Lilli Lewis: Composer, Musician, Folk Rock Diva

Photo by Zil Nagoh

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 18 Winter 2021

Athens, Georgia-born Lilli Lewis has been in the music industry for over two decades now and has her hand in many different facets of what the industry has to offer. Primarily, she is a singer, musician, and songwriter, with her most recent album Americana having been released on October 29, 2021. Lewis became known as the Folk Rock Diva in 2009, when she founded folk-rock band The Shiz with her wife Liz.

Beyond making music, Lewis serves as vice president and head of Artists and Repertoire at Louisiana Red Hot Records. She is currently working on several initiatives, including the Country Soul Phone Book, to promote and support BIPOC and queer artists in the folk genre and other genres that lack diversity in a similar manner. 

Lewis fills us in on her music career, as well as her work putting together the Black Opry Fest, an online conference that took place in October of 2021.  

So, where are you from, and how did you come to start your music career?

My name is Lilli Lewis, and I am from Athens, Georgia but live in Nola (New Orleans). I started composing music around the age of three before I knew how to play anything. I used to bang around on the keyboard and ask my mother to transcribe it. I was around the age of three or four when I brought my entire family into the living room to put on an air piano performance, lol. I went to the front of the room, and as I began playing, they tried to gently pull me off the “stage” by clapping and telling me how good of a job I was doing. Even though I was not actually playing the piano, I wasn’t done yet and wanted to share more of what I was composing inside. This memory reminds me of how I truly started my journey in music.

With regards to my career, I got my start as a professional classical pianist and singer. Then, my father passed away. This brought a lot of grief, and I took that grief and began writing and creating music out of it, thus the start of my journey of figuring out how to sing it.

Let’s talk a bit about the story you share in your bio about your mother being told you might not survive due to lung troubles at a young age. Can you talk about how you dealt with (and possibly still do) deal with this challenge? Are there any negatives from conquering this that you turned into positives?

Yeah, I had a lot of complications in the uterus, but my mother also had a lot of general trauma and drama that severely impacted her life. The doctor told her I was dying due to my lung complications, and my mother had already lost a child prior. She was going to just ride it out and I made it through. The truth is I am lucky because there were a lot of things that could have taken me out, but they didn’t. I pushed through, and I am learning a lot of what goes with that as I have gotten older. I think the thing that is serving me now when it comes to being aware is the fundamental truth that life longs for itself. It’s always a breath away, and that little bit of extra space is infinitely potent and will pull you forward if you let it. That is how I have had to move through my life. I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

Let’s talk about the strength and courage us Black and Queer women have to have in this music industry. What has been one or some of the biggest obstacle(s)you have overcome in your journey thus far?

Honestly, I spent most of my life being told to shut up while I was playing music. It was always “Can’t you be more quiet when you are playing that?” and then trying to replace my piano with a keyboard, thinking it would be more quiet. That whole thing of thinking no one is listening resonates with me. To this day, when I perform, I find myself battling the voice of be more quiet while trying to play for the five or six people in the universe that need to hear what I am singing about. The same goes with my records. If I only have five or six people listening, then I feel I have done my job. It takes courage to push through the voices and meet people where they are through the music.

What do you do for spiritual and mental wellbeing? Do you think that is important?

I spent so much time (up until my 40s) abusing myself by working on other people’s behalf and abandoning my vision. I really had taken the feedback of being a “fat Black southern lady” that I was getting from the world and turn it into something else. It wasn’t until I spent several years in trauma that I was able to shift my view and realize agency is everything. Without agency, I die. This was a fundamental thing for me because I needed to figure out what to do about this. I looked to authors such as Bell Hooks and realized that I don’t have to choose trauma for my mind and for myself. My being is necessary, and I remain committed to that. I have been putting together my own personal narrative that speaks to my truth and who I am, rooted in agency.

I will be honest, though; I have a lot of challenges with that. Family and people around you can sometimes attack you for making healthy choices. All of that has to be reconciled internally, and you have to learn to forgive others around you, but most importantly, you have to forgive yourself. Let the whole thing fall apart and let agency put it back together.”

I believe music has a lot of power. As artists, we have a responsibility to deliver that message through various genres and lyrics rooted in Black history. A statement in your bio reminds your audient that “LLP is more than a band. It’s a pan-generational cult of radical decency that delivers heart throbbing, earnest rock and soul that “makes you want to put your hands in the air, shout hallelujah, and shake your booty for the rest of the night, with enough energy to power a large city.” Can you talk about how your music transcends skin color, people, age, geographical location, etc.?

I believe that relationships are important, and being able to identify with others not like you is necessary for growth. I am devoted to the relational thing in that I take people for who and where they are and move forward from there. When it comes to songwriting, I try not to assume who will be listening on the other side. Genres have been segregated for some time, and it’s fundamentally messed up.

Music is an ensemble that requires deep listening. It is the spiritual level cohesion that comes about when the music theory, notes, rudiments, etc., all come together. Musicians have the power to mold that ideal way to interact with other humans, but it can be easy to get lost in that. We have to remind ourselves and each other to not speak over but to speak in complimentary tones with each other. Spend time listening.

Tell us a bit about your organizing the first Black Opry Conference that was held in NOLA in October. How did this get started, and why is this important to the community?

Back in April, Holly G. invented an online magazine called Black Opry. She was promoting all these Black artists working in folk and adjacent genres, and people loved it; it was needed. Her whole thing was for it to be a home where everyone was allowed to be themselves. It’s easy for us BIPOC artists to get lost in being a token in these white spaces where we are “performing” and being up against white people that feel entitled to be the “genre gatekeepers.”

We worked together to put on the first Black Opry Conference in NOLA. The Recording Academy was on board to provide some workshops, and we had some amazing influential BIPOC artists that were in attendance. We wanted to make this virtual Black Opry Revue to be an intersectional space that centers on Black artists. Our goal for this conference was to connect people and genres so we no longer feel like unicorns in genres birthed from our culture. We invite readers to check us out online at 

How do you define success?

Success for me means feeling self-expressed and feeling of service in some way. From being a kid, I always saw myself making music for big audiences and on big stages. I felt inspired by so many different genres, but no matter where I was, something was “wrong” with what I loved. When I studied classical piano, I remember an instructor telling me that jazz was fundamentally inferior music, and this was around the time I began exploring and composing jazz. Every genre of music is at war with other genres. My moniker is the “Folk Rock Diva” because those are my favorite genres to sing. I love to get loud and amp the energy up. There is nothing like it. It’s almost like taking the breath in my body and vomiting it back out in a way that expresses freedom for someone else.

Success is about finding a community of people around me to help me make the music I am hearing in my head and finding ways to share it with other people. I use this path as my “dojo” for personal development and growth. I am nobody’s trope, and I give myself permission to build myself. My work is definitely cut out for me, but I am ready to tackle it.