Interview: Lilli Lewis on americana, New Orleans and activism

Credit: Diary of Tooky

Why losing the backbeat, COVID lockdown and memories of 150-year-old church helped create Americana.

If the residents of AUK Towers are ever feeling bored, then they can always return to the endless debate prompted by the question “What is americana?”. Singer songwriter, pianist, composer, record company executive, activist, band leader and sometimes folk rock diva Lilli Lewis has clearly entered the debate with her new record, ‘Americana’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up over Zoom with Lilli Lewis in her New Orleans home to discuss why her music means so much to her, the challenges of making a living as a gigging band in New Orleans and how lockdown allowed her the opportunity to record songs that didn’t depend on the backbeat. Lilli Lewis shares her memories of growing up in rural Georgia where country music was in the air and having Kenny Rodgers as a near neighbour. As well as her own music, Lilli Lewis talks about her activism and her role with Louisiana Red Hot Records and discusses why these activities are so important to her, and she makes the case for the innovative role of black musicians in the creation of recorded country music, and why this battle continues today with Black Opry and a new generation of black country artists. 

How are you, I hope you’ve managed to get through COVID?

I’ve been incredibly lucky on the COVID front, and I’ve also been incredibly careful, but that doesn’t save everybody. We haven’t had any major illness in our immediate family but between COVID and Hurricane Ida everyone feels a little beaten up. I’ve had a couple of band members gutting their houses and kind of trying to rebuild. What’s funny about it is we seem to always forget that this is what happens when you live on a gulf coast in a swamp, we are always vulnerable.

That is very true and that adversity and continual challenge has helped form the culture of New Orleans and Louisiana.

It seems that in some ways there is a certain pride in being able to meet these adversities and rebuild. There is a certain level of you don’t know what you are made of until you are tested, and Texas has that as well for different reasons, it is like we can handle anything even when we can’t, haha. It is like oh it is the end of the world so let’s have a second line, haha, let’s dance in the street, let’s get lucky, haha. I think there is a lot to be learned from that kind of stance, and then I also think it wears people out. Some people will say I’ve got to move on, thanks for the party it has been real fun but, you know. Both of those dynamics are running right now, and it is a tender time, actually.

Things are beginning to get back to a form of normality.

We are certainly getting to the point where we are willing to pretend that things are getting more normal. I think I am a little bit more on the cautious side, I’m on the conservative side of that. I know a lot of my community and fellow musicians are just like let’s get out there, let’s be back on the road. I can’t help but think about how vulnerable that makes people who show up for the shows. We have a little bit of protection because we are mostly on stage and aren’t too much in the crowd before or after the show, or if we are driving to gigs as opposed to flying. We as musicians have a little bit of control in our environment, but the people in the crowd don’t really have that, and not everyone is respectful of each other, they are just not.

How was AmericanaFest 2021?

It went very well, and I didn’t get sick, but it was a tough decision to go, to be honest. For several weeks I was thinking maybe they will back out because Tennessee at the time had the worst numbers in the country, and even though at the site of AmericanaFest they were very stringent about proof of vaccination, proof of a negative COVID test, my assistant showed up only half vaccinated and they tested her on site right away and wouldn’t let her get into the facility proper. I was like yeah, that’s what we want to see. I think they were very mindful, but then there are all these showcases around the city, and not all had the same protocols. It was a bit of a tough decision to go, and the reason I chose to go was because there was a chance of real fellowship. We were calling it Outlaw Family Reunion House which was a place where folks who had not felt welcome in country, folk and americana could show up and share. So there were a lot of black artists, a lot of queer artists, all these people were invited to just show up and be themselves. We had two panels, one for an online magazine-like blog called Country Queer, and a second panel for another online blog called Black Opry with some great artists. The Country Queer panel included Amy Ray and Kamara Thomas, and then the Black Opry panel included folks like Miko Marks and Queen Esther.

We had heart-filled conversations and we were able to mirror fellowship, we witnessed for each other, and at the house they rented it was just full of artists, multi-racial, the full rainbow of the queer spectrum, and multi-generational. Frankie Staton came and talked to everybody about the last time we tried to bring attention to black artists in country, what may have gone wrong last time and what we may try and correct this go-round. To have a house full of people, when I was there, there were anywhere from thirty to fifty people just rotating in and out, including Brittney Spencer. It was kind of like the whole range of community, young indies right up to those getting a bit more established. I made a decision it might be worth it to have that happen, and then Country Queer had a showcase they invited me to play at Vinyl Tap, a little record store that had a stage at the back in a bar, and it was like oh yeah, this is it, record store bar and a stage you are done, haha. We had the same feeling of fellowship and welcome there, and after being in this territory for twenty years now, it is hard to say out loud it has been that long. For some, it doesn’t seem like a long time, but twenty years of missing community and validation is a long time, and to show up and have that happening now, and hearing everybody’s stories with their music there is that visceral hit you get. It was worth it, definitely, since we didn’t get sick, haha.

