Tuesday

JEN LILLEY INTERVIEW


LILLEY THE PINK: After establishing a formidable legacy in film (The Artist, Yes I Do, The Book Of Esther) and television (General Hospital, Days Of Our Lives), veteran actress and Roanoke, Virginia native Jen Lilley has returned to her first love - music - with a vengeance. Her new single, the Adrian Gurvitz-produced King Of Hearts has been released to widespread acclaim, with an album to follow in February 2019. Lilley spoke at length with Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell in October 2018 about the music that inspires her, as well as her ongoing role as Theresa Donovan on NBC television's Days Of Our Lives, her various film projects for Hallmark, and her unwavering faith in Jesus Christ (and its resultant altruism). (Click on the above image to enlarge).


PERFECT:
JEN LILLEY TALKS
MUSIC, FAITH, FILM, DAYS OF OUR LIVES
AND THINKING OUTSIDE OF THE BOX
By Michael McDowell
In the world of Major League Baseball, those who excel in multiple disciplines are often referred to as five tool players. The term reflects an individual's acumen with regards to hitting for power, hitting for average, speed, fielding and their ability to throw. Musically speaking, there is also an equivalent of the five tool player. It is one in which a given artist has demonstrated a high level of competence as a vocalist, composer, arranger, producer and instrumentalist. However, as a musician, the veteran actress Jen Lilley has given a whole new definition to the concept of the five tool player. With her sublime new single, King Of Hearts, the Roanoke, Virginia native has brought to the table five attributes that make her both an instant and formidable front runner in the world of music. They include world class vocal ability, extraordinary intelligence of the wisdom and discernment variety, relentless optimism, an extensive and impressive resume on stage, screen and television, and (most importantly) strong and unwavering faith in the Lord. It was that latter attribute that has guided Lilley's mission statement from the onset. A magna cum laude graduate of the University Of Virginia, Lilley had initially aspired to more conventional careers in medicine and academia. Nonetheless, the Lord had other plans. A portion of that directive also stemmed from her passion for music, which had initially manifested itself in her formative years. Lilley was drawn to the work of such diverse and influential artists as Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, the Ronettes, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Seasons and others. She also developed a strong appreciation for Northern Soul; an attribute that avails itself in her own work via subtle asides to the influence of Linda Jones, Lorraine Ellison and Aretha Franklin, both intentionally and unintentionally. Although she did not initially envision the entertainment industry as her calling, Lilley nonetheless eventually relocated to Southern California to pursue a career in film and television. Along the way, she landed a starring role in ABC Television's long running General Hospital series, replacing Kirsten Storms (who ironically preceded Lilley at NBC Television's Days Of Our Lives, where Storms portrayed Belle Black for several years before being succeeded in that role by Martha Madison) in the role of Maxie Jones during Storms' sabbatical from the ABC series. Lilley also amassed a diverse portfolio in film, with key roles in such productions as The Artist and Revelation Road. Most notably, she starred in the title role of 2013's The Book Of Esther, based on the story line of the Old Testament account. Interestingly enough, in that production, the role of the notorious villain Haman was played by fellow Days Of Our Lives veteran Thaao Penghlis, who for several years was featured in the dual roles of the ill-fated brothers, Andre and Tony DiMera. Indeed, it was Days Of Our Lives that ultimately put Jen Lilley's name on the map on a larger scale. As a testimony to her formidable acting skills, Lilley was cast against type. In July 2013, she was introduced as the prototypical rebel, Theresa Donovan, the daughter of recurring character and ISA secret agent Shane Donovan. The elder Donovan occasionally works alongside Drake Hogestyn's John Black character in that capacity. In turn, Theresa soon found herself in a relationship with series mainstay (and John Black's son) Brady Black, portrayed by Eric Martsolf. The couple eventually become parents of their own son, Tate, only to have Theresa's past catch up with her as she feigned disdain for her family in the face of threats from a Mexico-based drug czar (and former boyfriend), who took her captive in his compound. When Theresa finally escaped more than a year later, she returned to the couple's hometown of Salem, only to learn that Brady in the interim had taken up residence with her sister, Eve (a role currently overseen by fellow vocalist Katherine "Kassie" DePaiva). To be certain, the role of Theresa Donovan would seem on the surface to be the antithesis of the precepts for which Jen Lilley stands. But it is not a set of circumstances without precedent. To wit, would be Wizard Of Oz Tin Man, aspiring rockabilly artist and veteran actor Christian "Buddy" Ebsen was seemingly destined to forever be inexorably linked with his portrayal of Jed Clampett in CBS Television's The Beverly Hillbillies. But a mere two seasons after that show wrapped production, Ebsen went on to even greater acclaim in the starring role of the network's detective drama series, Barnaby Jones. On a similar tangent, the late Carroll O'Connor professed to be the antithesis on a