You could almost feel her spirit rising each time a vocal cord and string reverberated in unison, singing out into the gentle summer breeze high above the streets of New York City’s East Village.
It was impossible for the audience to understand the gravity of the performance they were witnessing. They had no way of knowing — and that was okay. Lexie Lowell’s performance spoke for itself.
Her instrument of choice — the one she started playing when she was in fourth grade, with glasses, buck teeth and florescent blonde hair — was the harp. You don’t exactly pick up the harp by accident. Her choice was intentional, an act of obstinate rebellion from a young girl trying to carve out her place in a big world. She wanted to play something no one else was playing — something challenging, beautiful and different. Only later would she realize it prevented her from fitting in.
The occasion was Eesho’s first official event, a rooftop fundraiser that raised over $10,000 for Emily’s Entourage, a non-profit that funds advanced research in search of a cure for ‘nonsense’ mutations of cystic fibrosis. Lexie was donating her time and talent to the cause. For good measure, she also connected us with Casellula Wine & Cheese Café through their incredibly generous owner Brian Keyser, who — together with his brilliant team of chefs and staff — donated an epic feast of cheeses, sandwiches, salads, popcorns and truffles. Lexie and Brian had met when Lexie starred in Deaf West Theatre’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening; Lexie would frequently visit Casellula after her shows and Brian was a die-hard fan of the production.
While I, myself, had just met Lexie a couple weeks prior, my girlfriend and co-founder Emily Priebe had known her for quite a bit longer. They were paired as freshman year roommates at the University of Southern California, and they would soon hit it off as close friends, a dynamic duo not exactly immune from getting into some innocent trouble.
In fact, Lexie changed the course of Emily’s life, inadvertently causing her to fail a computer science final that was critical to her civil engineering major after coming home starving and sleep deprived from a 48-hour study binge to find a full container of misplaced, irresistible chocolate brownies. 12 harrowing hours later, after “feeling like I was on drugs even though I knew I wasn’t,” Emily would find out that, in fact, she was on drugs the whole time. The brownies were actually unmarked edibles, and Emily’s hunger had compelled her to finish the entire container. Suffice it to say, Emily was unable to focus during her final exam early the next morning. She received a 27 percent and was too scarred from the experience to retake the course. We’re convinced her life would have taken a different path if Lexie hadn’t brought those brownies home. Perhaps Emily and I would have never even met.
Emily and Lexie had only seen each other once in recent years, when Emily attended Lexie’s one woman musical, Girl Bound. Written and directed for the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival, the show gave Lexie a platform to share songs that helped her cope with depression, an eating disorder, and sexual assault.
“That really meant the world to me,” Lexie said, alluding to having her college roommate in attendance. “To have her there was so, so special. I felt like a lot of the depression I experienced in college I didn’t know how to communicate, so to have Emily’s support was really cathartic. I finally felt like I said what I needed to communicate back then.”
Fast forward just over a year, and Emily and I were brainstorming East Coast-based performers who would set the tone for what we hoped would emerge into a full-fledged events platform with a live performance component. Lexie’s name immediately bubbled to the surface.
It would end up becoming a life-altering moment for all of us.
Depths of dependence
To fully comprehend what Lexie’s performance meant on a personal level, we have to first take a brief detour back in time.
In school, the reality of being different began to sink in. Nobody wants to sit alone in the cafeteria. And Lexie’s harp made her stand out in a big way. That vulnerability was driven home when she signed up for a talent show in sixth grade. When her classmates’ reactions weren’t what she had hoped to produce, the whiplash from the incident was so traumatizing that she wouldn’t play in public again until her sophomore year in high school.
“To be fair, I had only been playing for two years [at the time of the talent show], so I might not have been very good,” Lexie joked to me and Emily, as we sat along Manhattan’s High Line on a beautiful Monday night in mid-August.
She would even wait until very late at night — after both of her parents had gone to sleep — to practice and write songs. That’s how nervous she felt when others were listening to her music. It didn’t help that she was (and still is, to a lesser degree) a perfectionist.
The only reason she even gained the courage to play in public again was for the same reason a lot of us are forced into uncomfortable situations — a crush. There was a guy in the high school orchestra for an upcoming Peter Pan musical, and that was just enough incentive to shake off her fears.
“There was this cute boy with shaggy dark hair who played the piano,” she recalled. “He was so shy and I was so shy. I realized my only hope was to be somewhere close by… for extended periods of time. So I signed up to play the harp in the orchestra. We’re still best friends.”
But the nervousness Lexie was feeling leading up to her rooftop performance — 15 years after the talent show — ran much deeper.
She had recently summoned the courage to leave a five-year relationship and engagement. As she tells it, something can seem perfect, but if you’re seeking something different and you realize that something is within yourself, that other person may be able to provide you with a lot of things — except what you’re really seeking.
