How Human: Lily Talmers returns to Ann Arbor with two new excellent albums that explore deeply personal and universal experiences
On "My Mortal Wound," the opening song on Lily Talmer's It's Unkind to Call You My Killer album, states in the chorus:
I’m alright; I am
Just the tide’s gone still and I’m left waiting for something to happen
For anything to happen; For good things to happen
Well, good things are happening for the Birmingham native and University of Michigan graduate.
In the past few months, she's released two terrific albums: the aforementioned Killer, an 11-track, stripped-down collection of songs performed live, and Hope Is The Whore I Go To, which features 10 strings-and-brass-colored tunes recorded in studios from Ypsilanti, Michigan to Brooklyn, New York.
Both albums highlight Talmer's exquisite amalgamation of 1960s folk-pop, Eastern European brass bands, and the melancholy melodies of Brazilian and Mediterranean music. Her twang-tinged voice is a slightly untamed powerhouse that's more than capable of delivering her heartfelt, poetic lyrics exploring personal and spiritual relationships with the drama and delicacy they deserve. Think of a jazz singer who hasn't sanded the edges off her voice but can still duck and weave in and out of the music like an instrumental virtuoso. (Canadian cult singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara is the closest analog to my ears.)
"If Hope Is The Whore I Go To is the primordial scream version of the message I’m trying toward," Talmers says in the interview below, "It's Unkind to Call You My Killer is the inward recoil. I’m telling you something in the first record, and in the second I’m kind of just admitting things to myself."
Since graduating from U-M, Talmers has moved to Brooklyn but makes frequent trips back home, including a stop on Sunday, January 8 at The Ark for her first headline show at the venue.
In 2021 Pulp did an extensive piece on Talmers for her debut full-length release, Remember Me As Holy, and in late summer of this year, former AADL public library associate Katy Trame talked to Talmers about her life and brilliant new records.
—Christopher Porter, Pulp
Q: When did you begin making music?
A: I played cello and piano growing up, and I'm lucky that most of the environments I was in were not overly concerned with measuring me or making me perform. I have a lot of memories of identifying strongly as a musician at an early age and feeling really moved by the somatic parts of playing and feeling and hearing music. My piano teacher never taught me theory or even how to read music fluently, but I would memorize by ear and muscle memory big classical works and just have them in my fingers to play around with and feel and explore. I think those experiential parts were always allowed to be held as more important than, say, technical prowess or amassing repertoire. This feels rare! I remember being really bad at practicing my parts on cello for after-school symphony orchestra, but the experience of sitting in an orchestra and being surrounded by all of that sound? I’m certain it’s still affecting me profoundly. I feel really grateful to educators of all sorts who seem to have delivered me from lots of toxic parts of music education that could’ve ruined my relationship with it.
Q: Was music a part of your life before you started playing instruments?
A: I didn’t really care about popular music of any sort until around 16— I just found most of it loud and overwhelming. Maybe it’s because I didn’t go see a lot of live music as a kid, so I didn’t understand what was going on or what to listen for? I don’t know. My dad doesn’t care much for music, but my mom has good taste and had a handful of CDs that she played for us: John Denver, Norah Jones, Bob Seger. I had always loved poetry, though, and when I listened to Paul Simon for the first time I realized just how awesome the American songbook is at its best.
At that point, my writing and music practices merged and now, for better or worse, I am a compulsive songwriter. I just kind of need to do it. I think I’ll always be a bit of a slow pilgrim through music—I’m notorious for still not having heard or coming around to lots of essential parts of the canon of popular music. I hadn’t heard The Beatles beyond “Let It Be” until age 18 or 19. Which is OK! I think it’s tiring to pretend like one has listened to everything or has an opinion on everything. Like, it’s funny to tell people that I don’t really know what Frank Ocean sounds like. One day I’m sure his music will become really important to me, I’m just not there yet.
Q: You’ve been releasing music consistently since 2019. How has that journey been? In what ways has your sound changed and stayed the same?
A: It all has happened in such a funny way! The first EP I put out, Temple Down, I made just because I needed some sort of recorded work to send to venues for gigs. I wanted the gigs because I realized that playing my songs in public meant I would feel a sense of relief that they’d been heard, and then could move on to writing new songs. This has kind of continued to be my reason for performing and releasing, though I’ve discovered new ones as well, like the joys of collaborating with other musicians or seeing the way my music can affect people when they have it available to them in recorded form as opposed to just live.
The records have mostly been born out of finding the right people at the right time. It’s always kind of a spiritual process, where you find answers to questions you didn’t realize you were asking. So, asking myself, “Who will get to influence this music and see this through by my side?” feels very tender. In some ways, it’s all been a sort of miracle of circumstance—the last three records came to pass because most of the members of the funk band Sabbatical Bob were living in the same house as Geoff Brown, who I’d asked to engineer my first LP [Remember Me As Holy].
