Every summer while growing up, Charise Sowells and her family would drive to Blackwater Lake near their home in St. Paul Minnesota, and stay in a small cabin that her grandfather built himself. There they would spend those blissful weeks swimming, playing cards, and reading magazines in the sunlight. This picturesque era of her life has been so deeply ingrained within her that it is now forever memorialized in her music project, Lake Lady.
Mixed race musician Charise Sowells/Lake Lady has recently released a new EP called “Better Day,” a set of hauntingly beautiful jazzy tracks with a fresh trip-hop take. It’s been tokened as “dark folk-pop” and “new music for old souls.” Here’s a peek at one of her music videos for the track, “All Over This Town.”
When watching any of Sowells’ artfully written and edited music videos, her multi-talented background becomes apparent. She has been distinguishing herself amongst the music world for over a decade, but she actually studied playwriting in art school. In fact, she has been immersed in the world of drama and writing since high school, graduating from both the Orange County School of the Arts and the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She received both the John Golden Playwriting Prize and second place of the Goldberg Play Award at her university. These are great honors and her diverse experience in the arts surely benefits each individual medium—but she has done more artistic work with her music than anything else, and college loans are something that hinders her to this day. This has been one of her biggest obstacles in her artistic profession—one that, unfortunately, some of us can probably relate with. *Sigh—capitalism.*
Luckily, Sowells’ upbringing and education encouraged her to develop all kinds of artistic skills. Her father was a visual artist/art teacher and her mother was a journalist who pursued her own creative interests as well. So, Sowells grew up viewing art less as a profession and more so as a way of life.
“I didn’t really think of the arts as a career until we moved to California and I went to an arts high school—I viewed it as a way of being, communicating, expressing and finding [myself],” Sowells says.
Several years after graduating from Tisch, Sowells joined the Grayson Wray Project, where she met her husband Evan Malouf (who also writes songs, plays bass, and guitar, and is the Mountain Man in their duo Lake Lady and the Mountain Man). They played with the band for about seven months and then went on a tour from L.A. to New York, through the south and back in a 1970’s prison bus—one month in the dead of summer with no air conditioning and street couches for seating (!!).
“It was definitely not safe. But it was a totally crazy adventure, and the time of our lives,” Sowells says.
Unfortunately, Grayson Wray pulled the plug on the band shortly after the tour. But Sowells and Malouf were grateful to have found one another and decided that they had loved visiting Austin, TX enough to take the leap and move there. They only knew one other person in the city at the time, but they found a huge community in the music scene there. At one point, Sowells was in four different bands while working a full-time job to support herself.
“In Austin, that’s what a lot of people do. There was one guy in the scene who played over 200 shows a year and was in about six different bands on average,” Sowells says.
Anyway, for Sowells and so many others, Austin was “boot camp” for the live experience. Sowells took full advantage of the opportunity to try many different kinds of performing. She was in two different bands as a backup vocalist, she played keys in a band while singing, and tried her hand at electric guitar instead of her usual acoustic stylings. She felt these experiences were very important in her growth as a musician, and allowed her to experiment with what was and was not for her. At the end of her time in Austin, she felt that she finally had the incentive to focus on her own music as a songwriter first and foremost.
Now, she and her husband have established a life in the East Bay, and she has felt very at home in the music community here, as well. They generally go to a rehearsal space in West Oakland for practices with a drummer—she loves it there because, in her experience, many rehearsal spaces tend to be mostly rock-and-roll oriented, but that’s not the case in Oakland, CA. They hear everything from reggae to funk to soul in their rehearsal space.
“It’s a much better fit for me here than in Austin. I love the diversity—it’s rare for me to be in places where so many people look like me and have hair like mine. It’s not [a] perfect [city], but compared to Austin race is a non-issue… [and] even though it’s a very established city with a lot of history, it’s still growing in a lot of ways,” Sowells says.
When asked to give advice to aspiring artists, Sowell’s answer is simple yet profound:
Tenacity above all else.
“Story after story of people who made it—at any age—just stuck it out through those hard times. Even through those moments where you’re like, ‘What am I doing with my life? Anything else would be easier than this.’ And yet you’re like, ‘This is what I’m going to do because this is what makes me happy—what makes me feel alive,’” she says.
Sowells encourages you to just keep sticking it out—keep doing the work while staying true to your values, because there will be opportunities to take shortcuts and compromise them. Because “then [you] can be proud of [yourself], even if [you] never make it in the way that [you] would like to.”
Both tenacity and adventure seem to be Sowells’ keys to moving through the music world towards her goals. Though she does love Oakland and it’s where we had our talk, she’s getting ready to make The Big Move back to Los Angeles with her husband—another big adventure. There they feel they can really dive head first into the scene while being amongst their family members.
Be sure to check out Lake Lady’s new album and further information on how to support her at her official website!
(And also check out their adorable cover of a Michael Franti song, featuring Sowells’ childhood troll doll collection!) *Swoon*