Spotlight: 

Lily Porter Wright




Text by: Zach Braner
November 21 2020

This is folk music for a new folk: young and disoriented people for whom despair isn’t an event so much as the mundane stuff of life.




Lily Porter Wright (’20) is a singer-songwriter from southern Rhode Island, who for the last three years has been independently releasing EPs and singles on Bandcamp. Wright’s first full-length, called October, was released on October 23.

The nearest touchstone for Wright’s catalog is the current school of indie singer-songwriters who render hurt, trauma, and the anxieties of existence in a low-key way that, poorly done, can seem precious, but at its best reflects the reality of living daily with these experiences. If folk music, broadly, means communal music that encodes and ennobles the everyday struggles of its audience, then this is folk music for a new folk: young and disoriented people for whom despair isn’t an event so much as the mundane stuff of life. Rather than overthrowing or glorifying this anguish, these songs simply acknowledge it within the frame of their own humble beauty. And rather than chaining themselves to convention, they carry the folk music tradition forward by updating its familiar acoustics with inescapable modern sounds—electronic drum lines, synthesizers, and modulated guitars. 

Which is not to slot Wright squarely into this ill-defined category; it’s clear this is just a convenient starting point for the multiple-voiced music Wright can’t help but make. “I think it’s pretty common to go through musical obsessions one at a time, or to go through phases, and whatever phase I was in I’d be like, ‘I want to do that’,” Wright says. "And then, it was this weird dissonance because I couldn’t [laughs], couldn’t translate the visions in my head to actual music, because I didn’t have any skills.” That changed once Wright graduated highschool: the gift of an acoustic guitar kickstarted a self-teaching regimen under the spell of artists like Big Thief and Sufjan Stevens. Wright enrolled at Brown University to study music production in 2016, picked up the ukulele and mandolin along with some producing know-how, and in January 2018 released an EP, Calendar.

The five-song set establishes the hallmarks of all Wright’s work since: warmly textured arrangements that evolve around grounded guitar melodies, fractured narrative lyrics, and dynamic vocals that find sincerity rotating between the mellow and melodramatic. On some songs Wright barely exhales the words, trailing off before taking another breath. But then Wright’s voice lifts from its usual hushed tones into full-throated grandeur, and the song enters a new emotional dimension. On “January,” the vocals build with each verse until in the final minute a swirling chorus takes off, and soaring harmonies complete the song’s transformation from melancholic folk into stately chamber-pop. This sense of momentum is a consistent feature of Wright’s song-craft: the humblest tunes often expand into a dramatic deluge of sound that elevates and fills in their fragmentary story. On “Flower Song,” from the same EP, the lyrics only ever hint at a tragedy fully present in the melody and Wright’s tender delivery.

It’s been nearly three years since that first effort, and about six months since Wright graduated from Brown. For a final project, Wright turned in the 5-track Little Piece, something of a stylistic departure. “This spring I made an EP that was pretty much fully pop, and that was really because I had access to a nice synthesizer, the Korg minilogue, which was really fun,” Wright says. “Suddenly it was like, synth-pop: I want to do that.”

It’s not the blown-out exuberance of the Pet Shop Boys, though, and while the set displays Wright’s keen ear for melodies that lodge in your mind, the core sound remains intact. I pressed for a clearer description of that sound in genre terms, and Wright said, “Well, it started out as alt-folk…But I think I’m solidly within indie, both because of the sound of my music and because of the way that I make it, which is by myself, not in a studio. And because of the sound—I don’t know, there’s really no definition of how indie sounds, but there is a sound to it.” On Little Piece, that sound takes the form of bedroom pop, where the synth tones cast a new glow on Wright’s strengths as a songwriter. It would almost feel cozy, were it not for the unerring thematic thrust toward various specific shades of alienation. The song “Little Piece” is an artist’s statement of struggle in isolation toward an indefinite goal, which at its peak resonates with the triumph of self-knowledge, and in its most devastating moment pleads for the patience they know they have no right to ask of others. The powerful guitar line which carries “In Me,” a lapidary song and one of Wright’s best, boldly takes up the lyrics’ challenge of addressing the unnameable sinister thing which resides deep within. And the dreamy, five-minute “Left-handed” contains lines like, “I don’t need a friend I’ll only break it,” that flow so naturally from Wright’s high register atop gentle finger-picking it’s easy not to notice the heart-rending horror of that sentiment.

