Lilli Lewis, undaunted, makes 'special,' 'connective' folk music

·4 min read

2022 International Folk Music Association "Spirit of Folk" Award-winner Lilli Lewis plays at Nashville's City Winery, along with Chastity Brown, on July 3. The New Orleans resident's recent acclaim comes at a time when a self-described "musical polyglot with octopus arms" is more focused on pushing her honest musical expression to the forefront than ever.

"My music concerns itself with the mission of playing for and connecting with earnest-hearted people who want to be surrounded by others that want to be connected by beauty, love, emboldening, and freedom," she says.

Concurrently, she says there is one thing her music -- and her career -- are not concerned with: "chasing vanity."

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Lilli Lewis is an International Folk Music Award-winning, multi-hyphenate as an artist, activist and executive at the forefront of the music industry's evolution towards greater equity.
Lilli Lewis is an International Folk Music Award-winning, multi-hyphenate as an artist, activist and executive at the forefront of the music industry's evolution towards greater equity.

However, Lewis' visibility -- and thus its adjacent vanity -- is higher than ever. 2021 saw her piano-driven artistry meld with her work as a (seemingly) tireless champion of racial and social equity in country and Americana music. Together, it earned her multiple features by NPR, Rolling Stone acclaim, a nationwide touring schedule, plus cosigns from artists including Kyshona Armstrong and Anita "Lady A" White --  the one and same jazz artist with whom the country act that shares her name was embroiled in a fractious year-long legal dispute.

To the point about the lack of vanity Lewis has regarding her excellence, she claims that the content of her critically-acclaimed 2021 album "Americana" is "orphan songs she finally finished." That statement, when paired with her note about being at a place where she -- well into adulthood -- is growing past her youthful angst.

Also, keying her rise is her playing a cover of a song that existed when she was an angsty teenager: Radiohead's moody 1992 alternative rock anthem "Creep." The song crept into Lewis' live performance catalog via Prince's 2008 take on the track during his Coachella festival performance.

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"I'm a wretch, but I'm full of light," says Lewis, regarding how her humanity impacts her art.

Lewis' most extraordinary ability as an artist is to mine soulful beauty from the darkest depths of the human experience. This skill requires cynicism about beauty's stereotypical definition.

"Just like Nina Simone says, when I sing 'Creep,' I mean every word of it," Lewis says.

"I'm a queer Black, Southern nerd and trauma survivor. That puts a [metaphorical] film on your skin that makes you feel less than special -- but all we ever want is to feel 'so f***ing special', People will look at me and think that I don't belong,' she continues, referencing the song's lyrics. "However, I already know that I'm a creep and a weirdo. But I'm still blowing s**t up, regardless."

Lili Lewis, photographed with her Spirit of Folk Award, alongside two-time winner Allison Russell, at the 2022 International Folk Music Awards
Lili Lewis, photographed with her Spirit of Folk Award, alongside two-time winner Allison Russell, at the 2022 International Folk Music Awards

Lazily, Lewis' recent success can be linked to her visibility alongside Black female artists like Allison Russell and movements including 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 that she -- and other -- artists have been doing to create sustainable balance for minority and marginalized artists in underground and mainstream country, Americana, and related music has exhausted her.

"That's not even the work that makes me tired!" Lewis exclaims. She highlights working 100-hour weeks for most of last year as the most challenging part of her life. For the self-proclaimed "Folk-Rock Diva," 2021 included caring for her cancer-diagnosed mother while attempting to release "Americana" amid five pandemic-era hurricanes in the region near her home.

Lilli Lewis, at home, at the piano.
Lilli Lewis, at home, at the piano.

Ultimately, her talent as a musician is as empowering as her passion as an advocate. Her current star-making moment is linked to people being transfixed by the music that lies underneath the message.

"I'm proud to be part of a competent community of wide-eyed, aware professionals who only work in healthy, uplifting ways," says Lewis about what she's taken from her work over the past few years.

When asked what will inspire her goals to follow in her career, she offers: "I'm all that I am despite all that I'm not. I've only got one life to live, so I need to use the time that I'm given to the best of my abilities." However, though she's very humble in her goals and objectives for herself and her professional allies, one lofty aspiration for her career remains:

"I want my wife (fellow musician Liz Hogan, with whom she partners as The Shiz)  and I to play Carnegie Hall together. That would be nice."

Tickets for  Lilli Lewis and Chastity Brown at Nashville's City Winery are $18. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., with the show slated to begin at 7 p.m. For more information, visit https://citywinery.com/nashville.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Lilli Lewis: Undaunted, makes 'special,' 'connective' folk music