“At this point in my life I really do believe that every relationship happens for a reason,” she said. “You are meant to learn something from each other for a certain amount of time.
“After college graduation, my boyfriend broke up with me and I was devastated. I was alone. My father had a stroke while I was in school that left him disabled. I didn’t want to give up and go home. It wasn’t an option. And I wasn’t going to give up my dream of acting. I was finally gaining traction with my agent. So when I met someone who believed in me, and thought I was special, it seemed like the universe answering a prayer. But over time I began to realize that I had forfeited a sense of agency. My voice became soft and unlike my own. I became unsure of what to say. I gave up a lot of myself in exchange for protection and stability — and yes, love.”
While Lexie knew deep down that she needed to make a change, it was much easier said than done. Breaking up is never easy; there are almost always dynamics of dependency in play, and this relationship was no different.
“For a while I literally believed that I couldn’t exist without him – there’s just no way,” she continued. “I can’t make enough money. I’ve already put in so much time. Relationships are hard. Am I quitting? Am I a quitter? All those things. But really just having the courage to say, you know what, I just have to know. I have to know if I can survive on my own. And so far, so good. That’s what’s been interesting. Once you take that first step, everything just kind of falls into place.”
While Lexie is still working on finding her footing, she has learned to put the whole experience into perspective and, more importantly, how to empower herself.
“It took me a really long time to admit it to myself first, and then say it out loud, and then actually do something about it,” she said of her need to find independence, her voice echoing with waves of triumph. “My one woman show helped with that, big-time. Traveling to India by myself really helped. I filled three whole journals with stream of consciousness writing while studying yoga at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram school and in the Himalayas of Dharamshala. 2018 was about taking action and having a sense of agency. The biggest reason I had to separate myself was because I really needed time and space to get to know myself.”
Rising from the darkness
An out-of-balance relationship wasn’t the only thing weighing on Lexie Lowell’s mind. She has also battled bouts of depression over the years.
Mercifully, she’s recently found mostly light where there was previously darkness.
“Especially in the last couple weeks, I’ve had moments of actual present happiness, which I haven’t felt in a long time,” she bravely confessed to me and Emily. “I’ve battled depression and an eating disorder for years now. Only recently have I discovered the tools that work for me: yoga, journaling, and music. I was sad. I was deeply sad for a long time. If I had to describe what it feels like … it feels like when you’re dreaming, and you suddenly become aware that you’re dreaming, and you try to wake yourself up but no matter what you do you can’t move or speak or shake it off. So you just keep sleeping. You’re tired. You’re tired and you’re sad.
“I understand from someone who hasn’t experienced it how that doesn’t make sense. But when you’re in it, it feels like it’s the only thing you’ll ever experience for the rest of your life.”
The cultural stigma against depression is very real and often contributes to its spiraling nature. If everyone else thinks you’re just a downer — or even worse, making the whole thing up — who are you to say otherwise? Especially when it’s already a struggle to make sense of the illogical thoughts and feelings convincing you that you’re not good enough, the misinterpretation of your external behavior can be particularly damaging, potentially even leading to tragically fatal outcomes.
As depression is finally becoming more and more acceptable to talk about in public forums, however, it’s becoming easier for those afflicted with the illness to face their symptoms head on, rather than spiraling deeper and deeper into an endless hole that feels impossible to escape.
Finding a soul-affirming activity – whether it be exercise or art or music – is often key to cultivating the hope and purpose that lead to the preservation of life and spirit.
“Writing a song after feeling an emotion rip through your body — whether that’s sadness or anger, frustration or lust, falling in love or questioning love — is like the other day when I was running on the West Side Highway in a thunderstorm getting soaking wet and catching the sun peek out. Those moments are truly…,” Lexie paused, unable to find an adequate word to describe the salvation she’s been feeling of late.
She’s also careful not to get too far ahead of herself, taking each day one by one.
“And then there are ups and downs,” she acknowledged, despite renewed optimism that practically bursts out of her effervescent persona.
One thing she’s not doing? Sleeping her life away.
“I could never do that right now,” she said matter-of-factly. “I want to be doing things.”
Like waking up at 5:30am to play the harp on a regular basis. That’s one way to bounce back from a broken engagement.
A rooftop revival
As guests mingled and loosened up while sipping on a blend of 100% Raw Copra Coconut Water and Tito’s Vodka, Lexie herself was anything but relaxed. Despite having performed countless times facing the bright lights of Broadway, she gets particularly nervous when performing on harp and singing. (Again, not that anyone would ever know from her performance.)
Reason being: her music feels more personal.
“It’s so scary,” she admitted. “[It’s like] ‘here’s my diary — tada!’ I’m afraid of it being selfish. There’s something about it that feels selfish sometimes.”
When I told her how ironic that sounded — our perception was just the opposite, that she was selfless and courageous for sharing such an intimate part of herself — she laughed.
“Maybe that’s where I need to go in my mentality work now,” she said, only half-jokingly.
