Lauren Eylise: Life, Death, and Black Girl Magic
People don’t always find it easy to reveal their true selves. Singer-songwriter Lauren Eylise, on the other hand, welcomes you with a smile and vivid stories. She’s expressive as she spills her convictions and details new music that’s on the way. We’re huddled in one of her favorite spots in Over-the-Rhine, 1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab. Outside, the snowfall is heavy, and we’re grateful for hot drinks. People are packed inside sheltering themselves from the cold. We’re bundled up tight, but the conversation flows freely. Lauren gets straight to the nitty gritty about her qualms with labels, the music industry, and womanhood.
To kick things off, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself and describe your sound?
Well, my name is Lauren Eylise, or at least that’s what I go by. I am a singer and songwriter in Cincinnati and a self-proclaimed healer. I feel deep down that that’s one of my callings and I’ve received that from people when they come to my shows. That was never an intentional thing. I never set out to sing like I’m gonna heal people; I just love to sing. When people would tell certain stories to me that are really intimate and personal, and talk about how the show had affected them or how a song affected them over and over, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is some sort of like message I need to tap into.” But I don’t want to go out here saying, “Singer, songwriter, healer, visit my office!” Bump that.
Anywho, I’ve been singing all my life. I literally do not remember a day without music. I’m told I’ve been singing since I was 2. I began writing my own music at about 13, maybe 12? I was really into poetry, early in middle school and whatnot – specifically African American literature and poetry. Once I discovered that, I was just in the library all the time. Poetry naturally just sort of segued into music. Picked up piano at 13, as well. Self-taught musician. I mean now, I’m trying to get some official kind of teaching, but I could never afford it as a child. We weren’t living that kind of life. And so, I just taught myself. Even vocally, I would listen to my favorite CDs, like 3LW and Destiny’s Child. I would listen to those albums over and over, singing every part. I was a strange kid; I made myself a schedule where I would be like, “Okay, well, I’m going to wake up, have some cereal, and from noon to 3, I’m going to do vocal lessons.” But I love what I do. I’ve always loved it. I picked up the guitar summer of ’09. A friend of mine taught me three chords and the rest is history.
What kind of guitar did you start on?
It’s an acoustic Fender. I still play with that guitar today. His name is Dino; I love him very much. I would say I began to take my career seriously freshman year of college. University of Dayton, as you’re probably aware, isn’t the most diverse place on earth. It’s a predominantly white institution and when I was attending, I believe the percentage of African Americans was at like, 2 percent. We were the highest of the minorities, so you can imagine it was a very trying time.
When the way appeared, it was like, you’ve got to walk in the rain, girl.
You’d be surprised at how much ignorance actually exists in the world. I was surprised, at least, because I went to Walnut Hills High School, which is very diverse. As a kid, you’re diverse and open and free and fluid, and then you go somewhere and it’s not that. I had some very intense – both subtle and overt – racist situations. I didn’t know how to cope, and naturally, music became my coping mechanism. Which sounds so cliché, right? But it really wasn’t. I literally wrote my way through my college experience and that’s where my career began. I was playing in bars and coffee shops, and people in Dayton really started to know my name. And the rest is history.
I listened to your album on Spotify, “Life / Death / Life.” The stylization of the title stood out to me. What’s the meaning behind it?
Have you read Women Who Run with the Wolves? Incredible book by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. It’s basically the exploration of the innate female spirit, as she puts it. She draws from all these different myths and the gods of different cultures to explore the feminine essence. It’s a beautiful book; it touched my soul. One of those stories touched on the life-death-life process and in essence, what it speaks about is how everything must die. Experiences, people – everything dies – but it never really dies. Energy is neither created or destroyed, it’s just transformed. So specifically for women, she was talking about different experiences in society: Someone loses sight of their dreams; their dreams die and they go on and get caught up in roles that have been designed for them – marriage, children – and in a lot of ways, those kind of things distort our views of ourselves.
I was reading like, “Hold up. Some of this is hitting home,” and at the time I was only like 25, 24? But a lot had transpired when I graduated. I couldn’t find a job. I up and left for New York with $300 in my pocket, slept on a friend’s floor until I got enough money to get my own place. Just when I was living my best life in New York, I got pregnant. I had to sell everything and I came back with negative $300 and a baby! Everything just kept going, I mean, super fast. I got pregnant; boyfriend and I broke up; no money; no job; and it’s like ugh, you look kind of crazy pursuing a music career.
All I can do is talk about what I know and what I experience. I’m a woman; I’m black; I’m a mother; this is what you’re going to get.
