Nisa and Lily Konigsberg Think Life’s a Gas

The New York artists catch up.

Lily Konigsberg is a songwriter and musician from New York who’s played with the bands Palberta, My Idea, and under her own name; Nisa is an artist also based in New York. Today Nisa released first single “Exaggerate” — the title track from her forthcoming EP, out September 30 on Hit the North Records — so to celebrate, the two friends hopped on the phone to catch up about life-at-large. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Lily Konigsberg: Sorry, I’m gonna sound super sick — luckily it’s a transcription.

Nisa: Oh no! Are you feeling sick? 

Lily: Yeah, I’ve been sleeping for the past day and a half. I don’t get sick very often as sick, so I’m like, I guess I’m supposed to sleep? It’s like a novel thing.

Nisa: Yeah, [when I’m sick] I’m convinced that if I go outside and walk and drink coffee and pretend like nothing’s wrong, I’m going to magically will myself into feeling better. I guess that’s the freelancer mindset.

Lily: I think for me, the anxiety of resting is really intense. I’m like, I’m wasting all my time! But I’m actually sick and I’m supposed to be sleeping. So I have that problem. Like, Oh, what a slob! What am I doing?

Nisa: It’s funny how that works, because I know mentally that it’s going to work against me if I don’t rest, but then sleeping and taking care of my body basically feels wrong too.

Lily: I think our society’s pretty work-driven and future-driven. You know what I mean? Like, I have to get all this done, so I can’t be sick right now. I’m so lazy. I definitely absorbed a lot of that in my life. That’s actually something I’ve been working on — I talk about this online a lot, that I have addiction problems and I’m sober now. So since I’ve been sober, that’s something that I realize that I have a problem with, not letting myself relax. And so it’s something that I’m working on, because everyone should do that. We’re all just plopped on this earth anyways — we don’t have to have any goals.

Nisa: Yeah. I really relate to that too, because I think for the last two or three years since I started really pushing my project and recording music and trying to learn about production and stuff, in that work sense I’ve been kind of like, Oh, well, this is time that I should be spending, making music.Because I love this thing, and even though it’s work, it’s also fun. And only really recently, because I’ve been traveling a bunch, I realized I’ve been pushing myself to write songs and it kind of caught up with me. That kind of slowed me down and just created a lot of white noise in my brain that could have been peace.

Lily: Yeah. It’s funny that you’re talking about that, because I’ve decided to take a break from writing. I think I’ve been wanting to do that, and take a break from music in general, for years. I kind of just was like, This my life, I write music, people expect things of me. And if you start working in the industry, you actually do get assignments all the time — this person wants you to record a song for a compilation, or you have to meet up with a person at a coffee shop. So you always have once a week at least, an obligation. And then I was doing all that stuff, but I wasn’t even writing music, or enjoying writing music or having any solid ideas. It is a job and it should be treated like a job, but I was only doing the job part and I was miserable. So I’m taking a break from it at the moment. I just moved into an apartment with my boyfriend and I have not opened the guitar cases once — It’s only been a week, OK? [Laughs.] 

Nisa: [Laughs.] I think it’s really great to say that you’re taking a break and let yourself have that space, and still know that you can play the guitar and not have that obligation. The line is so thin, right? Even when I’m opening up Logic and playing around with something, I feel this need to share it with someone. And sometimes I can’t tell if that’s excitement or… I don’t want it to be ego, or the urge to do something with it. Even if you can just do it to do it. I think about [it like] reading.

Lily: Oh, yeah. I saw this stand up comedian — I forget her name, she’s not hugely famous, but I’m sure she will be because she’s really funny. She was like, “Recently, I read a book,” and she was so proud of herself. She says it like, “No one was watching me.”

Nisa: But that’s the actual vibe! I have this shelf of books that I’ve collected that I’m really excited to read, and I live dangerously close to this bookshop that I really like, so I bike over there a lot and go through the used book section and I’ll buy three or four. I had to stop myself because I bought this really cool book on plants, but it’s literally aging on my windowsill right now because I bought it months ago. It’s something that I love doing, because I went to school for it. For a while I thought I would be an editor or writer.

Lily: My dad is a painter — he’s the real deal, he’s an amazing painter. But I think he was past 30 when he started painting, and in the meantime, he had been an editor for US Magazine, before it was crap. He interviewed George Clinton and just really cool musicians and stuff. Up until recently, he had a side job of being an editor, and recently he finally stopped and can comfortably survive off his paintings at 70 years old. So he stopped being an editor. He was really good at it, but it’s not his passion. But it was really helpful in his life, to be able to live comfortably. So it’s cool that you know that stuff. 

