STEELE INTERVIEWS: singer/songwriter Lilla

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Recent Berklee College of Music graduate Lilla possesses a powerhouse, enthralling voice. She blends blues/soul with gorgeous, moving results. Lovely melodies and thoughtful lyrics. Her upbeat and rather mindful impassioned album, The Awakening, is out now. Lilla self-produced the album and she recorded at several studios including Bob Marley’s studio, Tuff Gong, in Kingston, Jamaica and in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She’s a poised, sweet-tempered and fascinating woman. Fantastic spirit. Smart. Centered. In October she’s opening on some West Coast dates for Mos Def and reggae artist Hollie Cooke [daughter of the Sex Pistols’ drummer].

We sat down at Pavement Coffee recently to chat. We spoke for well over an hour and if I didn’t have to go somewhere, we could have talked for longer. Candid conversation about all sorts of subjects ranging from her Berklee education to women in music.

Amy Steele: What drew you to the soul/ R&B music?

Lilla: I can thank my mother for that. I grew up listening to all Motown. The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson. a lot of Jimi Hendrix too. People associate Jimmy with rock but before that he was raised on the blues circuit. He’s definitely got a lot of soul and blues in his music. My mother always had something playing. That’s what she grew up listening to and I can see why. I appreciate the Motown music more than a lot of what’s out there.

Amy Steele: Before you came to Berklee, you played piano at a young age. Did you teach yourself to play piano?

Lilla: I grew up with a piano in my house and I used to always go and mess around on it. I tried to take lessons at age 8 or so and the teacher told my mom, ‘she doesn’t need to take lessons. She can figure it out by ear.’ Which is good to an extent but I wonder how I would’ve turned out if I had had lessons since the age of 8 versus learning to read when I got to Berklee. I never knew how to read until then. It’s definitely good to have an ear for stuff to figure it out and play it but it’s also good to be a good reader and know your music theory. I feel confident now that I know it but I didn’t know it until I studied it in school.

Amy Steele: You also sang in a choir. Is that when you realized you could sing and liked to sing?

Lilla: I thought it wasn’t until high school that I got serious about singing and knew I wanted to be a singer. Before that I was really into dance—modern, tap, ballet. Little kids have dreams that are valid but they’re also all over the place. In high school I joined a gospel choir. And that just really got me. The power of the music and all the harmonies. Strong singers. I don’t practice a particular religion but the spirit of the music moved me so much, I became really passionate about it.

Amy Steele: What did you study at Berklee?

Lilla: I went to Cal State Long Beach for two years before attending Berklee because I got a pretty good scholarship there. I planned to get all my liberal arts [requirements] out of the way and then just go take the music classes somewhere else. Berklee only accepted part of those so I almost had to start over.

I studied professional music. That was my degree. So basically you get to tailor your own degree with professional music and you get to dip into the other degrees. If you know what you want to do, know what classes you want to take and what you want to learn to do then it’s good. I took some jazz composition because I have always been in love with jazz singing and writing and composing. I took some production and engineering so I could be more self-sufficient.
Before I came to Berklee I got very frustrated working in the industry with producers and having to depend on someone else without a huge budget to entice them. Your projects get put on the back burner. Ideas get forfeited. It was something I wanted to learn. If I have a project I want to do, if I have to, I want to do it all on my own and not depend on anyone else.

I took some piano classes, a lot of jazz techniques. I thought that would help the music I wanted to play. I took a couple of songwriting classes. I got some good things from them. I took a lyric writing class which helps when you’re writing and you get stuck so they showed me ideas to get out of that. But the songwriting department wasn’t really for me. I took a cool performance class with a professor named Lawrence Watson called “Foundations of Singing with Soul.” So we did all kinds of really awesome music.

Amy Steele: How do you think studying at Berklee has helped you now?

Lilla: I feel more confident when I’m having to see a project through or having to communicate with other musicians. The thing that made me want to go to Berklee was when I had an idea in my head and wasn’t able to bring it to life. Now I feel like I’m much more confident in bringing a song in my head to the world and making it real. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be. They say music is a language and the better you can communicate your ideas, the better your art will be. I really think it helped me to do that.

