To Be Generous, Musically… | Interview with Lily Talmers

“I’ve never felt cool as a musician,” Lily Talmers says. “And, I think that enables me to write what’s on my heart with, just, less shame. But, the vulnerability, and just feeling bad in order to open up and admit things to myself in my music….that doesn’t feel cool at all…

Talmers is an Ann Arbor-based singer/songwriter who never set out to be a singer/songwriter in the first place. And when she describes the first experiences of performing and actually projecting her dulcet singing voice, she uses phrases like “ego-death,” and openly confesses that she’d felt she’d been dismissive of her own music.  And this is where you usually anticipate the article to say “Until NOW….

But the unembellished story is that Talmers isn’t an overly fragile introvert full of self-doubt. On the contrary, she just happens to excel on the self-reflective, thoroughly contemplative, and prevailingly considerate side of things when it comes to being “a musician.” And even though she didn’t study music during her time at U-M (she graduated Spring 2020), she’d started playing cello and piano before she could drive. And, also, even though this classical inclination of hers led to Talmers spending much of her high school years extolling the virtues of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff and “being kind of an asshole about not liking popular music,” she nevertheless saw the proverbial light, eventually, of icons like Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez, and several luminaries of the early 70’s Laurel Canyon scene, and dove deep to deliver herself an education on the pillars of folk music.

“I really respect poetry, and I had been an avid writer as a kid and teenager. I just said, Whoa…these songs are saying something.” After immersing herself in 60’s folk music, it quickly became clear to Talmers that music (even popular music) can have poetry and the words earnest, intimate, and adamant. “But there hasn’t been a point where I’ve really taken on the identity as a ‘vocalist.’ For me, it’s all about the writing. I have to meet the writing where it is, as a vocalist….so the dynamics respond to the diversity of meaning that the words have and even the sonic qualities of those words that beckon different things from me.”

That everything in Talmers music centers around and even reveres the inexorable truths laced around the words she chooses seems to heighten the emotional resonance that her songs can achieve, through poetic short stories or startlingly candid confessionals — and whatever affections or aching moods underpin those words will inform the range of her voice, from gentle to effusive — it’s all in the writing.

But even though her voice, in performances and on records, can reach the robust and expressive heights of her influences like Baez, she says that most of her songs are written through “whisper-singing” at first. “I’ve written a lot of songs in houses with thin walls,” Talmers said. “It’s almost as if I’ve wanted to shake songwriting, or thought that I could get away from it…., and no matter what I focus all my other energy on, somehow I just have to write songs. I was never committed to being a musician, so the songs were on the sidelines. Sometimes I have no choice, the song just has to be written. I just have to be present for it.”

Talmers has released two EPs since 2019, but this week, she released her first full length, Remember Me As Holy, which was produced entirely during the quarantine. Most of the songs, including the recently premiered single “Francis,” were written over the course of the last couple of years, although two of them came together in the studio. That studio was actually inside the domestic headquarters of local funk ensemble Sabbatical Bob, wherein Talmers was able to create a pod with musicians like Ian Elyanbekov and audio engineer Geoff Brown, her two primary collaborators on bringing Holy to fruition.

Though she said she found one “blessing” amid the curse of Coronavirus — it meant that lots of her fellow seniors who had graduated had to settle in for the summer months rather than follow through on prior plans to move out of town. And as Brown, Elyanbekov, and Talmers settled into work on this album, it became a tremendously cathartic outlet. “I think that, especially for young people, the dormancy of all these months of quarantine has been really stifling. So to then be invited to engage so intensely with (the recording), it was like we were on fire. I work pretty much full-time but I was coming home and working on this record for 8 to 12 straight hours a night, just holed up in the studio. It felt so vital — we were kinda putting our whole lives into it.”

For Talmers, making this record helped her process and move past a lot of her lingering social insecurities. The environment of that household, and being surrounded by musicians who were keen on engaging in discourse on “what it means to be a musician” led to Talmers committing to “respect myself as a musician, and embracing the complexity of that. Because it’s difficult to deem your own work as ‘good…’ But I can tell, when I’m writing, whether something’s true or authentic, or whether it’s beautiful and expresses what I need. But it’s difficult to look at the song and say, ‘Oh, THIS is worth other people’s time and attention…’ You have to take some risks to see that and believe that and trust it…”

Because the future is so momentarily uncertain, it’s allowed Talmers to mitigate some of the anxieties and pressures that would have otherwise come along with releasing an album — it’s to the point where she’s just staying focused on the next batch of songs. That, and adhering to the practice of being a generous, encouraging, and compatible collaborator.

“It’s almost like a song is dead to me once I’ve written it,” she said. “And I have to reinvigorate it through the production process and the performance. Hopefully, an audience feels something when they hear it, and it’s clear to them, and it helps them through whatever they’re going through…. But, on another level, I’m just thinking about how to collaborate with musicians in a way that’s generous and inclusive. It’s a joy for me to enliven the music through other people’s minds and see something that’s not ‘just me’ in the music.”

“That’s my hope…” said Talmers. First to be a competent collaborator, and second, “…to be generous, musically.”

To see what Lily Talmers is up to, follow her Bandcamp, Instagram, or website.

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Jeff covers music for Current, posting weekly show previews and highlighting new bands in the area.

Jeff Milo
Jeff Milo
Jeff covers music for Current, posting weekly show previews and highlighting new bands in the area.

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