The 2005 documentary Playing for Change began with a folk singer, Lily Holbrook, busking on a corner in Santa Monica. From there the film went on to follow the lives of sixteen street performers across the country in their pursuit of happiness. But it didn’t end there—Playing for Change has since grown into a global multimedia project that captures live performances by musicians anywhere from Kathmandu to Tel Aviv.
Holbrook’s story was just beginning too. In the five years since the film’s debut, the Boston-born singer songwriter has released multiple records, played festivals headlined by Radiohead and caused pedestrian traffic jams with the occasional street concert. Here’s why: As a singer, Holbrook is a tour de force, combining the dreamy bohemia of Stevie Nicks with the tormented rock operatics of Tori Amos. “Apocalypse Kiss” lets Holbrook’s sugary vocals provide the treacle for a grandiose, turbulent chorus of grinding guitars and thundering drums. If you like the gothic storm and stress of Evanescence, you’ll want to get this track, like yesterday. “Cowboys and Indians” shows a softer, more organic side of Holbrook. It’s spacious and quiet, with the swell of cello and a simple strummed guitar providing the emotional hook. If her songs have any calling card, it’s their blend of chamber instruments with diaphanous layers of vocals—one providing the melancholia and the other, the relief. From her days busking in subways with just a guitar, she’s come a long way, baby.