Interview with Lydia Cash

Lydia Cash is a Chicago based artist and musician who has just completed her first EP, Past Lives.

Lydia sat down with Loud Hailer to discuss her life as an artist and musician, from her beginnings in Leeds, Alabama through to her life as an established artist in Chicago.  We covered the process behind writing her upcoming EP, and how her work as a musician fits alongside her art career. 

LH: Starting at the beginning and growing up, you grew up near Birmingham, Alabama. Where your family artistic or musical?
Lydia: Not really. Everyone always asks me “How’d you get into music? How’d you get into art?” So, my parents – my dad’s from Georgia, my mom’s from Mississippi. I grew up in a small town called Leeds, Alabama just outside of Birmingham. Both my parents are like super hard working, came from nothing. My mom still to this day, she’s worked for the postal service for 25 years now, I think. She just took a job there and my dad works for a church and so I honestly can only attribute it to this sort of born God-given sort of almost instinct to start creating because that wasn’t really a priority with my family.

LH: Definitely more of nature rather than nurture then?
Lydia: Yeah, absolutely. Some of my best memories with my dad, I will say my dad loves to listen to music. He’s not a musician but I remember in high school riding around in the car with him and he would turn on his classic rock and he would crank it really loud and he’d give me this little grin like he’s doing something wrong because my mom probably wouldn’t let him crank the music up. And he would just feel it and he was the steering wheel drummer and I could sense how passionate he was about it. And I do think that had an influence on me, just being interested in music and appreciating music and feeling it. But as far as like writing, yeah, I mean I’ve always loved to sing from a young age and I’ve always loved to draw and we have a photo, it’s a favorite family photos with me, I think I was probably three years old or something with my little magna doodle, and I drew a little person and apparently it was Waldo from where’s Waldo and I was very proud. So yeah, that was always a passion growing up was just really creating anything.

I have a twin sister, and it’s just the two of us and me and her, anything we could make growing up, we were always making something. We would make plays and perform them for our parents. We would do shows, we’d make puppet shows. One time we tried to make it a theme park for parents and we made like a rollercoaster out of like cardboard boxes. We eventually started making movies with our dad’s big VHS tape recorder. I would get a jewelry making kit and I’d be so into that or, you know, drawing, painting. I just love to be creating something.

I started actually writing songs when – I kind of almost forgot about this – but I had my little Lisa Frank notebook and I would just start writing lyrics in there when I was probably 12 because I remember I was very into the Backstreet Boys at the time and so they’re very boy band-esque lyrics.

LH: Ah, those kinds of lyrics!
Lydia: Yeah, but I just, I always kind of had this idea in my mind that that’s what I wanted to do.

LH: I am interested in the fact that you do art as well as music. There are a lot of musicians who do both.
Lydia: So it’s always, I think for me it’s always been this thing of like, which do I want to focus more on. And I’ve been fighting for years and years to say no, I want to do both. I don’t have to pick one, but there have definitely been times throughout my life where I am more focused on one just by default, you only have so much energy.
So when I was 12 I transferred to a Fine Arts High School in Birmingham. My parents, they were very supportive with my interest in the arts. It was like a public school, but you audition to get in like Fame.

LH: I didn’t know you could have a Fine Art High School.
Lydia: Yeah, so have you ever seen the movie step up? It’s exactly like that!
So every one of the kids has a major – so you’re in theater or music or dance or writing or art. I was a visual art major, so from seventh through twelfth grade for three hours a day I was painting, drawing, studied printmaking, sculpture and that was huge for me because I remember I finally felt at home at that school, ‘cause Elementary School, Middle School, I wasn’t very athletic and I didn’t really….. I always sort of felt like I didn’t fit in. I thought I’m just really out of place and then I got to this art school and I felt like, oh, these are my people! And so yeah, it was great. I loved it. During that time everyone knew me as you’re a visual artist. And so it was always kind of a surprise to friends when it’s like, oh, you can sing too.
Then after high school I actually, I thought, well, how can I make money? Like I’m not going to be an artist when I grow up. That’s crazy! So I chose to go to Auburn University and started out as an architecture major, so it’s like I can draw, I can do that, that’s fun and one semester of that and I was done. I was like not for me. I actually switched to music and it was kinda like rediscovering this love that I had for music.

