“Peace and love and justice are where it’s at/Milk of human kindness/The righteous hand of God” - “Facial Recognition Technology”
Lily Vakili wasn’t born in a crossfire hurricane like Jumpin’ Jack Flash, but in Honduras during a civil war, bullets flying overhead. Her father emigrated to the U.S. to escape the political turmoil in Iran in 1949, studying at the University of Chicago – where he met Lily’s mother, a midwestern Irish-American librarian – going on to become a plant geneticist in Honduras. They moved when Vakili was three years old, to Florida, then to Bangkok and Puerto Rico, where she lived for the better part of a decade before moving to Ames, Iowa. She attended the University of Minnesota and became part of the local Minneapolis theatre community.
With three albums under her belt – two as a singer-songwriter and the most recent with her band, 2018’s Oh Alright – Vakili is preparing to release a second band album, Walking Sideways, that shows the growth of Lily as a songwriter, vocalist, and bandleader, and the group as a whole – including guitarist and occasional songwriting collaborator Ben St. Jack, harmonica player Joel Dorow and a rock-solid rhythm section featuring drummer Gordon Kuba and bassists Jim Tyndall and Matt Jovanis.
Now a successful biotech lawyer – trained at Harvard Law no less -- Lily has also mined time to pursue a career as a rock ‘n’ roll shaman. Vakili Band’s musical touchstones include Patti Smith, Joan Jett, and Brandi Carlile – with a smattering of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” liberation, David Bowie’s chameleon-like “Changes” and the New York Dolls’ attitude thrown in for good measure.
A force of nature unafraid to express her political beliefs, Vakili lives her life as a whole, refusing to compartmentalize, either in her career or her diverse music, from the anthemic “Horses” meets “Piss Factory” call to arms of “We Got Dreams,” inspired by her empathy with a foreman at a processing plant who doubled as a set designer, to the wry social satire of “Facial Recognition Technology” (“I’m no Luddite, but these ‘advances’ come with their own drawbacks”), and the gospel rave-up of “Dreamy Dreamer,” with its insistence to “make it real now.”
“Sharp Devil” has a Stones-esque swagger to it, a country flavor that recalls “Wild Horses,” while “When 21” looks at the younger generation with the wisdom of someone who’s been there, inspired by the experience of her non-neurotypical, autistic son (“Who doesn’t want to be bright and young/Life’s nice and easy when 21”). The title track was inspired by Vakili spotting a woman emerging from a bar so tipsy that she was “Walking Sideways,” exploring her inner thoughts on the way to arriving at that sad but defiant state. The inspiration for “Freeman” came from seeing a prisoner working in the fields, respecting that individual as a human being, while “She Wants What” is a raucous, feminist anthem that features a tongue-in-cheek reference to a hot dog which, thank you Sigmund Freud, is more than just a frankfurter.
“Women are so often sexualized and viewed from the male gaze, it’s a play on those expectations of what she wants,” says Vakili about the aforementioned wiener.
The fifth of six siblings, Vakili first picked up the guitar when she was 14 – from an older sister who had left for college – and began writing right away. She still comes to the rest of the band with a completed song, as far as music and lyrics, though she has just collaborated on a pair of songs, co-writing with her guitarist Ben St. Jack.
“I was raised on all kinds of music... I’m omnivorous,” she says. “From my parents playing Peruvian highland music to Puerto Rican salsa, bachata, and reggaeton. Those Afro-Caribbean rhythms are built into my music.”
More than a musician, Vakili is a social warrior, with her song “PLJ” basically laying out her goal... Peace, Love, and Justice. “I love words and their meaning,” she says. “I’ve lived in these different cultures, where words may be written down in a constitution, but sometimes they don’t really mean anything, they don’t protect the people.”
For Vakili, a live performance takes the music beyond words to achieving a trance-like communal state that evokes the whirling dervishes using repetition and the primal beat to achieve a transcendent state. “That’s the connection we all have,” says Vakili, whose 94-year-old father is a sculptor as well as a scientist, brought up on the idea you can use both sides of your brain simultaneously, allowing them to feed on each other. “It just zaps you on the head. That’s what I try to do with my music.”
For Vakili, music is a labor of love, but it is also an occupation where she must find ways to generate income to keep the band alive, where she’s played local dates in the tri-state area, including, most recently, a packed gig at New York’s Bowery Electric. “I’m good at performing live, man, so why shouldn’t I?” asks Vakili, and who are we to argue? “And I’m learning how best to execute what I want to do in the studio, which is a whole other animal.”
Vakili’s musical career is testament to the non-conformist beliefs with which she was raised. “We do not have to do everything we’re told in this society,” she insists. “We do not have to accept those limitations. That’s how I’ve lived my life, though not without paying a price.”
Vakili still has faith that rock ‘n’ roll can change the world. “If you’re asking me, do I believe in love, yes I do,” she says. “This is fun for me. It’s not an escape. Performing music live is a pursuit of ecstasy, connection, desire, and love... it’s real, heady stuff. You have to work to make it productive, but I just love doing this.”
For Vakili Band, Walking Sideways represents a major step forward. They make it real... NOW.