music reviews and artist reflections
Running From The Sky (2000)
Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt (2005)
reviews and interview © Jamie Field and Russell W Elliot 2005
images © Back Porch Records 2005 used with permission
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last updated: 13 July 2005
click on image to visit Lily Holbrook's website
Lily Holbrook proudly draws inspiration from the likes of Kate Bush and Tori Amos and is flattered when her music is compared favorably to them. She studied music and art at a Boston area college in the late 90s, but it was live performance that seemed to be her real passion. When not studying, Lily could often be found busking in subway corridors and street corners. Shy by nature, Lily found the somewhat anonymous street scene far less intimidating than being cast in the spotlight at clubs and lounges. Her first move to Los Angeles was interrupted with a year return to New York but she returned and is now based firmly Los Angeles.
Lily's debut album Running From The Sky punctuates Lily’s sense of loss, beauty, and the sublime. Making easy comparisons to Jewel and Aimee Mann, Lily's sweet, ethereal vocals lend the songs a fairytale quality. Lily was a natural choice for the film, Playing For Change, a rockumentary to be released in 2005 that highlights the lives of sixteen street musicians across the country. The film led to a deal with Back Porch Records and her follow-up album Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt. In support of her second album's release, we hooked up with Lily for an indepth interview. This feature also includes reviews of her two albums.
Musical Discoveries: Please will you elaborate on your musical training.
Lily Holbrook: Music has always been a big part of my life. But I did not have any formal training until high school when I began taking voice lessons. A few years later I started playing guitar. I've always wished that I started earlier.
When did you begin writing songs and what was the motivation?
Even when I was only three or four years old I can remember making up little songs and recording myself singing them. I was painfully shy around other children. So I often turned to my imagination to help me escape my awkwardness. I think this has alot to do with my becoming a musician. Now a days my songs are sparked by many different things. I don't really have a particular method of writing. It usually happens when I'm in need of an emotional release from anger, sadness, frustation, etc. I'm still waiting to write my first happy song!
What did you learn from busking on the streets of Boston?
One very important thing busking did for me was to help me develop a thicker skin. I was lucky in that most people were very nice to me. But there are always those who don't like what you are doing and are not afraid to say it sometimes in a terribly mean way! Being such a sensitive person, this could be difficult. I really had to learn to keep on going and not dwell too much on the negative.
Where did you record your first album Running From The Sky?
I recorded the first album at a very small studio in Boston called Hyde Park Studio. It was a wonderful but also very nerve-wracking experience. There was so much I wanted to do but just did not have the resources to do it. Besides the engineer, my friend Bill was really the only person working with me. His help was invaluable, especially when it came to the musical arrangements.
We were both completely new to the recording process. Sometimes we locked horns because we can both be very set in our ways. I think we both learned the importance of patience and willingness to hear out other's ideas, regardless of what preconceived notions you might have.
So why did you leave Boston for Los Angeles?
I actually left mainly for the weather. Busking was my only means of income and I knew I could do it year round in LA. After living there for a year and a half I actually moved to New York for a year and loved it. I only returned to LA because that is where the oppurtunity to record my second album arrose. At heart I'm more of an East Coast girl, if only there weren't such cold winters!
We heard that peole in Los Angeles wanted you to become the new Brittney Spears. What did you make of that, and how did you convince them otherwise?
LA has more than its fair share of people who only see dollar signs. I have nothing against making money but I have never been interested in making music that does not reflect who I am. I've just learned to block these people out as soon as I realize what their real agenda is.
What's the story behind the inclusion of the Ozzy Osbourne song "Mama, I'm Coming Home" on the new album?
This song has always had a strong connection to childhood for me. I remember my older brother listening to Ozzy and "Mama, I'm Coming Home" would always stick in my head. I'd get happy every time I heard it. I began playing it on the streets and it went over so well that I knew I wanted to record it someday.
Several of the songs on the new album, "Bleed," "Make Them Wonder," "Three Inch Heels" for example, deal, in one way or another, with physical appearance. Is it a subject you feel very strongly about?
