Femficatio Perspectives: Lilli Lewis

Lilli Lewis. Photograph Chris Baudot
Lilli Lewis. Photograph Chris Baudot

Lilli Lewis is speaking…

“…being asked why I am a musician is like being asked “why I’m my mother’s child.”

1. How did your musical journey begin?

To be honest, I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t music playing in my head.

Before I even had a piano, at the ripe old age of three, I used to give “air piano” concerts in the “formal livingroom,” playing the music only I could hear. Looking back on it, I can’t believe my parents didn’t have me committed.

I think if I’d been born to a musical family or a family of means I would have been subjected to the obsessive world of expectation. Instead, thanks to some lean years and a sickly childhood, I got to develop an intimate relationship with the piano where it became more of a confidante than an adversary.

I’ve composed all my life, and spent a lot of years admiring the ink on the page left by my predecessors.

Although I studied mostly opera in college, my formal classical training ended abruptly when I lost my voice due to a handful of extenuating circumstances that matter a lot when you’re a 22 year old burgeoning soprano.

It was a deeply tumultuous time for me since I’d never been acquainted with myself outside of the context of classical music. To cope with the shift, I ended up changing everything about my life. I started writing music I didn’t understand because it wasn’t art songs or chamber music.

I then became a bartender to save enough money to change my line of latitude.

I moved to Boston because I’d discovered there was a community of independent women singer/songwriters there and I thought they could show me a thing or two about navigating that world. I was wrong, but I was right.

Boston was where I learned how to keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter what, and where I learned that everyone’s voice matters, whether or not anyone is listening.

Those are pretty much the two principles I live and work by to this day.

2. Does your music construct or deconstruct?

I can’t say my work is constructive or de-constructive because I experience both as too deliberate to hold up to my process.

Some people’s brilliance emerges under such direction. My work tends to be strangled by it.

I don’t think I could make a sound that adhered to the cultural expectations even if I wanted to, but I do have a profound connection with ancient things, so the music I make is rarely without some older cultural or musical context embedded.

I can say that my work is integrative and inquisitive. I follow the sounds that inspire me.

I follow the mind threads that challenge me. I follow the heart threads that make me ache and the spiritual threads that seek ascension.

All of these can be challenging to all institutions of course.

And let’s face it, as a queer, African-American atheist woman,I am sometimes the insightful homeless person who’s presence in the room can make others too uncomfortable to receive the message which is offered.

But I am just a person, an infinitely shy human that is sometimes just a wallflower watching the display of neurosis we all dance everyday. Sometimes my work is experienced as confrontational, just by virtue of the worlds I bring together (i.e. socio-economic groups who don’t feel they “belong together” taking offense when my music says otherwise.) The music I make is just a precipitate of my perception and the questions that arise from it.

My lens is one that it profoundly skeptical of divisive language, and I think my loftiest goal is probably to unify through constant inquiry.

3. If the world was less violent, would your music be different from what it is today?


If the world was less violent, my music would evaporate into abstraction.

I’d be a blissful little string, vibrating. But I feel at this point in the human experience, I’m called to do a little more than that. I feel compelled to tell stories and assist in the process of waking everyone up to our propensity for self-destruction and our capacity to choose another path.

We have a tremendous heritage of blindness to one another’s humanity, and I haven’t known too many people in my short life who are exempt from the imprint left by this.

We are so skilled at pointing fingers and very ill equipped at self-reflection.

My experience has taught me that the violence around me, the poverty, the hatred, the slow killers and the traumatizing causes of blinding dissociation, can all be found within my own mind. The more I learn what it means to offer kindness, patience and compassion towards myself, the more I realize what that really looks like in the world.

The gap between where we are and where we’re going comes into full focus, and the more impassioned I become about being a vessel of peace for those who want to get on board.

Both as an artist and as a person on this planet, this is the itch I feel compelled to scratch.

The older I get, the more foolish it seems, but then I just recall the light of my grandmother’s smile, which is my most luminous memory of what home can feel like, and I foolishly move ever forward.

