Monday, January 5, 2009

Q&A: Lily Schaffer

If you've ever been to Inner Town Pub in Wicker Park on a Thursday night, you might recognize local singer-songwriter Lily Schaffer as the long-time host of its open mic. She has also been writing songs and playing around Chicago for years, and recently finished recording her debut album, "Lemonade."

The soon-to-be-released album, which can be previewed on Schaffer's MySpace page, immediately brings to mind the wryly clever pop of Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple. With a canon of strong songs that are as witty as they are biting, as catchy and pop-minded as they are literate, Schaffer is set to garner quite a bit of attention with "Lemonade."

In preparation for the release, she took the time to fill us in on more about the record, her background and being a musician in Chicago.

Tell us about your forthcoming album. What should the unaware listener expect?

I think that the the album might surprise anyone who has seen me perform live, even with my band. A lot of production went into it, so there's a lot going on in every song. I'm really happy with it; working with Danny Shaffer was a ton of fun. A few songs might surprise people; some of the songs were written a long time ago. I guess the unaware listener should keep in mind that I don't take myself seriously; I think of my songs as caricatures of their subjects.

You've mentioned that your work is reminiscent of Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, which definitely comes through on "Lemonade." Who or what are your most unlikely influences?

My mother, for one. She had a klezmer band for 10 years, which I despised as a child. I doubt anyone would describe my music as "influenced by Eastern-European folk music," but it's there somewhere. Lyrically, my influences are all over the place. I studied poetry in college, so I'm always influenced by poets and spoken word artists. I really like hip hop. Some other unlikely influences - George Gershwin, maybe, Steven Sondheim. I was raised on musical theater.

"Lemonade" includes contributions from members of fellow Chicago acts Frisbie, the Sons and the Most Dangerous Race. Tell us more about those contributions and how they came to be.

Well, Frank (from the Sons) plays bass in my band. Jim Dinou (of the Most Dangerous Race) is friends with Danny Shaffer, who produced the album. I met Gerald (from Frisbie) through Danny Shaffer, as well. He's really talented. I recently saw Frisbie at Subterranean. They are great live.

If people wanted to sample your music in one song, which song would you play them and why?

I would say "All He Wants." Thematically, musically and lyrically, it's the type of song I write about 75 percent of the time. The song is about a guy who is a chronic self-fulfilling prophecy. He's his own worst enemy. There's no way out of a bad situation if you're the one who created it. Usually when people ask me what I write about, I tell them I write songs about people with problems, which sounds depressing, so I should probably say I write slightly funny, mostly happy songs about people with problems.

How long have you been playing around Chicago? How has living and playing in this city influenced your work?

I was born in Chicago. I started writing songs when I was 10. I started playing guitar when I was 16. When I was 18 or so, I started dragging my friends to open mikes in Wicker Park. I think Chicago has a great music scene; it's large and small at the same time. Playing music and living all around Chicago has always been a great experience.

Favorite Chicago musician, past or present?

There's so many! I just saw Andrew Bird play a few weeks ago. He's amazing. I guess if I had to pick, it would be him. Liz Phair is great. I wrote "The Sweetest Thing" after hearing her song "H.W.C." "Exile in Guyville" is still one of my favorite albums. I've always been a huge fan of Common. He's definitely one of my influences.

Last great local show you've been to?

Well, Andrew Bird's show at Ronny's was great. It was just him, switching back and forth between violin and guitar. It was an impromptu, unscheduled show, so there were maybe 30 people there, in the tiny garage. I saw David Singer a few months ago, opening for Frisbie. He is also one of my favorite local musicians. He's a great songwriter.

Best place you've played in Chicago and why?

One of my all time favorite sets was an acoustic, last minute set at the Mutiny. I went there expecting the worst and ended up playing to a crowd that was really interested in what I was doing, which starkly contrasted with what they came to see.

You host the open mic night at the Inner Town Pub in Wicker Park every Thursday. How did you come about doing that, and what can people expect from checking it out? How can performers get involved?

I was doing an independent project in my last semester of college. I would go to open mikes and write something based on my experience. I played a few songs there and the host at the time asked if I would be interested in hosting. I've been doing it for almost four years. It's a lot of fun, very laid back. There's a pool table right in front of the stage. The crowd varies; they can be anything from rowdy to apathetic. In terms of getting involved, just show up. I'm there every Thursday at 10.

How can people find out more about your music?

For now, go on my MySpace, As soon as the album is pressed, I'll hopefully be playing out with the band, trying to promote it.

More Chicago music Q&As:
Chester King Sparrow Mark Minelli

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