When people began hearing Lily Meola’s name mentioned alongside that of Willie Nelson back in 2013, they were rightly impressed. The country music legend had given Meola, then only 20, his stamp of approval and recorded a duet with her for his album To All the Girls…. But Nelson’s imprimatur was a mixed blessing, setting expectations that Meola was a dyed-in-the-wool country singer. On her upcoming EP Daydream, she tosses those assumptions to the wind.
While country music and Americana inarguably have a place in her sound, Meola’s sweet spot lies somewhere in the intersection of dreampop and soulful folk. She is Lana Del Rey and Joni Mitchell, Mazzy Star and Amy Winehouse.
“I listen to everything from J. Cole to Joni Mitchell. That’s quite a wide gap, but I do reference both of those people and their songs in writing sessions, whether it be the songwriting aspect or the track aspect,” Meola tells Rolling Stone, letting her mind wander for a long moment before adding, “Yeah, it’s pretty trippy.”
Meola, who was raised on Maui in Hawaii and now lives in California, is owed a momentary mental vacation. She spent the past three years coming to terms with the cancer diagnosis of her mother, then caring for her during her illness, and ultimately grieving her death. When Nancy Meola, a beloved figure in the music world as the assistant to pioneering manager Shep Gordon, died in June 2020, her daughter battled a deep depression.
“I still have bad days, but I’m working through it,” she says. “Now I’m moving into this next segment of my life where I’m trying to persevere and finish what I started and make my mom proud, from wherever it is she might be.”
To process her loss, Meola threw herself into everyday tasks like baking, going to the beach, and visiting with friends like Lukas Nelson, the son of Willie. She also immersed herself in songwriting, often sharing the results with Lukas. “He’ll listen to my songs and give me notes,” she says. “I’m just so, so grateful for that friendship. He’s my brother.”
“Nancy was almost a second mom to me, and I grew up with Lily and [her brother] Matt, sort of as rugrats,” Lukas says. “Matt went on to be a world-class surfer. And Lily is a world-class singer-songwriter.”
Daydream, a still-in-progress EP due next year, isn’t Meola’s proper debut — she put out the full-length They Say, a collection of mostly outside songs and covers, in 2016 — but it does announce her as a songwriter with expansive vision. She calls it a “musical memoir of my dark and beautiful, exciting and haunting last few years.”
She’s released three songs from the EP so far: The title track is a slice of soft-rock with a reassuring message (“gotta fall for a minute/before you can fly”). “Smallest Things” is both ethereal and full of triggering imagery (“gold chains, Old Spice, ain’t it sad/the smallest things always take me back”). And “Got Your Way” is a true-life tale of the barista who stole her boyfriend: Meola walked in on the couple making out.
“There’s a lot more detail that goes into what happened after I opened the door, but I feel like I should keep that confidential,” Meola says. “But there’s no hard feelings at all. I love this story because it brought me so much inspiration.”
Nonetheless, the lyrics are biting: “How does he feel sleeping in my bed, how does he taste where my lips have been?” she sings. “You did it softly, you did it slowly, you got your way.” The song arrives with a music video in which Meola douses her ex’s clothes with perfume in the Joshua Tree, California, desert, and sets them ablaze.
Meola, now 27, says it took these past few years of trauma to learn to write so vulnerably.
“I was terrified of that, you know?” she says. “But even through the hard times, we can come out from it stronger and with a smile on her face. And that’s really important for other people to hear. Obviously, you’re going to have hard days and it sucks. But, if you’re not living your daydreams, then what is this life for?”