Toronto’s Lily Frost returned to Ottawa Friday night at the wonderfully unique and bohemian Raw Sugar Café, located in the heart of Chinatown. It was nice to catch her in this intimate setting, in complete contrast to the last time I saw her perform, which was on the Black Sheep stage at Bluesfest in 2013. She engaged the enrapt audience with a selection of pieces from several of her past albums, along with all six songs from her current EP, Motherless Child, which was released just last month. A second EP is planned for release early next year, with songs yet to be written. Further intention is to ultimately combine the two EP’s together in a vinyl record format.
Songs for this EP came about after Frost experienced an Akashic reading. This is a spiritual look into the history of one’s soul, and the discoveries, direction, lessons and answers derived from the process. She was given the song, “Motherless Child” to listen to, as a relevant piece of music that would connect her to her soul and give her the answers she was seeking.
Frost had never heard the song before and found a rendition of it on an album by Odetta. While she was driving one afternoon, she popped it into her CD player and listened to it for the first time. Frost conveyed to me that the feeling was an instant emotional reaction. She began to cry and had to pull over until she could gather her senses and process these raw sensitivities she was feeling. She says the song was like a key that opened the door to her soul. And now whenever she plays it, time seems to stop.
She recorded “Motherless Child” at Operation Northwoods with Darryl Neudorf (Neko Case) at the helm. The recording was very bare-boned, using only a piano, in order to focus mainly on Frost‘s vocals. The result is a very minimal, stripped down and honest capture, far removed from anything she’d ever done before. Other songs began to spin off from this point, ones she pulled from her early years that had always comforted and grounded her. Three of these, plus two original compositions she wrote, would make up the six in this compilation. Frost found it fitting to entitle the EP, Motherless Child, as the song itself was responsible for this entire process.
The first song she performed from her new EP, was “Sweet Sacrifice”, an original written about the sometimes double-edged experience of motherhood. She strummed an electric guitar for this one, dressed in a simple, fitted, vintage-style little black dress with matching black boots. She spoke of the feeling of “floating away…”, sung in a voice that seemed to be doing the same thing when she reached up to higher notes. I loved how her lyrics and her voice were in sync with each other in this regard. The song offered the message of succumbing to the throes of motherhood and how it sometimes leaves a woman disconnected from the life she once had.
Next came the wonderful 20’s cover, “Wild Women Don’t Get The Blues”, where Frost’s voice took a slight nasal edge and, like a chameleon, put her foot into the very comfortable shoe of the Billie Hollidays, Big Mama Thorntons and the Bessie Smiths of the day. Her voice suited the very vaudeville and bluesy tones of the song and I could tell this was a musical style that had most likely influenced her early on in her career.
Frost moved to the piano for the next piece, which was a brand new, not-yet-recorded treat for us all to hear. It was called, “Where The Light Shines In”, and after hearing it I could sense that this, too, was somehow connected to the other songs because of its emotional delivery. There were strongly sung parts, where she raised her voice sharply, with a very dramatic and pleading tone. From there, without stopping, the song smoothly and naturally delved into “Motherless Child”. The accompanying chords on the piano were played in a slow, tribal-like rhythm, stark against her melancholy vocals which were the main focus. She went inside herself in this performance and I could feel the impact of her channelled emotions through the music. The crowd fell incredibly silent.
Later came “Deep River”, another spiritual piece of African-American origin, and one she used to turn to as a warm-up song. Frost’s rendition is quite different where her voice wanders beautifully and ethereally into very high notes during the chorus. It offered more generous overtones of the natural human yearning for freedom and peace.
She played her one other original, “Hear My Cry”, which had a sound reminiscent of the early days of slavery. Again, there were surfaced feelings of anguish and confinement translated here, further emphasized with its strong gospel tone.
It wasn’t until the encore at the end of the night that she performed her sixth and final track from the EP, a lovely French song called, “Ma Jeunesse Fout L’camp”. Frost’s version is strikingly close to that of Francoise Hardy, who popularized it in 1967. The song suggests a coming-of-age experience into the embryonic stages of independence and the realization that childhood is lost. Frost captured the melancholy tones and sung the piece in perfect Parisienne French, with a child-like innocence and purity. It was one of my favourite pieces of the night.
Lily Frost took us on a journey into the private and emotional corners of her heart, and shared with us her songs of self-awareness and growth. The many tones of her voice acted like a paintbrush on canvas. It was a beautiful blending of music, lyrics and voice that perfectly conveyed messages of freedom, desire, innocence, and the simple meaning of life.