Knowing and working with all of them—Geoff Brown, David Ward, Ian Eylanbekov, Ben Green, and Aidan Cafferty—has affected my life profoundly. I have learned so much about how to listen and what to listen for, and also began thinking about craft and production more expansively, in conversation with their eyes and ears. I didn’t go to music school, and it was almost like in the absence of a real music community, I hadn’t given myself permission to really listen and notice things about music in the company of others. After many years of feeling pretty musically lonely and uncertain, entrusting this set of people to have a hand in my music, watching it expand and strengthen by our communal care, and feeling truly seen and loved by them musically has been so fundamental to developing a sense of self-worth as a musician. And that has given me the courage to make and release music with abandon! I think this world, which tends to be obsessed with singular troubadour geniuses, needs to hip itself to how good it feels to be part of a community that’s working toward something. I think if there’s any brilliance to be found in this project, it’s the real care with which each member of the band undertook the challenge of serving each song.
If I were to summarize how my sound has changed as succinctly as possible, I’d say I am much more secure in allowing the sound of the music to be affected than I once was—affected by recording techniques, by arrangement, and by each musician who’s in on it. Songs have lives to live, and their arrangements and the musicians that they welcome into them will take on lots of different forms over time—knowing this has made me far less precious about aiming to capture THE definitive version of the song, and more just happy that we can adorn a tune reverently and then capture it via recording. This is not to say I’m not very particular about lots of things. I certainly am! I’m just less intimidated by newness and possibility, and maybe a little more risk-seeking musically.
Q: You have released two albums within a few months of each other. Let's talk about Hope Is The Whore I Go To first. What were some of your influences for that album?
A: I think this record I finally started taking myself seriously as a vocalist. In the past, I’d felt I was a writer over anything else and was just kind of singing to vocalize my writing. I really admire a Spanish/Catalonian singer/musician named Silvia Perez Cruz. She opened me to viewing singing as something that needs to extend itself toward every capacity of human outcry—the voice as something that can speak and cry and laugh and weep in real-time, and the challenge is to find means of contextualizing these iterations musically and lyrically. Her musicianship also manages to nod to classical and flamenco and jazz music all at once, and that gave me a lot of permission toward my music and its multiplicity. Her record Farsa came out as we were making Hope Is The Whore I Go To, and it felt like a constant reminder that ANYTHING is possible!
I also spent a lot of time listening to singers from the other side of the Mediterranean, like Sotiria Bellou, Semeli Papavasileiou, and Fairouz.
A lot of our reference tracks came from the Luso/Latin world of music. I love the orchestration of a lot of records made in Brazil in the '60s and '70s such as Chico Buarque’s Chico Buarque de Hollanda Vol. 3 and or Acabou Chorare by Novos Baianos. Geoff [engineer/mixer] was big on the self-titled Buena Vista Social Club album, and Ben [brass/string arrangements] on Gloria Estefan’s Abriendo Puertas. I also feel really affected by the soundscapes of the current L.A. scene: Blake Mills, Tyler Chester, and Madison Cunningham. And the writing lots of canonical American writers like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen.
Q: You've talked about the spiritual aspect of music, and Hope Is The Whore I Go To surely talks a bit about that. Can you talk about the thematic journey of the album and what sorts of things you learned and explored in the songwriting process?
A: The reality is that songs just kind of happen. With very few exceptions, I wrote each song in a sort of fit of imagination, and it’s always a surprise to me to wake up the next morning and listen to or read what I’d written the night before. This whole hope-as-whore thematic exploration happened in the same way. I was three or four songs into developing this character before I even noticed that’s what I was doing. On one side of the coin, writing songs is definitely a traceable exposition of the things I’ve been thinking about, reading, listening to, absorbing, and being moved by, etc. But there’s a more mystical side of it, too, where the songs give way to a subconsciousness/inner life that escapes me. The big irony is that, while so much of the record laments hope and its evils and deceit, I’m also exposing my greatest hopes through each song. And music is really an act of hope—music-makers are just reaching outward for connection to other peoples’ hearts and ears. I really think that at the heart of the most dire and serious things, there’s always a joke, and these records are no exception!
I think the biggest retrospective lesson of this songwriting cycle is that, for me as a writer, lyricism dictates everything. In my writing, words shape melody, words shape rhythm, words shape harmony, words shape specific cues to the band to respond to the music in different ways, words shape dynamics, words shape song form. I don’t write thinking about sections or A-A-B-A whatever; I never start out with a chord progression and work from there; good melodic ideas very rarely come to me without accompanying syllables or phrases. The words will decide the song form.
Q: The other new album is It's Unkind to Call You My Killer. Is it sort of part two of Hope Is The Whore I Go To, or are they separate?
