In Greek mythology, the story of the vulpine Sisyphus reckons with how a neverending futile task can be one of the greatest forms of torture. Sisyphus, having tried to cheat death twice, is forced into the harrowing quest of rolling a boulder up a hill, just for it to fall every time it nears the top. He repeats this drill for eternity. Sisyphus is bound to a dream that he will never be able to realize. Correcting the way his limbs move up the hill or changing the number of breaths he takes won’t get him any closer to freedom. His fate requires him to find joy in his life’s own absurdity.
“Life is a quest,” Lillie West from Lala Lala said while releasing a gentle laugh. “Life is just this Sisyphean quest.”
West fastens herself to an avatar who embarks on a dazzlingly cinematic and seemingly endless quest in her third album, I Want The Door To Open.
“This concept of opening the door is freeing yourself from ego, accepting your mistakes and not living in guilt and shame,” West said. “I started thinking of the songs as they were coming together as a quest to open the door.”
The songs began to populate in response to West asking herself how she can destroy the concept of ego. She began writing some songs in-between shows on tour in 2019 and a couple while she was staying with her parents in England during the first phase of quarantine. Her songwriting was propelled by a desire to experience the potent bliss of being extremely present without restraint. This involved migrating away from the version of herself that she unfolded in her 2018 album, The Lamb.
“I feel like after touring The Lamb for so long at the end of those tours I felt really disconnected from myself after having to push this product that I didn’t feel like represented me anymore,” West said. “I spent a long time figuring out what I wanted to do and if I wanted to continue doing music professionally. But I needed to change the formula somehow because it wasn’t working.”
In I Want The Door To Open, West births a new self who ventures into pastel-filled dreamscapes and blue-hued deserts. A self that embraces a journey’s inherent liminality. Co-produced by Yoni Wolf of WHY? West has transformed her album into an immersive experience.
In the album’s opening song, “Lava,” there is a mystical feeling of discovery that radiates from the track. We are dropped into the song with a flurry of West’s vocals layering atop one another. She immediately immerses us in the world that her avatar (pictured on the album art) is existing in. It feels like a refracted vision of West’s own environment: as if our surroundings looked the same but the air was made out of transparent slime and our bodies moved in slow motion. That feeling of otherworldliness is one that West chases after.
“What I feel like I’m trying to do in my life is reach extreme feelings. I’ve always been attracted to chaos or sort of this feeling of being in a movie,” West said. “There’s music that I love that makes me feel like I’m in a movie. I’m trying to do that with my music. That extreme feeling like oh time doesn’t exist, I’m so present, which is so rare.”
West’s ambition to achieve this extreme exhilaration is mapped out everywhere on the album. She pushes her vocal style to fascinating places. Her layered vocals on “Photo Photo,” conjure imagery of a fairytale protagonist walking through the woods on a moonlit evening when they start to hear voices envelop their surroundings. “Straight and Narrow,” feels like the interlude during that wooded journey. Our protagonist has now discovered how beautifully the sun sprinkles its beams onto the treetops as we rest in West’s beautifully composed synth melodies.
Even as West made it easy to imagine a universe of our own within the songs, she also fills them with hints about her life. She explained how all of her daily observations often congeal to form the kaleidoscopic narratives in her songs. In “Lava,” the line “Beam of light as it hits the water,” grew from a hiking trip in Montana where West was searching for a hot spring with a flashlight.
On a foggy night after a show in Iowa, three rabbits jumped in front of their car and it felt like an omen, inspiring the line “Three rabbits on the road / A message from a different realm” in “Color of the Pool.”
West pointed to the dagger behind her hanging on the wall, revealing the line, “Today I’m 25, I bought myself a knife,” was in fact true on “Bliss Now!”
“I just try and remain open to information and imagery at all times. I was just coming into my house on my bike and I could hear these dogs barking and I thought for a second that someone was yelling my name and it was just like click, I wrote it down ‘When dogs bark it sounds like my name.’ I just perceived that experience and now I’m going to use that in a lyric,” West told me.
These fleeting anecdotes all function as hints in a collection of moments that compose West’s quest, which like Sisyphus’, is an eternal one.
Prior to Door, West’s music often portrayed the push and pull between hurt and healing. With The Lamb focusing on her sobriety, she struggled with the dichotomy she created: splitting her life up into a before and after.
“The before times was … when I was hurting myself and hurting people I loved. I got sober and there was this after time and I was supposed to be good now,” said West. “It was really hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I still make mistakes constantly.”
Even through the fragmented anecdotes and dream worlds that flood the album, West’s vulnerability still acts as a companion on this trek. In “Straight & Narrow,” she purrs “In the world there’s guilt / but it comes in waves / things are spilt / what’s left to say.” West tends to herself in this song and takes a respite for self-soothing. I believe she’s trying to tell us there isn’t a real destination to this voyage, but there are ways to be kind to yourself so you can fall in love with the absurdity of it all and help others do the same.
Door is also the result of West seeing herself as part of a larger collective. “I used to think this is about me, I’m desperate to communicate this feeling or this story. Moving forward I felt more like bringing other people in literally and figuratively,” said West. “Thinking of myself as more a part of a giant ecosystem that I will eventually leave and other people will go on and take my place.”
The album features a litany of brilliant collaborators including Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Kara Jackson, OHMME, Adam Schatz, Ben Gibbard, and on the album’s closing track, West’s grandmother. Along with musical collaborators, West also recently found community in New Mexico. She recently went to Earthship Academy — a school where you learn how to build sustainable houses from trash and other regular building materials. West fell in love with the program and has her sights set on moving there permanently.
We can imagine the fantasy world West constructs on “Planet Utopia” is one based on a love for community, deep care for one another and the relinquishing of ego that is holding us back. As she says through her video game-esque distorted vocals, “Everything is here.”
“I think everyone just wants to be seen and understood and that’s what a lot of people are doing with music — myself included — is trying to feel seen and understood and trying to help make other people feel seen and understood.”
At the end of our conversation, Lillie asked if I could include information about Illinois Prison Project, which is an organization that works with incarcerated people to get their sentences reduced or to get them out. Please follow this link to learn more about them.