“Next Wednesday we’re heading down to DC. You know, you can read about a band but you’ve just got to go see them. We like to push the envelope, you know, take up the space, experiment vocally.”
Lily Vakili is a true renaissance woman. Having grown up in such varied locales as Honduras, Thailand, Puerto Rico, Minnesota, and Iowa, she has seen her share of different cultures and people, her own background (the daughter of an Iranian immigrant and an Irish American librarian) a testament to diversity itself. Plus, Lily got her first taste of performing with the Minneapolis theatre community, is a Harvard-trained biotech lawyer, sings like Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith, and Joan Jett combined, and fronts a killer band is enough to pique anyone’s curiosity about her art.
With four albums completed — two as a singer-songwriter and two with her band, 2018’s Oh Alright and Walking Sideways, released in February 2022 — Lily is hitting the road with her bandmates (guitarist/songwriting collaborator Ben St. Jack, harmonica player Joel Dorow, drummer Gordon Kuba, and bassist Matt Jovanis) for a short East Coast tour.
ParklifeDC’s Mark Caicedo had the opportunity to speak with Lily about Vakili Band’s DC show at The Runaway on Wednesday, Oct. 12.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mark Caicedo: Hello, thank you for taking the time.
Lily Vakili: Oh, absolutely.
MC: Let’s get into the new album, or the newish album, Walking Sideways. Tell me about that.
LV: It was almost like, wait, where do we start? We went into the studio [thinking], ‘okay, it’s going to be out in a year,’ and coming out of the pandemic, it was kind of like, wait, I want to reclaim what we did.
MC: Did you did you start the album before the pandemic?
LV: Well, yeah, when the pandemic hit, we had actually gotten some of the stuff recorded and then we thought, “Oh, shoot, are we going to put this on hold?” I mean, who knew? Oh, is it going to be six weeks? Remember that?
MC: Right? I thought I’d be back at the office in a couple of weeks.
LV: So, what we did, though, is we said, ‘look, let’s just find a way to keep playing.’ Because that means everything, right? So, we started getting together in our backyard and we played well into the late fall, until our fingers didn’t work. That’s how we kept working on the sound. We just, like everybody else, had to find ways to make it happen. We were lucky to get most of the tracks down.
Stream Walking Sideways by Vakili Band on Spotify:
MC: What’s your process for recording in the studio, do you play live? How does that compare to performing?
LV: Well, they really are two different worlds. When you’re performing live with a band it is deeply collaborative. You are like a living organism. I just love the engagement in a live setting. You never know what might happen.
MC: Isn’t that a great feeling?
LV: Yeah. It’s cool being alive.
MC: Have you been working with these guys for a long time? The band, I mean.
LV: So, we were joking, you know? I mean everybody lost track of time and we were rehearsing one day and everybody realizes, hey, really? It’s our ten-year anniversary. We’ve been playing together for a long time.
MC: I want to pick up on what you mentioned about influences. Your website’s bio mentions Brandi Carlile, Patti Smith, and Joan Jett. That seems to be all over the map.
LV: I can understand that my interests might be characterized as, “wow, that’s all over the map.”
MC: Yeah, anybody who’s into music just likes different kinds of music and tries to learn from them.
LV: Well, my background is so [varied], my father coming out of the Middle East and that entire culture, and I grew up listening to some of the great Iranian and Persian singers. You know, you mentioned Patti Smith, who is a poet, and she’s a huge fan of Rumi, a Sufi poet who comes out of the Zoroastrian tradition. [ed. note: Zoroastrians believe that there is one universal, transcendent, all-good, and uncreated supreme creator deity]. I have five siblings, was born in Honduras, lived in Latin America, and grew up in Thailand. I went to school on military bases. So, we grew up around a lot of American military and that meant a lot of Southern influence, southern rock and a lot of rhythm and blues. I’m the fifth of six kids, and so I heard everything from Sly and the Family Stone to Joni Mitchell to Iggy Pop. I think I’m a bit of a sponge.
MC: I want to get back to live performance, has the tour actually started or are you about to hit the road?
LV: On Wednesday, we’re heading down to DC. You know, you can read about a band but you’ve just got to go see them. We like to push the envelope, you know, take up the space, experiment vocally. And it can be a kind of therapy, musical performance that changes the elements around you in a very energetic way and willing to take those risks where, you know, sometimes it doesn’t work out. It’s where you engage with people. In that most direct way, you can be in front of them and share the energy of the room and ideas in a certain way that can be so visceral.