It was wild, but the book spoke to me, and especially that part because it was just reaffirming that yeah, some of these things were falling away, but there was so much life hidden in the seed of what was coming into life. You know? My son, he just sparked an entire new sort of fire in me to pursue my passions. I could go on and on about that, but that particular aspect of the book just spoke to me so deeply.
So basically every song on the project speaks to an experience that had died or a part of me that had died, but that I never actually gave time to mourn or reflect on. It was just go, go, go. It was just like, who am I? Who have I become after all this stuff? I think that I might have a part two because it’s so deep. The more I reflect on the project, I listen to those songs and the lyrics and I write new stuff and it’s just, I feel like a lot of those experiences that we as women go through in life are really glossed over and just sort of…we don’t breathe life into it. The way we look at menstruation, for example – that pisses me off. Why can’t we talk about that in public? Why’s it so, “Oh, that’s nasty!”? It’s not nasty; it’s a natural part of life! I could go on and on about that but that’s the really core of what I wanted to get to with that project. And I’m going to keep talking about it for at least two or three more projects because clearly, I got some things I gotta get off my chest about it.
Was there a specific, notable moment where you decided you were going to move to New York? What made you transition out of Cincinnati?
Girl, I’m a very spiritual person, okay? Not so much like inherent to a certain religion, but I just believe in energy. The way my life played out is just like whoa, somebody up somewhere is looking out for me and it’s something. I have a very strong awareness of my energy. I always knew what I wanted to do with my life, always knew that. But what I wanted to do and what my parents wanted me to do were two different things. I have some very opinionated and strong-willed parents. I love them; I value them; I respect them, but they had very hard lives and they’re very overprotective. I think there’s a very strong memory of fear in their blood, especially my mother’s. I believe blood has memory, and that’s how certain things come to recycle themselves in the offspring of adults. My mom’s got a real thing with fear. Her mother’s passing right now is very sad; she’s been talking a lot lately. I’ve heard her say about five times, “My mom was always so afraid; she was scared of everything.” And I’m like, huh, well that makes a lot of sense because you’re scared of everything and now I’m scared of everything. I got “fearless” tattooed on my back at 18. I didn’t even understand why I was doing it, but it meant so much to me and now it means even more. It makes so much more sense.
But back to your question: When I got out of college, I couldn’t get a job. I was applying – majored in PR and women and gender studies – and it was wack. I got a job at Macy’s; it was the lowest I could feel in my life. I was lashing out at everybody; I was angry and I was really just mad at myself because I was allowing both my fear and the fear of others to keep me where I was. So, I applied for this entertainment marketing internship in New York, and it was unpaid but I was just like, we’ll just see. They literally emailed me back within an hour wanting to set up an interview. I was like, that’s a vibe, that’s a vibe!
Everything went that way. I was broke working at Macy’s for $10/hour and they only had a part time position. But I found a plane ticket, one way, for $100. I had $97 in my account. I will never forget it: I walked down to my bank in the rain, because I didn’t have a car, and I bought that ticket. I just deposited $3 in quarters. I was like, wow. I kept praying, “If this is meant to be just make a way; I don’t care what the way is.” When the way appeared, it was like, you’ve got to walk in the rain, girl.
I did it, and everything worked out. My friend agreed to let me stay with her for as long as I needed. It was truly a test of faith and what faith looks like. People think faith is supposed to be just “Hey, here it is,” and that’s not what it is, at all. There will be a way; it may not be the way you imagined. So that’s how I got to New York. In my head, New York was where I needed to be to become this big star. It wasn’t; it played a major part in my life, but just not in the way I imagined it.
Has motherhood impacted your songwriting?
I’ve found that motherhood has ushered me towards a different level of awareness, a sense of fearlessness in me that I didn’t know before, so I’m certain that it trickles down to my songwriting in a variety of ways. The vulnerability. I feel like fearlessness and vulnerability go hand in hand, because to be vulnerable you have to have a certain level of fearlessness.
I am what I am and I believe in love. Love will knock all that shit out, you feel me?
That’s probably what I notice most about the change in my songwriting. I am very “put it out there,” honest, it is what it is. Not so much, “Oh, this song is going to be a hit.” And I think motherhood did that. Being pregnant, generally, you have one foot in the spirit world and one in the physical world. I’m bringing forth life out of me. I am the vessel; a whole soul is about to come into existence. It’s otherworldly.
The track that stood out to me most, was “Voodoo.” Throughout the song, you repeat “black girl magic,” which in short is a term of empowerment to uplift black girls and women. What prompted you to write this song?
