What does it mean to be a work in progress? It means constantly working on improving, but knowing, at the same time, that you aren’t finished yet. It means putting everything you have in to getting better, even when you don’t know what “better” looks like or what it’ll take to get there, and it means accepting the fact that maybe you’ll never be exactly where it is you want to be.
Lizzy Lehman, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist of Austin indie-pop band Carry Illinois, is putting in the work to get better. The band’s latest effort, the Work In Progress EP, was released on May 25, and the five tracks confront mental health, self-loathing and self-acceptance, and LGBT issues. It arrived at an interesting time for Lehman: this January, she stopped taking anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs after fifteen years, and she’s been dealing with intense anxiety and depression in the months since. Speaking on the EP’s title track, she says, “‘Work In Progress’ is just about realizing that I am imperfect, that I have a lot to learn [and] basically… that it’s a process and it’s not an easy one.” Earlier on the day of Substream‘s conversation with Lehman, she’d seen her therapist, and together they agreed that she would begin an intensive outpatient program to work through everything that has been troubling her.
And while she knows with the work she can get better, getting through the day isn’t always easy. “Lately it’s been tough,” Lehman confessed when asked what keeps her going through her toughest days. “Just trying to remember that I have the music and that I have an incredible support system and that I have lots of exciting things to look forward to, and that I have a wonderful wife who is really supportive – and yeah, just remembering that I have such an incredible support system is definitely what keeps me going along.”
Work In Progress closes with its title track, the chorus of which sees Lehman proclaim, “I’m a work in progress, let’s get to it.” She says of the song, “The first half of the chorus, basically, [is about] the idea that we are all trying to figure out who we are, what we want, and that we all go through ups and downs and struggles and triumphs, and that it’s really important to remember that we’re all constantly evolving and that’s okay, and that it’s okay to fall down because you can get back up and there are also people who can help you through hard times, especially like what I’m going through right now.”
Carry Illinois’s last release was the 2017 EP Garage Sale. Like Work In Progress, Garage Sale was “a very emotional and personal piece,” though the sound “was much more stripped down.” The songs on the new EP are even more personal than before, but flushed out with lush soundscapes: on opening track “Scattered,” Lehman’s vocals go from delicate and careful on the verses, to full and anthemic on the choruses as the instrumentals build around her, and “Pushing Sound” features simple guitar riffs that, when layered upon each other, echo and ripple out like a stone touching the water. The band worked with producer/engineer Grant Johnson for the EP, but Lehman feels that the shift in sound came naturally from a desire to collaborate and work together as a band because they had more control in the production style. This time around, she and her bandmates – guitarist Darwin Smith, drummer Rudy Villarreal, bassist Andrew Pressman, and keyboardist Benjamin Rowe Violet – were able to work as a collective group to write the music. “This is really the first time that we were able to really collaborate as a band and make decisions and say ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘I like this’ or ‘this seems like this would really highlight this part of the song’ or, you know – ‘this certain part would really help lift towards the chorus’ or whatever,” she shares. “I think that it’s more lush and more multi-layered because we really wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of each song and provide a really good musical context before I laid down the vocals and really give each song its due – to really provide the proper emotional context surrounding the lyrics.”
Lehman had already written the lyrics before the band began recording, but explains that “we really hadn’t had much of a chance to actually develop the musical contexts for each song, and that was what was so special about this process – that we got to do it in the studio and spend four or five days working through all the different keyboard parts and synths and guitar parts, etcetera.” Having a strong support system from her bandmates for “creating the whole framework for the songs” gave her “a much better idea of how I wanted to sing and which parts of each song were quieter moments and which parts were much more triumphant and bigger, more explosive and more energetic moments – I think that definitely helped in that process.”
Making yourself vulnerable through art can be frightening; when asked if she’d ever felt fear or hesitation in opening up through her lyrics, Lehman reflected on the loss of her friend and former bandmate John Winsor, who died by suicide in 2016. “I think it actually became easier after my friend and our former bandmate passed away. I just had this moment where I was like, ‘Okay, if he were here now, he would tell me that I should keep going and I should keep writing’ – there’s no reason to hide anything and there’s no reason to make up anything, because what I know to be true is what I’ve experienced.” Years prior to this, back in 2009, she took a songwriting course called “Songwriting As Truth-Telling,” which was “the beginning of me realizing how important it was to tell my own truth through song.” Broaching uncomfortable and vulnerable subject matter in songwriting never gets easier, she admits, “but it gets easier in a sense because I’m finally allowing myself to process painful memories and emotionally difficult times in my life through words instead of just holding it inside or holding back…. I needed to tap into the deepest, most painful things I’ve gone through because that’s the only way to actually process them and to move forward.”
Body image can be one of life’s most personal and painful struggles; when you aren’t happy with the way you look, there’s no comfort in your skin and often, no peace in your own mind. Released as a single in March, “Runaway” explores Lehman’s experience dealing with body image as well as a tendency to run away from her problems. It’s a theme that’s universal across age, gender, and sexual identity lines, but while body positivity and self-image are often covered in blog posts or other articles, they’re rarely approached in songwriting: “I had to exclaim that I have always hated my body and the way I’ve felt in it, you know, walking around in it…. I hadn’t really heard a song about, you know, hating your body and… basically not feeling at home within it, and I wanted to express the importance of it being okay to say that.”
While we may never erase our past experiences, we can heal and begin to move forward if we acknowledge what’s troubling us. The chorus of “Runaway” tackles the idea of wanting to run away from your problems, but knowing we need to process them first: “I know, I know how to runaway / I know, I know it’s not good to runaway,” Lehman sings. “It’s really important, at the same time, to look at your past and see what you can do to heal now, in order to feel better within your own body and to feel better emotionally and mentally,” she offers.
“Runaway” also points to a sense of shame in admitting your most deep-rooted fears and feelings: in the opening verse, Lehman sings, “When did you first begin, to hate your body and your heart?” “I was six or I was seven – wasn’t I too young to feel that way?” If she had the opportunity to go back and talk to her past self, she says, “I would tell myself that A, it’s okay to feel this way and it’s an absolutely natural feeling and that it’s okay to have these struggles because you know, everybody deals with it; and also I would tell myself that different is beautiful and that different is what makes the world a really interesting and unique place to be in.” She further stresses the importance of not internalizing negative self-talk and negative comments from others, as well as focusing on the deeper, more powerful inner qualities we possess within: “try to focus on the things that make you a very special and talented person and don’t focus on the superficial, materialistic stuff that’s pushed in our face every day… by magazines and television, etcetera – focus on being creative and developing a sense of self-worth.”
With such personal songs, it’s no surprise that fans have approached Lehman at shows to share how they’ve connected with what she has to say. Often, they’ll say they’ve gone through the same thing and that a song has made them cry – the impact of which isn’t lost on Lehman. “I think that’s a good thing,” she acknowledges, “because that means that what I’ve said and what I’ve sung throughout the course of that evening has made an impact on them and made them realize that they’re not alone, and that they have a support system within music even if they don’t have a support system within their communities, [and] that it provided them a chance to sort of process their own difficult times and their own emotional struggles – which I think is really important, because I think a lot of times folks just try to shove all of that down and that only makes it worse and doesn’t help in personal, emotional growth.”
If we are to accept being a work in progress, it means accepting that we need to work to get better, but that if we do put in the work, we can and will get to where we want to be. As the conversation drew to a close, Lehman had some poignant words to share: “I would just want the reader to know that mental health and self-care is super important and that it’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to reach out – it’s important to know what resources are out there locally in your own town, and nationally. Don’t forget about the people that love you, because they’re the ones that will hold you up during tough times and during great times.”