Taking the Hit: Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Lily Talmers explores big questions through small details on her excellent album debut
When Lily Talmers sings "Is there anybody listening to me? / From the middle of America you scream out to the ocean, it gets lost" it's not just a plea by a 23-year-old Ann Arbor singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist who wants to be heard.
"Middle of America" also addresses a potential lie to "people at the border," a father's decimated pension fund, and a lost Lady Liberty.
The song is neither didactic nor overly sentimental, though it is pointed and nostalgic. It's both specific in its details and nebulous in its meaning, a feeling that runs throughout Talmers' debut album, Remember Me as Holy, one of the finest debut singer-songwriter albums I've heard since Phoebe Bridgers' Stranger in the Alps.
Talmers' songs may evoke those of Bridgers at times in that they are mostly quiet and always literate—the latter is not a surprise since the Birmingham native is a recent University of Michigan grad with a degree in comparative literature and minors in philosophy and Portuguese. But there's a stronger twang in Talmers' tunes, rooted more in Americana and '60s folk than indie-rock.
"Probably my two biggest contemporary influences are Madison Cunningham and Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief. Those two really are innovators, as guitarists, vocalists, and visionaries," Talmers said in an email conversation, while also mentioning Gillian Welch, Regina Spektor, and Anais Mitchell. "[Cunningham and Lenker] stretch my notions of what is possible to do within a song. It was an enormous gift that Madison's producer, Tyler Chester, played piano and organ on the first track on the record."
That song, "Maybe It's Madness," features some Leonard Cohen-like phrasing in the verses when there aren't always true rhymes and the lyrics sometimes overflow the musical measure.
But unlike Cohen—who for all his skills as a songwriter was not a great singer, just a distinctive one—Talmers' expressive voice soars through melodies with controlled confidence, never resorting to melodrama. In that respect, Talmers is closer to the Joni Mitchell school of singing—with hints of Brandi Carlile—where she can use her strong voice as an instrument, not just as a delivery device for poetic lyrics, though her's are that, too.
"Joni is someone I find new reasons to admire each day," Talmers said. "Lately I've been really inspired by the musical expansiveness of her career, her willingness to change and aspire toward anything that she found compelling. I think that attitude is clear in her melodies alone—there's really no place she's unwilling to go. I'm also a huge fan of Judee Sill, mostly for our mutual obsession with all things Biblical."
Religious imagery pops up on Remember Me as Holy, but this is not Hillsong music; the references are used to explore common situations and philosophical questions. "No Woman" features a stanza about talking to God during a time of despair and references Galilee, the place where the Bible says Jesus performed many miracles. "The Push and the Pull of It" recalls an argument about Jesus. "Middle of America" has mentions of The Ark and "kingdom come." And there's the tongue-in-cheek album title, which Talmers said is "ridiculous given that the entire project is me just spilling my guts and making semi-embarrassing admissions of myself.
"I'm definitely compelled by Biblical narrative, and it does bleed into my writing in ways that often surprise and even inspire me," she said. "It makes me glad when people catch it. ... I do take religious tradition and faith very seriously, but by this I mean specifically that the questions they prompt me to ask make up some of the central tensions of my life. If I were to distill the influence of my religious leanings in my writing, I would say that faith gives me really high hopes in people, and this leads to a lot of disappointment and sorrow. But these are waves I'm happy to ride because it means a lot of hope ends up in coloring the songs, despite all the sorrow.
"I'm Greek Orthodox and was brought up going to church, but I wouldn't peg my upbringing as particularly religious."
That Greek Orthodox influence extends to Talmers' other musical endeavors. She plays baglama—"a tiny three-stringed bouzouki, and is used in a type of urban folk music called rembetika," Talmers said— in the local Greek music trio Aivali.
Her exploration of a variety of string instruments started as a kid.
"My very first stringed instrument was the cello, which naturally made me kind of obsessed with resonance in its many forms," said Talmers, who also plays piano. "I play guitar and banjo as well, which both have really compelling sounds and feels to them. So I guess my approach to most instrumental stuff is not wanting to claim dominion over a particular instrument as much as it is loving to explore the capabilities of feeling sound."
