photo by Kevin J. Watkins (@ohthatsdubs)

“Peace and blessings onto you,” Lauren Eylise says to the barista bringing over her dirty chai, seated in a crowded cafe surrounded by people escaping the chilly January afternoon. I don’t know if it’s her smile, her voice, or the bourbon in her latte, but this soulful Cincinnati singer exudes enough warmth to counteract the snowstorm going on outside.

Lauren Eylise is all about truth, transparency, and love. Her latest album, Life / Death / Life, is the perfect showcase of her ability to weave storytelling, openness, and unapologetic authenticity with hypnotic vocals over bluesy-R&B-soulful vibes.

The album was born from Lauren’s fearless post-grad decision to move to New York for an internship and the new challenges she faced coming home with less money, a baby on the way, and a million stories to sing.

We had the pleasure of chatting with Lauren about motherhood, spirituality, the healing power of her music, and more. Her next show is March 1st at The Woodward Theater.

AF: Tell me about your latest album Life / Death / Life?

LE: Life / Death / Life was my healing project. Between the time that project dropped and when I began it, a lot of shit went down in my life. I had a big breakup with a guy I was with for like two and a half years through college. We broke up like a week before I found out I was pregnant. I had just moved to New York two years before, living my best life, and then just had to drop all of that. The events leading up to me going to New York weren’t the brightest. I graduated from University of Dayton, which was a PWI—predominantly white institution—and there is a great deal of struggles therein. I mean, the African American percentage was like 2 percent, so that speaks volumes, and we were the highest percentage of minorities. It was a very heartbreaking reality-check – things that you would believe happened in the 1930’s or something, but to live it and have those things happen to me.

I went to New York when I graduated because I couldn’t find a job – I double majored in public relations and women and gender studies. Life was great. I got pregnant, and I moved back with less money than I went out there with. So, long story short, Life / Death / Life was all of that. All of my wounds and experiences and my release that I never really gave myself an adequate amount of time to process. And some of that healing wasn’t even finished with that, it was just the beginning. Life / Death / Life was for me, and holding up a mirror to myself and a lot of women who have had similar experiences, even if they’ve manifested in different ways. It was the catalyst for my healing, in a very open and raw way. For that, I’ll always love Life / Death / Life. It was inspired by a book—my bible—Women Who Run with the Wolves. That book is an exploration of the female spirit, and the concepts she was presenting I was finding within myself.

AF: Do you have a couple favorite songs off that record?

LE: Right now, “The Most (Madonna-Whore Interlude).” It’s still one of my favorites.

AF: What made you choose that title?

LE: I’ll tell ya! That has always been something I’ve struggled with. I grew up in a very loving household. We didn’t have much money, but I was spoiled in love. My parents didn’t talk to us about sex so I never really had any real communication about sex. All I knew about it was very religious—don’t have sex until marriage. My mom, she’s a nurse mind you, she tried to teach me when it came to my period about all that—but that’s not really sex, that’s not what it’s about and what it means. And I have problems with that, how women are taught about sex at a young age. Because what it does, is stifle a very natural instinct and makes it dirty and we, as women, have that experience while our counterparts, men, have a whole different experience.

So in life there’s just this natural-ass drama because you’ve been taught about it in your own toxic way, as a man, and we’ve been taught about it in our own toxic way, as a woman. That concept, in “The Most (Madonna-Whore Interlude),” is the idea that women are either pure virgins or just prostitutes, extreme, there’s noting in the middle—it’s just crazy. The song is about the amazing expression of female sexuality. I just got into my own world and let the words create a canvas of beauty—because it’s a beautiful thing. I mean, we are the gateway to life, how dare they tell us these lies! I really wanted to drive my point that I’m going to talk about sex how I want to, and I want every woman to do that. And it is okay for women to express themselves anyway they want to.

I also love ”Voodoo,” that’s my baby. I’m in the process of re-recording it at Gwynne Sound, best studio in Cincinnati. Great artists like John Legend, CeeLo Green, have come here to record there. Long story short, I’m re-recording “Voodoo” and it is a moment, sis. “Voodoo” is an ode to the women before me, women I don’t even know personally, but to my lineage, to my bloodline, because blood has memory. Sometimes things present themselves in our lives, which we don’t understand. The spirit world is real. So that being said, “Voodoo” was my song where I was like how do I give remembrance to the gift that I was given to those who paved the way for me to be here? I do believe that in our society today, black women, especially, are not always presented in the most eclectic and diverse of lights. There are these very concrete stereotypes and I don’t fuck with that because women of all colors come in all shapes, sizes and beliefs. We don’t all move the same and I think that really has to be respected and spoken about. I like the pun, because when people say voodoo they have certain things in mind.

AF: I love how you did that because it’s commenting on society’s labeling of something it doesn’t understand as scary.

LE: Exactly! The same is said to black women. When you think ‘black woman,’ these images come up that aren’t always the best. So, I was thinking voodoo, black magic, black girl magic—I thought it was very clever.

AF: How are you changing it in the re-recording?

LE: I wanted it to feel like a tribal thing, like we are a tribe of women. This is our anthem. Wake up in the morning and sing it everyday, it’s an affirmation. I feel like on Life / Death / Life, it’s a suggestion. Now, it’s an affirmation. It’s gonna move you. You don’t even have to be black for it, I feel like you hear it in your heart: who am I? Who am I. I love it.

