A Triste Daughter Site - Lys Guillorn

Lys Guillorn is a Connecticut-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who produces moody, melancholic, literate rock music, generously cross-fertilised by alt-country, folk, psychedelia and blues influences. Her eponymous debut album was a long time a-coming, having sat in the can for three years, but covers all bases from the dark and brooding ("Counterproductive"), via dark waltzes ("Little Wren", which features the only known appearance of the linguistic term "phoneme" in popular music) to the sparse and defiant (her cover of Johnny Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arm Round A Memory").
"Guillorn’s low, rich, confident voice doesn’t seem to try too hard and is built for the introspective songs she writes. “Know Thyself” would be a good tattoo for her to consider."

"[The debut album] is a diverse array of 1960’s psychedelia and new wave yet executed with contemporary rather than nostalgic performances. The arrangements, though lo-fi on the surface, have a depth and integrity that many current artists fail to achieve despite their constant strive for a ‘back to basics’ take on song writing."
Americana UK

"[Lys Guillorn's debut album is] simple, minimal, bittersweet and beautiful. It's a smile with a hint of shadow across it. Well-written songs, mildly haunting vocals, not a turd in all 11 tracks. This is a real repeat listener."
The New Haven Advocate


The Triste Interview - Lys Guillorn

TRISTE: Many artists covered by Triste Magazine seem to defy easy categorization, but critics struggle to get a handle on you. How would you describe your music to someone who hadn't had the benefit of hearing it?

LYS GUILLORN: I always tend to give a flip answer like "cowgirl goth" or something, but my music isn't that dour and it's just a little twangy. Factually speaking, without trying to sell it to anyone, it's slightly twangy rock with surreal, cryptic lyrics.

TRISTE: So are there any other artists ploughing a similar musical furrow to yourself?

LYS GUILLORN: This is seriously the hardest question to answer, and it's so early in the interview. I think I need another cup of tea.

These days I'm enjoying Kristin Hersh, Nina Nastasia, Andrew Bird. I think there's a certain changeability each of them possesses and attention to arrangement while still maintaining their songwriting. I'm also just starting to get into Howe Gelb/Giant Sand.

When I wrote and recorded my CD I was listening to Big Star, Astrud Gilberto, Yo La Tengo, Galaxie 500, and also Lilys. When I was in high school, I of course listened to the Cure, Smiths, Cowboy Junkies, Sonic Youth, but it was mixed in with stuff from a slightly older era like the Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Buffalo Springfield, Sandy Denny, Bob Dylan.

I'm all over the place with this. I hear a lot of weird stuff in my head and I'm not sure where it comes from. Who knows, my next record might be influenced by Robert Wyatt...but I want it to sound like "Songs of Leonard Cohen" or maybe "Oar", so that might be tough.

TRISTE: Do you think that having such eclectic influences and a desire to explore different styles in your music makes it difficult for people to get to really know you and so build up a following? Even when such famous musical chameleons as Bowie and Dylan changed styles, they lost thousands (but probably gained other) listeners.

LYS GUILLORN: It probably does make it difficult, but I haven't been out and about long enough to find out if that's really true. There seems to be a thread linking my work together, but I'll find out over time. I'd rather do what makes sense to me than arbitrarily pick a style and stick with it. You might have to ask me again in four records.

TRISTE: I’ll hold you to that. Moving on a little, can you tell me a little how you first got interested in making music?

LYS GUILLORN: I've been making music since I was a little kid. I always had access to musical instruments--piano and mouth harp were the first two. I would pick out TV theme songs when I was very, very young. The show Sesame Street was a big influence on me, because it was so musical. I think everything I can remember being on television in the in the 1970s had a musical component in it somewhere.

I took piano lessons for a number of years, but I preferred to play by ear. I also took banjo, guitar and violin lessons for a couple of years apiece.

When I was in high school, I wanted to form a band with some friends, and we did - a bunch of freshman girls - and no one would sing because we were all afraid to. I think secretly everyone wanted to sing but no one knew how to be the centre of attention. We wore all black and listened to the Cure, the Smiths and Sonic Youth. So I always had in the back of my head that I wanted to write and play music.

TRISTE: I presume Jargon Society was your first "serious" band. What happened in the time between your high school band and forming Jargon Society?

