A wise man once sang, “People are what people make ‘em, that ain’t gonna change / There ain’t nothing you can do, nothing you could rearrange.” That man was Tom Petty, the song “I Forgive It All” from the final studio album by Mudcrutch. Lilli Lewis, too, knows you don’t write a song like that without having plenty of transgressors to forgive. In fact, she’s made it a whole album — nay, a mantra. A three-word mission statement. “When you’re in a lot of pain, and your essence won’t let you give up, then it’s a journey. It goes from kind of defiant (‘Sin Eater’) to ‘Happy Enough,’ like back off. Then you end up saying, nevermind. You do you. I do me. And All Is Forgiven,” the singer/composer explains to me.
The album opener, “Sin Eater,” features friend/frequent collaborator Kirk Joseph on sousaphone, as well as a vocal insert from her great grandfather Dr. William J. Faulkner. An excitingly unexpected string-bending bit worthy of and reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” catapults “Happy Enough,” co-written with her wife, Liz Hogan. Shapeshifting into a pop-rock party, the song shoots a sardonic smile to those who tell you to smile more – its attitude as much the promise of rock and roll as the music itself, providing an existential antidote to the slow suffocation of unsolicited comments.
“It’s Liz’s idea. And it came from back when we had a band and guys were always like, ‘You should smile more.’ She’s very kind, very sweet, but she also suffers no fools. The other thing is she’s not very talkative. So even in her workplace, colleagues would be like, ‘Oh, we just don’t trust her, because she doesn’t talk that much.’ There are all these ways in which we are asked to perform. Whether it’s coming from women or men, how we’re asked to behave is patriarchy. I don’t know how she managed to avoid it, but Liz is kind of impervious to patriarchy. She’s just herself; just authenticity. She’s like, ‘Is this happy enough for you?’ But at the same time, she’s saying, ‘I don’t have to be like you. I don’t have to look like you.’
“When we were writing it, she said, ‘Well, I’m not quite sure it’s done.’ I was like, ‘Have you considered saying ‘happy enough’ more than once and calling that a chorus?’ It ended up on the belligerent side of things, but it feels like a party.” That unadulterated rock and roll is a tasty leftover from their old band, The Shiz. “This is the ‘shiz-y-est’ album that Wade, my drummer, and I have done. We missed a lot of the songs, because the band broke up in 2014. So, it’s been a decade of knowing that we had these songs that we used to love to play, and that definitely was on that list. And I knew that I wanted more of that vibe on this record.”
On any given album, we talk about the riffs. The licks. The solos. The hummable hook quotient. We might talk about the classically trained vocals. We may even talk about that voice’s politics. Of course, there’s always that one funk song that’s funky enough to make the lead single or give a four-star review. But how often do we ever truly discuss the art at the core of an album? The kind of art that captures hearts. Expands minds. Changes chemistry. An album a listener will live in from first listen, each time they listen, and for the rest of their listening days. All the necessary qualities that constellate themselves and thus constitute a masterpiece. These are all probably too many words for: the songs. Just press play and listen to all of them.
Lilli is every bit that artist who deserves such attention. And sometimes, it’s the right people who take notice of what you’re about. Take for example: Lilli’s childhood heroes, the Indigo Girls, who invited her to support them on shows in the midwest and southeast all the while All Is Forgiven was being written and produced. This came around the same time Jann Wenner defended his decision to include only white men in his recent book, The Masters. He doubled down, commenting that Black and female musicians weren’t “articulate enough” to be interviewed. “Amy Ray (of the Indigo Girls) had this scathing song about him back in the day. And when the piece came out, I texted her and was like, ‘It’s about time.’ She said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ You read something like that and you quickly understand why nobody asks you or talks about the actual music. And you look at people who appear to not play into it as much, like a Patti Smith. Or Amy Ray, for that matter.”
Lilli and her new record are not participating in any culture war, and music for music’s sake doesn’t play into others’ narratives about her. She realized that when she made her last album, Americana. “It didn’t matter who I thought I was, or what I thought the music was, what mattered was the narrative that people had already put together and what I said to validate that narrative. I don’t know how this (new record) narrative matches what anybody thinks about me, but what I do know is that I call myself Folk Rock Diva.” The irony here is that Americana had the title it did because its stories and sensibilities are foundational to American music, but along the way she realized Americana’s meaning as a genre depends on who you’re asking. “I gave some Americana on there… Nobody asked about those songs. What song did they play? They played ‘Wrecking Ball.’”
Remember when I mentioned there’s always that one funk song?
“But I thought ‘If It Were You’ was a beautiful song, and ‘Fly’ was my favorite song. When I sing in a room where R&B is the expectation, then people quickly notice that I’m not an R&B singer. When I sing in an Americana room, people are like, ‘Oh, I hear R&B.’ When I sing in an R&B room, they’re like, ‘She’s a folk singer.’ The truth is if you love music, then none of those words mean anything.” The title Folk Rock Diva developed in a piecemeal way, but she quickly became all three of them. I wrote of Americana in 2021: “There are moments when you’re listening to artists like Mariah, Whitney, and Aretha, and their melismatic singing seems like the musical version of trapeze stunts. I now add Lilli to this rarefied list. If you were to ask her the parallels of gospel and opera, for example, she would tell you there’s a reason Aretha Franklin was invited to sing ‘Nessun Dorma.’”
