Interview: Lillie Mae Fuses Styles on Explorative New Album, ‘Other Girls’
Lillie Mae's new album, Other Girls, is an explorative release melding bluegrass with psychedelia, wrapped in a country-leaning package. Out Friday (Aug. 16) via Jack White's Third Man Records, the album capitalizes on the strong signature sound of Mae's debut release, 2017's Forever and Then Some. This time around, however, she and her team recruited Dave Cobb, who recorded and produced the album in historic RCA Studio A on Nashville's Music Row.
While often labeled as country or singer-songwriter, Mae is so much more. After a lifetime of singing and playing in a family band and performing at Layla's Bluegrass Inn on Lower Broadway (she still does sometimes), she got her big break playing fiddle for White during his tour to support 2014's Lazaretto. He then signed her to his label and produced her first album.
Mae is a strong instrumentalist first. Unassuming and shy in person, she transforms onstage, whipping out songs confidently. Her lyrics also reflect this other side, someone who easily articulates hard feelings about the dynamics of love and practices stern self-reflection. Other Girls hits the Americana nail right on the head in that it uses a foundation of folk with bluegrass band timing and blues and country stylistic choices while tonally and stylistically evoking a sound that's dark and Southern gothic. It's sophisticated, layered and a clear move toward a bolder sound.
"Lillie has this ... it’s like King Diamond joined a bluegrass band," Cobb said in discussion with Mae at an album listening event at RCA Studio A in June. "There’s no walls at all on this record. There’s no boundaries. It’s not a bluegrass record. It’s not a rock record. It’s not a folk record. It’s all of it -- and psychedelic.
"There’s nothing normal about this record," he adds, "in the best possible way."
Just as Other Girls' songs came from Mae's collection from over the years but fit together for a cohesive record, different arrangements combine for something special, from the straightforward and subtly clever "I Came for the Band (for Show)" to the heavy and empirical "Terlingual Girl," which Mae penned at the age of 19. The album is a step into new territory for Mae and her band, and Cobb was the ideal "man behind the curtain" to make it happen. After sending him a few demos, the deal was done.
"I had the opportunity to work with Dave on this album, [and] it was a no-brainer. I was super excited when Dave called me the first time. It was super comfortable and easy from the get go," Mae says. "It turned out to be a perfect fit for this album."
Adds Cobb, "I learned a lot, you know."
The recording of Other Girls ran seamlessly on both sides. Mae reduced the size of her band, focusing on its power players, her brother and sister, Frank and Scarlett Rische, in particular. Their decades of experience playing together have created muscle memory; Mae says playing with them "is the easiest thing, and they’re incredibly talented."
"When they start playing, it’s weird. They don’t talk. Magic just comes out. It sounds like a finished record when they play together," Cobb says of Mae and her siblings. "The riff will be so complicated and she won’t even have to say a word to her brother or sister, they just know the riff. In a matter of a minute, they’ve got it."
Other Girls was made in record time, too, thanks to several factors: Mae's team backed her departure from the norm while working on the record, and Cobb was along for the ride every step of the way.
"It was great to go in with a team with her and her family band and Third Man, just knowing that the more we went into uncharted territory, the more everyone was into it," Cobb reflects. "That’s such a rare thing that happens in record making."
"There’s nothing normal about this record, in the best possible way." -- Dave Cobb
Mae also credits the quick pace to her years as a session player. She's honed some well-practiced skills to become an efficient recording artist, even when she's the star of the show.
"If you’re recording for years and you’re always thinking about whoever’s album you’re playing on and the time that they have, you just try to get things as close as you can," Mae says. "Having the mindset of that for a very long time -- trying to get it knocked out as quickly as you can to save everyone some money -- there’s that pressure behind you."
Adds Cobb, "It went really quick because she’ll get the vocals on the first or second take. It’s almost like real time. You don’t have to go through the normal process of how records are made because it just happens."
While Mae is currently on a break from touring, she's spent most of her time on the road, especially in the past few years. She has a few dates set in the fall for album release shows, and will be opening for Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant. Live shows may be Mae's bread and butter, but she did appreciate the downtime to get more creative.
"It’s such a creative experience -- not that playing live isn’t, but you do the same thing if you play live. You play the same songs in similar arrangements," Mae says. "Recording is so different."
Mae will celebrate Other Girls' release in Nashville on Sunday (Aug. 18), at Grimey's record store. Her tour with Plant begins on Sept. 13. Visit LillieMaeMusic.com for full details.
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