LYS GUILLORN: I played in a band with my brother for a short period of time on violin and keyboards, and I sang a little. It was my introduction to performing in front of a live audience. In college I was in an indie-rock band called the American Pragmatists, and I was the rhythm guitar player. I didn't sing - I just played guitar in support of a songwriter I really liked. We played around campus, and a couple of shows in New York and Philadelphia, won a few "battle of the bands" competitions at school, made a demo and then broke up. In a brief later incarnation I played violin.

In 1997 and 1998 I was playing with a couple of other musicians for a while under the name Good Citizen Star - singing some early songs and a few covers and playing guitar. We broke up in 1998 when I started to make my record. I played mostly solo shows between 1998 and 2000 when Jargon Society was formed.

Jargon Society was a good way to get around and perform and yet not need to have enough material to fill a whole set. I got to show off a little on guitar. It was great working on Elisa Flynn’s and Peter Riccio’s songs and it was interesting to hear what the other folks would play on my tunes even though it was nothing like the arrangements I was writing for myself. It was also a good excuse to play in places I couldn't get into as a solo act. And we had a cellist. Fun while it all lasted.

TRISTE: You mentioned that you were a reluctant vocalist at first, so was the decision to sing driven by the need to get your own self-composed material out in front of an audience?

LYS GUILLORN: I started singing for my own enjoyment before I started writing. I always wanted to sing, but didn't think I was singer, so I took some voice lessons to build my confidence. Eventually I started writing and I knew I had to sing in order to get my songs out there. I realized that I didn't need an absolutely smooth, pitch-perfect voice in order to perform.

TRISTE: So what was the actual motivation to start writing songs? You play a range of instruments and sing, so would obviously be a valuable member of a band - purely as a musician in your own right. Why take the step to being a songwriter and, by default almost, putting yourself in the spotlight?

LYS GUILLORN: At school I met a few songwriters who amazed me and I wanted to be like them. I learned how to use my brother's 4-track and that helped me learn how to put the pieces together. I was just compelled to write and thought I should perform because I was so frightened of being in front of people. It's a little perverse, I guess. Less frightened maybe of being in front of people and singing than actually talking to people at a party. Getting up in front of a class to read a paper...too scary!

TRISTE: Are you a prolific songwriter?

LYS GUILLORN: I go through phases with songwriting when I write a lot. I have quite a few songs and a lot of ideas, but I don't write every week and actually I didn't write from January to mid-October this year.

When I can't write there's just no forcing it at all and it's frustrating. It would be more frustrating if I had to put out a record, but when I'm not writing I work on parts that eventually work their way into things later.

When I feel a song coming, I hear the music in my head and I can usually just listen to what needs to come next. I'm just writing what I want to hear and what I need to say and remember. Right now I'm on an upswing.

TRISTE: So the music arrives fully formed - lyrics and music together? Or do you mean you try and then fit lyrics to the music in your head?

LYS GUILLORN: "Throne" and "Little Wren" were written all in one sitting, if I remember correctly. I used to spend really long days 4-tracking when I still lived at home with my folks and I wouldn't let myself come out of the room until I was done with a song. It happens a couple of different ways, but a lot of times everything happens more or less all at once and I just come up with lyrics and music together. I have a lot of snippets of music fermenting in my head and eventually they'll assemble and lyrics will stick to them and they become songs or parts of songs.

Many times I come up with songs when I'm nowhere near an instrument or recording device, like when I'm at work in the darkroom. I'll jot lyrics down and hope I remember the melody later when I get home and can whip out the guitar. Usually there will be a key part missing and I'll have to come up with it later, but I trust my subconscious most of the time.

TRISTE: But that must be so irritating - that experience where you've got a killer melody line in your head and by the time you get to an instrument or tape it's either gone or changed into something predictable and uninspired. Given your musical background haven't you learned enough musical notation to salvage the bones of the tune from scribbled notes on scraps of paper? But then conventional notation, I suppose, is limited too?

LYS GUILLORN: It does seem odd after all these years, but I play entirely by ear. I probably could notate if I tried, but usually I have no reason to. Luckily, there's a guitar in the lab where I work, so if I really need it, it's there. I use mnemonic devices like thinking of bits of other songs that make me think of the melody I just came up with. Even if they don't sound that alike, it does help. Also, for some reason, if I can write down some words I can usually remember what I sang to them, at least for a day or two, sometimes for way longer. The words seem to lock in the music for me.

When I can't recreate a sound I hear in my head, I'll usually go really left field and add a lot of voices layered on top of each other. When I use the 4-track, I'm sometimes kind of lazy but resourceful and use my voice instead of other instruments.

