Lilla: Soulful songstress
Music stardom doesn't always just happen, it needs to be earned, and Portland artist Lilla thinks the time has come to enjoy the fruits of her labor.
"I deserve it," she said. "I've put in the work."
Lilla's music story started as a child writing songs and making beats until 3 o'clock in the morning. She also began to sing and play piano, but even early on, the young girl Lillian Naiman wanted to know everything about music — not just the performing part.
Always an athlete, Lilla took music seriously at Grant High School, singing in three choirs and joining a band with Esperanza Spalding, who later would become a Grammy Award-winning artist. Attending Cal State Long Beach gave way to education at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. Lilla's musical journey then took her to places far and wide seeking elusive success. Israel, Jamaica, Los Angeles and New York were stops on the path to making two albums and a song that charted on Billboard and in the United Kingdom ("Don't Stop the Music").
At age 21, Lilla attended the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where it dawned on her that success wouldn't just happen, but that it would be part of a process, and not everybody can just leap into stardom.
"I was kind of depending on other factors to help me grow my career," she said. "(The festival) changed my perspective on how to grow a career from the ground up. It's not necessarily needing to be signed to a big label or sign with an agency, but doing one show at a time, writing great songs and connecting with fans. That's a more realistic and fulfilling approach rather than reach for something far away.
"So, I've been building step by step, and I've seen progress happen much faster."
Today, having recently moved back to Portland from New York City, Lilla has just completed and released an EP, "Soul Love," through her Lilla Music label and with the help of independent producer/engineer Bob Stark.
She recorded the five-song EP at Sonic Media Studios in Northeast Portland, deciding to go with a simple "throwback" approach of recording music and vocal tracks in one room with band musicians and singers together.
"That way it tells a story of all the songs together," Lilla said.
The album can be downloaded from www.LillaMusic.com. Stark described her style as "Americana meets soul."
"We did a one-off Christmas tune and in the spring decided to do her album," Stark said. "I'm grateful for her. It was a pretty good project. The quality of work she did was great.
"It's a little bit more like albums used to be made. We did takes, she did her vocals, Matthew (Flowers) did his background vocals, we mixed it and we were done."
In Lilla's evolution, it only made sense to put something raw, emotional and involved (as producer) out there, as she takes very seriously the production side of music. Soon, she'll be heading to Los Angeles to work as a production intern.
"It's less of a control thing, but bringing the vision in my mind to life," Lilla said. "I wanted to be able to get closer to manifesting what I hear in my music to the sonic world. ... I like to control my own musical output."
Flowers has known Lilla for five years, harmonizing with her while also putting out his own music. It's important for singers to be involved in the technical aspects of music-making, he said.
"She has a great attitude, just with the professionalism, grace and being positive," Flowers said.
"And, I love her voice. She has a huge range."
Lilla described the music of "Soul Love" as "stories of love, personal evolution, feminism and truth." A video for the song "Way Down South" is on the website, www.LillaMusic.com.
Lilla performed at the Waterfront Blues Festival in July. In the past she has performed with Trombone Shorty and others. She has upcoming shows scheduled at Cafe Artichoke, Lake Theater and Cafe, Wonder Ballroom and The Old Church.
"I love performing here, feel like I always get a lot of love and support, and I'm trying to do it more," she said.
Lilla has toured throughout the United States, and sang on stage as far away as Beijing, China. In addition to Spalding in their early days, Lilla has recorded or performed with the likes of Nakho and Medicine for the People, Annie Lennox, Ciara, Damian and Stephen Marley, Willie Nelson, Mos Def, Carole King and Kenny G.
Clearly, Lilla wants to follow her own path in the music business, whether it's performing, composing, producing or engineering — or all the above.
"It's OK to take time to find out who you are," she said. "I understand the music and message and how to put it out. If that had happened at age 18, I might have been pulled in a million different directions. The most important part is learning and growing and evolving through process, and you hopefully grow a career and a fan base."
Flowers, who has fans in Brazil thanks to a popular and promoted song there, agreed. "You follow your heart and wherever lightning strikes," he said.
Said Stark: "She's very motivated. She really wants to have a career in music. It takes a perfect storm, but what it takes more than anything else, in my opinion, is an artist wanting it."
Although immersed in production and other aspects of music, Lilla has worked on image, as well. She sheepishly talks about the braces on her teeth; they're scheduled to come off in 2020. "They make me lisp," she said.
Mostly, it's about singing and creating music.
"Music makes me happy," she said.
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