After Emily introduced her old freshman year partner-in-crime, Lexie had no choice but to put her deep-seeded jitters aside.
So she walked on stage and sat down in a black wicker chair, carrying with her a note reminding herself to “breathe” while she performed.
And then, as the audience descended into anticipatory silence, it felt like reality was momentarily suspended.
You don’t as much hear the amalgamation of Lexie’s voice and harp strings as you feel it, somewhere deep down inside of you. There’s an angelic quality to her music, a sound so soothing yet uplifting, celestial yet grounded and powerful. She hits notes reserved for the rarest of vocal talents, accompanying her ethereality with a grand instrument that almost seems as if it were created just for her.
She played a series of original songs — Eyes Closed, House of Cards, Happy Ever After — followed by two covers, Landslide (originally performed by Fleetwood Mac and later by The Smashing Pumpkins) and a breathtaking rendition of Scared To Be Lonely (by Martin Garrix and Dua Lipa) in collaboration with our second musical performer of the evening, the outrageously talented violinist Gabi Holzwarth. It wasn’t a coincidence that her set was inspired by themes related to her personal journey.
“Once I started playing I wasn’t as nervous because I felt more connected [to the audience],” Lexie recalled. “And then when Gabi joined in I was like, ‘This is incredible!’ I had never collaborated or improvised on that level with someone live – ever.”
Yet again — stop me when I sound like a broken record — the crowd could never have possibly known. In fact, our close friend Nick Berman was in such a state of awe that he turned to his girlfriend Aron Hendin and pleaded with her to let him ask a question in front of everyone. She told him not to, so he asked her again. Aron maintained her answer, but Nick couldn’t contain himself.
“H-h-how… do you DO that?” he exclaimed incredulously, almost appearing to be in a state of shock at the chemistry these two artists were demonstrating despite never having played, or even rehearsed, together.
Lexie and Gabi looked at each other, then at Nick, and then back at each other, allowing the slightest of grins to creep in, until far more apparent smiles finally broke through.
“I don’t know, we just feel it in our hearts,” Gabi said, leaning into the microphone. (Or something to that effect — I was honestly too lost in the moment and didn’t have my trusty Voice Memos app open to record it for perfect accuracy.)
Lexie didn’t need to add anything. She too, quite evidently, just felt it in her heart. When we asked her about that exchange weeks later, she was still nearly at a loss for words.
“There was something about that moment,” she said softly as her eyes focused, hinting that her mind was reliving the memory. “In that energy with that crowd — it just felt right.”
An eye-opening experience
Something about Lexie’s performance flipped a switch inside of her. A newfound conviction surged to the forefront of her psyche, begging her to explore the outer limits of her talent and potential.
And she wasn’t the only one who had an epiphanic realization that night. Alex Silver, who we had met within the last several months as the boyfriend to one of my oldest and closest friends in the world, entrepreneur and photographer Nomi Ellenson, was volunteering as the sound engineer that night. (He’s the AV Technical Engineer at Barclays Center by day, so yeah, we were in good hands). Alex could hardly contain his excitement in the aftermath.
“We need to produce an EP for her,” he told me and Emily, with a mix of enthusiasm and defiance in his voice. “She’s the next Taylor Swift.” (Having toured all of the major venues in the country with many of the top acts, his opinion wasn’t to be taken lightly.) Which is ironic, because on top of resembling Swift in appearance, Lexie credits the blonde icon as one of her top musical influences. She taught herself the guitar in college by listening to Swift’s early music, and cites learning the guitar as the foundation for better understanding the harp when she reengaged with her childhood instrument after college.
Lexie was more than on board for the EP idea, already having a few original songs in her arsenal. The two began game-planning together along with Alex’s AV colleague at Barclays Center, Mike La Tona. They’re now in pre-production, working towards releasing Lexie’s first EP in the coming months under Eesho representation.
Lexie, too, can barely control her exhilaration.
“I’m ecstatic about getting into the studio,” she beamed. “When I heard him mix — I don’t know if he told you this — when he was sound testing me, I made him video me and I listened back to it. It blew me away. I was like, ‘Woah, okay.’ He’s really good. I’m just really excited to work with him. I trust him implicitly.”
Looking forward into the light
To put it mildly, 2018 hasn’t been an easy year for Lexie Lowell. Her life path took a dramatic and terrifying turn, and she’ll be the first to tell you she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to make it on her own. There were times when she felt a complete absence of hope.
Just over half a year later, insecurity is slowly yet surely transforming into resilience, each self-affirming moment laying the foundation for the next. Through a combination of yoga (she’s a certified instructor through Core Power Yoga), meditation, journaling, astrology, exercise, writing music and playing the harp, Lexie has found plenty of ways to ground and stimulate herself. Her resolve to build a life and a career that she can feel good about has never been stronger.
If I were you, I wouldn’t bet against her.