The Cactus Rose That Grew From Concrete: Gesserit's Lyzi Wakefield
Gesserit is the musical brainchild of Lyzi Wakefield, a 26-year-old singer and songwriter who at the age of 19 sold all of her possessions and bought a one way bus ticket to New York City, trading the open plains of the Texas panhandle for the claustrophobic confines of the big city. But the band’s music remains imbued with the wide open, introspective spirit of that terrain. Cell Vision co-founder Mattie Safer spoke to Wakefield about her band , her new record, and the inspirations of solitude and nature on her music.
photos by Michelle LoBianco
Lyzi Wakefield wears her heart on her sleeve. She makes dreamy, emotional, folk-influenced indie with her band Gesserit that takes full advantage of her ethereal voice and impressive songwriting ability. Gesserit released their debut album I Roam The Purple Evenings Alone in April. Produced by Drew Vandenberg (Stella Donnelly, Mothers, Bambara), the record is a beautiful meditation on solitude and the search for truth and meaning.
Wakefield was born and raised in the Texas panhandle, a land of wide-open spaces and stark natural beauty, where time seems to stand still. The terrain lends itself to solitude and reflection, which seem to have imbued both Gesserit and her songwriting. The sound evokes mood and atmosphere, the feeling of being alone with one’s hopes and dreams in a quiet place, full of curiosity and wonder. Wakefield has a knack for finding the perfect visual metaphor to express her message.
“The chorus [of "Little Rock"] is literally about the beach and how grounding it is to be there. It’s like god is everywhere at once, and it reminds you of the wordless truth—of unity and oneness and love. How it can’t really be taught, it just is.”
An example of Wakefield’s songwriting prowess is apparent in the album’s opener “Little Rock”, which she says is about “not wanting to fall in love, but you see it starting to happen anyway. You know it isn’t going to end well but it can’t be stopped.” The message is captured perfectly with the opening lines: “My little rock/Don’t throw yourself at me/Don’t crack my window/I’m not ready to feel the breeze”. Being scared of being cracked open to the world of feeling by a new love. With the chorus—“Take me to the ocean/Take me to the beach/Help me to remember/All the things you just can't teach”—the song returns to the album’s underlying themes of nature, solitude, and the search for truth. “The chorus is literally about the beach and how grounding it is to be there. It’s like god is everywhere at once, and it reminds you of the wordless truth—of unity and oneness and love. How it can’t really be taught, it just is.”
I have seen Gesserit perform in many different incarnations—with a full band (made up of bassist Tarra Thiessen, drummer Jose Berrío Lesmes, baritone saxophonist Sarah Safaie, and Wakefield on bass or guitar), with Wakefield performing solo with a guitar, even as an experimental duo using drum machines, a looper pedal and a baritone saxophone. No matter the setup, Wakefield’s charismatic performance has never failed to captivate. She has a quiet poise that is paradoxically magnetic—effortlessly commanding a room with it’s quietude. Humble, with an easy feel and self-deprecating sense of humor onstage, a Gesserit performance is full of real feeling, and Wakefield has an enchanting presence that makes you want to know more about the person behind the music.
I took the opportunity to ask Lyzi Wakefield a few questions about where she’s from, what influences her music, and the release of I Roam The Purple Evenings Alone.
CELL VISION: Who are you? Tell us about yourself, in 5 sentences or less.
GESSERIT: Well, My name is Lyzi. I like plants, long walks on the beach at sunset, and reading books. Currently, I’m quarantined in Brooklyn. Bushwick to be exact. I spend my days learning how to cook, play drums, and speak French.
CELL VISION: You are from Amarillo, Texas, correct? What was your life like growing up? How do you feel that shapes your perspective on the world and your approach to music?
GESSERIT: I could write a memoir on this topic but I’ll keep it brief, haha. I was an only child until I was about 10, so I had a lot of time alone growing up. I had a lot of freedom to make my own choices and form my own opinions. My dad’s side of the family was very musical and that always made an impression on me. I grew up listening to artists like Elvis and Bob Wills. I really loved country and bluegrass music! I’m sure there is some of that sound that influences my own style. I like to write on my own as well, which probably circles back to spending so much time on my own.
