WH: Hello and welcome to another Crosscurrent Spotlight. It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and we’re interviewing alumnus Lily Carassik. Just a heads up that in our interview, we did touch upon the subject of suicide. I got hold of Lily over Skype while she was on tour with George Ezra.
Interview: Lily Carassik
WH: Alumnus trumpeter Lily Carassik, who graduated in 2016, has just released a new single, What If, exploring the topic of mental health. She is currently on tour in Europe as part of mainstream artist George Ezra‘s band, and she’s taken a moment out of her whirlwind schedule to talk to us over Skype. Hello Lily, welcome to the podcast.
LC: Hello Will, thanks for having me.
WH: Where are you calling from today, Lily?
CK: I’m calling from Rotterdam today.
WH: Anyone who’s been anywhere near a radio recently will probably have heard George Ezra’s hit single Shotgun and you’re performing on tour with him at the moment.
LC: Yeah, I’ve been really lucky for the past two months touring with George Ezra with other alumnus Yasmin Ogilvie, who’s on saxophone, and also another alumnus, Matthew Benson, on trombone. There you go: a hat-trick of a horn section.
LC: So we did the UK arena tour in March and now we’re doing Europe so we’re in Rotterdam tonight and then we move on to Vienna and Strasbourg. A very, very fun tour, so I’m enjoying that a lot.
WH: What kinds of venues are you playing at?
LC: They’re all arenas, and then we start doing festivals end of May – my first run of headlining festivals, so that’s going to be great.
WH: Maybe you could tell us what it’s like to play in the band. What kind of music are you playing?
LC: It’s basically very, very accessible pop music – what you’ve heard on the radio performed on stage. We learn everything off by heart; the MD (Musical Director) is coming up with different horn arrangements as it comes to him (who is, by the way, James Wyatt, the wonderful producer of the song I’ve released). Every now and again, one of us comes up with another horn line; we’ll add that in; it’s very organic.
And luckily, on this gig, they are giving us horn solos. We have one song in particular where we all go round the bars; everyone does 16 bars; which I think for a pop band is really rare.
WH: It’s quite unusual, but perhaps it’s indicative of a shift in pop music, that the average listener is more interested now in musicianship.
LC: Oh my god, it’s getting so much cooler to have brass.
LC: I started doing DJ Live when I was in my second year of uni, which is where instrumentalists play along to a DJ in night clubs, and I remember going to clubs and getting my trumpet out, and people staring at me, just thinking, “oh my god, it’s going to be so noisy”. And then Bruno Mars came out with that Uptown Funk song, Beyonce started having more and more all-female bands, and now there’s trumpets everywhere, trumpets in every song. There’s a Jason Derulo song about trumpets – people want it, it’s really cool.
WH: Well, it’s a really good time to be a brass player.
LC: A really good time.
Pause to hear ambient sound of Rotterdam bells ringing
WH: That’s really lovely: I can hear the bells of Rotterdam in the background behind you.
LC: (Laughing) It’s great, isn’t it? Oh, it’s lovely.
WH: Do you have much interaction with George or are you mainly speaking to the MD?
LC: George is part of the band. Yeah, we’re all on the same bus. Sometimes his family is on the bus. It’s a really lovely atmosphere. He couldn’t be nicer. The crew and everyone involved is the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. We’re just ridiculously lucky. When me and Yasmin joined, we were told, “you will never find, on a pop gig, a crew as nice as this.”
WH: So, we’re all dying to know: how did you get this gig?
LC: (Laughing) I got it from Instagram.
WH: Oh really?
LC: Yeah, I joined the Instagram world a year ago from a DJ in America who said, “you need to get Instagram; why haven’t you got Instagram? It’s ridicuous you haven’t got Instagram; blah blah blah”. And I was really against it. I got rid of Facebook a few years ago; I’m really not interested in social media, and I, ironically, had said to so many friends of mine, “oh god, I hate Instagram. Who cares about this sort of thing?” And then this guy said, “look, you need to get it,” so I got it and I started doing transcriptions of my favourite trumpet solos.
This is a funny story actually. I did a Christmas panto for CBeebies in November. We had to dress as The Bumblebee Band.
And back stage, while fully dressed in my bumblebee costume, I do a transcription of a Blue Mitchell solo – one of my favourite trumpet players – and it just went viral because I was dressed as a bumblebee and I’d hashtagged ‘bee’ or something. And it got so much attention from women-in-beekeeping pages which had 15,000+ followers, and I got featured on about four or five pages. Nothing to do with trumpet!
