Lillie West doesn’t pretend she holds the key to the meaning of life, but she might be able to give you a few clues. The Chicago-based musician has said she wanted her third album under the moniker Lala Lala, I Want the Door to Open – out today via Hardly Art – to resemble a “poem or a puzzle box,” which is to say it’s more cryptic than the introspective indie rock of her previous releases, namely 2016’s Sleepyhead and 2018’s The Lamb, but no less resonant or rewarding. If anything, it’s her richest, brightest, and most gratifying effort to date, soaring through the pulsating synths of ‘Color of the Pool’, the transcendent pop of ‘DIVER’, and the hushed intimacy of ‘Plates’ in its Sisyphean search for a sense of connection – with one’s own self as well as with others. “I’m looking for the real thing,” she sings over a spare guitar on ‘Prove It’.
The use of more electronic textures embodies the themes of distorted reality and self-perception that West explores in her lyrics, but there’s still something deeply pure and genuine about her approach to songwriting. Born in London and raised in Los Angeles during her teenage years, West eventually moved to Chicago to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is when she became ingrained in the city’s DIY music scene. A lot of musicians from that community and beyond feature on I Want the Door to Open, including saxophonist Sen Morimoto, OHMME’s Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, and she co-produced the album with Why?’s Yoni Wolf. Perhaps it’s that communal spirit, coupled with West’s evocative performances, that makes this the rare kind of record, as Hanif Abdurraqib argues in his essay accompanying the album, that can make you feel less alone. The door might never open, but there could be a whole life bursting out the window right next to it, so long as you’re not afraid to look.
We caught up with Lillie West for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her approach going into I Want the Door to Open, the ideas behind the album, and more.
One of the things that struck me about this album is its cinematic approach – and I don’t mean just in the sense of it being musically expansive and layered, but also in the sense of reaching for something bigger and universal. I feel like it captures the kind of feeling that only becomes more intense over time but is still extremely hard to describe. What drove the need to embody that kind of existential struggle in your music?
There’s this feeling that I’m obsessed with that I always call “you’re in a movie” feeling. It’s like, you’re completely present, which I feel like is so impossible to do. It could only happen if you’re like, on top of a mountain or on drugs or something. [laughs] I feel like a lot of the music that I like is like that: big, impossible to explain, totally present, and I just wanted to do that. I mean, the whole thing was way more intentional than the records in the past – the last two records were recorded essentially live, and I didn’t really think about production so much, it was more like that was what I was capable of doing. And this was the total opposite. I was like, “I want it to be as big as possible. Whatever each song wants I want to do, and if I’m not capable of doing it, making the sound that I want, I have tons of friends and collaborators who can, and I’m just going to bring a bunch of people in to make this expansive thing.” I just wanted to make people feel that feeling that I’m obsessed with and chasing all the time.
Do you think the fact that this felt like the right time to capture that feeling had anything to do with it being your third record?
I don’t know, I think it just seemed like I was more aware that there were no rules for this record. I also feel like I used to have something to prove, like I wanted everyone to know that I could play guitar or that I could record – I played most of the instruments on The Lamb because I wanted to prove that to people, and I just don’t care about that anymore. It’s more important to me to serve the music.
It just was also more interesting to me. Another thing, I used to feel like my music was really confessional, like I had all these things that I had to say and all these feelings that I had to express. With this record, it was way less important to me that it was about me. I’m not really interested in singing specifically about myself or my struggle or whatever anymore. It just doesn’t interest me, or didn’t during this writing and making process. It’s also just a fun challenge, you know, it’s like, this impossible feeling, how do I do it?
As you were talking about this movie feeling, I remembered that line from the opening track, ‘Lava’, about staring right into the camera, which I think is an interesting way to set the scene. But in terms of the musical aspect of it, another way that feeling is translated sonically is by incorporating more synths. To what extent do you feel your interest in using those sounds came from your desire to channel that impossible feeling? I don’t know if the songs started originally mostly on guitar, but did you know early on that they would need those layers to feel complete?
