As a self-professed “old soul”, LA-based artist Pepper Lewis used music growing up to cope with high school, where she was an outcast, and with the passing of her mom. Raised in Queens and Long Island, Pepper knew she wanted to be a musician at a young age and counts Bruce Springsteen, Amy Winehouse, Bob Dylan, Ella Fitzgerald, Lily Allen, Barbara Streisand, and even Hannah Montana, who showed her that girls could make music, as formative influences. Greatly inspired by a DVD she saw as a child of how Bruce Springsteen made “Born To Run”, she wanted to feel that kind of pride and accomplishment with music that she made. With support from her parents and a strong work ethic, she spent much of her childhood studying voice, guitar, and songwriting. Auditions for open mic nights led to her first big break – performing Etta James’ “At Last” at the legendary Apollo Theater to a standing ovation. She later bought a one-way ticket to LA, booked herself writing sessions and ended up writing music for TV shows such as Catfish, Vanderpump Rules, and The Real Housewives franchise, all while working tirelessly on her own original songs. Earlier this year she released her debut single “Planetarium”, co-written with Rory Adams, and is a soulful, funk-infused ode to the awkward and those who struggle to be vulnerable after putting up walls to protect themselves. “In the song, the date that I’m on is supposed to take place in a planetarium, while I’m a little bit high, stepping on the guy’s shoes while we’re trying to dance,” says Pepper. “Which is a perfect metaphor for my love life.”
Most recently, Pepper released her latest single “Same Stuff”, a swirling, cathartic song which was written as an authentic attempt to free herself from the weight of negative emotions and captures the feeling of being stuck in a cycle of depression to serve as a reminder for Pepper and others to take care of their mental health. “I know I’m not the only one who feels this way,” says Pepper on the single. “If this song validated someone else’s experience with depression, we are healing together.” On December 3rd, Pepper will be releasing her debut EP She Told Me To Sing My Heart Out, inspired by her tumultuous teenage years and which fulfills a promise she made to her mother before she passed. The EP is a collection of brutally honest, thoughtful pop songs that preserve her mother’s spirit, draw strength from pain, and speak to owning every facet of your story – even the darker chapters – in the wake of losing her biggest cheerleader at the age of 15. Her hope is that listeners can hear how she makes meaning out of her suffering and apply it to their own lives, or to at least feel like they’re being validated in their own experiences. With plans to keep releasing more music, Pepper Lewis is just getting started on what is sure to be an incredible musical career. You can connect with Pepper Lewis and stay up-to-date on all upcoming music and live events via the following links. Photo credit: Noah Hellman.
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You were raised in Queens and Long Island and knew from a young age that you wanted to be a musician. You have also talked about how one of your formative influences was Hannah Montana, who showed you that girls could make music. What can you tell me about your childhood and developing a love for music and about being instilled with a sense of confidence from a young age?
My mom had really good taste in music, and I remember she had a DVD box set of Bruce Springsteen. The first DVD was how he made “Born to Run,” and I was so in awe of the dedication that went into the song. The second DVD was him playing live in London and the whole band looked like they were having the time of their life, and they were so proud of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into that album. I wanted to feel that kind of pride and accomplishment for my music too. Seeing those two DVDs shaped my work ethic and how I approach live shows. If you put 100% into whatever you do, the feeling of pride will make up for the sleepless nights.
You are a self-professed “old soul” and have talked about how you were an outcast in school and how your passion for music found you filling notebook after notebook with lyrics and making demo CDs on your lunch break in your school library. In what ways do you feel that channeling your energy into writing and recording music during those years helped you to get through school and to also develop as an artist?
It was a real coping mechanism and a way for me to take back my power that I felt was being dented by the isolation I was experiencing. Those kids could say whatever they wanted, or ban me from lunch tables all they want, but none of them could write an excellent song and make meaning out of suffering. Music was my superpower and friend. It couldn’t leave, or call me names, or judge my depression. It was permanently there for me always.
Having lost your mother at the age of 15, in what ways do you feel that music and songwriting helped you to process your feelings at the time?
When my mom passed away, my entire world and belief system about life was turned upside down. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that she died. When I was told she passed away, I was in such a deep shock that I couldn’t speak, move, or cry. I was just like a computer with the rainbow wheel spinning for hours, trying to process that information. 20 minutes later, I was able to go to my piano and I wrote the pre-chorus to “Lisa’s Song.” The lyrics are “I don’t know what to do,” which was the truth at the time and it’s the truth today. It will probably be the truth for the rest of my life because I love her so much.
What can you tell me about using the message in your music to validate others and provide them with the support network you always wanted for yourself growing up? What does that support system look like?
