“Peace and love and justice are where it’s at/Milk of human kindness/The righteous hand of God” - “Facial Recognition Technology” Lily Vakili wasn’t born in a crossfire hurricane like Jumpin’ Jack Flash, but in Honduras during a civil war, bullets flying overhead. Her father emigrated to the U.S. to escape the political turmoil in Iran in 1949, studying at the University of Chicago – where he met Lily’s mother, a midwestern Irish-American librarian – going on to become a plant geneticist in Honduras. They moved when Vakili was three years old, to Florida, then to Bangkok and Puerto Rico, where she lived for the better part of a decade before moving to Ames, Iowa. She attended the University of Minnesota and became part of the local Minneapolis theatre community. With three albums under her belt – two as a singer-songwriter and the most recent with her band, 2018’s Oh Alright – Vakili is preparing to release a second band album, Walking Sideways, that shows the growth of Lily as a songwriter, vocalist, and bandleader, and the group as a whole – including guitarist and occasional songwriting collaborator Ben St. Jack, harmonica player Joel Dorow and a rock-solid rhythm section featuring drummer Gordon Kuba and bassists Jim Tyndall and Matt Jovanis. Now a successful biotech lawyer – trained at Harvard Law no less -- Lily has also mined time to pursue a career as a rock ‘n’ roll shaman. Vakili Band’s musical touchstones include Patti Smith, Joan Jett, and Brandi Carlile – with a smattering of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” liberation, David Bowie’s chameleon-like “Changes” and the New York Dolls’ attitude thrown in for good measure. A force of nature unafraid to express her political beliefs, Vakili lives her life as a whole, refusing to compartmentalize, either in her career or her diverse music, from the anthemic “Horses” meets “Piss Factory” call to arms of “We Got Dreams,” inspired by her empathy with a foreman at a processing plant who doubled as a set designer, to the wry social satire of “Facial Recognition Technology” (“I’m no Luddite, but these ‘advances’ come with their own drawbacks”), and the gospel rave-up of “Dreamy Dreamer,” with its insistence to “make it real now.” “Sharp Devil” has a Stones-esque swagger to it, a country flavor that recalls “Wild Horses,” while “When 21” looks at the younger generation with the wisdom of someone who’s been there, inspired by the experience of her non-neurotypical, autistic son (“Who doesn’t want to be bright and young/Life’s nice and easy when 21”). The title track was inspired by Vakili spotting a woman emerging from a bar so tipsy that she was “Walking Sideways,” exploring her inner thoughts on the way to arriving at that sad but defiant state. The inspiration for “Freeman” came from seeing a prisoner working in the fields, respecting that individual as a human being, while “She Wants What” is a raucous, feminist anthem that features a tongue-in-cheek reference to a hot dog which, thank you Sigmund Freud, is more than just a frankfurter. “Women are so often sexualized and viewed from the male gaze, it’s a play on those expectations of what she wants,” says Vakili about the aforementioned wiener. The fifth of six siblings, Vakili first picked up the guitar when she was 14 – from an older sister who had left for college – and began writing right away. She still comes to the rest of the band with a completed song, as far as music and lyrics, though she has just collaborated on a pair of songs, co-writing with her guitarist Ben St. Jack. “I was raised on all kinds of music... I’m omnivorous,” she says. “From my parents playing Peruvian highland music to Puerto Rican salsa, bachata, and reggaeton. Those Afro-Caribbean rhythms are built into my music.” More than a musician, Vakili is a social warrior, with her song “PLJ” basically laying out her goal... Peace, Love, and Justice. “I love words and their meaning,” she says. “I’ve lived in these different cultures, where words may be written down in a constitution, but sometimes they don’t really mean anything, they don’t protect the people.” For Vakili, a live performance takes the music beyond words to achieving a trance-like communal state that evokes the whirling dervishes using repetition and the primal beat to achieve a transcendent state. “That’s the connection we all have,” says Vakili, whose 94-year-old father is a sculptor as well as a scientist, brought up on the idea you can use both sides of your brain simultaneously, allowing them to feed on each other. “It just zaps you on the head. That’s what I try to do with my music.” For Vakili, music is a labor of love, but it is also an occupation where she must find ways to generate income to keep the band alive, where she’s played local dates in the tri-state area, including, most recently, a packed gig at New York’s Bowery Electric. “I’m good at performing live, man, so why shouldn’t I?” asks Vakili, and who are we to argue? “And I’m learning how best to execute what I want to do in the studio, which is a whole other animal.” Vakili’s musical career is testament to the non-conformist beliefs with which she was raised. “We do not have to do everything we’re told in this society,” she insists. “We do not have to accept those limitations. That’s how I’ve lived my life, though not without paying a price.” Vakili still has faith that rock ‘n’ roll can change the world. “If you’re asking me, do I believe in love, yes I do,” she says. “This is fun for me. It’s not an escape. Performing music live is a pursuit of ecstasy, connection, desire, and love... it’s real, heady stuff. You have to work to make it productive, but I just love doing this.” For Vakili Band, Walking Sideways represents a major step forward. They make it real... NOW.
