Lily & Madeleine | photo by Emily De Hart for WXPN | dehartvisuals.com
Lily & Madeleine showcase the mature new sound of Canterbury Girls at World Cafe Live
The legacy of family bands in American folk music dates back as far as the genre itself. The story goes something like this: two (or more) siblings sing together around the house. It’s cute and maybe even in tune. Flash forward, and the family band secures a recording and releases it into the world. This is the basic origin story for folk-turned-pop due Lily & Madeleine. The Indiana-born singers recorded themselves singing cover songs in high school on YouTube and quickly caught the attention of producer, Paul Mahern. Their EP, Lily & Madeleine, was released in 2013 on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty records, and they sold out their first live shows in their hometown of Indianapolis.
Zoom forward six years, and Lily & Madeleine have just released their forth album, Canterbury Girls, on New West Records with the help of co-producers Ian Fitchuck and Daniel Tashian who worked Kacey Musgrave’s Grammy-award winning album, Golden Hour. The sisters, now 21 and 23 years old, have crafted a poignant new record that reflects on life’s hard lessons and beautiful but fleeting moments. They weave narratives about falling in and out of love, leaving their hometown and feeling lost across the world, and how sadness is a reality of an empathetic life. Their career has pushed on the trope of the family folk band and has now raised the question: what happens when the family band grows up?
Lily & Madeleine performed at the World Cafe Live this past Friday, along with opening act Brother Bird. After taking the stage, Madeleine remarked that this they have performed at the World Cafe Live during every album cycle of the career. Lily joked that their producer left a voicemail telling them to “get drunk and celebrate” the release of Canterbury Girls. Yet, despite the frenzy of a new album dropped, the energy in the room set by the sisters was soft and contemplative. Lily & Madeleine isn’t the kind of band you listen to while ripping tequila shots, nor was there a mosh pit or even a dueling guitar solo. They’re a folk-pop duo out of Indianapolis whose signature harmonies and lush songwriting are better suited to journaling about your latest heart break or buying a one-way bus ticket to “somewhere warm.”
They opened with the show with “Self Care,” a piano-heavy meditation on love gone wrong. This lyrics in the chorus: “Your beautiful eyes and your blank stare / I can’t make myself care” resonates with anyone who has ever questioned why they just can’t bring themselves to love someone as they once did. It’s a well-executed balance of pain and acceptance. It doesn’t torture you in the way Adele’s “Someone Like You” can twist your heart inside out, even at company karaoke night. It confronts the reality of lost love without judgement. “Self Care” is emblematic of Canterbury Girls as a whole. The album, while sometimes somber, sometimes forlorn, sometimes hopeful, is always reflective. Lily & Madeleine are pushing for a deeper exploration of life’s many, many complications. While they may have began their career as wide-eyed teenagers who contemplated life in a new place, they are now living that reality. The two have moved from Indiana to New York City and have traveled the world with their music. Canterbury Girls reflects on how our roots ground us to where we’re from but, like trees or skyscrapers, we grow out and up as reach for new experiences.
The presence of a laptop on stage exemplified Lily & Madeleine’s integration of new music technologies into sound, demonstrating the growth they’ve experienced not just in their lyrics but also their experimentation with new sounds. Prior albums were stripped-back folk works that featured only piano and guitar. This new album is bursting with sonic references to dance music, pop, and rock, and features guitar, cello, drum machines, and synthesizer. During a conversation with Billboard, Lily commented: “I think folk music is, at its core, about simplicity; simple, peaceful, uncomplicated beauty, so I think it was the easiest genre for us to fall into when we started out. But, pop is more complicated, from a production standpoint, so it’s fun to challenge ourselves and switch it up.” From dance-pop moments in “Supernatural Sadness” to Motown influence in “Can’t Help the Way I Feel” to drum machines in “Just Do It,” Lily & Madeleine’s performance at World Cafe Live makes clear that growing up is experimenting with identity. Who knows know how much farther they will go in the pop direction with future albums, or if Canterbury Girls’ synthesized sound is a one-time affair. Regardless, their use of new sound prove that Lily & Madeleine are open to whatever sonic intervention best serves the stories they are trying to tell.
They closed the set the final song off Canterbury Girls, “Go.” Accompanying band members left the stage and Lily and Madeleine — serene and thoughtful as ever — commanded the stage. “Go” reverses the story introduced in their opening song. Rather than choosing to end a relationship, the protagonist recognizes that their partner doesn’t want them anymore. “I said I wouldn’t leave so easy / But I know you want to see me go, go go.” The song ends with an extended passage of piano and synthesizer. Rather than leaning on lyrics to express the melancholy of the piece, Lily & Madeleine reached for ambient sounds that floated throughout the performance space and expressed a depth of emotion that renders words insufficient. With this closing passage, they made a statement: Words are limited. If folk music relies on word-heavy songs to express stories of pain and joy, then folk music itself is limited in its expressive range. Sound goes farther. By embracing the universe of synthesized sound available to today’s musicians, Lily & Madeleine find deeper meaning by departing from words alone.
It’s a mature move, one they could only make by getting old, producing a few records, and reflecting on what’s working and what’s holding them back. Their added pop veneer — a little guitar riff here, a little echo there — doesn’t take away from their roots in the folk tradition of writing songs about the intricacies of human relationships. Instead, it is an investigation of genre boundaries. They are still a family band. They continue to collaborate with each other and hunt for their authentic voice as songwriters. Their debut of Canterbury Girls at the World Cafe Live is a musical milestone. They’ve grown up from the teenage singers they once were. Now, they are adventuring into a new sound world in pursuit of their own complex, evolving identities.