'AGT' gives Willie Nelson protégé a second chance after her 'life was flipped upside-down'

America’s Got Talent has been known to open new doors for veteran performers who’d feared that their careers were over. For instance, last season Police Academy star Michael Winslow, who’d stepped away from the spotlight after his wife died in 1993, auditioned and made it to the semifinals. This week, it was 27-year-old folk singer-songwriter Lily Meola, whose promising recording career and life were “flipped upside-down” six years ago, who got a second chance.

Auditioning Tuesday with her original composition “Daydream,” Lily explained to the AGT judges that the song had “kind of evolved over the past couple of years, the meaning of it for me. I wrote it at a time when things were really beautiful and I was essentially living my daydream. I had a major-label record deal. I had a publishing deal. I had butterflies I was hatching. It was magical. … And so, that’s where it originated.”

Lily, the Hawaii-raised daughter of Nancy Meola (assistant to famous entertainment manager Shep Gordon) and sister of pro surfer Matt Meola, was encouraged by her mom, her “biggest cheerleader,” to pursue music at an early age. In fact, it was at a weekly residency at Cafe des Amis in Paia, booked by Nancy, that Lily caught the attention of audience member Willie Nelson. Lily, who was in her late teens at the time, became the country legend’s protégé, touring with Nelson and dueting with him on his album To All the Girls in 2013; she was named one of “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” by Rolling Stone three years later, when she signed with Interscope Records. But when Nancy fell ill in 2016, Lily put her daydreams on hold.

“My mom was diagnosed with cancer and I became her full-time caretaker,” Lily explained to the AGT judges Tuesday, beginning to choke up. “I lost my record deal during that [ordeal], but I think maybe it was bit of a blessing, because it gave me some extra time to really be there for her.” Lily then revealed that Nancy had passed away, insisting through tears, “I really told myself I wasn’t going to cry.”

They Say, which was intended to be Lily's 2016 Interscope debut, never came out on the label, although an "Authorized Bootleg" is available on Amazon and features collaborations with Willie Nelson, Willie's sons Lukas and Micah, and even Kris Kristofferson. According to a recent Rolling Stone interview, working on her brand-new, self-released EP Daydream (a “musical memoir of my dark and beautiful, exciting and haunting last few years”) was therapeutic for the mourning Lily, who lapsed into “deep depression” after her mother’s death in June 2020. But it was clear that her grief was still raw this week — and that singing the EP’s title track, with its aforementioned new layers of meaning, for the AGT judges was a daunting prospect.

“Lily, I have to ask you this: Are you going to be able to make it through this audition?” a concerned Simon Cowell bluntly inquired.

“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to make it through a song without crying,” Lily admitted. “But you know, singing was something my mom and I really connected with, and it’s how I fell in love with music in the first place — her playing music in the car. So, I’m just trying to make her proud and continue to live my daydream.”

Lily held it together as she sang of being a starry-eyed kid “in the backyard, playing astronauts and rock stars,” and then perhaps of her own imagined squandered future: “Thirty-one, waiting tables/She has the voice of an angel/Out of money and power/She only sings in the shower.” Lily didn’t weep herself, but there wasn’t a dry eye otherwise in the house as she received a standing ovation from the judges.

“I’m sure those memories came flooding back to you during that audition, and you’re thinking, ‘I’ve still got to get through the song.’ I know you’ve gone through a difficult period, and I think you coming back says a lot about you,” noted Simon. Heidi Klum, the panel’s most visibly moved judge, then declared she’d “fallen in love” with Lily’s “light” and hit her Golden Buzzer — thus fast-tracking the singer straight to the live shows.

“I think your mother was watching you tonight,” Sofia Vergara told Lily sweetly. After her audition, as Lily brushed off the celebratory golden confetti, she emotionally spoke with host Terry Crews about Nancy, musing, “She’d be so mad at me if I wasn’t pursuing what I love, and ‘Daydream’ was one of her favorite songs. So, I think she’d be really happy, wherever she might be.”

And now, there are no more Golden Buzzers left in play for Season 17 — the other recipients who’ll for sure join Lily in this year’s America’s Got Talent live rounds are saxophonist Avery Dixon, teen singers Madison Taylor Baez and Sara James, and Lebanese dance troupe Mayyas. But there are still many more Golden Buzzer-less weeks of auditions to come because the live shows don’t actually begin until Aug. 2. So, see you next week, and the week after that, and in the weeks to follow.

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