In 2015, when she was still a student at Bard College, Lily Konigsberg released a song called “She Doesn’t Have a Good Brain.” It was a polyrhythmic electro-pop track that could have been lifted from LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver sessions, two diffuse and diffident minutes in which Konigsberg’s lyrics were barely decipherable but her sense of alienation was clear. “A summer song[...] content less dreamy than melody,” she wrote in the YouTube description for the video.
“Looking back on it, no one really has a normal brain,” Konigsberg, 26, now says over coffee at a chess table in Brooklyn’s Herbert Von King Park. “When you get to know people, you realize everyone's a freak in their own way. But I guess I more overtly showed that throughout my childhood.”
Konigsberg is best known as one third of Palberta, the anarchic pop-rock group, but she’s been a songwriter for as long as she can remember. She made up her first song as a toddler, formed a band with other girls from her Park Slope apartment block in the fourth grade, and even sung a capella on the street — occasionally wearing rags as though she was performing a one-woman Oliver! on Broadway — until she found her way into the New York DIY scene in high school.
During a four-year stretch in which she listened to nothing but Elliott Smith, a teenage obsession she credits to her father constantly playing Smith’s XO in the car, Konigsberg wrote pleasant acoustic songs which, she says ruefully, were “accessible… so accessible.” But after enrolling in the Electronic Music course at Bard, where she met her Palberta bandmates Anina Ivry-Block and Nina Ryser, Konigsberg began to experiment more with her style, though she retained the pop sensibilities that had animated her songs from the age of two onwards.
Now, a few months removed from the release of Palberta’s jagged but joyful fifth album Palberta5000, she’s released The Best of Lily Konigsberg Right Now, a solo compilation that brings together three of Konigsberg’s pop-leaning solo EPs and a handful of previously unreleased songs. On first listen, the collection stands up as a debut album in its own right, showcasing Konigsberg’s breadth as a pop songwriter, from the rich a cappella harmonies of “Rock and Sin” to the bubblegum throb of “It’s Just Like All The Clouds” to the pretty, carefree-sounding folk of “Roses.” But the story of Konigsberg’s growth as a songwriter and a person is buried beneath the tracklist.
The music that Konigsberg made under her own name before college has since been wiped from Bandcamp and MySpace, but pretty much everything from 2014’s wilfully experimental I can't stop feeling so good EP onwards has stayed. She pinpoints “I Want It,” a breathy, Kate Bush-inspired song from a 2015 split with Ulysses, as the moment she felt comfortable combining the straightforwardly pretty music of her high school years with the more freeform ideas she’d been absorbing at Bard. By the time she released the six-song kawai that claps EP in 2016, she had clearly pieced together the foundations of her solo work: a combination of whip-smart pop, oddball production techniques, and wittily self-critical lyrics.
The Best of Lily Konigsberg Right Now includes her next three EPs, though crucially, they’re not arranged in chronological order. It opens with “Owe Me,” a sultry synth-pop song that had been languishing on a hard drive until Konigsberg resolved to rework and remaster it for this project. From there the compilation veers into 2018’s 4 picture tear, an almost uncomfortably honest three-track release that Konigsberg wrote after suffering a series of panic attacks at the back end of a long tour with Palberta. “It was like this sense of doom in my solar plexus that could not go away, and I could not relax,” she says now. “I thought that I was never going to be the same person.” She wrote all three songs in a day, trying to make sense of her anxiety. “Something's broken / I can't ignore it / I can't control it / I'd give my life to hold it,” she sang.
In Konigsberg’s catalog, 4 picture tear sits in between the two other EP’s included on The Best of… — the 2017 split with Andrea Schiavelli, Good Time Now, and 2020’s It’s Just Like All the Clouds — but its position at the top of the compilation actually makes a lot of sense. That’s partly because they’re three of Konigsberg’s best songs, sparse and compelling, melodically rich, a little claustrophobic. They’re also a clear response to a mental break that helped Konigsberg better understand herself, prompting her to find a therapist and a psychiatrist and identify the root causes of what she now knows is an anxiety disorder, something she can grapple with and control.
Perhaps most importantly, those three songs serve as a reminder of the moment Konigsberg’s discomfort with the world evaporated. It is difficult to imagine Konigsberg as a retiring kid, between all the stories of street performances and rock star ambitions. Over coffee, Konigsberg even tells me about two close friends, Gabby and Phoebe, who she stopped hanging out with around the fifth grade. The three were almost siblings, growing up together in the same apartment building, but their friendship was thrown into confusion when Konigsberg convinced the other girls that she was really a spy. “I had a husband named Walter Indigo, my name was Redbird Leia, and Al Vigt, the villain” — it just about rhymes with widget — “was after us. I would put notes in their lockers from Al Vigt. I would have us during free periods just running around, like, ‘We have to stay here right now.’ And I scared them so bad that their parents made us stop being friends.”
These are not the hallmarks of a wallflower. But Konigsberg says she was gripped by shyness in social settings and on stage. Making music with Ivry-Block and Ryser, who she thinks of as siblings, was the first step in curing her nerves. “We taught each other how to perform confidently,” Konisgberg says. “I used to shake. I remember when I had a band in high school, my knees literally knocked the entire set.”
But whatever nerves remained were blown away the week before 4 picture tear. “Something changed in me about three years ago, after the panic attacks, where I'm no longer perceived as shy at all,” she says nonchalantly. “And my friends that have known me through it are like, ‘Yeah, you completely don't seem shy anymore.’ And I have so many things I want to say.”
It seems appropriate that now, as she prepares to announce herself more formally as a solo artist, Konignsberg might lead with those songs. But I wonder if there’s any lingering discomfort, any fear of exposing her darkest thoughts, from three years ago, to a new audience. Konigsberg quickly dismisses the idea. “I mean,” she says, “all those songs are bangers.”