Yeah, I just thought about which sounds best serve the emotion of the song. And they didn’t all start on guitar at all, some of them were over a loop sample or piano. I mean, it was all very instinctual. Like, ‘Color of the Pool’, we made so many different versions of that song – Yoni left the room and left me with the song playing on loop for like 30 minutes, and once I came up with the synth bass line, it was just like, “Okay, the song is done. It’s told me that that this is the sound that it wants.” [laughs]
That one “right in the camera” line, it’s definitely to do with the movie feeling thing. Or it’s like, If life is the Truman Show, I want to know. Is this a cosmic joke? I want to look right in the camera. Stop fucking with me. [laughs]
You say that it was all very instinctual, and you also said before that you were more intentional with this record. Were you conscious of using both approaches at the same time?
Yeah, I mean, I think you can be intentionally intuitive, in the way that I’m trying not to rely on patterns in making music that I’ve done before. I stopped writing on guitar totally because I fell into this pattern where I was just writing the same riff over and over again, or it sounded like the same riff, because that’s me not being intuitive on guitar, that’s me going over the same groups in my brain. And that was an intentional decision, but now it’s like, I’m writing on piano and bass, I don’t really know how to play those instruments, so everything is intuitive.
Was it also liberating?
Oh my god, yes. And it still is. Now I’m like, “I don’t know what kind of record I’m gonna make next, maybe I’ll make a techno record. Maybe I’ll just make a piano record, just piano, bass and drums, because I don’t know how to play these instruments.” It’s super exciting. With The Lamb, I was like, “Oh, I’m really in the indie rock box, I guess that’s my identity.” And now it’s like, “I can do whatever I want!”
You also talked about moving away from writing confessional lyrics, and that’s another intentional shift on this album: the way you combine this language that’s very poetic and surreal on the one hand, but combined with the personal detail that marked those earlier releases. Why was it important for you to have that balance between something that was less straightforward but still felt honest personally?
Well, you still want it to be relatable on a personal level. I still wanted to be a person writing it, and I can’t take away that I wrote it. I don’t know, I haven’t thought about that too much.
I was thinking of ‘Straight & Narrow’, for example, as being on the more poetic and ambiguous side, while a song like ‘Plates’ has maybe more specific imagery.
That’s so interesting, because I think ‘Straight & Narrow’ is quite confessional, and I wrote it a while ago while I was still sort of writing songs like that. It’s just vague, but it is very personal. And ‘Places’ is very nostalgic, and in my mind, even though it is about specific memories, I think about it more as something that everyone has experienced, like I was imagining that this memory is everyone’s memory. I don’t want it to be so confessional, but it’s still personally me expressing myself.
The album centers a lot around identity, how our sense of identity is complicated by the different ways in which we’re forced to perform it. I’m fascinated by how that’s depicted in the cover artwork, especially in the context of your previous album covers, one of which is a photograph, and the other, I think in both versions is a painting. Could you talk about the ideas behind the cover artwork and how it came to be?
I was thinking a lot about this avatar concept, avatars we create for ourselves or other people create for us. And I just wanted to make something that was slightly off, like you recognize it but it’s not true. It’s kind of in between a photograph and a painting. So much of our memory and the way that people relate to each other is in virtual space, which is – I’m trying to think of a better word for “off.” I don’t know, it’s like this unsettling…
Uncanny, yeah. It’s like uncanny valley. I wanted to make something that was uncanny because that’s some of what I’m talking about on the record. What is true experience, and how does other people’s perception of us change that experience? And like, what is online? [laughs] I sound like a stoner, but it’s like, what is this thing that we’ve created? Is it good? I don’t know, I don’t think so. I mean, I’m not anti-internet or anything, I just wonder about it, this whole other space that people didn’t used to have to consider at all.
It’s like an extension of that existential thinking, I guess, but put in a more modern context. How did you want that to be reflected in the album cover?