LH: Were you playing an instrument?
Lydia: I was a vocal major. So no, I didn’t really play an instrument until I got into it and then I studied.… Oh no, I did! I played viola growing up. But I never think of that because it’s not like an accompanying instrument. So, but yeah, I played viola since I was eight years old. So I still play. Not on the record or anything, for weddings and stuff. But yeah, so it was exciting to be focusing on music again and I was a vocal major and I wanted to be an opera singer. I loved learning to sing classically and then I found out I had vocal nodules and that I was basically just overusing my voice. I was in all the choirs and like just trying to do too much.

LH: Doing everything you could.
Lydia: Yeah. So I just needed to give myself a break and I switched my major to art, fine art and at this point I had no plan of what I was going to use this degree for, but it was a very easy decision though because if there’s anything my parents instilled in me, it was do what you love. And I thought, well I love music and I love art and I’ve studied music for a couple of years now in college, now I’m going to switch to art and still got a minor in music, major in fine art.

So yeah, it was really in college that….. in high school painting and drawing had eventually kind of become like a job for me because I was doing it so much and I was doing all these hyper-realistic portraits and I loved the reaction I was getting from people with the pieces, like “Wow, this is so great!” But the process itself I was not enjoying anymore. So when I got back into painting and drawing in college, I kind of made this decision for myself – I’m going to enjoy the process and see what happens and not focus on trying to impress people or trying to create something that people will like. It’s just going to be for me this time. And that was a very freeing moment. That’s when I started doing the abstract paintings for the first time and I remember my mom being kind of like, “Well, what is it supposed to be?” “It’s art Mom!”

LH: It’s whatever you want it to be.
Lydia: It was actually a really sweet time for me because I was learning to appreciate. I knew I liked these paintings that I was creating and I couldn’t really explain why other than I liked the colors and the textures and I liked how it made me feel, but I can’t put a name to it – you know, versus a still life – I like how realistic it looks. So it was different, but I loved at the time how it seemed sort of radical to me. So I just kinda went with it and just kept painting. From then, I stayed in Auburn for eight years. I didn’t want to leave because it’s a great little town. I worked for a screen printing shop.

LH: So were you still painting for yourself at the time?
Lydia: So honestly, after college there were about two or three years where I really wasn’t painting at all. I kind of took a break from it and I got a job at a screen printing shop with hopes of being a part of their art department. But I started out in the shop in 100 degree Alabama heat, catching shirts as they came off the dryer and folding them – you know, like a sweatshop essentially! But I kind of loved it because I got to hang out with all these guys that were blasting metal music and were so laid back. I didn’t have to put on a show for anyone and I felt really at home. It was so different because everyone in Alabama is so nice and these are people that kind of didn’t give a shit and I’m just like, “Whoa, this is awesome”.

LH: It is nice hanging around the type of people who don’t care and I like what you said about painting in terms of just deciding to do what you want and not caring because I think it exists even in music. I remember being a kid at school and there were really defined groups of people who liked particular types of music. And when I was there I just loved music. I played in brass bands, I played guitar, I played all this different stuff and I don’t think I really ever wanted to be stuck in one group saying I only liked one kind of music but, being young, I did get stuck in that position a bit. But there’s no right or wrong in music, right? There isn’t one better kind of music then another kind of music – it’s what it means to the person. And I really came to realize that as I grew up. Now I really don’t care what anyone thinks. I’ll listen to whatever I want and that’s a great feeling!
Lydia:​ Yes, absolutely.