A: The two are totally inseparable in many ways! All the tunes are part of the same writing cycle for me and represent the mulling through of similar events, ideas, and iterations of self. There was very little rhyme or reason to what the project would become when we started—basically, we just recorded songs as they felt most urgent—from February 2021 to February 2022—and at the end realized that we’d recorded around two hours of music, which is way too much for one project. I toyed with different ways of separating and ordering the songs for weeks, only to settle upon separating by, basically, vibes. It's Unkind to Call You My Killer presents songs that are much more exposed and laid-back, thematically and musically. Many of the recordings are me and a nylon-string guitar, solo in a cathedral in Brooklyn. If Hope Is The Whore I Go To is the primordial scream version of the message I’m trying toward, It's Unkind to Call You My Killer is the inward recoil. I’m telling you something in the first record, and in the second I’m kind of just admitting things to myself.
Q: Tell me a bit about the process of It's Unkind to Call You My Killer and the thematic journey of that album.
A: I’m finding that, in order to feel good about releasing music that exposes my inner life in such a big way, I have to maintain a certain distance from the belief that I know exactly what or who the songs are about. Sometimes I’m really happy and fulfilled, and I don’t understand where the sorrow in my writing is coming from. And likewise, I go through stages of feeling depressed and disconnected, and I'm stunned when songs profess a clarity or sense of hope that I don’t feel I functionally have access to. It is to say—I find it hard to speak decisively about what the record is “about." I certainly recognize a lot of the images and conversations and colors and assertions in the songs, but many of them also kind of mystify me. In other words, if you were to ask me of my own work, “What is this person saying?” I think I could give you a half-answer at best. But I do know that many loose ends from the first record seem to resurface or tie themselves up in a certain way on this record.
When recording, I choose songs that feel alive in me and urgent, and can’t get too caught up in assessing what it is I’m trying to say through them. So in some ways recording It's Unkind to Call You My Killer was a practice in saying no to my ego, which wants to proclaim certain songs too raw or embarrassing or tender, and allowing whatever needed to surface in me musically do just that. I want to say that most times I’ve listened to the record, it seems to deal mostly with reaching out for and then recoiling from a radical sort of love: divine, erotic, familial. They’re all kind of inseparable. I also hear in this music the rippling effect of an insecurity that prevents a person from trusting in love to run its course and teach what it will. The speaker is clearly confused about her own position in some grander narrative. And aren’t we all!
I am so lucky to have had such deep trust in Ben Green and Geoff Brown, who were with me when I recorded each of these songs. It was really important to feel calm and accepted and loved in capturing these recordings.
Q: It's Unkind to Call You My Killer was originally titled My Mortal Wound, but the title changed just before it came out. Why did you decide to rename the record?
A: I discovered there are two important Balkan sayings that correspond to the albums: the first is “Hope is the greatest of all whores” and the second is “Hope dies last.” My Mortal Wound was just kind of a default title because I initially wasn’t thrilled about having to name the two records separately. It seemed inevitable, though, for the sake of clarity. I think with time I’ve realized how important death is in these songs. Love kills! Hope kills! We martyr ourselves for love! So I think It’s Unkind to Call You My Killer highlights something important about the ways that loving and dying are inextricably linked.
Q: You moved to Brooklyn not long after you graduated from the University of Michigan even though you finally found a great bunch of musicians to play with in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Why did you end up moving?
A: I think, like most of the decisions I make, it was all pretty gut-driven. I had really visceral feelings about Brooklyn as a place and about its music community when I first visited, and within a few months of experiencing them, I moved to stay. "Leaving" my community [in Michigan] was the most painful part about it all, but I'm still very much in collaboration with everyone from back home, it's just that the ways we do so look different now. There's a version of life where you prioritize what seems best musically at the expense of what best serves you socially, emotionally, and spiritually. But I'm of the belief that beautiful musical things will transpire in relation to prioritizing what you need as a person—and this has reigned true with the Brooklyn move. Also, I'm back in Michigan all the time.
Q: What are some ways you hope to grow your sound or songwriting?
A: I don’t have too much of an agenda by way of how I’ll grow; I’m just trying to follow what moves me. I’m always looking to be more exploratory with the guitar and with melody, but I'm also always weary of lusting too much for complexity or to emulate someone else’s sound—it really can ruin things. I do want to be a more flexible player and singer, though, so I’m practicing, reevaluating, moving in and out of various types of confidence and insecurity in my musicianship and writing.
For better or worse, the way I learn things and grow musically is largely by writing, so in effect, I’m always writing. For now, this is OK. It just means that taking a break feels awful and disconnects me from feeling alive in what I do, and maybe that’s not so healthy either! I’ve started some preliminary rehearsals for my next projects, and I feel excited and hopeful at the mystery.
Lily Talmer performs at The Ark, 316 S. Main, Ann Arbor, on Sunday, January 8; doors open at 7 pm.
➥ "Taking the Hit: Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Lily Talmers explores big questions through small details on her excellent album debut" [Pulp, February 16, 2021]
➥ "Ann Arbor’s Lily Talmers preludes ‘My Mortal Wound’ with deeply emotive singles" [The Michigan Daily, December 6, 2022]
➥ "Double Duty: Lily Talmers Explores Humanity and Spirituality on 'Hope is The Whore I Go To / It's Unkind to Call You My Killer' Album" [The Stratton Setlist, January 16, 2023]