Six years separated Lily Kershaw’s debut album, Midnight in the Garden, and the followup, last year’s Arcadia. That’s six years which saw the emotive, charming singer/songwriter grow from 19 to 25 years old — formative years in anyone’s life.
But that gap only tells a fraction of the story, because the Los Angeles native actually recorded two other full-length albums in-between. One was fully discarded, while the other morphed into the EP Lost Angeles. It’s astonishing that a musician in her early 20s would take the difficult decision to abandon a full album because it didn’t feel right, knowing the amount of work that goes into such an endeavor.
“It didn’t come together in the most harmonious way for many different reasons,” Kershaw tells SF Weekly. “Sometimes you can hear the process reflected in the music, and if the process wasn’t symbiotic you can hear that. The songs were good, even some of the production, but something was missing. It was scary because of all the time, energy, and money I put into it, but a relief because I didn’t feel like it would stand up to my standards.”
How many artists would say “fuck it” and release the album anyway? It speaks volumes about how seriously Kershaw takes her craft. This is personal to her — she pours her heart and soul into her lyrics and melodies, every gorgeous, intricate little twist and turn, and she wants it to be right when she’s finished. Otherwise, what’s the point? The growth she’s experienced is tangible.
“I got better at certain elements of production, I hear instrumentation differently now when I write,” she says. “When I was writing for Midnight in the Garden, I was so young. I didn’t really know going in what I wanted everything to sound like… Ben Cooper, who produced it with me, he was so down to just dive into the deep end and bring his own energy to it.”
That artistic appreciation is mutual, with Cooper impressed with the way Kershaw used her emotion as her compass.
“She’s very in tune with how she wants her work to feel, above all else, and she filters everything through that,” he tells SF Weekly. “Working as a producer, I really appreciate that quality in an artist. It makes the process of developing a song so much simpler, because you don’t get lost in all of the ‘maybes.’ Once we developed a common language between us, all the decisions were made very quickly. We were able to finish the songs, write arrangements, then record and mix the entire album all in under three weeks. It was rare that she ever did more than a couple vocal takes on a song.”
Singer/songwriters that blend elements of folk and pop are hardly uncommon, but Kershaw just seems a little more authentic than most others. The connection to her lyrics feels utterly honest, and the infectious melodies are there to smooth the path rather than as a cynical attempt to appeal to the masses. The frosting is sweet, but the filling is where the real satisfaction lies.
After numerous stops and starts, Kershaw finally released Arcadia last year, and the album has been generally enjoyed by fans and critics.
“I feel like [the response] was incredibly positive,” she says. “I’m proud of the record.”
Musicians always say that they’re proud of their new album — that’s a given. But we can fully trust Kershaw, safe in the knowledge that if she wasn’t happy with it, she wouldn’t have put it out. It is a wonderful piece of work — genuinely touching and cohesive. That flow is important to her, in this digital world that demands instant gratification.
“I’m purely just looking for the songs that go together,” Kershaw says. “With Arcadia, I wanted these songs to live together. So I look at it more in terms of what larger story I want to tell between songs.”
Every online sensation and influencer has a different story, though if you ask them they all say “be yourself.” Kershaw has that down. Her personality and art are inextricably linked, something that she says is vital for her own health as the world continues to go to shit around us.
“I read a really good book … called Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens,” Kershaw says. “She coaches artists and she put all of the things that she teaches artists in a book, in part because of the  election. It’s so artists don’t lose hope and stop doing the thing that is so innate to them and also in their best interest. I know I’m the best version of myself when I’m writing songs. I’m a calmer person, a kinder person, kinder to myself and better for the world. Art is the kindest thing you can do for yourself and others so it’s important.”
This year sees Kershaw make her Noise Pop debut, though she very much enjoys performing at festivals in general.
“It’s amazing energy,” she says. “People coming together to celebrate and enjoy music — that’s the greatest thing in the whole world in my opinion.”
As for her set, she’s just hoping that she won’t burst into tears.
“The audience can cry — but hopefully no crying for me,” she says. “My shows are very intimate and honest, and they become more and more so all the time… I usually tell personal stories.”
Personal stories are, after all, what she’s built her career on.
Lily Kershaw, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 7 p.m., at the Swedish American Hall. $18-$20.