On Americana it was the slow-steel beauty “Copper John” that stopped me in my tracks, the one I kept going back to. This time around it’s the vim-and-vigor title track. At first measure playing like a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers lost tape, “all is forgiven when the music starts” indeed. Lilli cuts a death-or-glory figure, leading the band through a three-part layered approach and down that sunny road like a dog with two tails. Because when you’re too busy having a revelation, “the burn is half the fun.” She agrees, “It was absolutely a Tom Petty tribute. It’s outrageously fun to play. I think the lyric ‘Count off and earn your money’ is the most Tom Petty lyric in that song.” Crystalline vocals to match the chosen destiny of no longer having to go where energy is expected rather than reciprocated.
In the couple years leading up to this release, she’s 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 she co-organized); 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. Although it’s been a pivotal era in her 20 plus year career, it’s also been one of isolation and sadness. Earlier this year, she released a cover of “Radiohead’s Creep,” explaining in a statement how she had counted the days since she chose living over taking her own life.
Now she’s refracting the blinding light of darkness into all the colors of the rainbow, and creating something that feels like a friend hanging on the back porch. “I want people to receive the message because it’s stuff that’s wholesome, that’s maybe hard to get at sometimes. It was hard for me to do that.” This is her first album with Ani Difranco’s Righteous Babe Records and her fourth album with iconic producer Mark Bingham (Elvis Costello, Hal Willner, Allen Ginsberg). The universe kept emitting little signs adding up to one big one that she wasn’t supposed to make this record – everything from a career crossroads to extended hospital stays, canceled tours to postponed release dates. But if you’re Lilli, the muse often follows more than it leads.
“Lilli is one of the only people on the planet who can sing and accompany herself on the top 10 arias for soprano in the opera world,” Mark Bingham once told me in an interview. Certain experiences that are hard to put into words might have a melody associated with them. She aligns the meter with the rhythm and tonal center that her emotions are trying to show her. And whether she’s writing a song for Dolly Parton in a dream or hearing everyday speech from everyday people as poetry, Lilli swims in an ocean of musical inspiration at all times. “People speak in beautiful imagery. That’s one of the things I love about the south. That’s why we ended up with a Tom Petty.” She says that “All Is Forgiven” was another one that harassed her. “It was in my head constantly. I was like, I guess we gotta make this song. And I didn’t want to play it for Mark. I was like, ‘You’re not going to think it’s the right place for this.’ He was like, ‘It’s beautiful.’ Mark and I can both live on the dark side of things. But he has a really, genuinely earnest heart.
“I chose music to orient myself to the world. When you learn in music school about music of the heavens and music of the body – I took that kind of stuff which is based on the Greek philosophy of music. It expanded throughout my life. That’s where my slogan ‘Practice Radical Decency’ comes from. I’m a musician. We practice. Things suck and we get better at it; we practice. I even have a workshop called A Cappella Activism: Creating a Better World Through Random Acts of Harmony. We talk about how the different roles in the vocal ensemble match the different roles that have to be played when you’re doing community activism work. It’s another way in which music as a metaphor for being plays out in this way. Maybe as a queer kid, the church wasn’t always a place I could find myself or build a philosophy. There were a lot of spaces, like academia, I couldn’t find myself. There was too much constriction and classism. So for me it became music.
“I don’t know that Bingham needs music for that, but I do know that he needs it for his well-being. I learned very early on working with him – I love this guy. His heart reaches the sweet spots in my heart, and that would be there whether or not we continued to work together. Luckily we get to keep working together. He was glad to see me reaching into spaces that were joyful. Because he hates to see me in pain. He’s soulful enough to sit with me in pain, but for me to say ‘All Is Forgiven,’ he’s like, ‘You gotta sing that song.’ When it showed up, then I had the context for all the songs I had been writing. When Mark approached me about doing another record, I said I didn’t have another record. I just have all these songs I’ve written that don’t necessarily belong to each other. You don’t say no to Mark. Why would you? The songs we ended up feeling really connected to were these beautiful songs, you know? We start the album with rock songs, then move to more sensitive material. I didn’t have the album title until the title track showed up. That locked the whole intention into place.”
“If You Really Mattered” was written for her cousin Willie Spence, 2022 American Idol runner-up. Sadly, four days after the song was demoed, he died in a car accident. “I’ve been working really hard trying to give my young person permission to have the full spectrum of experience. This whole record is about incentive. You have to have an incentive to grow up. You have to have an incentive to keep showing up. You have to have an incentive to not take to the bed. There is that question: not if you mattered, but if you really mattered. What if you could acknowledge that your existence is relevant?