personal level of the character that brought him his most enduring acclaim, that of Archie Bunker on CBS' All In The Family and Archie Bunker's Place. By her own account, it was both a gift and directive from the Lord that enabled Lilley to excel in a role that seemingly contradicted the precepts for which she stood on a personal level. But like Ebsen and O'Connor, Lilley brought to the role a "dissuade by example" perspective that ultimately enabled many an observer to profess solidarity with her character and learn from her mistakes. With those Days Of Our Lives commitments came multiple blessings for Lilley. One such blessing manifested itself in the form of starring roles in such endearing Hallmark motion pictures as Eat Play Love, Harvest Love and the wonderful Yes I Do. In the latter, Lilley is seen as Charlotte Bennett, a successful entrepreneur in the confectionary industry who (in a manner not unlike that articulated by the legendary Gino Washington in his 1964 monster classic single, Gino Is A Coward) faced challenges in successfully carrying over that resolve into matters of matrimony. Lilley will also be featured in the forthcoming Hallmark production, Mingle All The Way, as part of the network's Christmas season celebration. The resultant exposure also afforded Lilley an ideal platform for her ongoing witnessing as an ambassador of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Lilley has tirelessly availed herself in that capacity via her work in combatting homelessness and human trafficking. She and husband Jason Wayne have also taken an active role in foster parenting. And in a fulfillment of sorts of Matthew 6:33 ("Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you"), her prolific work in film and television has at last enabled Lilley to pursue her first love as an artist, which is music. Although she did release a Christmas album, Tinsel Time in November 2015 (which included a duet with Eric Martsolf, covering Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban's Frank Loesser-penned Baby It's Cold Outside), her forthcoming, self-funded studio album marks her first such venture in which she truly commemorates her musical vision. In pursuing the achievement of that goal, Lilley has done her homework well. She began by enlisting the services of Adrian Gurvitz as producer. As co-founder and lead guitarist with Gun (whose 1968 Race With The Devil single remains an acclaimed prototype of Christian rock) and the Baker Gurvitz Army (with former Graham Bond Organization/Cream/Blind Faith drummer, Peter Edward "Ginger" Baker), it was Gurvitz who helped bring Lilley's inspirations as an aspiring musicologist to fruition as a musician. To her credit, having not personally lived through the era in which her professed inspirations were at their respective creative pinnacles, Lilley is not encumbered with the cultural baggage of the era that often circumvents uninhibited artistic appreciation on the part of many of the observers who actually were a part of it. So as a diligent student of the art, Lilley in turn called upon such proven composers as Diane Warren (co-author of the late and much missed Laura Branigan's Solitaire) and solo artist Lauren Christy (who also worked in multiple capacities on Avril Lavigne's Let Go album) to test their own creative parameters and provide material commensurate with her vision. The resultant album (scheduled for February 2019 release) is rife with such triumphs as the playful and Walk On By-inspired On The Street Where You Live (not to be confused with the 1956 Vic Damone classic of the same name), the prototypical high drama, Bert Berns-like production, Leave While I'm Not Looking, the equally dramatic Love Somebody, the inspiringly optimistic Perfect, the Northern Soul vibe of Ever Lonely, and the utterly stupendous (complete with pizzicato strings) King Of Hearts. Lilley executes with a determination and resolve that not only suggests a thorough understanding of the various inspirations that avail themselves throughout the proceedings, but with a sense of candor and vision that brings to the table the crucial attribute of individualism. King Of Hearts has already been released as a single, to both considerable acclaim and as a fitting testimony to God's grace and mercy. Proceeds from the single have gone to underwrite life saving heart surgery for a eleven year old named John, who resides in Uganda. Blitz Magazine's recurring relationship with Days Of Our Lives has been a long and fortuitous one. As chronicled in early installments of our ongoing Audrey's Musical Journey series (which for the moment appears exclusively on Facebook), Blitz's late and beloved Photo Editor, Audrey McDowell also served as the Office Manager of the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission at the turn of the century. Among the mission's regular volunteers at that time were various Days Of Our Lives cast and crew members, whose selfless efforts were instrumental in leading to Audrey's pivotal role in the mission's official PSA, which aired regularly on various Southern California television stations for several years. As such, when Lilley announced that she was augmenting her film and television work with a return to music, given her professed inspirations in that respect, it was inevitable that a meeting with Blitz Magazine was in order. The resultant following exchange transpired in October 2018, in which Lilley spoke at length with unabashed enthusiasm about her goals, challenges and triumphs on television, in film and in the recording studio, and (most encouragingly) her unwavering faith in Jesus Christ and its resultant blessings.