You were trained as an opera singer and classical pianist. What pulled you to americana?

Well, that was my training of course, but we are always more than our training, right. I was surrounded by the same music everybody else was surrounded by. I grew up in Georgia on a dirt road, and Kenny Rodgers had a house right down the road and he was a childhood hero, haha. We had chickens and hogs, and across the street were cattle and down the street were horses and I always wanted a pony. It is just like all these things we think are associated with a rural culture, that is what I was immersed in. My father’s family was a sharecropping family, and their crops were cotton and sugar cane, and my grandmother and favourite uncle still lived in the field where he worked. There was always a tie to rural-driven music, roots music, country music. I mean, one of my father’s favourite artists was Conway Twitty when I was growing up, and so there is this myth that we don’t like this music but we do. We are just as musical as anybody else and we are going to play what we like. I find a lot of black folks in americana right now have a classical background, and for me, it was fully immersive, fully sincere.

The piano was my first best friend from when I was three, and when you get a chance to sit with these scores that are coming from these person’s authentic insides you feel it, you feel what happens when you allow yourself to pay attention to a lot of detail and narrow into an authentic voice. My obsession with the piano and the literature was profound and sincere, and yet when I started making my own music, of course, I was composing classically, but when my father died I kind of had a break. I know now it was grief, and all of a sudden I couldn’t talk very much, I couldn’t write very much and I used to be an avid writer. I had a little notebook, and I would write little tiny thoughts in this notebook because that is all I could have access to for a while. When I went back to my piano after a few months of just grieving, not all of the sounds that came out were classical anymore, and I found myself integrating all of the sounds that had inspired me, whether it was Sweet Honey In The Rock or my mom’s Coltrane records, or whether it was music we sang in my dad’s church which was like 150 years old, and the only drum kit we had was like the hardwood floor, there was then, of course, the classical language.

The stories I was compelled to tell had more to do with what I was seeing as an American, and my family has been on this continent since before there was an America. My mother’s side of the family was free back to the 1700s, my father’s side were slaves and sharecroppers, and all of that comes filtering through me and when that happens what are you going to write but americana. I know it is a long winding story but it is long and winding because it is the most obvious thing. People wouldn’t call it americana for a long long time, they would call it anything but, and for a long long time they said we don’t know what music you are making. I was like, well it is just music, it is not a real big deal, I am not inventing a whole new genre like Schoenberg, it is just some chords, a melody and words, haha. I was like if they can’t call it what it is, then I will have to call it what it is, haha. That is why I named this current album straight-up  ‘Americana’ because every year it is what do we call it, haha, so this year let them know. I understand that word means different things to different people, but I’ve become anything but apologetic for using that word, haha.

At the start, country music was a mix of black and white cultures but the black influences were airbrushed out of the history of country music I think.

They invented the label Race Records in the ‘20s, and that was probably the beginning of social engineering in terms of how we think about music. Every major white country artist at the beginning of it all, was taught by a black artist, learnt black songs but recorded music early on was so expensive nobody was marketing to black people. Then, around the ‘20s, it began to be more affordable and they were like, well black people are shopping at different stores to white people, so we have to let them know what’s safe and what isn’t. That is one narrative of how Race Records was born, but I think it is a bogus narrative. I frame it as social engineering, we are right in the heart of Jim Crow and the backlash from Reconstruction, and I think we are still impacted by that legacy profoundly. I think it was very convenient to rob geniuses of their rights and thereby rob them of the rewards. We know the record industry has always been shady, it is just a question of to what degree, haha. It is a really devastating legacy, not just for black people but when I look at the role of music around the world, it is used to find yourself, it is an amazing technology for emotional regulation, problem-solving, community building and all these amazing things. On this continent, we deliberately segregated it, and since music is my religion, I am like that is fundamentally crippling at a DNA level. We just have to heal that breach.

You are starting with a new album, how did you record it and was it recorded before COVID?

It was all recorded during COVID, in fact, I think it was only possible for me to conceive of doing it because of COVID. I have been in New Orleans now about eight years, and the musical culture and expectation here is kind of specific, and my band just loves to play, we are gig-whores, you know. Let us just say story songs don’t always go over that well in this city, and a lot of the songwriters don’t even tour here because there aren’t a lot of strong listening rooms that can guarantee an audience. Our band had really started moving towards stuff we could get booked to play, and we always pushed the line a little bit and we would drop these other songs in here and there, but we also give them what they want.

Credit: Eliot Kamenitz
You want to get paid.

