Austrian soul singer Lylit has a huge career ahead of her, her voice is stunning
I met Austrian soul singer/songwriter Lylit at Cafe Ritter on Vienna’s iconic Mariahilfer Strasse a couple of weeks ago. She arrived a few minutes late and rushed across the cafe to my table, energetic and smiling and with a lovely aura of happiness and comfortableness with herself and with the world in general preceding her as she launched herself at me for the typical Austrian greeting — a ‘cheek kiss’ both to the left and to the right.
Before I had properly met her, I already liked her.
I had first heard about Lylit earlier in the year when a friend — Clara Blume, herself a superb Austrian singer — told me if I wanted to interview talented Austrian artists then her friend Lylit should definitely be on my list. “She’s incredible”, she said.
Fast forward a couple of months and Lylit came across my path again, this time at the rehearsal for Wiener Festwochen — a televised show my main girl Conchita Wurst was not only presenting and performing in, but was also singing duets at with artists from various genres within the Austrian music world.
Lylit turned out to be one of those special guests.
Which meant that, during both the rehearsal and the show the following evening, she gave a solo performance of one of her own songs ‘Come Back‘ (co-written by Lylit and Andreas Lettner) plus a duet of Conchita’s own ‘Where Have All The Good Men Gone‘ with the Eurovision winner herself.
Now, as someone who has seen Conchita sing at hundreds of venues (and no, I’m not exaggerating as I watch everything she does), I’m used to seeing a variety of artists singing with her.
Some manage to hold their own, some do not (Conchita’s voice is huge). A rare few have as big of a stage presence as Conchita, and can match her in voice as well.
Lylit turned out to be one of the latter.
So much so, I was as enamored of Lylit during those two Wiener Festwochen evenings as I was of Conchita, and went home raving about how brilliant she was to just about anyone that would listen.
Particularly as I was struck by how, at the start of her solo, she started off the song a cappella before the Vienna Symphony (Wiener Symphoniker) began to accompany her with an ease that proved quickly how much control she has over her voice. And her stage presence was mind blowing.
That’s why I made sure I got an interview with her as soon as I was able. Because while Austria has a hell of a lot of talented artists, Lylit is up there with the best.
How did you get started in music?
I studied classical piano at the university in Linz when I was 14. Music was just easy for me. My dad is a policeman and my mom is an accountant, so they are not really talented in music. My grandfather was really talented, but my parents’ generation is kind of without talent (and she laughed), musically speaking anyway. But they always supported me, although I’m the first artist in the family.
My dad was especially supportive. He bought me the instruments I needed, although we really didn’t have much money. But I could learn the guitar, the recorder, whatever I wanted….he made it happen. That was really nice.
Then I moved to Linz and studied classical piano, because I thought I was gonna be a classical pianist. When I was 17, I changed to vocals and I studied the voice.
So you didn’t know you could sing before that?
Oh no, I always sang. I belonged to a choir when I was 12 years old. We sang gospel music. Lauryn Hill was a huge influence.
Singing was easy for me, and in piano you have to work really hard and to practice like six to eight hours a day. I thought, you know, I should stick to piano. Kind of like it was in my system that you really have to work hard for your job, and singing was always so much easier.
Then I started my own bands and groups, and I just didn’t have time to practice piano. So I switched over to jazz vocals.
Not just because I didn’t have time though (she laughed), but because my passion was there actually. Because I think there’s no instrument like the voice.
And that is one of the things interesting to me about how Lylit uses her voice when she sings. Very much like a musical instrument.
An instrument she plays with as she alternately strengthens it, softens it, pushes it, warms it, soothes it, tests its ability to reach the highest and the lowest notes — and all with precise control. It’s almost like she is playing a beloved violin or piano than using her own voice.
A few years ago, I heard you went from here to the US because you were signed by a label?
I produced my own music when I was 18 years old. My friends played for me for free, but I didn’t know what to do with it as I knew there wasn’t really a market here for my kind of music.
So I researched the producers and labels of my favorite artists and then, really naive, I sent out a handwritten letter, a picture of myself and a burned CD with my tracks on it. I sent it out to 12 people and I didn’t expect anything to come of it.
One night, about midnight, the phone rang. I thought it was a friend in the States I’d just been talking to, so I answered in German. But it was the personal assistant of Kedar Massenburg, the former head of Motown Records.
