Twilight falls. Mist gathers in the hollows, as a bird flies to warn a girl of her lover's death. A woman croons to her baby, wrapping it in protective leaves. In the dark, a dreamscape emerges. These shadowed fates and tales possess Lily Storm’s debut album If I Had a Key to the Dawn (Songbat Records; June 23, 2009), an intimate flight through the lost loves, hidden meanings, and twining melodies passed down for generations in the lands east of the Danube.
Lily Storm can’t get away from the haunting soul of these songs from the East. “If it weren’t for these traditional songs, I wouldn’t be a musician,” reflects Storm, a member of an emerging generation of musicians who learned to navigate this sonic world by soaking up recordings from far off lands in the privacy of their rooms, undaunted by walls and cultural boundaries.
Drawing from diverse traditions that cover a broad area from Russia and Ukraine south to Greece, from Central Europe to the steppe-lands of Asia, Storm's distinctive voice and passionate delivery impart a sweeping, dreamlike vision, cohesive and personal.
When Storm began recording, she was aiming for “something light and nostalgic, a sort of summer café feel,” she smiles -- a musical doorway for friends and family. But as Storm worked in the studio, the songs would not relinquish their eerie origins. What started as a side project ended up engrossing Storm for three full years, as she sought to convey the essence of the ancient music.
“The very act of singing is like releasing a bird that has to make its way in the world,” Storm explains. “I imagine the voice journeying through various dark, surreal landscapes. With time I realized how personal an expression it had become. It led to a deeper, more sorrowful place.”
Almost in spite of itself, a new vision emerged. A Ukrainian lullaby, “Sleep, Child,” begins the journey. “Often you think of a lullaby as an ending, but I knew I wanted this song as the first track.” says Storm. “I realized I was thinking about the album as a sequence of dreams: the lullaby puts you to sleep at the beginning, and the last song wakes you up again.” Instead of basking in the noontime sun, Storm’s songs drift slowly from a soothing yet eerie nightfall to a fragile and contemplative dawn, captured in the final track “The Swallow is Flying,” whose Czech lyrics inspired the album title.
Storm fell into singing just as gradually and unexpectedly as she stumbled across the heart of her album. “I never intended to be a singer. I wanted to go into math and physics,” Storm muses. “My path to this music was largely as a teenager browsing through the entire CD collection at the local public library in Tacoma, Washington. I just drifted over and checked things out, without really understanding why.”
The recordings had a deep and powerful effect on her. She carried favorite tunes (“Love, Love” and “Green Leaf of a Pear Tree”) with her for more than a decade before attempting to sing them. At first listening was a private pastime, but soon Storm found others similarly moved and enchanted, and joined the San Francisco-based vocal group Kitka, performing around the US and Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, she received instruction and encouragement from the director and soloists of the national Bulgarian radio choir, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. “I had done my best to sing in a way that felt natural, and working with them validated many of my instincts. But it also allowed me to fine-tune, and to correct some errors. It was a wonderful experience.”
Like many young record-raiders and wild-eyed musical alchemists bent on reforging tradition—from Balkan Beat Box to Slavic Soul Party to Beirut—Storm felt a new energy bursting from the ancient songs, one relevant to her personal experience. This new blood radically alters the Balkan and Eastern European music scene. “For a long time, Eastern European music was associated with the Iron Curtain. There were political overtones.” Storm notes. “I have nothing against that but it's not where I'm coming from. You also get another message in popular culture, with characters like Borat. I'm really sensitive to that: ‘Oh those quaint villagers.’ I think the younger generation of musicians, whether consciously or not, see it as part of humanity’s heritage in a wider way. People lived in villages for an awfully long time all over the world and developed really rich, beautiful music. There is something gripping about that village sound.”
Gathering songs is also a deeply personal endeavor. A haunting melody must be coupled with meaningful words: The striking scale sweeping through aching lyrics in the bittersweet Hungarian love ballad, “The Peony,” the blurred boundary between lament and love song, between blessing and curse. Other songs have been the unexpected gifts of devoted listeners. Storm discovered “Sleep, child” when a Ukrainian audience member insisted on driving two hours to bring a cassette of the song as performed by Nina Matvienko. A Czech audience member mailed Storm a copy of her favorite cassette, which is how she found “The Swallow is Flying.” Storm chases after lesser-used scales (“The Lemon Tree”), unexpected inflections (“Oh, Stand Aside”), and deep lyrical meaning (“My Nightingale”).
As a solo performer, Storm has the space to experiment with some of tradition's most intriguing aspects: the complex and idiosyncratic ornamentation often found in folk songs, and the deep and direct engagement solo lines demand. She follows her intuition, grasping sparkling timbres, microtones, and poetry. Drawing on the rich musical community of the Bay Area, she assembled a loose group of musicians, each with his or her own connection to the music, and they added guitar, violin, and accordion, as well as the more exotic sounds of duduk and kaval. Spurred by the songs themselves and the instrumentalists’ talents, Storm’s arrangements were transformed in the studio. “I think being willing to throw things out the window continuously, to let go, made for a more genuine and compelling result,” Storm notes.
Part of what went out the window was the stereotypical full-tilt singing style most associated with the Balkans. To Storm’s surprise, it often defied the studio environment. “I think the village sound is very appealing, and use it for live performances. But it's a very bright sound, and I found it can tend toward the harsh when recorded,” Storm explains. “Singing in a village way in the recording studio often just didn’t work.”
Storm needed a more measured, delicate approach to convey her deep, vital connection and with help from recording engineer Jim Helman, built a spare yet atmospheric sonic environment where the songs could unfold in Storm’s natural voice. Helman worked to get a spacious, almost cosmic sound, a sound that was a revelation. “I try for as open and direct a tone quality as I can get, letting all of the voice come forward, not holding anything back,” Storm says. By allowing the full range of her voice’s inherent overtones to emerge, she captured her own personal, raw voice, her own “village sound.”
“I have gone through periods of self doubt, wondering, ‘What am I doing?’” Storm recounts, contemplating her position as an American singing Eastern European music. “I am drawn to do this without thinking. So when I do think about it, it occurs to me it might seem a bit odd. But somewhere down the line, I realized how natural it is. In the long history of humanity, people have always learned from each other's music. There is something inherent in music that we want to be evocative and elusive. This is partly what it means to be human. We’re fascinated by the mountains next door.”
(Download PDF of liner notes.)