Freddie Lewis on finding his identity and the release of his new music and poetry book
Singer-songwriter and poet, Freddie Lewis joins our zoom call on Thursday 30th September. The day before an exciting announcement to fans about the upcoming release of his Lilac Underpass Mixtape and poetry book, Notes from a Lilac Underpass.
We discuss Lewis’ beautiful lyricism in both his poetry and music and how the writing process has enabled him to understand and learn more about his own identity. Lewis also touches on the ways in which his music has changed and become more honest and authentic since his transition.
The Bristol-based artist emphasises the importance of gratitude. He discusses how his art has transformed over the years, from a place to vent negative struggles associated with identity, to a positive space in which he can capture the beauty of day to day life.
When did you first become interested in writing poetry and music?
When I was like eight or nine I had a really ugly notebook that was covered in jangly beads. I used to write little stories in that. So I guess that was the start, like little stories, but I wasn’t very original. I used to rewrite old fairy tales, so I did a rework of “The Three Little Pigs,” but it was Iguanas [laughs]. Then when I was like 12 or 13, I think 12 my Grandad got a new guitar and gave me his old guitar. And then I got very into Taylor Swift, every day I would get home from school and just be playing and trying to write songs like Taylor Swift. Poetry actually came a lot later, poetry was kind of a lockdown born thing. But I’ve always written little passages at the end of my day, like as a reflection tool. And so that kind of became poems I guess.
Have your life experiences always influenced your music and poetry?
Definitely, like when I was in my 12 year old era of writing all the time, which I haven’t really grown out of [laughs], I used my songs then. I was in an all girls grammar school and for lots of reasons I didn’t feel quite at home. They’re rough at the best of times and then add being queer and a trans man, it was hard. I would get home and just kind of use them to vent. I guess the only real difference between me then and what I’ve learned to do now is that I still vent into my songs but I kind of vent the happy things. Also, I try and vent in a way that means other people can put themselves in it. I can make them very subjective and very intimate, but still a more universal thing.
You’re announcing your latest project, Lilac Underpass Mixtape and poetry book, Notes from a Lilac Underpass, what can we expect from these releases?
Yes it will be released on the 29th October. It is seven tracks, the mixtape and the poetry book, which I handily have here [flicks through the book] has got all these lovely illustrations. So my sister, Grace is a really talented Illustrator and she’s done all these lovely little drawings. The sketches are taken from imagery from the songs and they tell the same stories. The poetry book works through notes on writing, notes on loving, notes on healing, being, blooming. And the songs do the same. The poems paint the scenes in the songs and I guess the main thing about this collection of work is it’s really rooted in gratitude and everyday experiences.
I’m not very good at doing a one emotion banger, because I think that we experience emotions as very complex and multi layered things. And so there is a song in there about grief. It’s got an upbeat kind of happy tone and choice of instrumentation and there’s a moment in it which is very very sad. I use everyday imagery and a very diverse range of emotions to paint the whole picture. I think it’s romantic enough, everyday life is kind of grey. I’m very fortunate that I can say that. For me, I get on the bus and have a nice time, get to do my job, come home, sing songs, and I’m really happy with that. I’m really happy with with life. So I think it’s kind of rooted in this everyday imagery, the cityscape. And that’s what the lilac underpass is about. It’s finding the lilac underpass in amongst the city.
Talk to me more about the meaning behind the line “let the grey sky last in my lilac underpass” in relation to gratitude?
The part of gratitude that I really struggled with before was that there will always be the grey sky. And so that’s why it’s got that prefix of there will be difficult things, there always is. There are horrendous things happening, like everyday. Feeling down and grieving for the world doesn’t help. Unless you go out to change policies and do things like that, obviously that helps. But taking the weight of it on your shoulders doesn’t make the weight go away, you know? And so that’s that sentence, “let the grey sky last in my lilac underpass.” Things can be really really rubbish, but I’m lucky, I’ve got a roof over my head, I’m dry, I’m seeing the good in what can be a challenging place to be.
