Editor’s Note: This article features a portion of the Ann Arbor District Library’s Jan. 5, 2023 Pulp interview with Lily Talmers.
Lily Talmers fully embraces her authentic self on “Birthday Song.”
The Brooklyn, New York indie-folk singer-songwriter gets vulnerable and introspective on an intimate track from her latest double album, Hope is The Whore I Go To / It’s Unkind to Call You My Killer.
“It’s definitely kind of like a prayer and an asking; I wrote it on my birthday, which is kind of funny,” said Talmers, a University of Michigan alumna.
“But I think the central image of the song is thinking about unfolding as a human … and it’s very vulnerable to be a human. It’s just admitting that and feeling often like when we bring our full selves to other people it’s hard to do that and not be embarrassed.”
Surrounded by wistful nylon guitar and strings, she sings, “So please excuse the hardness of my softening / If I’m unworthy, Lord, I swear I’ll fake it good.”
“It’s this image of wanting to be your full little sweet self and feeling ashamed of that,” Talmers said. “It’s also oscillating between those two things, like ‘I want to go back into the womb, and I don’t want to interact with anyone,’ and wanting to fully be with people and be loving and brave.”
Talmers beautifully illustrates that relatable dichotomy alongside poignant reflections about hope, humanity, spirituality and growth across the 21 tracks on Hope is The Whore I Go To / It’s Unkind to Call You My Killer.
Within those tracks, she shares haunting tales wrapped in emotive string-brass instrumentation and pensive folk-jazz and Latin-Mediterranean soundscapes.
I recently spoke to Talmers about her background, ambitious double album, prolific writing and recording process, and upcoming plans.
Q: How did you get involved in music while growing up in Birmingham, Michigan?
A: I began playing piano when I was 5 years old and studied classically in a strange way. I had this very eccentric Russian teacher who taught me no theory, but really made me feel like I was a musician by teaching me by ear a lot of things. I did cello in the public schools and then gradually through late high school and early college I came out of the closet as a songwriter, which took me a long time. It’s still not kind of fun because it feels very vulnerable.
Gradually, I started playing guitar even though I thought, “Guitar’s stupid, everyone plays it. I hate that.” But I did it and started really getting into ‘60s folk revival stuff. A series of little strings have pulled me along into thinking like, “Even though this is kinda weird and seems uncertain, it seems like a good idea,” and I’ve just kept leveling up in small ways.
Q: What artists inspired you along the way?
A: Definitely Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. I never liked pop music very much growing up, and it had a lot of sounds that I just didn’t like. I didn’t enjoy blasting music like other kids, which I always felt silly for. I think I realized it when you can really tell a story in a song, which Paul Simon does, and I also noticed that a lot of his work is interdisciplinary. He would convert old poems or stories into songs, and I had always liked poetry. Realizing that was a big jump into popular music [for me] at 17.
Q: What brought you to the University of Michigan? How did your college years help you prepare you to become a musician and songwriter?
A: I studied comparative literature and philosophy. I [also] would begrudgingly do these open mics. I don’t know why I did it because every time I was like, “I hate this. Why am I doing this?” I would do it because it would kind of propel me to do more writing if I just showed off the songs. It was like those songs could be dead, and they could move on.
I was briefly part of a little folk duo with Monte Pride in Lansing. He taught me what gigging was. At first I was like, “What are we doing? I’m in school. I don’t want to play every night. What are we talking about?” But gradually that was my first jumping point into being a working musician, but it was very slow.
After I graduated, I started playing with the bandmates I made my last record with. They’re all jazz school or music school grads, and they showed me this whole other world of what it means to gig and to collaborate with other people.
Q: Why did you move to Brooklyn, New York last year? What’s it been like living there?
A: It was an energy thing because things were going quite well musically [here]. I loved my collaborators in Michigan, but I feel like [there’s] more creative energy [in Brooklyn] that’s happening. The pool of musicians is bigger, so there are all these cool, specific folks you can play with in all types of things.
It’s also like an ocean; the pond was nice and lukewarm in southeastern Michigan. I loved it; it was very comfy, and now it’s like an ocean that’s freezing cold. It’s kinda like a smack in the face, but it’s an interesting, weird fish.
Q: Broadly speaking, your music reflects a lot of spiritual themes. Why inspired you to write about those themes across your growing catalog of songs?
