As Vice President of Louisiana Red Hot Records, Lilli Lewis is responsible for finding and developing talent.
Sometimes she doesn’t have to look far.
Lewis herself is a talented singer and songwriter. Trained as an opera singer and classical pianist, she draws on soul, folk, jazz and other sources to distill her own powerful brand of American music.
In January, Louisiana Red Hot Records released “My American Heart: Red + Blue” from the Lilli Lewis Project, a synthesis of two separate EPs that she first released late last year.
Lewis wanted the EPs to be audio sketchbooks for a full album due out later this year. But the material, particularly combined in the “Red + Blue” package, seems fully fleshed out, from the arrangements to the musicality to the powerful voice and lyrical convictions of Lewis.
At 3 p.m. on Friday, Lewis is the featured artist of the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the Old US Mint’s âPiano Hourâ virtual concert. Solo, she will present songs, in a stripped-down form, from all her ever-growing repertoire. It’s free to watch at facebook.com/nolajazzmuseum/live.
Lewis doesn’t yet have to choose between working behind the scenes at a record company or on stage as an artist. But that day may come.
When it does, it will be the culmination of a long personal and professional journey. Lewis didn’t always feel comfortable in the wider American music community, which is predominantly white and tends to emphasize styles derived from country and folk. Soul and R&B, more traditionally black forms of music, are not as prevalent.
âI was told bluntly, ‘I was afraid you were too ethnic for my place,â she said. â’ What are you playing? We don’t like hip-hop here. I was like, ‘We have a bluegrass set.’
âBecause I received these comments, I was hyper-aware of my crowd and aware of what they can take. I always try to push them a little further.
Lewis grew up in Athens, Georgia, the daughter of a “die-hard introvert” Baptist preacher who received a theological degree from Princeton and felt more at home among Presbyterians. âHe never really fitted in,â Lewis said. âI inherited that out of place character from him. I’m a miniature version of him, without a theology degree.
After boarding school in Connecticut, she attended the University of Georgia on a piano scholarship. While running a series of open mics at a coffeeshop in Decatur, Georgia, she met musician Liz Hogan, a student at nearby Agnes Scott College. The two bonded during a drive to a women’s music festival. They became a couple and eventually got married.
They spent 18 months working at a Colorado Buddhist retreat center before moving to Hammond, Hogan’s hometown. Living in a small town in Louisiana introduced Lewis to a different community.
âBeing queer and black and a little cheesy, people around you will be progressive,â she said. âBut living with people who see the world completely differently has grown me a bit. I have known sectarianism, but also a lot of modesty. That people can hold the two together has been a big lesson for me.
Avant-jazz saxophonist and teacher Edward âKiddâ Jordan has not always been paid.
In 2009, Lewis and Hogan co-founded the folk-rock group The Shiz. The Shiz went on to release several recordings of âConscious, Hippie, Folk Rock and Soulâ. On the road, Lewis was sometimes mistaken for Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes.
âWe were completely independent, inventing as we went,â Lewis said. âVery song-oriented. It was a fun band.
The couple moved to New Orleans after Hogan enrolled in the creative writing workshop at the University of New Orleans. They have performed at the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse and elsewhere. The city was a revelation. “How come it took me so long to get here?” Lewis said. âThe city put me to work as soon as I disembarked.
Sousaphonist Kirk Joseph hired her for his band, a continuing educational experience in and of itself. âFunk is something I’m terrible at,â Lewis said. “Kirk has been so patient with me.”
The Shiz ran out of steam after Hogan accepted a teaching job at the UN and focused on writing poetry instead of songs.
In 2015, Lewis went to work at Louisiana Red Hot Records. His job became more demanding as company founder Harris Rea battled leukemia. She had neither the time nor the inclination to sing. âBut it was not sustainable. My soul was getting sick.
So she started the Lilli Lewis Project with drummer Wade Hymel, a holdover from the Shiz. The Lilli Lewis Project’s first public performance took place on April 14, 2016, the birthday of its namesake.
âI was the one trying to get my voice back. It was utter vanity, but in a serious way.
At a residency at Banks Street Bar and at other concerts, their philosophy was to “practice radical decency.” For a while we had 10 members. It was more of a tribe than a group.
Unlike the upbeat, folkloric rave-ups favored by the Shiz, the Lilli Lewis Project drew inspiration from more subdued jazz, soul and R&B.
Jimmy Buffett wasn’t literally born in New Orleans, but he was professionally.
âI always came from a very independent point of view, even when I was playing more jazz material,â Lewis said. âThere was a level of maturation to give us these songs instead of the sweaty revivalist songs we used to do. These songs require restraint and empty spaces.
She took inspiration from Rea, who maintained his enthusiasm and positive attitude even when he traveled to Houston for treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center (he died there in 2017).
âHe seemed like he didn’t know how to stop,â Lewis said. âIt has been a transformation for me. I take this energy and give it to what I know I was born to do.
At some point, she decided to quit her job at Louisiana Red Hot Records. “I can’t do it at the expense of my music anymore,” she told Rea’s wife Carmen Sunda, who ran the company.
To keep Lewis on board, Sunda offered to sign her as an artist. Lewis therefore stayed and eventually became vice president and chief of A&R, working on projects from singer Erica Falls, zydeco conductor Dwayne Dopsie, and bassist Roland Guerin, among others.
âI fill out the list of people who are creative and do amazing things but have a hard time finding a home. They’re in the same boat as me – not exactly bookable in New Orleans.
She started sketching the “My American Heart” material last spring. She woke up to the fully formed title song early one morning in May, just before George Floyd died at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. Floyd’s death and the protests that followed caused Lewis to “hit the fast forward button.” We were at a time when I felt more free to say things that I wouldn’t normally say.
For her, songwriting was âa diary job. The songs simply explained what was going on in my head.
The lyrics are based directly on her experience of being “different”. âI’ve always been the black kid in a class with white kids, the poor kid in a class with rich kids. I’ve always been the counterpoint to the norm in any given space. I had access to people in a very accessible way. These songs are all real stories because of my walk. ”
Working with veteran producer Mark Bingham, she has recorded several sessions in the summer and fall, supported by a basic rhythm section of Hymel on drums and acoustic guitar and Kenny Murphy on bass. Bassist Jimbo Walsh, lap steel guitarist Dave Easley, violinist Gina Forsyth and keyboardist Josh Paxton all contributed.
The material was more vulnerable, more personal, more open, more American.
âSometimes you feel silly and silly for keeping your heart open,â Lewis said. âIt hurts sometimes. But that’s where the hope lives.
Aaron Neville turned 80 on Sunday, the first of New Orleans’ three rhythm & blues legends to reach that milestone in 2021.