Photo by Layne Groom.

It’s 10 p.m. in the enclosed rooftop venue of Our Wicked Lady in Brooklyn. The crowd is just over two dozen people, all friendly and bubbly. The final act is a minute or two into their second song when the frontwoman goes from drawing the bow across the delicate strings of her violin to screaming directly into the body of the instrument. Now, completely captivated by the unconventional performance, not one set of eyes in the room was diverted away from the band. But what many onlookers might not know is that less than a week prior to this show that same musician was across the country playing to an audience nearly 700 times the size, and a billion times as loud. The mastermind behind this chaos is Lily Desmond.

Lily Desmond performing. Photo by Leanne Pastore.

Originally from Los Angeles, Desmond, 29, has been playing violin since the age of 7 — an amount of time that she says “is scary to think about.” Curiously, Desmond’s connection with music dates to even earlier in her life — her mother recalls her “screaming melodies” in the backyard starting at the age of 2. Her parents, both musicians in their own right, have been well disposed to Desmond’s decision to take a professional route in her musical career. “I’m very lucky to have parents that are both very into the arts,” Desmond said. “They really supported me going into basically the hardest life route possible.”

Upon graduating high school, Desmond moved across the country to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College where she studied music, anthropology and writing. After earning her liberal arts degree in 2016, she decided to remain in New York. “Weirdly, everybody encouraged me to — they were just like, ‘You’ll like the east coast.’” She always took part in family bands or school performances, but she branched out and started playing with other artists during her time at Sarah Lawrence.  She performed her first solo show in 2018, two years after graduating.

“I felt very shy about working with other people for the majority of my young adulthood,” she said. “Mostly because I felt like I wasn’t really a cool kid. I was hanging out with anime nerds and going to conventions and playing video games with people and stuff. And my music was a very solitary thing for me for a long time.”

Lily Desmond in Queens, New York. Photo by Layne Groom.

Nowadays, you can find Desmond ambitiously working with four to seven groups at any given time. Currently, she is closely involved with the avant-garde chamber pop group Sloppy Jane and queer country star Brian Falduto, whom she plays violin for. She recently started collaborating with and writing string arrangements for the Brooklyn-based animator, musician and Stony Brook University alum BenBen. She is also the maestro and sole composer for the original theatrical performance The Tiger’s Bride created by the Theatre Uzume. Through these collaborations, she has traveled coast to coast, overseas and even underground.

Last Halloween, Desmond and her violin accompanied Sloppy Jane and eight other band members onstage at the Hollywood Bowl in her hometown of Los Angeles. “It was so chaotic,” she said.  “It was amazing.” Opening for the hyper-pop dyad 100 Gecs and indie supergroup Boygenius, the stadium was filled to capacity, accommodating over 17,000 screaming fans — the largest crowd she had ever performed for.

“I never experience nerves when I’m playing in a band,” she said. “Especially in Sloppy Jane, because it’s such a huge group, and I feel it’s like camaraderie among numbers. But I felt like I was about to throw up before going on that stage. And then as soon as I got on, I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t see most of the audience. It’s gonna be fine, it’s gonna be great.’”

Desmond also works in smaller projects with Concetta Abbate, another Brooklyn-based violinist and composer. She has played in several of the ensembles that Abbate frequently runs. Recently they have put together — along with viola player Alec Santa Maria — a chamber group that has each member write songs for the performances.

Lily Desmond performing. Photo by Leanne Pastore.

“It is a different muscle,” she said. “I think that I kind of have to put a little bit more of an academic hat on when I’m doing that, or I have to kind of fall back a little bit more on theory than what I’m intuitively used to. Though, I still very much fall back on singing melodies that I think sound good and then translating that into something else to still make it feel compelling.”

Her career also extends well beyond performing. In October of 2020, she began giving online violin lessons, having taught students as young as 6 to as old as 64. But managing her job alongside endless hours of projects, rehearsals and tutoring doesn’t come free of challenges, leading to restless weeks and many uphill battles. “My funds are very low, but thankfully my students understand I have a very flexible schedule and I let them know I’m a touring artist,” she said.  “I gotta take time off sometimes. Basically I just can never get sick.”

