What Alexis Lombre Found By Focusing On Her Own Voice
Written by Vocalo Radio on May 21, 2021
Alexis Lombre is a Chicago jazz musician born and raised.
From a young age, the pianist channeled her fair share of jazz greats — from McCoy Tyner to Herbie Hancock — performing at jazz clubs and ultimately releasing an EP called Southside Sounds in 2017. On her newest single, “Come Find Me,” which was featured on our In Rotation playlist for April 2021, she decided it was time to let go of restrictions and let her own voice shine.
We heard from Alexis Lombre about the differences between writing instrumental and vocal compositions, her experience writing “Come Find Me” and the ways in which music and social justice intersect.
You’ve been a musician since you were 14 years old, which is extremely impressive. What was your relationship with music growing up? Has music always been a part of your life? Did you grow up in a household with other musicians?
My maternal grandparents were huge jazz fans. I’m the only professional musician in my immediate family, but we had a keyboard in the house that I tinkered around on. I was just always very curious about music. I heard a lot of music growing up in the house and I just took to it. Luckily, growing up in Chicago, there were a lot of programs for kids that could foster my curiosity and my passion for music.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
My mom is a huge influence. But musically, I realize my first piano influences were Shirley Scott, Gene Harris and Bobby Timmons. I also loved Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding.
Who is one artist you listen to that would surprise people?
It depends how people perceive me. One thing that’s probably really surprising is Paramore. I love Paramore to this day.
Tell us a little bit about your creative process; aside from the obvious difference of using lyrics, how do you approach writing a lyrical song like your new single “Come Find Me” versus writing instrumentals like on your jazz EP Southside Sounds and single “A Blues in Tyne“? Where do you usually sit down to write music?
So when “A Blues in Tyne” came about, I was transcribing some McCoy Tyner voicings ‘cause, you know, “A Blues in Tyne” was named after McCoy Tyner. His style of comping was just so lyrical that I felt led to make a song out of it. It was simple, it led itself. It was a blues, and blues are only 12 bars long. I’ve been playing the blues for years and I know a lot about the blues, so it was simple for me. Also with “A Blues in Tyne,” I knew how I wanted it to feel. I knew I was going for the sound of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Period. All I had to do was tell a drummer to play like Elvin Jones and the bassist to play like Jimmy Garrison while I tried to sound like McCoy Tyner. All I had to do was replicate a feeling of what has already happened before.
Whereas with “Come Find Me,” lyrically it was about finding myself. But writing musically, it was about finding who Alexis is and not much of continuing somebody else’s work. “Come Find Me” is something totally original and totally me, and I wanted it to be that way. So that took much more time. I had to be much more patient and give myself leeway to experiment. I had the chords that I just heard and the melody that came with it. But to figure out what kind of groove I wanted, I had to work hard and went through many different drummers before I finally settled down with the beat. Writing that song was much more painstaking, because it’s the first of its kind.
To answer your other question, I absolutely must be at the piano when I sit down and write. Me and the piano are joined at the hip when I’m writing music. I rarely write songs without sitting at the piano. The only time when I’m not is if I heard a song in a dream then I wake up, immediately grab my phone and hum it into my voice memos.
Where do you draw most of your inspiration from?
I draw a lot of inspiration from conversations with my friends and family. Seeing what all my musician friends are doing, I just get so inspired by their strength because I have so many friends who are amazing. The amount of strength, endurance and resilience that they have shown during this period of COVID has been extremely inspiring for me. It makes me excited to keep going, honestly.
Your newest single “Come Find Me” is breathtaking, and it’s also your first single since your 2017 jazz album Southside Sounds. What prompted you to write and release a new single with such a different style compared to your past releases?
I’m so glad you enjoy “Come Find Me”! It wasn’t necessarily a moment where I declared to myself, “I’m gonna do something totally different, I hate what I did before!” It was much more coming from the place of … sometimes, when you’re judging yourself while you’re writing, it keeps the idea from coming out. And then you get writer’s block and you’re not able to come up with anything. …Just let it flow out, not judge them and just let it happen as they are — and then scrutinize them later.
The thing is, I can do both; I can do Blues in Tyne and I can do “Come Find Me.” As a Black American musician, I’m not limited to one genre. ‘Cause I play gospel, jazz, R&B — it’s not just one thing. Even when I put out my 2017 album, I already had a lot of songs that I wrote in high school that were in the vein of “Come Find Me” that I just haven’t released. I started writing “Come Find Me” in 2016 and I put out Southside Sounds in 2017. So I was writing all those songs at the same time. As for the timing, I felt that “Come Find Me” was just next. I was excited and passionate about it. I just felt it in my spirit that it was time for it to come out so it can help people.
Could you tell us a little bit about your experience writing “Come Find Me,” and the meaning behind it? Who are some artists you drew inspiration from when writing it, if any?
I was in the practice rooms during my studies at the University of Michigan. I went on a nature walk and I came back and I heard the chords for the verse. I just flowed and wanted to write chords. I’m a chords-first person, ‘cause I’m a pianist and I wanted the chords to be complex and soulful. I didn’t know what the song was gonna be about yet but I knew it was gonna be about complex emotions. When I was writing it on the piano the tag “come find me” came out naturally but I didn’t know what it meant. So, at first, I was writing from the perspective of me telling a love interest to come find me when they wanted to act right. So that’s how “You’re wasting the days, bathing in your pride, rather look away than prevent your own demise” came about.
