Lili Anel Unplugged — the Post-Covid Interview
Award-winning Philly artist reveals a lot about her inner workings and the secret to ‘Bliss From Here’
“I was working on a song during the pandemic and my husband walked into the room and asked me, ‘When are you going to make a solo record?’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘I hear you from the other room, just your voice and guitar and it sounds beautiful; it’s all you need.’”
Give Lili Añel just one song — and she’ll get to you. It’s because this Philly artist does everything with her whole heart and soul, pouring and pouring and pouring it all out until there’s nothing left, and then giving some more.
Every last drop. Everything out there.
Think of the singer/songwriter as a modern-day Joan of Arc, with guitar-tangled pipes and musical truth running through her core. Born in El Barrio, Spanish Harlem and raised in the South Bronx, Añel is one of those indie free spirits who lets it all hang out, nothing off limits.
She uses her life as a reflection in her first-person, folk-rock-jazz, story-telling narrative. Whatever Añel’s been through, feels, or imagines goes straight into her impactful original music and well-banded covers. Life, death, losing her hair to Alopecia, struggling to make a living. All of it — the good and the bad — goes into the muse.
Like many talented indie artists, she’s often left on the outskirts, knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door…at the crossroads of fame and obscurity, staying true to who she is (not a cookie-cutter MTV remake) versus the current Top 40 bubblegum pop manufacture of whatever sells, selling out.
A breakthrough artist (New York Music Award winner, three times over) of her caliber often gets overlooked, and she has been one too many times. But she keeps coming back and coming through, on the strength of that raw, naked voice howling with pain and triumph, picking and pounding away, hustling her ass off for every opportunity to show what she can do.
Not even a pandemic kept Lili Añel down for long. After a period of shock and mourning, she did what every artist worth her salt does: she got up and got back to work, opening up that huge heart of hers, and turning setbacks into listening goldmines.
So that we, too, can feel better.
She’s been so close. Maybe this time, the world will know her gut-wrenching voice like I do — and be moved accordingly.
It's been a minute. How have you been, Lili?
I am well for the wear, I suppose. This has been a very intense time for the obvious reasons. I am glad to say I am surviving this, but it has not been easy.
The last time we talked on the phone, life was normal. Then, the pandemic hit. What's your life been like and how did you first respond to news that the novel coronavirus would annihilate humankind?
I was very scared. Like many, I was riddled with anxiety. I have asthma and Alopecia, which is autoimmune by nature (inflammatory). I was extremely careful. I barely went anywhere. For months when the lockdown was in full tilt, I didn’t see my twin sister, Barbara. We are close. She lives around the corner from me. We spoke on the phone a lot and Face-Timed, but it was weird. I will say that I feel different. I’m not quite sure how, but I’m changed. I’m sure I’m not alone feeling this way.
Quite frankly, I felt “mankind” would have been annihilated by the last administration. I truly believed we would be experiencing a Holocaust of sorts. I believed all minorities would be segregated and split up, sent to camps. Whenever I expressed this to people, they’d say I was being dramatic. I truly believe this was on the horizon at that time.
Music took a major hit, as well as all of the arts. After a period of mourning and shock, lots of other artists took to their prospective canvases to express their feelings and share...amazingly...hope that we'll come through the other end. What did you do, what was your process?
I can say music is what saved me. I wrote over 30 songs in a short amount of time. I learned DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and began recording myself, multi-tracking, editing – learning, all I could. I’d send files to my bandmates, who would add their parts. While the end result sounded pretty good, it was a strange way of making music. I prefer being face-to-face in the recording studio. We did what we could. I think my psyche went into overdrive to save me from being overly anxious. I have a good 10-12 completed songs. The remaining 20 or so need some work, but they’re pretty complete. I was surprised at what I was doing, but I just went with it. I am usually writing something, but this was all really fast.
I had the opportunity of working with a musician that I otherwise might not have been able to, as he is always touring. His name is David Pulkingham, an amazing guitarist that I was fortunate enough to meet in my travels. I was happy that he was able to play on one of the songs I wrote (“Bésos”). It all turned out beautifully. I hope to release these songs in 2022.
I also took a dive into creating a video. There is a whole lot more for me to learn on that end, but it certainly kept me busy. I’d written a song called “As It’s Been,” which was my reaction to the George Floyd murder. I played all of the instruments on the recording. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but I put it out in the world with the video. It was a feeling of release for me. All of the racial unrest made me feel sad and scared.
Gigs are coming back. Are you back, too?
I had my first live gig August 4th at Brandywine Park in Wilmington, Delaware as part of the “Sugar Bowl Concert Series.” It was the first time playing live in a year and a half. It took a minute to get settled, but it felt like we picked up where we had left off. We all had a great time. I have a run of shows in the fall that I am very much looking forward to. I, however, am seeing a lot of rescheduling of dates by other musicians and venues due to the Delta Variant, so everything remains to be seen. I would not be surprised if some of the dates are rescheduled at some point.
