by Michael McCarthy
If St. Vincent ditched the electronics and simply made her music with live instruments, she would probably sound a lot like Lily Virginia, who’s an equally talented singer/songwriter/guitarist. Other artists Lily reminds me of are Ben Folds – she’s like a female Ben, just using guitar instead of piano – and Rilo Kiley, as she possesses Jenny Lewis’ knack for clever, tongue-in-cheek lyrics and often has a similar guitar tone. In any case, I am head over heels in love with Lily’s new album, Play Me Twice, which was fan funded via Kickstarter. As she explains below, Play Me Twice is an audio/visual album, something she decided to do because she likes to make strong connections with her fans. To that end, her Kickstarter campaign was very interactive as well. If that’s not enough, you can also text her at 1-917-746-0723. That’s no joke. “Looking forward to hearing from you,” she says on her Soundcloud page. So, interact with this interview; listen to Lily’s spell-binding music while you read it. Then send her a text and tell her Love is Pop sent you.
MM: To start at the beginning, where were you born?
LV: I was born in Boston, Massachusetts.
MM: Oh, cool. I’m from Massachusetts.
LV: Then we moved a bunch when I was a kid. We lived in Nicaragua for a year when I was five. Then we settled in the bay area in California. I was pretty much raised there.
MM: Is that where you still reside?
LV: Oh, no, I live in Brooklyn now. Where do you live in Massachusetts?
MM: I’m from a town called Dracut, which is next to Lowell. About forty five minutes from Boston. How old were you when people first started telling you that you could sing. Like, really, seriously, sing?
LV: Hmm, you know, I feel like as a singer I really grew a lot. I mean, I could always carry a tune. I was in choir in middle school and that sort of thing. Nobody was like, oh my God, Lily, you’re a singer. It was just something I kept doing because I loved songwriting and I loved singing. Nobody was pushing me to be a singer, that is for sure.
MM: Nobody ever made you take vocal lessons then?
LV: No, no, I did that later. On my own accord.
MM: How long did you take lessons for?
LV: I’ve been actually taking lessons for the past four years. I worked with a typical classical singing coach for that three years and that was OK. Then about a year ago in like three lessons with a new teacher I learned more than I did in three years. He’s been a really amazing vocal guru that I’ve been working with for the past year.
MM: Did you sing any karaoke over the years?
LV: No, actually, I really don’t like karaoke. It’s fun when other people do it but I guess I get kind of self-conscious. So… [Laughs] How about you?
MM: I actually did it all the time when I lived in California for a few years.
LV: Oh, cool. Where were you in California?
MM: I was in Glendale, just outside L.A. I’d like to move back there at some point.
LV: The weather’s pretty good.
MM: Is Virginia really your last name?
LV: It’s really my middle name. My grandmother’s name was Virginia. So, I was named after her. I tried to find some other band names because I wanted to be cool, but I am a singer/songwriter so it just worked.
MM: Do you play any instruments?
LV: So, I play guitar. And I’ve been playing guitar for well over a decade now. Since I was in high school. So, yeah, I’ve been playing about half my life.
MM: Did you ever take lessons?
LV: Basically how I got into guitar was through songwriting. One day when I was in high school I came back in my kitchen, hanging out with some friends, and this song came to me. I still don’t know where it came from, but it came to me, full form. I sang it. I wrote it down. It was like bridge verse chorus bridge or verse chorus verse chorus and from then on I was really obsessed with oh my God, I can write a song? I want to do more of this. And I wanted to accompany myself. I started taking lessons shortly thereafter. My parents were nice enough to give me guitar lessons. And then I was hooked on guitar. I took like blues a lot and kind of country guitar when I first started but then once I got to college I actually did take some classical finger picking styles and flamenco, that was that teacher’s specialty. And then I studied abroad in Argentina and Brazil so I studied the folk guitar style in those two countries. That’s pretty much it. But it’s been a long time since I’ve taken lessons. I’m actually gonna start taking guitar lessons again soon because I just wanna – it’s still fun. I’m hoping to learn some new stuff.
MM: Cool, cool. It sounds like you can play just about anything.
LV: [Laughs] I can get by.
MM: Do you remember the title of that song that just came to you?
LV: You know, I’m not sure I really gave it a title, but I still remember the melody. It was the workings of a liberal teenage girl.
MM: Do you produce your own music?
