With A Walk around the Sun, singer-songwriter Erika Lewis finally carves out the space she needs to step out on her own. She’s a veteran of several bands, including The Magnolia Beacon, a rustic outfit that specialized in haunting, dirt road meditations, and Tuba Skinny, the forever-touring and busking collective that celebrates the traditional jazz, ragtime, and blues of its native New Orleans.
In 2016, Lewis took some gentle steps towards autonomy with The Lonesome Dove’s lone album, the melancholy country of Waiting for Stars. Now, she stands poised to take center stage as a solo artist with a debut that distances itself from the rest of her discography.
Whereas Tuba Skinny bustles and bounces, the songs on A Walk Around The Sun hang in the air, drifting into each other, dreamlike in their buoyancy. Songs like “Loser” and “A Thousand Miles” evoke the breeze and sparse delicacy of Laurel Canyon deep cuts.
The cliché goes that musicians have their entire careers to write their first albums. In Lewis’s case, she’s given us what she calls a retrospective, a collection of songs old and new that captures her behind-the-scenes development as a solo artist. She continues to tour with Tuba Skinny, but one hopes that A Walk– ethereal, contemplative, and confident– lays the groundwork for future albums that spotlight Lewis’s individual talents.
CF- You’ve been in some bands that cover a lot of stylistic ground. I am curious about your musical education.
EL- I didn’t have any formal education. I’ve learned so much from friends. I met Meschiya [Lake] from Magnolia Beacon around 2007, 2008. I don’t even know what to call it–it was just timing. I had songs of my own that I had written– not many- -and me and Meschiya are really connected. She was also starting to play guitar and write songs, so we just fell in together. Then with Tuba Skinny, we were all really inspired by the traditional jazz and brass band music on the streets in New Orleans, and we wanted to busk and try our hand at it and found that we really enjoyed playing together.
I wanted to talk about busking. I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who’s embraced it as you have. How’d you get started?
I was familiar with the concept of busking before I settled in New Orleans. Most of us in Tuba Skinny moved there around the same time. We’d been there pre-Katrina and then came back post-Katrina. There was a lot of people coming into town at that time, some of which were busking on the streets. A lot of younger, transient folk musicians and travelers were coming and then were making money all over the country busking, so it was a natural thing to do in a place like the French Quarter. It was easy to just find a corner and put out your case and make some change that way.
I think we all just realized we could do it together. Like I said, I wish I had a better word to describe it– but it just sort of happened, and we went with it because we realized that people really liked it, and we were making money. It felt really good, and we pretty quickly decided to take it on the road. We went to Europe and built bicycles and busked our way down the west coast of France to The Basque region in Spain. Busking led us to our first major invite to a big jazz festival over there, and the rest is history. Busking is kind of the foundation of our form of expression. It’s how we’ve been able to support ourselves for many years, and that’s how we’ve been able to reach so many people.
How has busking affected you creatively? Would you be a different musician?
That’s an interesting question because a lot of the music that we play is music that we know or we learn as we go. There’s a level of improvisation, mostly with the horns, the melody instruments in our lineup, but for me, it provided an outlet of expression in the form of singing, which is something that I’ve always loved doing since I was a kid, and that felt like a calling and something that I felt was a real way to give something to people. It also felt like a very spiritual practice to be able to sing daily for people, so in that way, it has always felt fulfilling.
But there’s a point when I really wanted to be sharing my own songs that I was writing, and I didn’t really feel like there was a place for that in the structure of a jazz band in Tuba Skinny, in a sense that I hadn’t really been able to make space for my own creative process through songwriting until I left New Orleans. It’s given me more time and space to focus on it, but not as much as I would like to. Getting some space from the band, honestly, has enabled me to branch out and do what I’m trying to do now, which is sharing the music, the songs I’ve been writing. This album that’s coming out is a compilation of songs from my history of songwriting, from some of the earliest songs to some of the newest songs. It’s a mixture of time. I feel like once this is out, then I’ll be able to create in real-time and make a consolidated album of my stuff that isn’t as much of a retrospective, but something that’s current and feels fresh to me.
Is that why you’re releasing this album under your own name instead of The Lonesome Doves, which was pretty much a solo project, right?
Yeah, The Lonesome Doves is me, also. To answer your question, “yes,” but probably not in the sense that you’re implying. I used the name The Lonesome Doves because I honestly didn’t have the confidence to branch out and be like, “Here I am! Erika Lewis! And here are my songs!” It felt like a very vulnerable process that I’m still coming to terms with or getting comfortable with. But through making this album, which was an intense and amazing experience for me, I realized that I need to claim myself and be who I am and just use my name, for now.
What was the tipping point when you felt confident enough to use your own name?
Honestly, it was a very dramatic do-or-die scenario that pushed me into that self-acceptance. I found out in 2020 that I needed to have thyroid surgery. There was a lot of anxiety around that because there was a possibility of having vocal nerve damage, which would have left me unable to sing, so, of course, that was difficult. I had some friends who said, “I know you’ve been wanting to make an album for a while. You really need to do this just in case.”
It was a journey– the surgery went really well; everything’s fine. But there was about a year of uncertainty going on. Within that time, I raised money through the help of my friends to make this album. It felt like so many people showed up for me. I mean, the support of my friends Lani and John James Tourville. John James arranged the album, produced the album, got all the musicians together, me into The Bomb Shelter. He was like, “I got you! Let’s do this!” And Lani kicked me in the butt and was like, “You have to do this, so let’s make it happen.”
