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Interview: Carry Illinois find a new lease on life

She was only 17 when she started taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. A cloud seemed to drop down around her shoulders. While her disquiet was soothed, her vibrancy seemed to take a hit. More than a decade and a half later, she is ready and capable of taking back her life. Lizzy Lehman, exuberant and crafty lead singer of Carry Illinois, an alt-rock outfit out of Austin, is far more at ease these days. “I’m about a few days away from being completely off the drugs,” she says, a hopeful glimmer peppering her tone.

“I see a different, brighter, more interactive and more present person, a person I feel like I’ve missed for a long time. I was glazing over everything and not really digging in,” she tells B-Sides & Badlands over a recent call. Subsequently, the singer-songwriter’s creativity has been reinvigorated, thawed from a self-inflicted ice age, so to speak. But now, she looks forward with sharpened concentration and optimism. “I feel happier and more alive. It’s a crazy feeling,” she beams.

In the aftermath of former band mate John Winsor’s tragic suicide in early 2016, she looked around her and took stock of her life. “Several members of my family have been on these drugs for a long time, and I’ve seen them so glazed over and not really happy. I said, ‘I don’t want to be like this when I’m that age.’ So, I had to do something about it now,” she says, a thick resolve bubbling up in her voice. “It’s scary, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I have to try and see how it goes. I feel like this has absolutely been the right decision. I’m excited to see my personality expand and grow.”

On the band’s 2017 EP, Garage Sale, a heartfelt, alloy-made tribute to Winsor which also depicts their commitment to pushing forward, that passion hangs ominously in the air. Even when Lehman is ripping your heart out, as she does unapologetically on closing number “Goodnight” (in which she sings about “the world outside…crumbling, as we lie in bed and cry”), you get the sense they’ve picked up the pieces as best they can. “Why is it so hard to restart?” is the lingering question that may never have a right answer. “Even if we’ve experienced life differently, we’ve all dealt with sadness and anger. That’s something everybody can understand,” Lehman reflects upon agony producing stunning, life-affirming artwork.

Nearly one-year removed since the EP’s release, the powerhouse takes a second to breathe. “It was a necessary thing. I had a really hard time writing music after John passed away. I felt like it was important to get these songs recorded. I look back on it as a really good way to keep him in my memory. I still feel a big connection to those songs, even as we’ve been moving forward with new material.”

Typically scavenging for earthier touch points, the group ⎯⎯ rounded out by Andrew Pressman (bass), Rudy Villarreal (drums), Darwin Smith (guitar) and Benjamin Rowe Violet (keys) ⎯⎯ are eyeing a slicker feel next era. Amidst hunting down the lyrics to the new song, Lehman let us get a sneak peek of the new single, which flitters gently but potently against the eardrums, carrying with it a sense of resilience and growth. ““Gotta start at the beginning / That’s the only place to start / When did you first begin to hate your body and your heart / I was six or I was seven, wasn’t I too young to feel that way,” Lehman warbles into a mix of shimmering drums and guitar, her voice gliding by with a flourish. “I know it’s not good to run away,” she sings later on the hook.

“Runaway,” as its called, represents a continued commitment to strong, grounded storytelling but displays a warm, sincere stylistic shift. “It’s a different sound. It’s much poppier,” Lehman confirms. The anthem (dropping within the next couple months) anchors the band’s new EP, called Work in Progress, out this May. “We’re in the studio right now, so it’s really fresh and cool. It has layers, and it’s very soundscape-y.”

Below, Lehman revisits the Garage Sale EP again and discusses how Pressman stepped into the band and why they’re going pop.

What is “Runaway” about?

It’s basically about me realizing that I shouldn’t run away from my problems even though I want to. You have to deal with your stuff in order to move forward. You just can’t push it aside. I’ve always had this really conflicted feeling about my body. I’ve always not liked it and felt that way since I was little. My mother sent me to a nutritionist for a long time. Your history might still sting but that’s the only place to start. You have to dig into the past in order to move forward. I’ve been doing a lot of therapy the last few years now and dealing with the bullying in connection to my body image. I’ve been trying to rewire my brain from all that, I guess. The 1990s was a toxic time for women with magazines and the expectations and all the diets. After John passed away, I decided to be completely honest and write about what I know. That’s all I can do.

Did you want to go poppier or is that just where the music led you?

It naturally happened. I’ve always loved pop music. It’s been a big part of what I’ve listened to growing up. I realized that that was the direction I wanted to go. It’s been cool. We’ve all been collaborating equally. For the credits, it’s going to say it is produced by our engineer and the band. We all really pitched in. It’s exciting to really dig in. We haven’t even recorded the vocals yet. We spent four days just doing instrumentals. It’s a whole different process from the last EP, and it’s just as cool. Every time I’ve recorded something new, I learn something new. I bought this little pocket piano, and I get to mess with some weird sounds and effects.

Was the songwriting itself any different than before?

It was essentially the same. I brought the songs to the band, but this time, instead of having to get in the studio and do it live, we got to actually sit down and work with all the textures within the music. Working with a different person each time, they have a different way of doing things.

“Shameful Feeling” is another clear standout from the Garage Sale EP, which you’ve mentioned briefly stems from painful childhood memories. What exactly did you draw upon?

I was bullied my senior year of high school. This song and a few others were the first time I really touched on that and felt comfortable talking about my experiences. For a long time, I didn’t really know how to write about them or if I could or if it would come out the way I wanted it to. This song is not only about that but rising above any sort of issues or doubts you may have and putting them behind you. It’s also realizing we’ve all dealt with the same thing and are in this together. That’s why writing this song was important to me. I know I’m not the only one who has experienced bullying or being shamed.

What has your journey through self-doubt been like over the course of your life?

It’s been tough. I grew up in the ‘90s when everybody was wearing the same thing and listening to the same music. Being different didn’t seem like it was OK. Now, I’ve learned to slowly embrace my differences. People like to see a unique personality and what I have to offer that’s not just the norm. Several of the songs on the new EP we’re working on right now are about my journey to self-love and accepting myself for who and what I am. I’m continuing to mold myself that way.

After John Winsor’s suicide, how did the new bass player step into the role?

I’ve known Andrew for a long time. His wife Raina Rose is a local singer-songwriter, who I’ve also known for a long time, since I’ve moved to Austin, over seven years now. After John passed away, it was maybe a month or two later, Andrew sent me a text message that said, “If you ever need anybody to step in on bass, I’d be happy to do that.” He did it with incredible sensitivity. He basically told me later on, “I didn’t want to make you upset. I wanted to let you know I’m here to support you.” It was a natural step. He’s somebody I consider a good friend and, at times, a mentor. He’s an incredible guy.

What advice would you to get teenagers who might be going through some of the same struggles you did at their age?

I know it is kind of cliche ⎯⎯ but it really does get better. You find people who love you for who you are and not for what you’re wearing or what car you drive. It’s important to hold on to your quirks and all the things that make you you. That’s what people love. I would also tell them they’re amazing and beautiful and that it doesn’t matter what people say to them. Everybody’s got something to give.

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Jason Scott

Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake--and she doesn't like you very much.

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