LV: I do not. I work with my drummer. He’s also kind of my musical director of the band and he’s also an engineer and producer. So, we’ve worked creatively together for the past five years. He recorded and mixed the first EP and he just did the same for this last record. I worked four years in music for film so I do have some audio production skills and I enjoy the technical side of things, but when it comes to the real art of mixing that’s not for me.
MM: What’s your drummer’s name?
LV: His name is Alessio Romano. He’s from Italy. He went to Berklee College of Music and all the musicians I play with are from Berklee College of Music, which is just wonderful to play with such marvelous musicians.
MM: So, did you meet them all in Boston?
LV: No, actually, I met them in New York where a lot of them go after they graduate. I didn’t mention but I was raised in Berkeley, California. So, I didn’t go to Berklee, I’m from Berkeley, just spelled differently. [Both laugh] Through just kind of random circumstances, the guitarist from Berklee became my roomate and then he introduced me to this whole amazing network of Berklee musicians. A lot of international musicians from Berklee have this really great community together. So, I was able to meet a lot of those folks.
MM: How does the writing process usually work for you? Do you start with a guitar part or lyric – how does the magic happen?
LV: That’s a good question. I’d say ever since I’ve been writing I’ve had two different approaches. Mainly it has been coming up with a guitar part or a melody just sometimes comes into my head and then I take it to the guitar and start working on it. The third thing that happens is like I might have a concept or a turn of phrase – the lyrics or what I want to say occurs to me and I’ll be like, oh, I really want to write about this and I’ll take it to the guitar and with that in mind all three things come together. The melody and the guitar come together and I’ll flesh it out over the next few weeks sometimes or few months. It just really depends on the song and what it needs.
MM: Do you do any programming or drum machine beats when you’re working on songs?
LV: In my work producing when I was working on music for films I would do some electronic stuff. I think really that whenever I use a pre-made beat it’s usually just to kind of get me going. I’m a really huge proponent of real instruments. Nothing against electronic music. I think there’s a lot of great stuff being put out in that realm. But for this past record we just released, along with my EP, it was so much about having a vulnerable and an authentic feel to it. So, yeah, I usually stay away from beats, but, who knows? My next writing process I might be writing on top of beats and bringing it to a live band.
MM: Yeah, go where the inspiration takes you.
LV: Yeah, totally.
MM: I almost hear a jazz influence in your music, especially on “TV Screens and Videos.” Are you influenced at all by jazz?
LV: I am not personally, but because I play with all the Berklee guys, those are all jazz heads, you know? I might direct them if something feels too jazzy, but, definitely, the jazz is there. What is amazing about jazz is that it’s about a lot of freedom and there’s a lot of improvisation that comes with people that study jazz. So, you definitely hear that on that weird trumpet saxophone solo in the middle, but overall the beat for that song is really influenced by my time in South America and the music I grew up listening to as a kid was actually world music based singer/songwriter stuff. So, I kind of took that whole concept and back rhythm to the band and then we put it together and that’s what we came out with.
MM: Who are some of your favorite world music artists?
LV: Well, let’s see, I know we listened to a lot of Latin music, especially with my background living abroad… Oh my God, I’m totally blanking. I’ll start with Cesaria Evora from Cape Verde – she was in our house. The Buena Vista Social Club, we listened to them a lot. And my mom has these old CDs from when she had gone to African dance classes, so there’s definitely that Olatunji Drums of Passion and, actually, what also helped me get started in music was when I was a teenager I started a Brazilian martial arts called Capoeira. I ended up doing it for seven years. But within the first couple years of doing it I started writing music. A lot of those rhythms – the influence of the drums, percussion and kind of like polyrhythms has always kind of been something that I’m attracted to.
MM: I really like the spoken word style of “Single in Brooklyn.” It almost sounds like something one would read at an open mic night. So, I was wondering if it started off as something like that?
LV: No. But I’m glad you asked about that song because that was a very specific song that I wrote. I’d been listening to this artist from Australia called Courtney Barnett and she puts a lot of words into what she’s saying. It’s definitely about what she’s saying, but [there is] also a sense of urgency that she has to say all of those words. So, I think I was moved by that kind of feeling of, aah, I’ve just gotta get this out. So, I wanted to express that feeling of this character that I was taking on for this song. And then also I had just gone through a little break up and I was trying to process everything from that. It wasn’t like a terrible break up, but I wanted to get it out. So, it took the form of this story of this person that’s disillusioned in love, but ultimately I sing it a little tongue in cheek because it’s like when you’re saying I can’t be alone anymore you’re really realizing that’s a terrible way to feel about the world. It’s a terrible way to approach wanting to be in a relationship, by just saying I can’t be alone. But at the same time it had a lot of empathy for the character that was singing the song. It was like singing both sides of the story.
