Lala Lala – the brainchild of Lillie West (London-born, L.A. raised, Chicago-based songwriter) – used to make music for distorted and frenetic early 20s focused on only two things: partying and forgetting. Then, as most everything in your early 20s has a tendency to do, things changed – Lillie became sober. She suffered the loss of close ones, the near-loss of close ones, and a home invasion, all which changed her at the core of who she was and forced her to redirect her energy to a different kind of honesty. A more focused kind of honesty, one that she deliberately and carefully chose rather than one she allowed to ooze out of her fuzzy 21-year-old self’s live sessions. But – as evidenced by the conversation below – Lillie West has refused to let her friendly or hopeful energy subside.
I spoke with Lillie before Lala Lala’s Dallas show at The Curtain Club, on their tour opening for Mothers. We discussed her newest (and my favorite of 2018) release, connections to her Chicago DIY roots, and an unsurprising amount about a shared favorite of ours – WHY?. You can hear the full conversation below, where we discuss shared favorites and the perils of climbing, or you can read an edited version where we discuss her previous and current releases in a deceivingly professional manner.
Dawood: I’m going to be referencing “DIY” a lot, which I know is, like, a buzzword that you might hate, you might not, but basically just in context of the concept of a community of aspiring musicians. As someone from conventionally and relatively recent DIY roots, what sort of energy do you bring from that time in your life to your work now?
Lillie: What I think is cool about DIY is that it’s people that so badly want to make art that they create their own space for it. So, I guess the thing I try to carry is… enthusiasm? I feel like it’s really easy, once it becomes your job, to be really jaded. I’m totally guilty of that, I get so negative all the time, but at the base, you’re doing it because you like making art. You like making music, and I think that’s a DIY ethos that I try to tap into when I get negative.
Something I’ve noticed, at least with a lot of my friends here in the Dallas DIY scene, is that they have a tendency to be in several different projects at once. Do you work with a lot of artists concurrently, or at once?
I’m not, and it sucks. I’m trying to collaborate with people again, but I’m on tour so much with this project, and when I’m home I kind of want to just chill. But [Yoni Wolf] and I made a song, I went to Cincinnati and stayed with him, and we made a song. That was really fun, and [Nnamdi Ogbonnaya and I] recently made a cover of “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer – I just, I’m trying to do it again because it’s easy to get into a business mindset with Lala Lala now, or I just feel pressure. That’s stupid, because it’s just me, it doesn’t exist, but I’m trying to collaborate with people again. There’s also, like – you get stale, you get stuck in the same way of writing a song.
Do you find working with other artists helps you sort of break whatever format you find yourself in with Lala Lala?
Yeah totally, like “Wow, I would never have thought to do that that way”.
Do you still pursue visual arts in any capacity?
No, I mean I try – I do crafts a lot now because I like it. I thought I was going to be like, a really serious oil painter, but now I just – I try and draw sometimes. I still like it a lot.
Is it more of just a passive interest now?
Yeah, it’s more fun too now. There’s that pressure, I was putting pressure on myself to be an oil painter, but now I’m just like “I would like to draw something, so I’m going to do it.”
DIY musicians are generally, relatively speaking, more accessible to their fans – especially with the rise of social media, you can be in contact more with your fans. How important do you think, not only being in contact with your fans, but being somebody who you feel like your fans can relate to is in a music or a band setting?
I think literally the only thing that matters is being yourself, because I think it’s really easy to see other musicians connecting to an audience “more successfully” than you and think that you should do that. I think specifically with social media, there is a language to it, and you can totally use that language, and you will be more appealing to more people but it’s not honest, and it sucks. I think it’s really actually disingenuous – just be your weird self. Don’t post a thing you think that people are going to think is cool unless you actually really like it.
How does the dynamic change for somebody who isn’t exactly as in touch with their audience on – I don’t want to say personal level, not necessarily going out and meeting everybody – but somebody who’s not constantly accessible to people who are listening to their music?
I think that you’re more able to make a play of it. Like, St. Vincent is who I thought of immediately. She’s so cool, and she’s totally inaccessible. She makes a play out of her albums and her live show, it’s all part of this thing and I feel like you’re more able to do that and keep up that kind of façade – not in a bad way, but like, keep up the illusion of an aesthetic or a concept if you’re not accessible.
Do you still feel connected to Sleepyhead? In what ways, if at all?
It’s hard, I usually say I don’t feel connected to it at all, but the more I think about it, it’s like – a lot of times after a certain amount of time, when a song is done, it seems like a coincidence or something. I’m like “How did that happen? I don’t know.” Even with The Lamb, there are concepts on it or things that have happened to me that I’m talking about that I remember, but I don’t necessarily have a connection to that emotion anymore. So, I guess I feel connected to [Sleepyhead] in that it’s like, honest. It’s just me. There’s a lot of it I don’t like, but it’s also sort of endearing because it’s myself so young, and I sort of feel for myself at that time. I really thought I had everything figured out, and that just couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Would you attend a Sleepyhead-era Lala Lala show now?
Oh yeah. I would watch through closed fingers but I would be interested. I was just floating around, and now I spend more time thinking about what I want the live show to be, or I feel like I know how it’s going to go. At that time it was like, a complete tossup.
What would you say to a younger Lillie now?
I don’t know, just “Chill the fuck out, it’s fine. Just stop being so loud and running around so much.” I don’t know, I think – you know what I would say? “Stop drinking, just stop drinking”. I wouldn’t have listened, I would’ve been like “Fuck you! I like it! I feel amazing all the time!”
