Q+A: 5 minutes with Lilith Merlot

A musician since youth, Dutch singer Lilith Merlot has taken what she has learned over the years, her Jazz vocal studies at the Rotterdam Conservatory, her musical upbringing, and her personal experience with breakup grief, and combined it all to create a gentle and open-hearted EP titled Shades Of Blue.

Stream / Download: Lilith Merlot – Shades Of Blue EP

The EP is her second, following her self-titled debut EP, which she released back in 2017. Since then, she has released a number of singles, of which Easier to Fight’ and ‘Compromised’ comprise part of her latest offering. Without further delay, here is Lilith Merlot.

Set the tone for us. Why the arts?

I grew up surrounded by music because my mother and grandparents are classical musicians. I started playing the violin and piano and writing melodies when I was only four years old. It has always been my way to express myself and also find joy. Growing up, I was quite lonely at times. My father was not around and my mother was away quite often because of her career in music. Making music really helped me escape. It was the ground beneath my feet when everything around me felt unsafe and chaotic. I don’t know what I would have done without it. 

Which comes first when you’re producing – the sound or the idea?

It’s always a different process. Most of the time though, I sit behind the piano and the melody and the chords come first. I just sing gibberish and then all of sudden a few words come through until I have a proper lyric. Writing the first verse and a chorus is the easy part for me; it can happen in 2 minutes. But then writing a second verse can be a real challenge because I overthink and overanalyse and it doesn’t flow anymore. I often leave the song for months, until all of a sudden an idea will pop up at the most random times, like when I’m doing groceries or when I’m in a very uncomfortable yoga position (this actually was the case with almost all the songs on this EP). This doesn’t mean that songwriting is not hard work. It’s not like it all just comes to me without any effort. Because during those few months between that first verse and chorus, and the second, I will write down a lot of other lyrics and half-finished songs just to keep my writing muscles going. I guess maybe not even 10% of what I write will actually turn out to be a track that I want to record and release. The rest is just exercise, or figments of my imagination that needed to get out but don’t necessarily need to be shared.

Does your material feature any collaborations?

I have a collaboration with my producer and piano player Serge Dusault on one of the songs, called ‘Burn Your Bridges’. We really built that song together, in terms of harmony and the sound. Serge is a great piano player and has released some amazing solo works as well. His style of playing is very warm and soothing and always serves the song and the story it tells. I love that.

What’s on your current playlist?

A lot of different things, but to name a few: Celeste, Robert Glasper, Nai Palm, Lizz Wright, Yebba, Stevie Wonder, Nick Drake, and D’Angelo.

Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage.

I always start writing a song, because I am going through something, and I have to write it off my chest. So it really is to comfort myself. Then when I get on stage and I perform in front of others, I leave that behind and sing to comfort others instead. It’s like the songs I sing are a bridge between me and the people in the audience. Most of the topics I sing about (being a hopeless romantic, looking for love, desires, getting hurt and getting up again, etc.) are so universal, for that brief moment we share the same story, and we are all united. It really is the best feeling in the world. I can be quite an overthinker and a bit insecure in daily life, but when I am on stage I feel open, secure, and more myself than any place else. I hope the people in the audience feel the same way.

What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?

Well, I grew up listening to my mom performing Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake) and Prokofiev (Romeo and Juliet) for example, so I definitely have a weak spot for drama and romance. I think you can hear that in my music. But as a young girl, I mostly listened to Chopin, so I absolutely love the sound of acoustic piano, which shows in the songs on this EP. I also studied jazz vocals at the Rotterdam Conservatory for a while. I absolutely hated scatting, but I loved transcribing solos, especially Chet Baker’s trumpet solos because they are very doable. When I lived in Cape Town for half a year in 2010, I had no TV or internet, so I would just be transcribing jazz solos all night. It probably sounds ridiculous now, but I actually loved doing that. And I think that I learned so much from that. How to improvise and flow through these chord progressions with ease and elegance. I still don’t do scat singing, but I do very much like to improvise, play with melodies, and flow freely when I record vocals in the studio.