Amy Steele: How do you write your songs? What’s your process?

Lilla: Sometimes I’ll hear a melody or a melody with words in my head. Sometimes I hear them in dreams. Other times I’ll just be messing around on the piano and come up with a cool melody or progression and I keep playing through that and some lyrics will come. Sometimes someone will bring a composition to the table and I’ll be inspired by that. Or I’ll be on the guitar strumming some chords. It’s never one way. It’s usually the music inspires the lyrics and the melodies.

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Amy Steele: What do you think makes a good song?

Lilla: Something that people sing along to and I’m speaking as a singer. When I say sing along to, they can hum the melody. Something that sticks it in your head. Also something people can connect with.

Amy Steele: You have a lovely voice and you have so much range in all the songs how did you develop the range that you have?

Lilla: I think I always had the range and I account that to swimming. I used to be a competitive swimmer. One of the things I would work on that we worked on while I was swimming– we would try to breathe the littlest amount possible as you can. So I would swim the length of the pool and breathe once down and back. A lot of times the way I look at being able to sing dynamically and having a good range is using your body. It is not just your voice that does this thing. you’re using your diaphragm, your abdominal muscles, your lungs to project the notes.

Part-time I teach voice lessons and everybody wants to expand their range. it is a pretty common thing to develop further range. I really work on developing these muscles around here [indicates her abdominal region]. So they’re not really singing from here [gestures to throat] they’re using their whole body. But I did study in college. Berklee makes you take voice lessons and I had some great teachers.

Amy Steele: How do you maintain your voice?

Lilla: I try to keep my cardio in good shape. It is really amazing I could show you what I show my students. When you realize how much of your body you can use, your lungs go all the way back here. When you think about singing from there it gives you so much power. I try to either swim or jog or do something to keep my cardio strong to keep that power.

Amy Steele: You hear a lot about singers losing their voice or having to drink a lot of tea. But you are using your whole abdominal and lung area.

Lilla: It takes a lot of strain off the voice– not that I’ve never gotten hoarse. but for me it is very important to not stress your voice out. There are times you are singing every day for weeks and you can’t afford to lose your voice. The things I always tell my students are: 1) warm your voice up before you sing. Your voice is a tender thing it’s like any type of muscle; 2) to maintain a healthy lifestyle not drinking or smoking a lot; and 3) rest.

Amy Steele: It seems like a lot of singers smoke.

Lilla: Even if I’m in a room with smokers, before they outlawed smoking indoors, my voice would be gone if I were playing around smokers or people were smoking. Some people sing through the smoking. Adele smokes but then she had nodes on her vocal cords and had to come off tour. Also another thing is not screaming over the band, making sure you can hear yourself over the band. A lot of time on stage it is really hard to hear. Our ears the louder things get the harder it is to hear. After a while your ears get used to it.

Amy Steele: What is different when someone sees you live?

Lilla: I would hope that live it is more dynamic. they can feel more emotion, more connection. but also I love it when you go to a live show and wow it’s just like the record or when you go and it’s wow look what they did with that. That’s so cool and it takes another dimension. I love being able to connect with people and being able to meet and talk with people after the show.

Amy Steele: Someone suggested that I do a podcast. I’d love to do something just focused on women in music.

Lilla: That’d be cool. I’ll help support that any way I can. I know tons of amazing women in music.

Amy Steele: I don’t always cover women of course but I’ve been a feminist since fifth grade and always have that feminist viewpoint. Of course there are men that are feminists. That would exclude a lot of bands if I just covered women.

Lilla: Women need the support. Even at Berklee it was 80/20: the percentage of men versus women. The amount of women in the industry it’s hard. I would love to have some women in my band. It’s the ratio of women in the industry vs. men in the industry. If you look at statistics, I’m more likely to end up with men in my band.

