One morning last August, Lili Trifilio was feeling emotional.
“I’m honestly so nervous,” the singer-songwriter, then 24, admitted, raising her voice as she shook her head. It was the day before her indie rock band Beach Bunny would headline a sold-out show at Williamsburg’s Music Hall in Brooklyn. Beach Bunny’s recent success seemed abstract to Trifilio, as most of it had happened on the internet during the lockdown, but the group’s biggest New York show yet would make it tangible.
“During the pandemic, Beach Bunny has grown 200 percent,” continued Trifilio, between sips of an ice-cold Nutella mocha latte at a cafe not far from the site, “and I don’t know what to expect.”
Trifilio has a wide, wide smile and a choppy cropped haircut that she likes to dye different colors – magenta, lilac, rust – even though she was a naturalistic blonde that day. On stage, she is known for her sparkling, genuine positivity; at a recent Beach Bunny show, she gave an enthusiastic recommendation for a local vegan restaurant, urged the public to get their Covid-19 booster shots, and led the entire audience “Happy Birthday” in front of a fan. On albums, she is known for the emotional clarity of her songwriting, which seems to capture fleeting feelings in shimmering amber.
Much of the recent boom in Beach Bunny’s popularity came via “Cloud 9,” a bouncy, guitar-driven love song from the Chicago band’s February 2020 debut album, “Honeymoon,” which became a viral hit on TikTok in March 2021. . More than 360,000 videos have now used Trifilio’s lilting valentine (“But when he loves me, I feel like I’m floating/When he calls me beautiful, I feel like someone”) as a soundtrack for photo rolls of their lovers, crushes and bestie; it has amassed more than 240 million streams on Spotify.
Several fans have asked Trifilio to record an acoustic version of “Cloud 9” so they can use it as their wedding song. Trifilio finds it all a bit ironic, since she wrote it in the last days of a failed relationship.
“The lyrics are so smart,” Tegan Quin of indie pop duo Tegan and Sara said in a phone interview, “and melodically I find all of their songs very creative.” She and her twin sister Sara were fans before “Cloud 9” took off, but the song’s popularity gave them the opportunity to collaborate with Beach Bunny on a new version — as requested by fans — that also included “she” and ” she” contains. pronouns.
Beach Bunny’s music also has many admirers outside of the TikTok demographic. Actor Bob Odenkirk discovered the band several years ago while flipping through The Chicago Tribune, and he “digged them up right away,” he wrote in an email, as he felt their sound was “connected to the indie rock I love.” loved the days of yore” such as Pixies, Sebadoh and the Cavedogs, and has since become a vocal fan, even making a cameo in Beach Bunny’s recent “Star Wars” spoofing video for the song “Entropy”.
“I’m an older white man and her lyrics are about desire and are written from a female perspective,” Odenkirk added. “But I still feel very connected to the pain and alienation of my 14-year-old self, and always will.”
While the outbreak of “Cloud 9” (and a previous TikTok success, “Prom Queen”) presented opportunities for the band, Trifilio feared he would be pigeonholed or not taken seriously. “I loved it so much,” she said, twisting her straw. “As if I’m going to fall into this genre of internet bands. I was like, ‘No, I want to play on big stages and play with bands that I like, and not be considered cringey. I had all those weird ego dilemmas.”
Perhaps to combat those fears, Trifilio taught himself about music production during the pandemic. She watched YouTube tutorials and countless interviews with producers who inspired her, such as the electro-pop star Grimes. When the band began recording their second album, “Emotional Creature,” at Chicago’s Shirk Studios last spring, they felt more empowered to experiment.
“I think it’s cool that she’s an all-in-one show and does everything herself,” Trifilio said of Grimes, naming her aggressively upbeat 2015 single “Kill V. Maim” as one of her favorite songs. “So after hearing her talk about production, when I went in I thought, ‘Okay, I don’t really know how to do this, but can we make the beginning have this vibe? I never managed to get those references before.”
That heightened ambition is evident in ‘Emotional Creature’, out July 22, from the bright, explosively catchy opening track ‘Entropy’ to the thrilling, nearly six-minute finale ‘Love Song’, which in its satisfying final moments features a medley. of several other songs from the album.
“It still sounds like Beach Bunny,” Trifilio said, “but it just sounds more mature. Which I’m happy with, because I’m growing up.”
TRIFILIO HAS BEEN PERFORMED in the suburbs of Chicago, and she began taking guitar lessons with a friend in fifth grade. “We didn’t have the attention span for it,” she said with a laugh in a recent video interview from her nursery, where the purple walls matched her tie-dye butterfly shirt. (She moved into her own home during the pandemic, but still visits her parents regularly.) “But it was fun. There I learned my basic skills. We were like unpleasant kids, so after a few years I quit because as a 13-year-old I had other things to do.”
