Music Heals: Lillie West of Lala Lala on Choosing Sobriety

Music Heals
Kelsey Brannan
photo by Matthew James Wilson

Lillie West is the Chicago-based singer-songwriter behind Lala Lala. In September 2018, she released her sophomore album, The Lamb, her first new music since making the decision to be sober. West has been candid about the ways in which this topic shows up in the album and declared that the theme is "unlearning a bunch of stuff and relearning a different way. Or trying.” Ahead of Music Heals: Addiction & Recovery, KEXP spoke with West about her sobriety, and how it's impacted her music, her career, and her life. 

KEXP: Recently you tweeted: "I used to do cocaine as soon as I woke up and now I don't even eat dairy." Can you talk about some of the changes that you've made in the last couple of years, especially regarding your relationship to drugs and alcohol? 

Lillie West: Yeah, totally. So I don't do drugs or drink alcohol anymore when I used to a lot. And I think that with that comes taking care of myself in general: I eat a lot better and I exercise all the time, I get enough sleep, I check in with friends, [and] maintain relationships. All of the things that I do now, hopefully, (or most of them) are sustainable. They're long term and you can't do cocaine as soon as you wake up forever. 

What were some of the factors that went into this decision to kind of revamp your life and your health? 

It was basically either stop doing drugs or die, so I chose to continue living without drugs and I continue to choose that every day. 

Do you feel like it's a choice that you have to make every day?

Yeah, totally. Some people have perceived the way that I talk about sobriety as being extremely positive — which it is for the most part and I am very pro sobriety in general — but it is also really hard all the time. It doesn't go away: the question or the desire. But I'm now at a place where I can see with the life that I want. The choice that I have to make is to not do drugs. And, yeah, I do choose. I still choose it because I still think about the question. 

Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to make that decision every day as a working musician, specifically? Are there challenges that you face because you're a musician that you think maybe you wouldn't if you weren't choosing this career?

Yeah, I mean the music world is so pro-alcohol. It really is, no matter what anyone says. It's like, you play in bars. Like, partying is perceived as really cool. You know, people can deny that, but it just is. Like, smoking cigarettes is still considered cool. Drinking is still considered cool. So that is definitely a challenge to be around that all the time and to see it. But it's also considerably easier to do every other part of tour for me. I perform best [when I’m sober]. The days are much easier, driving for long periods of time. Tour kind of puts you in survival mode. You're just like 'I've got to get enough sleep. I've got to eat enough,’ and that kind of thing. And, with a couple of other people. 24 hours a day. So I think that being sober makes the social aspect — at least for me — a lot easier. Everyone's more able to be attuned to and be respectful of each other's needs. 

Since you've been sober, and since you're making this decision every day to do that, how do you lean on music?

It is definitely a driving force, or something to reach for because making music is more fulfilling than doing drugs could ever be. And for me, those two things cannot really exist together. I can't do drugs and make music the way that I want to. So I think that it is infinitely more fulfilling. 

How has your relationship with music changed over the course of these years that you've made these changes to your lifestyle and your health? 

It really just is that I used to do everything by accident in terms of music. Or, just write a song by accident. The first form of the song would be the last as well. But now I spend a lot of time working on music. I mean, there are still things that happen by accident and those are good, too. But I spend a lot more time being intentional. And I also don't think that when I was drinking that I advanced as a musician at all. Particularly in terms of playing guitar, I just stayed exactly the same level. And now I'm constantly practicing and trying to get better. 

That's awesome! It seems like music has kind of become more intentional thing for you, and also it's kind of taken up more of your time in a positive way too. 

Yes, totally. I have a lot more time to make music than I did before. I really didn't realize how much time I was spending getting messed up. 

Was that kind of eye-opening to you? Was there a shift in your music all of a sudden, or your approach to music all of a sudden, that kind of helped you measure like, 'Oh this is what my life was like before and this is what it's like now.'? 

I think that it really started to feel that way when I started making the last album, The Lamb, because it is so drastically different. My approach was so drastically different making that record. [When making previous album Sleepyhead,] I did do cocaine at like 9:00 a.m. in the studio every day. I wanted to end early to go drink more. Whether I knew it or not, the objective of everything I did before was to get fucked up in some way and the objective of this record [The Lamb] was very much to make this record. I really don't think I was thinking about it at all with our first album, Sleepyhead. But with The Lamb, I just really wanted to do a good job and I just worked really hard and that was all I thought about while I was making it. . 

The album sounds like a turning point and hearing you talk about it sounds like that as well. And even the title of the album itself is a reference to your sobriety; you've said that while you were writing it you were learning how to live again. What were some of the key lessons that you've been working on learning and how do those show up on this album? 