Oh yeah – it just has all these clues on it. I gave the artist [Jane Kilcullen] direction on the clues that are also in the record lyrically, like the rabbit, the scissors – they were in the press photo too. I wanted to create an uncanny representation of the record. The central figure is like an uncanny me, in my uncanny world. [laughs]
This isn’t necessarily related to the album artwork, except that there’s this digital avatar. But I was wondering, have you ever played The Sims?
Oh my god, I’m so glad you brought it up. [laughs] I was obsessed with it when I was younger. I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of TV or play video games except Sims.
Do you still play?
No. I don’t have time – I feel like if I invite that in, I’ll never close the door.
The reason I’m asking is that it actually came up in my conversation with Macie Stewart, who obviously contributed to your album, and her new album also revolves around identity and living in a fantasy. She mentioned playing Sims as a possible explanation for why she’s obsessed with that idea, and the idea of rebirth as well. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to her specifically about that, but I was wondering, more generally, if you’ve had conversations with other musicians about having to present different versions of yourself to the world, either through social media or through the narrative surrounding your music.
Yeah, definitely. I think more than anything, we’ve talked about how it can be difficult – for The Lamb, for instance, that was my most recent thing out for a long time, and I felt like that was the thing that represented me. And it was challenging because I didn’t identify with it at all anymore. I mean, I don’t regret that record or hate it, it’s just not where I’m at at all. And for people to have that be the only perception, I did not enjoy. But I think you just come to terms with it – it’s hard for anyone to be perceived, in any way, and you just have to let go of control. I’m going to ask Macie about the Sims though, now that I know that.
Was that also part of the reason that you wanted to be more intentional with this record?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I always want to make the best work I can and I want to be excited about it long after I’ve made it, if possible. I definitely care less about all the perception stuff now. Which is funny, because I talk a little about this on this record, but I think I mean more, like, cosmically than my little music world or whatever [laughs].
What do you mean by “cosmically”?
Just like, as a creature on the planet who’s a tiny speck of dust in the cosmos. How do I come to terms with being a tiny speck of dust? What do I do with that information?
What do you think in the future will still excite you about this album?
I think I’ll be proud that I experimented a lot. I really tried not to feel self-conscious about what I was making, and I think that that will always please me.
Apart from the experimentation, another part of it that we haven’t talked so much about is collaboration. Was there a challenging aspect to inviting different people into this vision that you had of the album?
It actually wasn’t challenging at all, it was extremely exciting and easy. I just feel like all of these people are so talented and it was an honour to have them play on stuff. You know, ‘Utopia Planet’, I was like, “This song is completely done.” It had no saxophone, and Yoni really pushed me, so we got Sen Morimoto on it and now I can’t imagine the song without it. It’s like the song didn’t exist before Sen played on it. It was really exciting just to see what people did with the music, what excited them about the songs and what direction they took it, and whether or not we used it, it was just really fun. I love collaborating, I love all of the people who are on the record, I’m so thankful that they were willing to help me make this world because obviously, it would be completely different without all of them.
In what ways do you feel like it brought new meaning to the ideas that you explore on the album?
Well, I guess it’s like, if this is this cosmic joke, I want us all to be a part of it. I want all those people to be making the joke with me, you know. I don’t want to be on my own. I want them to be in the fantasy, in the uncanny world.
I know that your musical journey started relatively later on compared to a lot of artists, but obviously, you were still a big music fan before that. What made you feel like you could be a part of that musical community, that you could engage with it not just as a fan but a creator?
I think that’s just Chicago. I was so lucky to fall into this DIY community where people are so encouraging. I saw a lot of people around me experimenting and it made me feel like I could – it didn’t matter that I’d never really played guitar before or written songs. There’re so many different types of performers. I’m like, “If someone can cover themselves in paint and scream and roll around on the floor, why… I could do that!” [laughs] And I like it, I’m having a fun time at the show. But I think really more than anything it’s just the environment I was in at that time. I always tell people who are like “I’m not musical, I can’t play an instrument,” I’m like, “Yes, you can. If you want to, just start doing it, it’s never too late. I didn’t play guitar until I was 21. And I sucked! I sucked for years, it’s fine. It doesn’t matter. Music is just a really pure way that people express themselves.”
