Lilly Winwood

QRO enjoyed a morning of coffee-fueled cogitations with Lilly Winwood on everything from Talking Walls to how to turn life’s foofaraw into funambulism when you must....
Lilly Winwood : Q&A
Lilly Winwood : Q&A

Harrison Ford has freely joked many times that he “gets paid to fall down…hard.” One could argue that this allusive anecdote bearing as much truth as humor is one that extends far beyond our beloved Indiana Jones and fairly describes the entirety of the human experience in one symbolic shade or another. It certainly encompasses the particolored ambit of original, heart-sworn songwriting, and this is a verity Lilly Winwood has embodied since her first strum was captured in stereo. Though youthful in years, she is quite long in the tuneful tooth, and Talking Walls, a full-length record of personal revelations she penned during the pandemic, is the latest testament to that inspiring fact. As the daughter of distinguished vocalist and esteemed songwriter, Steve Winwood, one could say that she is to the melodic manner born, but the song stories that Lilly brings are a lacy trelliswork of conjoined realities fastening various versions of death, dream moultings, and other imaginative ideas to a separate and fearless fire all her own, and one that needs to borrow no blaze from anywhere, not even its own high-heat home hearth.

But here a pen pixie’s PSA-pause, please. A neon-lit and snarl-tooth sidebar must precede our monograph on this musical maven as there has unfortunately been a predictably idiotic online conversation of late amongst many of those ninnyhammers bearing straw parasols to shield their insecurity sunburns regarding so-called “nepo babies,” a disrespectful-in-the-extreme term nearly as absurd in its jealousy-built lack of thought as its perennially pram-bound progenitors. Let us clear something truth-laden and necessary up now and for the evermore: folks that derive from parents who have done notable things in any job, be it high art or manual labor (which may well be the highest art), tend to be more likely to be good at that same thing than someone without any part of that background because: hi, genetics is measurable science and nearly everything is hereditary, including both muscle and transcriptional memory.

Dismissing or deriding a musician, or even raising an envy-green eyebrow at any artist because of his or her parents having been exceptionally good at something is a disgusting brand of bigotry ye lovely ole Big Mama Internet would not tolerate for one IQ-diminishing Twit–minute were the equation turned the other way round. Imagine someone being denied their own work-merited successes because they came from parents who could not carry a tune in a bucket or tell which end was up on a tape measure. To suggest that people with successful parents of any kind cannot justly acquire things in the same way as those without is cretinously elitist in itself, to say nothing of being blind-minded and ethically unacceptable by any respectable metric. Beyond that, as Robert Keating of Inhaler succinctly pointed out regarding his own beloved bandmate with a fairly famous father: if you show up to record labels, recording studios, and public stages as Bono’s son (or Steve Winwood’s daughter) and you cannot sing or play, you are laughed out of the room five times faster than a person without that lineage. Obviously. The bottom line: growing up circumstellar does not make anyone bereft of their own vital things to say and find, and Mother Nature is no fascist for passing down traits in parentage because what becomes of those traits is forever utterly up to the bearer.

Now then, as I am hopeful we have squarely cleared the readerly room of any and all neoteric nullifiers, we can get back to this brilliant woman’s breathtaking record. To counterbalance the above chewable chestnut: let it be shouted from every mountain top that Lilly Winwood is her father’s daughter in all the ways that any of us could hope to be if we descend from good and talented men of any profession, and she retains that retinue of traditional talents in every regard that Mr. Winwood must surely be proud of, as both father and fellow sonic creator. What Lilly has quite clearly gotten the old-fashioned way from Steve is a propensity for turning reverie into reverbed reinvention, a feathery wit that comes out in satirical flourishes all throughout her music, and a metric fuckton of songcraft sense that makes her compositions animate, standalone, and endlessly hummable.

If you would like to admire the likewise aural alignment of their twin tonalities in singing, please enjoy the baptismal stream of their duet of Mr. Winwood’s immortal “Higher Love,” a song that always demonstrated Steve’s gift for grasping and then serpentine-spilling the best of the human heart, but becomes a grand new kind of glou-glou under the split spotlight of his own daughter’s voice. Lilly is both trouvère and titan in her own right, and makes the carrying of all her musical mantles, vocal or otherwise, feel light as periwinkle petals within the murals of this or any of her own songs. To this writer’s eye, she resembles Zitkala-Sa more than anyone else that precedes her in artistic or writerly history. She is in possession of the same flagrantly independent spirit and has insisted on being the munitions magnate of her own morality in a much similar manner.