BLITZ: You are from Roanoke, Virginia. Did the culture and environment there or anything extraneous to your family life factor in to your decision to pursue music?

LILLEY: Yes and no. I'm not really sure.

You know, when I was little, being from Virginia, we had really solid family morals, which I appreciate. My parents had raised me to believe that I could be anything that I wanted to be.

When I was about four, my parents told me that I could be anything that I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, "I can be anything that I wanna be?" And they said, "Yes!"

Then I said, "I'm gonna be a bird!" But they said, "You can't be a bird!" And I said, "But you just said I could be anything!" So they said, "Why would you want to be a bird?" I told them, "Well, then I could sing all day!"

Not that it's not everywhere, but that's the sort of thing that I attribute to a Virginia upbringing. Really strong family. And as is common in Virginia, I grew up singing in church. That led to it a bit, too.

BLITZ: Do you recall either the first records you ever bought or the first artists you heard that prompted you to say to yourself, "I like this" or "I really want to do this"?

LILLEY: Oh man, sure. Frank Sinatra! I was that weird kid that just loved Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald.

And then I loved the sixties music, because I grew up listening to it with my dad in the car.

BLITZ: In terms of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Capitol or Reprise era?

LILLEY: All of it! But probably even more Reprise.

BLITZ: In one of your video promos, you mentioned listening to at that time and being impacted by My Girl by the Temptations. That song is about as iconic 1965 as you can get.

LILLEY: That song was actually my father-daughter dance at my wedding!

BLITZ: So Motown in general also inspired you?

LILLEY: Oh yeah, profoundly. In fact, my whole album is sixties-inspired. That is for several reasons. One reason is that in the conception of it, my record producer, Adrian Gurvitz was very much thriving in the sixties as an artist.

His favorite singer of all time is Dusty Springfield. We were writing at the piano, and figuring out what direction we wanted to go. He was trying to figure out my voice, and then he just stopped.

He said, "Do you know who you sound like?" And I said, "No". And he said, "Other than sounding like Duffy, you sound like Dusty Springfield". And I said, "No way!"

That kind of led us to do something more in a sixties vein. He said, "Everything about you is sixties!"

So we started going in that direction. I love the Supremes. I love the Ronettes. And I love Aretha Franklin. The Temptations, the Four Seasons. I could just go on and on!

That's one of the main reasons we took that direction. But as we were going along, I thought, "For the same reason that I and most of America love Hallmark Channel is because it is an ode to the original form of escapism".

I started thinking more about it. It's not political, as I don't like to get political. But just in general, as a feel of how the whole world is overall, there are a lot of parallels between the sixties and 2018. The reason that Motown and the music overall in the sixties was so wonderful is because it was feelgood music.

That really supported what I wanted to do. I always want my music to be uplifting. A source of empowerment and encouragement for people.

BLITZ: During the 1960s, the changes happening in music were so rapid, particularly between 1964 and 1969, that if you hear a given record from that period, it is often possible to pinpoint the release date right to the month.

But at that same time, it eventually got to the point that certain factions became so immersed in the "next big thing", that a perceived dichotomy may have arisen amongst some of those observers between the likes of Dusty Springfield and Adrian Gurvitz.

