Lily Vakili once asked her mother, “What do you want me to be?” She was never one to give “easy answers,” as Vakili recalls, and her response propelled the singer-songwriter to question her place in the world. “I want you to be a compassionate human being,” she told her daughter. Vakili’s mother died from Alzheimer’s disease, and in many ways, the long goodbye served as the catalyst to revisit a previously recorded song.
“Dreamy Dreamer,” originally appearing as “Dreamy Dreamers” on the Vakili Band’s 2018 LP Oh Alright, wound itself around Vakili’s brain. “My mother was a dreamy dreamer, a deeply ethical and compassionate person,” she muses. “In some ways, she’s a catalyst for everything that I do, creatively – not the only catalyst, but a catalyst.”
With “Dreamy Dreamer,” Vakili and bandmates Ben St. Jack (guitar, songwriter), Joel Dorow (harmonica), Gordon Kuba (drummer), Jim Tyndall (bass), and Matt Jovanis (bass) worked with producer Dave Amlen, who suggested a back-to-roots adaption. “This is a great thing about collaborating with other artists and friends and just listening to people paying attention,” offers Vakili.
In their creative endeavors, she discovered a vocal approach “that changes the way I feel about it, and I think it changes the way the listener feels about it.” And “Dreamy Dreamer” exemplifies the best of Vakili’s work, often calling to touchstones like Patti Smith and Brandi Carlile. Her voice is as butter on a hot tin roof, just enough sizzle to drive home the emotional anvil.
Initially intended as a social justice meditation, the song’s transformation into a universal plea for love in all its forms, even the damaged and broken, was reaffirmed recently when Vakili read a piece on Ashley M. Jones, named the new Poet Laureate of Alabama, a role she’ll hold from 2022-2026. What struck Vakili deep in her soul was Jones’ description of love, felt like unshakeable tremor, that now guides every facet of Vakili’s life. “The biggest thing that I learned moving away is that love is a complete word,” Jones explained. “It’s not just, ‘I like this thing, it’s always good to me.’ Love means also understanding what’s wrong and committing to change for the better.”
In the last few years, she has been doing much of this deeply personal work in her life, confronting herself in the mirror with a searing honesty. “I guess, sometimes it’s about change, and sometimes it’s about honesty,” she says, recognizing “that there’s probably much more that I can do as an individual” and understanding “where I am in society and what I am able to do and contribute, so that I can approach people with a greater sense of compassion.”
The role of grief appeared as an integral thread to the song’s thematic fabrics of love and empathy, as well. “My son was diagnosed very young on the autistic spectrum, and had an underlying medical condition. That’s pretty serious. That puts you in a whole world that one never anticipates,” she reflects. “As with a lot of grief, you can either shut it off and proceed as if it isn’t altering you at a cellular level, or you wade in and experience it. There is one solution, and it’s exactly what I wanted to end up singing about in the song, which is love.”
“Within that world of great grief and exhaustion, there is the physical challenge of being a character,” she continues. “There are these extraordinary gestures of kindness and solidarity and compassion, and my son’s been the beneficiary of those things. So, I’ve witnessed the way any elder hopefully can teach someone else in how you do this. This is how you’re kind. This is how you ease someone’s mind for a little bit. This is how you show solidarity.” Those experiences served as the blueprint for the song’s rousing refrain: “I stand with you in your quest to believe in justice/Tempered by compassion/Yeah, truth without deceit/Where everyone can say without hesitation/Love is all that matters.”
Her father, an Iranian immigrant who became a plant geneticist in Honduras, and her mother, an Irish-American librarian, believed in the power of music, words, and dreaming beyond the here and now. Vakili first began writing poetry for her mother when she was only six years old, and despite not quite understanding the gravity of her work then, it became evident she was onto something huge. “I didn’t even characterize it as poetry. I loved her, and I was a writer, so I wanted to express myself. Then, I started to realize that the things that I’d written were all stories, fundamentally,” she recalls.
Spending part of her childhood in Puerto Rico, home life was filled with a “wild mix” of sounds which included the West Side Story soundtrack, traditional Peruvian music, R&B, funk, honky-tonk, and Merengue music. “These rhythms were just everywhere, and I was like a sponge. I love music. I love rhythm and percussion,” she says. “Of course, the acoustic guitar really is in its essence a percussive instrument.” She picked it up around the age of 14, when her older sister left for college. “I am a believer that strange things happen all the time. Sometimes, you don’t know until much later what that thing was that unlocked what you’d maybe been seeking or hoping to explore. Playing the guitar was a mixture of an escape of sorts and meditation, a way of being super present.”
Now a biotech lawyer by day and a musician by night, Vakili is more present than ever. With two previous solo records and one band LP to her credit, her love for words and music-making is only growing stronger and brighter with each project. “I love writing. I love words. I love intentionality. And I love listening. So, I try to make myself available,” she offers about her growth as a songwriter over the years.
Her favorite words? “You mean, other than curse words? I am embarrassed to say, but I just have a phenomenally filthy mouth,” she says with a laugh. “I think it’s because curse words are highly percussive.”
More seriously, Spanish, her native language, is home to many of her favorite words and phrases. “I love ‘te adoro’ — I adore you. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Spanish itself is such an incredible language to listen to,” she says. “As my mother went further and further into Alzheimer’s, one of our favorite pastimes was, I would bring a dictionary or a newspaper, and I would read it to her. I would read simple things that I knew she would appreciate. She still loved words so much.”
“Dreamy Dreamer” arrives as not only an important marker of the past, its emotional messaging scrawled in acoustic tears, but a bellwether for the band’s future — one carved in compassion and musical excellence.