They did a GoFundMe, and friends of Tuba Skinny, bands from all over contributed and totally enabled me to do the whole thing. All of that was really overwhelming, all that support, the whole process. I thought, “Well, this is it. I’ve got nothing to hide anymore.” I still felt really vulnerable and raw through the whole thing, but I was definitely ready to embrace it by the time, the recording was finished, and I knew that it was really happening.
Did you have a backup plan in mind if the surgery didn’t go as planned?
No, I didn’t. I mean my backup, which wasn’t really a backup plan, but it was, “At least I’ll have this recording. At least I’ll have something to share and something to show,” but that was as far as I got. I was like, “I’ve always wanted to be a waitress, so maybe I’ll just do that.” (Laughs) But I didn’t because music has been my main thing for the last 13 years or so, so it was hard to imagine a change of course.
What was your relationship like with music during this limbo? Were you resentful, fearful, keeping your distance?
To add to the intensity of the situation, it was peak quarantine when this was all happening. I was in isolation with at the time my two-year-old. It was just me and him, so I hadn’t felt a very close relationship to music since I had him, to be honest, because I just couldn’t find a way to make time for it. And we weren’t living in New Orleans anymore, so I was sort of removed from that scene and those people. I did write a couple of songs that are on the album that year, and that felt really good, but beyond that, there was nothing. I felt very disconnected from what it is to be a musician and started to question what my role in music really is or was.
Can you discuss the impact of place on your music? You’ve lived in New Orleans, New York, traveled throughout Europe…
New Orleans is super inspiring. There’s nothing that can top that or touch that in terms of inspiration. New Orleans fostered me in so many ways creatively. But in traveling, there’s definitely been pivotal moments, particularly going overseas, being in a foreign place, there’s inspiration anywhere. For me, I can’t just sit down and write a song. I need to be moved. There has to be either movement or a deep emotional response to something. That can happen anywhere. And I feel like a lot of my songs are more about feelings that I’m having around situations in my life, and traveling and movement can help those feelings to flow.
Now you’re in Asheville. How was the transition, moving from New Orleans?
It’s been interesting because I moved right before the pandemic started, and I don’t know that many people here. It’s very beautiful. There’s definitely a strong music scene going on here that I am aware of, and it’s been a slow process of starting to integrate myself into playing and taking time to play music with people. But right now, I’m looking out my bedroom window, and I have a full view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’m in the woods, and it’s extremely beautiful and inspiring in the sense where it’s a very beautiful vista. In Ashville, you can drive in any direction and see them out. There’s a lot of natural beauty. I’m getting to know the place; it’s pretty new to me right now.
You recorded A Walk Around The Sun at The Bomb Shelter. What was it like recording there?
It was awesome. Andrija [Tokic] is a madman in the best sense of the word. He’s so good at what he does. I felt like I was in his living room the whole time, and we worked really hard. I also felt like I was on a long road trip and wasn’t able to get out of the car for a few days by the time we finished because it was 12-16 hour days, with so many takes and so many musicians. I’d never done anything like that. It was a unique experience for me. I felt so lucky to be able to do it, and I’d love to do it again.
Did you go into the studio with a certain aesthetic or atmosphere that you wanted to achieve? I’m thinking of songs like the title track, “Wild Thing”, and ‘First Love” with that Twin Peaks reverb. I love it!
Thank you. Yeah, I love it too. John James Tourville helped produce that; that was a lot of him. He’s doing all of the guitar and steel on the album and helped me to arrange the songs. That dreamy guitar element that’s pretty pervasive is all him. That’s something that he leans towards, but it was also him saying, “This is what I’m hearing for this,” and me totally going with most of his ideas. I liked his direction; it felt natural. We definitely took some liberties and elevated those songs in ways that I probably wouldn’t have come to on my own.
How about a song like “Unsatisfied”, which is far less sparse. It’s the one song that sounds like a party.
That was definitely John James taking it and running with it. When I play that song, it’s pretty bare-bones, a garage-rock-y kind of sound. He said, “Let’s do it up! Let’s make it a party!” There are these amazing women in town who are just amazing musicians in their own right, and he got the three of them to come in and do backup vocals. He had a whole crew layering that song. It came out really big and fun. That’s definitely not a direction I would normally go in, but I just trust him so much.
Is it easy to give your songs over to someone else?
No. In general, I feel like my musical journey feels unique or special in the way that I’ve always played music with my friends– I mean, most of them were not friends before we started playing music– but I’ve always had a crew or a team. John James and I lived together in New Orleans. We’ve known each other for years. I love playing music with him. So it was with one of my closest friends whom I trust. It felt easy for me to let go and trust his vision because he knows me well enough to know what I would feel comfortable with, but then also he pushed me and pushed me out of my comfort zone in some different situations for which I’m glad because it’s expansive to be able to do that.
But the reason I said “no” is because I really don’t think it would be as easy for me to do that or to have done that with someone that I didn’t already feel comfortable with. To be able to pull that off at that time, at such an intense time in my life, I don’t know if I would have been able to accomplish a project of that caliber if my team weren’t my friends.
Have you turned a corner where you’re confident to continue releasing work under your own name?
I hope so; I think so.
Given that A Walk Around The Sun is a stylistic departure from your other bands, do you find this roots-ier approach more conducive to your creativity, and how you want to express yourself?
Yeah, definitely. I want to do it because it’s what comes more naturally to me when I’m left to my own devices. I think what I’ve always felt aligned with or felt called to in Tuba Skinny is the group dynamic, playing music that way. But singing the blues is something that feels very natural for me too. That’s something I really love to do. As a form of expression, old blues, country blues, old country music, all of those genres feel very relatable on a spiritual level, but the music that I’m writing is not jazz-influenced. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not traditional jazz.
How are those two worlds able to coexist?
I’m not really sure, to answer your question, that they can.