Nisa: That’s awesome. And so interesting to me about the magazine — I’d love to see some archives of that. 

I’m curious, what are you listening to, what are you watching right now, what have you been reading? I feel like I’ve fallen into a trap of listening to the same things and watching things over and over again, like the same Agnes Varda films that I really like. 

Lily: I do the same thing. I’m rewatching Inventing Anna with my boyfriend — I’ve been sleeping so much because of being sick, but he had never seen it. I don’t know if you ever seen it. 

Nisa: I haven’t!

Lily: What’s the girl’s name again? Anna Sorokin? Just by having blind confidence and definitely being a psychopath, she would find a bunch of really rich people and almost started this art foundation that was going to be super elitist and awful. She’s just so interesting to me. It’s really interesting because she’s actually a real person. I would definitely recommend that. 

I’m not listening to music at the moment. In rehab, we didn’t have phones or access to the internet most of the time, so I read, like, 12 or 13 books. I read so much. And now that I have media and stuff, I’m not reading at all. I’ve been trying to read this book by Elena Ferrante — I love her, I don’t know if you’ve heard of her. 

Nisa: Oh, my god, The Lost Daughter! I think I’ve read a couple of hers. My mom used to really love her books, and I think she she had a couple Italian versions of them. The Days of Abandonment has been on my list for a really long time. 

Lily: You should read the Neapolitan series. It’s beautifully written. I love it. And now I’m reading — I forget what it’s called, but it’s about her watching how adults act as a child, and being really confused about their behavior. She’s just so good. And I love mysterious people — no one knows who she really is. 

Nisa: Yeah, that’s really cool to me, too. I love the idea of a child looking at adult interactions and making it feel as if none of these interactions make sense, and then thinking about it from an adult perspective and being like, Maybe we should have maintained our childlike view of the world

Lily: Yeah, being a child is the only time that you’re in the present all the time, because you’re just learning. And suddenly you’re a teenager and you’re so concerned about the past, the future, every day, all the time. I really envy children. I wish that I could have been a child for longer. [Laughs.]

Nisa: Me too. I work with kids a lot — I was a camp counselor for a while, I did tutoring through college and then post college. I learned a lot more from working with kids than I knew at the time. Being present is something that I feel like we get further and further away from. The importance of taking breaks, like you were talking about — why is it so hard now? We didn’t question it. That’s consciousness. 

Lily: Yeah. You should just be like, Hey, I’m not enjoying doing this thing that I have enjoyed my whole life.That’s not good. I should do something about that, I should be proactive somewhere else. Getting sober and working the program however it is for you, you just rediscover who you are and you think about the present and stay in the present and talk about it. I just wish that everyone could go through it. I feel like everyone needs to focus on who they are, and focus in on the present and what it means to be peaceful. 

Nisa: Yeah, and what it means to have a sense of self that’s not related to the internet or a public image. A lot of what I’ve been reading recently has talked about learning to be alone and needing to love that time and love yourself in that space in order to share with other people without taking on a role that feels like you’re trying to make up for that space. I’ve related to that a lot, and I think approaching things with a like, I‘m happy doing this myself, I’m doing it for myself, then I can worry about sharing that experience without relying on anything as a crutch. I think that a lot of that comes from my creative process for things, and writing especially — I find it difficult to journal or keep a diary, because it’s the most writing-things-down-and-figuring-out-what-it-means-later process, and that’s scary, going back and examining yourself and then moving forward. 

Lily: Yeah, I always keep up writing a journal for, like, three days and then I’ll fall off for a month or something and then start again. I don’t know how much it is that I’m scared of it. It’s just so not natural in my life because I never did that.

There’s a step in AA where you have to write down all of your resentments, all the reasons you’re mad at people or things that you’re upset about in the world — or even your resentments towards, I don’t know, corporations or the government. Then you say them out loud to another person, usually your sponsor. I did that and it’s crazy how much the weight was lifted just by writing it down and saying it out loud. I was like, This is too simple. This can’t actually work. But it’s weird, it’s like magic.

Nisa: I guess that’s what it is sometimes. When there’s something that feels like it’s a weight that’s too heavy to lift with any one action, that accountability can be so [helpful].

