“Don’t go outside unless it’s absolutely necessary and essential, take care of each other … and be kind to one another and stay angry. There’s a lot to be angry about,” singer-songwriter Lily Mastrodimos says at the end of the video of “Ten of Swords,” her latest stirring song, which she submitted to NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series. You can watch her video below.
With her beautiful singing voice, confident delivery and evocative lyrics, she shares an important message about the devastating impact of unemployment during the economic decline caused by the coronavirus pandemic. While she rocks out with her band, Long Neck, on their superb album World’s Strongest Dog, released in April, this new song offers a more intimate presentation of her thoughtful, reflective lyrics.
Her catchy melody and rich voice drew me in, causing me to listen carefully, with empathy, to this mature and sensitive 20-something singer-songwriter. I’ve been humming her tune incessantly. Her sincere storytelling makes me want to find out what’s going to happen next in this indie artist’s journey.
“Ten of Swords” documents adversity and isolation, and the difficult task of asking for help. We all want to remain hopeful, as the song suggests, though the world is grim and getting grimmer. However, as poetic songwriter George Usher said in a recent interview, “the world is made of balance … the tide will turn.”
Her song resonates at a time when the pandemic has disrupted our economy, throwing millions of people out of work and revealing disparities in housing and health care. The United States’ unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent in April, and some reports suggest the actual figure is 20 to 25 percent.
Recording in her Brooklyn apartment (which bears a framed map of New Jersey), this Hudson County native sings:
I need my vitamins and minerals,
Wake up earlier and earlier
Sky is blue, dark to light
No, I don’t think I’ll go out tonight,
If I did, I’d waste my money …
If I can make it through the winter
I’ll make it to spring, make it to summer
Dig my heels and come the autumn,
Cards all warn me of rock bottom.
“I wrote this several weeks ago as a way to reflect upon the time I was unemployed for two and a half months,” Mastrodimos said. “I lost my job before Christmas and had my unemployment revoked by my old managers a few weeks after receiving my first two checks. After paying rent I had absolutely no money for groceries, laundry, or anything of the sort. I spent every hour of every day applying to jobs and worrying about how I was going to survive. I stayed inside every single day because I figured it would keep me from spending money I didn’t have. Truly, it was a miserable time! But I made it through, found a job, and am doing better.”
She added, “I felt like there was absolutely no way for me to get the help I needed without asking to borrow $10 from friends to buy a quick dinner. I wrote this song after these lines had been bouncing around in my head for weeks — I felt helpless, hopeless, scared to ask for help.”
The song’s title, she said, “refers to a card in the tarot deck. For the last couple of years, I’ve done a tarot reading on New Year’s Day to see what the themes of each month will be. I don’t consider tarot as gospel. If anything, it’s a fun thing that can help me reflect later on.
“For 2020 I did a tarot reading for the year, and I pulled a Ten of Swords for one of the months. The card symbolizes desperately hard times and rock bottom. When I wrote the song, I really felt like I was at my lowest and scraping by to survive. The song title reminds me that this hardship is temporary, and that while things may seem hopeless right now, it doesn’t mean they will last forever.”
Of course, there is a lot to be angry about, including the treatment of essential workers like her — she works in a grocery store — who face an increased risk of infection. Often essential workers are facing reduced hours and child care crises, just to add to their difficulties.
“Things are tough — my co-workers and I are angry and scared most of the time because the company cares more about its image than its employees,” she said. “But that’s capitalism for you.”
When she’s not working on her music or at her job, she enjoys bird watching; she says it keeps her grounded. She also plans to get an advanced degree in wildlife conservation at some point “down the line,” and work with bats.
The daughter of Jim Mastro — the veteran musician (The Bongos, Ian Hunter’s Rant Band) and owner of the Guitar Bar stores in Hoboken and Jersey City — Lily Mastrodimos has been playing in bands for about 16 years. Long Neck was started as a solo project in 2014, but in 2016 Alex Mercuri (bass), Kevin Kim (guitar) and John Ambrosio (drums) joined. They released their first album, Will This Do?, in 2018 on the indie label Tiny Engines. (Guitarist Evan Pacheco has since joined the band). Their sizzling, high-energy performances, with confessional and haunting lyrics, make this band stand out.
Mastrodimos explains that the self-released follow-up, World’s Strongest Dog, “is about taking responsibility for yourself and your actions. I wrote it, during a period self-reflection and growth, about who I want to be and who I was. It’s about trying to be an adult while still feeling like a lost kid.”
The album’s soulful opening track, “Campfire” (see below) starts with a dreamy sound and then rocks out. She tells us “I want to eat slices of peach that I cut with my own knife … I want to build my own fire.”
Another one of the album’s songs, “Cicada,” features electrifying guitars and the adventurous line: “I want to write about every color I’ve seen.”
Mastrodimos’ determination and passion come through on this album and on “Ten of Swords,” and I have high hopes that we will see her band on fire in gigs when this pandemic subsides.
With concerts cancelled due to covid-19, consider showing your support of her work by purchasing World’s Strongest Dog. For information, visit the band’s links on Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp and Instagram.
NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series is designed to spotlight songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis and encourage readers to support the artists who made them (and won’t be able to generate income via concerts at this time). Click here for links to all songs in the series.
We encourage artists to email us submissions (newly recorded, if possible) at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include links to sites such as Patreon and Venmo. Readers can also make suggestions via that email address.
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