One of the collaborators on the album is Ben Gibberd, who sings on ‘Plates’. I know you two were tourmates, but how did that collaboration come about, and was it daunting at all to have a voice that’s so recognizable on this track?
Absolutely. [laughs] He’s just a really nice, encouraging person. He’s always encouraged me and he’s always been supportive. I wrote that song and I just heard his voice on it and I emailed him – I didn’t even know if it was gonna end up on the record, it just fit in the flow of the whole record. There was another song that I felt maybe fit more, but it didn’t fit in the flow, so we ended up going with ‘Plans’. But yeah, it’s definitely daunting to have someone like that on the record. But I’m just grateful, you know, he has an iconic voice. It just is what the song needed, it told me it wanted him. Luckily, he was willing.
So you always had him in mind for the song?
Just as soon as I wrote it, I just heard him, yeah.
It’s that melody, for me, that I think in some ways even if I didn’t know it was him, I could imagine him singing that melody or covering the song.
That’s sick. I love that.
I also wanted to ask you about the title of the album. I was wondering if you considered different versions of it as you were coming up with ideas – like, did you think of using the active voice, like I Want to Open the Door, instead of I Want the Door to Open?
Oh my god, you’re so smart. [laughs] It’s really interesting doing interviews with people, I feel like people have been really engaging with the record, which I’m so thankful for. It’s like, every interview I’ve done has been really interesting, I feel like I discover new things about the album. And no, I didn’t think about that at all. It just seemed like… because I don’t think you can open the door, you know? You can try forever, and that’s good. You know, trying to grow is good. But wow… I Want to Open the Door.
I think I Want the Door to Open is honestly way more interesting, but I was just curious if there was a specific reasoning behind it or if the phrase just came to you.
Yeah, that was from a song that didn’t make it on the record. The lyric was, “I want the door to open/ Like a drawbridge or a mouth/ Put me in my place/ I want to be lost in a crowd/ It’s on a neon sign at the guard of every night/ Heaven isn’t a place/ Heaven isn’t my right.” Which is very thematically in line with the record, but that song didn’t make it. It just seemed to perfectly sum up everything that I was talking about. You know, “I want to look directly in the camera,” “I want to be the color of the pool/ I want to hold the fire part of the fuel,” I Want the Door to Open. I want to be released.
We were talking about ‘Plates’, and that song directly leads into ‘Utopia Planet’, where you’re saying “everything is here,” and it feels like you’ve found the real thing that you’re singing about earlier on the album. I don’t know the extent to which this is a kind of leap of imagination on the part of the character, but from the place where you are now, in terms of making and releasing the record, do you feel closer to understanding what’s on the other side of that door?
I think that a lot of times, what I’m writing about, I’m not ready for. Like it’s my subconscious or my consciousness talking about things that I’m struggling with, but I won’t actually understand until much later. I’ll write a song and be like “This is about nothing” or “It’s not about much,” and then later on I’ll be like, “Oh my god, this is very clearly about something that I was grappling with at that time.” And I think that this record is about accepting that the door doesn’t open, which I definitely haven’t done. But I hope to; I hope that in writing this, I get closer. And sharing it with other people. Like, “Have you guys opened the door yet?”
Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to share?
Every time I get this question, I like to shout out this organization in Chicago that I really love called Illinois Prison Project, who help people in Illinois who have had really unfair sentencing. Because Illinois has a three-strikes rule, if you commit three crimes, you are sent to prison for the rest of your life. So you go to prison for the rest of your life for like, stealing a candy bar. They do really amazing work to reduce people’s sentences and get people out of prison.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Lala Lala’s I Want the Door to Open is out now via Hardly Art.