Lily Cato Discusses Sexism In The Music Industry, Tom Waits, and Being Labeled ‘Vintage’

Interview by TJ Kliebhan
Photo by Shervin Lainez

Lily Cato’s New York pop group Parlour Tricks has been building momentum, and is due for a big 2016. After being named the Village Voice’s pop band of the year in 2014 and releasing their debut record Broken Hearts/Bones last year, the band has recently been riding the success of their hugely popular music video for the title track off the album.

Lily was kind enough to speak with us while taking a break from preparing for Parlour Tricks’ upcoming March US tour (and dog-sitting for her friend). Read Lily’s take on sexism in the music industry, New York City, Tom Waits, and being labeled “vintage” below…

It has been 8 months since Broken Hearts/Bones was released. How do you feel about the material now?

Lily Cato: “It’s complicated. On the one hand I am extremely proud of what we’ve done. Reflecting on that record has made me realize that albums really are a crystallized moment of a place in time. Sort of like a time capsule. Now I feel like it’s on to the next thing. The next thing will be influenced by the first record, but I’m writing new music that I think sounds different than the old material.”

Had these tracks that showed up on the record been worked on since the origins of the band in 2011, or were they written closer to the album’s release date?

LC: “One of the tracks was as old as the band’s origins, but actually most of them were closer to the album’s release. Our guitarist Angelo Spagnolo is always challenging me to write new and better songs. The older songs slowly got replaced by newer ones that we thought were better. “Broken Hearts/Bones” was actually the last track I wrote for that album.”

One track that stuck out to me immediately when I looked at the track list was “Bukowski”. Charles Bukowski tends to be a polarizing author, especially for women. How were you inspired to write a track related to him and his famous “Blue Bird” poem?

LC: “I love Bukowski. I’m thrilled you noticed the “Blue Bird” reference because that’s a poem I think everyone should read. I wrote that song because there was a period of time in my life where a countless amount of people tried to hit on me using Bukowski. I’m a reader and will read in public a lot and I had these guys coming up to me and launching into a sermon on Bukowski. Like of all the authors you are going to use to hit on a woman you pick the most misogynistic asshole? I wrote the song about being turned off to people saying Bukowski is their favorite author. I didn’t realize that he was so many peoples’ go to author. It became a joke for me.”

It’s kind of like hitting on a girl who is a big R&B fan and saying your favorite singer is Chris Brown?

LC: “That’s exactly what I mean! Just think ahead, people.”

I’ve read that one of your favorite musicians is Tom Waits. What about his music inspires you? Do you try to incorporate anything he does on his records?

LC: “We didn’t really try any Tom Waits stuff on the debut record. The first songs I ever wrote were all murder ballads that were based on true crime stuff and were supposed to be in his style. I wrote a song called “Belle Gunness” about the serial killer and that song was very influenced by Tom Waits’ style. His influence is mostly in my writing style I would say. No one can tell a story like him. In terms of how he inspires me, I road tripped to Memphis and saw him perform one year and he just blew me away.”

Parlour Tricks has wonderfully creative music videos. The one for “Broken Hearts/Bones” garnered a lot of attention with NPR’s Bob Boilen calling it a “perfect music video”. The video seems to try and include such a wide variety of walks of life. What was the vision for that video?

LC: “The response to it has been so kind and unexpected. I talked to Bob about how I had that experience in the grocery store that guided the direction of the video. When I explained that moment to the director of the video she latched on to how remarkable a grocery store can be because you get such a cross section of various people. So I thought about how cool it would be to show two people falling in love who see each other between the shelves. It was never supposed to be an LGBT thing, we just wanted a real couple and we were able to find a perfect couple. They just happened to be gay, but it didn’t really change anything for us. The band just strongly felt that we wanted to include all walks of life being united in one moment.”

How do you feel about Parlour Tricks being labeled “vintage” or “retro”?