Exactly, haha. We aren’t bothered about getting big, we just want the next gig, haha. For several years we were doing this backbeat driven music which lent itself more to big band jazz and R&B. When the lockdown happened I got access to the quieter voices that have been on the side lines for a while, and I was like I don’t have to worry about what the crowds want and I can make a record for me. I was really grappling with the social unrest of the time, we had had so many consecutive shootings of unarmed black people, some very close to home, and every time that happens it is like a blow, you know. So you are fielding all these blows and I was also in a new space with my trauma work and I had learnt a different way to deal with these blows. I found that my heart felt super-exposed, I felt really, really tender and I wanted to make a record that came from that place where there is no requirement for a backbeat, the only requirement is the truth. So a lot of the songs were pulled from material I hadn’t been able to do in this city, but I have been sitting with for a long time, and then literally a week before George Floyd was murdered ‘My American Heart’ emerged.

The first two songs that emerged for this record made me want to do a whole record around them, ‘If It Were You’ and ‘My American Heart’ came during the time of all these stories of people trying to get here and all the backlash against them, and I was just appalled by this callous way of speaking about each other, oh they are illegals but who cares when a child is found drowned in the water. Oh, how about a whole boatload of children just drowned in the water while they were trying to just get here, who cares. Around here, that was kind of the language, that was kind of the vibe. I was terrified by the way I was just numbing out to it, I woke up to it and I was so impacted by it it was like, you know, so what, I don’t know what that is like but I remember when my family was desperate, when my mother was desperate, and I remember people being just as callous towards her as they are being towards these immigrants. We humans have all been vulnerable at some point or another, and I found myself trying to work that out by these winding songs. A week after those two songs appeared the world exploded, and then it became not just a dream on my Google Drive, it became necessary to try to do my part to integrate this story that we are fully human, we are fully American. I was fielding comments online like if we are all just American aren’t you just dividing yourself off by even saying you are black or African American. No no no, that is part of the story, it has been part of the story for a long time, and I think I am more American for holding a space for the whole story, that is just my opinion and just started to feel necessary. It is my quarantine record and now I am ready to take the songs out into the world any way I can.

We managed to record it by the skin of our teeth. Every time we booked a recording session a hurricane would come through, haha. It took five different studios, it took people sending in tracks from all over the country, it took a lot of patience and time. I grew up so much making this record because it is the first time I gave myself the luxury of time to see it done. All of those clichés apply, haha.

What was it like working with Mark Bingham?

He was the first person I reached out to and I said I have to do an americana record. I said I know we have done two records together and I know you are probably sick of me, but I had to reach out to you first because you are the only person I have worked with who has been willing to take the time to see me and remove anything that didn’t seem authentically me. It was like I think I need you more than ever on this, but I would understand if you have to pass. He brought patience and attention, and a deep profound respect for me and my creative voice. He also brought decades of discernment, so we recorded the bones of the record in October 2020, and we released an EP based on that structure. We released the songs to let folks know they were there and so we could get this conversation going. Mark did not produce that EP, and so we took a deep breath and a big step back to produce a full story for this year, 2021. It was just beautiful conversations like hey Mark you may not know what it is meant to be like being me and have all this stuff, and have people warn me all the time, because since the day we met you have treated me like I was a superstar. You mixed the first thing like Roberta Flack, you saw all of these influences and you saw my nerdiness, my wackiness, and you thought all of that was rich material. What you haven’t seen is how everybody else has seen me. In his mixing process we started out with one idea, and then he started taking so many things away because he was like I don’t want anybody to miss what you are. He brought a profound discernment that is not just based on the music, but also based on who I needed to be seen as at this moment. I think he brought authenticity, he did really skilful mixes and he is just a cool cat.

I think I read somewhere that Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith are heroines of yours. If they were around today, what would they have to say about America and today’s music?

Man, America couldn’t handle them today, haha. Lil Nas X is all brazen and saying anything he wants to say, and it is completely for marketing. He looks like he is having a good time, but America is having a hard time. I think that Ma Rainey, and probably Bessie Smith too, are liker Lil Nas X on crack, haha. They were so authentically themselves, so potently human, they are indestructible in all those ways that black American women have been called to be, and I don’t think this industry would touch them with a bargepole, even if they were the first rock stars in the industry.

They have lasted a hundred years.

They just couldn’t handle them today, and I think the same is true of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I think that self-possessed women are largely missing from the playing field, so much so that if a woman comes into her own, and tries to be themselves in that kind of way they have to make a big deal about it. It is like I’m claiming my heritage, I’m fulfilling myself now, I am a strong woman, and now I have defeated everything. That is the path these women walked every day. Today they would bring strength, honour, humour, agency, they would have all those gifts to offer, but you would probably have to go up a mountain through a blizzard both ways, to get to them, haha, they would be at the pinnacle, the summit. With no disrespect to my musical community, it is hard for me to predict who will still be around in a hundred years musically from now. I know they are out there, it is like a message on the wind.