Lily Vakili – responses: Please share a story that includes a happy memory as an artist and has hugely impacted your artistry. Many of my songs start out as poems and one of the first poems I wrote was for my mother. It was basically a love song to her. I wrote it in elementary school (maybe third grade). When she read it for the first time, I remember the total delight and surprise in her expression. Something I had created from nothing, something that had not and would not have existed but for my making it, had made my mother happy. That experience – the sense of freedom, agency and possibility - has inspired all of my creative work. How do you choose to lead a Happy Healthy life as an artist? I try to stay balanced – by that I mean paying attention to my surroundings, being open to new information, learning from others, and following my creative instincts. I also actively and intentionally choose happiness. It is not always possible, of course, but orienting oneself towards happiness is a good start. Who did you learn from to instill those values? Both my mother and father were disciplined in their approach to knowledge, art and self-expression. My mother was also joyful and chose to be so. She was the person who told me to pursue my dreams – or, as she put it, “What are you waiting for? No one else will do it for you.” At 95, my father continues to be a creative person in the world. He has his own ongoing dialogue with nature and it is reflected in his creative expression – whether that takes the form of a new sculpture or the planting of a flowering bush in a garden. Was it hard work to make sure that you focused on your well-being and not only your art? It can be challenging, because I’d rather create and think about creating than think about my health. The thing is though, I want the energy to create and perform, so I’m willing to pay attention to self-care in order to be able to live a creative life. I want it badly enough that I’m ok with foregoing some pleasures of the moment (most of the time…). Was there a turning point in how you decided to put yourself first? No, but as any caregiver knows, if you don't take care of yourself, it makes it more difficult to care for others in the way you would like. As the parent of a son with significant disabilities, I learned early on in his life that I had to be (and I wanted to be) strong – mentally and physically – in order to care for him. How do you like to promote a healthy lifestyle? By encouraging people to express themselves in creative ways. It's pretty basic, but when you feel good about yourself, people are more inclined to be more mindful of living in a healthy way. In what ways are you connecting with fans to check in on each other? It’s so important to be open about mental and emotional health. And I’ve only learned that because of the example of friends and family. If you’re experiencing an emotional or mental health issue, more often than not, people can and will help – with advice, with an understanding heart and with the example of their own lives. I think people who enjoy our music are the kind of people who will check in on other people – I say that because so many of our songs are about PLJ (peace, love & justice)! Who checks in on YOU when you need it most? I’m lucky to have a wonderful network of friends who are also mothers raising children with disabilities. They have had my back in some hard times and we all check in on one another. Changing habits can be hard. Which was the habit that you had to change and how has it changed your life now? When I was in my teens and 20s, I had a tendency to work to the point of exhaustion. It was definitely not healthy. My mother first noticed it and she advised me to acknowledge that tendency and to disrupt the pattern of behavior that led me to that point. It continues to take practice, but now, I’m much, much more able to put the work (creative or otherwise) down before it gets the best of me. I make time to swing in the hammock, take a walk with a friend, close my eyes and rest, or just sit a little longer at the family dinner table. Is there a song, book, movie, show, or anything that always gives you the motivation you need? There are many things that give me motivation, but two that I rely on are a poem by Ha Jin called “A Center” and a poem by the Sufi, Molana Jalal-aldin-e-Rumi, that my father translated from Farsi, it is called “Enigma & Union.” What is the mantra of 2022?! We are the band of “Yes!” – not the band YES, but the band that says “Yes!” to opportunities whenever possible. Goofy, I know, but effective.
Give all the inside scoop on your latest project!
We’re doing a U.S. tour in support of our new album, Walking Sideways! We’re super excited about playing new venues, checking in with radio stations that have our songs in rotation, and, best of all, meeting and making new fans. We’ll be playing Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Asheville and Charlotte and a few more towns. We’ll share dates, venues and ticket links soon on our website and socials. If we’re in your area, come see us! Hooray!
Walking Sideways: https://ffm.to/vb-walkingsideways