How any of the figures in these songs resemble their author is an impossible question, and one that’s beside the point. For Wright, music isn’t about naked self-expression so much as making contact with others. “The song lives in the space between me creating it and someone else hearing it,” Wright says. “The way that I write is, I want someone to feel a very specific emotion when they hear something. Some of my songs are sort of autobiographical, but most are fictional. I think it’s, again, about the emotion that the song is giving off—the specific emotion may be real, but the story I’m using to tell that is not real.” In true troubadour fashion, Wright’s music is a sort of medium for community therapy, that best comes alive when the performer and listeners are together. Little Piece was Wright’s first encounter with the process of making music without an audience. “That was how I would get new songs from being in the writing process to being completed — when I thought I was done I would play them live for other people, and then that was when they felt finished. Now, there isn’t that. I kind of just have to say, ‘alright now it’s done,’ and that was a really different feeling that came up when I was doing my last EP. I never played those songs live, I don’t think.”

New difficulties have not slowed Wright’s pace, however. In July a pair of fruit-themed songs called Tangerine appeared, and late last month Wright’s first full-length, aptly titled October, was released. It was recorded in Wright’s family home in southern Rhode Island, and developed around the song “EZ” from Little Piece, which Wright had composed for autumn. We spoke before the album came out, and Wright said of the project, “I’m trying to write songs now for the fall because the fall I think has a really specific nostalgia to it, of it being super clear that time is passing. And especially this fall in particular, because this fall is so strange that I want to go back, and so I want other people to feel the weird nostalgia that I’m feeling.”

The opening song sets the tone for an uneasy nostalgia trip: “Bloodstream,” a distorted rendition of a hymn-like song Wright originally recorded last fall, evokes the strange familiarity of the past and the bizarre ritual of remembrance. But a midnight clarity beams through on “Enter,” a loose acoustic number that features some of Wright’s best lyrics and an unusually fast tempo: “service dead and home is lifeless / and I become a halfhearted delightist / I’m pulling closest the shadows of vices / cutting my hands from holding them tightest.” The album evinces a great attention to tone, and as fits the full-length form this is Wright’s most cohesive release to date. Each of the seven songs deepens the record’s specific atmosphere, which culminates in a sort of concept-couplet in the middle about Halloween.


The first is the aforementioned “EZ,” the album’s centerpiece, a bewitching story of childhood cruelties never confessed, with an eerie chorus that makes you feel slightly warped for getting it stuck in your head. The other, though, “Bones,” is a ghostly lament that begins with the memorable line “tell me the worst thing in the fewest words you can,” and continues with unearthly fragility held up by some inspired piano and banjo playing (banjo by Ben Stewart, aka Tetrapod). Together the songs make a portrait of careless power and irremediable weakness that lets the playful darkness of Halloween uncover real pain. Once more, the protagonists of Wright’s songs are deeply detached observers, often aware of how ephemeral they are, struggling to reconcile themselves with the world. Wright manages to turn this theme into a surprisingly danceable tune on “138,” which features Ben Stewart again, this time on electric slide guitar.

The last song on October returns to the acoustic folk roots of Wright’s music, and has the rough, intimate feel of a demo. Its four minutes are dense with lyrics, making it the most sustained piece on the album and giving the listener just enough space to dwell in it without needing to do anything else. More than any other track it recreates the experience of live music, a momentary but intense connection that lingers long afterwards. And as a rich work in itself that bears repeated close listens, it’ll have to do. But as the horizon where shows are safe again blurs and the mythical past leaks out of view, Lily Porter Wright’s music carves out a unique, suitably paradoxical space for the present: outward-looking while deeply inward, poetic without tranquil reflection, beautiful and bracing.

 

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