To that effect, you are of course aware that Adrian at that time was a member of the band Gun, who in late 1968 rose to prominence with their single, the prototypically Christian-themed Race With The Devil.

From the perspective of those certain factions, by the time that Race With The Devil came out, Dusty Springfield would have had to clamor to get their attention. She did do so at that same time with the release of her Son Of A Preacher Man single.

That can of course be attributed in part to those changes that were happening so rapidly in music. However, as having not lived through it, you don't have that baggage. Therefore, you can appreciate it on its own level, as art. Does that resonate with you?

LILLEY: Yes, for sure. Because one thing I do know is that there were so many things that we just so terribly sad about the sixties. First of all, there was Vietnam. And when were the Watts riots?

BLITZ: August 1965.

LILLEY: There was just a lot of tension. Very similar to our current day, right now. There is tension around so many issues now, just like Vietnam in that there are so many people who don't know why we're at war..

That's not political. It's just that there's more division. At least more than I have seen in my lifetime in our country.

That really hearkens back to the sixties. So I'm hoping that my music makes people feel good! But you're right. Since I didn't live through it, I don't have the baggage.

BLITZ: What you do bring to the table is a blessing, and that is your faith. How does that resonate with others when you present it within the industry, be it recording music or reading for another part?

LILLEY: It's everything! I can almost cry just talking about it.

With every project that I do, I ask the Lord, "How can I love on these people in a genuine way? How can I show them You? Is there anybody that You want me to speak to?"

When I decided to play Theresa on Days Of Our Lives, I can't even practically say that "I decided". I was praying about it. I didn't want to do soaps.

I had done General Hospital. I came from the sitcom world. I was actually told when I moved to Los Angeles, "Don't ever do soaps or try to meet anybody in the soap opera world. You're too awkward. You're not pretty enough.”  I thought, "Well, that's fine. Soap operas are a little too dramatic for me, anyway".

So I fell in to General Hospital, because they needed someone who was comedic. It was such a trying time!

I was replacing Kirsten Storms, playing one of the most beloved soap characters of all time. Being able to navigate the initial fan backlash with grace was only because of my faith and genuine love for people.  

But, when I got the offer to do Days Of Our Lives, I thought, "Absolutely not! I can't do it! On soaps, you’re memorizing forty pages a night! It's just too much. I can't survive that again".

But I distinctly remember God saying, "This is your role". And (in John 10:27), it says, "My sheep will know me by My voice".

So I thought, "Okay, Lord. I know this is You. And I'm not allowed to say 'no', Lord". That's an oxymoron!

But we are allowed to say why, right? The Scripture does say it's okay to test the Spirit!

So I said, "God, why do you want me to play this role? Why do you want me to be Theresa on Days? She's addicted to coke. She has one night stands.  She's everything that I'm not.  I don’t know how to even play her. I was never that girl. And how could I justify playing it?  I mean, I just played Esther in The Book Of Esther!”  

I heard Him say to me, clear as a bell, "Because Theresa is the exact condition that the world was in when I sent My Son to die for them. The audience needs to know that there is no pit so deep that they can fall into that My love cannot find them still. And I really need a Christian to play this role".

You need a Christian to play this role? What? Why? Because there are unscripted moments, when the guy leaves, and she's acting like she's so cool. You can play that unspoken moment, where you show that void in her has not been filled. Like the sex did not satisfy her. The highs came back down. She is still alone. And she is still empty. And she's not beyond redemption, because God still loves her.

I would do interviews, and there were hundreds of fans who would say, "Wow. I started going to church again because of you. Now I know that it was okay for me to go to church still because God still loves me!"

I even had one fan who was going to commit suicide. For whatever reason, and I believe that it was the Lord, he read an interview with me. And he said, "I guess I won't kill myself tonight". The next day, he read another interview with me and said, "I guess I won't kill myself today, either".

That went on for like a month. And then he went to church and fully gave himself to Jesus. Like it says, there is no pit so deep!

So my point is, everywhere is a mission field, because you never know who you are going to impact. Be obedient! When the Lord requires you to do things, be obedient. Obedience requires immediate action.