Lilly Winwood : Talking Walls

A transatlantic upbringing bestowing upon her tonal tastes that are equal parts London and Nashville makes for another of Winwood’s divine differences. Her butyraceous cover of “Islands In The Stream” with Boo Ray or the ankh-shaped key she made of both “How Many Days” and “Shine A Light On Me” with Don Gallardo are all muscular examples of what she can envisage even with song environments that are preset for her by others. As early as her first EP, Silver Stage in 2017, it was observable that Winwood had both the facility and the will to oppugn the convenient life platitudes that rootbind others to monochrome, low-vibration livings. By 2021’s Time Well Spent, she was taking on constellations of her own memories and addressing the way that they create a one-person argot, for no two people remember any shared event in precisely the same way. Talking Walls was written during a time when Winwood was spending long hours on her feet working as a waitress in Nashville during the drear days of the pandemic. Her humorist’s eye may well be the tallest of all the myriad reasons to praise her approach to rendering the tessellated tohubohu of self-discovery that ignited for her during that riptide of a time. It is never easy to be a cub reporter at the frontlines of one’s own interior life experience and then to have to create articles of good faith in fair copy that can live on that same life’s exterior without salting the retelling.

Like an art-minded burglar, Winwood pickpockets both her Romantic idylls and her vanished appreciation for all the stage-managed forms of intimacy like a sort of spiritual stevedore throughout Talking Walls, unloading the ultroneous about her life no matter the cost to anyone’s idea of her, and most especially in defiance to any former constructs she held of herself. Rather than quailing at the yolk inside her separating from the egg, she brings a garden ethic to the reaping, a brave knowing around acknowledging what was once the stuff of nosegays having turned to choking weeds, as well as which formerly misperceived ‘weed’ was actually always a hothouse flower that will bloom to untold dimensions if tended properly.

Lilly Winwood : Talking Walls

There is a way to be a pangloss without being pervicacious or a pain in the ass. You do not have to be zany and zydeco to do it. Lilly Winwood has not just mastered this elusively realistic Micawberian magic but transfused and distilled it into sound to a degree that makes the personality of Talking Walls one of celebratory chips in the paint. It sounds like county fairs, heirloom quilts, timber forests, tinker tales, and boxcars. From start to finish, these songs have a tactile presence and a smile like a canyon, sometimes even one that the hitchhiker part of her heart might have died in a time or two. It is an album rife with unforgettable portraits of nights a-blur with epiphany, little bits of personal paleontology, fossils of found feelings and freeing forms telling tales about the polling stations of Winwood’s maturity odyssey in sentence strategies that are anything but blank ballots. Her abiding love of books is strikingly evident in all of her songs and appears most enjoyably in little window-stories occurring inside her unfolding indirect narratives.

QRO enjoyed a morning of coffee-fueled cogitations with Winwood on everything from Talking Walls to how to turn life’s foofaraw into funambulism when you must. Lady W. dazzled with her humble elegance across the board and was found to be totally impossible to epithesize. You need long words with built-in libraries if you want to describe this Dame Flower and her narrative artistry. Here are a few of this doting dandelion’s best attempts:

It was vital to me during those darker early days of uncertainty to have something that I felt was stable and normal in my life, like a regular job that kept me busy and as organically connected to people as any of us could be at that time.

QRO: You have been a working songwriter and performer far longer than a lot of people realize. You had the Silver Stage EP in 2017, your Time Well Spent full-length in 2021, and now Talking Walls. Tell me your career’s most frightening or trying moment followed by its most victorious/proud thus far.

Lilly Winwood: That’s a fantastic question. I have been so lucky to get to tour around the world and experience that shared energy with audiences, which is what this is all about–that connection we can build together through the music. It’s funny now because I look back at things I wrote when I was so much younger and it can embarrass you because of course you are writing about the same things that everyone is, your first love and diaristic things like that. Your mindsets, concerns, and perspectives change so much as you gain experience, and I can really hear that in my older music.

QRO: Yes, I feel that way about quite a bit of my early writing, but I would not change a syllable of it because I like seeing the living documentation of my own innocence and even naivete in places. I think that is what art is for, all the way around: a breathing polaroid of the past that made you.

LW: That’s such a brilliant way to say it–I just might steal that! [laughs]

QRO: I freely gift it to you if you find it useful, dear Lilly! [laughs]

LW: Thank you so much; I can use that. You asked about my proudest moment–it’s got to be this record I’ve just made. I have never felt more satisfied with any set of songs I have produced. The whole experience was so fulfilling and it feels really great to sit back, take a breath now, and look at this little capsule of my life that I feel represents my better nature in a lot of ways, if for nothing else but being my most honest record by far.

QRO: Your process for writing Talking Walls has an early J.K. Rowling element to it–you were literally constructing the bones of these tunes on scraps of paper while you worked at a restaurant full-time. Tell me how you think both the humanity and perhaps even the worthwhile mundanity of that work has positively influenced this album.