I do feel strongly about this subject. It has touched me and just about every woman I've ever known in a profound way. I don't expect humanity to abandon the concept of physical beauty by any means. I only wish that we could hold a broader definition of the word. Society's vision of what a person should look like seems to be getting narrower and narrower. And it really saddens me to see people, especially women, going to such extreme lengths to meet these standards. I realize that people are always going to be concerned with their appearances. And I am certainly no exception. But it's the lack of concern for what's going on inside of us that really worries me.
You were one of the 16 street musicians featured in the film Playing For Change. What was that experience like and what affect, if any, has it had on your career?
Being in Playing For Change was great and is actually what got me a record deal. The movie soundtrack was signed to the label Higher Octave and the film maker, Mark Johnson, suggested that they do an album with me. So in that way the film has played a big role in my career. Higher Octave was bought out and I was moved to Back Porch.
Do you find comparisons say with Tori Amos or Kate Bush, or anyone else for that matter, flattering or irritating?
I find these comparisons highly fllatering. Those are two artists that I respect and admire greatly and I could never deny the influence that they have had on me. I'd like to think that I stand out as an individual and not just some rip off artist. But overall just to be mentioned in the same sentence as either of those women is a huge honor to me. There are other comparisons that I find to be not so flattering. But I guess I have to take the good with the bad!
Tell us a little about the artwork on the albums.
The artwork on the first album turned out to be much more cutesy than is probably appropriate for the music. I've had a lot of complaints about it. I actually like it but do wish that it reflected a little more depth.
For the new album I definately wanted something darker and went through a lot of different ideas. Ultimately I ended up shooting for an art noveau style and am really happy with the feel of the photos and what the graphic designer did with them.
The song "Mermaids" appears on both albums. Can you tell us a little about this song and why you decided to record it twice?
Originally I was opposed to this idea. Mark Johnson, the director of Playing for Change, really wanted me to record this song to provide a link to the documentary. I eventually agreed but only if the song was taken in a completely different direction. Now I am glad that I chose to do the song again. I think the stark somberness of the second version provides a good bridge between the two albums.
How did you find the experience of recording the new album as opposed to your debut?
What was great about recording the new album was that I had access to so many talented musicians. Because of this, more of my ideas were able to materialize. What I learned from Running From The Sky was very useful, although there was still some locking of horns here and there.
What can you tell us about performing in front of an audience?
I love performing live but I do get very nervous. I really have to block everything out and get into another universe when I am singing.
How do the audience react to your on-stage persona?
Many people tell me that they find my shyness endearing. Others say they wish I would make more eye contact with the audience and talk to them more.
What are some of the most memorable venues you've played in?
I played in Boston with Mary Lou Lord once at the Middle East and once at TT the Bears. The Middle East was so memorable because it was my fist live perfomance not on the street or in the subway. These were also such memorable experiences because Mary Lou Lord was so kind and encouraging to me.
In the time when so many artists are going independent, how would you say it has been to work with a major label?
Back Porch isn't really a major label, it's a very tiny subsidiary of Virgin. I'd rather not go too much into detail about what it's been like. But I will say that it's not at all what I expected.
How do you think the internet has contributed to your career thusfar and what do you think the future of the internet holds for you?
The internet has been great. I only wish I wasn't such a dummy when it comes to computers. I'm kind of behind the times a little but I'm trying to catch up because I have seen what a great resource this can be artists.
When you dream of the future of your music and where you might go as an artist, what do you see?
I am hoping to start touring with a band in the very near future and this is something I have never done before. Despite the fact that I've mainly performed as a solo singer/acoustic guitarist I would love the oppurtunity to really rock out!
Running From The Sky. Lily Holbrook's debut album, recorded at a small studio in Boston and self-released in 2000, is a lovely, intimate piece of work. Two versions of the album are available. The original release is available at CDBaby while the commercial reissue is available at other online shops. For the most part the instrumentation is limited to guitars, piano and strings which form the canvas on which Lily's beautiful and expressive voice can paint her captivating musical pictures.
