Clarity Underwater: V.V. Lightbody Finds Her Sound

Photos by Michael Salisbury

Photos by Michael Salisbury

Vivian McConnell chose the name V.V. Lightbody as a way to honor her family history. “I think about it as carrying on the family name. I think Lightbody is a beautiful name, and my grandmother’s maiden name. I think about it as carrying on the matriarchy.” These feelings of personal and feminine identity run through her debut album, The Bathing Peach, a flowing and meditative song collection born out of the struggles of change and the need for solitude in a busy world. As she explored these themes, her sound evolved from her rock roots into something more complex and nuanced, informed by her own life and her new experiences in the Chicago music community.

Before arriving at The Bathing Peach, Vivian was the lone woman in two rock bands. In Grandkids, she was the front woman and main songwriter, while in Santah, her brother Stan was the front man and she was a backing guitarist and vocalist. She joined both groups when she was 19 years old, and both lasted for many years (Grandkids is still somewhat active). While she was able to experiment and collaborate during this time, she also felt the pressure of compromise. She was somewhat hitched to the rock & roll style of the groups, a style she began to drift from as she started taking in other styles of music. “I want to make the choices… and I don’t want to feel bad about it. I don’t want to feel put down for anything.”

She doesn’t mean put down in the sense that the group members made her feel foolish for her contributions. She loves the previous groups she was a part of and maintains a relationship with most of them, least of not her brother Stan, with whom she is still close. It was more the feeling of competence and her desire to exert it to her full capacity. Her musical taste had expanded, and she was listening to things like Brazilian acoustic music and Joni Mitchell. She wanted to explore these sounds independently and make the kind of music that was therapeutic for her.

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Vivian grew up in a hyper-musical household, learning how to play flute and read music with formal training. Her whole family loves and plays music in some capacity, and they are supportive of each other’s creative endeavours. She can’t read music for guitar though, despite it being the main instrument she played in Santah and Grandkids. It’s the instrument she feels most comfortable writing on the guitar though, and she attributes her more intuitive approach to the instrument with making her songs more inviting. “I think that’s what gives VV’s songs that straightforward but also kind of weird feel. Because I’m not thinking about music theory. I’m thinking about how I feel.”

The Bathing Peach is laid out beautifully, leaving space in the music that’s subtly filled and emptied throughout each composition. The sounds move with moments of rich complexity are digestible and pleasant, lending to a satisfying listen throughout. The song ‘Fish in Fives’ exemplifies this in that it can come off as a straightforward folk song, but it contains a wealth of instruments and sections that produce a full-bodied sound with a ton to digest. There’s low-toned xylophones, fluttery flutes, relaxed guitars, brushed drums, multiple vocal harmonies, and a sparse, tasteful piano section that serves as the backbone of the climax. The song washes over you in a warm way, both comforting and a tad disorienting.

How do I escape this loud, busy place? And you know it’s in those moments where my head’s completely underwater and it’s so quiet. There’s something so completely soothing about that to me.

The feeling of engulfment and warmth comes directly from VV’s relationship with water and the need to find solitude in the metropolis. She loves to swim, and revels in the sensation of having one’s head underwater. “How do I escape this loud, busy place? And you know it’s in those moments where my head’s completely underwater and it’s so quiet. There’s something so completely soothing about that to me. Even swimming laps. I’m alone, and that’s how I get through a lot of my anxiety is swimming.”  

Vivian doesn’t necessarily have social anxiety; she revels speaking to people after concerts and is a great conversationalist. It is more the anxiety over the amount of sounds, sights, pings, and pulls that we experience in modern city life that wear on her. She sometimes thinks of moving away from Chicago to somewhere smaller, where she feels more at home. But ultimately, the community in Chicago proved worth working through, and she has relationships with people from all across the musical spectrum that have allowed her to more fully understand her unique style, as well as great people to work with when she needs something specific for her recordings.

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In particular, she’s found a strong relationship forming with Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart of OHMME. In fact, she opened the first OHMME concert ever. Cunningham and Stewart proved supportive of her solo work while also serving as peers that could challenger her to get better. “they’ve pushed me in such an awesome way. I remember I first sang with them and I was like ‘Whoa, they’re so good.’ And I’m good too, but I have a lot to work on.” They’ve now toured together and she considers them some of her closest friends, and it’s a testament to her ability as a performer, musician, and person.

McConnell seems satisfied with herself and the path she’s taken. There is a sense that this album came out of a desire for agency, independence, and wanting to combine her various influences into a unique sound. In Chicago she’s found a supportive community that’s given herself enough of a reason to stay, despite the city’s endless stimuli that she can find overwhelming. In overcoming her anxieties, she’s come to a sound that feels right for her and accents her abilities to the maximum. With a new album already in the works, her sound is sure to evolve as she continues to take in more influences and work more within the incredible Chicago community.