In the two years while “All Is Forgiven,” the latest title from Lilli Lewis (out December 1, 2023 and available for preorder October 27) was being written and produced, Lewis played four sets at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; produced the Black American Music Summit for Folk Alliance International; played an official showcase at AmericanaFest (where she also met Lucinda Williams at an event Lewis co-organized); and supported her childhood heroes The Indigo Girls on five shows in the midwest and southeast. She also released critically acclaimed versions of “Woodstock'' by Joni Mitchell and “Creep” by Radiohead, and received the 2020-2021 Best Folk/Country/Americana Album Award from OffBeat Magazine, all while touring in her van across all but two of the contiguous 48 states.
“You don’t write an album called ‘All is Forgiven’ unless you have plenty to forgive.”
Lewis admits she loves being on the road, but the new album, her fourth with enigmatic indie producer Mark Bingham, is not so much a tribute to those road-warrior travels, but rather the journey of forgiveness one takes on the inside. Though it had been a standout era in her 20+ year career, the Athens, GA native turned New Orleans Folk Rock Diva says those years of her life had actually felt “not unlike a cliche country song: lost my job, lost my dog, etc. Despite all the magic that was hurling my way, it was a truly difficult time of isolation and sadness for me. I wrote the songs almost in a dreamlike state, and I didn’t find out until later that the songs were there to help me get back up.”
The album’s opener “Sin Eater” very much starts at home. Featuring friend and frequent collaborator Kirk Joseph of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on sousaphone, and a sermon-esque vocal insert from her great grandfather Dr. William J. Faulkner, the track offers a believably defiant “Take your sin and run!” declarative, while the second track “Happy Enough,” co-written by her wife Liz Hogan, immediately pivots the tone to an equally defiant joy. Following up on the artist’s “undaunted” character assessment by music writer Marcus K. Dowling, the title track “All Is Forgiven,” is an effervescent pop rock mantra with the relentless fervor of one who has finally learned the value in the “fake it ‘til you make it” directive.
Track four’s understated pop ballad “Just One Ride” starts to unpack what there was to forgive, and why Lewis says “When I found this song on my hard drive, I knew my subconscious was trying to get me to turn a corner, so I always offer it up for others going through a hard time who might need to do the same.” This song launches an introverted triptych that goes on to ask “What would you do if you really mattered?” in a tune written for her cousin, 2022 American Idol runner-up Willie Spence, who tragically died in a car accident only four days after the song was demoed. The song questions what purpose radical self-acceptance might unlock, and its epic follow-up “Possible” explores some of the things that might be impeding that purpose. Its moody tone blossoms into self-determination: “I am a child of the beginning / Where nothing would be without its flaws / I’ll never be flattened by perfection / best to expand by nature’s laws,” a lyric that pivots to reveal that the existential brood is indeed a tender, lifted-gaze love song, “I choose to do my best to love you / To believe in grace more than contempt / I will metabolize your loving / Takes me back to where I begin.”
While “Possible” serves as the album’s centerpiece, its heartbeat may be the tender waltz found in “Ciel Éternel,” a lullaby Lewis says she wrote to her “little baby self,” sung in French to a translation provided by Jamaican born composer and lyricist Craig Bloomfield. This delicate moment is answered by the ancient sounding swampy dirge of “Drink This Water Child,” and is rounded off by the humble, expansive, classic rock pining of Liz Hogan’s “Firefly.”
After a year of communing with her audience through these songs, Lewis has found herself transformed by them. After six dates with pop folk singer/songwriter Dar Williams, Lews will take a break from touring. In fact, she has recently launched a GoFundMe to help her secure a portable therapy pool so that she can rehabilitate her body from the health complications of COVID era illnesses met with two years of life on the road. “All my life I’ve felt I’ve had to prove myself for one reason or another. These songs have been teaching me to reach for gentler truths.” As the album asks in its closer “When we find life again / Do this for me / Teach me to walk / Teach me to run / Teach me to thank / The golden sun.”
“All Is Forgiven” was produced by Lilli Lewis and Mark Bingham with mastering provided by Kevin Blackley. The album was performed by Lilli Lewis on piano and vocals, with Carol Berzas, Jr. - guitar; Mark Bingham - guitar; Grayson Brockamp - bass; Dr. William J. Faulkner - voice; Jonathan Freilich - guitar; Glenn Hartman - organ; Wade Hymel - drums, percussion, guitar, vocals; Kirk Joseph - sousaphone; Doug Garrison - tambourine; Robin Sherman - bass; Bryan Webre - bass, guitar; and Cassie Watson Francillion - harp.
The album is Lewis’ first title with Righteous Babe Records whose label founder Ani DiFranco once called “a people-friendly, sub-corporate, woman-informed, queer-happy small business that puts music before rock stardom and ideology before profit,” and whose alumni have included Toshi Reagon, Anais Mitchell, Bitch and Animal, and Andrew Bird, to name a few.