It is possible that you already know Lilah Larson as one-third of Sons of an Illustrious Father, who Lilah has been touring with since the age of seventeen. Recently Lilah has begun releasing solo music, and proper solo music, Lilah writing and performing every instrument on the record. Lilah’s debut album was recorded at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango with Howard Bilerman, know for his work with Arcade Fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Vic Chestnutt.
Lilah’s sound is in many was classically American, incorporating elements of folk, country, and even some fuzzy, stadium-rock moments. For the most part Lilah works with a palette of various guitars, from beautifully picked acoustics to soaring, distorted electrics, but there’s also plenty of other instrumentation, with banjo, drum-machines, synths and even a 19th century pump organ all making an appearance.
Lilah is, like seemingly most musicians, based out of Brooklyn. Although due to cheap rents and gentrification Brooklyn is now synonymous with the hippest kind of indie cliché, Brooklyn’s musical lineage actually stretches back way before Grizzly Bear or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In fact there’s barely a genre of American music without a strong connection to Brooklyn. The borough was home to two of the most important names in American classical music, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, the latter was even quoted as saying he wrote music, “that would let you know how it felt to be alive on the streets of Brooklyn”. Listening to music of both composers, it is clear a large part of their appeal was the way they fused classical training with the jazz soundtrack that was so prevalent in Brooklyn at the time, due at least in part to the boroughs large black population. This population would also be crucial in the rise of hip-hop and reggae; Brooklyn has particular ties to reggae due to its large Caribbean population, and it became the entrance point into the American market of many reggae acts. Brooklyn now faces many of the same issues that other creative hotbeds from Dalston to Kreuzberg are coming across, namely how do you remain interesting and outside the mainstream when musicians and artists are being priced out by the spectre of gentrification. More than almost any area though Brooklyn has shown its ability to adapt to the times and it remains a musical mecca.
Although Lilah’s spent many year’s in bands and making music, Lilah’s self-released debut album Pentimento only came out at the end of January this year.
In a climate of political upheaval, the voices of musicians are arguably more important than ever, but the art of balancing the personal and the political is a tricky line to walk. On Pentimento, Lilah Larson seems to seamlessly blend the two. On the one hand this is a deeply intimate record, telling personal tales of conflicted love, complicated and often failed relationships, and their role as a queer intersectional feminist musician; but like so many of us, Lilah knows that our personal lives inevitably cross into the political sphere. Politics becomes personal, and Pentimento is not afraid of asking questions of the world in which it exists.
The album’s personal/political split is perhaps best documented on the albums two central tracks, Someone Else and On Inertia. Someone Else is an achingly open tale of self-doubt, acceptance of your lot and an inability to get too close to love, for fear of the scars it can leave. Atop a backing of lurching acoustic guitars, and warm swathes of organ, Lilah documents feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and an inability to commit fully to a relationship. Lilah sings with a touch of Sharon Van Etten, “I want to be the wrong person for you, I want to be second in line, I want you to wish that I was someone else that they were where I am right by your side.” The instantly gripping On Inertia though, seems to flip all that inward gazing and looks at the state of the world, channelling the spirit of Bob Dylan or Woodie Guthrie, this is classic protest folk. The track was written prior to the 2016 election cycle, yet somehow seems even more appropriate now, Lilah has said of the song, “this is a call to arms and a statement that inaction is not an option”. The track lives up to its billing, taking aim at foreign invasions, privilege and the lack of balance in power and wealth – it’s frankly a stunning track, from one of music’s most compelling new voices.
Few albums can have a more appropriate title than Pentimento: “a visible trace of earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas”. The music Lilah makes is exactly that, it presents an outward emotional layer, but beneath the words, beneath the melodies, seems to lie some deeper secret. The pains, heartache and lessons of the past seem to haunt Pentimento, at times it feels almost as if Lilah is willfully refusing to move on with life. There’s a regularly expressed fear of opening oneself up to emotion, a worry that this would let the ghosts of past anguish back into your life, as Lilah sings on the exquisite tbh, “I could never love you, that’s what I like about you”.
Musically too this is the work of a musical artisan, each choice of instrumentation, each layer of sound seemingly perfectly chosen to fit the lyrical mood. These aren’t new ideas, just expertly produced takes on familiar themes, and something within Lilah’s use of melody seems to tap into the very DNA of this Americanised take on folk, which remains such a rich and compelling genre of music.
Pentimento is a difficult record to fault, but it’s perhaps a little one paced, and the mood is always subdued and will be a touch too melancholy for some. That said, even if it’s not your sort of album, it’s hard to imagine anyone not finding something to admire on this beautifully crafted record.
Pentimento is out now. Click HERE for more information on Lilah Larson.