Considering the way Raquel Lily sings about Birmingham, you would think she’s a native. This spunky singer, however, hails from the Philippines, as well as New York, California and Florida. With a sound that recalls a soulful Etta James blended with a modern, pop-infused beat, Raquel is making her mark on the Magic City. Her debut songs “Play That Song” and “Birmingham” will get your toes tapping in no time. Today, we’re thrilled to have her as our FACE of Birmingham.
Tell us about your upbringing in the Philippines and how it influenced your musical career.
Well, I was only there until I was 7 years old. I moved to New York and lived there until I was 18. Then I moved to Miami, California and then here in Birmingham. Really, the only thing that influenced me and my music career is the fact that the Philippines takes a lot of pride in the arts and their culture. Music, especially singing and dancing, is a huge part of Filipino culture. My entire family sings and I suppose I started singing as early as I can remember.
How has Southern culture influenced your music?
Southern culture is a beast of its own. Funny enough, living here has inevitably brought me back to some of my R&B roots that I grew up with. I have lived in every corner of the United States — New York, California, Florida — and I’ve never experienced such amazing, humble, homegrown talent until I moved here.
There is definitely a natural and unique kind of groove here that exists nowhere else. It’s like I baked this cake with different ingredients from all parts of the U.S. and some exotic spices from the Philippines, and the Birmingham influence is the delectable, super rich, totally bad for you, Paula Deen-style buttery icing on the cake.
What bands and musicians influence you and why?
My parents listened to a lot of R&B and jazz, so I suppose I was influenced by that kind of music just by such early and continuous contact with it. I became completely obsessed with the Beatles when I was 9 years old, thanks to my brother, who has great musical taste and also introduced me to Queen, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Rolling Stones and many others.
Around 17 years old, I started listening to pop like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Jason Mraz and Ingrid Michaelson. In college, I briefly took vocal lessons from a jazz vocalist who encouraged me to sing jazz, and I discovered female powerhouses such as Amy Winehouse, Adele, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Etta James, all of whom I still listen to, to this day. I guess you can say my musical taste is very eclectic.
What’s been your favorite performance and why?
My favorite performance, thus far, is probably tied between playing at the Good People Brewing stage and CukoRakko Festival a few weeks back. The crowd at Good People was just so amazing. The stage was just built that afternoon, so I guess we christened it! We were rocking so hard that the speakers began to rock back and forth from the wood flooring bending underneath all of us. It was insane!
What do you hope to convey in your songs?
I always hope to convey the emotions I was feeling at the time when I wrote the song. Of course, every time I sing these songs, I have a deep connection with them because most times, my songs are about things I’ve actually been through, personally. I also love seeing people smile in the crowd. That, in itself, is super rewarding.
Describe your songwriting process.
Creativity, for me, comes very spontaneously. Usually, I write a melody to the song first and find guitar chords and structure that can suit that melody. Once I have a song relatively solidified, I show it to my band and we work out parts together. We then practice it for some time and, eventually, the song shapes itself.
Describe a moment in your life that you translated into a song.
Hmmm, super personal terrain here! Well, let’s talk about “Mortar and Pestle,” I suppose. I was in a serious relationship and we were both really young and passionate but didn’t know (anything) about the world. So, inevitably, we broke up. So, the song is about how sometimes, you can’t avoid breaking someone’s heart. You don’t mean to, but that’s the way things end. Breakups are not fun, even when you’re the one who’s doing the breaking.
Where do you see your music career going in the future? What’s your ultimate goal?
Ultimately, I want to make a career out of writing songs. Of course, I don’t want to be a “starving artist.” I want to make a comfortable living and not have to work multiple jobs just to sustain myself, which is what I’m doing now. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I would have said, “I want to be a singer!” And so, I’m simply pursuing my dream and attempting to make a living off of what I love to do the most. Right now, I’m playing a lot of local gigs and festivals. I really hope to take that to a national level. I will take this puppy as far as I can take it, really.
What do you love most about Birmingham and why?
The people in Birmingham are great. There are so many colorful characters in Birmingham and I’ve made many unique friends here. Everyone is also typically genuine and pleasant. Oh, and the food is amaze-balls! Can’t forget the struggle to keep in shape, because of the amazing food everywhere!
What is the most rewarding aspect of being a musician?
I think it’s most rewarding when people tell me how they connected to a song I wrote, especially when they elaborate on lyrics and tell me their own personal interpretation or story behind it. I love that because it makes me feel like I’ve truly connected with someone just through a song I originally wrote all alone in my bedroom.
Describe your perfect weekend.
I would sleep in and not have anything on my schedule to worry about. I’d go hang out on the beach and take occasional swims in between napping in the sun. I would go enjoy some local seafood, probably sushi.
On the flip side, I am a workaholic, whether I like to admit it or not. A perfect weekend, in reality, would probably also be playing back-to-back shows on both days — each being very successful and relatively stress-free — with a great crowd and lots of good chemistry on stage.
Outside of music, what are your hobbies?
I like to draw and paint. I haven’t done either in a very long time but I’ve always been artistic in that sense. My favorite mediums are pencil and watercolor. I really enjoy cooking for people. Mostly, I just like eating though.
What is your best piece of advice?
Be open to change. Anything can happen.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My guitar, my cats (I am a proud mother of three!) and food.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the gorgeous photos of Raquel in her home studio.