From the Summer 2016 issue of Ukulele Magazine | BY ANNA PULLEY
Charise Sowells, aka “Lake Lady,” has a voice that’s both decidedly modern and world-weary soulful. She started writing songs as a teenager with a Tascam 4-track, along the way picking up acoustic guitar, and now a acoustic-electric Cordoba tenor ukulele that Sowells named “Corky.” Her new EP, Better Me, came out in March and features ghostly melodies, scorching vocals, and chilled-out rhythms that channel Massive Attack and Portishead. Sowells took a break from performing around the San Francisco Bay Area—where she belongs to a community of rising stars such as Fantastic Negrito—to talk to us about lakes, the elusive nature of success, and not wanting to become a “black Britney Spears.”
Tell me about your Lake Lady stage name.
Everybody has a different interpretation. For me, the inspiration for Lake Lady came about because some of my favorite times were at my grandparents’ cabin. My mom and I would listen to A Prairie Home Companion on the drive up from St. Paul and once we got to the cabin, jazz standards would be playing on the radio all day long. Occasionally, one would trigger a story or make my grandparents dance. My grandma was always bopping along to the music and if we were in the car she’d put her feet on the dash, with painted red toe nails, and tap the air in time with the song. It was memories like these—swimming all day long, fishing with my grandpa, sunbathing with my friends—that made lakes my happy place. To this day, they’re very grounding for me. It’s so nice to be living and working near one now in Oakland. I feel like I’m connected to my roots again even though I’m in a different place.
What brought you to the uke?
I was looking into film and TV placement and kept seeing requests for ukulele everywhere so I told my roommate one day that I had made up my mind to buy one. Funny enough, he happened to have one in his closet, so he lent it to me, and within a week I wrote four songs and fell madly in love with the instrument. I couldn’t put it down!
You recently wrote on Facebook: “I’ve turned down countless opportunities over the years because they didn’t align with my values.” What inspired that?
My definition of success is being able to support yourself doing whatever your passion is and having a loving community. The opportunities I turned down weren’t in line with that. I’ve turned down paid gigs singing lyrics I didn’t believe in or that I found to be demeaning, both live and in the studio. I had a producer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who I co-wrote and recorded a song with that wanted me to drop out of college and become a “black Britney Spears.” But I finished my BFA at New York University instead and continued writing the music inside of me.
You manage to sound both modern and also old-school bluesy. Are you channeling any specific singer-songwriters?
I’m not setting out to channel anyone specifically, no. Because of my eclectic taste in music, my influences are pretty broad. And I like to keep it that way. It’s almost like building a vocabulary as a writer or understanding the full spectrum of color as a visual artist. The richer the palette, the better. I run the full gamut as an artist. Putting me in a box as a person or a creative has never worked. Not for long anyway.