- January 2015 -
HAVE A BEER WITH LILI K.
Lili K. is somewhat fresh to the Chicago music scene, but you’ve probably heard her name dropped in recent months. Named one of Redeye Chicago’s “15 Chicago Artists to Watch in 2015,” Lili has shared the stage with acts like Musiq Soulchild, Dwele, BJ The Chicago Kid and Vic Mensa, and collaborated with hip-hop artists Chance the Rapper and Sulaiman. And while these collaborations have showcased Lili’s ability to work across genres, she’s finally stepping out on her own with the self-produced debut album Ruby, which drops on April 21, 2015. Composed and recorded with her five-piece band, Ruby features melodic keys, hard-hitting drums, guitar licks, soulful bass and retro-steeped, professionally-trained jazz vocals.
We sat down with Lili and her keyboardist William Kurk at Headquarters Beercade to discuss the influence and reach of soul music, the making of the band’s recent video “Tommy” and thoughts on the current state of the industry. See Lili K. and her band on Sat., Feb. 7, 2015, at the Metro with eight-piece Chicago-based outfit Sidewalk Chalk.
Drinks of Choice: Ciderboys: Magic Apple Strawberry Cider
The Show: Sidewalk Chalk, Lili K, Woo Park, Radiant Devices, Thelonious Martin // Sat., Feb. 7, 2015 // Metro
Kristen from A Beer with the Band:You and your band have been playing together on and off for about five or six years now. When did you decide to make it a more “official” formation?
Lili K.: This past summer we did my album together and it's kind of been 'the band' since then.
It's just finally formed into the universe and we said, "Should we just be a band?" "Alright, we'll be the band."
Kristen:It sounds like it was more of an organic process then, as opposed to an intentionaldecision. I saw that you attended Columbia College. Is that where you and the band met?
Lili: Well, I've learned that pretty much everybody in Chicago goes to Columbia at some point in their life. My bass player and I met there; we went there at the same time. Then my guitar player Cullen and I went to high school together, but not college. We actually weren't really even friends in high school, we just kind of knew each other but ended up playing together. And then Will went to Columbia years before I was even there and we both happened to be Columbianites, so…
Kristen:That's crazy. So, did you just meet each other through the post-Columbia music community?
William Kurk: We met not too long ago, maybe five or six years ago, at a jazz club called the Velvet Lounge on Cermak. They used to have jam sessions every Sunday, and one night I went to hang out and met Lili by coincidence. I saw her sitting at a table, and she had her hand on her mouth like she was crying. I'm not a super outward, social individual. But the Velvet Lounge is a familiar environment for me; I've played there quite a bit and I always feel comfortable. So, I went up to her randomly and said, "What's wrong with you?" She said, "I'm playing the trumpet.” She was singing to herself, and from that point on, we were friends. I just saw a young damsel that appeared to be in distress…
Kristen: Who was actually playing the trumpet…
William: She was playing the mouth trumpet.
Kristen: Pretty impressive. So let me ask this: why jazz over any other genre?
Lili: I had more so of a soul and gospel upbringing — that’s what I was raised on — but I first heard jazz when I was around 12-ish, and it just made sense to me. While my music is a mixture of multiple genres, I'm heavily rooted in jazz because of my vocal technique and the tone and styling. It's what resonates most with me. It just fits.
William: Yeah, I'm a myriad of sorts, too.
Lili: Yeah, so working together, especially for my most recent album, it worked well. Will co-wrote a song with me and it made sense.
Kristen: With five of you in the band and a mix of genres, how does the creative process work? I’m guessing you serve as the primary songwriter for most of the tracks.
Lili: Yeah, that's how “Ruby” went. I had a lot of songs written that I just had to get out. They'd been written for years, so most of the band already knew them because I'd been playing them for so long. And with other songs, I would go to Will with a rough draft and my really bad piano accompaniment, my melody and my lyrics and basically beg him to help me make it better. And he did, and then we'd present what we had to the band. The album just came together like that.
Kristen: “Ruby” drops relatively soon, right?
Lili: April 21st is the official release date.
