When Lily Meola released “Daydream,” the title song of her upcoming EP, Rolling Stone immediately placed it atop its Picks of the Week list for Aug. 30. She also got a great reception for “Smallest Things,” the track she’s releasing Oct. 1, when she previewed it with several others during a Labor Day weekend VIP-stage performance at Napa Valley’s BottleRock Festival. Meola’s set earned her a standing ovation and encore, confirming the Mercury News’ accuracy in naming her first among five festival talents to watch.
Meola, a Maui, Hawaii, native, has been an artist on the verge for a while now. She was still a teenager when she made her Farm Aid debut, blending her soulful, versatile voice with Willie Nelson’s voice on “Will You Remember Mine,” the duet they’d recorded for his To All the Girls album. An early champion, he’s one of many music-biz heavy hitters Meola can list as fans — and mentors; her A-list collaborators include Willie’s son, Lukas, Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson and her volunteer songwriting coach, Jackson Browne.
She’s also been working with top writers and producers in L.A., Nashville and London, crafting the songs that will become Daydream. Meola’s only previous release, her 2016 album, They Say, revealed her ability to put her bluesy, expressive stamp onto any song. But it didn’t quite define her musical identity — because she hadn’t yet found it. She hadn’t done much writing, either; her name appears as a cowriter on only two songs.
This time, she’s credited on every track. Collectively, they represent a woman with a clearly focused vision of what she wants to say and a mature, confident voice capable of conveying both delicacy and power with equal nuance. They also showcase her broad vocal and stylistic range.
Living in a musical neighborhood inhabited by the brilliant, distinctive voices of Joni Mitchell and Amy Winehouse,Meola’s address may read “pop,” but her house has a design all its own — with an equally effortless flow.
Meola’s rootsy, organic sound comes across beautifully on her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” recorded for a 2020 Travelers insurance commercial. A story on the Muse by Clio ad-industry website praises her “evocative, understated” version, which, according to the spot’s creative director, “added the emotion we needed.” (Meola’s work also shows up in Genesis G80 car commercials; she cowrote the song Grammy-nominated Golden Globe winner Andra Day sings.)Meola says her latest work takes listeners on a journey through soulful balladry, more-or-less mainstream pop and influences ranging from jazz and R&B to gospel and country.
“It’s a mix of different worlds that are all part of me,” she explains. That could also apply to the EP’s formation, a process that generated — or used — many frequent-flier miles.
“I spent the last few years traveling between L.A. and Nashville, and six weeks in London, just writing and really figuring out who I was — as an artist and a person — and what I had to say and what I wanted to share,” Meola recounts. “That’s kind of how it all came about. And then life took a bit of a turn.”
Meola’s mother, Nancy, known in the industry as “Supermensch” artist manager Shep Gordon’s assistant, was diagnosed with cancer. The woman who had nurtured Lily’s love of music with a childhood diet of Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald and Carole King had by then become her daughter’s manager, biggest cheerleader and best friend. Meola put her music career on hold to become her mother’s sole caretaker. Then her deal with Interscope Records got swept away in a label housecleaning. And then COVID-19 put everything else on hold. Meola plunged into a depression. She couldn’t quite imagine singing again, particularly after her mother passed away in June of 2020.
“But in the back of my mind, I knew I just needed to get through this hard time, because my mom would be really mad if I gave up,” Meola says. “In the past year, I worked really hard on trying to feel better. I started baking, and I spent time with my animals and my family and my friends. I just had to heal.”
Meola had been living in L.A. before her mother’s illness; by the time she returned to California, she was ready to make music again.
Reaction to online musical postings and recent performances, including a pair of post-BottleRock gigs with Lukas at the Belly Up, near her current home in Encinitas, resoundingly affirmed the wisdom of that decision. People approached her in tears after her BottleRock VIP set, she reports.
“That’s what I want for my music; I want people to feel something,” Meola says. “I want them to feel less alone; I want them to feel inspired.”