Even if you’ve never heard a Lili K. song yet, you might already know that voice: she’s stolen the spotlight on tracks by Vic Mensa (“Hollywood LA”), Chance The Rapper (“Hey Ma”), and Klassik (“This is That New”). Lili boasts some serious jazz chops and a genre-hopping songwriting that mingles retro soul and contemporary R&B into a heady brew.
2015 has been an exciting year for her, from releasing her first full-length album, Ruby, to being selected by Jay Z’s TIDAL streaming service as their very first Rising Artist. In between East Coast shows and gearing up for an appearance at the NYC CMJ Showcase, Lili was kind enough to take a few questions from The Couch Sessions.
Your adopted hometown of Chicago is famous for its blues, jazz, and soul. In your own music, what do you see yourself bringing to those traditions?
Growing up, I was raised on Soul, Motown, Gospel, and Spirituals. Those genres were always played around our house and are my earliest memories of music. Jazz was introduced to me when I was about 12, and it totally changed my life. It’s vocalists like Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Gladys Knight (to name a few) who really inspired me to sing, and I respect their artistry and those genres so much. I genuinely love making music, and I hope that love and energy is conveyed to the listener. It makes me happy to see young people resonating with my music, because jazz and soul music isn’t as prevalent in the younger generation. I hope to be one of the artists that keeps those genres alive.
Share with us your earliest musical memory.
Singing with my grade school music teacher is probably my most vivid childhood musical memory. He heard me sing and kind of adopted me as his own from that point on. I had numerous solos at school concerts and such, and I was the soloist at my 5th grade graduation ceremony. We sang the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”
Ella Fitzgerald seems to be a prominent influence in your vocals. Coming from a jazz background as you do, has instrumental jazz also played part in your style? If so, how? Who has really impacted you?
Ella Fitzgerald is the QUEEN! Her phrasing and personality are so unique and I’m still in awe listening to her. But yes, instrumental jazz has also been a huge influence of mine. When I first started learning how to scat, I studied Coltrane and Ella – I transcribed their solos to truly understand them. Grover Washington Jr. is another huge influence of mine – some of his songs are my favorites of all time.
You also remind me—and I hope you’ll hear this as a compliment—somewhat of Amy Winehouse: an artist who can seamlessly blend modern hip-hop influences with classic jazz and soul. Do you see her as a kindred spirit at all? Any lessons or takeaways from her life or career?
Umm… biggest compliment ever! When I first discovered Amy, I was obsessed. I listened to her every day and felt like she was making the music I wanted to make. I was about 14 when I first heard her, and it was life-changing. I cried the whole day when i found out she had passed. I’ll always be inspired by her artistry, and her songwriting has pushed me to be more vulnerable with my own writing. Her pain was so obvious, which is heartbreaking, but it made her music so powerful. I’m still pushing myself to get more honest in my writing, which I’ve been doing with newer material.
Name your favorite jazz standard of all time and why.
“My Funny Valentine.” I feel SO good when I sing it, and I really can’t explain why. I feel like I’m at home in my favorite sweats laying on the couch when I sing it, no matter where I am. And it’s so beautifully written.
How do you approach performing live as opposed to studio?
Performing live is my absolute favorite thing to do, it’s pure joy and fun. We don’t go into it expecting or trying to put on a perfect show, we go into it aiming make the audience have fun and feel good. I used to strive for perfection when recording, but I’ve started to appreciate the little flaws or mistakes, and I’ve chosen to keep them instead of re-recording. Both experiences are constant learning opportunities, and I’m hoping to keep getting better at both!
Tell me about your backing band. How’d you find them?
Oh man, I’m lucky to have these guys. They’re so fricken good! I’ve known my guitar player Cullen Bogan since high school, and he joined the band about 2 years ago when we started recording Ruby. I’ve known my drummer Myron Cherry and my bass player Matthew Skillz for about 5 years – both were musicians I met in Chicago, and I had gigged with them for a while. Asking them to join the band just felt natural. Phil Patterson is our newest addition on keys, and I’ve only known him for a few months, but he’s know our guitar player for years. He’s phenomenal! He brings a new energy and flavor to our writing and performance.
How has working with hip-hop artists like Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa influenced what you do? Is it simply a mutual appreciation or is there something more to
collaborations like those? What do they bring out of you?
It’s cool to work with hip-hop artists, because it’s a genre that I love, but not one that I would aspire to do on my own. Yes, the collaborations came about through a mutual respect – just knowing about each other through the scene. Those collaborations give me an opportunity to be involved in a whole different world of music.
Tell me about one of the best shows you’ve ever had. What made it so special?
Energy-wise, (TIDAL’s) Made In America 2015. My band and I were SOOO excited to play, and we had so much fun on stage. There was another show we did a few years back in Chicago, and I was the only woman and non-rapper on the bill. There was a weird vibe and I felt like I had to prove myself, so we went crazy. By the end of our set, I was dripping in sweat and the whole room was going wild. It was awesome!
What was the most important thing you learned in creating and releasing your debut LP, Ruby, earlier this year?
I learned that I can do things my way. I don’t have to compromise my art because it’s not mainstream, I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not – I can just be me. I created a jazz & soul album, and it’s gotten me on amazing festivals, fantastic press, and wonderful new fans. I’m so happy and so grateful.
The interlude tracks on Ruby find you invoking your mother’s wisdom. Does her influence pop up on other tunes on the album as well? If so, which ones?
Probably every song. She’s the person who taught me what love was, the person who implemented my moral foundation… so a lot of who I am is because of her.
If you could work with any producer out there right now, who would it be?
I would LOVE to work with Salaam Remi, I would love to work with Robert Glasper, I would love to work with Thundercat.
You certainly seem to have gotten a nice (and well-deserved) boost from Jay Z and TIDAL. What do you see them uniquely offering to musicians, especially emerging ones like yourself?
TIDAL offers an even playing field for up and coming artists – they don’t bury us underneath all the mainstream releases. That’s so rare and so awesome. For example, when my mini-doc came out, they had me on the homepage of TIDAL.com for 2 days – that was pretty rad.
A lot has been made of different models of music distribution. iTunes seems on its way out; streaming is in. What’s your take on how things are changing? And in your opinion, what’s the best way right now for independent artists to thrive?
It’s such a tricky time right now for artists – because streaming doesn’t really generate revenue. It forces artists to put more focus on live shows, merchandise, etc. which are all important, but I do think it’s sad that paying for music isn’t the norm anymore. I still buy albums, because I personally know of the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making an album. But a lot of people don’t. I think the best way to thrive is probably touring, but it’s hard to launch a tour when you’re indie… it’s just so tricky! Keep working hard, and you’ll figure it out. That’s my current plan, haha.
Who are you listening to right now?
This week has been mainly D’Angelo, Esperanza Spalding, Corinne Bailey Rae, and as always, Ella Fitzgerald.
What’s next on the horizon for you? New projects in the works?
Yes! We are writing new music and I’m stoked about it. So far, the new music we’ve written has a heavier jazz influence do it, but we’re maintaining feel-good grooves as well. We are far from done with Ruby, and have more visuals coming – so stay tuned! I’ve also done a few new collaborations with some amazing artists that I’m excited for the world to hear, and they’re pretty broad across the genre spectrum, so you’ll be hearing some more variety from me.