Kristen:Very exciting I saw the video for “Tommy,” which is so badass. The song is so amazing, too.
Lili: That's one of the ones that Will and I did together. And what's funny about “Tommy” is that part of the song — and the whole video concept — were basically a joke between the two of us. I approached Will with pretty much the whole song — from the chords to the verses and the bridge — and when we were rehearsing my version of it, the whole vamp part sort of formed on its own. We were just goofing around, but we ended up keeping it.
Kristen:Yeah, and the video concept is great.
Lili: I don't even know how we got onto the subject, but Will had the idea that I should be stalking a guy. Then I brought in the idea Little Shop of Horrors background singers and it went from being something that we thought was hilarious into something real.
Kristen:Who filmed the video?
Lili: Jeremy Franklin and Addison Wright do my videos. They're each individual videographers and they're good friends of mine. I kind of brought them together and now we're a little video team. I consistently work with them. It makes everything much easier because it's fun to film with them, they're friends of mine, they really get what I'm going for and they're ridiculously talented.
William: They're the Mario and Luigi of her videos. She's the princess.
Kristen:Are there any songs on the upcoming album that surprised you?
Lili: “Tommy” definitely turned into something much more grandiose than I thought it was going to be.
William: Yeah, me too. In terms of the whole brainstorming process, “Tommy” started as a modest, simple, wholesome song. Eventually, it became a layer of different innuendos, and with the video, too. Lili really took on that wholesome, ‘60s neighborhood vibe. It was cool and it was cute, but it was also edgy. It’s almost as if the song is saying one thing and the video is saying another. It’s almost two things working together and against each other.
Lili: I had a John Waters film in mind when I was putting it together. It has a weird sense of humor, and it was one of those things where I thought, "I don't know if everyone's going to get this, but if they do get it, they’re going to love it."
Kristen: I got it and I definitely loved it. You have a show coming up with Sidewalk Chalk on February 7 at the Metro.
Lili: Yeah, it's actually Sidewalk Chalk's third album release show. I've been fans of them since my first day at Columbia College. They played our convocation. I was 18, had just moved to Chicago and said, "Oh my god, what is this?" I became obsessed with them. Weirdly enough, when Will and I started hanging out, he took me to some jam session and a few of the people from Sidewalk Chalk were there. I was this young kid using my fake ID to hang out. I ended up becoming friends with these people I've looked up to. We ended up playing a show with them in August at the Hideout, which was awesome.
Kristen: Aside from being friends with the band, what made the show memorable?
Lili: It was a great audience. Our music is very different, but it's also very similar. Essentially, we can attract the same listeners. The audience was so receptive to the musicality happening on stage. They’d applaud for solos. We both attract listeners who appreciate actual music. So, that’s another reason the Metro show is going to be really exciting. We’ll be playing a bunch of songs from the upcoming album, too. I'm really looking forward to it.
Kristen: Do you have any favorite venues that you've either played at or seen shows at in Chicago?
Lili: The Hideout is really fun, mainly because the green room is amazing. It feels like you're in a Grandma's really cool kitchen. We were talking about this earlier: the differences between backstage at a hip hop show and backstage at a soul show. Backstage at a hip hop show is overcrowded with people and there's weed everywhere and it's really intense. Backstage at a soul show, we hang out and play the game “Operation.” It's really empty in there, really relaxed.
William: There's no entourage. I remember playing Schubas with a hip hop band back in the late ‘90s or early 2000s. And when I played there with Lili for the first time, it was like déjà vu, except it was almost like I'd never played there before. It was a totally different experience. But I did get to eat the mac and cheese I'd been hearing so much about. That's another one of our extracurricular hobbies.
Lili: We food venture. Outside of the band we're all friends and we all hang out. Will's one of my best friends. Often times he’ll come over and he and my boyfriend will play video games for hours. Then I’ll play, and I’ll beat them.
William: Oh! See how she threw that in.
Kristen:What do you play, Mario Kart?
Lili: We don't have Mario Kart right now, but I love Mario Kart.
William: The Street Fighter collection.
Lili: Street Fighter. I kill it with Elena.