Her newest release OMEN, came out on July 1, 2023. The short, but richly inspired, four-song EP is the first in a collection that will make up a larger body of work. Desmond is constructing this project around Joseph Campbell’s theory the Hero’s Journey — which is conventional to the world of literature, but provides a unique foundation to build her euphonious ideas off of. In the 1940s, Campbell was studying the fundamental structure of mythology and folklore. While doing so, he found a pattern unique to stories involving a hero on an adventure. In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he first showcased the theory, Campbell describes the Hero’s Journey: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Each release in this project will represent a different character typically depicted in the monomyth. “OMEN is sort of like the dark or villain of this whole Hero’s Journey concept world I’m in, and then I’m going to release another one from the hero’s perspective,” she explained. “From there, I think I want to do a full album that’s probably going to be like 12 plus songs.” Desmond has been sitting on this idea since 2014, but only started working on the tracks for it in 2019, which she completed during the COVID-19 lockdowns and then recorded in 2021.

The release show for OMEN was held at the pinkFROG cafe in Brooklyn on July 1. At about 6:30 p.m., attendees started to shuffle into the coffee shop. As they made their way from the drink counter to the assorted wooden tables under dimly-lit chandeliers made of stuffed animals, they were greeted with printed programs to guide the experience. Inside them were not only the lyrics to the EP’s songs, but also charts and excerpts that went deeper into the process and inspiration behind the project. Once Desmond stepped onto the stage and captured the audience’s attention, she did not sing. Instead she spoke. She traded in her string instruments for a PowerPoint presentation. This wasn’t a performance of her new project, it was a self-described TED Talk.

Lily Desmond in Queens, New York. Photo by Layne Groom.

Desmond went slide-by-slide to discuss the themes and ideas in OMEN, which included a lesson on Campbell and a discussion of psychologists’ dream theories. These lessons led into the songs from the EP being played over speakers. After each song concluded, members of the audience were encouraged to ask questions regarding the lyrics, composition or anything that came across their minds while listening. The event was well received, with many members of the audience joining in on the discussions. The show concluded with Desmond playing a song that will be included on the next part of the project.

This release show was preceded with a performance by BenBen. Since then, the two have turned into a “crazy partnership.” Desmond recorded 12 different string arrangements for BenBen’s new album, Sincere Gift, and joined him in the United Kingdom on a six-show tour in late November.

“When I found Lily’s music, my jaw hit the floor,” BenBen, also known as Ben Wigler, said. “I felt a connection. We are the same kind of weird. Just an immense sense of kinship and identity. Like a spiritual twin or lost sibling.”

While finishing the production on Sincere Gift, Wigler found himself in an arduous situation where a handful of songs had to be scrapped, and brand new tracks were now needed to fill in the gaps. However, he saw this event as a “cosmic opportunity” to see how he and Desmond would work together co-writing songs. In only a few days, the two produced the new songs just in time for the vinyl pressing of the LP.

“She jumped right in the firing line with me,” Wigler said. “Lily is one of the truly most celestially gifted musicians of our generation. It seemed as though she was decades ahead in experience for someone her age.”

Despite her extensive list of talents, Desmond has — much like any other artist — struggled with self-doubt throughout her career. “In the pandemic, I definitely had a crisis of whether or not I wanted to be a musician, as a career,” she said. “Much like everyone else around me, I was like, ‘Should I go back to grad school?’ I was thinking of actually going back for religious studies because that’s a subject I’m really interested in. But I decided if I did that, I would probably die.”

Deciding not to go through with the career pivot has seemed to fare well with Desmond. She’s non-stop touring and has made many new collaborations since then, all while also working on her solo projects.

“It’s actually pretty recent that the self-doubt kind of stopped, and I think it was because of the OMEN EP release party,” she explained. “I think because the format of that event was so odd. And yet, people came and they told me how much they enjoyed it afterwards. It was like there is a place for my weird ideas. There are people who will connect to it.”

Seven months have passed since then, and that connection has yet to fade. As Desmond and her bandmates carried on with the show at Our Wicked Lady, anyone momentarily looking away from the performance would have glimpsed at a sea of utterly engrossed faces: an image destined to be replicated across many concertgoers in the years to come.

Leanne Pastore contributed reporting.


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