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The 21-year-old is a jazz vocalist. She studied jazz, classical, and opera singing as a high school student in Milwaukee, but it's jazz that captured her attention. After graduating high school she enrolled in Columbia College, where she took classes with Ruby Hornet's Alex Fruchter (aka DJ RTC) and met producer Peter Cottontale. Lili and Peter became frequent collaborators and in the fall they released a neosoul EP called Metal Petals, which includes contributions from Chance, Sulaiman, and the GTW. Lili tends to blur genre lines in her solo work, which certainly helps her ability to work and connect with local MCs and rap producers.
On Fri 3/1 Lili and her backing band, the Secret Garden, will headline a concert at the Hard Rock Cafe, and the show provided a great opportunity to talk with the singer about her relationship with the local rap scene. I recently met up with Lili at the Chicago Cultural Center where we discussed J Dilla, getting a fake ID to get into jazz clubs, and her work with Peter and Chance.
On meeting and connecting with Peter Cottontale:
He was actually in a band, they're called HD, and they were kinda like Columbia's house band for open mikes. I basically just went to one after being at Columbia for a couple months and I sang by myself, and I was like, "If there's any musicians out there, I wanna start a band, so come talk to me if you like what you hear." I sang, and they came up, like, "Oh, we'd love to work with you." So we played a couple shows together and then they were going in like a different direction—I mean they played for a lot of different artists—and I wanted to set up something that was mostly just me and my music. So Peter and I kinda branched out and started pulling our own musicians to make our band.
I know as a producer he's heavily influenced by J Dilla, which is one of my favorite—probably a lot of people's favorite—producers of all time. He's also trained in jazz. He was actually—a lot of people don't know this—Peter is a percussionist. He plays vibes, that's his first instrument; he kinda taught himself keyboard to produce and make money at jazz gigs on the side, but it's not his first instrument. So like if you give him a vibraphone he kills.
We discovered we did the same type of stuff in high school with music and everything like that. Just talking about, "Who do you like?" and "Who do you like?" We just had a lot of similar interests, from everybody like D'Angelo and Jill Scott and the whole neosoul movement to, like, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, and jazz.
On finding her place in the rap scene:
I released my first project in 2011—actually on my birthday, July 1, 2011—and that was a neosoul EP. No one knew who I was. I called Peter one morning, I was like, "I wanna release a project," and he was like, "Alright, come over. Let's do it." And so we did that and I released it to a nonexistent fan base pretty much.
When I initially moved to Chicago, I started going to jam sessions at jazz clubs. I got a fake ID when I was 18 so I could go to jam sessions, so I knew some people in the jazz scene, but definitely that's not the hip-hop scene.
And then I started meeting people. Peter knew some people from producing in high school and it just kept growing, and I worked with more and more people. I've just been lucky enough to have people like it, which is weird because it is the hip-hop scene and I'm not a rapper. I don't do hip-hop. There are elements to it in my music, but I'm just really fortunate that people have liked it.
On working with Chance the Rapper:
I was sitting in RTC's class at Columbia, and Peter texted me and just asked if I could come to a Chance session. And this was, it was before #10Day came out, and Chance had a growing buzz, but he definitely wasn't where he is now. I guess how it came about was they were in the studio and he was producing "Hey Ma" with Chance and they really wanted a singer on it, and Zak Fox Jablow, he had suggested me, he knew about me from Columbia.
He played Chance some of my stuff, and he liked it, and they're like, "How do we get in touch with her?" Peter was like, "Well, I'm her producer." He just kinda sat quietly and let it unfold to see if they genuinely liked me so he wasn't just like putting me on it, which is really cool; I appreciate that it was like a genuine interest and not just Peter trying to push me on them.
I went over there and I pretty much just had Chance write down the lyrics, and I sang along when I wanted to. He really liked it, and we built a relationship from there. I've done more songs with him. I don't know how many songs I'm on in Acid Rap. I've just gone to the studio and helped him out with stuff.
Well I mean, Chance is—he's crazy. He's a great artist. It's been cool working with him. I think we've introduced him to a lot more soulful stuff that he could incorporate into his music, like I know he started singing a lot more, so it's cool to have influenced people in that way. And then, since I am in the hip-hop scene but I'm a singer, I need to look at what these rappers are doing. These are my peers, even though I'm not really in competition with them because we're different lanes completely, but we're in the same area. It's kinda weird.
I just like to keep up with what they're doing, even if I'm just listening to their production and try to incorporate that into soul and into jazz just to maintain a fan base, and try to bring some of their fans over my way, especially people who only like hip-hop and then they hear my music and there's hip-hop in it, then they're like, "Wait, I kinda like this too, but this isn't hip-hop. Is that OK?"
On her band with Cottontale and forthcoming projects:
Our next project we're gonna pull in my whole band and we're gonna do a live project. My engineer worked out something with us, and he's gonna record it, I'm really excited. Our band's called the Secret Garden; they always perform with me when I have shows, but we haven't actually recorded with the band.
Both of us have been wanting to do a live project for so long. Our first project together is a whole live album that just never got released, and it probably will never get released. I kinda wanna save it and rerecord it when I'm on a bigger level.
I've been working with a couple different artists and a couple different producers as well. Thelonious Martin and I, we did a song together a while ago, and I think we're gonna do a couple more. I don't know if it's gonna be a project or just random releases, but I know we're gonna do more work together. The Gift and I have been talking about working together for a long time. I'm not sure when that's gonna happen, we have so many rough drafts down. We just haven't finished them just 'cause he's really busy being awesome with Rockie [Fresh] and being all famous and everything, which is good for him.
I also have some music I'm working on with Quincy McCrary, who is Mayer Hawthorne's keyboard player. We linked up randomly; I went to a Mayer Hawthorne show, and my friend that was with me went up to them after, like, "You need to listen to her sing, she's so good." And they're like "Yeah, OK, whatever." Her and the keyboard player exchanged numbers just on some music stuff cause she plays trumpet and she was trying to convince them to have a jam session with us whenever Mayer Hawthorne was in town.
We were in Milwaukee this past summer, which is where I'm originally from, and they were in town. I guess they had a longer layover—like a day layover or something—and so Quincy texted her, "Hey, I'm actually free, if you guys want to hang out." And so he came over to her place and there's a big grand piano in her living room, and so she like convinced him to play.
We finally started doing this jazz standard and he like stopped and was like, "Oh, you actually do this." It was pretty cool though 'cause I think he just didn't believe that I was serious about it, I was like, "Yeah, this is what I do, let's make music." I was out in LA in October and we finished one song and it's awesome. It's probably one of my favorite things that I've recorded, but I just don't know what I'm going to do with it, cause I really want to do more with him and it has like the old-school soul sound to it, so I'm really excited about that as well.