TRISTE: What triggers the lyrical themes of your songs?

LYS GUILLORN: Sometimes lyrical ideas will start with a single word or phrase that makes me think of a certain thing or feel a certain way. I remember having the word "impossible" written in the back of my songwriting notebook for a while before I wrote the song on my record, and the end had been written about a year before the beginning.

Most of my songs come from my life and other people in my life-if not in a narrative style of what's happening, then an impression of something I feel. I write lyrics and music that evoke the feeling, at least for me. It's a way of remembering something and telling other people about it. So just the word "impossible" made me think about an impossible situation in my life and it was kind of silly to me, so I wrote about its silliness. As I've probably hinted earlier in the conversation, I rely on my subconscious quite a bit to lead me in the right direction. It's just easier not to push an idea around and let something come to me even if it doesn't make rational sense immediately.

I've also stored away a lot of ideas from books, TV and movies, so there are little snippets floating around in my head that sometimes work their way in.

TRISTE: So there's no key to your lyrics that would allow them to always make perfect rational sense? You know, the kind of thing people do with Dylan?

LYS GUILLORN: Haha. I'm not sure. I can't really tell, and I'm not sure it's necessary to make rational sense of things to get the feeling of the songs, which is, to me, more important. I do wonder, periodically, what people see in their minds when they listen. Well, I guess a key would be a timeline of my life and what I was doing and then match up the songs to what was going on.

TRISTE: You have been criticised sometimes for your esoteric vocabulary and extended similes. For example in "Throne" there's that line, "Your back's a linden bough, a Turkish caravan, a sinking anadama confection". What would you say to people who think your lyrics are obscure or pretentious even?

LYS GUILLORN: Well, I think I know which review you're talking about. That's just the way I think. I don't really want to address that too directly--everyone's entitled to an opinion. I write what comes to mind. I'm not sitting around struggling to pull words together.

TRISTE: Your debut album seems to have had an extended gestation period in that the recordings were sat around for 3-4 years before actually being made into an album proper. Can you tell me a little about the story behind the album?

LYS GUILLORN: In 1998 my friend Jamie Siwinski introduced me to Jeff Feuerzeig. He had heard a tape of some of the songs done on my 4-track and at first, it wasn't clear what we were going to do. Then Jeff very kindly offered to produce and engineer a record for me and we'd figure out what to do with it later. So over the course of the next year I'd go down to his studio in New Jersey to record.

Then when the record was finished, we sent it out to a bunch of labels. I was on my way to having a record deal with a very small label and went through contract negotiations up through the very last step. The label folded and everything fell apart. I think it was for the best, but it took me a few years to be able to put it out myself.

It does seem like an albatross after a while, having a finished, unreleased record. I'm happy with the way things turned out, though.

TRISTE: So how much of your current set is made up of songs from this record?

LYS GUILLORN: If I’m playing solo, sometimes I’ll only play a couple. With the ensemble I’ve put together for a couple of shows recently, I’ll play almost the entire thing.

TRISTE: You got some famous names to appear on your record. How did you manage this?

LYS GUILLORN: It wasn't something I set out to do. Jeff just happened to know these people from being involved with different bands and his documentary project and other work he had done and they were pretty close by--whether in New Jersey or in New York City which isn't far at all from Montclair, the town where the studio was located. It all came together kind of suddenly. It was a vague possibility when we started out, and then those folks said yes and came in as we were wrapping up each song.

Their contributions enhance the songs so much. The solos were definitely beyond the scope of what I would've played had I done them. Mine would've been more predictable. Dean, Quine and Glenn just kicked ass. Brenda and Stanley gave the songs a great backbone, which they had to do after my guitar and vocal parts. Add a spine later.

TRISTE: Any particular reasons for choosing the cover artwork?

LYS GUILLORN: Elisa Flynn, the artist, is my friend. She was the other songwriter/guitarist/singer in Jargon Society. The image was hanging on her living room wall for much of the time we were practising at her house, and I fell in love with it. I like the suggestion of loss, the sparseness, the quality of strength. It's a wolf, but it looks kind of like a dog and it's missing a leg--maybe it chewed it off to get out of a trap. Elisa's work is very dream-like and each print is like a short story. I'm a fan of her songs and her prints, so it means a lot to me to have her work on the cover.