One of my goals is to set a good example for women and try to let them know that you can do your thing and not have to depend on other people and you also don’t have to sell your body, your soul and yourself. If that’s what you believe then it can be done. When I first started I was a little naïve. I was 19 or 20 in L.A. thinking I’m going to meet some producer and after so many people saying they’d do things and it would fall through, I realized I have to do this. No one is going to do this for me. If I want my career to happen I’m the one who has to push it.

Women go through a bit of a power struggle. I’ve even dealt with musicians who because I was younger than them and a girl would try to push me. Now I get more respect.

Amy Steele: Do you think those are the biggest challenges being a woman in the industry?

Lilla: The biggest is I think people not taking me very seriously. Or also people having ulterior motives but I’ve learned to spot those upfront. You get one chance with me. If you don’t come through and you’re not professional, I’m moving on.

Amy Steele: As a music journalist I deal with some of the same issues. It’s definitely 80/20 men to women. I get tired of hearing the opinions of 30- or 40-something white guys.

Lilla: I know. Even with managers and producers. I would love a woman manager. They’re rare. I would love someone on my management team to be a woman. They understand more.

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Amy Steele: Why did you call the album The Awakening?

Lilla: One of the first songs and the one I get a reaction to most is “Wake Up.” It’s kind of the title track and the other title track is called “Sunrise.” The point of my life when I was releasing it and I was finishing school and there were a lot of changes. I was realizing a lot of things about music and the industry and the work we’re creating and putting out into the world. Music will last forever. How I want to contribute. I was doing a lot of touring and doing a lot of new age, conscious festivals. Getting into yoga and meditation. If I have a choice on how I can affect the listeners I want to have a choice. It’s the transition between the last few years and now. Growing up, maturing and seeing things through new eyes.

Amy Steele: Let’s talk about how you developed some of the songs.

“Wake Up”

That song literally wrote itself. I hit record and pretty much sang the whole song. I changed some lyrics later to make it clear about what I wanted to say. I was going through a phase where there was a lot happening. There were a lot of bombings in the Middle East and we were supposed to be out of Iraq but we weren’t. I was angry about that. It’s is this a dream or was that a dream. All these things happening. Good and bad. Positive and negative.

“Sunrise”

I wrote after I went to New Orleans which was after Katrina and I was dealing with how to find a way to musically help me. I didn’t know anything about how to get your music out there and how to get a following. So I went to New Orleans and I was shocked about what the musicians were doing despite that. Through all the darkness there was this light. This Amazing music, history, culture, vibrance. Sunrise is after the dark night there’s always going to be a sun.

Talkin’

When I was living in L.A. I started recording with friends who did hip hop. It was conscious hip hop talking about real things. Society and culture and things that need to be addressed. (She’s done a track with Talib Kweli!) when I was in L.A. I did a track with Daz who was one of the members of the Dog Pound, one of Snoop’s group. We did this song together. A couple years later in Portland I saw him backstage. So I was backstage with Snoop Dogg and all them and people probably thought “she’s hanging out with all these guys backstage.” Some guy started telling people rumours about me. He said I went back to their hotel. I never went to their hotel. So you can tell how this got started. He said/she said. Who cares anyway. You’re not my man. You’re a friend. If we’re leaving somewhere together we’re not going home together. It was kind of a tongue in cheek way of responding.

“Memoirs”

Memoirs I wrote with my friend Lisa who is a good friend of mine. You know when you find those people who can finish your sentences for you. The minute we started working together we wrote songs and songs and songs. Someone gave us an instrumental and one night we came up with this song. Kinda the idea of having a crush on somebody and not being able to tell him how you feel. Whether you’re afraid of rejection or you like having a crush on him because it’s simpler. Being afraid to put your feelings on the table, that’s what that’s about. And I recorded that with a sweet sweet Jamaican rhythm section.

“I Changed My Mind”

Getting to that place where you’ve given to someone and they’re not giving anything in return. And putting energy into a black hole and saying I’m going to give that energy back to myself. A lot of times when you meet someone you don’t really know how things are going to go and after awhile it becomes not a two-way street. It’s a lot about yourself. You have to be sure number one is okay or you have nothing to give. You have to be sure your dreams are met or you’ll have nothing to give away.

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purchase at Amazon: The Awakening

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