When I was younger, and struggling with anxiety and depression, the kids at school didn’t know what to do with that other than not want to be around me. The thought of their parent suddenly dying and having to feel what I was feeling probably scared them too much. I remember kids coming up to me and asking if my mom was bald yet, saying I was lying for attention, and a kid bragging about her relationship with her mom in front of me a few weeks after mine passed. I felt so misunderstood and lonely. I want my fans to know, just because the people around you don’t understand what you are learning how to live with, does not mean your feelings and experiences are not true. I see you and I hear you.
Auditions for an open mic night led you to your first big break – performing Etta James’ “At Last” at the legendary Apollo Theater to a standing ovation. What was that experience like for you and how did that opportunity/big break help to propel you as an artist?
Oh my God. That was probably the highlight of my life. Both of my parents were there to watch which was a blessing. I felt so honored to be there and so honored to be singing on the same stage as the people that have been singing to me since I was a child. I remember thinking before I went up on that stage that I hope I would make Etta proud, and that my respect for her and her music comes across. When I started singing and got a positive reaction out of the audience, I felt like I was having an adrenaline rush, but also at the same time was in a meditative state. It was the best feeling of my life.
You later bought a one-way plane ticket to LA and booked writing sessions and ended up writing music for some prominent television shows. What led you to make your move to LA and how has living there shaped you, both personally and as an artist? Did you have any perceptions of LA and what living there might be like before you moved and what has the reality of living there been like? What has living there taught you about yourself and about the music industry?
I don’t really remember not planning to move to LA to pursue music after high school. It was just something that I had to do. The work here is excellent, but I can’t wait to be successful enough to move back to New York. I feel so honored that I have to hustle in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, but at the same time it can be a really toxic environment that I didn’t understand until I experienced it. I’ve learned a lot about trust, who I can be vulnerable with, and when. And I’ve learned a lot about being self-sufficient. The biggest take away I’ve had so far is: no one will care about your music as much as you do, so be ready to pick up where people left off.
In September, you released your debut single “Planetarium”, an ode to the awkward and those who struggle to be vulnerable after putting up walls to protect themselves. What can you tell me about the song, as well as meeting and working with Rory Adams, whom you co-wrote the song with?
I met Rory when I was 17 at a Berklee Five Week songwriting program. He was one of the only ones who followed songwriters careers like Justin Tranter, Julia Michaels and Teddy Geiger the same way I did. We kind of looked at each other like “ok, we’re on the same wavelength” and just have always stuck together – personally, and musically. He is one of my best friends and I respect him so much, he has such a warm and welcoming heart.
You just released your latest single “Same Stuff” about being stuck in the cycle of depression and serving as a reminder to yourself and others to take care of your mental health. What can you tell me about writing this song and its message, as well as what self-care looks like for you? In what ways do you care for your mental health?
The song’s message is based on the concept of having control over your own life. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will end up in a downward spiral. The feeling of empowerment when you do take care of yourself is amazing. To me, self-care looks like going to therapy every week and reaching out for help when I need it.
You will be releasing your debut EP, She Told Me To Sing My Heart Out, in December and you have said that the EP is inspired by fulfilling a promise you made to your mother shortly before her passing. What was the writing and recording process for the EP like and what message do you hope people take away from it?
I’ve been writing and rewriting these songs for years. I care about them so much, like they are my little babies, and I advocated a lot for them. My producer Jack Laboz and I would work via Zoom because of the pandemic. All of the musicians on the EP, like Norwood Fisher and Mikey Freedom Hart, would send in stems and Jack and I would go through them on zoom and input them into the song. It was therapeutic and also very sad at times, because I wish my mom could physically be here to see it and hear it. I hope people can listen to how I make meaning out of my suffering, and apply it to their own lives, or feel like they’re being validated in their own experiences.
What can you tell me about the visualizers you made for “Planetarium” and “Same Stuff” and do you have any music videos in the works?
I made the sets for all of the visualizers on the EP. I tried to make it look like a high school art project as the songs are focused around that time in my life. I can’t say anything else, other than there is an upcoming song that we did a social experiment around, and it is hilarious and proves the point of the song.
What do you like to do for fun outside of music? Who are you listening to right now?
I like to read, make funny videos on TikTok, sew, and make new friends. I’m an extroverted introvert. Right now, I’m listening a lot of Remi Wolf, Renforshort, Tina Turner, and Audrey Nuna.
What’s next for you?
All I’ll say is, I’m going to be singing you songs until I’m an old lady that looks like a little raisin. So much music is begging to be brought to light.