I met Lili K. in perhaps the most wonderful interview spot yet; a cupcake shop blaring ’80s music from the speakers, decorated in whimsical color palettes and serving gourmet baked goods. After speaking with Lili for a brief moment, I understood why she chose this space. Her uniqueness shines through like an array of colorful cupcakes; each moment different than the next, with so many different interests and an endless vastness about her. As brilliant she is as a musician, she’s also endlessly humble. I felt as if I’d known her for years as our recorded conversation clocked in at nearly an hour, though it seemed like mere minutes.
Lili told me about her journey of self-discovery after releasing Ruby and what happens when you let your energy become drained and drained and drained, as well as her feelings on releasing her upcoming album, Planet of Flowers: “I’m super excited. I’ve been kind of quiet for a while. I think I needed to decompress from a lot of things. We did a lot with Ruby which was really awesome, and I think a lot of it gets looked over sometimes. We played major festivals and went on small tour dates all over the East Coast. We did a lot for an independently-released record with no support, really, and it was awesome. You know when things happen really fast and you attract maybe some of the wrong people? And it gets really hectic, and I got really unhealthy, and I just needed a break from all of it. I had to get back to loving music again and creating. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working on the album and I’m ready now. I feel more secure with myself, and I found my inner peace and everything.”
Lili and I chatted about the five person theory; that your life is shaped most by the five people you surround yourself with. When she spent time with the wrong people, her happiness was affected. “I’ve been surrounding myself with my band and my best friend and my fiancé, my family. Just keeping it close-knit,” she noted.
When she first began recording Ruby, she worked at an advertising agency. Days were spent copywriting, and by night, she’d be working and honing in on her musical process. Those days are long gone, as she and her band have made a name for themselves in this city and beyond; most interestingly, her large fan base in South Africa, which she hopes to visit someday. “I got my first major radio play in South Africa. I want to go as many places as music will take me,” she noted, eyes gleaming.
Someday she’d love to play Park West (no doubt the band will sell it out one day soon), but she’d also like to take her newest material across the country and beyond, whether that means a West Coast tour, or hitting up her favorite East Coast spots like Philadelphia and New York City.
Whatever her plan is, she’s making sure that she won’t let superficial elements of the business get in her way. “It’s just really focusing on the passion and the love for it as opposed to the hype about it. I know it’s important when you’re an artist; you have to worry about the specifics of things and the business. Like, is a song gonna get good traction? And that’s all fine. I get that it’s relevant and necessary, blah blah blah, but as an artist, I just have to focus on the art, because if I start focusing so, so much on the business, then I lose sight of why I’m doing this.”
She noticed that following Ruby, burnout became a snowball effect. Lili would say to herself, you just have to make it through this press run or show run. She began stressing about things that weren’t related to the show itself, and that’s when she knew it was time to decompress. Today, she spends time with those she loves most, either at her home or a friend’s as opposed to navigating the party circuit. Lili K. is also well-known for her baking skills; notably, cheesecake, which she stated is an art form and a science.
Growing up in Milwaukee, Lili always knew she wanted to make music, but didn’t know which genre. In school, she thought she wanted to perform neo-soul, and today includes a blend of genres. Her newest album, Planet of Flowers, will be released without a hard take on genre. With Ruby, the band called it jazz, then it was relabeled within music programs like iTunes. She cites Esperanza Spalding’s work, as well: “It’s not a jazz album, necessarily, it’s rock and funk, but she’s established herself as a jazz artist. That’s what’s tricky for me, because I’m a new artist. Are we going to call it jazz? Are we going to call it soul? The new album has influences of funk and reggae and ska, so I don’t know what we’re gonna call it.”