4. What do you refuse to ignore?

The genres in which I’ve worked have changed so much over time that finding the binding thread can be a challenge for outsiders looking in. But for me, I’m just saying the same things over and over again in different languages.

I refuse to ignore truth, and I ask for some truth to emerge every time I face a new song or composition.

I ask for something to show up that might carry a person from a place fear of uncertainty to a place of courage under fire.

The intention of my work is informed by the Spirituals of the African-American folk tradition, and the oral tradition of wisdom passed on with these works which says that somehow, through this music

. People upon whom gross proportions of abuse and dehumanization were imposed, were able to speak their insight and survive with a strength; humanity still in tact. There are parallel stories of WWII prisoners in concentration camps surviving through the power of one incidental moment of music.

I believe music literally save lives.

Moreover, whether it’s manifesting as an act of protest or an act of surrender, music is a vessel for psychological integration and feeds the evolution of the emotional intelligence of our vulnerable little species.

These are things I choose not to ignore, and they become even more relevant when I consider that life of a piece of music goes on resonating for generations beyond the life of its maker, rendering the conduit pretty insignificant in the face of what the work can mean for others.

At the very least, the music that comes through is work that I shape with the intention adding value to the lives of those who would receive it.

5. Why do you think you are a musician?
Music has been in my life for so long that

being asked why I am a musician is like being asked “why I’m my mother’s child.”

I don’t know if I have an answer for that, but I can speak to why I might feel compelled to remain on this path.

Music is many things: a language, a physical science, a philosophy, a practice.

As a language, it integrates. Because it appears to have evolved before verbal based communication, all over the world it can accurately represent subtleties and meaning that could otherwise be lost to the vast world of vocabulary.

As a science, it unifies the laws of fundamental truths found in math and physics. In fact, now that science is proving that all matter is a matter of tiny vibrating things, music has become a miraculous metaphor for the very thing that’s holding this universal experience together.

I would probably never run out of things to say about music as philosophy, but the real reason I call myself a musician is because I experience music as a practice in the Buddhist sense of the word.

It is method by which I uncover, discover and recover the are of being human. It reveals the foibles of my egoic journey, and the limitless possibilities that exist within the realm of true compassion. It has broken my mind and broken my heart, and then taught me to lean into the blade that does the breaking. It is a shapeless, smiling master, everyday both surprise and a familiar friend, difficult and thankless, yet it makes no apologies.

It is a path that reveals all vulnerabilities, but also our most fundamental indestructible nature…if we let it….

This is an arrangement of the 19th Century Spiritual “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” On the underground railroad, a burning lamp in a window was an indicator of a safe haven for a runaway, but could have been a matter of life and death for the host. The original lyric tells the listener “Children don’t get weary ’til your work is done.” This song urges that we must do our best to remain vigilant about being a refuge for each other, even at great risk. “The time is drawing nigh!”

This is an a cappella voice and looper called “Fly.” It is offered here as a quiet prayer and wish for our sacred hearts secretly raging for more, to seek and to find the rare freedom of flying above it all.

Lyrics “Fly”
i am the eagle who glides on the wind
touching down briefly in someone’s back yard
only a glimpse of me ever remains
and my home is ever so far
so i must fly

i look to the moon when the daylight is lost
she is my pardon, she is my rest
taking the carnage of my daily bread
can leave me discouraged at best
but i am so high

and there are those who still sing in the hills
sacred heart secretly raging for more
tearing away at our misshapen will
making the lesson the art
so i will sing

i hear there’s freedom lying within
that’s what they tell me, that’s what i’m told
reaching for wisdom is one way to go
different direction than most
but i am free
so be we free

2 thoughts on “Femficatio Perspectives: Lilli Lewis

  1. Lilli Lewis’ rendition of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning is hauntingly beautiful. Thanks for featuring this brilliant artist.

  2. i can’t tell you how meaningful this post is to me. i love this woman’s mind and soul; she’s pure inspiration and essential blueprint for singer-songwriters like myself.

    oddly, when i read, “I can’t say my work is constructive or de-constructive because I experience both as too deliberate to hold up to my process,” i was reminded of my latest post, titled “a deconstruction.”

    thank you so, so much for sharing this with me. tony

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