MM: You do a cover of a song called “Te Extrano” by a Latin boy band called XTREME and I read that they’re a style called bachata. What could you tell us about that style?
LV: Well, it’s a pretty popular style. Especially here in New York. They’re a Latin boy band but they’re from the Bronx originally. I think bachata is from the D.R. [Dominican Republic] especially. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know if I’m right. Yeah, D.R, Puerto Rico, it’s definitely prevelant there and [I came to know it] basically through my travels, and also my sister, who’s a bit younger than I am but she travels a lot, too. She specializes in Latin dancing and that was a song that we both really liked, even if it was a little cheesy. A few years ago I had just come up with that guitar part and I was just trying any song I could [think of] over the guitar part. I was like, that was really cool, what could fit with this? I tried a Patsy Cline song over it. And then this song came on because my sister and I were hanging out. We were visiting my Dad, who was in Central America and I was like, oh, let me try that. And it worked out really well. So, I covered it.
MM: So, you kind of modified it to go with what you were already doing?
LV: Yeah. Not entirely, it was just that the way the melody went in the original song fit perfectly on the chords that I was playing, but it had a different vibe to it in the chords.
MM: Your song “Deep Dreaming” is about dreaming about being a mermaid if I understand correctly. Is that true?
MM: Is that something you’ve dreamed about since you were a child?
LV: No. The backstory behind that is my best friend from high school – one of my best friends – is a young adult fiction writer and she just finished an amazing book about an eighteen year old girl who realizes that she’s secretly a mermaid. At the same time I was in a songwriting club and the topic for that week was Deep Dream, which is this Google ap where you upload a photo and it’ll really make it weird. And all factors came together. I was working with a vocal pedal and found like a weird sound that had a lot of harmonies to it and had that lyric deep dreaming in my head. And I had just finished my friend’s book, which I was obsessed with. It all happened all at once so it was a fun song to write. I actually try not to repeat any words in songs that I write but that one I think I say deep dreaming about fifty times.
MM: What’s your friend’s name and the name of her book? I’m about to start self-publishing a bunch of young adult books that I’ve written.
LV: You know, she hasn’t been able to get it published yet. So, that was also part of it. I was like, this is the song that’s gonna be in the movie made from your book. I think she’s going by Jonna Carter Fonda, which is her husband’s last name with her pen name.
MM: Is that you playing the ukulele on “Ukulele Song”?
LV: It is. That song was just like a silly little ditty that I wrote. And we just recorded it. No editing. We did three takes and chose the best one. And it’s kind of creepy if you listen to it closely.
MM: Your voice can go very high and ethereal. Is that all natural or is any of that falsetto?
LV: Yeah, it’s just natural. I’m definitely a soprano but all the singers that I loved growing up, Ella Fitzgerald and blues singers, they all sang a lot lower so I trained to go a lot lower, too. I just wanted to have a warm kind of feeling to my voice. But when it comes to it I can sign pretty high up there.
MM: Your bio mentions a desire for the freedom of the road. I know you’ve done a lot of traveling, but have you done any touring as a musician yet?
LV: Yeah. You know, we just came off of our album release tour, which is my first kind of big tour with the band. We went all over the North East and played in areas around D.C. and played Boston and Philly and we had two great shows in New York. That was really fun and I’m looking to do a lot more touring in the new year, hopefully, maybe even get a European tour in there. So, we’ve gotta see how it works out.
MM: Are you looking to headline or are you looking for an opening opportunity with somebody who’s a bit more popular?
LV: You know, both things are great. At this point in my career it’s really great to be opening for bigger bands. I get to connect with them. I listen to their music. They inspire me. And also for their fans to become my fans. At the end of the day, you know, whether it’s a big show or whether it’s a small show I want to be in a room playing for people who want to hear my music. That’s really all that matters to me. We play these intimate shows in a living room basically and they’re just awesome. People are there because they want to hear your music and that’s the best feeling.
MM: I understand you did a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding for Play Me Twice. Was the campaign successful and what were some of the cool options that you gave people who pledged?