LW: It was vital to me during those darker early days of uncertainty to have something that I felt was stable and normal in my life, like a regular job that kept me busy and as organically connected to people as any of us could be at that time. I had zero plan to write an album or even really think about music for a while. There is no question that these songs came about entirely out of that feeling back then that just getting through the day in one piece emotionally or otherwise was a noteworthy accomplishment. I would see and hear things all day, both from other people, and inside my own mind, that I was both consciously and unconsciously taking note of. By the time I got home in the wee hours of the morning to empty out my apron, there were all these receipts, bits of paper, and scraps of napkins with little phrases, or sometimes even just a word or two on them. They were all clamoring at me that they were songs, no matter how small they were to start!

There are things I can say or think in a song that I have not yet allowed myself to get to or face in a regular thought or sentence

QRO: Holy goodness, I just got the idea that you had, essentially, lyrical lint falling out of your pockets in this time when you were just trying to fill them with a little earned money–and the lint had lessons in it.

LW: I love the idea of lyrical lint! Yes, these songs were almost like found objects in a way, treasure I was not looking for but was lucky to happen upon in a time when happening upon anything positive and productive was such a challenge for so many.

QRO: They are little gold tokens leading you to the path of bright things and better days, which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, exactly what “Keep It Spinning” has been for me ever since the first second I heard it. First of all, your hat in the video! But what should be first of all is the lyric: “I’ve been chasing that song that gave me that feeling when I thought all I had was lost.” We don’t have enough hours left in this week for me to express how deeply and in how many ways that line hits me, so I will ask you: which song was that for you? What music gets you to that place?

LW: Oh, that hat! I cannot even take credit! That was all the amazing director, Samantha Hearn. She came in with that hat and I just thought: yes. [laughs] As for the music, there is so much from my youth and all the way up to now that just rewrites the code of the moment for me. I would have to say if we are talking about my favorite of this era, that is The War On Drugs for sure. I have driven to cities all over the country to see them, and that is music that I can always consistently disappear into. Adam Granduciel is a musician that I marvel at.

QRO: Oh yeah, major atmospherics there, and songs that are as much places to rest as they are points of experiential entry.

LW: That’s so very well said, and exactly it. “Keep It Spinning” was me trying to capture that feeling you get in your belly when songs that grip you take you away, when they give you those electric butterflies that you just want over and over.

QRO: Well, that’s exactly what that song does for me every time I hear it, so well done you! You captured that seismic shiver for sure. You also did a bit of creative confectionery with “Sleep Issues,” which is what I call a “caramel” song because it is immediately sweet and yet the more you chew it, the more you find to chew. It is so replete with vivid, symbolic lines like “I leave my cig smoke while I clip my wings/balancing on a wire above my house/trying to set my mattress on fire” and “my mind is a car that stops at every red light/keeps driving past your house late at night.” These are Ferlinghetti-level figures of mind and made me instantly think of his poem “Constantly Risking Absurdity.” Do you believe that music has both transformational and revelatory power? In other words, can a song simultaneously show you where you need to question yourself and make you into the person who can successfully ask those questions with integrity?

LW: Wow, what a fascinating question. I feel like I could spend a month on that one, but my immediate answer is: Yes, on both counts. I have certainly had my life changed by songs, and in some cases saved by them. I have always looked to music as a shaping force, but also a liberating energy. There are things I can say or think in a song that I have not yet allowed myself to get to or face in a regular thought or sentence. It is amazing how some of that comes out too. “Sleep Issues” was one that taught me a lot about my own mind like you are saying. I think that is the best job a song can do, really–paint the room of your brain or your day in a prettier or more clarified color.

If I am standing on the side of a stage getting ready to walk out to a crowd I know nothing about, no matter whom I think may or may not be in it, I just think of it as my job to win these people over by being me now; whether it is five people or 500 people, the show is just me having the courage to connect and the song is my way of doing that.

QRO: I admire your ability to let those songs-that-are-future-thoughts be as they are when they are born in your brain. I am afraid that I still conduct a fair bit of courtly battle with my immediate instinct to perform neurosurgery on my own synapses when they come like that. What your ability to let that stuff ride until it takes proper form outside your music does for your music is to make it infinitely interpretable, and thus relatable to just about everybody. I also notice what appears to be a lovely, smirking twist in everything that you do around your art, not just the sounds. For instance, you have the coolest pink rolling papers in your website’s shop. I don’t even smoke but I am totally buying them! I can wrap my pens in them for NYC street style [laughs] Did you ever have any fear about bringing your level of natural originality to a musical field that appears to value originality less and less? If so, how did you surmount it?