WH: You were a hit with the apiarists.
LC: You know – what can I say? After that, I got about 3,000 followers and then it just grew and grew and grew. Now I have 16,000 followers which is ridiculous. But anyway, it meant that when the MD for this was looking for a trumpet player and they came across me from a video someone had taken of me and they looked me up on Instagram, I had all these videos of me doing transcriptions. And so he got what I was about, knew what I was capable off, I guess. And when he called me, he said, “you don’t need to audition. I’ve seen your Instagram. When can you start?” basically, which was mind-blowing to me because I’ve never experienced anything like that before. So, pretty crazy, but a good lesson for social media, I guess.
WH: Amazing! You mentioned in an email that you were working last year in the USA with a circus.
WH: Could you tell us a bit more about that?
LC: I would love to. Again, it’s a long story. I did a lot of DJ Live bands and different groups and acts, and I ended up, with one of the gigs, going to Connecticut for this very prestigious private event for this man who makes cars. And it was very expensive. They had flown in us, they’d flown in different clients, and they’d also flown in this circus group called Quixotic Cirque Nouveau, which is Cirque du Soleil-esque stuff. And we did the gig, I was feeling a bit rebellious, kind of got a bit pissed, and met one of the project managers for the circus who was also coming from the same place as me. We were both a bit anti this whole private gig.
We became really close friends and when I did a gig for Camila Cabello at Wembley Arena and it went on Youtube, she showed her boss that and then they got me down to Art Basel, which is an art festival in Miami over December. They flew me out to that. I had a week with this incredible group of contortionists, fire-breathers, aerialists, on Miami Beach, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
And after that they asked if I wanted to take it a bit more seriously and so I sorted my own visa out and I went out and it was incredible.
WH: You ran away to join the circus.
LC: I ran away to join the circus! And, funnily enough, I remembered that my Dad had done the same thing at 18 – he went to join the circus; fed the elephants and played the organ. (Laughing) So, a family thing, I guess.
WH: Did you learn any new circus skills?
LC: No, I didn’t, annoyingly I didn’t. I tried the silks, but you need upper body strength so I wasn’t really good at any of that. But now, funnily enough, on the George tour, everyone in the band, it turns out, are exceptional jugglers. So in my time off I’ve been trying to learn some juggling tricks.
WH: So if it doesn’t work out with the trumpet playing you can go back to the circus.
LC: I’ll go back to the circus. I’ve got my juggling balls. Everything’s going for me!
WH: Your new single, What If, is an up-beat, soul-influenced song exploring the topic of mental health. Could you tell us about what prompted you to write the song?
LC: Yeah, so basically I have been depressed for such a long time – at least since I came to London – and it was so bad. I had really, really dark moments. And I saw therapists every week for about seven years and there were some better times; there were some absolutely terrible times. And about end of January this year, I finally came out of it for the first time. Not to say that I haven’t been back. But that was just an amazing experience for me – to finally feel for the first time in about seven years that this can pass.
In that time, I was lucky enough that I had friends around me that were also exceptionally talented. And when I sent a voice memo of the song – of me playing it on the piano and singing it – to my friend James (Wyatt), who’s the producer, he went, “right, we’re going to run with this. Let’s just make a song!” He laid down a piano track, we sent it to the drummer, and eventually, over two weeks, everyone sent through their parts and it got finished which was incredible and was really fun to experience while I was not depressed (laughing) for the first time.
LC: Such an achievement!
WH: Perhaps you could tell us about the lyrical content. What was the message of the song?
LC: I will say this: I’m not a lyricist; I’m not great with words. I’ve kept it super simple and there’s not a lot of words. It’s basically just me saying to someone else, “it really can get better. I know that it can pass. It doesn’t mean that it won’t come back but it can leave you.”
When I was going through it, the one thing that kept me alive was thinking, “but what if this gets better? What if, in five years’ time, I’m looking back at this time as just that time I was depressed? What if there’s a time when I’m Lily Carassik without depression?” That would be so amazing. I don’t want to lose that. So that’s what prompted the “What If?” and me asking other people to keep going, “but what if it gets better?”
For me, the things that made it better was regular therapy – that was painful and difficult – and time. It was just time.
WH: I can really relate to this as well. I’ve also suffered with depression for many years. Fortunately, like you, I can also say I’m out of the woods, although I do expect to pop my head back into the woods now and again.