Lily: You have to talk about it more than just the one time, but literally just writing down something that’s been bothering you for years, sharing it with someone that you can trust, and then thinking about it on and off — a bunch of the weight can just be lifted from you, and you don’t even realize how much weight was on you. I’ve always been like that — “Oh, yeah, that sucks, but I’m fine!” That stuff wears on you.

Nisa: Exactly. I’ve been working on this for a while now, but I had to be coaxed into even just talking about things that were bothering me. So I think writing has been a good way to start that. Like you’re saying, you say it out loud and even hearing it back and seeing someone receive it, someone you trust processing that with you, can do a lot.

Lily: Yeah, it’s insane. Or just validating — like maybe feel like you’ve been wronged by someone, but you didn’t how to talk about it or feel like it wasn’t appropriate to talk about it. But if you talk about with someone, just the validation or someone being like, “Oh, that really does suck. I’m sorry you went through that…” And then there’s moments where I’m talking about how fucked up this person was towards me, and it makes me realize I had a part in it as well, it kind of makes more sense then.

Nisa: Yeah. I feel like even just thinking about the way that we remember a situation and being self-protective in our brains, you need to have someone to concentrate that resentment or blame on to preserve that safety in yourself. But talking to other people kind of brings more to the narrative for you, and you can realize that you played a role too.

Lily: Yeah. Or even if you feel like something was completely your fault, because maybe you’ve been gaslit or someone’s just made you feel like you were the bad person or something, talking about it out loud, you realize that you were the victim as well. Because in interactions between people that really care about each other or have a lot of history with each other, there’s never just, “Oh, this one person did something awful and now we hate them.” It’s more like, “What led to this?” It’s interesting. People are so complex. and also just so, so funny. 

Nisa: I know. I like to think I keep a sense of irony that’s definitely more than 70% of my personality. And then let’s say the 20 or 30% of sincerity is there to remind me that I can’t always use humor, but I should more often than not. Everyone kind of has their own mix of that, and sometimes it can get confusing for us to all communicate our own boundaries with that. But people are funny. 

Lily: Oh, yeah, I am. I’ve been called out by therapists for humor to cope a little bit too much, because I think things are funny almost all the time. Maybe in an inappropriate way sometimes, so I try to keep it to myself. But I to laugh alone all the time about things. I make myself laugh when I’m just alone in a room. I think it’s really important to have a line where you’re like, Hey, maybe I’m using humor to just push this feeling away. But I think the absurdity of life, if you just take a moment and look at it through the lens of like, Hey, this is all extremely absurd, can actually be really helpful. 

Nisa: It’s super funny because last night, actually, we were rehearsing and I had been laughing about a line, and I couldn’t get through the song. And then my guitarist was like, “Isn’t music so dumb?” And then my bassist was like, “This is true, but that’s the whole gag. We have to accept that and then keep doing it anyway. Because there are moments where you can dive into that and be really silly, and then there are moments where we have to play a show tomorrow.” And I was like, “OK, true.” [Laughs.] But also it’s really fun that we can talk about this.

Lily: Yeah, sometimes I’ll look at my Instagram and see these professional photos taken of me and how people are taking me so seriously through these photos, and I’m like, [Laughs]. I’m like, That’s not me, that’s Lily K! I think of Lily K as a different person than me, really. She’s like a stage persona. The whole thing is so funny if you look at it through like, Why am I posting these pictures? Why do people care? I go into nihilism at that point — but not in a depressing way at all. It’s just like, nothing matters.

Nisa: There’s this T-Rex song I really like called “Life’s A Gas” — “It really doesn’t matter at all/Life’s a gas/I hope it lasts.” I always thought that sentiment was so funny, because it’s the way that I think about art a lot of the time, too. It’s so self-serious about things, like the way that people perceive you and the way that you perceive yourself can be so misaligned. Having a persona approach to it, I think, is so clever. I like a project-based approach — I like concept albums and I like getting into worldbuilding.

Lily: I like a lot of different genres. If someone’s like, “What kind of music do you like?” I say I like good music. Most of the time, I won’t like an artist if they never have any humor in their music, they’re just extremely serious all the time. I just can’t get down. You have to laugh at yourself. 

(Photo Credit: left, Sara Laufer)

Lily Konigsberg has been writing songs all her life. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she started playing solo sets around NYC clubs as a teenage, before linking up with Bard classmates Nina Ryser and Ani Ivry-Block to form Palberta. She also performs with Nate Amos as My Idea, and is releasing her latest full-length solo album Lily We Need To Talk Now via Wharf Cat October 2021.