“I don’t really feel any pressure to fit into a box because I’m just sort of doing me, that’s the box.”
Do you find it scary to share such personal poetry and music?
Yeah, I think I found it scary probably a couple of years ago. But I find it quite empowering now. There are obviously things about my life that I don’t share and but I find it really empowering to kind of show everyone little parts of where my brain is. If I’m honest with TikTok, the poetry on there I didn’t expect people to find it. It was literally just for me.
I was just like, “I’m going to start writing down my day on this little platform.” That’s kind of what it came back to especially when I started releasing music this year. With “Growing Pains” because that was the first one I kind of sat with myself the night before and was like, “okay this is the start of a new thing.” And then I had some chats with friends and they were asking, “oh, how many streams do you want to get and whatever” and I kind of sat there and I was like, “I don’t even know the answer to that question I just want the song to be there because I just love what I make.” And so sharing it with other people was a bonus rather than a scary thing.
Your single “Growing Pains” deals with the struggle of grappling with identity, does writing about these personal experiences enable you to understand your identity better?
I think the actual writing process like sitting down, pen and paper, typing whichever I sort of go to that day, yes helps me understand myself more. Because sometimes especially when you’re in a state of flow, things will come up that you haven’t consciously decided yet or thought about yet. You discover more about yourself. “Growing Pains” specifically was one that just fell out. And then I tried to edit some bits and just couldn’t I was like, “okay, I guess it’s like that then.”
How did you gain the confidence to put yourself and your art out into the world? Do other people’s opinions ever hold you back?
I think a big part of gaining the confidence was getting it wrong a few times or a lot of times. When I was 15 I released stuff and then again at 17, 18, all under my old name. I tried to start a band that was a completely different genre to this. And all of those things just weren’t quite right for me. I think exploring all those different things and then finding the bit of music that’s like, “no, that’s my favourite bit, that’s the bit I want to be in.” And messing up a few times. I still mess up all the time. Just forgiving yourself and remembering that pretty much no one cares apart from you, not in a dark way but if you put up a video and you did the wrong edit of it, no one knows.
Why did you decide to start sharing your poetry and music on TikTok and has the platform increased your following?
I think it’s a really good way for people finding me because of the way TikTok works with the algorithm, people find me easier. With Instagram, because it’s so steady and it goes up to a few 100 and then you get more likes. But with TikTok it’s so unpredictable. I can’t really get a grip on how many people actually regularly watch my videos and comment. It’s a wild rise.
I have had a few people that have seen me on TikTok and then come and followed on Instagram and then messaged me so it does work for people finding me definitely. All the ones before had like 200 views and then I wrote one about my best friend Jodie and then everyone was tagging all their friends and I was like “this is so nice.” And then she made one back, I cried so much that day.
“I would love to work with loads of queer artists around the world and write lyrics for them or with them. Lyrics is like my most natural thing in the world.”
Do you feel a pressure to present yourself as a certain type of artist and performer or fit into a box?
What a cool question. I definitely used to but not anymore. Especially my music and my transition as like an intertwined experience. When I first like went on “t” (testosterone) and my voice started dropping I felt the sort of pressure to be more masculine in all elements of my life including my music. And that’s when I did the band and that was electric guitars. Then as I sort of became a lot more comfortable with my masculinity I actually then became a lot more feminine. And my music did the same and I think it’s a much more true to me thing. I don’t really feel any pressure to fit into a box because I’m just sort of doing me, that’s the box.
Who are your musical influences?
So I’m big into Arlo Parks, Easy life, Thomas Headon, the kind of like indie and then especially with Arlo the indie and soul-influenced combination. And also the sort of 2012 to 2015 UK acoustic folk scene, you have Gabrielle Aplin and Lewis Watson, obviously, they’re still all going but that was when they all seem to have become of prominence in my life so that’s where they sit [laughs]. Dodie, people like that, all of the cool like acoustic ones. Across the pond, Cavetown in America, just really nice acoustic music and then going back a bit Nick Cave just for sheer powerhouse lyricism. And then poet wise, the sort of New York School of poets like Frank O’Hara is my probably my favourite one.
What can we expect from your upcoming show at The Bristol Fringe?
I have a show coming up at The Bristol Fringe on the 28th October. So that’s going to be my sneak preview , because the mixtape comes out the next day. And then I’ve got another one, which I’m announcing tomorrow, which is 2nd December at Crofters Rights in Bristol. That’s going to be my first ever full-band Freddie Lewis show. Jodie is supporting them. And then also on December 2nd, we’ve got two other supports which is Charlie T Smith who happens to be Jodie’s boyfriend and another one of my best friends and a Bath-based Indie artist called Nory-J who is really cool and just dropped his first single.
The 28th one is going to be a very different type of show than I’ve ever done before. Because I’ve sort of gigged my music a lot but I haven’t gigged my poetry. The show is going to kind of go through the book and play the songs in the places where they belong in the book. It’s going to be a really intimate kind of talkative night. It’s such a little venue, and it’ll just be a little group of people that I care about [laughs].
Do you ever receive negative feedback and how do you cope with it?
Yeah online, I’ve had to basically just mute Twitter as an app [laughs]. It depends, I haven’t had too much negative feedback. I get it about my poems on TikTok people are like, “Oh, this is pretentious” and yeah, it kind of is. Someone said “oh I’m embarrassed for you.” I was like, “you don’t have to be because I’m not worried.” But I think that kind of attitude, you have to have that a bit if you’re going to do any sort of art because it’s so subjective, like people will hate it. There are songs that I dislike. That doesn’t mean they’re not good songs, it just means that I dislike them. So people are going to feel that way about my songs. If anything, that’s a good thing, because it means that if everyone likes your music it’s probably very very bland. So if people dislike it I’m like, “okay well there must be some people who really like it.”
What is the dream?
Oh a year ago I would have said self-publishing a poetry book, “in the bag.” Um I think my biggest dream is to just keep doing what I’m doing. I’m kind of living the dream. I’m not a full-time artist so that would be a big dream is to be full time. But even my grown-up job is now moving into the music industry so that’s kind of like big dreams. I call it my grown-up job [laughs] it sounds more fun than like, my day job or whatever.
I would love to work with loads of queer artists around the world and write lyrics for them or with them. Lyrics is like my most natural thing in the world. I don’t know where that’s come from, but it’s just my favourite thing to do. Lining all the words up, getting the phrasing right, coming up with really interesting ways to say things. Because basically, all songs are like, “I’m in love, I’m heartbroken, I’m finding out about myself, I’m grieving, I’m having fun with my friends, oh and sex.” It’s just finding really cool ways to tell stories about those things. And that’s my dream. So if I can make a life just telling stories about those six things.
Are there any venues you really want to perform at?
I would love to do and I actually emailed them and asked but they’re not out of COVID rules, just because of their personal decision but Gay’s The Word Bookshop in London, I would love to perform there. Also, I would love to perform at the Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto. That’s what my song “A Bookshop in Toronto” is about. That would be a big full-circle moment to go back there and like play there. And then I’d love to, maybe next year do some festivals. Because I’ve only just started releasing music, I’ve never played somewhere where someone sung my song back at me. Like just one little trans man in the corner, that would just make my life.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
This is going be a really cheesy answer. But I have this tattoo on my rib that was from my nan who my book is dedicated to. And it’s got the tattoo as the opening page [shows page], and it says “for my nan.” And it says, “have a wonderful time making music, congratulations for turning your life around so successfully, you’re a star.” If I’m stressed about all of the can be stressful parts of being a musician artist I’m like, “just have a wonderful time making music.”