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Set of Seven

Usually the most mundane detail an artist’s profile starts with is where he or she was born, but in the case of genre-transcendent alt punk folk rocker Lily Vakili – currently releasing her second band project, the lyrically incisive and musically kick ass EP Set of Seven – it’s the best place to capture the start of her wild, freewheeling, expansive life journey. “I was born in Honduras during a military coup,” says the New Jersey-based artist, “and my Iranian-born dad, a boxer, artist and scientist who traveled the world studying diseases in tropical plants, had to walk over bloodied soldiers in the hospital to welcome me to the world. He’s always said that set the stage for everything else in my life.”

Let the colorful weavings and workings of her timeless years on earth entertain and astound you as you listen to the compelling EP, the follow up to the band’s 2018 album Oh Alright. Among its seven tracks – engineered and produced by David Amlen of Sound on Sound Studios (the renowned NYC recording studio, now relocated to Montclair, New Jersey) – is the lead single, a crackling, hard-rocking empowerment anthem defiantly titled “She Wants What,” due to drop in October.

Long story short – because if we told the full version, it would involve hours of rapturous storytelling and she needs to save some of it for her songs– Lily was raised in a large Irish-Iranian family in Honduras, Florida, Puerto Rico, Iowa and Thailand, where her dad, working for the U.S. government, collected a banana gene bank during the Vietnam War. Years away from discovering that sensual yet edgy voice that alternately brings to mind shades of Chrissie Hynde and Brandi Carlile, she followed different artistic impulses, training as a dancer, leaving home and joining a Minneapolis theatre troupe.

Clearly of the mindset that “she who dies with the most interesting resume wins,” Lily has worked as a dancer, actress, summer stage director, choreographer, corn detasseler (look that one up!), night “nurse” (quotes are hers, so feel free to ask), human rights researcher and waitress. Before settling in the artsy Jersey community of Montclair 21 miles outside of NYC, she lived in Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York. Along the way, she became a lawyer - working with early stage biotech companies, the mother of three, and – having raised a special needs son –a disability rights advocate. Whatever the role, the gig, the task, she’s devoted herself to, she’s written poems and songs marking her journey.

“When you grow up as a citizen of the world, you learn that the universe is open to you,” Lily muses. “there are definitely drawbacks to moving around so much, but the upside is that you’re able to inhabit and observe different cultures and environments and draw inspiration from them. You learn to live freely, and you sort of realize life is not lived in a single location, but in your mind.”

About seven years ago, after accumulating years of stories and myriad life experiences, Lily realized that if she didn’t start expressing herself musically and bonding with other creatives possessing a similar mindset, “it was not going to go well for me.” At that juncture, her mother had developed early stage Alzheimer’s but still had the presence of mind to offer the singer the most important and encouraging piece of advice she ever got. “I told my mom that I had to get back to a creative life, and even said I don’t think I can go on if I don’t,” she says. “My mom looked at me with her steady, clear, blue green eyes, and said, ‘What’s stopping you? No one else will do it for you.’ That was the moment of my liberation.”

Lily launched her recording career as a solo artist with Lake City/Next 3 Exits (produced by Bruce Hanson of Fellaheen) and Meadowlands (produced by James Mastro of Ian Hunter and the Rant Band and The Bongos) before expanding her sonic and harmonic possibilities by forming a full band. The Lily Vakili Band includes her “right hand man,” lead guitarist Ben St. Jacques, who co-wrote “She Wants What” and is responsible for its killer riff; back up vocalist, Cecile Williams, harmonica player, Joel Dorow, and bassist Jim Tyndall and drummer Gordon Kuba, both of whom bring their jazz backgrounds to Lily’s eclectic musical realm.

“This EP is new, but some of the songs have been with me for a long time – just waiting for their moment,” she says. “Others are brand, spanking new and reflect the spontaneous, unadulterated joy of making music with people I love. More than anything, Set of Seven reflects the evolution of an incredible band. We’ve become tighter, closer, more confident in our sound – and I love it.”

Conceptually, Set of Seven finds Lily taking a unique dual perspective on life. The first is a view from 30,000 feet, seeing everything – clouds, fields, highways –a truly universal overview that everyone can connect with. She balances that with a feet-on-the-ground, devil in the details granularity focusing on people’s day to day lives. This is an especially poignant emotional driver on songs like southern blues rocker “Freeman” (an observational gem about prisoners toiling in a northern Florida work camp – “Walked away from work camp, through Osceola State Park; down to Eustis, across the tracks…”) and the hope-doesn’t-die jersey-rocker “We Got Dreams” – “Jenny works at the corner store, making nothing, but hoping for more…”. Lily showcases a gentler side of her artistry with “When 21,” a lilting, swinging, blues-tinged tune reflecting on the mystique of young adulthood, asking “Who doesn’t want to be bright and young?” and “Dreamy Dreamer” a hymn-like song that speaks to people however they identify; “I’m telling them – as someone who has walked a ways down the road - to hold on, be generous, be free and unafraid.”.

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