And I didn’t even realize how big of a guy he was, because I’d forgotten who I’d sent my music to. He found Erykah Badu, he found D’Angelo, he was responsible for all these records that influenced me so much. All my heroes were produced by him. So he was the perfect person for me.
He told me I should fly out to London in a month so we could get to know each other, and I should write new songs and play them to him. And I did. I flew out and we met, and I played him my songs. We got along well.
Later, he sent me a contract and we negotiated for nearly a year, because I was so afraid of being handcuffed to a bad deal. That happens way too often.
I went to New York after we made an agreement and it was really exciting. It was like a dream come true. His driver took me from studio to studio. I could choose the recording studio I wanted, everything was perfect.
I recorded my album there, and then the industry kind of crashed. His business crashed, everything crashed and we weren’t able to put the album out.
We did put two EPs out and I got Single of the Week on iTunes USA, so that was nice. But nothing really happened after that, you know.
Much of this, of course, was due to the way the music industry has changed so drastically in the last few years. How streaming has become so big, and how sales of digital downloads and CDs have crashed, taking away much of the money labels and artists used to make.
From then, it was two years before Lylit got out of her contract with Massenburg and could pursue her music career properly elsewhere. A career she has now spent several years successfully establishing in Austria, and through tours and concerts in Europe.
This year and next year, however, is her big push to really launch her career internationally.
Now is like a new beginning. Because I didn’t want to put anything out that I wrote during that time, as I was not really a happy person.
Since then, though, I’ve written 50 new tracks, and I’ve been working on my album for a year now. We are finally going to put something out.
Because, yes, I currently have two EPs out, but this will be my debut album. And everything is really exciting about it.
We’ve also just shot a music video for my upcoming new single. It’s all about female empowerment.
As part of that excitement along came Wiener Festwochen and singing with Conchita. How was that for you?
It was a huge honor to play at Wiener Festwochen. With the Symphonic Orchestra. With my classical background, it was a dream come true. It’s one of the best orchestras.
And that was the biggest live audience I’d played in front of. I’d played in front of about 25,000 people before, but never in front of more than 40,000 and even that extra 15,000, it’s a big difference.
It was then we got into a short conversation about Conchita’s ‘androgyny’ nowadays, with me admitting I hadn’t been a huge fan of it for the longest time. Lylit, however, had a different take on it.
This whole androgyny thing she’s now doing, I like it. I think it sets him (Tom Neuwirth) even more apart. I think it’s good that the drama and the glitter is away.
I’ve noticed you normally sing in English, why is that?
I just don’t like my voice in German that much. You have to sing differently. It’s a much brighter sound, it’s a different vibe. And I’m into soul and hip hop, and really raw music, and that’s easier to sing in English.
Is it easier writing the lyrics in Engish as well?
I’ve always written lyrics in English, so I don’t know. But I write poems in German. My dad writes poems, my sister writes poems, my grandmother wrote poems. And so we have a huge love for the German language.
It’s a beautiful language, because we have so many different words for one thing. Sometimes it shocks me in English because you really only have one word (not sure she’s correct here, but hey…), so with German you can be very creative in writing.
But English is a beautiful language. I just love it. The way it feels in your mouth when you sing it. You can bend the vowels, much more than you can with German.
Who would you say your influences are when you write and when you sing?
When I was a child, it was Lauryn Hill and Kim Burrell (an American gospel singer). Tori Amos is a big influence. I used to inhale her music when I was a teenager.
I think Adele also really opened the door for women. After this huge mass production of music, every woman was perfect, every woman looked the same and did the same style of music. And then Adele came, and her songs were different but still catchy. And she looked not like the others, and she blew up like crazy. I mean there’s nobody like her.
I think she’s a sign of how things are changing in the music industry. Like people are interested in real artists again. There’s a real thirst for good, authentic music.
And do you know Alabama Shakes? (who are amazing, by the way). That is my biggest influence right now. Brittany Howard’s voice, the music, the production, everything is just perfect.
And I love James Blake. His way of singing, his production. So different.
I also love Pharoahe Monch from the States. He’s a rapper, and he’s very conscious. His lyrics are just poems.
Does listening to other people’s music affect how you write?
Yes. So I don’t honestly listen to that much music. You know Miles Davis once said, you can’t listen to everybody because then you can’t find your own voice.