It's Talmers' acoustic guitar playing that dominates the sound of Remember Me as Holy, which was recorded by bassist, sound engineer, and co-producer Geoff Brown along with several friends, including co-producer Ian Eylanbekov. He's credited with playing electric guitar, nylon string guitar, acoustic guitar, synthesizer, organ, tuba, drums, and bass on the album.
"We made the record in Geoff's basement at his house in Ypsilanti, where most members of Ian's band Sabbatical Bob live," Talmers said. "Everyone in the house ended up contributing in some way—playing on the record, giving feedback on the production, and just helping me gain perspective on being a musician. It was amazing to be around so many people who engage with questions of what it means to be a musician so relentlessly. I began to take myself much more seriously through the whole process, and it was all about having people there who were willing to engage with my writing deeply and respectfully. I'm really grateful to all of them."
Talmers had been releasing singles and EPs pretty steadily over the past two years, but she was having trouble writing songs when the pandemic hit and that dry spell "lasted close to 8 months, [which] was one indicator that it was time to buckle down and record [the album]," she said. "But it was mostly just circumstance—the people I knew I wanted to work with were around, and our living situations permitted us to work together in-person. We each came in with a respective stronghold on different parts of the production process: Geoff with sound, Ian with arrangements, and me with the bigger-picture, sort of vision-spirit of each song, and by the end, we were bleeding into each others' domains with more confidence and trust."
Having trust is important when musicians are interpreting someone's songs, but it's also key for an artist to have a strong support system when she's expressing herself in such personal ways. Talmers has that in her family, who "for better or worse, is extremely honest with me," she said. "In fact, I now find it concerning if they don't have some sort of criticism, even if it's as small as disagreeing with the way I did my hair for a performance. It's honestly funny, and probably a big part of the reason I have a good sense of humor. I don't ignore them, but I also recognize that they know and love me in a way that makes my expression in song kind of obsolete.
"They're really proud and supportive, but no aspect of me—anger, heartbreak, disappointment, or any of the feelings I breach on the record—is news to them," Talmers said. "They hear all the complexities behind my songs in the form of me, being myself, through time, all the time. And, may I say, the undistilled version of these songs—that is, my life—is way messier and probably more annoying and less articulate."
Remember Me as Holy is not only articulate, it's a pretty stunning collection of reflective and insightful songs on the human condition by someone so young. But despite the lyrics being so personal, listeners shouldn't interpret the record as a diary.
"I think the process of seeing this album to completion has made me even more steadfast in the belief that songs are never really about anyone—they're a conversation about my experience with myself," Talmers said. "Sometimes I write to people and there is a coherent 'you' in my mind as I write the song—'Francis' being a good example of that," which feels like a letter to a lost friend.
"But the 'you' is almost always theoretical, especially because many of the characters you hear in the songs have floated out of my life by now," she said. "It would be silly to pin the people they are today to the memories of them that I reference. The anger and reconciliation that takes place within the songs are both mine alone, and the blame I dole out, if you can call it that, is fleeting. I really believe people are good and ever-changing, and any resentment or upset you hear that seems pointed is really just toward memory and its effect on me."
Still, even with the emotional distance Talmers has developed for the experiences that inspired the songs, she knows the lyrics she's putting out into the universe are filled with personal stories.
"I would be lying if I said it's not anxiety-inducing to be critically honest and detailed through songwriting," Talmers said. "But I think being less explicit would also entail a sort of anxiety—the only reason I really trash songs I write is if they fail the authenticity litmus test.
"If the point of a song is to translate what's inside of me, which I think it is, then I'm kind of willing to pull out all the stops so that the listener can locate what I'm talking about within themselves," she said. "It's not always going to land, but even knowing this I still feel really strongly about vulnerability as power—if the rawness of my songs can encourage anyone else to embrace their own vulnerability, even just with themselves, I'm willing to take the hit."
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.