LV: That campaign was successful. I raised ten thousand dollars. Of course, we ended up with about eight thousand to cover the bare minimum cost and I’ve put a lot of money into it since. It was a great jumping off point and to know that 165 people are rooting for you to make this album is priceless. In terms of the prizes themselves I really like to focus on interaction in the way that I play for people and also in the way that I communicate with people online. So, there was a game-like quality to the Kickstarter campaign. And, basically, it was called Sing to Everything and whoever was a Kickstarter backer could then vote on what thing I would sing to next. There were a series about five videos of me surprise serenading these different things that the Kickstarter backers had voted on. It was fun. I think it got people engaged and excited. It was a nice concept. One of my favorite prizes was to be in the next video. I have some friends who have some young kids and I was teaching one of them to play ukulele – he was about three at the time – and so the dad chose that option. So, me and this young kid whose name is Freedom went to a fire station and we did a video of us playing for the fire station. So, that was a lot of fun.
MM: Do you do any covers live aside from the Spanish song to help stretch out your set? Or do you have enough original material?
LV: We play a pretty solid 45 minute set of originals, including “Te Extrano,” but I definitely do some covers solo. I’ve done some really nice Patsy Cline covers. She’s always been a hero of mine. And like a Lana Del Rey cover just because. [There are] some other things in there. But I am looking to – not to stretch out my set – but I want to start being inspired by different kinds of music for the next record. So, I’m looking forward to like learning some funk covers and then kind of seeing how I can fuse that into my own style.
MM: Which Patsy Cline song did you cover?
LV: [Laughs] “Stronger Than Me.” [It] was always my favorite song by Patsy Cline.
MM: What song do you do by Lana?
LV: I do “West Coast” by her. We put some different guitar styles on that one.
MM: On Soundcloud you list your phone number and seem to be encouraging people to text you. How often do random people text you and why do you encourage that?
LV: Well, in line with the Kickstarter campaign I was just curious how we can kind of bring that sense of connection that we feel at a live show. In some ways, obviously not a hundred percent, but some kernel of that into our online interactions and our digital interactions. So, yeah, I have a music phone, shall we say, and I’ve got maybe a hundred people in there that I communicate with. People don’t text me that often about it. But I like having it out there so people know – even if they don’t end up liking the songs – that if they wanted to they could get in touch with me. Yeah, I like that feeling.
MM: Do you have many other original songs written that didn’t make Play Me Twice?
LV: I have a couple. I think at least in these songwriting classes you kind of write a song and when you know it’s a song you want to go for then you finish it. So, I’ve definitely written probably a couple hundred songs in my life, but most of them are bad. So, I really just stuck with the ones that fit the sound of this album. Now for the next album – and I’m always saying next – but I haven’t written anything for it – I was just focusing on releasing this one album. But I always like to do writing so I’m looking for ways to stay inspired.
MM: Do you generally prefer writing songs and the studio or performing live?
LV: I love performing and I don’t think that the written process would be as exciting if I didn’t know I was gonna perform the songs. But for me the magic is really in the writing process. Just in that creative exploration, it is like heaven for me.
MM: What formats is Play Me Twice available in?
LV: It’s an audio/visual album which is just an interesting way of me, again, trying to create little extra avenues of interaction. So, in terms of the strict album itself the audio comes as a CD but people can buy it or they can download it or stream it on Soundcloud or Spotify. But there’s also a whole video component where basically we shot almost all the songs that were recorded. We videotaped it while we were recording it. So, it has that really intimate feel of being in the studio while we’re recording the album. And those all play on my website. And then there’s also a Podcast, which we’re still recording which is kind of like a dialogue with the album itself, but basically people can text me, E-mail me or send me a question on social media about one of the songs we haven’t recorded an episode about yet and we’re incorporating fan questions, answering them on the podcast episodes. Interviewing other friends as well. So, yeah, all three formats.
MM: What physical formats is the album available on?
LV: It’s available on CD. So far, I’m just selling CDs on purpose. I would love to make vinyl one day but my bank account says no to me. So… [Laughs] My heart says yes but my bank says no. So, maybe one day. It would definitely be my dream to make a vinyl out of this record. That’s how I like to listen to music personally.
MM: So, you’re a big vinyl fan?
LV: Yeah, I love vinyl.
MM: What do you think about this whole vinyl resurgence?
LV: I think it’s great. For me, the accessibility of Spotify and all these streaming services is great, but it feels more – at least for me – like a research tool. I like having that option but when I really want to connect with music I love the fact that I can put on a vinyl and I can’t just click next, next song. Sure, I could move the needle, but there aren’t infinte options which actually dilute the fact that you’re actually listening to anything.
MM: What is the first album you ever bought with your own money?
