INTERVIEW: Lilith Ai

Self-described as “a singer-songwriter who performs poignant tales of modern city life,” Lilith Ai writes relatable guitar tunes exploring turbulent emotions in a humble and engaging way. When I catch up with her via Zoom, she’s sat on a comfy looking bean-bag in the music shed which she’s currently sound proofing. She tells me she’s spent her morning at a power-pump weightlifting exercise class, because she’s keen to feel healthy again after “basically just eating pies” throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. We laugh about how everyone buried their feelings in take-away food instead of dealing with the mental toll of multiple lockdowns in 2020.

Modest, self-deprecating but incredibly warm and open to talking about all aspects of her life and art, Lilith speaks to me about her recent album, Folk You Hard, her upcoming performance at Loud Women Fest – who just awarded her their prestigious Hercury Prize Award – and what drives her to keep creating music despite the many challenges that life brings…

Hello Lilith! Who or what first inspired you to start making music?

I think I’ve always made music, but I don’t know what first inspired me. I wanted to be a writer when I was very little but I’m dyslexic so I couldn’t really write anything. I just liked to sing songs. I don’t think I’m naturally good at music. I know I have a nice sounding voice, but some people can pick up a song and play it on guitar the first time they hear it on the radio and I’m not like that. I wish I was like that! I’m actually better at art than I am at music, but I don’t enjoy it as much as I enjoy making music.

I grew up with a lot of stress because I had so many learning disabilities, so school was difficult and my family life was really mad. I did a lot of extracurricular things that were not music. I had dance classes, I went to Brownies and Girl Guides, I did track running and I had art. Music was a thing that I didn’t tell anybody about. I just kind of did it in my brain and made songs up!

I’ve had a weird year where I’ve been doing a lot of therapy and I’ve had so many revelations about myself. I’ve had to kind of white knuckle most of my life until quite recently.

So, how did I get into music? I don’t know. I just I did it secretly until I joined a band. I was in a lot of really terrible bands and they all kept falling apart. So, in 2015/16 I just decided to do my own solo project. I didn’t really know how to play guitar at the time, so I was a bit shit. I was completely oblivious to that at the time though. I didn’t really know how terrible my playing was until I started playing on my own! I was like, “I need to be way better than this,” so I did a lot of gigs. A lot. Probably hundreds that were just not very good, but I don’t think it matters. I think a little bit of delusion is good as a musician. It doesn’t really matter how good you are at the start; you’ll get good eventually if you keep doing it.

Perseverance is key! You mentioned being in therapy, would you say creating your music has helped you make sense of things that have happened to you as well? Do you find writing songs can be quite cathartic for you? It seems that way on your most recent album, Folk You Hard.

The reason why I make music is because I want to connect with people. Because of the way I grew up, I really, really struggled to make friends. I have a best friend now, but it took me five or so years to really believe that she liked me when we were growing up, even though she wanted to hang out with me and called me every day! So, with music, I wanted to do something so that I could say “do you feel like this? Because I feel like this,” to other people.

Music is also a way of escaping for me too. Some of my songs are more like me being how I wish I was, rather than how I actually was at the time. You can still see me in them, but songs like ‘Rude Grrrl’ and ‘Riot’ are more what I want to be like. I want to be confident or strong. I think there was definitely a thing when I was writing Folk You Hard, where these things slowly toppled into who and where I am now. That album is just me being very frank about stuff. That’s the most frank I’ve ever been and I think I’m going to continue to try and do that.

But sometimes, I’m not thinking like that and I write stuff really quickly. I have a notebook that I put all of my ideas in and then when I’ve got enough ideas, I’ll sit down and be like, “okay, I’ll write a song now” and I’ll write it in half an hour. I wrote the song ‘Michaela Coel’ after watching her series I May Destroy You. I’ve always liked her ever since she did Chewing Gum and I did actually meet her at an event a couple of years ago. We talked about stuff and she was so amazing. So I just sat down and wrote that song. It doesn’t always happen like that, but sometimes it does.

That’s so cool, I think ‘Michaela Coel’ is one of my favourite songs on your album. Do you have a favourite song? If so, why?

I really like the single that I’m about to drop, ‘Bloodlines’, which is the first one I wrote for that record. But I think my favourite is probably the last song I wrote which is ‘F’. It was very easy to write and I think I’m saying stuff on it that I haven’t really said before. They’re both kind of songs about my Mum, which is weird, because I have an estranged relationship with my Mum at the moment. But ‘F’ could also be about so many things. It’s written in the key of F, it’s about family and it’s also ‘F’ for “fuck” and for Folk You Hard.

Another song I love on the record is ‘Bare Radical’. I really like the lyric “I’m not bitter / I’m better” – it almost sounds like a mantra…

I mean, I’m not sure I am better, but I’m trying to be! It’s a continuous thing. That song is about dating a person who was just like, not the person. But I try to remember that everybody is on their own journey, I think very few people deliberately do things to be a dick. Though I know I need to get away from that person, I try not to be bitter…but it is hard!

The only way that you can “win” is to be like, “Okay, I’m actually genuinely going to be happy now” – that trumps everything. This is going to sound a bit weird, but I’ve wanted to join a gym for ages, but it’s so expensive and I knew it would take up a big chunk of my money. But I realised, if I was dating someone and they wanted that gym membership – I would probably give them the money, instead of spending it on myself. So, to be like “Oh, I need this! I’m going to buy this for myself because I deserve it,” you know? I want to look after myself and that is actually me “winning.” It definitely is a long process, I’m not 100% there yet, I’ve got a long way to go. All we can do is try to be better, to get away from toxic people and encourage toxic people to get help.

That’s genuinely good advice.

You’re going to be performing at Loud Women Festival on 18th September. There are so many GIHE faves performing too – ARXX, Vulpynes, Breakup Haircut, MIRI, Deux Furieuses, Jelly Cleaver, GENN, Sister Ghost – what bands are you looking forward to seeing on the day?

I think this is my fourth time playing the festival and I can’t wait. I really want to see Jelly Cleaver. I haven’t seen her play for ages. I really like her as a person too. MIRI, who I have seen lots of times and who I love, she’s really good. I’m excited to see ARXX as well. There are a lot of bands on the line-up who I don’t know, so I’m looking forward to hearing them as well. I’ll be there in the morning with soooo much merch – I’ve made my own bracelets and everything – so I’ll be there all day.

Great stuff. Finally, as we’re a new music blog, we always ask artists to recommend a few bands they’ve recently been listening to. Any suggestions?

One is Nathan Day who I really got into last year and I just think their music is amazing. It’s literally like someone reached into my head and made the music that I want to make. Probably my favourite song is ‘Fade Like You’ but they’re all good songs.

Pom Pom Squad are also so, so, so good! And Eliza Shaddad. I really want to go on tour with her!

Thanks to much to Lilith for chatting with us!

Follow Lilith Ai on bandcamp, Spotify, Twitter, Facebook & Instagram

Grab a ticket to see her live at Loud Women Fest 5 here