music journalist since 1992 | educator since 2004 | podcaster since 2020 | Iranian American since birth
My interview with Lili Haydn for her album, Lililand, for Boxx Magazine:
Lili Haydn is a legend—a pint-sized violin virtuoso who has been a mainstay in a number of music scenes for years. She has released four of her own albums—the most recent being Lililand—and has scored films alongside Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control team. She has shredded on her violin accompanying Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. She has taken Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” to an even darker space playing next to Roger Waters at Coachella. Whether it’s been Perry Farrell’s Porno For Pyros or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, George Clinton or Cyndi Lauper, the Los Angeles Philharmonic or Herbie Hancock, whoever Haydn has performed with has been left with an indelible shift in their sound. Watching audience reactions to Haydn’s no rules, emotionally jarring playing, you can feel whatever venue she’s in pulse with the power of her intensity and her unrivaled proficiency on her instrument.
Part of Haydn’s passion comes from the immense weight of experiences and emotions that make up who she is. The daughter of comedian Lotus Weinstock (the first woman to perform at the Comedy Store) and pop culture icon David Jove (pioneering mass producer of acid alongside Owsley Stanley), Haydn moved from Canada to the Brotherhood of the Source commune in Los Angeles with her mother, before being ripped away by her fugitive from the law father. She had an extensive stint as a child actor making inroads both in television and feature films.
From the age of three, however, it was the violin that has been Haydn’s medium, a second voice for her many thoughts and feelings. Lililand is a culmination of these in a way even more complex and expressive than her previous works. Lililand is not something to download one track off of, or to play in the background while doing your chores. Even if you try, the heightening of emotion with every track will stop you not too long into the album. The tiny but deliciously curvy Haydn arrives at another Los Angeles mainstay spot, The 101 Café, to drink tea and chat brain damage, being a funeral player, music and to shed a few tears with Boxx contributor, Lily Moayeri.
Lily Moayeri: It has been six years since your last album. During this time, you’ve been suffering from the fallout of a chemical accident in your home. What exactly happened?
Lili Haydn: I had a generator that was powering my recording studio that was melting, so I was breathing in melting flame retardant and melting wires and it was affecting me very negatively. I have a very keen sense of smell and I smelled exhaust fumes. I finally got an industrial hygienist over who worked with Erin Brockivich’s toxicologist, and when they heard my symptoms, they said it sounds like Chlordane. It was Chlordane. I found a support group online. There is a very elaborate protocol to get rid of it in the house to save the house, and I was able to, thank goodness. I spent a fortune to get the house livable again. This woman from the support group told me to leave and get rid of everything—just walk away. I thought I didn’t have to, but anything I took with me contaminated the new spaces. It was really horrible. I sold two cars. I rented 15 different cars. I ended up wearing garbage bags like a poor man’s HAZMAT outfit, tearing them off so I wouldn’t contaminate the new clean spaces. In my physical CD, the inside cover is a picture of me in an outfit I made out of garbage bags. I finally left my house with the clothes on my back, a couple of pairs of shoes and my violin and moved in with my fiancé. That was five years ago. It’s taken me five years to finally admit that I live there. This week, I bought a piece of furniture that feels like me.
LM: What was the worst part of this poisoning you were experiencing?
LH: I had lung infections and ear infections. I was getting sick all the time. My immune system had gotten blasted from a melting generator’s melting wires before that so it was this cocktail of toxicity that took me over the edge.
The weirdest part about what happened with me was the fact that I couldn’t process information. I’ve always been wrapped up in the way that I interpret information and am able to express it and think. To have that taken from me was very scary. I remember being in bed with my fiancé crying, saying, “I don’t know how I am if I can’t think.”
It reminded me a lot of my mom, who died of a brain tumor. My mother was a world class wordsmith—brilliant with turn of phrase. When she got sick, she lost her words and it was this tragic irony to see the one thing she really felt was the essence of who she was, taken from her.
As we grow up, we accumulate the accouterments of our identity and personalities. From the first time we lose a friend or a parent or a grandparent, we start to lose the elements of our world that define us. Peeling back those layers, we become the essence of who we really are without any of the accouterments. I loved seeing how that unfolded in front of my eyes with my mom where her essence was just as exquisite and just as graceful without her language.
LM: What did you do to heal?
LH: I did a major drug detox for six months, hyperbaric oxygen therapy and a whole panoply of every therapy you can imagine. When I finally started practicing violin, every day I would wake up with a little bit more clarity, like when winter is coming and the air is just a little bit more crisp and you can smell the greenery around you. When I realized this was music that was saving my brain, I became rigorous about it.