TRISTE: You mentioned in an interview that you've experienced moments of real transcendence playing live on stage. Are you a particularly confident performer or is it something you've had to work at?

LYS GUILLORN: I had to work up the confidence to perform because I used to be a pretty shy person. At some point in my early twenties, I decided I wanted to play out as a solo performer and hotwired my brain to do it despite horrible nervousness. I guess I'm not shy anymore, but I do get a little anxious before I play sometimes.

People comment on my stage presence even on nights when I feel shaky internally, so that helps my confidence. Some nights, I really feel on top of things and have absolutely everything under control. That feels great, but it doesn't always happen.

TRISTE: How do you cope with adversity when you're playing live and things go wrong? In other words, you're not in control - maybe the audience is inattentive or the gear's playing up?

LYS GUILLORN: I just keep playing. If my voice gets warbly, I just keep playing and I might smile a little. Shows me nobody's perfect. Serves me right for being a perfectionist in other ways. If I temporarily forget words, I just make them up. Those very few people who know a lot of the words to my songs can tell when I'm messing up.

There was a period of time in early 2003 when I was having trouble remembering certain songs, and that was embarrassing. I'd be in the middle of a song I'd played a hundred times and be unable to continue. I thought I was losing it. I'd just pick up wherever I could and continue, or I'd stop the song and play another.

I kind of enjoy moments in other people's shows that proves they're human. I saw Andrew Bird at the Knitting Factory in NYC last week and he definitely was having a strange show, but it was so beautiful, in a way. One of his shoes fell off during the first song he played and he didn't put it back on or kick off the other. Things like that make me feel better when I forget to plug in my guitar for the first song in a set.

TRISTE: I know you play mainly solo now. Do you miss the camaraderie of playing in a band and the and musical versatility that it can give you?

LYS GUILLORN: I do miss playing in a band sometimes, but in a way there's more freedom playing by myself. In some places it's easier to get a show with a band, so I'll put together something that almost resembles one for a certain occasion. Sometimes I have Peter Riccio from Jargon Society and now of the Sawtelles play drums for me if I feel like I need a fuller sound because he's such an intuitive player.

This past winter I played with Adam G. (who has six records under the name Hatestick), as the River Birds because we had been solo for so long we had started to miss playing with other people. It was fun. Elisa Flynn from Jargon Society and I plan on doing something else together soon, as well. I like to put out a few tentacles and play with others every now and then. Besides, I love to play the guitar on other people's songs.

This October I put together a group to open a show for Amy Rigby at the Space in Hamden, Connecticut. Chris Greenland, who booked the show, challenged me to put together a band to sound sort of like the record. He ended up playing keyboards and accordion, so he was a good sport about it, too. The backbone of the group was Peter Riccio on drums, his wife Julie on backing vocals and Pete Brunelli, the bass player for their current band. My boyfriend, Jere Smith, added orchestra bells on a couple of tunes, too.

The experience was thrilling. It took a lot of rehearsals to get everyone up to speed over the course of a month, but it definitely worked on stage and that made me happy. We're going to do it again soon, I think.

TRISTE: You mentioned trying to sound like the record on this occasion. But in your normal solo set are there any numbers you can't even get close to with just a guitar and voice - for example “Counterproductive” - with it's samples?

LYS GUILLORN: I play “Counterproductive” every now and then by myself, and it's just sparse and scary. Even when the ensemble played with me last month there was no sample of Lightnin' Hopkins and obviously no Quine guitar solo. We tried to fill out the sound with the bass player using an E-bow. It's interesting, but it doesn't sound like the record, either.

I think “In Sleep” is another good example. When I play it with just guitar and voice I feel like it's completely wrong because I wrote it on an old Hammond organ with a built-in samba beat. Stripped down, the focus becomes my voice and the melody. I guess it's okay in a pinch, but it's not the way the song is supposed to sound.

I hope people will forgive me for deviating from the record, but it would be impossible to duplicate solo. I'm not like Radiohead. I'm just one person.

Interviewed by Steve Wilcock

Live Gigs & News - Lys Guillorn


A series of gigs have been scheduled for January - see website for details.

An exclusive lo-fi live version of "Tuesdays & Saturdays" is currently available to be downloaded from the website.


The eponymous album is released on Little Cowgirl records and can be bought via the net at CD Baby and also at Little Cowgirl's homepage.

In the UK you should be able to get the album by contacting:
Savage Henry
PO Box 6209,


Site last updated 13/1/04