You mentioned Nnamdi earlier, and that’s something I wanted to hone in on – you’re very vocal about your support for your fellow musicians, whether they’re close friends or just people whose music you enjoy. Are there any albums you’re looking forward to coming out in 2018, or that have already come out in 2018?
I was really excited to hear the Adrianne Lenker album today. You know what else? The new Amen Dunes, it was so good, there were so many sounds that I thought were really cool. I think Sen’s record came out in 2018. I’ve been Sen’s super fan, #1 fan for years, and I was so excited, and it is above and beyond my expectations.
Are there any up and coming Chicago bands that you think people should be keeping an eye out for? Are you still connected to that scene?
I don’t know, I don’t go to a ton of shows now because I’m at shows so much. KAINA – she is so fucking good, and she’s going to be so big. I think she’s going to blow the heck up.
I mentioned a little bit earlier – [The Lamb] is sort of surrounded by change, or a new slate kind of thing, both internally and externally. You signed to a major label, you’re now sober, and you’ve got kind of a new sound. How has that change impacted Lala – your writing process now, and moving forward?
I just think that it’s more intentional now. There’s something that I want, and there’s something that I want Lala to be, and I don’t know exactly what it is but I’m getting closer. I’m getting closer on purpose.
Has there been any difference in the production process for this record vs. older releases?
Sleepyhead is basically live, and all of the guitar stuff on The Lamb is just me doing overdubs, with half of it just improvised in the studio we mixed it at in Chicago.
Are you involved in every step of that process?
Yes. Yeah, I’m controlling. We did live-tracking for that album in this house in rural Illinois, it only took a couple days and then I was like “Okay – you guys go now.” We just did bass drums and rhythm guitar, then we spent awhile doing overdubs.
There’s a theme of water in The Lamb. Can you talk a little bit about that, in regards to your writing process? It’s in “Water Over Sex”, it’s in the music video “Destroyer”, you mention it in I think the last track “See You at Home”. Is that more just evocative of a cleansing kind of thing?
It’s actually not, I think it’s sort of more incidental. I don’t know, water’s just really easy to project onto. It just comes up a lot, and it’s appealing. That’s not a super intentional recurring image. I feel like a lot of things have been mentioning water recently, I’ve noticed. I mean, maybe it’s just forever.
You mentioned that whenever you came to the States, you became a “voracious consumer” of media, where you felt like you constantly had to be doing things, like listening to a podcast while reading or something. Do you still find yourself trying to play catchup in that sense?
I go through phases sometimes with music, but it’s very different. At that time, I literally was like “Oh my god, I haven’t heard of anything that anyone has.” My dad told me that I was like “Everyone at school is talking about Star Wars and I don’t know what it is!” I don’t really do that anymore, though I definitely still have some kind of, like, guilt-productivity thing that I get into, but I’m way better at chilling out now. I like, totally relax. Not constantly, I’m just like “Okay, now I’m going to chill and it’s fine.” But it’s also – you know what? It’s actually secretly part of my weird productivity. I’m like “Chilling is productive if it makes you feel better, so then you can do something else!”
What do you use to ground yourself, especially on tour, if you’re feeling particularly stressed?
I plank. Straight-up plank, jumping jacks – that really is helpful for stress. I’ve been playing flute in the car. I just try and have little things to do that are fun all the time, I just don’t want to look at my phone all the time.
What’s one thing you would want to tell people about the record that isn’t immediately obvious – either about the album, about the experiences throughout the album, through the album – anything like that? What’s one thing you’d want to tell people that you think maybe they don’t know?
Nothing, I want them to figure it out. I just feel like it takes away from it! There’s a lot of lyrics on The Lamb that are like puzzles, on purpose, and the more I say the less interesting it is.
That’s like, my favorite thing about listening to music. I will pull up the Genius annotations, I – I’ve been doing this with The Lamb the past week, I promise you, I know those lyrics back-to-back. I was like “Okay so, it says right here – it mentioned that earlier in the album, that MAY be a reference to…” and that’s what I also do with WHY?!
I write that because of WHY?, because I love when WHY? references other songs or other things.
You’re pretty outspoken with regards to The Lamb now, and particularly looking at Sleepyhead in a retrospective, about anxiety and different things you have to deal with in terms of mental illness. In music, as either a community or as an industry, how do you feel, in recent memory, that music as a whole has shifted to sort of accommodate that growing need to talk about mental health, or anxiety, or anything like that, if at all?
Right now, I just feel like the vibe is so bad in America. Like, the Kavanaugh stuff is just really… so depressing. It’s really depressing and horrible, and I feel like the vibe right now in music is just like “Just keep going, just keep making art. Just be friends.”
Right, and that’s a particular sentiment I see from mostly artists that I follow on Twitter or Instagram or something like that. They’re the ones that are pushing that idea of persistence.
Yeah… yeah. Just keep doing it. I go back and forth between thinking, like, “Everything is hopeless”, or “There’s something I can do!” I try to find a medium, I just feel like art right now is just like “We HAVE to keep making art”, because it’ll get worse if we stop.
That’s sort of a light at the end of the tunnel, thinking of the idea that music as a community is banding together, a sort of like “I’m holding your hand” kind of thing.
Yeah, I mean hopefully there will always be that, unless it gets even worse and no one can survive. I don’t know – you know, music is great. I love it, I hope we can keep going.
The full conversation can be heard at the link above.