Back on September 26th, myself and WRVU’s station manager Morgan Levy had the opportunity to sit down with Lillie West of Lala Lala before her gig opening for Mothers at the 5 Spot. In the parking lot across the street from the venue we talked about the band’s history, writing process, tour life, and anticipated upcoming album The Lamb, which has since been released. Her first LP, Sleepyhead, was put out on Bandcamp back in 2016 in what she considers to be a moment of “boredom.” You wouldn’t guess this by listening to the record, however, as its sound is anything but monotonous.
Now signed to Hardly Art, it’s clear that a lot has changed between these two projects for the Chicago-based songwriter. West’s maturation during this period is apparent— both in her instrumentation and lyrics— and for all of Sleepyhead’s rapid divulgence, The Lamb offers a shot at self-control. This latest album represents a new direction for Lala, one that sets her up to be a name to know in the indie rock scene. Check out our chat with her below.
M: This is WRVU Nashville with Lillie West of Lala Lala.
L: I just call it Lala. She responds to my awkward attempt to make ‘Lala Lala’ sound professional at the end of a sentence, no doubt just one of a string of attempts she’s been subjected to over her growing career.
M: Tell us a little bit about the band and about you, how you got started?
L: That’s kind of a big, big question. We got started…I don’t know. The first Lala show I played ever was four years ago with my roommate at the time, Lila. It was me and Lila at our house in Chicago. It was just a little house show we made, but a lot has changed.
M: What are the biggest changes from then, when you put out Sleepyhead, to now?
L: More than anything else, the amount of time that Lala takes up in my life has grown. She looks down at the cracked asphalt, letting out a sharp exhale in replacement of a laugh in a way that suggests she’s a little overwhelmed, but, more importantly, satisfied. She continues. Like from that one house show that was like a little tiny blip, to now where it’s my full-time job basically. And if I’m not on tour with Lala, I’m thinking about it in some way, or trying to write for it or something. Yeah, that’s the biggest change, the longer I’ve been doing it the more time it takes up.
M: Did you ever anticipate it getting this big?
L: No, not at all. No…. She pauses to consider before coming back to the same conclusion. No. It was fairly recent that the thought even crossed my mind that it could be my ‘job-job.’ Like within the last year. And then starting to work with Hardly Art about six months ago, I just never thought about it as bigger than just doing it, you know, just having fun. I mean, it’s still fun, but now it’s my job.
M: Does that detract from the fun?
L: Well, I think anything you do every day is going to be challenging. But I don’t know, I’m trying to be really positive lately. I was listening to this podcast about ‘gratitude,’ it was a Freakonomics episode. The metaphor they use is where you’re running or biking, which I do a lot in Chicago, and you’re biking against the wind you can’t help but think ‘crap, this is torture, this sucks, I can’t wait til this ends.’ And then as soon as you change route, and you’re going with the wind, you’re super grateful…but only for like sixty seconds and then you become used to being assisted by the wind. And they were using that metaphorically to describe what everyone does in every aspect of their life. Just thinking about that, because now I’m used to touring, in a way sometimes you can forget how lucky you are. So, I’m trying to be positive, or trying not to think about it all the time.
M: So tell me about writing and getting The Lamb produced. When is the official release date?
L: Friday. The day after tomorrow. I’m honestly sick to my stomach. I’m so nervous, I can’t believe it.
M: Is it scarier than when Sleepyhead came out?
L: Yeah, Sleepyhead I just put on Bandcamp in the middle of the night. I was just like, ‘I’m bored.’
M: Does this feel more like a debut record than Sleepyhead?
L: Yeah, totally. I mean, I’ve been thinking about that too. The terminology surrounding records and making records. The music industry is obsessed with age, they love when people are 18, they’re like obsessed with it. But also, there’s a lot of assignment of time, like using ‘debut.’ Everyone’s calling this the sophomore record because it’s technically the second, but I just think it’s so different. And I guess, my hope is that the next one will also be really different. So it feels like the debut record, but I also hope the next one does too.
M: With the industry using all these labels to describe where you are and what you’re producing in your career, do all the labels feel imposing at all?
L: It’s just like what press is. It’s simplifying and minimizing. I don’t know, it’s fine. I don’t really mind it. It’s interesting, I’ve never been through a process like this, or had any kind of press on anything I’ve done ever. It’s an interesting adjustment. It’s totally new to me. I’ve talked to my other friends who have been in bands for a while about touring, about the things that I struggle with and the things that I really enjoy and they’re like ‘yup, we know.’ She laughs.
M: I know you’re close with some of the members of IAN SWEET, is that right?
L: Yes, Jilian. We have tattoos of each other’s band names. Where is it? There. She points to one tattoo out of what must have been dozens of different words and shapes. She has ‘Lala Lala’ in the same place.
M: Has Jilian been a resource for you as you make a transition into being more in the spotlight?
L: Yeah, totally. I don’t really think I’m in the spotlight or anything, but… She laughs. I don’t want people to think that I think that I’m famous. Yeah, Jilian’s really helpful. A lot of my friends are really helpful. I think that it’s nice to talk to all different types of people. I talk to a lot of my friends and they all have a different perspective. Some people feel exactly the same way as me about performing, which is that it’s really challenging. And some other people, it’s so natural to them. But everybody has their own perspective on it.
M: So, transitioning more into talking about this project, when did all the pieces start falling together for The Lamb, and how was that process?
L: Well, I was writing songs but, quite frankly, Hardly Art asked for demos. We made them. They said ‘we like them. Do you want to make some more songs?’ And then I wrote those songs. That was in Winter. They came to a show in the Fall in Chicago. It with Girlpool and Palm. In the Fall is when I started really writing. I don’t know, there are some songs that I started a really long time ago and some that I really started writing specifically with the record in mind.
