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Pensive Puns and Pop Culture: Nardo Lilly's Unique Musical Voice
By Colleen Foster
It comes with the strummed territory: most female singer/songwriters relish the doling out of a good dose of irony in one form or another. Some even make a doubly Grammy-nominated song out of it. (Whether or not Alanis Morissette’s 1996 song actually illustrates said literary device is a debate for another time, or another angsty middle school English class.)
But it’s treacherous turf. Push the bittersweet declarations too far and it might come across as a self-conscious declaration of being somehow “above” the masses with their fluffy Top 40. Turn to cathartic, caterwauled ballads about exes and, being accusatory but claiming musical diplomatic immunity, you risk buying into the stereotype that gives estrogen a bad name--notice how we never say “male singer/songwriter” but always specify the females?
So how does Annie Nardolilli, embodied in her voice and guitar as Nardo Lilly, so smoothly and endearingly navigate all this?
Truth is, she’s stumped too. And that’s what makes this Arlington, Virginia native, not even a year on the local scene but with a growing following and an LP about to print, so damn relatable.
“Is that a real laugh or an uncomfortable laugh? I don’t know,” she says, musing over a frequent audience reaction to her songs. It’s not irony per se she plays with so much but juxtaposition: vulnerable revelations pull at heartstrings, but right when you’re about to cry, a cast of characters ranging from Benedict Cumberbatch to Neil deGrasse Tyson to Jesus appears to sandpaper the emotional edge off with quirks.
“There’s a cliché of a girl singer/songwriter open-mic night, but I actively try to differentiate myself,” she says as she bites into a salmon sandwich. “I’m not just that girl with a guitar. I challenge you, I make you think and actively listen.”
Our location this April afternoon has had its fair share of singer/songwriter traffic. We’re sitting at Northside Social, on the fringes of the Clarendon neighborhood that Remy Munasfi made famous for its Dudes In Brown Flip-Flops five years ago in “Arlington: The Rap.”
But the path that brought this one here probably defies some traditions.
Okay, there were ten-year-old initial attempts at composition, a side effect of a Michelle Branch obsession. There was a seventh-grade talent show. (“Like much of what goes on in middle school, I try and forget those songs,” she says with her trademark self-effacing but not -destructive humor.) But even up through her undergraduate experience as an anthropology major at Temple University, though speckled with a show-and-tell here and marching band there, there was yet to be a defining moment.
That was set at the C&O Canal, of all places, in October 2014.
“I performed ‘Hot Park Ranger’ for a lot of park rangers who were also hot,” she quips. “Then everything blew up.”
That pivotal mini-show came about because of a family connection to the C&O Canal Trust. Not long after, her dad financed a three-hour studio session as she gauged live audience appeal on the local open mic scene. A devoted clatch of U.S. National Park Service employees is a fantastic, albeit unorthodox, starting point (they even officially Tweeted a link to “Hot Park Ranger” on YouTube!)--but broader audience tests are required for a fledgling performing artist.
These tests came back overwhelmingly positive: not just from surprised friends and family (“Annie’s a singer now? Since when?”), but a serendipitous industry connection. After one performance at IOTA Club & Café, she was approached by Stephanie Milne from Recording Arts. At their new location in Springfield, Virginia, Annie is now shaping The Wing Woman LP under the passionate and attentive guidance of music producer/engineer Ken Barnum.
“It’s not an easily digestible pop album,” she says of the project, set for a summer 2015 release. “The songs are unified in quirkiness, but each song is its own beast.”
The song lending its title to the project is a prime example.
“It’s probably the most complicated song I’ve ever written,” she says. “People don’t quite know whether to laugh or be sad when I compare my lack of love life to going down with the Titanic or like being Eponine instead of Cosette from Les Misérables. But more often than not folks will come up to me after the show and tell me they know exactly how I feel.
I think girls especially feel uncomfortable admitting that sometimes they just want to feel loved, especially when it appears like all of their other girl friends are in relationships. In ‘Wing Woman,’ I’ve addressed a real emotion--not feeling ‘good enough’--and added just enough humor to keep my song from feeling too heavy.”
This tactic is serving Annie well across the track list. She knows she has to “bring her A-game and make people laugh,” and that gives accessibility to what could be overwhelmingly sentimental songs.
Like “Wing Woman,” there are other songs processing the aches of relationships. But further defying the expectations heaped upon a female singer/songwriter, these aren’t all in the realm of romance/sexuality. “Red White and Blues” processes the fallout of an argument at a family barbecue on the Fourth of July. “Stardust,” an “unabashedly Christian song,” probes into what a connection to faith really means, “grappling with the fact that you are really insignificant and small, and the universe is really gargantuan.”
In a similar vein, one song which will not be squeezed onto the album but is a performance-only jewel is “David and Goliath.” It backs off of self-questioning on a cosmic scale but zooms in on the uneasy relationship with the future that is all too familiar to diploma-earners. Specifically here, Annie’s experience of being an anthropology major--i.e., not exactly a clear employment track--up against the big, daunting future of practicality. The ribbon-tied paper unfortunately does not come with a foldout map.
Likewise, there is no obvious timeline for Nardo Lilly. The self-titled album already has cover art, an incredible sketch by Erin Holberg where Annie’s trademark mane of curls grows into a Rubik’s Cube, a camping tent, the rings of Saturn... Her busy schedule of “baby tours,” as she calls them, has had her and her supportive cohort of musicians hitting the road beyond Virginia to North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and of course downtown DC. Backing her up are Corie Schofield on violin, Kyle Harlos on bass, and by far last in birthdays but certainly not least, the amazingly adept ten-year-old Ethan Drake, a lucky basement show discovery, on drums.
But it’s all a hazy work-in-progress. One which she does not take for granted. Putting Nardo Lilly on the front burner has been made possible by a lot pieces of coming together, such as living at her parents’ house in Arlington while saving money working part-time at a fair trade store and café.
“I’m meant to take this opp. Even if nothing happens, I recorded an album. I’m performing.”
It’s clear that the past seven months in and of themselves have been a tremendous gift. The universe Nardo Lilly surveys is complicated and crazy, but generous and good for a laugh. It’s one where the unexpected--a twenty-two-year-old with barely any training but a naturally resonant, gorgeous voice and guitar ability--can take off.
As we wrap up our informal interview outside at a Northside Social picnic table, the wind whipping around her curls and my haphazard paper heaps, she has the same low-key, funky gratitude.
“This has been really cool, and just because I had a good sandwich.”
Agreed. About all of “this.” There’s a hell of lot about Nardo Lilly that’s really cool, and not just because she had a good sandwich.
See Nardo Lilly play next June 10 at 6:30 p.m. at Arlington Presbyterian Church’s summer block party at 3507 Columbia Pike, Arlington, Virginia, 22204. On July 3 she’ll play The 9 Singer-Songwriter Series at Ebenezer’s Coffeehouse in D.C. Following are the Capital City Showcase in July and the Arlington County Fair in August. Follow her on Facebook and YouTube, and stay tuned for the exact release date of The Wing Woman LP. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any inquiries.
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