That song began on a very surface level. I was thinking about black girl magic, that whole movement and hashtag. I do a lot of reading and was thinking, wow, black girl magic…black magic. I read a lot about spiritual things. I thought of black magic, and a lot of people call voodoo black magic. They immediately demonize it. In my reading and understanding of it, that’s not what it is. They’re actually two different things, and a great deal of that perception of voodoo came into fruition through the slave trade. Long story short, the oppressors of that time wanted to stamp out the innate spirituality of the people they were oppressing. In a similar way, I look at black women and the way we are perceived generally with stereotypes. That’s not what we are, and there is a parallel there. I was like, wow, what if I called this song “Voodoo”? It just worked. I cried when I wrote that song. It’s a very personal song. I probably re-recorded it five, four times with different productions.
Your vocals sound very powerful on it. There’s an aura to it.
That’s what I wanted. I want that aura to grow. I envision women waking up and playing that to get ready, to go to school, to go to sleep. I want it to be a mantra. It was basically an ode to my mother, her mother, her mother, the women before me that I don’t even know personally. I know them through blood because those memories live on. I feel like as a songwriter that’s my gift and that’s part of my responsibility to write those songs from where I am and who I am. All I can do is talk about what I know and what I experience. I’m a woman; I’m black; I’m a mother; this is what you’re going to get.
Is it your favorite song on the record?
[Pauses.] No. My favorite song on the record, honestly, is “The Most,” the interlude.
When I wrote “The Most,” when we got the studio for it, it was intended to be an unapologetic expression of female sensuality. There are some things in life that piss me off. The suppression of female sexuality is high on the list. I don’t know, maybe it’s just because of what I’ve lived. It’s got to be why I take it so personally. I don’t like seeing people oppressed.
For my next project, I really want to be even more vulnerable. Even more unapologetic.
It really pisses me off, so that song I love so much. First of all, it just makes me feel like the woman I am. I also wrote it intentionally that way; the lyrics are the most...I’m talking shit. I feel like a great deal of our sexuality is expressed through a male gaze. Even when it comes to women in the media, it’s like this sort of internalized misogyny. That’s why that song is my favorite. I’m very big on women telling our own stories with our own language in our own way. My perception of my sensuality and sexuality does not have to be verbatim to that of which this society tells me it has to be. That’s wild to me. I feel the sooner that we as women cling to that and do that unapologetically and freely, the happier we’ll be, the easier we’ll breathe, the lighter we’ll sleep.
It sounds like you’re a feminist. Do you identify with feminism?
I change my answer every day. I’m not going to lie. Some days I identify as a feminist. Some days I identify as solely a womanist. Some days I say, “I am what I am.” I think that’s what I’m going to go with: I am what I am, because by definition, I identify with feminism, but historically, I’ve got some issues with feminism. With womanism even, I rock with that, too. But I’m so much more than just that, and I don’t want to define myself. I am what I am and I believe in love. Love will knock all that shit out, you feel me? Love is going to knock all that out – feminist, womanist, whatever you are, mm-mm, love. You rockin‘ with love, I can rock with you.
Who are your musical influences?
My musical influences are everywhere. I love the Isley Brothers. I think that in a past life I lived as Ronald Isley, or I was some sort of male R&B group. Bon Iver – love of my life. The self-titled album I played nonstop one summer. It was the only thing I listened to. A lot of soul singers: Anita Baker; Whitney Houston is my personal savior, and I’m so upset that I’ll never meet her. When she passed, I was in a sushi restaurant; I saw it on the news; I broke down. Let’s see, I love The Beatles. The Beatles inspired a great deal of my songwriting. A lot of bands. Honestly, my mom and my father played so much music in the house. Earth, Wind & Fire, of course. Amy Winehouse – I love Amy Winehouse so much. She’s a very key part of my soul these days. Adele, I love Adele… The list goes on. I love Coldplay. I love Lady Gaga…early Lady Gaga. She did what a lot of people did to get to fame – whatever, girl, do your thing. She is an amazing songwriter. I just can’t. I would fangirl over her every day. Okay, I’m done!
What are your thoughts on the local music scene here in Cincy – things you love about it, things you’d change?
So, coming back from New York was when I really started to do what I’m doing in Cincinnati. But, what I can say is that I do think that there is a very serious and poppin‘ and cool wave happening in Cincinnati with local musicians. I think it’s amazing. I would like to see a bit more diversity in that wave and I think that I’m helping out with that. The Triiibe, formerly known as the Blvck Seeds, is helping out with that. And not just diversity in regards to race or even sex, but the sound. On any given night, people walk into a lot of these places and hear indie rock; you can hear jazz – people love to go out and listen to jazz, but there are other genres. Rhythm and blues, some soul, some funk. I think that Cincinnati is on the brink of that, I do.
What goals do you have for your next album?
