Third Man's Resident Country Hustler Lillie Mae Finally Breaks Out On Other Girls

Jack White's former fiddler discusses her singular new country album

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Third Man's Resident Country Hustler Lillie Mae Finally Breaks Out On <i>Other Girls</i>

Everything about Lillie Mae is unexpected. A sought-after fiddler and Nashvillian for nearly 20 years, she’s undoubtedly a country singer. But if you turn on her new album, Other Girls (out now on Jack White’s Third Man Records) expecting only twang and heartbreak, you’re in for a real surprise—and treat. Other Girls blends the dark and suspicious with the hopeful and assured. Lillie Mae picked up the fiddle at age three and spent her childhood playing in the family band and posting up at bluegrass festivals. Now, the 28-year-old singer/songwriter mingles with rockstars—she was White’s fiddle player, backing him on both the Blunderbuss and Lazaretto tours, and next month she’ll hit the road with none other than Robert Plant. She gives off rockstar vibes herself (especially when she absolutely tears up the fiddle), but her voice is reminiscent of traditional country vocalists like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

She concocted her first album, 2017’s Forever and Then Some, at Third Man’s in-house studio. This time, she went the way of fellow fiddlestar Amanda Shires and recruited Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson) to make the record. She also roped in her sister Scarlett to play mandolin, and her brother Frank offers guitar. Boasting that familiar cast of characters and Music Row-grade production, Other Girls is a Nashville album through and through. A mix of glassy Americana, charcoal country and majestic indie-folk, Other Girls tingles with traditional elements like mandolin and, of course, Lillie Mae’s rockstar fiddle. But it also fits right in on a label roster that leans indie-rock. These songs contain surprises at every turn: On “At Least Three in This Room,” instead of addressing an unfaithful partner head-on, she surveys the wreckage from the corner of a party. And on the wild kicker “Love Dilly Love,” a country jingle becomes an electro-psychedelic breakdown when the mandolin masquerades as a guitar and the fuzz overtakes the twang.

Paste spoke with Lillie Mae on album release day (Aug. 16), and she was quite candid, but still had this enigmatic quality. A vivid storyteller, sometimes she’s more Sheryl Crow (like on the fiercely independent yet tender “Some Gamble”), and other times she’s as dark as Sylvia Plath (“Crisp & Cold” is a forlorn poem come to life in the Wild West). Other Girls is unlike any other country record you’ll hear this year. Here we discuss the making of that album, Lillie Mae’s history with the fiddle and the softer side of Nashville. This conversation has been edited for length.

Paste: This album has an impressive list of credits. What was the recording process like?

Lillie Mae: When it was brought up to work with Dave Cobb, I’m like, “Well, hell yeah!”

You can’t say no to Dave Cobb.

Absolutely. It was pretty cool. We just went in and recorded everything live but the overdubs. And so that element of things is pretty awesome. And I know that’s not always the case, and it was really cool to get to do it that way. Dave is obviously extremely gifted and has an incredible ear. I’m really lucky to have been able to make this record and put it out and have all the help that I’ve had so far. It’s really special.

Who are the “Other Girls” in the album title?

There [was] just like numerous hinting or insinuating at the same thing. You know, there’s “Terlingua Girl,” “You’ve Got Other Girls For That,” “At Least Three In This Room.” I had a thousand names that I wanted to call it, and that was the one that felt right. I had a few different names that I had thought about and this was the one that made sense. So that’s really just it.

Is there a song on this record that you’re especially proud of, or just one that you’re particularly glad made it on there?

My favorite is “Love Dilly Love.” This album for me, there’s a lot of closure in it. It wrapped this huge period of my life up. I was alone, or felt alone, for such a very long time, and my life kind of like had some rays of sunlight come into it, and [I’ve] kind of really been growing a lot and getting out of this hole I feel like I was in for a long time and loved, really loved. It’s like, “No love, no love dilly love, no love.” There was no love. And obviously of course there was, but like for huge parts of my life, I just felt loveless. So that song wraps up everything for me and then it ends on a positive note. It just naturally happened.

Who taught you to sing and play music? Did you ever have any formal training?

No one taught me anything—singing was just the most natural thing for me. My oldest sister, Amber-Dawn, she started me on fiddle. She started teaching me fiddle, although no one taught me how to sing. It’s just one of those things, man. There was a woman named Kathy, we took vocal lessons from her when I was like eight or nine, but you know, that was like focused on like breathing and techniques. And honestly, I don’t think I ever practiced it and I don’t think I ever question a thing, you know? That singing training although, I need to do it now because I’m always in shambles because it’s just overused and everything, so now I need practice. [Laughs]

You’ve been hustling in Nashville for years now. How has the city changed? Is the music landscape any easier to navigate?

I think it’s changed drastically. Also there are elements that haven’t changed at all. We’ve been there almost 20 years in January, so it’s been crazy. I mean it’s grown in size, like I don’t even know—doubled, tripled, quadrupled? I don’t know what the numbers are but just that alone, it’s a different town than it used to be. But I think it’s just opened up so much to so many different types of music and styles as it’s grown and growing, and different people have moved there and the artists’ community in Nashville is strong. There’s like the hustle and bustle energy flow that is definitely undeniable, and it’s unlike anything else. If you’re on the road, you’ve been gone or whatever and you’re coming back in and you’re driving back into the city, as soon as you get in, you just feel this energy. And I’ve known people [who] hated it. They couldn’t handle it ‘cause they never settled down. You can never settle. You can never sleep. And that’s true for sure, but I think just the creative and artistic community is just undeniable. There’s so many cool and wonderful people there.

People always talk about like competition and stuff, like, “Y’all there’s competition in Nashville because everyone’s so good” or whatever. And it’s like, “Nah, man, there’s no fucking competition!” People help each other out left and right, man. No doubt it’s a dog-eat-dog world. But if you have something to offer that’s different, the collaboration is unbelievable. So I think that’s pretty cool.

And you also mentioned all the different types of music that come out of Nashville, and your album is such a good representation of that. It’s not just one thing. It’s country, rock, Americana, folk…

I listen to everything. I love everything. I really don’t even listen to that much music. I listen to whatever my boyfriend is playing or what my brother is playing. Really, it’s a problem. [Laughs] Like it’s not good. I tried to download like whatever app that helps you get music on your phone, and I’m so freaking technically backwards that I’ve never been successful at doing any of that stuff. So music is dependent on other people, but I’m a huge jazz cat. I love classical. I love Spanish music, Mexican music, everything. I’ve gotten to play on some really incredible and eclectic music through the years, and I’m really lucky. I got to sing on a friend’s Greek album a couple of months ago, and I don’t even know the name of the instrument, and she was like, “Hey, can you play this instrument?” And I was like, “I’ve never heard of it, but I would love to try. I’ll figure it out.”

What do hope people take away from Other Girls?

To be honest with you, I don’t have any expectations at all. I’m lucky to have been able to make it, put it out, the help I’ve had from everyone. I’m really proud of it. I’m proud of everything, down to the artwork. I’ve had a lot of help from the community around me like, but already the feedback has been unbelievable. People actually are listening to the music and they enjoy it and are getting something from me. Who the fuck am I, you know? Anyone that’s been inspired by my music—that’s all I could ever dream to ask for.

Watch Lillie Mae’s recent Paste Studio session below. Other Girls is out now on Third Man Records.