Isolation Drills: Lili Añel

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Añel: Like the rest of the world, this pandemic has been a strange time. For me, it’s not only the pandemic but together with the racial unrest and horrific mishandling of America by the government, it is feeling like a really intense episode of The Twilight Zone or a horror movie with no ending.

I’ve never even thought or knew what a pandemic was. I’d read about it in history, but it seemed far away from me. Like other musicians, my entire performing commitments in March were cancelled. Soon all my dates through the end of the year were postponed. In addition to the lack of income, there was not being able to play “live” with my fellow bandmates—or even solo—before an audience: doing what I loved most. I was not able to visit with my twin sister, Barbara, who lives around the corner from me. We were on lockdown.

I am a “high-risk” individual having asthma and autoimmune disease so I had to be really careful. I think I went to the supermarket three times between the March lockdown and sometime in May, just to get out of the house, wearing my mask and disposable gloves, then coming home, washing both gloves, mask along with my face, head and neck, all exposed parts; I was extra careful. Fortunately, my husband would go to the supermarket regularly to get our groceries. We’d both wash down all products before putting them away. (I’d also wear gloves when I did this.) This has become routine after going out in the world.

I have had the misfortune of losing seven friends to COVID-19. I have friends who have lost siblings and spouses. This was always shocking because the news always came via social media. No longer do people make phone calls. While only slightly less distressing, for me, a private communication is preferred to opening an application and seeing a friends’ face with people’s reactions leaving one to figure out that they are gone forever. In one such case, I thought my friend had gone on vacation, as everyone kept saying that she was “gone.” I was shocked when I figured out she had passed away. The unfortunate usage of social media in these times, for me, is a whole other topic for another time. In the end, I lost seven friends. This was unbelievable. One day I’d heard from someone, and the next week they were gone.

People have made the mistake of thinking this illness corresponds to a specific age demographic and none other. They’re totally wrong. People of all ages have succumbed to COVID-19. As well, there have been a good many well-known musicians, actors, athletes, writers and public figures who I admired who died from this virus. I am steadily in touch with my son who lives on the West Coast, making sure he is being “safe,” to the extent that I know I’ve annoyed him. He gets my concern and stays in touch. Knowing that so many did not have to die needlessly is both depressing and enraging. Suffice to say, this has been a very sad period for me, and I have had to navigate the sadness in tandem with the fear of this disease, while also finding a way to rise up above it in some fashion and attempt moving forward.

Then came the murder of George Floyd. It was on television and every social media outlet. It could not be avoided. It imprinted a horror in my psyche. I was seeing on video a needless murder and a clear message that being Black has little or no value. No fair trial; no being judged by a jury of your peers, if need be. Terrified, horrified and with deep sadness. This is what I felt. Together with being on lockdown due to the pandemic, I can only say I felt terrorized.

Sleep has not come easy. I tend to stay up late working on music anyway, but at times, attempts at sleep ended up with my having insomnia or having nightmares that I would wake up from. Mostly nightmares that I am being chased by a mob, being told they would kill me when they caught me, because I was “different.” A few times, I woke up screaming–I only know because it would wake my husband, and he would wake me. While I have stopped watching the news, I read the New York Times and Washington Post online. I try to stay informed without being bombarded. 

My saving grace has been music. Creating, writing music and learning digital recording on my computer. I am working on new music and thinking of either releasing singles and/or creating a video for individual songs (“video editing,” more to learn) or recording myself solo and putting it up. 

I have written more than 30 songs since March. While I write songs all of the time, with not being able to go out and do other things during the lockdown, I was more focused on writing. I have completely finished five of those songs and recorded them on my computer utilizing GarageBand. It is a baptism by fire, a “learn by doing.” The process is longer and more tedious, so realizing these songs is taking a good amount of time. Learning GarageBand and the art of plugins, samples, mixing, editing, etc., is daunting to say the least. It’s a whole other world.

I am used to going to a studio and recording, utilizing the expertise of an engineer. On one of my songs, I am songwriter, singer, engineer, bassist, guitarist and drummer. It’s a great deal of work. You would think I would have more songs finished. No way. A few times I had to scrap what I was doing and start over. The learning curve is very wide. I have enjoyed it so far, though I prefer to sticking to writing, singing and performing. 

I have co-written a few songs with my sister, Barbara. She has written lyrics with me in the past, as well as advised me musically. I have enjoyed this immensely. Luckily we are able to text, email and write over the phone. On one new song, “Bésos” (Spanish for “Kisses”), I had just written the music, no lyrics, and I played it for her over the phone. Her response to me was, “That’s beautiful.” The song is very traditional, a “bolero” (“Spanish ballad”). The lyrics would be in Spanish. I told her it reminded me of the music my grandparents would listen to on Radio WADO when we lived in the South Bronx. A song would come on the radio and my grandma and grandpa would drop what they were doing and dance. When the song was over, they’d go back and pick up where they left off. We finished our conversation and hung up. Fifteen minutes later, she had emailed me a full verse. By the time I received her email, I had already written a verse. The song took shape rather quickly. I called her back, and we worked on it until it was pretty much done.

Of the five songs that I have finished recording, Barbara and I co-wrote three. Another song we co-wrote, “Like You,” was written a week or so after lockdown. Everyone had an opinion of what to do next, in particular in the business of music. Immediately livestreams were going up, videos were going up daily, etc. While I appreciated those who asked me when I would be following in suit because they enjoy my music, I was having a hard enough time wrapping my head around everything going on: being on lockdown, rage, sadness and fear inside of me. The last thing on my mind was livestreaming or doing like everyone else. I think it’s good that everyone handle life at this moment as they see best, livestreaming or whatever works for them. I had to do what worked for me, for now. So I wrote this cheeky song, which pretty much says “Hey, I don’t have to do/be like you.” Barbara played a bigger part with these lyrics. It’s a play on words and quite humorous. 

I believe this writing surge is my psyche’s way of protecting me, helping me gain some positivity during this time. In progressing with learning recording techniques, it’s a crapshoot. Some days, everything flows brilliantly; other days, you set everything up just as you had the day before and for some weird reason it doesn’t work. I have had days where I had to walk away from all of it, be it writing or working the technical aspect. I felt I was hyper-focused, and it began to feel overwhelming. I didn’t need to be more overwhelmed than I’ve been during this time.

I’ve missed working with my bandmates, recording, rehearsing and performing live. No one knows when we will be able to play live again, as we were used to. In the mean time, I’ve sent my bandmates some songs so they can add their parts digitally, or re-record their instrument tracks that I may have played/recorded (and not as well as they can). I will work hard to finish these songs and put them out in the world, even if they’re not 100-percent perfect by way of recording technique, etc. I hope things will improve and that I will be back in a studio, properly recording music as I have become accustomed. Many have told me to prepare myself, that this is the “new normal” for a few more years. If that’s the case, I will release my music, even if it’s not as technically as sound as I would prefer.  

Last October, I released a new record called “Better Days.” The song is from the point of view of someone concluding that regardless of what they are going through, they know, somewhere, somehow, there will be “better days.” Who would have known that five months after that song came out, all of us in the world would be hoping for better days.

Everything is uncertain. While this time has affected me deeply with a lot of loss, I move forward knowing there is always one thing that keeps me going in my waking moments and in my dreams: music. Somewhere deep down, I believe it’s music that will save us all. In the interim, my hope is that people will take this pandemic seriously, since many have not. Protect yourself and those around you when you go out; wear a mask. I wish everyone peace and whatever you have that keeps you going during this time. I look forward to “Better Days.”