LH: It must be the same feeling with the art as well – I’m going to just paint whatever I want.
Lydia:​ Absolutely the same. And I’ll sound like a broken record, but I say this constantly to Justin – that they’re so similar. So lately, fast forward, my goal has been to write music and to think about music the same way that I think about painting because I feel like I learned some of those lessons a little earlier on with painting. But with music, it’s been a little more of a struggle for me. But yeah, they’re the same, it’s the same thing and it’s really freeing when you can, you know, just start….. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself – but my goal this past spring, when I was writing this album, was to be able to start writing music the same way that I paint, which was simply to just have fun with it. And I never felt like I was quite able to do that until this year. I didn’t really have the tools, I couldn’t get into it – I was just overthinking and trying so hard. With painting, it seems so simple – there’s a canvas, you’ve got some paint just start moving paint around and you’ll get something, you know, just have fun. But with music, it’s like there are so many more options. It feels like, well, what instrument, and it can be overwhelming.

LH: I’m probably jumping ahead a bit, but I read an interview you did for a website called Voyage where you talked about the fact that you were traveling.
Lydia:​ Yeah, I wrote out the interview while I was in Berlin actually. Yeah.

LH: And were you traveling for a lot of this year?
Lydia: So I was traveling for three months this past spring and that was sort of the beginning of the trip and when I did that interview and the trip is actually when I wrote three of the four songs.

LH: Ok – so I’m always interested when I speak to musicians to understand how they write. I’ve spoken to loads of different people and read a lot of interviews and there are people who will take themselves away and lock themselves up in a cabin to write songs, you know, just in solitude. Then there are people like Neil Young, you read about him and he’s just like “I’ve never planned to write a song.” He says he could be doing anything and he’s just learned that when something comes to him, he stops whatever he’s doing, no matter how important it is, he stops and he writes it down. And then there are people in-between. So do you think the traveling helped you with the writing?
Lydia: The traveling only helped in the sense of I told myself when I left that I’m not coming back without an EP. That was the goal and I think, really, I needed a little bit of motivation because, honestly, I think I was scared. I was scared to start writing electronic music because it felt so new to me. I’ve written plenty of songs on an acoustic guitar and that’s all I’ve really done, but that’s not the kind of music that I like to listen to. So it was like, “Why am I writing this kind of music if this isn’t what I listen to? I listen to electronic music and hip-hop and I should write something like that. But I didn’t know, but my process is very similar to Neil Young in the sense of – you can’t force it. That’s the difference between me and Justin because Justin will lock himself away. He’ll be like, I’m going to go write a song right now and I cannot do that – no way. I said, over these three months I’m going to write three or four songs. But I didn’t write the first three songs until we were, I think, at least halfway through the Europe trip. Yeah, probably two months into the Europe trip. That’s when I started writing lyrics and then I wrote and produced the majority of the music the last week in Europe and it was crunch time. But I felt inspired and it was just flowing so I was just like, ok cool!

I’m totally the same with painting, I’ve been freelance for two years now with painting and I don’t have a schedule at all and I know a lot of people freak out. They’re like, “Wow, you have to have your schedule.” But it just doesn’t work for me. I’ll go into the studio, you know, when I feel inspired. And for me it’s kinda like, the conditions have to be right. I put on music, I actually have a couple of albums that I basically listen to every time that I paint.

LH: Which ones are they?
Lydia: So there’s a band called The Japanese House. So it’s funny, I read an interview with her and someone compared her to Imogen Heap.

LH: You know, the clips I’ve heard on Instagram of your music. I was actually going to say that it reminded me a little bit of Imogen Heap. That and one of them reminded me a little bit of Tori Amos as well.
Lydia: Oh cool, yeah, yeah. I mean in high school I was obsessed with Imogen Heap. I just thought she was so cool and unique. But yeah, Japanese House, I kind of consider her like a modern-day Imogen Heap and somebody did an interview with her, and compared her with Imogen Heap and I don’t think she had heard of her, which I thought was really interesting! But, yeah, it just gets me in a really good head space. That or I listen to a lot of hip-hop. If I need to just feel empowered then I just listen to some Kanye.

LH: So it sounds like without having a schedule and stuff, I guess you just get to that position where you’re just channeling, where everything happens at once. Like when you were saying you wrote all that music in the last week. Sometimes you’ll just go into that space where that’s happening and you can just let it happen, but if it’s not happening then you can’t make it happen?
Lydia: Absolutely, yeah.