For me, that’s really true. I have a specific way of writing if I don’t listen to music. If I start listening to different artists, it changes too much.
Which is the song you have written that you like the most?
I’ve written so many I can’t tell. But there’s this one song I wrote that I love…still. It’s called ‘Again’. (see music video below).
This song, I just improvised. It was four in the morning, and we’d just wrapped a studio session in our studio in the First District. It’s two levels underground, and there is no Internet down there. We were both tired, and I felt something coming up. And I started improvising. And there’s a feeling that happens sometimes, when I know something is about to happen, and I usually press the record button. But I didn’t.
But Andi (Andreas Lettner) realized what was going on and, without me knowing it, pressed record. And the final song, I used it like it came out of me. I just put lyrics on top. I didn’t change anything. Any note.
This is why I think I love it so much. It came out so naturally, and nothing was thought through it was just really very free.
And most of the time, “that was easy” things end up much better than those you really work hard for. Not always. But most of the time.
What’s your goal as far as releasing your debut album?
I want to release the single for the video I shot last month in October. Then release an EP in January. Then an album sometime in 2018. It depends on what my management and I decide, but that’s the master plan right now.
Will that be on your own label?
I don’t know yet. Probably I want to put out the single and the EP on my own label, and then for the album find a label. But we’ll see.
I’m at the point, though, where I just want to get my music out and have control over it. I’m really scared to have someone tell me they want me to change it because, in the past, people in the industry have wanted to put me into this ‘pop’ genre, and I’m not. I’m more a free artist, so I need this freedom. Because I feel free when I do music that I like. And if somebody tries to put me in this box, then I lose interest.
Of course, you need people to reflect on what you do. It’s important. Because sometimes you can do everything on your own, and it’s not always good. But I want to find a label that knows what I’m doing and likes what I’m doing, and then we just do minor changes here and there and that’s fine.
But not have someone turn me around and say “She’s got blonde hair, she’s got blue eyes, she’s got a soul voice. Let’s make a second Joss Stone”. I don’t want that.
Are you ever unsure about what you do?
Not anymore. You know, it’s interesting. With my ability as a singer, I always knew that I was good. So if I go on stage, I’m not nervous in that sense that I don’t know what’s going to happen. I always know what’s going to happen with my voice.
But with your music, you’re never sure. Because it’s from the heart. You put yourself out there and, of course, it hurts if you sing a song you wrote and someone doesn’t like it.
Where are you performing next?
I’ll be playing a solo concert for the release of my new single in Vienna in November. The date and time for that will be announced soon.
Three days after this interview, I was privileged to see Lylit perform live at a benefit concert for Open Piano for Refugees. An intimate event, with around 100 people in a small courtyard area just off Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna.
This concert was even more interesting for me than was Wiener Festwochen, where I had seen Lylit perform in front of an enormous crowd of people. Now I wanted to see her sing in front of a small group, and to be able to do so while sitting just a few feet away.
Because that is how I get a sense of someone. Sitting up close and being able to see their eyes as they perform, pick up on their body language and, thus, be able to see how they are feeling as they sing.
Of course, Lylit didn’t surprise me at all.
As, from the first second she started to sing, I knew she believes she was born to be there and to be doing just that.
It’s in the way she is completely comfortable with herself, her surroundings, and the audience. Even in a space where the general public was walking backwards and forwards as she performed, and where the acoustics were so strange she said afterwards she couldn’t really get a sense of how it was sounding once her voice had moved away from her.
And it’s in the way every song she sang felt like it was as fresh as the first time she sang it, as she played with different word stresses and notes, and almost seemed to improvise her way through large portions of each song. Because she is that secure with how she sounds, in the enormous control she has over her voice with every note, and how she can make it do exactly what she wants it to.
Watching Lylit sing live really is a thing of beauty, as it is not just her voice that is so stunning either. It is also the absolute joy while she’s singing that just exudes from her, as she is so happy to be able to get to do this thing that she loves so much and that she is so good at.
In fact, as Conchita said during her introduction of Lylit at Wiener Festwochen “She’s the best singer and the best musician in this country”. Something Clara Blume also said to me when she talked about Lylit.
I have to say, they’re not wrong.
Special Note: I will update this with information on where to buy Lylit’s upcoming new single, EP and album as soon as they are released.