Alex Lilly Confronts Ambivalence on 2% Milk
Alex Lilly’s new album is called 2% Milk, but she would never touch the stuff. “I’m trying to drink less [of it]…But when I do have milk I definitely have whole milk.” Two percent is just watered down anyway. It reflects a part of society that bothers her; throughout our conversation on a frigid afternoon at Echo Park Lake she gives wry examples: “Tinder is the two percent milk of dating.” Or, our perpetual connectivity is “not what the creator had in mind.” Ultimately, she tells me, “we take too much for granted.”
The record’s title comes from an impromptu poem written by Jacqueline Suskin. Lilly was at the Bootleg Theater with her then-boyfriend for an event a couple of years ago when they came across Suskin sitting with an old typewriter. He gave the prompt of “lowfat milk” and a short while later she delivered a provocative few stanzas about the chemical homogenization of our society. The poem came to mind after Lilly had written a keyboard melody for a new song — in fact the words fit perfectly.
The title track of 2% Milk sets the tone for the record, which turns out to be astonishingly ambivalent. Astonishing because, at least with regard to her music, Lilly herself is decisive. Of course, she earned that confidence after years of studying.
Her first memories are not of piano practice but of checking out books from the library, wanting to understand why songs like “Julia” by the Beatles were so compelling. Her mind has always been analytical, especially as she studied music in college; it’s satisfying to break down the structure of a song mathematically. Like applying the scientific method to music.
In the same vein, Lilly describes her fascination with the Danish documentary, The Five Obstructions. In it, Lars von Trier asks his friend Jørgen Leth to re-do the latter’s 13-minute short The Perfect Human — five times. Each iteration has to clear a specific challenge, or obstruction, which results in vastly different products each time. The film gives insight into how an artist may problem-solve their own work, but in the end it is simply an experiment in psychological torture. “I’m inspired by that,” Lilly says with a laugh.
Her interest in performing came when she began to learn guitar at 15. Today she is a seasoned multi-instrumentalist, having been part of several high-profile touring bands, most notably for Beck. “I got to get better,” Lilly says, as she describes how her experience helped her grow as a musician. “I enjoyed figuring out how I can fit into the genetic material of a project,” and from there she decided to strike out on her own.
The newfound trust that she put in her own instincts led her to create the emotive enigma that is her new record. It doesn’t take itself seriously but is plenty thought-provoking. Lilly contrasts light-hearted philosophical ideas with saccharine alt-pop. Listeners may hone in on one side or the other, but it is the symbiosis of these elements that makes it a memorable, if also surprising, album. “In the past I might have wanted to shave some of those rough corners off,” she explains, “but I gave in to my impulses.”
To remove the unique details within the record would neuter Lilly’s voice entirely. That is to say the album is filled with her brutal and blatant honesty. It may not have all the answers, but that is reality; Lilly embraces a steadfast ambivalence across 2% Milk.
It opens up with a conversation with her therapist, a figure implied to have the wisdom of Confucius; their advice is met with a frantic energy. The title may suggest that she has gone blue in “Pornographic Mind,” but instead she describes microaggressions that could eventually constitute harassment. Strings collide with synths on “Boomerang,” while MIDI sounds run rampant across most of the rest of the tracks. On “Night Drive” questions about an eternal life bubble up through lyrics that could be taken literally to describe a cruise around the city: “ ‘Hello, where do you wanna go?’/ Oh driver, I don’t really know. … Eternity is taking me on one long night drive.”
Each song exists in purgatory. But Lilly insists “these things don’t have to be bad!” She also examines many sides of love on the record, from friendly pestering in “Distracting Me” to the communicable melancholy of “Cold Snap.” Then, the closing song describes its fleeting nature. “My love is a firefly/ He only lives for just one night.” It describes an idea of love rather than a particular person, though the ambiguity is intentional.
This is no slight to the concept of romance, but accurately reflects her own contradictions. Lilly explains that falling in love is rare for her, despite her dedication to romance. It is a force that keeps her going even as she mocks herself for feeling this way. “I’m not jaded about love itself, I’m jaded about my interactions with it.” She gives her voice a comical lilt as she jokes, “I’m loyal to my pain.”
Soft splashes against idle paddle boats at the lake house contrast Lilly’s often sarcastic quips. Speaking to me today, she is comfortable. Not that she had hidden herself while she was on tour — she tells me, “Beck’s music resonates with me a lot. It was just nice to work on my own project. It was nice to…”
“Indulge yourself?” I offer.
She nods. “When I was in Paris last year, instead of saying ‘je suis désolé’ [‘I’m sorry’], what I started to say was ‘laissez-moi’ [‘indulge/let me’], and then I would start speaking French. I felt like people were so much more friendly when I did that. ‘I’m sorry’ is a given — we’re all sorry, or we should be.” She pauses to laugh, and continues, “It’s a given that I’m hoping people listen to this and I’m hoping that it’s liked, so let’s just do it. Let’s all indulge ourselves.”