I always was a big proponent of music in schools, but before it was more of a principle, now I realize it’s essential. Kids who do music score significantly higher on all their tests. Everything is enhanced by it. They’ve done control group experiments with people with brain injuries and with aphasia. They’ve had three control groups. One group had no stimulus, one group had intellectual stimulus in the form of books on tape and another had musical stimulus in the form of music on an iPod. The iPod group had 65% better recovery than either of the other two groups combined. It’s the most effective form of therapy. When they do encephalograms, they see music lights up the entire brain like nothing else.
LM: It’s a shame that music isn’t automatically considered a legitimate profession choice the way conventional fields are.
LH: The ability to make a living in the arts is directly related to the fact that we’ve devalued the arts in our society. Everybody downloads for free because it hasn’t been taught to them that it’s valuable. There’s a meme going around Facebook that all the musicians that I know send around: People are willing to pay $5 for a cup of coffee that takes 10 seconds to make, costs 30 cents to make but they won’t pay 99 cents for a song that could have taken somebody a year or five years to make. It’s a sad state of affairs. I think it’s important to have the old world aesthetic that the arts are treasured, whether or not it’s a way to make a living. It’s a valuable commodity in our society. That would directly impact whether or not people could make a living at it because people would treasure it. They would pay for their downloads. They would be willing to make sure there were grants for artists. It should be taught and valued as something to have in your life.
LM: You weren’t able to complete this album quickly with all the health issues, but you still managed to do quite a lot of scoring in the last few years.
LH: Fortunately I never lost my sense of melody, so I was able to score a bunch of films in the last five years. I was part of Hans Zimmer’s team. I’ve improvised my whole life and I was an actress as a child and my mom was a comedian so I know how to interact with dialogue and drama. Also I think of scoring in a very small way the way I do when I’m playing with a singer. You’re complementing what the person is doing, you’re underscoring, you’re enhancing it, you’re answering it, you’re foreshadowing it, you’re allowing the character to pontificate about it, you’re abstaining. It’s the same dynamic in a way. I have that relationship already, so when I started getting asked to score things, it felt very natural.
LM: You also won a film composing scholarship to Sundance. What was that?
LH: The Sundance Institute picks five or six directors and their projects, out of thousands of applicants, and they pick six composers out of that many applicants. It’s a two- to three-week program where you are asked to score to films that have already been scored with the advisors that are the biggest film composers. The first half is you’re matched up with these great composers. The second half you’re matched up with these directors in the lab composing for their future films many of which go on to theatrical distribution. It’s a really great experience.
LM: How did these experiences impact the creation of Lililand?
LH: The record completely changed. Every time I would score a film, I would come back to my record and think, “This is nowhere near as great as I could be now.” I’ve always thought of myself as a cinematic songwriter, but it feels like score now. I want to create an entire journey: spiritual and musical, lyrical, a little political and emotional. I felt like the more fluid I got in my brain and the more experience and the richer my musical palette was the more I could cultivate all of those levels for this record to be as complete as possible. I feel like I finally got to that place with this record.
LM: Listening to the whole album through, it gets more and more emotional the further you get into it.
LH: That’s what I intended. It is a fantastical world starting from “Elephant Trapeze” that is both light and dark and that’s my experience of the world. It’s equal parts levity and gravity so that is the point. Every single song on the record, even the playful ones, was born of these magical moments of inspiration. Simmering in my studio, melodies and concepts would come to me. Every single experience has led to these moments of inspiration that then were crystallized. There were a ton of songs that didn’t make the record and I struggled with them. Some of these took a really long time to develop. The kernel of it was there but every time I would dress it, it would miss the mark but I would go back to the kernel and finally get to it.
LM: The album closer, “I Am A Man” is both provocative and intriguing.
LH: It was going to be from an album called I Am A Man. I was asked to perform at the Civil Rights Museum. There were these signs sanitation workers held up who marched with Martin Luther King before he was assassinated. It was so compelling and to me, it was the essence of what we are all talking about in every movement, whether it’s environmentalism, LGBTQ rights, women’s movement, African American movement, it’s all about human dignity and honoring the divine in the creature in front of you.
LM: A lot of times when people in positions of attention try to champion causes it feels like they either don’t really know what they’re talking about or they’re not sincere about it and it’s a PR stunt. With you, your championing of many causes feels 100% genuine.
LH: People like to bash Los Angeles for being phony. I think that’s too simplistic. That’s phony. I think everything contains its own opposite. Even when you’re sincere, there’s a modicum of ego and inauthenticity. There has to be constant vigilance to maintain one’s own authenticity. My passion is music and human rights. Because I was picked on as a kid and because my mom was abused by my dad, when I saw Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, it just was like, “That’s what I want to do, I want to champion the underdog.”