Definitely trust. Learning to trust myself. I was such an unpredictable person before. It's like no one could rely on me, especially not me. Like, I would commit to something and then not show up all the time. And now, that's something that's so important to me: being a person of my word, being someone that people can rely on and not feel afraid. I think that I was really a radical person and I made people uncomfortable, or I just wasn't a great person to have around. And it's so important to me to be the opposite now. That is definitely something that is a lesson, something I talk about on the record and think about. It's just like responsibility. Responsibility for yourself. 

Do you have advice for people who are currently navigating their own experiences with addiction, especially musicians who might find it tough to stay healthy on the road?

It's a scary question, but I guess that I do. It sounds really silly, but anything is possible. I was so entrenched in doing drugs and alcohol that my life now would have been totally unfathomable to me. I really did a 180, and you can too. I think a lot of people feel trapped in their situation for a number of reasons. Or it just seems really hard, which it is, but truly you can change your life. You just can. It can be really challenging, but there's no reason that you have to keep drinking or doing drugs. If you think you're going to lose your friends, or you won't be able to make music, or something about your life is going to change dramatically in that way - it doesn't matter. There's no there's just no situation in which it will be better if you continue to do it. 

That's really good advice. Did you realize that before getting sober, or is that something that you only realized in hindsight?

I think that that's maybe a reason...that I didn't stop sooner, because I thought that everything would have to change. And it did, to a certain extent, but that was better. I thought that I would lose friends. And maybe I did lose some, but now my friendships are much more meaningful. Maybe some of those people, I was only friends with because we did drugs together. No, I definitely learned that afterward. I thought that I would maybe not be able to write songs anymore, but I write songs much better, in my opinion. 

Were there certain communities or resources that you leaned on during that time that you were making these adjustments? 

I am very lucky that I had a couple of close friends who were already sober. That's who I relied on, and I ended up doing the same for other people. I'd been to AA a couple of times and it's not really my thing, but I had a couple of people that I could really lean on and talk to. Particularly musicians who were also sober. I feel like once you become sober, other people who are also will become more clear to you. Like I said, there are people around me who were sober, but I didn't really realize. 

So it opened up a whole new community to you, it sounds like. 

Kind of, yes. When you find out that someone else is sober, there's suddenly a camaraderie. It's like you immediately know something about each other that you can't really get with other people. I feel like it's like being from the same area or something - it's an immediate understanding. 

Are there any myths that you think need to be dispelled about addiction -  misconceptions that people might have about addiction that you think need to be debunked? 

I don't know, I feel like the conversation is better than it ever has been. I think people are more understanding of it. 

What do you think has changed that makes people more understanding? Like, do you think there's less of a stigma now?

I think to some extent, but I also maybe live in a bubble. You know, I'm not sure. I just know among the people that I know. We've all lost friends and have several people in our lives who have experiences now that make things about sobriety or about addiction more clear. I really think that losing someone to addiction is eye-opening in many ways. I think also maybe just the way the information is spread now... More talks about [addiction,] more understood. Even though it's only just beginning. And also, I do live in a specific community. 

Do you think that artists and musicians who have been through this maybe have a unique platform for sharing their experiences that kind of serves to eliminate some of this stigma as well? Do you think that being honest in your work, in particular, you're able to help people and help people understand what it's like? 

I hope so. That was never really my intention, but it seems to have happened by accident. I saw recently a Perfume Genius interview where he was talking about how people have told him that he's really helped them through something tough in their life. That is amazing, [but] it's also like they did it, but they think that he helped them. And I really feel a similar way: everyone's helping themselves. But if I'm someone - or my songs are something - that people can hold on to in that way, I'm obviously extremely happy for that. That's awesome. 

For what it's worth, I think that your music does really help a lot of people and it is very honest and forthcoming with not only your own experiences but in letting people know that this is not like an isolated thing and it's not something to be ashamed about. 

Thank you. Yeah. Totally. That's something else I was thinking about earlier today: I hope that people know that there is not just one way to be sober... Literally, you do make your own rules. A lot of people don't drink anymore, but they still smoke weed because it was never a problem for them. I find it annoying that people say that's not really sober. But to a certain extent, you do make your own rules. And also, you don't have to be one type of person to be sober. That's something I didn't really realize when I was younger. You can find every type of person in the world who has addiction issues and you can be sober about it in your own way. 

That's so true. I don't think I've ever heard anyone put it that way before, but that makes so much sense. I would imagine that kind of takes the edge off for people who are maybe afraid of starting their own journey to recovery and see this as a barrier of entry. I think it's interesting to think about the fact that your way to recovery can be as unique as you are. 

Yeah, a lot of people think that you have to go to a AA. AA has helped so many people that I know in infinite ways, but it just doesn't work for me. So I don't go. 

The Lamb is out now via Hardly Art. Lala Lala plays Friday, October 25th at the Neptune Theatre with Whitney.

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