A: My family is Greek Orthodox, and my parents aren’t particularly religious, but my grandparents are. I grew up close in proximity to them. I also grew up accepting a lot of the really horrible things about Christianity that I’ve since come to know [that] were not on display for me at all growing up. I was kind of a strangely intense kid and even at age 12 I would go to church with my grandparents or by myself. I just loved how you could ask big questions without shame in a way that I couldn’t do at school.
I also use the biblical narrative, and I’m inspired by Leonard Cohen a lot … he feels like the bible is a common text. So even though it’s not really the case anymore, I find myself having to explain biblical allusions. I think, like as you’re telling a story, having the story, even though that doesn’t exist in our society to refer to, is such a cool tool. I think I use that as a crutch and as a way in. My relationship with faith is complicated, but I’m definitely involved in the Orthodox.
I use song to reframe divine notions for myself. I think the institution of religion is really limited and troubled, and so I’m always poking in song and in my actions. I think it’s very important, and I find a lot of people my age, for many reasons, dismiss it. I find myself, for some reason, unable to dig my claws out of it in any given time. It is the question … there’s no better way to try to appeal to the masses than [to] just go straight for the God.
Hope is The Whore I Go To
Q: Hope is The Whore I Go To reveals the cyclical nature of hope and how hope doesn’t always deliver on its promises. What was it like to chronicle the ups and downs of hope while writing the 10 tracks for this album?
A: It’s kind of mysterious, and I certainly did not set out to write a concept album. I’m a very high-volume writer, so I wrote plenty of songs that are not on the record. It just kept surfacing in this funny way, and it didn’t solidify for many months as a thread that I was following.
When I write, I go into this weird state. I don’t sit down and write a song like, “Oh, you know what’s a great idea? Hope is a whore. Genius!” I kind of read the song the next morning, and I’m like, “What the hell is this?”
I think it made me realize how wide hope is as a driving force in my life. It’s really an issue of faith and just belief in other people. It might seem pointed romantically in certain tunes, and that’s an easy way to see any human extremity.
This was me reckoning with being a person who likes to really believe that things are good. That’s not usually all the way true, but in order to operate in a certain way, I find that I just have to believe it. The record was dealing with this cyclical disappointment that I think everyone is kinda of dealing with and hiding.
Circumstantially, the pandemic was really helping drive this concept into me on an emotional scale. In addition to various movements in my personal life and memory, there was also this [feeling] of being dragged along. We were all coping with an idealized version of life and believing in something and continually chasing what we thought to be normalcy and being let down again and again.
Q: “My God, How Human” highlights the frailty of the human condition and a growing disillusionment with religion. How have your personal experiences with humanity and religion inspired this track?
A: I think all of that is hidden in there. I almost named the track and the whole record from [the song’s] last line, “born in a hospital.” It’s hugely symbolic to me that we’re born in this world into the same place that you go to heal and you go to get fixed in whatever way.
In this country, we see the institution of the churches as a place where righteous people go to tell gay people that they’re horrible or throw fits about abortion. Historically, and in a lot of church tradition, religions traditions are a hospital, like a place you go to get healed and seek healing.
What I’m highlighting is the notion of believing in God is as difficult as believing in other human beings. It’s outlined, and you’re like really damned in any case … you’re bound for deep grief. It’s like a lament of that, but there’s also an acceptance of it, like this is the way that things are.
Q: “Hope, You Whore” examines the heartbreak that arises when hope disappoints you and leaves you feeling lonely. How does hope feel deceitful in this instance?
A: I think it’s coming from a place of looking back on a person who seemed really certain and really great and being like, “Whoa! That was all a ruse,” and sort of imagining the memory of it.
If the story is really between two people, it’s really not talking about either person, but talking about the force of hope in between them. I think understanding that force as the thing that’s both benevolent and malevolent at the same time is helpful in thinking about one’s life in sort of a broader sense.
Rather than “me” singular person who’s been hurt and helped by different people, it’s more like I’m dealing with all these forces and humans and bodies coming and affecting me at different times. I think the last lines of that tune are also really revealing: “I’ll be thrown out to the shoreline / Where the sand and sea meet every time / Eroding one another by the wind.”
It’s this notion that it’s a very natural force for things to just be rubbing up against each other and eroding. The song is partly of the attitude that it wasn’t just a singular event, it was a chain of events that I couldn’t stop. It’s getting upset about that continuity of force and not being able to escape it as opposed to being like, “I had a breakup, and it sucks.” It’s a life force that I find difficult to deal with.
Q: “Life’s So Fun” has a playful feel to it, but it also reminds people that they can walk away from a bad situation. How did writing this track help you heal and move past any difficult situations that you were facing?