LW: Most definitely I have had my self-doubt demons to square off with and I think I have been very lucky to grow up watching professional musicians like my Dad and even some of his friends at close range because it might have taken me longer to get an understanding that it is all just about making a bond with the human beings in your audience. If I am standing on the side of a stage getting ready to walk out to a crowd I know nothing about, no matter whom I think may or may not be in it, I just think of it as my job to win these people over by being me now; whether it is five people or 500 people, the show is just me having the courage to connect and the song is my way of doing that. The show is however honest I can be about what I have to say. If I break a string, my guitar goes horribly out of tune, or some other unexpected musical malady takes over, I have learned to just laugh that stuff off and make entertainment out of all of it, for the audience and for me.

QRO: It makes me giddy that you recognize that you are more than enough and that a lot of people would give anything to have the nerve it took you to even play your first or your worst show. Some people will never enjoy that kind of courage and that alone is to be celebrated! I have to say something about where your voice lives too because, to me, this is the sonic portal to all of the other wondrous distinctious I see in your work. You’ve got this gorgeous, low-lying timbre terrain that you then build all sorts of utterly unique sound cities and abandoned aural farmhouses on, depending on the word or phrase you are singing. It’s unique and arresting. How do you judge when your voice sounds the way you want it to? Do you get any of that “ooh, it’s my voice on the answering machine” feeling at all or are you comfortable with all the incredible zip codes in your formidable instrument?

LW: Thank you so much for saying that. That really means a lot to me and is such a beautiful thing to say. I have to admit that I have not had a lot of internal fear of singing and since you made that point about how others often do, I am realizing that I am fortunate for that too. I think I have always taken such joy in the act of singing and felt pretty comfortable expressing myself that way. That may also be that I just did not wait for anyone to tell me if it was good or bad when I was younger; I just did it like a selfish ham and hoped for the best! [laughs]

The major message is: keep going!

QRO: [laughs] Well, ‘best’ it is, by my marveling measure, and I think singing is so much about the mind that it is wonderful you did not let yours run away with harsh self-criticism like so many can hobble themselves by doing. Talk to me a little about recording with the Trace Horse boys! They sound and feel like the perfect fit for you as my contention is they really find a million ways to showcase your dark-gravel sparkles, but they do it all so subtly.

LW: That was the best decision I have maybe ever made, to record there with those guys because they could not have been more supportive of me. Anything I wanted to try or do, they were right behind me, and it was amazing to see where they took these little songs that were so different when I brought them in. I could never have imagined how much life and depth they would bring to every part of this record and the way they work just made it all so easy. There was zero stress, ever, and they really listened to me. We came in and worked when and how we wanted, did not put any pressuring expectations on anything, and this album got done in very little time because of that relaxed approach. I cannot recommend Trace Horse highly enough to anyone who has any music they want to bring to life.

QRO: I have only heard amazing things about that place and they really seem to have added a new row of colors to your palette for Talking Walls. Speaking of honing hues, I would love to know more about your idea of “painting with sound” that I’ve heard you mention before, as that is precisely how I describe whatever I would want to keep in my own writing–I say I have “painted with words” and all I can hope after is that I caught the picture that was in front of me. I do not even necessarily, most times, feel that it came from inside me but existed outside me and I lassoed it…or not! [laughs] What does that look like for you as an independent musician? Walk me through a Lilly-lay-it-all-down-a-thon.

LW: I do a lot of playing around in chords and just sounding like an idiot, probably, as I work out where certain verses can go, what feelings match with what set of notes, how to sing those notes, and on. It is usually just me and an acoustic guitar on the sofa kind of trying to net those notes out of the air. I know exactly what you mean about feeling like the art lives outside you and your job is to reel it in. I definitely have the sense when I am working on music that I am trying to put a harness on things higher or beyond me that I have been lucky enough to be in the room with. I can spend long, long periods of time enjoying even the parts where I feel like I didn’t get it, because that too will take you somewhere that you might not have thought you could go.

Lilly Winwood

QRO: I agree 1,000% with that incredibly insightful response and it almost answers the next thing I was about to ask you, which is: do you have any earned wisdom to share with other artists or people in general who may be experiencing the kind of burnout that you have expressed feeling pre-pandemic?

LW: I believe I am probably the opposite of wise…[laughs], but I would be so happy to think that anyone who hears my music or even hears me talk about it could feel encouraged to keep moving forward with their own projects and work, no matter what it is, not to talk themselves out of their own talents, or ever give up because they feel no one is listening. The major message is: keep going!

QRO: That is actually Solomonic wisdom, Lilly, whether you can cop to it or not! Thank you. Even I needed to hear that. No telling how many others will too. Thank you for this irreplaceably amazing morning! You’re a gem.

LW: Oh, please, the pleasure has been all mine! You have made me think about so many good and interesting things in this conversation. Thank you so much for spending this time with me and taking such an interest in my music. It really means more than I can say.

Lilly Winwood will be out on the road touring Talking Walls across a swathe of cities this spring, speaking to the side ways and byways ‘til she hears that spiritual bustling that spirits one away. Go listen with her, to her, and for her. Only evolutionary echoes can come of it.