LH: It amazes me sometimes when I read about some of the Nashville songwriters who do that for a living and they’re like, its a nine-to-five job. I think I was reading something with the guy who writes for Kacey Musgraves and he was talking about it being his full-time job. He had a place at the bottom of the garden, like a converted shed and he goes in there at nine and writes a song or two songs and then finishes for the day. And honestly, I can’t understand how people can do that?
Lydia: Honestly, I can’t, I can’t work like that. No, because it feels, I guess, I’m so in my head and I’m already an anxious person so my mind just takes over and I can’t. I definitely have to feel inspired, both with writing a song and with painting. I actually feel like I got really lucky with our time in Europe and the lyrics definitely seem to come a little easier than the music itself. Part of that is maybe because I’m still new to this medium of creating electronic music so it feels foreign. But at the same time, I feel like maybe I have a little bit of an advantage because I’m so new to it that it still feels like play to me. For me it’s like watching a kid paint, which, I have kids at my studio sometimes. My friends will bring their kids and I just let them go to town on a big canvas and they don’t second-guess themselves. They are just having fun with it and they’re not thinking “Is this right?” You know, they just do it, like this instinct and that’s been my goal with painting for a while, and now that’s my goal with writing music. So with creating electronic music, you know, here I am, maybe I’m using like a bass sound for a kick drum or vice versa or maybe I’m not using the right sound that somebody else who’s more experienced would use for a beat or a bass line or something. But to me it’s just like I’m just playing, you know, I just like how it sounds, so I’m just going to go with it, you know.

LH: It’s nice as well because you can take a little synth and a laptop pretty much wherever you go, which is much easier than lugging a guitar around.
Lydia: Yeah. That was part of the appeal of it with traveling. I just decided, yeah, it’s like I’m not coming back ’til I have something. Which actually, I got kind of nervous. I was like, well, I might not have songs because, again, you can’t force it. But thankfully, yeah, it’s like something got into me that last week! So a lot of the lyrics I wrote, it sounds really cheesy/made up, but I wrote like on trains traveling through Italy.

LH: I was going to ask you that – whether you think where you were at the time, the environment you were in, influenced the songs. So when you think about those lyrics you wrote, does it bring that place to mind?
Lydia: Yeah, definitely. Well and in particular, so there’s a song called “Rome” and Rome has always had this special place in my heart. I’ve visited like three times now. And it feels very much like home. It’s funny, I was talking with my Uber driver tonight who was from Sicily and he doesn’t like Rome.

LH: Really? So I work with a French guy and he wasn’t from Paris but he worked in Paris before he came to the US and he doesn’t like Paris. I guess living in those places is a different experience than visiting.
Lydia: Yeah, people seem very divided when I talk about Rome. So I think I was actually, I was either on a train to or coming from Rome, but that song, so the way I tend to write lyrics is very….. somewhat stream of consciousness. It’s really not necessarily like “Ooh, I’m going to write a song.” It’s just, it’s more like, I think it’s kind of a confidence level thing and you’re like, “Oh, I’m feeling confident today, so I’m going to write about what’s going on in my brain right now.” And so I kind of started looking around. I’ll write on my phone, right. I’m not fancy, I don’t have my notebook. I used to do that, actually, for years because I’ve been trying to write songs for a while now and I used to think that there must be some magic formula. And then finally, when I took all the guesswork out of it, things just started clicking. So yeah that song “Rome” it starts out like, ‘”Red roofs flying by,” because I’m literally just looking out the window and all the rooftops in Italy, have these red roofs, so red roofs flying by. “Got my Black Flower Boots on” is the second line because, literally, I’m wearing my boots that have flowers on them and so I’m just typing away. Then a story kind of starts unfolding that is partially made up and partially based on real experience and it’s kind of like I’m on this little adventure like “Ooh, it’s going to happen in this story.” It’s fun.