"Sometimes it all just comes out at once and other times it’s gruellng and I really have to dig for what I feel or want to convey. On one hand, it can all come out in the first draft, on the other, I could rewrite lyrics to a song over and over again."
CELL VISION: How and why did you end up in New York?
GESSERIT: The stars just sort of aligned that way. Since I was around 16 or 17 I knew it’s what I needed to do. I wasn’t totally sure why, yet. I just felt it calling me. I had some friends up here that had me convinced and eventually I found myself selling everything I could and getting a one way ticket to the city when I was 19.
CELL VISION: Is Gesserit a solo project, a band, or something in between? How did you come together with the people that you made this record with?
GESSERIT: It’s something in between. It’s sort of a collaborative solo project. The people in my band are very dear friends that I trust with something that means so much to me! I had been writing for years and years and I was sort of waiting for the right moment...the right people to share the music with. I like to write alone and then bring the ideas to everyone and watch it shapeshift into a whole other song.
CELL VISION: Your lyrics tend to be very visually descriptive, like poems. What is your approach to lyric writing?
GESSERIT: Sometimes it all just comes out at once and other times it’s grueling and I really have to dig for what I feel or want to convey. On one hand, it can all come out in the first draft, on the other, I could rewrite lyrics to a song over and over again. I keep a lot of notebooks with words, phrases, chord progressions that ruminate until I need to look to them for a song or poem. I will even turn to my books on my shelf for words and themes I find interesting. When that happens it’s like a collage of different feelings, moments, experience...
CELL VISION: Who are some of your artistic heroes and inspirations?
GESSERIT: This list is endless! For starters, I really admire the poetry of Leonard Cohen and Pablo Neruda. I recently started diving into the films of Wim Wenders and I adore them all. I have a number of close friends as well that inspire me to no end.
"The theme of the record is about undertaking solitude and self-reflection. It’s about climbing the mountain of your mind until you can see the other side of perspective. That seems to be exactly what is happening to most of us now."
CELL VISION: You recently self-released your album on Bandcamp. What was the thought process there? How do you feel now that it's out?
GESSERIT: I had been sitting on that record for a while, almost a year probably. I was waiting for “the right moment”, something I notice I like to do a lot, haha. In the back of my mind that moment was going to be signing on with a record label. But when the world as we know it started to change drastically and cities began going into lock down, I realized this may be “the right moment” to share with everyone. I didn’t wait to be too precious about it anymore. The theme of the record is about undertaking solitude and self-reflection. It’s about climbing the mountain of your mind until you can see the other side of perspective. That seems to be exactly what is happening to most of us now.
CELL VISION: You also recently released a cover of John Martyn’s “Go Easy”. Why were you drawn to that song? Are you planning to release more covers?
GESSERIT: That song is really soothing to me. It’s so romantic and gentle sounding. A dear friend of mine sent it to me a while back and I’ve had it in heavy rotation since. Spending time learning and recording that song was cathartic and healing for me. I thought perhaps other people could identify with the sentiment in the lyrics as well.
CELL VISION: How are you coping with COVID-19?
GESSERIT: There are moments of ups and downs I’m sure we are all experiencing. Remaining active physically and mentally is the key to my sanity. I just wish I had access to nature. I would turn to the trees and plants for some comfort. Fortunately, with social media we can maintain some form of connection with our loved ones and community.
CELL VISION: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be?
GESSERIT: There are three places. I would like to be home in Texas with my family, in Quarantine in Upstate New York with my friends, or somewhere in California where I could hike in the woods and watch the sunset on a beach.
CELL VISION: What have you been listening to? Any favorite bands or musicians to recommend?
GESSERIT: I’ve been listening to what I consider to be “the classics”. I’ve mostly been listening to the vinyl in my collection where I have my favorites like Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, and Prince. I’ve also been turning the radio in my kitchen to WKCR-FM while I cook and eat. It’s a really great station, I highly recommend.
CELL VISION: Do you have any words of advice for our readers?
GESSERIT: Be good to yourselves and gentle with others.
You can listen to Gesserit's debut album 'I Roam The Purple Evenings Alone' on their Bandcamp page, and follow them on Instagram via the links below.