What did you do during the (en)forced down time?
As I mentioned, I threw myself into my music, which helped me a lot. I co-wrote some of the songs with my sister, Barbara. We’d work over the phone. That wasn’t new for us, as after I moved to Philadelphia from New York, we’d often write over the phone. I binged-watched “Schitt’s Creek.” I love that show. It kept me laughing, which I needed. I took part in two live-streams hosted by the Greenwich Village Folk Festival. I wasn’t sure what it would be like singing to an audience you can’t see or hear, but I really enjoyed taking part. I also got to see other artists, some which I knew. They have it together regarding live-streaming and sound, so it was a plus.
I was invited to interpret a song written by Janis Ian, which reflected what was going on in the world, called “Better Times.” I had to create a video of myself performing. Again, another learning curve to get good sound, video, and everything. WRTI, a jazz and classical station here in Philadelphia, invited me to take part in an initiative they curated, called “Live Sessions @Home,” where they asked us artists to videotape one of our songs at home, focusing on how it is different to what we may have done in a studio situation. By this time, I had more experience videotaping and mixing the audio recording. The end result was pretty good, considering this is really my first foray into doing this sort of thing. It was a lot of work. This all took a good amount of time (despite a deadline) and I immersed myself. I stayed pretty busy.
Let's get a little more politically controversial. What do you think of the mixed, contradictory messages coming from the White House, politicians, experts, and celebrity world about Covid's origins, the vaccines, masking up again, etc.? What do you believe?
The whole thing was a mess. If it had been properly handled from the onset by our government and then president (I say “president” loosely), it may not have gone to the extreme that it did. Perhaps the lockdown may not have lasted as long as it did. Perhaps so many who died needlessly would still be here. That idiot likened Covid-19 to a “cold” or “flu” that would, in his words, “…disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” He also called it the “China” or “Chinese virus.” This would incense me. Pure racism from the supposed leader of the free world. This contributed in escalating violence and the murder of Asians in the U.S. by bigots who wanted the slightest excuse to unleash their hatred.
I am all for wearing of masks and getting vaccinated. Yes, the vaccinations were created in a much shorter period of time than has been done previously; however, science has advanced greatly in this area. I am vaccinated. I wear my mask inside of stores and recently when I went out for dinner for the first time in a year and a half. I want to stay alive, plain and simple. I think life as we knew it to be will be different moving forward. Even after we get this virus contained, life will be different. I am hoping it will be better.
What kind of record would you like to work on next and what are you willing to do to make it happen?
I have toyed with the idea of making a solo record, just my voice and guitar and whatever other guitar I may add, to flesh out the sound.
I was working on a song during the pandemic and my husband walked into the room and asked me “when are you going to make a solo record?” I asked him “why” and he said “I hear you from the other room, just your voice and guitar and it sounds beautiful; it’s all you need.”
I’ve been mulling it around. When I write songs, while I begin with just voice and guitar, I already have a landscape, a map in my brain of what I want the song to sound like. I already have an arrangement and it includes other instruments. My songs stand on their own with just guitar and vocal, but I hear all of these colors and textures simultaneously, a landscape of sound when I write. I would have to reign myself in and focus on just voice and guitar. It would be a challenge. I’m still thinking it through.
I have six songs recorded that will hopefully make up my next full record. I look forward to getting back into a studio, in-person with my bandmates to record. This is what I am pretty much used to and prefer doing, especially having someone else engineer and mix. Just engineering my own work at home is a major undertaking for me and a different hat I have to wear while attempting to get my music recorded and sound like something. I know it’s a “new normal” of sorts, especially when we were in lock-down. I suppose I’ve taken this on kicking and screaming. I will say I’ve learned quite a bit about frequencies and microphone positions and sound recording, etc.
I would say that I’d rather leave all that technical stuff to someone who does it better than me, and record in a studio like I’m accustomed to. I get that due to the pandemic, as an artist I had to take on a lot and learn a great deal. Truth be told, I’d rather be busy with my songwriting, not recording software and microphones and frequencies, etc. If I move forward with the solo [unplugged] record, I would record myself and have Dale Melton mix and master for me.
I am re-releasing my 2019 recording Better Days. This is an independent release, and I’ve renamed it “Better Days (remastered).” The initial recording was released in October 2019 and with the impending holidays, it was beginning to gain some traction and then the pandemic happened.
I don’t believe this music got a fair shot, so I am re-releasing it, giving it a fresh voice. It’s been remastered and I’ve included two tracks, “Climb the Wall” from my 2013 CD, I Can See Bliss From Here, which I believe reflects much of what is going on now, with the world trying to get past everything that is going on, from the pandemic to racial unrest for starters, and “Got Me Thinking,” which I recorded at Philadelphia radio station WRTI.