LH: Coming to the US has been really good for me because it’s so broadened what I listen to quite a lot. And artists over here like Jason Isbell and there’s a guy called Moreland out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, they write in stories. You know, it’s like the country music style and I was never a huge country music fan, but I’ll listen to their music and it’s amazing. It’s like a story in a song and I love the music, but I also want to listen to what they’re saying, I really like that style of writing.
Lydia: I love it. I absolutely love it and that’s kind of how I’ve always wanted to write. And I think for a long time I would just, sort of, overthink it and I try to be, sort of, very metaphorical. But then, the same thing with painting. It’s like, once I started simplifying, and just going with my gut and the first thing that came to my mind, it’s like, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, it can just be whatever words are floating through my head and then I can go back and edit later and it’s fine. An artist I feel like does that really well that I’ve always been inspired by is Courtney Barnett. I feel like she’s such a good storyteller and she’s so unique and just a badass, I love her. She’s like a huge influence for me.

LH: Yeah, I like that and I’ve interviewed a couple of people who’ve written brutally honest albums as well and I always think that’s amazing that people do that. You know, it could be a breakup album or something like that, but where you’re really just baring your soul in the song and then you’re going to get up in front of an audience and perform it. That’s the part of it that I always think about in my own head. I’m like, okay, writing that down is one thing, but then to put it out into the world and then stand in front of an audience………
Lydia: Yeah, see that’s my dream. It sounds so great, I love that. So it was always kind of like, not a joke, but like I think in College a lot of my friends, they’ve always known me as extremely transparent, you know, vulnerable, I guess, maybe sometimes an over-sharer. So it kind of comes naturally when it’s songwriting because its like, “Oh now I have an excuse to over-share.” But yeah I love it. I feel like, again, it’s the same thing with painting – you can sense when someone’s being honest with themselves. You know, I like to think of my paintings as very honest because I’m not trying to create something specifically. I’m not trying to win anybody over with my paintings, it’s just fun for me. That’s kinda been the goal with music for a while and I feel like for the first time with this record, it’s my first bit success with being able to translate that into songwriting.

LH: I think that’s definitely a good way to approach it.
Lydia: It’s such a relief to finally feel like, “Oh, I can do this.” I think the biggest hurdle was just learning how to write electronic music. It wasn’t necessarily the lyrics part, it was the composing.

LH: Yeah learning to write electronically using machines can be like learning music over again.
Lydia: Yeah, yeah, totally.

LH: I know they make them nicer now and that they’re a bit more user-friendly than they used to be. But still, I guess it might not come naturally when you start.
Lydia: Yeah, it’s overwhelming. I like didn’t even know where to start. I asked a friend “What do I buy for this?” And he’s like, “Well get this little Akai little mini keyboard.” But yeah, I didn’t even know, I was like, “Does this have the sounds on it or are the sounds of my computer?” Literally starting from scratch. And it’s kind of like learning graphic design actually, that’s the closest thing I can compare it to. Because I remember learning to be a designer and it felt so daunting learning Illustrator and Photoshop but now it’s like a second nature. I use Logic and its starting to feel like that.

LH: Yeah I think that, once you get past the first part of it where it’s all new to you and you can start to see some of the sense in how things have been set up and why things are the way they are then it gets a bit easier. But yeah, at the start I guess very overwhelming.
Lydia: Yeah, yeah, very overwhelming. Justin has been a big help with that too because he’s well versed in all of that and we bought like a nice synth pack while we were traveling and that was a big investment. And so that was kind of a moment of like, “Oh, this is really happening…. now I have to make an album. l just spend hundreds of dollars on synths.”

LH: Haha – yeah. So the EP. How would you describe it to people?
Lydia: So I’ve decided to call it Past Lives, because I was thinking that, despite the fact that each of these songs are somewhat stream of consciousness and can seem a little a random from song to song, I realized that they all have something in common. They’re each about a past relationship. And it got me thinking about just different sort of eras of my twenties, and now my thirties. But how those relationships, looking back on them, it almost feels like it wasn’t even you. Like you feel like, “Well I’ve changed so much.” It feels like it was a whole lifetime ago and like you were a different person then. But still very real and still like, having a sort of appreciation for it. You know, not downplaying it at all and not bashing it at all, but rather, on the contrary, having an appreciation for that time in your life. The things you learned, you know, even for the broken hearts, just making you the person that you are.