Lauren Eylise

photo by Kevin J. Watkins (@ohthatsdubs)

AF: How did your time in New York affect your music and career?

LE: New York is my second home. I always say, Cincinnati raised me, New York made me. It brought me into my womanhood in a whole different way. I go back often – the city always welcomes me back. So much of my growth happened there, it’s all of my music, it’s all of me. I play a lot of shows in New York, it’s like home.

AF: Tell me a little bit about healing people with your music.

LE: The concept of healing, it wasn’t an intentional thing for me. I want to sing; it’s a natural instinct, its like breathing. My energy, I’m aware of, is very infectious. I became aware of the healing power of my music from people telling me. People messaging me, like, ‘I just want you to know your performance really got me through my day,’ or ‘I’m going through some shit, this helped,’ or ‘you healed me tonight,’ and I can’t judge your truth. I get chills about it. In that respect, it’s serious. And all I can do is walk in my truth and if walking in my truth heals you, then I guess I’m a healer and that’s that. I’m grateful to have the opportunity. And the same way that I affected you, somebody else has affected me. It’s an honor; I don’t take it lightly, I don’t take it for granted. I hesitate to call myself a healer, but I can’t argue with your truth.

AF: So you’ve been playing instruments and singing almost your whole life – what’s the first instrument you learned to play?

LE: My first instrument was my voice. I’ve been singing since I was two. I went my whole life, no lessons. I couldn’t afford them. My mom sang in a choir, my dad just loves music. He can’t sing but he loves it. When I got to college and I got the money I did take lessons for a year, a lot of classical training. I had to drop out of those because of money. I would like to be trained, if anything, for vocal maintenance. I’m seeing that now. You’ve got to keep maintenance for your instruments. I picked up the guitar summer of 2009. I was working at Coney Island. My friend taught me like three chords and I taught myself the rest. When I was 13, I started playing the piano, self-taught with that as well. Songwriting is what helped me learn those instruments. I hear a chord, find it. That’s how I built my knowledge.

Lauren Eylise

Photo by Laura Kinney.

AF: Who are some artists you’re inspired by?

LE: I love the Isley Brothers. I currently am listening to a lot of Steely Dan. Some new artists like Jacob Banks, Jordan Smith. I love Rihanna and Beyoncé, more so as entertainers and the kind of career I want. I love Rihanna because her authenticity is undeniable. She’s so unapologetically herself. Bishop Briggs—that girl is bad! She can sing her ass off.

AF: So what’re you working on right now?

LE: I’m so glad you asked! I am working on my next project. I don’t know if it’s gonna be an EP, a full album, I don’t know. All I know is I’m waist deep in emotions, in lyrics, working with some new writers. I really want to stretch myself, dabble in different genres. I’m going to be doing a lot of touring. But my focus right now, is this.

AF: Will this be a continuation of Life / Death / Life?

LE: I would say so. There’s one song called “Peaks and Valleys” that I wrote as the conclusion of New York. “Peaks and Valleys” is like, this is happening, this isn’t happening to me, I made a choice, how am I going to act like a responsible grownup about this. So, it’s a transition form Life / Death / Life. It connects the two. I might call that shit Life / Death / Life

AF: Part 2!

LE: [Laughing] We’ll see!

AF: Do you think you’re going to be done with it this year?

LE: Yes. I don’t know if we’ll release it this year. But it’s definitely going to be done this year. By the end of this year, I’m probably going to have like three projects under my belt.

AF: Tell me a little bit about how being a mother has impacted your art, your career, and your life?

LE: Aeon Ezra is a force. He’s three now. He is a part of me. It’s like I do things without even having it consciously in my brain. The moment my body detected life in me, I started moving differently. I knew I wasn’t ready for a baby when I got pregnant. I’m never gonna lie about that. I spit on shame. I don’t think women should ever feel ashamed of how they feel, especially during motherhood. Some of us do not want children, and that’s okay. Some of us get children and we do not want children, and that’s okay. I was one of them. I was living my best life by my goddamn self. I struggled. I wanted to get an abortion—part of me. And the other part, didn’t. The other part that was just like, I know this baby will be loved. If I was from a different family and I thought that he wouldn’t be, or I knew myself and thought I’d resent him, then maybe that decision would’ve been different. But I knew he’d be loved, and that’s what’s most important to me. I know my family, I know myself, and I was right—he’s loved as fuck.

When I talk about my early stages of motherhood, I’m unashamed and I’m unapologetic about how that felt. It was hard. But he was loved through it all, and that love grows everyday and some of that love was learned, and that’s okay. Every woman is different. I applaud women who come forward and speak about their experience because awareness is key, you can’t lie to yourself. The way I nurture and care for my son, I try to treat the world that way now. My lover, I choose to forgive him, love him, and nurture him—as long as it doesn’t sacrifice my own peace or self-love, because that’s something else. You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself and I think you should love yourself first and most of all. When you’re on an airplane, they tell you to put the mask on before your child. My son has taught me how to love. He’s made me a better person. A better warrior.

AF: Beautiful! Final thoughts?

LE: Know yourself. If you don’t know yourself, learn yourself, because in learning yourself, you learn love.

Lauren Eylise

photo by Kevin J. Watkins (@ohthatsdubs)