people' on her latest album

Lilli Lewis plays the WGLT Summer Concert June 18
Noe Cugny / Offbeat Magazine
Lilli Lewis plays the WGLT Summer Concert June 18

Folk-rocker Lilli Lewis credits homeless and other invisible people for lifting her up after she ran away from her Georgia home as a teen and landed in Boston.

The WGLT Summer Concert performer spoke with WGLT's Jon Norton in this lightly edited interview.

WGLT: It sure seems that it was those invisible people, not those you describe as "the happy people," who you wanted to write about on your latest album, “Americana.”

LEWIS: Everybody's living their best life. And so many of the songs floating around are chronicling what that looks like … to be fabulous ‘girl on fire’ and yell, all this kind of stuff. And it feels not quite as human as some of the more vulnerable stories that I grew up on from artists who are trying to capture what it's like to walk amongst our fellow humans.

I want to dive into some of the songs on the album. It sounds like "Copper John" was a real person in your life and a turning point of sorts for you.

Copper John was a real person, but in the song, it's actually a number of people who were bearing witness to me and for me, for a season of my life. You know, you're in your 20s, you run away from home to fulfill your destiny, or whatever that's all about. But really, we're usually just trying to outrun our demons. And a number of homeless people met me along the way.

So, for me, it was I ran from Georgia to Boston. And as soon as I got to Boston, some person would put their hand on my arm, and say something kind of prophetic, looked me dead in my eyes as if ‘you need this transmission, you don't know it.’ I would receive that information and use that to stay on my quest. I was not too far off from not having my own home. I mean, I was living in a hostel for months when I first ran away from home and, and I didn't feel like I had a home to get back to … that sense of groundlessness. But having purpose sort of embedded in it, I think, made me available to receiving this information from these people. And we developed relationships and friendships. And that same dynamic followed me to Atlanta.

Copper John himself is a gentleman that I met in Atlanta. Folks who were around the early 2000s, hanging up in that area of Atlanta, know exactly who Copper John was. He made copper bracelets … he would just give them out. While he was making the bracelet, he might share some of his writings with you, so you could sit on the wall next to him and read his writings. And then at the end, he gave you some patient armor to help you carry on. So, there are several people in that song, who are all put in my life and help me keep moving forward.

The album "Americana," you’ve said you’re making this about our times, because it's a vulnerable time. Would this album have been made if the pandemic hadn't shown up?

I don't think so. The gift of the pandemic, for me, was that it required that I drop in and sort of abandon strategy, and abandon ambition, perhaps. Also, it required that I abandon a sense of self-consciousness that I feel like I was carrying for far too long … kind of my whole life, I had been required to sort of meet the demands of the environment, but not really have mirrors reflected back to me for people meeting me where I was.

So, in New Orleans, that meant the expectation of a person who looks like me. (laughs) I'm a big lady with big hair and kind of have a sassy gait. And they might expect me to be a blues lady. And even if even if I grew up singing classical music in an Episcopal Church, you know, high Episcopal, I still better figure out how to sing blues and R&B. And I felt as a musician, as a lover of music, it was my charge to figure that out. But even looking beyond that, I had a bunch of songs that weren't anything like that. When everything slowed down, and there was no reason to have a snappy back or keep people in the club happy, I got a chance to sit with the quiet songs that I had abandoned over the years. You mentioned Copper John. I didn't even know it was a song. It kind of haunted me for years. But every time I tried to get someone to play it with me, it just fell apart. Nobody seemed to get it and so I thought it wasn't even a song.

You mentioned that because of how you look, that there are some expectations on the kind of music you will play. One thing you left out was you have an opera background on top of all that. How did you gravitate from an opera background to the folk/Americana world?

The truth is grief. I mean, life happened. And in this particular case, I believe that it was … my father died. I think I was I was about 19. And I just didn't know how to hold the grief. And all the songs that were unfamiliar to my training started to emerge. And I didn't have an educator who could give me context for the songs that started to emerge. I didn't even know singer-songwriter was a thing. That was how completely indoctrinated in the classical world I was. And I needed to know what the path was about because I needed some safe space for me to unpack my grief.

The song, “If It Were You” (from “Americana”) … there's a reference to a father in there. Are you referencing your own father in that song?

Yes. In the first verse, I'm referencing a father who aspires to be an immigrant and decides that today is the day I'm going to take my child out of school, and we are going to start a journey that might feel like we can't survive, but we will. My father, my mother, my siblings are in the second verse and my mother becomes the parent who's trying to take the kids away from a difficult situation. So, there are two fathers in that song and one of them is mine.

I'd like to end this conversation with the last song on the album. It's the Benediction from “My American Heart.” I'm going to read some lyrics first. “My American Heart/Wishes safety for my own family too/Don't want to have to keep them safe from you/But nevertheless/Here we are." I hear this as a prayer either to, or for America.

Absolutely. Between “If It Were You” and “My American Heart’ was the reason why I felt like I had to make this album. I woke up in the middle of the night with that lyric … I didn't realize it was a lyric, It was a prayer to me. But that melody did come and so I suppose eventually, this might need to be a song. When I paired it with “If It Were You,” I realized I needed a whole record around this sentiment, I wanted to offer up something that could remind folks that in all of this complication, there is hope. And if we can lift our gaze and extend that to one another, then we might survive. We might get past this.

I know we've been talking about some tough things here. But you bring a whole different vibe, a whole different energy to your stage show, I would guess.

Oh, yeah, absolutely … depends on the room to tell you the truth. If it's in a quiet room where we can get intimate, then I'm gonna get in there and I'm gonna massage all your feelings and such. But we love these festival stages where we just get to turn it up and go back to our folk-rock roots and just have a good time. That's what I got planned for Bloomington.

Lilli Lewis plays the WGLT Summer Concert on Saturday, June 18, in downtown Bloomington. The Peoria-based Latin/Mediterranean collective Tambora opens the show, with Americana artist Carsie Blanton headlining.

Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.