The band and I had been invited to record video at the station for a feature in the NPR Live Sessions that was being launched. We wound up recording “Got Me Thinking,” without video, just audio. The take on this song in studio with my band sounds great and they were good enough to give me permission to release it. Better Days (remastered) will be released October 1, 2021.
Lots of people are suffering (silently) from anxiety, depression, PTSD because of this fucking pandemic. How else are you coping, and what would you like to say to help others?
From the middle of 2019, I met some challenging times, which carried through during this pandemic in 2020-2021. I am very fortunate that my sister Barbara recommended meditation to me. She explained how it helped her in the worst times in her life. I had no idea she had been doing this. In tandem with meditation, she introduced me to some of the tenets of Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist, but meditation along with daily breathing has helped me a great deal. I can’t begin to express how much better I am as a person and how much better I feel.
For me, the focus on breathing is the meditation. I would tell people to start off by finding a quiet place to sit, close your eyes, and completely clear your mind. It takes time to get used to this. When I began, I could only do it for a minute or so. My brain moves at the speed of light and the thought of being so still, I never thought it possible.
Before I began meditating and breathing, I had horrible nightmares, especially during the racial unrest that escalated between 2016-2020. I’d dream I was being chased and was going to be killed, much like many have been. I would wake up screaming. My husband would wake me, because my screaming would wake him. It got so I didn’t want to go to sleep at night. Meditation and breathing have helped me tremendously. I recommend it to anyone wanting to feel less anxious, especially during this time.
What would you like your music to do, as an artist, for those down-and-out, and struggling right now? Is there are particular song of yours or one in the works that might cheer us up?
In tandem with my answer to the previous question, I wrote a song, “Notes From The Buddha,” based on a dream I had during the pandemic. I dreamt that I met Buddha. The lyric tells the story. In my dream, Buddha gave me my mantra. The basic message in the song is “no one can take your peace from you…” I sent this song to my friend (and bassist in my band), Jeffrey Blount, to produce. When I described the song to him, he knew exactly what I wanted, and succeeded. The song has a Beatles/George Harrison production style. The end result was exactly what I wanted. Overall, the message of the song is for everyone to realize that peace comes from within. Even during this insane time, it is possible to find it. It has a sing-a-long type chorus, which is relaxing and zen-like. I am looking forward to releasing this song.
What, if anything growing up, influenced you the most to become a musician? (Was there a particular moment, encounter, person, record that sent you on your way?)
The initial moment that made me want to play guitar and sing was seeing The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan.” The songs were incredible. They were different and I liked that. However, at the time, I didn’t see any girls on television playing guitar and singing. I thought to myself “how will this work, can I do this?” A couple of years later, I saw Janis Ian on television singing “Society’s Child.” I thought to myself, “Of course I can do this. She’s a girl and she’s doing it.”
Fast-forward to college. I was a psychology major with a 3.75 index and I was bored. I sat down one day and asked myself what it was I really wanted to do. I recalled an English teacher I had in high school, Mrs. Patricia Jellen. She was very progressive, especially at the all-girls Catholic high school I attended in the Bronx. She had us reading Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem and having us question the status quo regarding being women in society.
One in-class writing exercise she once gave us was, “In your deepest dreams, what do you see yourself doing with your life?” We had to write in class and she asked us not to sign our names to our papers. She picked a few to read out loud randomly. To my horror, she read my paper. I say horror, as I thought what I wrote was far-fetched and I figured everyone would laugh. When I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, I remembered that day. I went to the administration at my university and changed my major and auditioned for the Leonard Davis Center of Performing Arts at City College. When I made my first record, I mentioned Mrs. Jellen in the “thank you” section on the credits, and at some point communicated with her the impact that assignment had on my life. The rest, as they say, is history.
What are your best and worst qualities, and how do you apply that to your art?
I will mention a few (there are many):
1. I don’t give up easily, although there have been situations in my life I should have given up on long before I did. When I am stuck on a song I’m writing, I will step back and give the song some space and will give it some time before I get back to it. I don’t give up on it. Often, these are the songs that turn out to be gems.
2. I stand in my truth and am pretty honest. That’s both good and bad in everyday life, but the best way to be as a songwriter.
3. I hate getting up early. I always have, since childhood. I have always been a night owl. Makes for a difficult morning when I have something scheduled early. I have been known to wake up in the middle of the night and work on songs. This contributes to my sleeping later.
If you couldn't be a musician/songwriter, what would you be?
I have difficulty thinking that I couldn’t be a musician/songwriter. I might be a psychotherapist, specializing in helping kids.
Link: NPR Live Sessions @Home https://livesessions.npr.org/videos/lili-anel-climb-the-wall
Interview originally appeared in Jazz Medium, Sept. 10, 2021.