For my next project, I really want to be even more vulnerable. Even more unapologetic. I’m not ready to switch gears and be focused on the “Oh, I want a pop radio hit.” That was initially my plan for this project, and then life took a turn and it was like no, girl, this is what you’re going to do, and it worked. Right now, I’ve got some different collaborations in the works. For my sound, I want to evolve.
The industry is going to try their damnedest to tell you who you are.
The whole project might be live. Life / Death / Life had a lot of live instrumentation, but it wasn’t all live. I think I might do an all live project, because there’s something about the energy that’s exchanged between the musicians as we play. I just think I need that. I want to broaden my perspective a bit.
My biggest goal is to solidify my sound. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be like, that’s my sound. I don’t know; I might be very naïve about that thought, but I want to get as close to it as possible. I want people to hear it and know, that’s Lauren Eylise. Not just the voice, but that actual sound. You feel me undeniably in the music. I think the greatest – Bob Marley, those legendary folks – they’ve done that. They’ve created a sound. Prince, Prince, Prince.
I got pregnant; boyfriend and I broke up; no money; no job; and it’s like ugh, you look kind of crazy pursuing a music career.
That’s more than just music; that’s a feel, and that’s what I want to create. You’ve got to let your aura pop out of you. Your soul got to reach into the stars and bring that down. That’s what I want to do. I’ve got a lot of living to do.
Is there any message you’re eager to share with our readers about yourself and your music?
I get asked this all the time, so I want to preface this answer with, “I always answer with what’s in my heart in the moment.” I hope that it makes sense later for my career. Right now, from where I’m sitting, I want people to hear it from me to be gentle with one another. Everybody’s fighting their own battles, going through their own thing. It’s very easy, and understandably so, to get caught up in your own shit, to get angry and take that out on someone else. I am queen of residue. I’ll be pissed and I’ll turn around to talk to somebody and have that energy on me. I don’t like that. That’s not something I like, because what did they do to me? I’ll just tell everyone again to be mindful and gentle with one another, to breathe. Breathing can do wonders and not a breath; take a few, okay? Take as many as it takes to calm your ass down and be understanding. To be loving, to be aware of how you feel, how you communicate, and how you move.
Do you have any advice for young girls that are getting into the music industry?
A few things. First of all, I would say for lack of a better word, to do you. Be you. That requires a great deal of knowing who you are. I don’t want to say that lightly, because learning yourself is a process. There’s a great deal of learning and growing and changing in life. While my first piece of advice is to do you and know you, I want to sort of piggyback that with, if you don’t know yourself, commit yourself to knowing yourself. Learn along the way. Take notes of what your standards are, what you’re willing to do, what you’re not willing to do. That’s first because I think – as you really get into the business side where things are happening for you – the industry is going to try their damnedest to tell you who you are.
I want people to hear it and know, that’s Lauren Eylise.
They want to make you into what’s going to make them money. If you don’t know yourself, you’re going to be easily swayed. It’s a very insidious sort of process, how they’ll sneak up in, take one trait of you and manipulate it just bigger than it is. You’ll wake up like, what am I wearing? That’s always been a fear of mine, so I’ve always been very intentional about who I surround myself with. Which brings me to advice point two: Make sure you have a solid support system and team, even if that team is just one person that you know is going to tell you the truth. Last, but not least, you’ve got to trust your vision.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life who has been monumental in who you are as a person.
I had to look away so I wouldn’t cry. My mother. But not in the ways that you would think. I think that sometimes we’re really hard on people around us – especially people that we love the most. Lately, we’ve been like this, [bumps her fists together] my mom and I. Because we’re the same person. I’ve heard it said that the people in our lives are mirrors of the things we need to work on, and truer shit has never been spoken. I look at her, what she’s going through right now, and I look at myself and what I’m going through. I’m realizing, wow, I’m coming into contact with the nature of love. Not conditional love, like real love when you love somebody unconditionally no matter what they do. She’s always had that love for me; she’s my mom. I’m not saying every mother has that; I hate making those kinds of generalizations because motherhood is hard. It’s a whole new experience and everybody’s going to feel it differently; they’re entitled to that.
But speaking to my mother, she’s always been a nurturer. That’s her gift: She nurtures, she loves, she heals. She’s a nurse. Sometimes her love is very intense, but she loves. I think that I see things in her that have been passed onto me that I don’t like. Because I don’t like them, I want to get rid of them; I get angry with her. I get combative with her. I don’t extend her that same unconditional love. I think right now, that’s something that I really want to do. It’s a process; we’re all growing; she’s growing. She’s damn near 50 years old and still growing, and who am I to judge her that harshly? To judge her at all? She’s my damn mom. So I would say her because of both the warm, lovey-dovey things she’s done for me as a woman, and those lessons that she brought me through softly, and for the rough lessons I’m getting now.