LH: Because all of it gets you to where you are today right.
Lydia: Absolutely. I mean, one of the songs – he’s going to know it’s about him! – is about a guy that I moved to Chicago with. We were best friends and we decided to move across the country together from Alabama and it was like a really great time of life and we were really young and learning so much. And another one is about as foreign romance……… ha ha….. the one about Rome. And nothing actually happened in Rome – maybe in another European country though! But it’s about that excitement of going to a foreign country and meeting up with someone and just kind of reliving that a little bit, like the excitement of it. And one song “Easy,” actually that one isn’t really about anyone in particular. So “Easy” is the only song that I didn’t write while traveling. I wrote that one two years ago and I just never really…….. I didn’t really know what to do with it. But I wrote it when I was newly single and I was dating around and it’s, sort of, the excitement of meeting a stranger in a bar and, you know, feeling that sort of instant chemistry and it says, “It’s so easy being with you here”. So it was about when you meet someone and immediately you’ve got that connection. And so that one’s not really about anyone in particular. And then “Waves” is about my husband!

LH: So its the full spectrum!
Lydia: Its full circle, yeah! It’d funny because I asked him, you know, “Don’t you want to know the backstories of all these?” And he was like, “Well, they’re all about me, right?” He knows they’re not, but he likes to think they’re all about him and, I’m like, “Yeah honey, of course.” But “Waves” really is about him and I wrote it in when we were on the island of Ischia and we’d had a really terrible fight, actually. And I woke up the next morning. So we’re living together in Europe for three months without jobs, really just, you know, with only each other for three months. So we’re bound to drive each other a little crazy. So I woke up the next morning and just went for a walk and wrote the song while I was off on my walk. And then I came back and said, “Hey, I wrote a song!” That was one of the first ones I wrote.

LH: It was a peace offering in a song. 
Lydia: Yeah! I kind of needed to write. I don’t know if that sounds cheesy, but I was feeling really down on myself because I felt like I had been sort of harsh to him. We got in this fight – sorry this is really personal! This is me over-sharing! So I just got really angry and then the next morning I went for this walk and I felt really bad. Like I was just really being hard on myself. Like, “Oh, you shouldn’t have been so mean” and I had this thought when I was like looking out at the ocean, the waves were like really, really rough this day, like crazy, really rough and just the day before and had been super calm and I was thinking like wow, it changes so much from day to day, but it’s always beautiful. It’s so beautiful whether it’s rough or if it’s calm. And I had this sort of…. you could call it a divine moment of feeling as humans we have to give each other grace and whether you’re having a bad day or saying some harsh words or you know, being chill, you’re okay. One of the lyrics is “go easy on yourself, my dear” – it’s sort of like giving myself grace and hoping other people will feel that too. It’s okay if you and I, I could go on and on about my, my upbringing, my, you know, very conservative, tough, strict upbringing and sort of being very hard on myself and my parents being very hard on me and so kind of learning to have grace for myself.

LH: Release day is…?
Lydia: It is September 12.

LH: And you’re doing a show?
Lydia: The show is at Hubbard Street Lofts, Chicago. My friends have a project called MLMO. They’re going to open up for me. They have some really cool stuff. They also are electronic – very, very cool. Because my album is only four songs, so they’ll open up for me and then I’ll play the album straight through. And actually I did a song with them. We collaborated, me and MLMO, on a song called “Peaks” and we’re going to do that one as well, so that’ll be a nice transition. So hopefully the record’s done in time because we’re still finishing mixing it, actually. We’re in the finals stages. There’s four songs and we’ve spent 16 hours mixing already and it’s almost done so a few more hours to go. I’m sending it off to get mastered and it’ll be done. Then we have to figure out how to play it live.

LH: That’s the next step, right? I’ll look forward to seeing how you do it.
Lydia: Yeah, me too!

LH: Thanks for taking the time.

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About Phil Walton 84 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.

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