Take us through a day in the recording studio.

This entire EP was recorded at the Black Oak Studio with my producer and keys player Serge Dusault. We started working together during Covid, when the whole world was in lockdown. Serge reached out to me to ask me if I knew Lizz Wright and if I wanted to cover one of her songs. Indeed I knew her, she is one of my biggest inspirations and has the most amazing and warmest voice I have ever heard. We covered her song ‘Speak Your Heart’ without any expectations. We just really wanted to make something pretty and from the heart, not caring about the streams for once. Then that song actually did so well on Spotify, people apparently loved it, and that’s when I knew that our musical chemistry was really good, and I wanted to work on this EP with him. 

In the meantime, we have become friends. So when we are in the studio, we are laughing and mocking each other constantly. I always come in with a song I have written, and I’ll sit down behind the piano and play it for Serge. When he likes it, he’ll start to play around with it on the piano and maybe change a few chords here and there. Then we lay down the base of the track, which is always an acoustic upright piano, and then Serge will add synth bass and maybe other electronics. I will lay down the vocals, and we always say ‘it’s just a demo’, but we often end up using the vocals from the demo because that’s when the feeling is right, and that’s always more important to me than perfection.

Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “this is what I want to do”?

There have been several because there have been times when I wanted to quit music or when I had quit, and then something would happen that made me realize how much I love making music and that it’s the only thing I want to do. 

But the first time that happened to me, was when I was 11 years old. I played the part of Marilyn Monroe in a school musical. I already had the birthmark on my face, so I just wore a blond wig to go with it. I had to sing the song ‘Honey’ in front of an audience, and while I was singing it I just took off, it gave me wings. It was the first time I felt that sensation of being on stage and it felt amazing. The response of the parents in the audience was quite overwhelming. Some people were so moved and others didn’t believe that it was actually me singing because I had such a mature and warm voice already at that age. That’s when I knew that maybe I was good at this, and I actually moved people with my voice. And that this is what I wanted to do.

What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set?

Water! And the setlist obviously, but I almost always change it during the gig.

What gets your creative juices flowing?

Just living life. Of course, sometimes I have a few weeks or even months where I don’t write, but I am never bothered by that. I heard Erykah Badu once say in an interview that sometimes you are supposed to not write and just be living. So you actually have something to talk about – with your art. She calls that a period of downloading. I totally agree. You have to take experiences in to be able to get something out. At least, that’s how it works for me. So just living life, travelling, meeting new people, going to parties, having good conversations with friends. Falling in love with someone, that always works. And then getting my heart broken, that’ll definitely get my creative juices flowing.

Take us through your collection of gear, tech or software that accompanies your creative expression.

I am really super old school. I have a grand piano at my house, which used to be my grandparents’, and that is where I start all my songs. And I write all the lyrics in a green leather notebook, never on a computer because that would just block my flow immediately. Then I take it to the studio where my producer, Serge Dusault, helps me turn it into a production – Tech and software is not my jam.

How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?

I think all artists keep evolving and changing, I wouldn’t necessarily call it refining. But I definitely have tried a lot of different sounds and styles. My first EP was way more jazzy and focused on the skills of the entire band. I loved it at the time, and I am still proud of it. But this EP is more “me” than anything I have released so far. Because the story is the most important aspect of every song on this EP, it really emphasizes the story and the voice telling it.

Break down the news for us: what can we expect from you this year?

I am already writing for the next project, and I can not wait to release another EP or maybe an album next year. This EP Shades of Blue was all about the stages of grief after an ugly break-up. It starts quite dark and sad but ends in a lighter shade with the song ‘Happier Alone’, in which I sing that I have come to realize that I actually am happier alone. I feel that that song is a great ending to Shades of Blue and a great start to a new chapter. Even though I have already written some new songs, I will probably need some time to download for a bit. And then I’ll be uploading in the studio soon, creating new things to share with the world. I can’t wait.

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Image credit: Rona Lane Photography