Lily's voice is totally engaging and the simple arrangements suit the songs admirably. If comparisons were needed, then halfway between Kate Bush and Tori Amos is the kind of territory Lily inhabits. She also seems to share with these two artists a propensity to spent a good deal of time in a world of her own creation. Her songs have a quirky, original approach. Sometimes this works better than others, but it's never less than fascinating, witness "Little Red Riding Hood" which is barely two minutes long and in that time she basically pulls off a full miniature musical.
Overall, the song writing is strong. If "The Snow" leans towards the Kate end of the spectrum, then "Another Winter" is very much in Tori territory, with the song perhaps inspired by "Winter" from Little Earthquakes. While her influences are clear, the songs are in no way copies, a trap Charlotte Martin fell into in her early recording career.
Many of the songs are linear in structure rather than that going down the more conventional road of repeating verses and chorus. This can be a little disconcerting at first, but has the benefit of continually leading you forward and then surprising you with unexpected twists and turns. For the most part she succeeds in avoiding the inherent danger of this approach which is that songs can appear to meander aimlessly. Only on the overlong "Slipping," does she succumb - it's a lovely song, but the musical ideas it contains simply don't warrant the six and half minutes that it lasts.
The fine standard throughout makes choosing a highlight particularly difficult, but if for some perverse reason you only have the opportunity to hear one track, then make it "Mermaids." This is an impressive debut album with both a distinctiveness and originality which belie its apparent simplicity.--Jamie Field in Herefordshire, England
Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt. Following her debut release Running From The Sky, and being featured as one of the street musicians in the film Playing For Change, Lily Holbrook was signed to Back Porch Records, a subsidiary of Virgin for her follow up, Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt (Back Porch (USA) 72435-98806-2-4, 2005).
Her debut was a gorgeously intimate piece of work, and Lily has said that the extra resources available to her, having signed to a major label enabled to do things she hadn't been able to achieve on Running From The Sky. This, of course, can be both a blessing and a curse, the temptation being to do things simply because one can rather than because it aids the music, but overall this album manages to walk the tightrope skilfully and successfully, and the arrangements and production are generally sympathetic to the song writing.
The album opens with "Welcome To The Slaughterhouse" which has a slightly ominous feel to it, and some Kate Bush style vocals in what passes for a middle eight in Lily's skewed vision of the world. "Running Into Walls" has a chorus to die for with some beautiful harmony, a trick repeated on "Best Left Unsaid."
Lily's song writing has lost none of its quirkiness and individuality, though maybe on this album the choruses are more obviously commercial than on her debut. The chorus of "Better Left Unsaid" has all the hallmarks of the best that Tori Amos can offer.
The influence of both Kate Bush and Tori Amos are apparent on this album as they were her first, though again she avoids any hint of plagiarism. While listening to the album, other artists come to mind: Shawn Colvin on "Runing Into Walls" and "Cowboys And Indians" for example. And just when you think you might be getting Lily pegged, she tosses in a sensitive cover of Ozzy Osbourne's "Mama, I'm Coming Home."
A number of the songs on the album, "Bleed," "Make Them Wonder," "Three Inch Heels' deal, in one way or another, with physical appearance, and powerfully so. Indeed, it's the lyrics on this album that show the most significant development since her debut. "Make Them Wonder" is a lyrically chilling dissection of the sex industry "They want robot sex with a pretty machine / they want a dirty little girl whose mouth tastes clean / well they're all fucked up on the American dream / who are they to call me obscene?" And the domestic violence of "Better Left Unsaid" cuts to the quick "you can cut my heart in sections / and I'll show you no objection / cause it's better than being alone" and "you can strike me with your matches / and scatter me like ashes." There are no punches being pulled here.
Interestingly, "Mermaids" from Running From The Sky, gets a second outing here. And whilst it stood out as the best track on her debut, here, it's matched by a number of the other songs which is a clear indication that this album represents progress. The highlight is arguably the closing song, "Three Inch Nails," which has the feel of a superior Coldplay track and is a wonderful finale to a fine album. In truth, there's very little to find fault with here at all. We will be waiting with great anticipation for Lily's next release. Smiles and handshakes all round.--Jamie Field in Herefordshire, England
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