Waiting to get into the men’s room at Mississippi Studios in Portland, Oregon, I noticed a tall (relative to me, anyway), attractive young lady with a guitar standing quietly by. She was soft-spoken, seemed kind of shy, and turned out she was also visiting from California. Based in Arcata at that time, Lila Nelson was playing an early set before Rachel Taylor Brown that Spring night in 2008, and was about to completely rip apart my initial impression of her.
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Lila Nelson described herself to me as shy, even after I had already determined that she was anything but. One thing was for certain though – she was “on” the entire time during my visit to her home in April of ’09, a year after I first encountered her in Portland.
By this time, Lila had left her longtime home in Arcata for the slightly less hippie-friendly Oakland, following her husband (sorry, guys!) as opportunity beckoned him to the big bad city.
Lila’s live set at Mississippi Studios was very much an interactive affair, much like if a blog were a song beckoning its audience to comment at its conclusion. Telling stories of childhood, school days, embarrassing moments, sad moments, joyful moments, and using her effervescent personality to connect these personal tales to her audience, she basically had us in the palm of her hand (most of us, anyway — as we discussed in our interview, sometimes people feel like they’re “on the spot” and can’t really get into it).
The tune that had me sold completely was a long-but-fun tongue in cheek tribute to MySpace founder Tom Anderson (or as Lila likes to refer to him, “Tom, my millionaire friend”) called “I Accept Everybody” (you can stream this tune on Lila’s MySpace profile), which was written as a result of her also very interactive “Write Your Own Damn Songs” segment on the radio program she created, called “Meet Me In the Morning,” on KHUM in Ferndale (Lila has since moved on from the show, but it’s still on the air every Sunday with a new host).
MySpace had yet to be overtaken and overshadowed by Facebook and Twitter in the social media battle, so the “I Accept Everybody” was plenty relevant and humorous. Now Lila’s just waiting for the next big thing, since she was already “shut down” by this dude’s song about Twitter.
Actually, she does a lot of waiting – not on tables, but for songs, another point she makes in her interview, as she eagerly took me on a tour of the most “intimate” inspirational breeding grounds for songs in her home.
And when those songs do finally arrive, they tend to take those folky shapes that you’d expect from acoustic guitar-toting troubadour. With Lila, they can be sing-songy, camp-firey, story-telling entertainment pieces like “American Miracle.” Or, they can be meditative examinations of the creative process, like “Hold Your Place,” or perfect openings to an early morning when the sun has yet to rise… as “Secret Agent Eyes” and “Parallel Lines” are proving to me as I type.
Lila may be one of the most adept artists I’ve met at using her charm and good looks to win over an audience, but what impresses me even more is that she so often just lets the songs speak for themselves, as she does through most of her 2008 album Letter Home. Echoes of heroes like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young can be heard in the way she treats her songs, and what better way to make the point than to cover Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home,” a song that parallels Lila’s own story, and also happened to carry the words that became the album’s title and theme. But as with any confident singer/songwriter, Lila’s approach to her songs – and those of her heroes – is wholly her own.
Yes, she can be deep, but Lila loves to have fun. Which was precisely why, when it came out in our off-camera conversation that she was interested in being my “intern” when I was ready to start putting the videos for this series together, I took her up on the offer. I knew I’d need a fun, playful personality to keep me relaxed when speaking on camera and to eliminate the weirdness that comes with looking into your own face when filming these pieces alone. So Lila became the first artist in this series to volunteer her services in building Parlour to Parlour beyond just inviting me into her home for an interview. Specifically, it was the narration inserts for Episodes 1 and 2 where Lila lent her enthusiasm, operating the camera and experimenting with different settings for my talks here in my home office.
After those two episodes, the toils of being an independent touring artist called Lila away, as I knew they would eventually. But the position she vacated (and, in a sense, created – by virtue of her desire to help, watch and learn) was filled in time for Episode 5. But that’s a whole other story (and, truth be told, the best part of the Parlour to Parlour story, in my mind – though it will have to wait for another time)…
Lila Nelson – “If Not You”
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Lila Nelson – Hold Your Place
Lila Nelson – Secret Agent Eyes