“I wrote that one for my cousin because when I was watching him sing on American Idol, I felt so full of hope. Not just for him, but what it is when a powerful voice that’s full of love bears witness to you, looks you in the face and says, ‘Hey, baby, you’re important.’ Everybody deserves that experience, and it seemed like he had the kind of voice that could create that experience. When I listen to Pavarotti, I feel like a bigger person; it expands my inside. Listen to a voice with that kind of power and beauty and receive those vibrations. Willie had that kind of voice, and he also had that kind of heart. The first part of the song is what I would want a voice like that to say to people, and the second part of the song is what it felt like watching him sing.”
“Possible” assuages the weariness of spending a lifetime looking for answers on the outside and “expands by nature’s laws” – finding its way back to where the childhood dream began, allowing oneself to build castles in the sky. The song’s raison d’etre is communicated in the lyric, “I choose to do my best to love you / To believe in grace more than contempt.” She explains, “That one was written for Liz. Her mark is all over the album. I’m really glad she gets that. She said to me, ‘This is our album.’ It’s like we had a baby together. She’s completely the reason I’ve survived this long and why I’ve been able to forgive anybody for anything.”
After I ask her what inspired singing in French on “Ciel Éternel,” Lilli starts to tear up. “I have a lot of grief around my parents.” In order to forgive, she has had to re-parent herself. “That’s a process and I’m still learning.”
The song is a letter to her inner child who never should have had to carry the weight of the world. To her spirit once dimmed because it could only hold enough space to shine for others. To reclaim the inner child, she wrote the kind of lullaby she would have needed to hear.
“The impetus to write ‘Ciel’ came from this musician Yasmin Williams. She put on Twitter (X) a tune that she wanted somebody to write a melody for. So I used that as an opportunity to write this lullaby I had been conceiving. When I was done with it, I did what I normally do, which is not tell anybody about it. When we were working on the record, I went to Yasmin and was like, ‘Hey, I wrote this lyric for your melody. And I think I want to use it because it works for my record.’ She said, ‘I’ve already recorded it for my record.’ So I broke the melody and I broke the meter. I broke everything so that it was an original composition.
“I’ve always had an affinity for singing in French. A had a friend of mine (Craig Bloomfield) translate it. Once I had the translation, which was really just for kicks, it fit in my mouth. It seemed to get even closer to the meaning than the English version. Once I’d broken it and had the new melody, the French version took over. I sent it to Wade, my drummer, who functions as my music director these days. And (I sent it to) Mark. I wasn’t thinking we were going to use it for the project. It was Wade who said, ‘This has to go on your rock record.’ Wade likes to do everything upside down, and that’s why he’s my primary collaborator. And Mark fell in love with it, especially once we recorded.”
“Drink This Water Child” conjures an ancient, undulating atmosphere resounding with hair-raising hoos and commanding organ work of Moody Blues proportions. The song stems from a track that Bingham sent to her. “I tried to create the lyric that went with the feeling. I started trying to write a lyric that might be like three old black lady witches around the cauldron. It’s the counterpoint to the French tune, more the warrior spirit lullaby. The one is peace. Now that you’ve gone to sleep, wake up. Now you’re on the path. The bassline changed everything. It has this big instrumental section where you’d think there would be a guitar solo or something. Instead we stir the pot together. Once I had Mark’s blessing on it, I started playing it and started ever show with that song last year. We were playing it as basically an intro to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock.’ Again, I never thought it was going on the record.”
“Firefly,” the album’s closer, is a song that she and Liz used to sing together when they played as a duo. “For the longest time the only version I knew was acoustic guitar. I wouldn’t even play piano on it; I would play djembe or something like that. It was a tune she wrote. I was out in Oberlin recording an album for a band called Backbone. I think she got bored and went for a walk, and she had been told about this grove where a swarm of fireflies would come every night. She went out there and saw the display, and it was pretty striking. She wrote that song on the spot and performed it the next day, which is not something she would normally do. So that song was always very special to us. She used to be the only one to sing that song. It never would have occurred to me to sing the song. A few years ago Wade recorded a version that took it into a jam band direction. He shared it, and she was really moved. Since Liz doesn’t perform anymore, she forgets that her songs are impactful.”
Lilli sings a melody not unlike the firefly experience, slow-dancing and burning golden tendrils of guiding light in the dark: “When we find life again, do this for me my friend / Teach me to love / Teach me to sing.” She doesn’t know what gave her the courage to reach out to Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls and ask if she could support them on their New Orleans show, but she did. “She said I could come play some songs even though she had someone opening for her. So I did, and her show was incredible. It was everything I want from music. It was impassioned. The music was amazing; the arrangements were amazing. She could sing her ass off. It was a stunning concert.
“I forgot that live music could do that, because I’ve been out here listening to people who don’t know that rock and roll is actually gospel music. Always has been. I got the Holy Ghost. We’re driving home from the show and Liz is buzzing. I’m buzzing. Amy Ray is Liz’s hero, too. The next day, I’m driving out to Mark’s place, two and a half hours from where I live. On the way there, I was like, ‘It’s ‘Firefly.’ I gotta do ‘Firefly.’ And I’ve never sung it before. I never tried to play it before. You’re in the process of all these layers of forgiveness. At the end it’s like, just teach me to burn this quiet burn. So I blame Amy Ray for that song ending up on the album,” she laughs.