Kristen: And then in terms of “food venturing,” where have you been recently?
Lili: Well, there’s this Italian Restaurant in Andersonville on Clark that is amazing. They have this gnocchi that's the best thing I've had in my entire life.
Kristen: How do you find these places? Do you search online or use an app?
Lili: Sometimes. We just kind of venture.
William: For the most part we just wing it. We might actually see something that appeals to us and say, "What's that?"
Lili: And we'll stop the car.
William: We use a combination of modern and traditional methods, you know.
Lili: Big Jones in Andersonville is really good too.
William: It’s Cajun comfort food. One of my personal favorites is the Korean fried chicken spot, Dak. It's right downstairs from Lili's apartment and it’s dangerous.
Lili: I live in Edgewater, and when he first came to my neighborhood, I started showing him all these different restaurants. Every day after that, he’d say, "Hey, I'm in Edgewater eating food." Every day.
William: I’d send her a picture of me eating the food.
Lili: And I’d know exactly where he was at.
Kristen: Lili, you’re originally from Milwaukee. Aside from Chicago’s food culture, what would you say is your favorite thing about living here?
Lili: I love the food. I really do. But I've also met some great people here. And I definitely enjoy the music scene, especially compared to Milwaukee. There's a lot more diversity. Milwaukee has a good scene too; it's just really small so it can sometimes feel like the same thing over and over again.
Kristen:Since moving to Chicago, you’ve collaborated with a ton of artists, including Chance the Rapper. How did those collaborations come up?
Lili: Columbia. But not exactly. I met Chance in of my classes, and then he and Peter Cottontale, who used to do all of my production, met up a few weeks later in the studio, which is when we did “Hey Ma.” Through that I met a lot of my other hip hop acquaintances. Also, being at Columbia you meet a lot of people in the hip hop community because of the hip hop label.
Kristen: Do you ever think that you'll move outside of Chicago in pursuit of music?
Lili: I would like to move outside of Chicago, but I don't know. There are things I love about the scene. There's a really awesome underground soul thing that's going on, but it's not really at the forefront because it's hip hop's time in Chicago. That makes it hard sometimes when you’re not in that genre. Of course, I did my features with hip hop artists and I'm proud of the work I did with them, but I also want to be known for my solo stuff. It’s harder to get recognized for that than singing background vocals on a hip hop song. I guess my biggest issue with the Chicago scene is that it focuses on one thing and misses out a lot of others. I know there’s a great punk scene here that seems to be overlooked as well.
Kristen: Yeah, and I think from the listener perspective, too, people tend to hone in on certain genres and have tunnel vision.
Lili: And a lot of that is just the media. Media plays up hip hop and that's all over the country. There are so many artists — even Sidewalk Chalk; they’re hip hop but they're also jazz — who aren’t as celebrated as the other hip hop artists because it's not straight up hip hop. It's too musical.
William: Their music is very savvy and crafted in a very deliberate. Hip hop fans will find something to appreciate about it, but they may not jump on it right away. What Lili said is very true. You could also be successful doing blues or gospel here. Gospel's really big.
Lili: Yeah, and not necessarily in mainstream media, but there are scenes that are heavily supported. People always want gospel.
William: Gospel is gigantic out of Chicago. I have the privilege of explaining why and how, because my great grand uncle Thomas A. Dorsey, is the father of gospel music. He's the one who started the genre.
Lili: See, he's amazing. I don't know why he works with me.
William: I'm just a conduit of the legacy and I'm glad to have grown up in a musical environment. My mother and my father are musicians, as well as my grandmother.
Lili: Tell her who your grandma is.
William: My grandmother is Lena McLin. She is...
Lili: R. Kelly's voice teacher.
William: She has taught a bunch of people who sing at the Metropolitan Opera house. She teaches concert technique, she won numerous choral competitions while she was a teacher with Kenwood Academy and she's done numerous workshops. She’s the niece of Thomas A. Dorsey, so since I was a shorty, I remember when Thomas A. Dorsey was winding down, I got a chance to hang around him. When he came to Chicago, he was the only person who was printing sheet music of secular sacred music. He was going door to door, church to church selling sheet music. And that's why you have “Precious Lord Take My Hand” and all the other hits. Chicago was more or less a central point for a lot of that music, because he was based here. Churches in Chicago picked up his music, and that's why our city has forever been like a gospel headquarters.
