Hawaii's state blossom is the yellow hibiscus, but the tropical paradise could soon become known for a flower of another name: Lily. With the release of her debut album, They Say, budding singer-songwriter Lily Meola is about to reach full bloom.
A willowy, athletic young woman with a wide smile, Meola seems as easy-going as a Hawaiian breeze. But she worked hard to hone her craft while growing up on Maui, where she reveled in the natural beauty surrounding her and developed passions for dogs, horses and surfing. She also fell in love with singing, which she's been doing in public since she made her stage debut at the tender age of 11, playing Dulcinea to a classmate's Don Quixote in a no-doubt exceptionally mature production of Man of La Mancha.
Starting young like that might give a girl plenty of confidence -- and Lily has certainly held her own in the presence of greats such as neighbor and mentor Willie Nelson, with whom she's already performed, recorded and toured (more about that later). She also tackles "Me & Bobby McGee" on her album, figuring she could take on the Janis Joplin hit because she sings it with its creator, Kris Kristofferson.
But Meola confesses one of the two songs she co-wrote for the album was inspired by uncertainty, not confidence. In fact, it addresses a very real fear only island dwellers might fully grasp.
A haunting, powerful ballad, "Bad Weather" comes from her recurring dream of being trapped underwater in a tsunami. Driven by her expressive vocals and dirgelike percussion effects, it ebbs and flows like tides as it builds from quiet moments to dramatic swells of emotion. Meola turns it into a sensual love song with the chorus, "If we're goin' out, we're goin' out together. If we're gonna drown, we're gonna drown together. You and me go good, we go good in bad weather."
"We live next to the ocean and I can hear the waves," she explains. "We're in a tsunami evacuation zone, so there's been a couple of scares. They give us enough warning, so we shouldn't be too scared, but I freak out. I know it's crazy, but sometimes it keeps me awake."
Well, you write what you know. And the anxiety of a tsunami could give anyone sleepless nights.
It's not as if she's consumed with fear and negativity, however. On the contrary, Meola exudes the laid-back quality common to islanders. That's likely why she and her brother, pro surfer Matt Meola, hit it off so well with the Nelsons.
The families got friendly when Matt attended a homeschooling program with Willie's kids Lukas and Micah. When Lily and her Quixote co-star began performing together around town, they drew audiences that occasionally included Willie's wife, Annie. Sometimes, she brought her husband along. Lily eventually got a steady gig at a favorite neighborhood spot, Café des Amis, and one night, Willie sat in for a couple of songs. Then he suggested recording together.
"A few years later, he asked me if I wanted to be on his duet album, To All the Girls...," she recalls. Their song, "Will You Remember Mine," also appears on They Say.
In addition to inviting her to open for him on tour, Nelson also put Meola on the bill for the last three Farm Aid benefits. That's where she met Jamey Johnson, who asked her to duet on "Baby It's Cold Outside" for his The Christmas Song EP. Allmusic.com applauded their version as "a wonderful exercise in honky-tonk swing."
That's the thing about Meola: she's got a voice that can deliver swingin' honky-tonk, cool jazz-blues or a nearly a cappella "Hallelujah" with equal dexterity. Like Norah Jones, one of her influences, Meola loves the Great American Songbook, and includes "Dream a Little Dream of Me" on They Say. (She also covers Jones' "Sinkin' Soon"). Lately, she's been gravitating toward the blues, but says she's eagerly exploring and experimenting with all sorts of styles while writing with established and upcoming Nashville composers fluent in multiple genres.
For this album, she mined some of her favorite hometown talent, recording two Lukas Nelson-penned songs and one he co-wrote with Jim "Moose" Brown. Meola and Lukas duet on his "The Sound of Your Memory," and he accompanies her on "Movie in My Mind" -- on which his Dad is also heard strumming his faithful Trigger. (He plays on another Lukas composition, "L.A.," and of course, on "Will You Remember Mine.")
Original producer Micah Nelson -- who spent a year working with Lily on pre-production and recording before he and Lukas were summoned to record and tour with Neil Young -- can be heard playing drums on the title track.
"Micah is just a creative genius," Meola says. "I loved working with him."
But he handed her off into the capable hands of Eric Helmcamp, whose credits include many, many hours in the studio with Michael Buble (one of Lily's favorites). He's also worked extensively with artists ranging from Sarah McLachlan, Ron Sexsmith and Nelly Furtado to Bush and Metallica.
Meola and her producers have managed to craft an album that showcases her terrific vocal and emotional range, conveying a breezy, mellow feel without shying away from more intense moments.
Like most accomplished musicians, Meola shaped her instrument with years of lessons, which she credits with adding to her range and nuanced delivery. She has been nurturing her growth as an artist and is eager to get out there and sing.
Yes, this flower is ready to bloom. And she can't wait.