As I was writing it, I realized it wasn’t about singing it externally to another person — it’s more about an internal conversation with myself. Even more so, an internal conversation between me and God, saying, “Come find me, Alexis, when you want to get your life together. You tryna tell everybody else about themselves, why don’t you get your own life together first?” It was a very impactful moment — like when you point your finger at someone, you have three other ones pointing back at you.
Some artists I drew inspiration from especially for the mix was Alex Isley. My whole vibe was also inspired by Esperanza Spalding and Herbie Hancock. Not in a literal sense where I was trying to take their ideas and use it with mine but more so conceptually, allowing the song to be whatever and not putting constraints on myself. By being my most authentic self, I can have a song that sounds just like me. Not, “Oh this is Alexis just trying to sound like Solange.” Even though Solange was a big influence on this record, too. I wrote “Come Find Me” and then A Seat at the Table came out and I was like, “Oh my God! This is exactly the sound I heard in my head!” That whole sound of A Seat at the Table was incredible. But what I love about Herbie and Esperanza was the fact that they’re not trying to take fragments from other people to replicate. They figured out how to find the sounds they like and be authentic with themselves, and I wanted to do it for my music.
In what ways do you see music and social justice intersect? In what ways do you feel you can express messages of social justice through art and music that cannot be expressed through words alone, and vice versa?
That’s a good question. Music is the megaphone for social justice. It amplifies and affirms the voice of the people. Music makes social justice danceable. Music also allows social justice to be observed from different perspectives. For example, there’s still a lot of people who still don’t understand why Black lives actually matter, but there’s a lot of those same people who, at the same time, love soulful music and understand when a good groove has a beat that really feels good you automatically nod your head up and down saying “yes.”
So if you have a great groove, you’re subconsciously opening the human mind to agree to whatever issue you choose to place over the beat. When social justice issues are coupled with the hypnotic power of a great groove, I feel like it provides an entry way for people who don’t understand an issue but can understand how good music makes them feel.
Who is an artist you feel does a good job of combining social justice and music? In what ways?
There are so many artists to speak of who do an amazing job but one artist who I really love in terms of her approach to everything right now is H.E.R. I loved it when she dropped “I Can’t Breathe” last year in the midst of all the protests, because she just said everything the way we, as Black people, felt during a time when it was too hard to put into words. I also love that song “Fight For You” for Judas and the Black Messiah.
That song is incredible in terms of the message and how it fit perfectly into the purpose of that powerful movie. She sounds original but she’s hip enough to know she didn’t have to recreate the wheel, and paid musical homage to the legacy of Marvin Gaye. I love music that acknowledges the greats that came before it, musically and historically. It’s just awesome, 10/10. I’m so glad she won an Oscar for that.
You were featured on Teo The Artist’s latest album Open Mind — could you tell us a little bit about that experience? Do you often collaborate with other Chicago musicians?
We were always friends on Facebook and kept up with each other, and he told me he wanted to get me on a track just to sing. I really enjoyed doing that, ‘cause that was my first song that I released with my vocals on it. It felt good to break that seal and have that experience. Recording it was a relaxed, easygoing situation. I love collaborating with other Chicago musicians — lots of things in the works, actually.
I’m trying to finish the rest of my album and AMI, a wonderful producer, pianist and artist is helping me with it. Also there’s Ayanna Woods, bassist, composer, artist — and I know I’m shortchanging the real list of all the Chicago musicians that I’m working with right now. It’s home, you know? All I do is collaborate with other Chicago musicians.
We’d love to hear about your experiences within the Chicago music scene. How has living in Chicago influenced your musical style and creative approach, if at all?
Chicago ripe ground for so many scenes in terms of outstanding Black music. We have an outstanding straight-ahead jazz tradition, outstanding gospel tradition, R&B, hip-hop, house music, avant-garde — and that’s just what I can list off the top of my head. It’s just amazing to be from a place where you’re not limited to only doing one thing, and if you want to hit different scenes you can be an excellent musician no matter which direction you choose to go. Growing up in Chicago, you’re exposed to everything, so it’s all in your ears. I grew up playing in jazz clubs; I didn’t grow up in church. What I loved about playing for Black people in jazz clubs in Chicago, especially on the South Side, is how the audience talks back to you. That kind of audience interaction definitely influenced the way I play. If the audience is feelin’ you, they’ll shout, “Gone baby!” “Play baby!” “Take your time!” as you’re playing, and you can’t help but let it influence the way you play. The audience performs with you, really.
In pre-pandemic times, what was (or is) your favorite place to catch live music in the Chicago area? Favorite place to catch live jazz specifically?
The Hyde Park Jazz Society hosts a Sunday jazz series at Room 43, 1043 E 43rd St., and that’s where a lot of magical moments happened for me. It has pretty much my favorite audience. I’ve been playing there since I was 15 and it always feels like home, because everyone there feels like family.
Is there anything you want to promote, or anything that’s coming up on the horizon for you that listeners should know about?
I have a documentary series on YouTube about my creative process for my next album, which is my first full-length project (Southside Sounds was really an EP, since it’s only six songs). June 1st, I’m performing at the Museum of Contemporary Art for their Tuesdays on the Terrace series at 5:30 pm. It’ll be in person. Tickets are on my website.
Other than that, thank you so much for featuring me! I love Vocalo radio and regularly play it in my car all the time. It’s really surreal to be featured in this way, it makes my heart full!
Interview edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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