Lili: I went to an arts high school, and I remember musicians that would drive to Chicago and play at church on Sundays and then drive back to Milwaukee. It's such a big thing here. I knew a lot of people who would make the drive to go to church every Sunday just to play.
Kristen:Wow. Will: Did you ever feel pressure, having those names in your family, to go into music?
William: When I was young, I played different instruments but I wasn't disciplined in them, I wasn't forced to learn them. It was just extracurricular. I was also a video game fanatic. I thought I was going to program video games.
Kristen: Now you’re just an avid video-game player.
William: Yeah, I have a good amount of the consoles still in my closet in my archive. I remember giving my Super Nintendo away to a girl's brother, a girl that I was interested in in high school when I was about 15.
Kristen: Did you do it to win her over?
William: Yeah, like, "Check this out, I gave your brother a Super Nintendo because I don't need it." But then I was so bored out of my mind — tearfully bored — and I said, "I guess I'll play piano." And it worked out for the better, because it kind of forced me to discipline myself into my calling. The earliest things I started playing on piano were the theme songs to my favorite video games.
Kristen:I love it. Those are probably the only songs I’d ever be able to learn on the piano. What about you, Lili? Did you know you wanted to go into music?
Lili: I thought that I was going to be either a professional fighter or a forensic psychologist. I was into martial arts when I was little. I was such a tom boy and I was in Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Jiu Jitsu. I went to world competitions when I was about nine or 10. I was super into it, but I also had a vocal teacher who started bringing me to church, where I started singing. He was the one who persuaded me: "You should do this. You should be a singer, not a fighter.”
William: You could have been Lili Karate.
Kristen: Could you still kick someone's ass do you think?
Lili: I mean … I haven't gotten in a fight in over three years.
William: It's been a while.
Lili: When my best friend drinks she has a mouth on her, so I’ve ended up having to fight for her. She never gets hit and I never get hit. I make sure of that.
William: Well, Lili never gets hit because she's so fast. They never feel a punch.
Kristen: I'm getting nervous. I feel like I should watch my back. What are you guys listening to now?
Lili: I've pretty much had D’Angelo’s Black Messiah on repeat since it came out. I also listen to a lot of Bill Evans, Sharon Jones and India Arie. Her album Voyage to India is a go-to of mine. That record pretty much made me want to make an album. I’d been writing music and I liked doing it, but I never thought about making an album until I heard Voyage to India.
Kristen: What about it appealed to you?
Lili: I loved how it was put together. There are so many different emotions you feel throughout the album. There are also these interludes that weave it together. There was something about it that hooked me.
William: My two favorite artists have always been tied for number one. I can never pick between Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Lili knows my soul though, so she knew I was going to say that. There are so many of his recordings that I can get into. It’s the same with Michael Jackson. When I was growing up “Thriller” was at the peak of humanity. Everybody was impersonating Michael Jackson.
Kristen: What about artists currently on the scene? Is there anyone you’re particularly excited about?
William: Not to be biased but I do like myself a Lili K. song once in a while. If you can’t leisurely enjoy the music you make with people, it's almost like you can't eat your own food. Your cooking's got to be so good that you just can't stop eating it. So, along with Lili, of course, there’s Nikki Miller, who's a singer/keyboardist/producer. She's off the chain. I also got into Muzart, a group out of South Africa, about a month ago. Kendall Moore, a guy who's from Chicago but lives in Miami now, is a trombone player really doing some slick progressive jazz stuff. Really compositional jazz stuff. Sidewalk Chalk, obviously.
Lili: Jeff Gibbs Quartet is a really great band right now. I just did a track with them, a remake of “Latch” by Sam Smith. They're amazing and they’re working on their debut EP right now.
Kristen:What’s the hardest thing about pursuing music?
