Lily Mae grew up inside a guitar case. As a child she would climb inside the case and hang out there. The daughter of two professional musicians, her childhood was built up on her mother’s flute scales. She and her sister, as teens, began writing songs together.
“When I was a young girl/ they let me be a child,” her EP Closer begins, a framing that knows there’s something next—that a girl grows up into a woman who no longer gets to be innocent and free. What makes her album good, besides Lily Mae’s swaying, angelic voice, is its certainty about what girlhood means and how it feels, and how dangerous it can be.
I talked with Lily Mae this week about her new album, her inspirations, and being the intersection of art and politics.
You’ve mentioned that you’re really inspired by Joni Mitchell, who was not only an incredible artist but openly political in a lot of ways. Do you feel any pressure to be that way?
My grandma was a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit against the state’s voter ID laws, and I was 12 when I started working on campaigns—being political is in my blood, or at least that’s what I have been told since I was born! So incorporating that in my art is less of a pressure for me and more just my ongoing obsession to prove that there is substance to my music. I used to worry a lot that people would minimize what I’m doing because I am young and female, even though there are a lot of things I want to talk about and bring to the table.
There is a lot of pressure on young women in any public arts industry to act and dress and behave a certain way. What do you think the effects of those pressures have been on you?
I’ve heard label executives say, ”Is she pretty?” before even asking about my music. I have always been super uncomfortable with being objectified and hyper-sexualized—as I think a lot of other young women are—and I rejected that attention so much that it affected how I felt in my own skin. That bothers me to no end.
Talk to me about the song “Diamond.” It definitely falls into this “women’s empowerment pop” genre we are seeing a lot of lately. Why did you want to create a song like this?
Being able to live authentically is really important to me. What you were describing before, about being boxed in as a young woman, was exactly what I wanted to touch on with “Diamond.” As a young girl, there are so many different ways the world is telling you to be quiet, polite, and pretty. It can be hard to navigate through such an unrelenting message and come out intact, and this is something I don’t think is unique to just my experience—the surge of feminism in pop culture is proof of that—which is why I wanted to sing about it.
I played on an all-boy baseball team as a kid until I got bumped to softball for being a girl, I wore boy clothes—for all intents and purposes, I was a tomboy until the outside message of what it is to be a girl was pervasive enough that I adjusted who I was to fit it. I went through maybe ten or fifteen hilarious phases (the Avril Lavigne era of first grade, Broadway, Effy from Skins, complete dork etc.) to be comfortable enough to take control of my female identity in the way I do now, so if there is any person I can empower by validating their experience, then I’ve done what I set out to do.
I spend a lot of time writing about who gets to control women’s music (producers, writers, etc). Have you experienced this at any point in your career thus far?
The people in power are men, representing a diverse audience. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you are a young female musician, you will pretty much always be the only one of your kind at any given studio session or meeting. I think that reality can be pretty intimidating for young women, including myself.
What do you see as the biggest barrier in your future career? Do you think that’s true for other performers your age?
I really can’t ignore the election results of Tuesday. It is changing the social climate of our country and will inevitably have an effect on my future career as a female musician. This is what we are going to be living with as a generation: someone who believes climate change is a hoax, openly talks about assaulting women, and has a VP who believes in conversion therapy.
The things I want to stand for as an artist and activist are the antithesis of what the president-elect will be trying to accomplish. It’s a sobering moment in history to see the worst of our country rise to the top—it really shows how much work is ahead of us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity