Catching Up with LeSage Williams

Catching Up with LeSage Williams

Photo of LeSage Williams by Caroline Liu 

LeSage Williams released their Stay Safe, Be Good EP in 2018 and their single “King Latifah” in 2019, merging spoken word and R&B to convey the joys and realities of growing up as a non-binary Black kid in a segregated Chicago. Their music paints a picture of childhood euphoria riding big wheels and watching morning cartoons, while contrasting to the horror of realizing home is at risk when toxic masculinity walks through the door and corrupt developers invade the neighborhood. “Hood is always up for grabs, they just want to gentrify. Starbucks on the corner, now I’m terrified”, a line from “Black and Brown Aliens”, one of many songs that calls for the listener to rethink what an equitable community looks like. Nhu Do and Victoria Parra sat down with LeSage December 2019 to talk lineage, evolution in personal artistry, and the value of a name.

Victoria Parra: What’s your writing process been like?

LeSage Williams: I haven’t been able to sit and write something in full, in a while. It’s been like pieces of moments, pages that I think might go together. Recently, I was thinking of having snocones when I was seven years old and I just wrote it down and then another memory popped up that coincided so I wrote that down, put it together and it became a full song. I’m puzzling together my thoughts over time, I’m not just sitting and writing things. I’m trying to do this thing where I practice a specific way of thinking. Like feeling something and writing it down. That’s what I’ve been doing instead of thinking I have to write a whole song at once and stress myself out.

Victoria: I like that reference to sno-cones. Since we’re entering a new decade, I hear a lot about moving forward, but that reference has me thinking about remembering to look backward and consider our lineage. Is there anyone or any other moments in your history you want to highlight?

Lesage: Mostly family, my grandma, who passed a year and a half ago. She was my biggest fan, she bought me my first guitar when I was fifteen and she was the one person to push me to do music. My mom was more of a practical person and told me to do something that would put money in my pocket and food on the table. I was like I wanna do music but she was like that’s not going to work! Did you ever see Sister Act II? You know where Lauryn Hill’s mom is like “music does not put food on the table!” That was my mom. She was super strict, she was like I support your music, but become a doctor! Go to medical school! She’s a nurse, so of course she wanted that. But I didn’t want to do that, I hate blood! My grandma was the one like you need to go on and do that, we have a lineage of family members that were playing blues in Chicago back in the ’50s. My grandma has always been very supportive that’s why I kept pursuing it despite my mom nagging.

Photo by KIe (@who_is_kite

Victoria: The cover of the EP, Stay Safe Be Good, which was a collaboration between you and Caroline Liu, has hands coming from the ground, with a sunflower blooming. I’ve heard recently that sunflowers help take toxins out of the soil which they’re planted in. Do you have any ideas for taking some of the toxins out of the “social soil” of Chicago?

Lesage: Art therapy is the way to go. As an artist, I know that it helps me with my anxiety and my weird mental states and for people who really need it, it’s a very helpful thing. My sister just graduated from college in Art Therapy. She didn’t know what she wanted to do for a very long time, she was in and out of school. I asked her how she knew she wanted to do that and she said “well, I’m crazy, I know other people are crazy. The one thing that helps everyone is sitting down and doing a thing that looks visually pleasing.” I loved that explanation. I think more art therapy is what’s needed in communities. I see a lot of artists being paid to do art but I don’t see a lot of those artists giving back to the community or working with the community to cope with day to day living. Just get people at the same table to work together and paint something, some wine for the adults, juice boxes for the kids. Art therapy is a really good solution for bringing and keeping people together.

Victoria: Do you have any new music coming out?

Lesage: I usually release music in the Fall, it’s a cozying up feeling, like summer is over and now we have this song to cuddle up with. But this year I want my music to evoke a different emotion with warmer weather. I want my music to be poppin’ in the summertime. I want to release a project, a 5-6 song EP, in the Spring so it gives it enough time to get traction for the summer. My new songs are dealing a lot more with who I am as a person, my identity. I identify as non- binary, a non-binary Black kid from Chicago who has all these emotions, all these feelings about Chicago, about all the people who exist in Chicago, it is a very community based project. My last single “King Latifah”, that song is basically just me. Who’s that kid with the long hair singing songs? It’s getting into my brain a little bit. I don’t like to talk a lot, but if I’m singing, you know my story. This interview is even weird for me, this is the most I’ve talked in like a year.

Nhu: Did you always have a sense of your identity, even as a child?

Lesage: As a kid I did have a sense of it, I was always raised by predominantly women. When I was a kid, going to school, kids were like “girls can’t do what boys can do’’, and I was like yeah they can, my mom does it all the time. I never saw the world that way, I never saw gender roles. I just saw people doing what they needed to do to get by, people living how they live.

Nhu: In your songs, you identify as the “shy kid” but you also identify as a storyteller. When did you feel more open about telling your stories?

Lesage: Actually, there was a lapse of time where I didn’t make any music, I was just writing poetry. I was going to this slam poetry night called Mental Graffiti at Café Mustache. It was the first time I started speaking to people instead of singing to them. It was different than anything I had done before. Once I started doing that, something clicked in me, I was like okay, I can use this in my music and approach my performances in a different way. It could be more than, “oh my heart got broken”, it could become more engaging of a story. Victoria: Thinking about what you call yourself, I know you went through a phase of finding your name. What’s in a name for you and how does that help you with your identity?

Lesage: I went through so many names, when I was 19, I was Silhouette Radio, I was doing acoustic, pop folk stuff. When I was 22, I was Chris LeSage doing R&B, then along the way it was LeSage the Lynx. I used to work at Lincoln Park Zoo in the cat house, and I loved the Lynx, so I adopted that name for two months. I received a lot of opinions on that one, so then I dropped it and just became LeSage. Which I still stick with, but as my music progresses and changes, so does the way I tell my stories. My artist name on my streaming services is Lesage Williams and using that makes me more approachable because it’s me and not just a name for name’s sake. All those name changes have led me to this point and I think I have finally found my brand which is just being me. •

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