M: What does your writing process look like?
L: There’s a lot of different ways that I write, or little pieces. Like I’ll be reading something, and I’ll like a phrase and I’ll write it down. Or I’ll see a sign when we’re driving on the highway or something. Or just a thought or lyric will pop into my head. I have a running note on my phone of lyric and song ideas. And then it just depends, sometimes I have really intentional writing time where I sit down and I literally and just playing around going like ‘’Laaaa, Laaaa.’ She sings a few random notes to demonstrate, laughing before finishing the last. Or I’ll listen to an idea I had before and try and develop it more.
M: So do you constantly have that running list open, looking for those little pieces of inspiration that you might have seen just about anywhere?
L: Yeah…well, I don’t think about it that much. I try and let things come to me, I guess.
A: Has that writing process changed at all from when you were writing Sleepyhead?
L: I feel like all the songs on Sleepyhead were written in one sitting. Not all of them together, but song by song. And I spend way more time thinking about arrangements now, and that kind of thing. Sleepyhead is basically like a live record. We tracked it all live, and then I doubled the guitar and did vocal over-dubs. But that’s it. It’s just guitar, drum, bass. When with The Lamb I wrote three guitar parts for some songs, or there’s synth on other ones. Emily Kempf, who plays in the band Dehd and Vail, she plays on the record. She did a lot of backup vocal work and there’s no back-up really on Sleepyhead. And on The Lamb, I did a lot of guitar over-dubs that I improvised in the studio, which I’ve never done before outside of making demos.
M: So when did you start playing music? When did you acquire all the skills to be able to manipulate the new record in these new ways?
L: When I was a kid I played piano for a little bit, and flute. She rolls her eyes and holds back a laugh. In high school, I tried to play accordion. If you can do it well it’s awesome. I started to play guitar when I moved to Chicago when I was 19, almost 20. And then the last two years I’ve become barely even an adequate guitarist. The things that I know on any instrument are very simple and instinctual. But I will say in the last two years I’ve started making an effort with them. I really want to get better and I think about it a lot.
M: So this tour that you’re on right now, when did you start?
L: Six days ago. We’re going home tomorrow while Mothers keeps going because we have a release show in Chicago on Friday. And then we’re meeting back up with Mothers in New Orleans on the 2nd. And then we’re with them for two weeks, and then we go home for two weeks. And then we have a five-week tour with a band called Why? They’re awesome, they’re one of my favorite bands.
M: What are a few more of your favorite bands? Either ones you take influence from or just anyone you’re into right now.
L: Who doesn’t, but I cannot get enough of Big Thief. I can not get enough of Big Thief or Adrianne’s solo music. I think about Big Thief every single day. And I’ll listen to it, or if I’m not listening to it I’m thinking about how good it is. She’s such an incredible songwriter and I love their arrangements. I really like Mitski, and Milo. He actually just put out some new material. Future Islands I love. But I think Mothers is unreal. I think Mothers is going to turn the tide. She slowed her speech to give an air of humorous severity.
M: What was the first song you heard by them?
L: I head ‘It Hurts Until It Doesn’t’ first, it’s they’re most popular one. And I listened to them a little bit before this tour, but seeing them on this tour has been unreal. They’re really some next level stuff. Are you staying for the show?
L: You’re in for a treat. They are so good.
M: Did Mothers ask you to do this tour with them, or was it set up through a manager?
L: Well, I’m not sure exactly how it works. We’re on the same booking agency. I think maybe my agent asked their agent and then they said ‘yes’ and then my agent asked me and I said ‘yes.’ I never know exactly.
M: What was that like when you found out you’d potentially on tour with them?
L: I was pleased. She smiled, nodding slowly.
M: So, when you were starting out you did a lot of DIY tours, what was that time in your life like?
L: Yeah, I did a fair amount. It was different. I don’t know, DIY touring is its own beast if that’s not a cheesy thing to say. It was cool. There’s something about people that want to make and see music so badly that they create their own space for it. That’s so cool and it’s not the same in venues. That genuine energy is often not as present. But it was also really hard. I feel DIY touring for me, personally, was a lot about partying. And it was super fun, but I could never do it now. I’m just too tired all the time. I’ve been vegan for the last two weeks. Abbey, my bandmate, is vegan and I ate cheese today. I broke vegan and I seriously feel it, I am so tired. I ate cheese and I need to go to sleep.
A: How is being vegan while touring?
L: It’s okay. We go to Whole Foods every day, which we did before. But it’s a bummer, it’s like a corporate-ass place. It’s so scary in there now that Amazon redid it. It’s this creepy, Orwellian future. But it’s been fine, Ben, who plays drums, and Annie, who plays bass, have been eating vegan too.
M: How long have you been playing with them?
L: So, Abbey was the first long-term drummer, three years ago. And then she left for about a year, and Ben started playing with us and he plays drums now. Then Abbey came back six months ago, plays guitar and keys now. Annie plays in a band called Chastity Belt, and she’s busy. This is the only tour she can do with us, so this is her sixth show and she’s going to finish the tour and then hop off and someone else will come in.
M: What are your favorite places to play? Or favorite cities to stop in?
I really liked the place we played last night, The Mothlight in West Asheville. We’ve played there a couple times and they have a really great green room with a ping-pong table. We played in DC this Fall and it was a great show, the crowd was really good.
A: Are you planning on keeping your hair color the way it is now and on the record cover?
L: No, I hate it right now. It’s like bright pink, I hate it. I’m going to put orange in it tomorrow so it’s orangey-pink, and then I might bleach my roots. I’m so bored of dealing with my hair right now.
M: Well, thank you so much for joining us for an interview. Do you have any message for all the readers out there?
L: Thank you. She yawns. I hope everyone is getting enough sleep.