BLITZ: On the other hand, your Yes I Do film for Hallmark was magnificent. You are one of a trio of artists who pursue music, yet who have also done films for Hallmark; the others being Alicia Witt and Debbie Gibson. To a limited extent, Alicia's films have made peripheral references to music. And by definition, Debbie has emphasized music in her films, since hers are semi-autobiographical. Do you see the possibility of approaching music in film in future projects?

LILLEY: I certainly hope so!

BLITZ: There were a couple of interesting asides in the story line of Yes I Do, which sound as though they might have been ad libbed. For example, there was an exchange between your Charlotte character and her friend, where they invoked the lyrics to Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now. There is another one where Charlotte is talking with the character Nicole, and her departing greeting to Charlotte was, "Toodles!" That of course was a signature line used by Sally Field when she portrayed Gidget.

LILLEY: That was not ad libbed. But the script was written for me by two writers who know me very well!

BLITZ: Do you have any other Hallmark projects in the works?

LILLEY: Yeah, I have one called Mingle All The Way. It will be airing on December first for Christmas month.

I'm really excited to be doing the Christmas edition of the Hallmark Channel. It's about a girl who creates a dating app that is not for romance. It's for networking, where when you get invited to a holiday party and they say, "Bring a plus one", you don't have to awkwardly go around trying to round somebody up. There's an app for that!

That was fun! I'm actually reading a script now for the next one. But I don't know what it's about just yet.

BLITZ: Presumably Hallmark has no problem with letting the real you shine when possible in a movie, then.

LILLEY: Yes, that's correct. They've been great!

BLITZ: Have you ever considered carrying that into your records? In other words, recording a Gospel track?

LILLEY: Maybe. I love worship. That's what I pretty much listen to 24/7. That's up to the Lord. It's not up to me! I just do what He asks.

BLITZ: If the opportunity ever opened up for you to minister, speak or lead worship at a church, would you be amenable to that?

LILLEY: Oh, a hundred percent! I would absolutely love it. Yes! Like it says in Psalm 119, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet". I pray about everything. Every role that I do. I will go wherever He leads me.

BLITZ: Do you play any musical instruments?

LILLEY: I dabble in ukulele and guitar. But I'm a novice.

BLITZ: For the moment, only your single, King Of Hearts is available, but the album won't be out until February.

LILLEY: Correct, but the album is available for pre-order now. One hundred percent of the proceeds are going to charities supporting orphans and children in foster care.

BLITZ: Do you envision yourself as being involved to a greater degree in the writing process on future projects?

LILLEY: Absolutely! I'll always be a part of the writing process. That's important to me.

BLITZ: The intro on your single, King Of Hearts is a real Bert Berns moment. Bert Berns was responsible for a wealth of classic singles in the sixties, and that intro is straight out of his work. In terms of execution, did any other such artist factor into your thinking when you were recording the album?

LILLEY: I often thought of Amy Winehouse and how she would approach a lyric.  And of course everyone I mentioned before from the classic and Motown era.

BLITZ: Second generation perhaps, as she was inspired by those artists, as well.

LILLEY: Exactly! And then there was Adrian’s comparison to Dusty Springfield.

BLITZ: Well, Dusty Springfield was all over the map musically. She started out as part of the folk group, the Springfields. Hence her stage name. She went on to sing R&B. She thought outside of the box. There seems to be a bit of that in you, as well.

LILLEY: My album is sixties-esque in that encompasses many of the people who inspired me on a personal level.

BLITZ: To take it a step further, you have done your research. There have been others who have invoked similar inspirations, but your approach is far more authentic. You got it right!

LILLEY: Thank you!  I like music that’s the real deal. Though, admittedly, there were times I wanted to use autotune at least once or twice, but Adrian Gurvitz wasn’t having it.

That's why it took me two and a half years to record the album! Adrian was like, "I'm not auto tuning a single note!" And I would say, "Everybody auto tunes these days. I can't hit that note!" And he said, "Well, I guess you'll have to come back until you get it!"

I put my blood, sweat and tears into this album. When I was little, I didn't want to be an actress. But I just wasn't confident as a singer. Adrian really championed me into an artist.

The whole album is a story about vulnerability and fleeting love. Each song is a chapter of that story. I just hope that people will feel love from me when they listen!