I was a political science major at Brown. I went on this crusade to be a human rights lawyer. I worked for the East Harlem Interfaith Coalition For Fair Banking that was enforcing the regulations on banks to stay in underprivileged areas. What I realized was this world of public policy was so incremental in change, so disconnected, all these different organizations weren’t coordinated. The efforts were riddled with egos. I almost got an ulcer working in this room.
When I came home to LA, I started jamming with people and started having a sense of what music could do to inspire kindness and our better angels. I realized that was the way that I would be able to be Mr. Smith Goes To Washington on some level. It is authentic for me.
But I realize, there’s room for every color in the spectrum and it takes every experience in order to make up this world. That’s why I felt like this record needed to be equal parts light and dark. I have so many heavy human rights songs and I’ve been through the mud with parents dead and sickness and brain damage and in wartorn areas and yet, the particles of dust dance in a certain way that is particularly funny in the timing of the world’s movements. It’s pure dance and choreography and you look at how essential it is to have a cartoon that actually represents playfulness and to have that playfulness equally represented.
LM: How did you get started on the violin?
LH: I had a dream I could play the violin. My mom had a singing group called Lotus, Madonna and Spring and she got me a little baby violin. She had a violinist in the band, and when I was three years old, I would stand in front of them rosining the bow. I didn’t know how to play then, but I had this relationship with the violin. I was seven years old in third grade, and they had auditions for the orchestra, but I was a year younger than everybody and I’ve always been little and they didn’t have a violin small enough for me so they wouldn’t let me in the orchestra. I cried and told my mom and we drove right to the music store and they fitted me for a violin. We rented it and she found me a violin teacher and I had an immediate aptitude for it. The day that I got my violin, my mom wrote a song in G major, which is a key where you can play open strings, where you don’t have to know the actual music so I could get a sense for the music right away and of interactivity. It was called “Mama’s Pride” and the lyric for that was, “All my life I have waited for all my life to feel this feeling now so preciously you’ve started to play with me, darling daughter you’re my musical pal, playing this song with you is what heaven is to me/praise the Lord for giving us this gift of harmony and for all the times my heart’s been satisfied/there’s nothing deeper than a mama’s pride.” I played for my mom as she was dying. When my mom was on her deathbed, a melody came to me, and my friend who channels said, “Your mom is in this place in between places,” and that’s the title of my last record. I believe the intervals were given to me to bring in spirit so I could give her this last gift while she was in this world.
Over the years, I’ve played at a lot people’s weddings, births, and funerals, and been at a lot of people’s deathbeds and played as people were dying. Having lived through all that trauma, I feel I’m not afraid of it anymore. I see the beauty and that richness. Once you get over that horror, it’s just another phase of life. I feel like I’m uniquely capable of bringing the muse into this situation that rarely has a light shone on it in any kind of bearable way.
LM: Do you have the same connection with your father as you have with your mother?
LH: There are genuine sociopaths, and I’ve certainly met a few, but I believe my father was one. If we can remember when people’s needs are met, they generally behave much nicer, and are, generally speaking, more loving, but it’s hard when somebody’s acting like an asshole to you to maintain your compassion and not want to retaliate. He was called the Acid King, running around the world and turning everybody—The Rolling Stones, The Beatles—onto LSD. It wasn’t illegal at the time, but they ended up framing him and putting him in jail in Canada. His father got him a dead guy’s passport and paid for his bail. He skipped town and came to America as a complete outlaw.
He was a terror. He was a drug addict. He was into weapons. I didn’t only escape a lot of things—he shot in our car with the guns—but my terror as a child was not just me being melodramatic, he actually was a sociopath. He also created a show called New Wave Theater. It preceded MTV and was really well respected for his cocaine editing style. Short attention span—that was the seminal editing style that created MTV. He got another deal for another TV show and the host of his show, Peter Ivers, didn’t want to go with him to this other show, then he was murdered. It’s still an unsolved murder. A lot of people said my dad did it.
My elementary school was having a reunion. I didn’t make it to the reunion, but some of my favorite teachers were going to be part of it and I got in touch with one of them on Facebook. He said, “So glad you’re doing well. I was always worried about you. I was always worried for your safety. I knew your father was a drug addict and had anger management problems. He came and visited me one time and scared me.” I was thinking, “My dad didn’t know what grade I was in, let alone take a parent teacher’s meeting.” I asked my teacher what the circumstances of the meeting were. And he said, “Your father came to talk to me about your science project. He wanted you to do a project on these LED lights he was developing.” I remembered my dad thought the next big craze on the dancefloor was going to be these lights that you put in your nose and your ear. My dad who had not gone to college and couldn’t help me with my homework, whether he wanted to or not—ever—suddenly had something he could help me with and he wanted to help me with my science project. Nothing else mattered. I was just moved that my dad wanted to help me with anything.