But one of the things that was most helpful to me – and this is why I’m so pleased that you’ve written this song and to hear the message – is that my mother, who has the same condition, would often tell me that “it will get better. This isn’t forever. This is a temporary state that you can get out of.” And that kept me going as well. So, that being the message of your song is really encouraging.
LC: Yeah. I know so many people that have commited suicide. It’s so sad to me that someone’s got to that stage. I’ve been close, but luckily I’ve never been there.
I remember having a conversation with my Mum – she’s another reason it’s never happened to me. I remember having a conversation with her when things were really bad, just saying, “I’m so angry at you for being the reason I’m still alive!” You know, it just got to that point where I was crying down the phone going, “how dare you let me live because I can’t have you lose a child.” And it’s so hard for her to hear of course because she’s probably thinking the same thing as your Mum, going, “this will pass. It’s horrible and it will take loads of time, but it will pass.”
WH: We are now going to listen to an extract from Lily Carassik‘s What If featuring singer Kate Threlfall.
Cue: Extract from What If? by Lily Carassik
WH: How can we make sure that everyone listening to this podcast can hear the song? Where can we find it?
WH: All of the links that Lily‘s just mentioned you’ll be able to find on the podcast blog, which is TL-Life.com .
LC: We’ve had some news that Sony might be putting it out on all platforms –
WH: Oh really?
LC: – which would be unbelievable. But also, I don’t know if that’s going to happen. All the proceeds from the downloads will go to Samaritans. So every time you buy the song, however much you give, all that money will go to the Samaritans.
Samaritans is basically a hotline, 24/7, that people can call if they’re feeling really, really terrible and it’s someone to talk to; someone to give them some kind of help, some advice; someone to go to.
WH: Lily, what’s next for your songwriting? Do you see this as a one-off, or is this the beginning of a new burgeoning career in song composition?
LC: (Laughing) Do you know what, it really has given me confidence. I’ve never song-written before and I have never had so much good feedback. I would love to write some more songs. Something that is really personal to me is I really like music that has more messages, that has more meaning. I love the Stevie Wonder songs that are actually really up-beat but really tragic. Or I love the James Taylor songs that carry so much political meaning.
I do have more ideas for songs to raise more awareness for different charities because that’s just something I really like writing about.
WH: Let’s talk a bit about your time at Trinity Laban. What would you say was the most interesting part of the course for you?
LC: For me, it was two things. It was Pete Churchill‘s Jazz Choir and it was Paul Bartholomew‘s arrangement class. They’re both geniuses in their own right and, as far as I’m concerned, living legends. (Laughing) They both taught me so much. For instance, in Paul Bartholomew‘s class, we ended up, for CoLab, doing a big band version of 90s hits which went down really well and was such an amazing lesson in group management; time management; composition; arrangements. It was incredible experience. Those were the highlights for me.
WH: What would be your one piece of advice for young musicians who are looking to play for huge audiences as you have been with George Ezra?
LC: I think the thing about huge audiences is you can give them two things: you can give them rhythm or you can give them melody. Obviously you need to hone your craft in the way that you want to. If you’re just really good at your instrument you’re going to get work no matter what. But for widespread audiences, for accessibility, the best thing you can give someone is rhythm and melody to get them to latch onto you, to get them to understand your story and to get them involved. The less you do that, the fewer and more select groups you’re going to get.
WH: That’s a really good piece of advice. I like that.
Hidden Gem Listening Recommendation
Last question for you. Everyone I interview for the podcast I ask for a Hidden Gem Listening Recommendation. So this is a piece of music that you love but that you think hardly anyone else has ever come across. Do you have anything in mind?
LC: It’s an album by Katie Noonan and Karin Schaupp (which is spelt S-C-H-A-U-P-P) and it’s called The Latin Skies. And it’s really beautiful. It’s like Alison Krauss meets Carlos Jobim. Really beautiful Latin music; these two beautiful, soaring voices over the top; very calming; very peaceful; very meditative.
WH: Would there be one track in particular that you would recommend?
LC: I’m biased because I did the Jazz course. Probably Wave which is a song by Jobim. There’s also Desafinado on there and they do kind of an almost like country song, No More Blues, which is a really lovely, very up-beat song. Check it out! (Laughing)
WH: Excellent. And you can indeed check out all of Lily Carassik‘s Hidden Gem Listening Recommendations on the podcast blog which is TL-Life.com . Lily, thank you very much for your time.
LC: Hey, thanks for having me. It’s been great!