A longtime fan of gospel, jazz, and Motown, Lili is sick of pigeonholing music into any one genre. With Planet of Flowers, she and her band were able to subvert traditional notions and create a genre-free body of work. “Genre is so stupid; just make good music. Now I’m finally discovering the way to do what I wanted to do but never thought it was possible because I always thought in the constraints of genre.” The album title stems from this idea, as lyrical themes and genres vary from one song to the next. “We view each song as its own little flower, and the album is a planet,” she stated.
Planet of Flowers is slated for its release in early 2017, originally announced in Chicago Magazine. “I was in Whole Foods checking out and buying my dinner and I saw it, opened it, and took pictures. People in line probably thought I was crazy. Press is always cool: I’ve done a few indie magazines before which was pretty sweet, but that was the first one where you could just go and buy it on the stands,” she noted, beaming.
In the meantime, you can listen to the debut single, “Magic,” and watch the brand-new music video. “It [Magic] is basically about women being magical beings. I like to phrase it as “not your mom’s feminist anthem” because it’s a little sassy and a little feisty. It definitely addresses issues of sexism and misogyny. I think it’s good timing,” she asserts. Going further, the song addresses when women lose their magic: “The song is definitely about shitty men trying to steal women’s magic. And of course not all men, because great men don’t do that. There are some wonderful men in this world, but that’s what this is about.” As the music video showcases the new material, we’re learning that Lili K’s album will share innovations that she and her band have been pouring their hearts and souls into.
Today, Lili is surrounded by endless support for her endeavors. First and foremost, by Clinton Sandifer, otherwise known by his stage name Showyousuck and his collaborative work with The Hood Internet, Air Credits. I touted them as a Chicago music power couple; dating for four years and engaged in Mexico this year, their relationship is one we should all aspire to. “I like us to have our separate careers and then we can just be individuals and fans of each other,” Lili states. Together, they like to watch terribly great reality TV including American Greed and old episodes of Making The Band, as well as going to shows in the soul and jazz community or trying new restaurants. “We like Seoul Taco a lot. They finally have a Chicago location. Clinton Tweets them all the time, so when we went in for the first time, they recognized him from Twitter, so they gave us tacos and free shirts,” Lili said while giggling.
She’s also lifted up by the Chicago jazz community. Poet Harold Green curates Flowers for the Living, an event at The Promontory that incorporates singers and musicians from Chicago. She notes that the entire group is so caring and invests in the work of each other as well as their own: “We’re all fans of each other. These shows are so much fun to do because we watch each other and it’s a big ol’ love fest. You leave and feel so invigorated and positive for a week.”
Planet of Flowers is sure to be a success following Lili K.’s whirlwind year. Lili was Tidal’s new artist of note last year, with her photo shown on the Tidal home page. This led Jay-Z to recognize and chat with her at Made in America, where they were invited to play a stage. Whether she’s playing a large-scale show or intimate gathering (like the time they played a Sofar Sounds show or serenaded spa guests at Soho House), she makes sure to get everything just right. She’ll create the set list onsite after she’s felt out the space. “I try to treat every show like it’s a really big, important show, even if it’s just five people. I want everyone to leave feeling better than when they first came in.”
What else did I learn about Lili? She despises karaoke. She touts herself as a wanderer. When recording Planet of Flowers, the band listened to a lot of Anderson Paak. and D’Angelo. If she could listen to three albums for the rest of her life, she’d choose Voodoo, an Ella Fitzgerald compilation (must include her top three favorite songs), and Voyage to India, which made her want to create an album herself. She’s extremely proud about how she got to where she is today without any handouts.
In 10 years, Lili K. would like for her and the band to be able to make their living off music alone and support their families – nothing flashy like Kanye-level fame: “Fame is weird to me. I’ve never had the desire to be famous or be a celebrity; that’s not what I’m in it for. It’s cool when I can connect with people from my music and form relationships, but I don’t want people to follow me and take pictures of me. That’s weird. My music is very personal.” She’d also like to travel the world and tour. For now, she’ll be working with her band on Planet of Flowers, an album that will surely ripple its success throughout the Chicago music scene and beyond.