LC: “I used to not appreciate it. Now I find myself not appreciating that we’re called electro-pop so I guess you can’t win (laughs). I just don’t like how everything has to be identifiable and categorized, but that’s inevitable I guess. When we started the band I would agree that the band was more throwback, but I think we’ve changed since then. We incorporate more rock and Americana style now. I think our three part vocal harmony is very distinct. It may be a retro style, but I think it’s a universal and timeless style too. People singing together is the oldest trick in the book. So maybe we’re SUPER retro (laughs).

You’re about to embark on a big US Tour. Is there any anxiety before a tour starts?

LC: “No way. I’m so excited. We just want to go. The only thing that I get anxious about is the laundry.”

Any chance you’ll be playing new music at any of these dates?

LC: “We’re actually going to bring back some old songs we haven’t done in a while so they feel new to us. We’ll be throwing a couple new tracks in as well though.”

You’re closing the tour in your hometown of New York where you’ll be playing Webster Hall, a storied music venue in the city. Are you excited about playing there?

LC: “This is our first time playing the big Marlin Room so we’re so thrilled to be doing that. Even better, one of our favorite local acts Great Caesar is opening for us. We’ve been trying to coordinate a show with them for so long now and we’re happy it is finally going to happen. It’s going to be perfect.”

What is your take on the New York music scene? It can be a bit exclusive for bands trying to start out and get gigs.

LC: “I think it is probably difficult to distinguish yourself in the art community in any major city in the world. It is a bit of a hustle. It is a bit of “who do you know”, making sure you talk to the right people, and being supportive of other acts. At the same time I find it remarkable to live in a city where there are 300 bands playing any given night. You can see a band a block. There is something really inclusive about that element, especially when New York is so easy to get around. To survive you need to make friends rather than just network. Do that and don’t be a dick and you’ll have more success.”

I’ve seen numerous female musicians and writers discuss on various platforms how concerts are not always a safe space for women for various reasons. Is this something you have experienced yourself?

LC: “I haven’t seen or experienced that specifically, but I have experienced sexism in shows that I have performed. I have certainly felt undermined as an artist by countless sound people and people who work at venues. I feel like people haven’t taken my requests or the requests of the other female bandmates seriously because they think we don’t know what we’re talking about. I’ve found people to be incredibly surprised when we know and can articulate what we want onstage. Stuff like that is insanely demeaning, exhausting to deal with, and mentally taxing. We’re very delighted when we get someone great to work with.

In terms of the safe space thing, that can be more of an after-show thing than pre-show or during. People in the audience can be awful and say insane or rude things because we won’t flirt with them. In those situations I have definitely felt unsafe. Thankfully I feel very safe with my male bandmates who have our back and make sure we’re ok if people are bugging us. I wish it wasn’t the case that they had to take care of things like that.”

At the beginning of the interview you mentioned you’re writing new material and evolving as a band. How are you planning on evolving the sound of the first album specifically?

LC: “The new stuff we’ve been working on is a bit darker, yet more playful. It’s more guitar driven too. We’re not an electro-pop band, but I feel like we made an electro-pop album. That isn’t totally indicative of who the band is. We’re currently producing the record ourselves, which has been fun too. We think that will lead to an authentic sound. We’re experimenting with synths for the first time so that should be cool. The band is really always collaborating. I’ll write songs at home and when I’m comfortable with them I send them to the band and we get together and work on them. We’ve had our chance to detox from the first album and now we’re coming back with lots of ideas. I feel like the collective mojo is starting to build up again.”

What do you guys have planned for 2016 in terms of new material? Thinking album?

LC: “Oh no definitely not (laughs). I don’t write that quickly! I’m hoping for an EP though. None of these songs are done and they’re constantly being tweaked. I would say if I had to record today I’d only really be happy with one track. The rest need some reworking.”

Parlour Tricks open their tour this Friday the 4th at Durty Nellie’s in Palatine, Illinois. The tour will conclude on March 31st at Webster Hall in New York. Get tickets here. | Broken Hearts/Bones