The late Alicia Lemke displayed honest vulnerability in "Chimaera," her final release.
Two days before she died at age 28, Madison-born musician and rising star Alicia Lemke was sending notes to her producer with instructions on how to finish her first full-length release.
Lemke, known in the music world as Alice and the Glass Lake, was on her way to a successful career. In 2013, she opened for Fleetwood Mac and played the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee; in August, she dropped her first EP of electronic dream pop. The following December, she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. After her death in August 2015, her family and friends rallied to finish Lemke’s last project, the full-length Chimaera.
“She never expected to die, so she had a steely focus, an intense optimism,” Gale Lemke says of her daughter.
Chimaera, named for the winged, fire-breathing, snake-tailed lion of Greek mythology, is the sonic mirror of a spirited, relentless perspective. “Chimaera” is also the medical term for someone with two genetically distinct types of cells, which was Lemke’s situation after a bone marrow transplant. She wrote and recorded the album while hiding her illness from public view.
Chimaera is stacked with smart, multi-layered pop in the vein of Florence + the Machine, but more down to earth. Lemke’s alternating whispery and strong songbird vocals weave in and out of a thick net of guitar loops, dynamic drums and synthesizers. With production true to her vision and the feel of her earlier EP, the lows are low and the highs are high. The rich sound is adorned with artistic touches that showcase her talents.
To record Chimaera, Lemke and her significant other, Alice and the Glass Lake guitarist Adam Agati, built a makeshift studio in the basement of her parents’ Shorewood Hills home. More tracks were recorded at Audio for the Arts on East Washington Avenue by Smart Studios veteran Mike Zirkel. Madison native and Brooklyn-based drummer Dave Scalia, who toured with Alice and the Glass Lake, laid down drum tracks. After Lemke’s death, producer Danny Garibay spent five months perfecting the record. It debuted streaming on hipster music staple BrooklynVegan.com.
Lemke’s rare knack for writing earnest pop anthems that never seem hackneyed is advanced by her forced state of introspection and the recurring, apropos theme of energy.
In the electro-dancy “Supernova,” Lemke sings, “Every little thing we touch/Has got an energy, a spark/We’re burning up the dark with explosions.” In the post-punk rocker “Beast,” she demands, “Release me now/I’ll rise again/From the beast we love and the beast we live.”
Lemke displays honest vulnerability in the album’s hauntingly titled closer, “Disappear.” First, she trills optimistically about “coming off a year that would slay any woman,” then sings about “cancer of the bone...mar-row.” The song fades as her voice echoes its title simply, yet dramatically.
Lemke leaves behind a masterful and inspiring artistic legacy. To film the video for the album’s first single, “Coals,” she delayed a second bone marrow transplant. In November, the video debuted posthumously on Billboard.com. In a lilac pixie haircut, Lemke dons a gossamer bodysuit that hides the Hickman line where chemotherapy drugs were injected into her chest. On a beach at sunset, she hands off a flaming torch to another young woman, who dances around a driftwood fire. The song’s chorus echoes, “Burn deep to the core/Set fire to the coals/Let it flame up and storm/The way your soul gives its warmth.”