A: It’s good to have different valences of emotion toward a certain situation. I’m trying to get funnier in my writing, and I’m much more humorous as a being. If you were to listen to most of my prior discography, you’d be like, “This gal, she’s very serious.”
It’s this notion of connecting a troupe … I as a woman feel like my femininity is connected to taking care of people, and sometimes that means that I can’t leave situations or stop caring for people who are really hurting me.
The song is like a freaky carousel of “No, I’m fine. I’m doing great. Everything’s awesome.” Then suddenly you’re zoomed out and you realize that you’re on a carousel. It’s like, “You can leave if you want. It is an option. I get it that you’re self-aware, but please stop talking about this horrible thing that’s happening to you and just solve it.”
Q: “Saudades (Over Now)” addresses coming to terms with relationships ending and understanding the lingering effects of melancholy and nostalgia. How did writing this track help you move forward after different relationships had ended?
A: This one feels like one of the widest arm tracks. It’s speaking most broadly about me as a person who loves other people. I’ve moved like 11 or 12 times in the last two years.
I graduated college and a lot of my friends graduated … and I’ve experienced in life that my mode of loving people is through nostalgia. In moments of transition when you’re leaving your dearest ones or just things change, you’re clinging to memories, and that’s the mode.
In other moments in your life, you’re very present with exactly with what’s in front of you, and you get the privilege. It’s speaking to the transitional stages of knowing that you have to just lose people in this life sometimes in an immediate sense. You can trust that they’ll circle back, but you can’t stay in these modes … you have to sort of wean yourself out of them.
I lived in Portugal for a little bit, and I have a lot of people that I really love there. I lived there for a summer and a semester, so not too long. The notion of “saudade” … is also like a deeply ingrained cultural concept. I loved how in Portugal and in my relationships with people how they’re engaged with the notion of nostalgia.
People are in between each other and are willing to express that missing to other people as a life force and a force of love in ways that we’re not [able to] in the U.S. Everyone lives their individual lives … if you have to move away for a job, like you can’t be sad about that. It’s a good opportunity. It felt very freeing to me in the way that it was righteously expressed in Portugal.
I also studied Portuguese fado music; it’s like Portuguese blues. It just feels very close to me. When I wrote the song, I was like, “Of course this is its name.”
It’s Unkind to Call You My Killer (aka My Mortal Wound)
Q: How does It’s Unkind to Call You My Killer serve as the “soft underbelly” and help “tie up the loose ends” of Hope is The Whore I Go To?
A: Musically, both records are a bit all over the place. We recorded the songs in strange spurts from February 2021 through February 2022, so sort of by design, we weren’t gunning for a lot of cohesion on the musical front. This is to say that, to me, what’s always tied these groupings of songs together is their shared vocabulary, thematically and lyrically.
Certain images and words continually resurface. Of course, there’s the obvious “hope-as-whore” troupe, which is blaring, but there are less obvious ones, too. Maybe it’s also worth saying the threads between these songs are not so calculated as much as it is a natural consequence of the things I’m cyclically thinking about and working through bleeding into my writing.
Q: It’s Unkind to Call You My Killer was originally titled My Mortal Wound, but the title changed just before it came out. Why did you decide to rename the record? (Reprinted via permission from the Ann Arbor District Library’s Jan. 5, 2023 Pulp interview with Lily Talmers.)
A: I discovered there are two important Balkan sayings that correspond to the albums: the first is “Hope is the greatest of all whores” and the second is “Hope dies last.” My Mortal Wound was just kind of a default title because I initially wasn’t thrilled about having to name the two records separately. It seemed inevitable, though, for the sake of clarity. I think with time I’ve realized how important death is in these songs. Love kills! Hope kills! We martyr ourselves for love! So I think It’s Unkind to Call You My Killer highlights something important about the ways that loving and dying are inextricably linked.
Q: “My Mortal Wound” yearns for change and connection after a long period of uncertainty. How was writing that track cathartic for you, especially during the pandemic?
A: A big part of my songwriting practice is leaning into the fact that I don’t feel like a lot of what I write is fully discernible and understandable to me, especially immediately. This is a tune I remember, in order to memorize it, I was listening to it a lot. It felt really moving to me and surprising and strange. It took me many months to recognize how the pandemic was in this tune.