Later in her teens, Trifilio started participating in neighborhood jam sessions and taught herself covers. She has noted on Twitter, amid the occasional Hannah Montana quote, that while journalists compare her sound to “cool” 90s bands, her most direct influence is the 2007 album by pop group Aly & AJ, ‘Insomniatic’. (I hear traces of the alt-rock pillars Letters to Cleo and the upbeat indie-pop group Velocity Girl.) When she was 18, she thought, “Well, I’ve learned a lot of covers. Let’s see if I can use this combined knowledge to write something.”
The result was “6 Weeks,” a wailing, melancholy heartbreak (“Let’s start at the end, when you tore me apart”) which she recorded on her computer using only an acoustic guitar. She presented it to her guitar lesson friend as casually as possible: “I was like, I made this song and I’m so ashamed. Can you listen? I think I’m going to delete it.”
Trifilio’s boyfriend gave her a much-needed confidence boost — and an ultimatum. “She said, ‘I’ll stop being your friend if you don’t bring this out,'” recalls Trifilio. “I was like, whoa, okay. The stakes are high.”
Over the next few years, while studying journalism at DePaul University, Trifilio continued to write sharp, hooky power pop songs and upload them to a modest but growing online fan base. In 2017 she also started playing shows with a local group of guys – the drummer Jon Alvarado, the guitarist Matt Henkels and the bassist Aidan Cada, who was later replaced by Anthony Vaccaro – and her solo project became a real band.
Trifilio’s candid, clear lyrics often sound like internal monologues; sometimes they are pep talks, sometimes they give voice to her demons. The title track from the 2018 EP “Prom Queen” sits on the border between the two. “Shut up, count your calories,” it begins with a howling chord progression. “I never looked good in mom jeans.” The song became one of the most bleak songs to inspire an internet dance craze. As her anxiety mounts, the song becomes a critique of aesthetic perfectionism and diet culture that Trifilio, who has admitted she “struggled with [her] own body image”, knows all too well.
Many listeners related to Trifilio’s unabashed presentation of her insecurities. But “Prom Queen” found success on a platform that often rewards young people for sticking to the conventions that Trifilio criticized. Some noted the irony when popular TikTok creator Addison Rae — the app’s honorary prom queen — posted a video of herself dancing and lip-syncing grinning to a song that reads, “I was never cut out for Prom Queen.”
TikTok can make a song incredibly popular overnight; it can also very often separate a song, or even fragments of a song, from its larger context. Trifilio, who was unfamiliar with the app when “Prom Queen” blew up in 2019, worried that listeners who heard just a few lines of the song would misinterpret it as an endorsement of behavior like calorie counting. So she pinned a lengthy statement to the song’s YouTube video, clearly stating her author’s intentions.
“I wrote this song for anyone who has felt insecure, unloved or unhappy in their own skin,” she wrote. “Please don’t harm your health or well-being to live up to these made-up expectations. It’s not worth risking your life for.”
Three years and another round of app-driven success later, Trifilio said she’s learned to give up control over how her songs might be received. “You know, I use music the same way,” she said. “I’m sure artists had other intentions than how I interpret things.” “Prom Queen,” she added, is “sort of the crowd song now.”
ON A JULY In 2019 in New Mexico, Trifilio was surprised to see a familiar face at the merch table: Odenkirk. He mentioned an upcoming audition that he was preparing for, and when they broke up, Trifilio wished him the best of luck. “He turned around, handed me the finger guns and he said, ‘I don’t need it,'” she recalls with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘That’s right, you? do not need!’ I need that level of confidence!’”
The bold and confident sound of “Emotional Creature” shows just how far she’s come. Sean O’Keefe, who produced the album, called her “one of the best songwriters I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of great songwriters.” (His credits include Fall Out Boy and Plain White T’s.)
On the new album, penetrating pop punk tunes like “Gone” and “Deadweight” challenge emotionally ambivalent partners to put their hearts into it. “You’re a diamond/Wish you could see you the way I see,” Trifilio sings on the mid-tempo rocker “Weeds,” during a chorus that offers loving advice to a bereaved friend – or perhaps the singer herself. Writing the album, she said, helped her confront her history of “shame about feeling great emotions.”
“That was kind of a therapy moment,” she said. “Wow, you’re ashamed to be an emotional person, even though every human being has feelings.”‘
Trifilio has since appeared on TikTok as well. “There is definitely a young girl audience, mostly from TikTok, with very little experience even attending shows,” she said. “They tell me, ‘This is one of my first shows,’ and I say, ‘That’s great. I hope you see many more.’”
Such experiences seem indicative of a tangible change for artists of a previous generation like Tegan and Sara. “Streaming has devastated the music industry for artists, but it has also made it really easy to be popular in corners of the industry that just didn’t exist when we got there,” Quin said. “Beach Bunny is an example of that. There’s just a vibrant, incredible scene that blooms around them because people can find them.”
At the Brooklyn cafe, Trifilio had remarked, “When I was 16, there’d be a band I’d see and I’d think, ‘It would be so cool to play in a band.'” Preparing to do some greeting her new fans in person the following evening, she added: “It’s great to think that someone could come to a show and maybe that inspires them to learn a Beach Bunny song on guitar And then they learn other songs on guitar. That’s wild.”