Carry Illinois

Air Date: 08-09-15

Carry Illinois:

Even as a child in Evanston, Ill., Lizzy Lehman lived for music. From elementary school straight through college, she always participated in choir, blending her voice with dozens of others. But she didn’t understand her own musical spell-casting powers until an insomniac college dorm mate prevailed upon her one night, begging to be sung to sleep. Soon, other stressed-out dorm dwellers requested Lehman’s lullaby-singing services. That’s when she realized the potency of song, and began connecting in a serious way with her muse.

Maybe that’s why the music singer-guitarist Lehman makes with her Austin-based band, Carry Illinois, has a somewhat dreamlike quality. She calls the sound “new-wavey folk” or “late-night heart-worn indie-folk,” but the 10 songs she penned for Alabaster, the band’s debut album, also exhibit a range of finely honed pop and rock influences carrying references from the Brill Building to Laurel Canyon and Manchester, England, hometown of Smiths frontman Morrissey.

With her alto shimmering like moonlight on these elegantly textured, richly layered arrangements, crafted in Brooklyn and Austin by producer Daniel Barrett, all of Lehman’s songs possess the kind of intimacy one feels more acutely late at night, when the world quiets down and lets us pay more attention to the rhythms of our hearts.

Lehman, who attended college in Portland, Ore., began penning songs during her sophomore year, after a friend gave her a handmade journal. Its blank pages reawakened her old poetry-writing habit, but this time, she fused words with melodies. By the time she graduated, she’d recorded an EP and a full-length album.

But it was a chance meeting with Peter Yarrow, famed for his harmonies with Peter, Paul & Mary, that led her to Austin. He told her about the Kerrville Folk Festival, the annual gathering he helped establish in the hill country outside of this central-Texas city. In addition to performances, it also features a songwriting competition and workshops that have given many renowned artists a stepping-stone to fame. Hoping to hone her skills in writing sessions and campfire song swaps, Lehman bought a ticket and hopped on a plane.

“I didn’t know anybody and ended up making a bunch of really good friends and meeting my fiancée, and getting a really great introduction to Texas and to really great people who live in Austin,” Lehman recalls. She first attended in 2008; by 2011, she’d joined Austin’s music community as a permanent resident.

That famously supportive community swooped her up; soon, Lehman was asked to join the Blackwells, a bluegrass-Americana band that shared bills with Shakey Graves and other prominent Austin musicians, and played Arkansas’ Fayetteville Roots Festival, among other accomplishments. While she treasures the experience, she admits she wasn’t completely heartbroken when it ended.

“I realized after the band broke up that I wanted to keep being in a band setting but focus more on the type of music that I was interested in, more pop-rock,” she explains. “I decided to start a new band and do all of my own material and through that, discovered a lot of my original influences came out through those new songs. It just made more sense, and I’ve been a lot happier.”

That band is Carry Illinois, which also features guitarist Darwin Smith, bassist John Winsor, drummer Rudy Villarreal and keyboardist Derek Morris.

The name combines autobiography and geography, with a bit of license.

“I wanted something that encompassed my experiences and taking my roots with me throughout my life,” she explains. “The first time I remember performing in front of people, I was in second or third grade, singing karaoke at my family’s company summer picnic at a camp in Cary, Ill. I sang ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ and distinctly remember holding a microphone and getting really into it. I changed the spelling of Cary to Carry so the name would reflect my need to carry my roots and foundation with me wherever I go.”

As for her musical foundation, Lehman says she’s firmly rooted in ‘60s and ‘70s folk rock (touchstones include Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac, and she calls Carole King “my favorite songwriter of all time”). She also cites Gillian Welch and Brandi Carlile as favorites; other influences include classic pop, Motown, Americana and ‘90s voices such as Shawn Colvin and Nanci Griffith — all of which inform her work on Alabaster.

That early pop vibe can be heard in “Sleepy Eyes”; “Detroit Snow,” the mid-tempo opening track (and only co-write, with Bryan Hembree), also has a pop-infused melodic brightness, and vocals that might evoke references to Joan Baez (though Lehman says her voice has been compared to Stevie Nicks’; k.d. lang also comes to mind).

Album keyboardist Frank LoCrasto’s classical piano flourishes help lift “Unmerciful Month” from the despair of its verses (about a former bandmate’s devastating breakup and the drunk-driver killing of a close friend’s father) to the hint of hope in its chorus line, “Here’s to the next one.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Lehman lists the austere, dirgelike “Lost and Found” as her favorite track because, she reveals, “It is the first time I have been able to write a ballad that I truly believe in.” Its lyrics — “What does it mean to hate your hometown? … You’ll lose your mind if you don’t go now” — suggest carrying Illinois can, at times, be a heavy load. She admits she endured some vicious bullying in her senior year of high school, which contributed to severe depression.

Following the Blackwells’ breakup and the events referenced in “Unmerciful Month,” along with a former bandmate’s substance abuse (the subject of “Quiet the Alarm”), she found herself in a similar state. As adversity often does, it unlocked her creativity.
“The only way I could interpret all of these events was to write new songs,” Lehman says. “I hadn’t written anything new in a long time, and suddenly all of these songs came pouring out of me. I was looking to heal as I was writing, to make sense of everything that had happened.”

In the process, her songwriting changed. Though the animal-loving Lehman admits Alabaster’s title tune is based on a stone owl and “Run of the Land” breathes life into a salt-shaker rabbit, she says, “I’ve gone more from-the-heart, more real-life.”

More truth-telling. More true to herself. More quiet-world, late-night intimacy — the kind you can find when you still your own soul long enough to listen to someone else’s.