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Leaving Scriptwriting Behind, Charise Sowells Makes Her Musical Debut As Lake Lady 

Wednesday, Apr 13 2016

On Friday, March 25, something momentous happened in the life of Charise Sowells. At the age of 32, she released her first record.

For much of Sowells' life, she's made music. She sang in the church choir beginning at the age of 4, and for her 16th and 17th birthdays, her mom gifted her with a guitar and a keyboard. In high school, she started writing songs and played in her school's orchestra. She joined a number of bands in college, including a political hip-hop crew and also worked as a backup singer and studio vocalist for artists like Omarr Awake, Grizzly Adams Family, Witness, and Electronic Groove.

As adulthood dawned, she continued crafting her own songs, recording acoustic guitar ballads with layered vocals she would email to friends and family. But throughout it all, music was just something she did for fun.

"It wasn't something I was thinking of in a business/job sense," she says. "I just didn't think it was possible."

Instead, she studied playwriting in college, and for the bulk of her 20s, she wrote, directed, and produced for television and film. It wasn't until a few years ago when the Minnesota native moved to Austin and started writing for the music website The Deli that she began to think about a career as a musician.

"I just had this shift," she says. "Because I studied scriptwriting in college and won awards for my scripts, I thought that's what I should be doing for work. Somewhere in my head I felt like I'd made up my mind up with my college degree. But then I realized that it doesn't really make a difference and I started to think of music as less of a passion and more of a career possibility."

In November 2014, Sowells and her husband — the pair met in a band; she sang and he played bass — relocated to Oakland because it seemed like "a good, happy medium between East Coast and West Coast vibes."

Her goal, she says, was "to move here and get a job to pay the bills, but really focus on the music."

Almost immediately, Sowells went about assembling a band, posting ads on Craigslist for an accordionist and a percussionist. While in Austin, Sowells learned to play the ukulele using a toy model she borrowed from her roommate, and she wanted to incorporate similar atypical instruments into the fold. In fact, she wanted her band to be eclectic because she knew exotic sounds would pair well with her rich, soulful voice.

Her husband offered to be her bassist, and the couple started hosting auditions in the "tiny, 200-square-foot studio apartment right by the lake that was literally as small as a closet" that they'd rented when they first moved to Oakland. It wasn't long before she added an accordionist to the band's roster and later a drummer.

After only two rehearsals, the quartet, who operate under the name Lake Lady ("Whenever I'm around lakes or freshwater, I just feel this grounding energy," Sowells says), played their first show at a live-work space in Oakland. Since then, Sowells says, the gigs have snowballed. Lake Lady played more than two dozen shows in 2015 and Sowells says she was approached by bookers for more than half of them. Better Day, Sowell's debut record and Lake Lady's first release as a band, was spruced up with the help of a Craigslist-procured producer and later self-released on iTunes, Amazon, and Bandcamp. It's hard to categorize the record as one genre, because, as Sowells intended, it's more of a fusion of jazz, soul, R&B, and folk.

Despite the bass, ukulele, and accordion, the five-track EP sounds like it was recorded in a smoky, dim-lit jazz club of yore. (Says Sowells: "I kept getting this Mulholland Drive vibe when I was working on this and that's what I'm hoping comes across.") In fact, the band even wears bowties and Sowell's vintage dresses when they play live.

Each song on the EP narrates different stages in a relationship. Sowells wrote the songs over the course of a few years and says that they're inspired by both her husband and a "big ex" she left back in New York when she worked in film and television.

"The concept of the album was the journey one goes through love and love lost," she says. "You can hear me dealing with heartbreak and loss, repairing myself, and finding happiness again." For instance, in "Will Your Feelings Change," an echoey ditty that showcases Sowell's plaintive and emotive vocals, she details the plaguing insecurity that one can feel in a relationship as they question whether their lover will still love them despite aging and other changes. "All Over Town," a murky track that sounds like it was recorded in the bathtub, is about the need to escape a city after breaking up with someone, while "Will He Ever Come?" is a romantic, musing about finding true love.

Lake Lady's next step is to play more shows and release an album, but for now Sowells is more than content with the progress she's made in the year that she's been in Oakland. The only trouble is finding time to pursue her music, while at the same time holding down a full-time job.

"I'm still trying to find that sweet spot," she says. "It's hard trying to balance my job and my music and everything else that comes up in life. But even though sometimes it feels like something's gotta give, I refuse to let that happen."


About The Author

Jessie Schiewe


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