Being a fan and follower of Nashville's Lillie Mae has long been a three-way race of fascination between her style, her sound and her story. Each is a facet of a complex, beguiling artist.
For music-loving denizens of Lower Broadway before the Pedal Tavern Era, the Rische family band playing bluegrass, country and wild instrumentals at Layla's was a staple. Lillie Mae, the youngest of four siblings, fiddled and sang. They were wildy good, obviously dedicated and exotic birds in the Nashville jungle, with their thrift store kitsch and ever-changing hair. When they got signed to Arista Records as Jypsi in 2007, the label image consultants wanted them to tone it down.
That country record deal is but a footnote now in the narrative of Lillie Mae. Today she has a perch and platform more worthy of her vision at Jack White's Third Man Records, where this week she releases her second LP, Other Girls. And once again, she surprises at every turn. Songs have dramatic interludes and language that can be lofty or prickly. Vocals glow with keening close harmonies (all sung as overdubs by Lillie Mae herself). Melodies sweep and swerve with affect that country radio couldn't grasp if it tried. And yet she doesn't come off as a calculating composer, rather a fresh spirit who doesn't know how exquisitely unusual she is.
The album was produced by the ubiquitous Grammy Award winner Dave Cobb at his lair, historic RCA Studio A. But at a listening event there before the release, he made it clear that Lillie Mae was the source of the sound. "There's nothing normal about this record in the best possible way," he said. "Hearing the demos, I knew she was already heading somewhere totally different than anything I've ever heard, and to get to jump along and ride that ride was a blast."
When we met at Third Man for the conversation presented above (and excerpted in Episode 99 of The String), Lillie Mae was leaning toward the more refined side of her stylistic spectrum, with bone white hair swept over in a pixie 'do, a white lace top and red plastic lightning bolt earrings. It suggested a soft re-mix of David Bowie's Aladdin Sane album cover. As a kid virtually abandoned by her father to fend with her siblings when she was barely a teenager, a musician who's honky tonked for a living for years, a rock and roller who's toured with Jack White's bands, one might expect a hard-bitten or aloof persona. That's far from the reality. Lillie Mae is charming and self-effacing about what she's pulled off.
On being connected with Dave Cobb:
"Working with Dave came about through my manager, which I didn't even know about. I live in my bubble. Then I start hearing about Dave Cobb's name. Jack White brought it up to me. I talked to Dave on the phone for a minute. He was a real nice guy. Easy conversation. For me I didn't have a list of people I wanted to work with or goals. I was like, 'I'm writing songs. I've got songs.' But I don't know who a hot producer is. And most of Dave's music I hadn't heard. Eventually I looked it up right before we were going to record! I'm kind of out of the loop."
On the spaciousness and history of RCA Studio A:
"I love high ceilings. I've never lived in a home with high ceilings, but I've dreamt about it! You can breathe and grow. Wonderful, there's no roof on the place. Singing there was easy. It was easy to hit high notes because mentally there was no ceiling. It can soar up, so I felt that for sure."
On the dramatic conclusion of the album, a six-minute track called "Love Dilly Love":
"I let a lot of stuff go this album. That song (says) 'No love, dilly love.' I was at this place in my life where it was like no love, for a long time! So the very end of it, when the instrumental changes to the positive, I feel like it's just release. There it goes. It's like healing itself. It got captured."
Lillie Mae makes her Grand Ole Opry debut on Saturday Aug. 17 and then spends most of September opening for and playing fiddle with Robert Plant.