Tell me about Louisiana Red Hot Records.

Red Hot has been around since 1996. It was founded by a gentleman called Harris Rea, who also had started Big Easy Distribution earlier in the ‘90s, and they were responsible for the distribution of all the independent hip-hop that came out of New Orleans. It started a pretty profound movement in hip-hop where the artists started taking creative control, and only pursuing distribution deals. It meant they had more control over the money flow, and it ended up being super empowering and impacting big moguls like Jay-Z. He had also been a big mover in New Orleans music history in general, he was the promotor who brought Neil Young to New Orleans for the first time. He was a nerdy chemist who was being recruited by schools all over the place, and he ended up coming to Tulane University and we had so much social justice work going on and he just got seduced by that and the music. He built a record store around campus, and then he became a concert promoter, and then he built a big record store Peaches Records and it is the oldest record store run by the same family in the country. It is the biggest record store in New Orleans even now. He then set up Big Easy Distribution, and then he wanted to do for non hip-hop artists what Big Easy was able to do for hip-hop.

He started Louisiana Red Hot Records which released Trombone Shorty’s first record, they released Hunter Hayes’ first record, and he was really passionate about bringing Louisiana music to the world, that was his creed, he read every email and he was a real character. By the time I met him he was dying, he had contracted cancer from post-Katrina black mould in his warehouse. He did all the renovations himself and he got what I think was throat cancer, and on the backend, basically because of the treatment, he got a rare form of leukaemia and there had only been 150 people in the world who had had it. He fought it like a dog for eleven years, and I met him two or three years before he passed and I was invited to become his right hand. I didn’t want to do it to tell you the truth, I was writing a major classical work and at the time I was also working on a book, and I was like I’m an artist, I don’t want to know anything about this, especially as one of our first conversations was like well we don’t sign women, haha. He said that right of the bat, haha, and I was like I will not be in this place, haha. We had amazing conversations, and the way he met every day when he was fighting for his life having several blood transfusions a week, but he never didn’t have a smile on his face, and he never spoke ill of any person who had ever done him wrong. He met the work with just the most amazing work ethic that I think I ever witnessed. I stuck around to try and absorb that, I stuck around to watch him take whatever was thrown at him, and he always seemed to come out on top. He had an amazing amount of vulnerability at the time, met with this willingness to keep the work going no matter what.

A friend of his and I have a joke about being in that position now it is kind of my role, it means being the shit-eater in chief, and I came to really respect that. I feel it released a lot of latent ability in myself, because before that I had been unwilling to take that kind of seat, I was just too afraid. In this case, I learnt that that the work is so much more relevant than whether people get how much work you are really doing, and that doesn’t matter. I stuck around when he passed away, he left his company to his wife and she and I have been running it day to day for the last five years. We have a lot of really relevant Louisiana artists, the first thing we did when we took over was to re-release Cyril Neville and that year he got a game award from writing with D’Angelo, he got a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Grammys, which basically gave him a moon-shot in the arm. He had a really amazing year that year. We have Dwayne Dopsie who is like zydeco royalty, he is the son of Rockin’ Dopsie Senior from Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’, we have bassist Roland Guerin who was Dr. John’s last music director, we have arranger extraordinaire Wardell Quezerque. We are a label trying to honour legacies and also bring a broad spectrum of music to the world. I’m an import, I’m not from here, and it felt like a heavy burden but the community was like well Lilli, somebody has got to learn it and we would rather it was you, so you’re it, haha. We are still in business, haha.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

That is a tough question, there is so much I want to say, haha. I couldn’t possibly say buy the record but I’m more than happy for you to say that to the readers, haha. I want to say that I made this record with the intention of bearing witness to the people and the stories that are either pushed under the rug, or just out right denigrated. In bearing witness I’m doing a little thing, I’m doing my best to move things until we live in a world where the dignity of every person is a fundamental right. Until we remember that we are responsible for each other, even if it is for the sole reason we are on this planet together, we are going to be in trouble. I think if the last two years have taught us anything, it is that now is the time. I know that might be hard to say to UK people. I thought that writing ‘My American Heart’ would be so simple, and I was so happy I had got to the simple, and I’ve just found out at AmericanaFest that that is viewed as a protest song, haha, and I’m like really? People have told me over the years I can politicise myself too much, but a lot of the time I think I’m just walking down the street but that can be seen as a protest, haha. Most of the time I’m just saying have a nice day. If you think that is a protest song you won’t want to hear what I have to protest about, haha. If sweetness and light is a protest song these days then we know we are in trouble, haha.

Lilli Lewis’s ‘Americana’ is released on October 29th on Louisiana Red Hot Records

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About Martin Johnson 417 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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