Steadfast, makes “special” and “connective” folk music
Lilli Lewis, winner of the 2022 International Folk Music Association “Spirit of Folk” award, performs at City Winery in Nashville, with Chastity Brown, on July 3. Arms” is more focused than ever on showcasing its honest musical expression.
“My music is about the mission of playing for and connecting with sincere people who want to be around others who want to be connected through beauty, love, emboldening and freedom,” she says.
At the same time, she says there’s one thing her music — and her career — aren’t about: “chasing vanity.”
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However, Lewis’ visibility – and therefore his adjacent vanity – is higher than ever. 2021 has seen her piano-focused artistry merge with her work as a (seemingly) tireless champion of racial and social equity in country and American music. Together, this has earned her multiple feature films by NPR, accolades from Rolling Stone, a nationwide touring schedule, as well as co-signings from artists such as Kyshona Armstrong and Anita “Lady A” White – the only and even the country-acting jazz artist who shares his name has been embroiled in a year-long fractured legal dispute.
Regarding Lewis’ lack of vanity over her excellence, she claims that the content of her critically acclaimed 2021 album “Americana” is “orphan songs that she finally finished.” That statement, when paired with her note about being in a place where she — well into adulthood — is beyond her youthful angst.
Plus, she plays a cover of a song that existed when she was an angsty teenager: Radiohead‘s 1992 alternative rock anthem “Creep.” The song slipped into Lewis’ live performance catalog via Prince’s 2008 release on the track during his performance at the Coachella festival.
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“I’m a wretch, but I’m full of light,” Lewis says, regarding the impact of her humanity on her art.
Lewis’ most extraordinary ability as an artist is to extract moving beauty from the darkest depths of human experience. This skill requires cynicism about the stereotypical definition of beauty.
“Just like Nina Simone says, when I sing ‘Creep,’ I mean every word,” Lewis said.
“I’m a black queer, Southern nerd, and trauma survivor. That puts a [metaphorical] film on your skin that makes you feel less than special – but all we want is to feel ‘so special’, people will look at me and think I don’t belong,” she continues, referencing to the song’s lyrics.”However, I already know that I’m a bad guy and a weirdo. But I keep exploding no matter what.”
Lazily, Lewis’ recent success can be tied to her visibility alongside black female artists like Allison Russell and movements such as the Black Opry and the Country Soul Songbook. However, Lewis is anything but lazy.
She guffaws for thirty seconds when asked if the “mind-blowing” levels of work she – and other – artists have done to create a lasting balance for minority and marginalized artists in underground and mainstream country, Americana and related music wore him out.
“It’s not even the work that tires me!” exclaims Lewis. She points out that working 100-hour weeks for most of the past year has been the hardest part of her life. For the self-proclaimed “Folk-Rock Diva,” 2021 included caring for her cancer-stricken mother while trying to unleash “Americana” amid five pandemic-era hurricanes in the area near her home.
Ultimately, her talent as a musician is as empowering as her passion as an activist. Her current star-making moment has to do with people being transfixed by the music that lies beneath the message.
“I’m proud to be part of a capable community of wide-eyed, conscious professionals who only work in healthy and uplifting ways,” Lewis says of what she’s gotten from her job over the past few years.
When asked what will inspire her in her career goals, she replies, “I am all that I am despite all that I am not. I only have one life to live, so I have to use the time that I am given to the best of my ability.” However, although she is very humble in her goals and objectives for herself and her professional allies, a noble aspiration for her career remains:
“I want my wife (musician Liz Hogan, who she partners with as The Shiz) and I to play together at Carnegie Hall. That would be nice.”
Tickets for Lilli Lewis and Chastity Brown at City Winery in Nashville are $18. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the show is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. For more information, visit https://citywinery.com/nashville.