Casey Hood recalls with remarkable clarity the moment she was struck with the words and melodies for the song "The Hand You Deal Yourself," the title track from Lily and the Tigers' third and most recent album. As the singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter behind the group's haunting soul-folk numbers, Hood is one of those rare musicians blessed with the gift of spontaneous music. Songs come to her as though they are being handed down from a higher power. It usually happens while she's in motion, and it happens without warning.
In fact, songs come to her so often that she has learned to keep a handheld voice recorder on her at all times just to capture the fleeting moments of creativity as they come. Once a song has left her head, if she hasn't at least gotten the basics down, it's likely gone forever.
"The Hand You Deal Yourself" came to Hood on a mild afternoon last fall. Lily and the Tigers had recently finished touring behind their second album, Hiding 'Til Dawn, and Hood was taking advantage of the break to spend some time with her mother. The two were bike riding along the Chattahoochee River when inspiration struck. With her recorder in hand she captured a song that would not only lay the foundation for the album to come, but serve as a mantra for Hood's and Lily and the Tigers' places within Atlanta's musical landscape.
"I wasn't thinking about anything, and the song's first line was there immediately," Hood says. "'The path, the journey of a soul, only time allows her to unfold. Faces come and faces go, what they'll give or take from you, you'll never know. But this is the hand you deal yourself.'"
That sentiment, that you get out of life exactly what you put into it, has become a central theme for Lily and the Tigers. "You can't be afraid of what you yourself can do," Hood says. "Making your life what you want it to be, and knowing that it takes work to get there."
From a broader perspective, the song and the album reflect the spirit that propels much of Atlanta's ground-level music scene. Late last year, Hello Ocho's Chris Yonker and Brian Egan co-founded art and music venue the Mammal Gallery on a derelict stretch of South Broad Street in Downtown. Egan and Yonkers carved out their own place in the city's landscape and brought new life to a part of Atlanta that many people weren't aware even existed. Similarly, burgeoning young art-punk bands including Warehouse and Red Sea inadvertently turned a dilapidated home on Moreland Avenue on the cusp of Reynoldstown into an artistic incubator and thriving locale for DIY house shows and youth culture at what's now dubbed the Yellow House. Brannon Boyle of Speakeasy Promotions has spent the last few years fostering an intense and creative scene of underground DJs, producers, and MCs at the monthly Left Field Experiment at 529 in East Atlanta.
In each of these cases, it's a matter of people embracing the city, investing their time and energy into its environs, and fostering a stronger and more distinct local music scene. This shift in consciousness is becoming increasingly apparent throughout most of the city's various local scenes. "It seems like everyone that I know is working hard in these really hands-on ways, and putting themselves out there to define Atlanta as this really creative space," Hood says. "It feels great to be a part of everything that's happening right now."
In 2009, Hood, who had been singing and playing in local groups such as Girl Party and the Back Pockets, paired up with upright bass player Adam Mincey (the Back Pockets, Christ, Lord) to begin working on songs that would become Lily and the Tigers' 2011 debut, Sojourner. Twelve songs were recorded and mixed by fellow Back Pockets alum Adam Bruneau in his bedroom.
It was a raw effort, one that captured Hood and Mincey taking their first few musical steps together into what has matured into the sound they harness on The Hand You Deal Yourself.
More members joined the lineup for 2012's Hiding 'Til Dawn, including Ryan Gregory (Christ, Lord, Book of Colors), Peter Webb (Faun and a Pan Flute), Mikhail Ally, and guitarist Jared Pepper (Back Pockets, Babar, Currency, Killing Floor). The group traveled to Murfreesboro, Tenn., and holed up in a classroom studio at Middle Tennessee State University, where they stood in a circle and performed for eight hours straight through the night. "We wanted that closeness and warmth of us all going into that zone together, kind of like old Carter Family albums," Hood says. "It was a wild feeling walking out in the morning sun after we had all gone into this beautiful vortex together for eight hours."
Hood's lyrical and melodic sensibilities are apparent on Hiding 'Til Dawn songs such as "Solstice Strum," "Buildin' Somethin'," and "The Noose." But a coherent sound was buried under the clutter of too many instruments crammed into each song. The result was an engaging but embryonic album — a necessary experiment in fleshing out Hood's more evolved songwriting that appears on The Hand You Deal Yourself. "The big band was lots of fun, but it was harder to find space for everyone," Hood says. "Jared, Adam, and I have a united understanding of the sound and feeling we're going for."
From the opening sway of "Beaumont" to the slow resonance of the album's title track to "All Hearts and Hands" and "Last Mosquito," a spacious ambiance guides every note, tone, and texture. Each song builds on the natural tones of the wooden, mostly acoustic, stringed instruments they play like upright bass and resophonic guitar. The songs take shape as captivating fusions of the deeper and higher planes of folk, country, and soul music, without falling prey to easy genre clichés. The album has a quiet and autumnal sound and a penchant for earthy, acoustic-laced ballads. It's a sound that Hood chalks up to the experiences she's had playing music in Atlanta's familial music scene.
"The first time I played music in front of anyone live was at WonderRoot a little over five years ago," Hood says. She recalls the years in which she allowed her voice and songwriting to mature, playing shows in Atlanta's many underground show spaces. She sang and played guitar in the shows that once took place in an abandoned train tunnel near Boulevard and performed countless shows at the Big House. More than anything else, she was inspired by all of the characters she encountered along the way.
As she recalls her musical journey and reflects upon the way the group has come into its own with The Hand You Deal Yourself, the lyrics that came to her that fateful day while biking along the Chattahoochee with her mother — "... faces come and faces go, what they'll give or take from you, you'll never know. But this is the hand you deal yourself" — reveal a deeper meaning. It's a complex sentiment that has as much to do with humility in the presence of greatness as it does with the realization that she is part of an evolving community of musicians.
"Watching them all grow and do their own things has been beautiful," Hood says. "I feel like I'm a part of that family."