Lily Meola recently released her debut album They Say… She’s toured California with Shooter Jennings and Lukas Nelson. Meola has recorded with country-music superstar Willie Nelson, played in front of 40,000 people at Farm Aid and shared the stage with Steven Tyler and Johnny Depp. In fact, Tyler called Meola a magical musical fairy princess from Maui whose singing goes straight to your heart. On March 6, she opens for Lee Brice at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center (MACC). With all these incredible things happening to her, it was meeting a cancer patient in San Diego that stands out as one of the highlights in her life.
Sitting in the mid-day shade at a small Makawao coffee house, 21-year-old Meola’s eyes shine like faint green sapphires as she shares the story of a man who had to be coaxed into attending one of her shows. The man had Stage 3 Lymphoma. He was physically and emotionally exhausted; his friends practically dragged him to see “this great performer from Maui.”
After the show, the man created his first Facebook account so he could tell Meola how her music touched him. “People have told me before that my music touches them, but this guy really went out of his way to let me know how my music made him feel,” Meola says. “He listened to my music while he was having chemo and it would make him feel like life was worth living.
“He’s done with chemo and he’s getting well,” Meola continues. “He has a daughter and he’s engaged.” Her eyes sparkle with emotion as she reaches the pinnacle of the story. “And he proposed to one of my songs!”
Despite the fact that Meola’s album They Say…. is getting major press and radio airplay–and she’s standing on the precipice of a promising career in the music business (on Mar. 1, Rolling Stone named her one of “10 New Country Artists You Need To Know”)–she says meeting the gentleman with cancer was a highlight. “It’s really cool to make people feel things with my music,” Meola says. “That was one of my goals in life.”
Lily Meola grew up on Maui. She spent most of her time between Haiku and the North Shore. She began singing publicly while attending Haleakala Waldorf School. She knew she wanted to perform, but staring in a school play when she was 11 solidified her aspirations. “I realized, yes, this is what I want to do,” Meola says. “I never pictured myself doing anything else. This is my dream and they helped me realize it. Waldorf is all about being creative and since that was the environment, it made becoming a performer seem very realistic.”
By the time Meola was in high school, she was singing at venues like Stella Blues, the MACC and Charley’s Restaurant and Saloon. When she was 16, Meola landed a regular gig at Cafe des Amis in Paia.
The day of our interview, we had planned to meet at the quaint crepe house but the surf at Jaws was at a record high; every formidable big wave surfer on the island was headed to the North Shore surf spot. So we avoided the crowds and met Upcountry at another of her favorite haunts–Sip Me.
Meola wore a blue and white outfit that was a cross between high fashion and beach town casual–boho chic. Her long, pale blonde hair brushed past her shoulders as she sat down, apologizing for smelling like kim chee. She ordered us a turnover. “It looked so good,” she says.
While nursing our beverages, a woman interrupted our conversation. “I just love your CD,” the stranger told Meola, giving her a shoulder hug. “I just bought a second copy for a good friend.”
The woman seemed to want to keep chatting, but was respectful of Meola’s growing celebrity. For her part, Meola seemed humbled by the attention and handled it gracefully. “It’s happening a lot,” she says about strangers approaching her in public. “It’s kind of weird. I’m not opposed to it at all, but I’m not all about myself.”
They Say… is a snapshot of Meola’s fabulous vocal ability and reflects both where her musical tastes began and where they’re headed. When Meola first began performing, she sang primarily jazz standards. That flavor remains strong in the new collection–but the album reveals a wide variety of influences, including country and pop.
Meola says people often ask her who she wants to be like. “That is the hardest question for me to answer because I just want to be me,” she tells me. Then, after a brief pause: “I don’t know exactly who I am yet.
“I knew I wanted to be good at singing jazz,” Meola says. “But I never wanted to be tied down to one genre. I want to taste everything.”
Meola says she’s happy with her work on They Say… but she’s looking forward to recording new songs. Much of that enthusiasm comes from the fact that she only started writing music relatively recently.
“I go home every night and write until one in the morning,” Meola says. “Instead of going to bed with Netflix, I’m going to bed with my writing journal. My next album, I want to write a majority of it. I want to put out music that comes from here,” she says, motioning to her heart. “I feel like I need to say something important.”
Meola’s sophisticated music makes it difficult to believe she is barely legal to drink a toast to her success. Her compassionate spirit, coupled with her immense talent, seems more reflective of a woman twice her age. Michael McDonald, one of the island’s most admired performers, agrees that Meola stands out among her personal and professional contemporaries.
“Lily Meola’s capacity to handle a song speaks to her having a much older soul than her tender years would suggest,” McDonald says. “Having grown up on the beautiful island of Maui, one has to wonder where this deep sense of expression came into play. I think the simple answer is that there is much mana in this young woman’s spirit and it translates beautifully through her artistry. [They Say… is] a solid effort by a wonderful new artist with a voice we’ll no doubt be listening to for years to come.”
Local music fan and radio personality Michael McCartney has witnessed Meola’s growth as both a singer and songwriter. “When we first had her on the air performing over five years ago, before she wrote her own songs, she really had a grasp at such a young age on how to deliver the material of other artists like Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah,’” McCartney says. “To see her growth in this incredible sounding album is mind-blowing even knowing that she could do no wrong with whatever material she decided to tackle, her own or from another composer.”
McCartney said his listeners have responded well to the new album. “From the moment we began to play the new album, the emails, Facebook messages and phone calls were all positive,” he says. “Lily’s songs ‘Bad Weather’ and ‘Bad Boy’ connected with the audience immediately. Many listeners were unaware that she was an artist in our own backyard here on Maui and were thrilled to discover her. The other cuts on the album including her collaborations with songwriting legends Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson really add a texture to the album that let her shine. Lukas Nelson’s contributions to Lily’s album round out the vibe that really translates well over the FM dial.”
Meola says one of the truly memorable moments of her budding career was working with Jackson Browne.
“I got a songwriting lesson from Jackson Browne,” she says. “We sat down at the piano, and he showed me how he writes songs. He uses a different yellow legal pad for each song. I should have listened to him about that. I write in a beautiful leather bound book given to me at the BMI Conference. But I’m writing several songs at once and I’m always flipping back and forth through the pages. There have been a lot of really cool insane moments that I’m grateful for. I’m a lucky girl.”
Upon first listen of the album, Browne says They Say… is destined to be a work that you’ll find in the car and on the cell phone of everyone you know. “Lily Meola’s surprising voice–smoky, sultry, tender and strong–comes from somewhere timeless, yet somehow new,” Browne says. “This voice and these songs spring from a place so deep in the country and jazz traditions that they will be heard as fresh and original by her generation–and deeply rooted in the greatest music of all time–by mine.”
Rock superstar Steven Tyler has his own take on Meola.
“You can’t deny her melodies and will be immediately addicted to the sound of her voice,” he says. “[They Say…] is just a sneak peak of all that is to become of Lily Meola.”
Releasing a debut album, touching people’s lives and performing to huge audiences would seem like success to most people. But Meola says being happy each day is true achievement.
“If I’m happy, then I feel like I’m successfully living my life,” she says. “I simply want to live life with no expectations and a grateful heart.”
They Say… is available at LilyMeola.com and in various stores around Maui including Requests Music in Wailuku and Collections in Makawao. The album hits iTunes next month. Meola encourages her fans follow her on Instagram: @lilymeola. For more info on her upcoming MACC show visit Mauiarts.org.
Photo of Lily Meola and her pet pig Maple Bacon: Sean M. Hower
Cover design: Darris Hurst