Montclair, NJ – Lily Vakili is a successful biotech lawyer and a passionate disability advocate. She’s also a powerhouse vocalist/songwriter/guitarist and the high energy frontwoman for the Vakili Band. The Montclair-based group is gaining a loyal New York & New Jersey following and receiving praise from Relix, Magnet, The Aquarian, The Big Takeover and Audiofemme as well as comparisons to rock legends like Patti Smith and Brandi Carlile. Vakili Band recently released their new album Walking Sideways. Here, we get to know Vakili better:
Q. How long have you lived in Montclair?
A. I have lived in Montclair for 20 years, with my husband and our three children. It’s been a wonderful place to raise children and to be a part of a community that is embracing and diverse, filled with art, culture, music, history and vibrancy.
Q. As someone who has lived in numerous places around the country and the world, you have had an interesting trajectory in making your way to Montclair. Tell me about that path and how you think it helped you evolve into your professional and music careers?
A. My father left Iran in 1949 because of political oppression and came to the United States to study and settle in a country that would offer more freedom and possibilities. He attended the University of Chicago. He met my mother there, who was also attending the university. They married and had six children together.
My father became a plant geneticist and worked in Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Midwest. Throughout the years we lived in many places, including Puerto Rico, Honduras, Bangkok, and Florida, eventually landing in Ames, Iowa.
As with any family, my family’s history shaped my outlook on the world and what I saw (and see) as possible in terms of my own agency. I was lucky to be loved and encouraged throughout my childhood – it is something I am forever grateful for. It allowed me to dream and pursue dreams; it also gave me the wherewithal to adapt to and sometimes even overcome the disappointments and heartbreak that life holds in store.
Q. How did you get your start as a musician?
A. I picked up my sister’s guitar after she went away to college; I was around 12 or 13 and I taught myself to play. It just clicked, and I was hooked. In addition to being a scientist my father is a sculptor, and my mother also had a strong appreciation of the arts. They both taught us if we looked at the world through a different lens, we could find beauty in almost everything, and encouraged us to feed our minds.
Q. Where did you go to college and did you major in music?
A. I graduated high school at 16 and left home to join a theatre company in Minneapolis. I left Minnesota for New York City when I was around 19 and lived and worked in the NYC area for a few years — most memorably, for me — at Ellen Stewart’s La Mama Experimental Theatre on the Lower East side. I eventually returned to Minneapolis and attended the University of Minnesota where I majored in history and political science.
One of my classmates at U of M encouraged me to apply to law school because of my strong interest in language, philosophy and history. I ended up going to Harvard Law School. Afterwards, I moved to New York City, where I became a corporate lawyer, eventually specializing in biotech transactions. My family and I moved to Montclair where we’ve raised our children and become part of the community.
Q. How did Vakili, the band come together?
A. I continued playing guitar off and on throughout college and law school. When I got my first paycheck after graduating law school, my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) said “come on, we need to get you a new guitar.” That new guitar gave me the impetus to not only keep playing, but to start writing music.
I had the good fortune to connect with Ben St. Jack, who plays lead guitar in the band, through my friend, Alma Schneider. The band has gone through various configurations, but now includes Ben, Joel Dorow (harmonica), Matt Jovanis (bass), and Gordon Kuba (drums).
Q. Who writes the music and lyrics?
A. I write the songs, sometimes in collaboration with Ben. I’ll bring the initial idea to the band. If it doesn’t click, it doesn’t go. That said, we really work collaboratively, and we build out the songs together.
Q. How would you define your music style?
A. Music is such a great communicator, no matter what the style. Ours is a kaleidoscope of rock ‘n roll, country and blues – with punk thrown in for good measure. The lyrics and music speak to life’s experiences — looking for and leaving love, fighting to hold onto dreams, and, always, desire. Some of what I write about is based on my own experiences, particularly from living in other cultures and seeing the disparity and injustice between different people.
Q. Are there any artists that have had an influence on your work?
A. There is such a long list, but if I were to single out a few I would have to say Billie Holiday and Patti Smith.
Q. Where do you and the band perform?
A. Montclair is such an eclectic and culturally diverse town, so there have been a lot of great opportunities to perform locally – at Ruthies, Montclair Brewery, and Tierney’s, to name a few. We’re continuing to branch out though, and will be touring this fall in North Carolina, Maryland and DC, throughout New York and New Jersey and parts north.
Q. Do you have your own record label or are you contracted to another record company?
A. Right now, we have our own label, but it would be a dream to be supported by a good record company. Whatever happens, will happen; right now, we’re happy to continue making our own sound and performing live whenever we can.
Q. What would be the one thing you would tell your followers or want them to know about your experience as a musician?
A. It may sound simplistic, but follow your heart. When I shared my dreams with my mother, she told me, “What are you waiting for? No one else will do it for you.”