Watch the official music video for “Father’s Son” by Vakili Band on YouTube:
MC: But it’s the attempt that matters, trying new things. I’ve been around long enough to span the vinyl LP age through CDs to now streaming. The traditional radio hit single from years ago doesn’t really exist anymore because people don’t listen to radio. It’s the live performance, getting out there in front of people that’s way more, at least from my point of view, important these days.
LV: In a world of social media, it’s great that artists can kind of deploy their own platforms where it used to be the province of the PR company or…
MC: The record company.
LV: Yeah. So in some ways it’s, quote unquote, more democratized, but also deeply alienating. It’s important to understand what the limitations and parameters of social media are. Why are you using this platform? What is the purpose for it? What is the thing you’re communicating? And is the thing that you’re communicating consistent with whatever your ethos is? Like, the importance of emotional connection and valuing artistic expression.
MC: I want to ask, how does a biotech lawyer become a rock and roller? Or are people just complicated and we can do all kinds of things? Is it that simple?
LV: That’s absolutely true. Every performer I know has a side gig. You know, William Carlos Williams was a physician and poet. These things are not anathema to one another. The right and left brain can talk to each other.
MC: Yeah, they’re not mutually exclusive.
LV: Right! I began in a world of performance decades before I went to law school. People who knew me growing up were not the least bit surprised that I became a lawyer.
MC: So you always had that urge to perform and create within you?
LV: Oh, yeah. I was writing poems to my mother at five years old. I’ve been in shows of various kinds. When I was in middle school in Puerto Rico, we put on a show that was totally directed and choreographed. This idea of the creative act, something that was not there before, that has this collaborative element to it, that’s kind of dreamy, aspirational, and sometimes a little dangerous because it’s outside the normal bounds of conformity and tradition. I enjoy and am driven to be in both worlds. And I know that it makes me a little bit of a weirdo.
MC: Aren’t we all, though, in our own way?
LV: I’m just not going to be shy about it, you know? I know that it doesn’t make sense to some people, but part of the reason why it might not make sense is because they’ve capitulated to this idea of basic conformity that is suffocating. That’s why you go to the live performance, that’s why you go out dancing. You know, sometimes that’s why you go out drinking. That’s why you just say, ‘Enough! I wish to be free, to be a free person.’ One of the ways that humans have done this from the start of history is through performing and art. Or love. And this is what I do. And all the rest of you, go fuck all! You know what I have to offer? Yeah, this is what I’m offering. And I’m going to give you my heart.
MC: That gets to the essence of it. I’m sorry I’m going to miss the show. Is there anything else you want to say about the tour or the shows coming up? Any long-term plans for additional touring?
LV: Guided by Voices is one of the major fantastic touring bands.
MC: Yes, of course!
LV: It just so happens that the drummer, Kevin March, is a good friend of the band and he told us a while back, ‘You know what, guys? You’ve got to get out of town. You’re ready. Get out of Jersey. Get out of New York.’ We’re like, all right, let’s do this. But you got to do it yourself, bookings, publicity. So we’re in that kind of conundrum between doing it all ourselves. But now we’ve connected with Jillian and we’re getting some publicity.
MC: I’m always on the lookout for new bands. I tend to get stuck in the old familiar, my own interests but I really try to stay open to new bands, to new sounds.
LV: The new. I think it’s hugely liberating in a lot of different ways. To allow yourself to do that, permission to step beyond and outside of the familiar. You know I think for all of us in the band it’s like this tour is kind of part of that, right? It’s like, yeah, okay, we’re going to step out of our comfort zone. Well, you know, we’ve played every kind of dive bar, cafe, beer garden. And part of it is like, you know what? No, we’re not going to be discriminating right now. If you show up and maybe you’re going to make one fan, maybe you’re going to make ten, 20, 30. You don’t know. But we’re gonna play!
MC: And you never know. Those are the places where some of the best shows occur. You know, they’re very intimate and everybody’s into it.
LV: Yeah, that’s what I like.
MC: Well, Lily, thank you so much. And like I said, if you’re ever out here in the area, drop me a line.
LV: Yeah, cool. All right, take it easy.
Vakili Band performs at The Runaway on Wednesday, Oct. 12.
w/ Outerloop, Higher Numbers
Wednesday, Oct. 12
Doors @ 8:30pm