Introducing: Lili K.

Introducing: Lili K.

Meet Lili K. – Chicago’s jazz-tinged soul songstress.

If you’ve heard her name before, it may be from her many featured collaborations with Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, The O’My’s, BJ The Chicago Kid, and other staples of the Windy City’s hip-hop scene. It is Lili’s vocals that appears on Chance’s tracks “Good Ass Intro,” “Hey Ma” and “Pusha Man,” among others.

But despite her active presence in Chicago rap, Lili is chasing her own sound when it comes to her music. Informed by a neo-soul and jazz, and skillfully carried by her sultry voice and a solid backing band, she’s created something wholly beautiful and undeniably timeless, proving some sounds just never age.

We’re pleased to offer this exclusive early listen of Lili K.’s debut album, RUBY, in advance of its April 21 release.

Lili wrote and produced the album herself, which she arranged and recorded live with The Lili K Band. Singles like “Tommy” and “I Don’t Want You No More” are excellent standouts, but the album is true pleasure all the way through.

Describing the record in her own words, Lili says,

“I view RUBY as my official introduction to the music world. It’s my baby. I have an amazing band by my side, and I’m so happy to be sharing this experience with a group of people who I truly feel are family. Recording with them, performing with them – it’s just a giant love fest, which I believe is evident in our music. After doing lots of featured spots and working within other genres, this album is ‘home’ for me.”

We got to know Lili K. a bit more, who also proved she can make a killer playlist.

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Who is Lili K? Can you introduce yourself?

I’m a musician out of Milwaukee, based in Chicago, heavily influenced by the soul and jazz greats. Music has always surrounded me, from my mama playing Gladys Knight, The Spinners and Steely Dan around the house, to the Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole catalogs I became obsessed with after being introduced in 7th grade. I’m a product of arts education (and an advocate for it), having attended Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts and Milwaukee High School of the Arts. That education and those teachers gave me the encouragement I needed to believe that music was something that could become my reality.

How did you start your career?

I moved to Chicago at 18, got a fake ID, and started going to jazz clubs and jam sessions. I immersed myself in the music scene here, and started working HARD to make a name for myself. I graduated from Columbia College with a degree in Music Business so that I was equipped with the knowledge to turn this whole music thing into a career.

I’ve been blessed to have earned opportunities to perform at Lollapalooza and Pitchfork [Music Festival], as well as tour, as a background vocalist. Those experiences made me even more determined to make music my life – that natural high you get from performing is one of the best feelings one can experience.

Chicago has a vibrant music scene, as much today as it has in former eras. Can you desribe the scene today, the heritage you’re surrounded by, and where you fit into that quilt?

Chicago has always been a mecca for arts and culture. Gospel, soul, blues and jazz have roots in Chicago, so those genres will always surround those of us that are in that realm. The hip-hop genre is in the spotlight right now, but there’s a phenomenal soul and jazz scene as well – a ton of jam sessions, open mics, themed events featuring local vocalists and musicians… it’s a really fun and active scene, though it doesn’t get enough national recognition. I love going to those events, whether I’m singing or simply hanging out. There’s a beautiful energy and so much talent to be inspired by.

How did you come to work with all of these hip-hop artists like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa?

All of the hip-hop collaborations I’ve done came about really organically. Everyone knows everyone in Chicago, and after hearing my vocals, artists like Chance and Vic asked me to lend my voice to a few of their songs. I was able to bring my own style to those collaborations, and they gave me a decent amount of freedom to create what I wanted in their songs.

Collaborating with hip-hop artists was my way to create within a genre that I love, but have never aspired to do. Working on my own music comes with complete freedom – I don’t have to stick within boundaries or constraints, which is an amazing feeling. I get to create the music that I’ve wanted to make since listening to Motown as a kid, or listening to jazz in high school.

Before RUBY, you were produced exclusively by Peter CottonTale (member of band, The Social Experiment, along with Chance the Rapper). Can you talk about working with him?

Peter and I started working together in Spring of 2010 – we basically entered the Chicago scene together. We both came from arts schools and had both majored in jazz,  so that connected us. He brought his Dilla and electronic-soul influence, I brought my neo-soul and jazz influence, and we created a few EPs together. All of those EPs were truly half me, half Peter, which is pretty sonically obvious. Peter started working heavily with Chance and SOX, so I viewed RUBY as my opportunity for an official debut – a project that was all my own.

What do you want listeners to know about the album? What expectations did you have?

This album was a huge stepping stone and learning experience for me. I went into it very excited and pretty scared. I had always worked with Peter, and the production was more-so in his hands – I just handled vocal production. But with RUBY, everything was on me, which is why I consider it my debut.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, I just wanted to create an album that I was 100 percent proud of, that was 100 percent my vision. I went into it with songs written, and my phenomenal band helped me bring them to life. Each member of my band brings so much to the table, which is why I handpicked them to join me on this journey.

We kept it old school and recorded in a retro live room studio in Chicago called Minbal Studios.  No click track, left in piano creaks and amp pick-ups of radio stations… It was a brand new experience for me to focus on what horn line I wanted to add here, if I wanted an extra guitar line or organ part added there… I had a blast.

Producing your own album is a courageous move, especially for your debut. What compelled you to take the wheel? 

It was just the right time for me to make moves on my own. The producers I knew were busy with other projects, and I had a lot of music to get off my chest… so I just decided to do it myself. Going from vocal production to executive production was a big step – I went from only worrying about my vocals to worrying about everything. I had to think about what instrumentation I wanted on each song, if I liked one drum pattern more than another, what horns I wanted to play the horn-lines…

Again, I have to credit my band for bringing their individual insights to the table. I would explain my ideas, and they would really bring them to life. In addition to my band, I’m lucky enough to be friends with amazing string and horn players and vocalists who I had come in to lend their talents to the album. I was so proud of the instrumentation that we created, that I kept a lot of my vocal arrangements much simpler than I have in the past, because I wanted the organ, or the guitar, to shine. I also played some extra percussion on a few songs (xylophone, rainstick, shakers), which was awesome. I learned so much!

[Photos: Bryan Lamb]

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