It’s really thinking about the notion of being dragged along and what that looks like. That was happening in a number of my personal relationships, and for a while I couldn’t see past those situational things. And the fact that just for the last [three] years we’ve been in a continual state of feeling ashamed for our hopefulness. The song’s kind of like begging against that shame and admitting the shame. It feels really good to sing.
I do a lot of calling out of images … to comfort ourselves and maintain a sense of normalcy, like here’s a list of the things that would make me feel like anything is going to be fine.
Q: “Best of Times” acknowledges the challenges of sharing your emotions with others. What did you learn about yourself while writing this track?
A: This track is very special! It’s one of very few songs I wrote while actively weeping—it’s very rare to feel clarity enough to write through tears, at least for me. The gesture is that we are always sort of on the brink of the “best of times” of connectivity and joy and the homecoming that happens when we’re with people we love, but the small lapses in our ability to communicate can send everything into haywire.
It was Christmas, and I was about to follow a big dream to finally leave Michigan and move to Brooklyn on a whim, and all the most important people in my life were around, but experiencing various little conflicts, internally and externally, left me feeling more disconnected and upset than ever. It’s something I feel often, like “Guys, we are so close to something so profound.” And yet, normally by way of some extraneous fear, we fail to get to the heart of things and miss the mark in intimacy with others.
Q: You included a new version of “Francis” on It’s Unkind to Call You My Killer. What was it like to revisit this track from Remember Me as Holy? How does “Francis” help console you in your darkest moments?
A: We just re-recorded a piano version on a whim because I’ve loved Aidan Cafferty’s rendition on piano since he showed it to me, and thematically the sort of prayer-like qualities of Francis fit in really well with this grouping of songs. I think re-including it reminds me just how innate the gesture of a song can be. It’s nice to know that a part of me will always mean it in different ways when I sing that song.
Writing and Recording Both Albums
Q: When did you start writing the 21 tracks for Hope is The Whore I Go To and It’s Unkind to Call You My Killer?
A: I started the writing cycle in November 2020, and I write a lot of songs. I think it was more like January  that they started being good enough to be worth recording. It was like a year of writing.
Q: What was it like to see these tracks evolve as you recorded them in an Ypsilanti basement studio, High Bias Studios in Detroit, a cathedral in Brooklyn, New York, and a farmhouse outside Ann Arbor, Michigan?
A: All of the songs were recorded live. I just know how I work best. I find it really hard to make decisions in a computer, so recording just me playing and then putting a bunch of stuff over it does not work for my brain. It feels very boring to me and not alive.
It was really amazing to have all the members of my band in a room, and we arranged everything in the space of the rehearsals. If something didn’t feel good, then we could just be like, “OK, let’s play it again.” It felt very human, and my band members are some of my closest friends over the last year and all the time that I was writing it. In addition to being close to the music because they care about it … everyone I’m with bleeds into the music. They’re also kind of in the music in a certain type of way.
I learned so much about what it means to arrange for a band in a way that’s interesting and compelling and honors the music. It’s like my own version of going to music school. I get to learn from all these people who have spent so much time in different ensembles and with so many teachers and mentors.
It was like a big learning process of possibility for me in every context. All the members of my band … honor the fact that I know best about my own music. They always defer to me, which especially when you’re learning, is the best thing. It felt very collected and wholehearted.
Q: How did Ben Green, Geoff Brown and other collaborators help elevate the album’s overall sound?
A: Ben Green was a really heavy hitter on this record. There were a few tracks like “Prayer for Nearly Nothing” … my envisioning of the tune was a little different. He was like, “Lily, you need to trust me. This is what it could be. We have to overdub brass because of the ways it bleeds into the microphones.” We did the live take with drums, guitar, bass and voice. Then he went in, and in an hour overdubbed all those brass parts.
Ben wrote the string parts as well. He came out with Geoff Brown to New York City. The string players were all from my cousin Nicholas Gallitano, who’s like my best friend in the world. His a violist, so it was his friends and friends of mine as well.
It was really special to record inside of cathedral, in particular because it is an Orthodox cathedral, which is the denomination of Christianity I was raised in. There was definitely a reverence that colored the whole session, starting with the miraculous way that we got most of the tunes done in just a couple of hours, each in under three takes. It was easy to focus and feel peace in such a familiar setting.
Q: What’s up next for you this winter? Any plans to write new material or go back into the studio?
A: I am always scheming, but I’d be lying if I said I knew how my lofty plans will materialize. But yes, I’ve been writing and demoing and rethinking and communicating with people, and these are the steps to making [my] way back to the studio soon.