“The soundscape at the start of this record,” begins 18-year-old Lily Mackay. “Reminds me of a scene from an action film. Whenever I picture it, there’s a giant rocket about to strike the earth. A glittering, swooping thing. Everything goes static. But we’re still moving, drifting helplessly towards it.”
Lily knows a thing or two about wild trajectories. Having just released her debut EP (‘Sounds Like Lily: Glad I Met Ya’, recorded with a team that’s previously worked with Arlo Parks and Hearing Aid Beige) the bright-eyed young chanteuse from Totnes, south Devon is very much on the up, relishing her first taste of radio play on the local BBC radio and making waves with a little help from an extraordinarily fertile local scene.
Born in France – where Lily’s English parents moved on a romantic whim shortly after getting married – Lily spent her formative years marinating in jazzy French pop.
“I even played accordion for a while,” she tells Clash. “Doesn’t get much more French than that.”
When Lily was 12, the family moved back to the UK. “I didn’t have many friends at first, in Devon. So I went along to a local music group, Jamming Station, by myself, to try and fit in.”
For a town of less than 30,000 inhabitants, rural Totnes punches well above its weight as an artistic hub. Damon Albarn owns a gaff nearby – he plays solo sometimes in the local church. Matt Bellamy from Muse grew up ten minutes away, and studied at nearby Dartington College. Metronomy are Totnes born and bred. So is Ben Howard.
Jamming Station, since you ask, is an initiative to get young Totnesians involved in music, offering access to equipment, rehearsal space and sage advice from seasoned mentors.
“In the beginning I was terrified of microphones,” remembers Lily. “The whole idea of performing made me anxious.”
Jamming Station is where she encountered mentors James Stewart and Rowland O’Connor. James, along with Tommy Williams recorded the ‘Glad I Met Ya’ EP with Lily at Sorting Room Studios, just up the road on the Dartington Estate.
Rowland, a Jamming Station mentor and now bandmate, remembers first meeting Lily.
“She was obviously a great singer,” he tells Clash. “But the most striking thing was that she very clearly knew what she wanted, and communicated it so well.”
“I helped her structure the ideas in her head, finding my own expression in the guitar parts I wrote around her melodies. From there we developed a chemistry, through playing live.”
Having overcome her fear of the mic, Lily performed regularly with Rowland as a two-piece, often at events set up by well-loved local folk impresario Christian Murison, or in the stylish independent cinema on the high street. She’s also frequently fronts the Be Water Open Jam night – another Rowland brainchild, as it happens
“Be Water is a vehicle for creativity,” says Rowland. “The rules are no covers, no originals. Just pure live improvisation, with drums, bass, keyboards, guitars, brass, vocals, whatever. A lot of great bands and collaborations have already emerged from it. I’m very proud of that.”
Be Water attendees – most local musicians worth their salt, really – rightly rave about the standard of playing at this fortnightly happening. The jams that come out of it are actually good. People genuinely vibe – it’s polished, yet entirely in keeping with Totnes’s colourful, alternative aesthetic.
Performing regularly at the jam night, and on vocals with rowdy local hip-hop crew Skin Mountain – itself a Be Water offshoot – Lily’s confidence blossomed. To the point she was finally ready to record ‘Glad I Met Ya’.
The EP launch for ‘Glad I Met Ya’, an EP of her own songs co-written with Rowland, was held just the other week at the Barrelhouse Ballroom. Which, by the way, is a gem of a venue – high ceilings, proper velvet curtains, juicy sound system. Gilt mirrors, big dancefloor, hip staff – the backdrop to many a lively night in Totnes.
Onstage Lily is, frankly, hilarious. During a quiet bit in the middle of her set when most of the the band – brass section, backing singers, bassist – sod off leaving behind Lily and a keyboard, she whispers conspiratorially to her audience “It’s about to get real atmospheric,” before delightedly blurting out “AMBIENCE!”
In fairness, ‘April Showers In May’, the ballad she sits down to play, has ambience for days. Tuneful follow up ‘I Won’t Worry At All’ sees Rowland back onstage, and shows off Lily’s silken, supple, neo-soul inflected voice to exquisite effect.
’That’s one of the first songs I wrote with intention,’ Lily later tells Clash. ‘I wrote it because I needed to write it. I was working through something – the process when you go from being strangers, to being friends, then to something more, then back to strangers again. You have to slip back to the norm.
“The first line says it all really – ‘I’m back to pretending I don’t care’.”
Elsewhere Lily’s tunes veer between pretty D’Angelo-inspired smoothies (‘Cupid’) to a pumping Smooth Criminal-esque French joint called ‘Qui Vivra Verra’. ‘The Feeling’ is sweet and pretty, to my mind ripe for a big, summery remix. ‘Glad I Met Ya’, the EP title track, is outstanding – a groovy lament about close-mindedness; smart and sad and gorgeously knowing.
As Lily’s set wraps up – climaxing with an all-smiles singalong of The Bee Gee’s ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ – friends in the room and elsewhere around the world receive a cheery shout-out. As does the bar staff, as does Ben the soundman. It’s very warm, very inclusive, ultra-friendly. Totnes rather revels in its hippy reputation, and why not. It’s a cute place, awash with quality players, banging venues and up-for-it crowds. The ideal launchpad for someone like Lily to take off like a rocket.
‘Sounds Like Lily: Glad I Met Ya’ is out now.
Words: Andy Hill
Photo Credit: Simon Congdon