LV: Oh, God, it’s so embarrassing. Alanis Morisette, Jagged Little Pill. [Laughs]
MM: I don’t think that one’s super embarassing.
LV: Oh, man…[Laughs]
MM: Was it on CD or a download?
LV: It was on CD. I think it was twelve dollars. I think I remember that.
MM: Name three things off of your bucket list that you have yet to do?
LV: Hmm. That’s tough. I feel like I’ve done a lot of great things. And not just in a like I’ve done great things with my life [way]. But I feel like, so far, I’ve really enjoyed my life. There’s definitely countries I’ve never been to that I’d love to tour. I’d love to go to Japan. I’d love to go to Morocco and Tunisia. I’ve never been to Africa, so I’d like to check out the western coast of Africa. But definitely travel. That was something I’ve always wanted to do. Bucket list number two? Just spending time in nature. I never really get to do that. So, maybe going on a longer backpacking trip would be really great. And then bucket list number three? I’m trying to work towards it, but I really want to be an international touring artist. In some way shape or form, I’m hoping that’s what lies for me in my future.
MM: What is your biggest pet peeve?
LV: [Laughs] I hate mismatched socks. I hate wearing mismatched socks. I’m not someone you would describe as OCD, but if two socks, even if they are the same feel, have different colors on them or they’re the same color and they have a different feel I’ll be really irritated all day. [Laughs]
MM: Do you have any pets?
LV: My partner has a dog. So, yeah.
MM: What’s the dog’s name?
LV: Her name’s Bird. Like a little birdy, like a little bird.
MM: Is she a small dog?
LV: Yeah, she’s about ten pounds. Very sweet. She’s like kind of like a cat in a way. Very cuddley. She’s a rescue, so we’re not exactly sure but she’s definitely part terrier and possibly part maltese. And like anything else you feel like saying she is depending on the day. How about you?
MM: Yeah, I have a cat named Mister White.
LV: Oh, I like that. I’m definitely a cat person.
MM: He’s the main reason I don’t move back to California yet. He has an immune system disorder that costs me 400 dollars on a good month. And now he’s developed diabetes.
LV: Oh, poor guy.
MM: But he seems healthy and he’s happy. And I also have a turtle named Johnny Rocket.
LV: How big is he?
MM: He’s pretty big. He’s definitely bigger than the size of my hand. He’s got huge claws. He’s a male red-eared slider and they get long claws. But if I tell him to stop clawing me he usually stops.
LV: OK, cool. As the common saying goes, don’t claw the hand that feeds you.
MM: This is like a Twilight Zone or Black Mirror type question, but if someone came along and offered you a million dollars cash but you had to stop pursuing a music career would you be tempted to take them up on the offer?
LV: Oh, no. No way, Jose. I spent a lot of time in my twenties sort of hiding from the fact that I was an artist and not pursuing my music fully and I was miserable. This is who I am and this is what I need to do.
MM: Name three artists from your parents’ record collection who you actually like?
LV: The Eagles, my Dad really like The Eagles. Let’s see. Ella Fitzgerald. We all liked that. And maybe let’s go with Celia Cruz.
MM: Who’s the last one?
LV: She’s a Cuban singer. She’s awesome.
MM: How many times a day would you say you typically text?
LV: I have no idea. [Laughs] I have no idea.
MM: Too many times to count?
LV: Too many times to count. I’m texting all day long. Usually I’m on the go so, especially in New York, people are so busy so they’ll text to make plans and all that sort of stuff.
MM: Last question. Name five of your favorite books, movies, albums or TV shows?
LV: OK, well, there’s a lot. So, let’s see. I’ll try to do one at a time. Movie? The first thing that comes to mind is The Princess Bride. I’m not sure that’s my number one but it is one. Books? I love so many books, oh my God. Murakmi, he’s a Japanese author who just came to mind. I’ve read so many books. How do I start? Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna was something I really loved. I read that a couple years ago. Albums? Also, too many to name. One huge influence on me was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. That came out when I was in high school. It was really inspiring. I’ve also had Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings on the brain recently with her recent passing. She was a light for me. And another big album for me was Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago. As it was for a lot of people.
MM: Any favorite TV shows?
LV: TV shows? Yes. Twin Peaks all the way.
MM: Oh, that’s my favorite, too.
LV: It’s so good. I can’t wait for it to come out again.
MM: That’s what I was just about to say. It should be good. David Lynch directed every episode.
LV: Oh, good.
Much thanks to Lily for taking the time to do this in-depth interview and to Sara Buck for introducing us to her music.