William: Well, to go back to what Lili was saying about the Chicago scene, there's so many of us within a community who support each other, but the stuff that gets the props isn't necessarily on our plate, you know what I mean? Not to say that we disagree with the leverage that others are getting, but we just want to be acknowledged. With Chicago, that’s just a condition of the scene that you have to accept. And I'm from here — born and raised — and I still work as a work-for-hire musician. That really gets more traction than the artist thing. You can make moves here as an artist, but…
Lili: It's hard to make a living.
William: Yeah, it’s a grind.
Kristen:Yeah, I’ve struggled with it as a writer as well. I’m sure it’s that way for a lot of people pursuing artistic endeavors.
Lili: Yeah, I feel like music journalism is such a lost art form in a lot of cases. These huge publications will write one or two sentences about something. What frustrates me about it is that no one gives his or her own opinion. They're replacing their actual thoughts with these bite-size pieces.
Kristen:Yeah, sometimes it feels like music sites are more concerned with pushing out more content than quality content.
William: Yup, it’s all about frequency. I released an EP in 1999 and at that time, you could just send it out, someone would play it and they’d tell you: "Here are my thoughts on this EP." Not anymore.
Lili: You don't even know if they'll open what you send.
William: Yeah, or they'll throw a CD away, or just store it with some stock of stuff that they get all the time. It's such a mine field now. But you have to be willing to adapt and understand the differences.
Kristen: Yeah, and it comes down to persistence. If you really want to do something and you really care about doing it, you keep doing it and hope that something comes of it. Which brings me to my last question: what’s the best advice someone in the industry has given you that has kept you going?
Lili: I got some terrible advice that made me think of everything a little bit differently A major label exec was interested in giving me a deal, but under the conditions that I lose a bunch of weight and start wearing way less clothing and do pop music. And he was serious. It was a lot of money; it was a big deal. But that’s not why I do it at all. That's not the point of this. It was in that meeting that I realized I don't care about being famous. I don't care about being rich. That's not the point of making music. I just want to live my life and be happy, and what makes me happy is creating the music I love making. So if I can get by with a big enough fan base that I'm able to tour, that I'm able to pay my rent and my bills, to eat — to go on food ventures — that’s what I care about. It basically comes down to figuring out what you really want out of this and what you need out of this to make yourself happy. Is it really just about the attention? Because if it's about the attention, go ahead and sell out. Go put yourself in that position and say fuck it; just do it. But if you care about your art, don't try to conform, don't try to change yourself to fit a trend. Trends come and go. Stick to yourself as an artist. If I ever start making music for something other than my happiness, that's it: I should just drop dead.
William: When I was starting to get my footing as a musician, Ric Hall, who was like an uncle to me and a guitar player for Buddy Guy, told me, "The one thing that you have to do is never put your heart in a box where you can't evolve.” If you want to learn as much as you can, you need to be a sponge. If you want to continue to grow and absorb, be flexible. Be willing to go a little left if you have to go a little left. Bend without breaking. Don't compromise yourself. And then also, one of the elders in The Dells was talking to me once and said, "Do you ever wonder why so many people love making babies?" I said, "Because sex is awesome?" He said, "That's right. It feels good, but the one thing that you have to understand is that when you create something, it's out there forever. So if you’re working on music, and you're putting your hard earned time and energy into it and you put it out there, it's out there." You have to tread with a purpose with everything that you do so that you don't mess around and put something out there that misrepresents what your calling is.
Lili: I feel like that was the main motivator for me finally making this album. I felt like I was diluting myself; everything I'd done was a collaborative effort and I didn’t want to compromise what I wanted because it was what someone else wanted. Getting involved with the hip hop scene was such a great thing, but I realized it’s ultimately not what I want, and I found myself getting more and more unhappy.
Kristen: You needed to settle and refocus.
Lili: Yeah, and that's why I didn't sing for about a year. Then I realized: “This is what I’ve been wanting to do: to make music and work with this band. Why am I not doing it? What's stopping me?" So, I went for it. I'm in a better place now and I'm really happy that I went through the things that I went through, and I’m grateful for the people and experiences that made me realize what truly makes me happy: making the music I want to make.