By Jacob Dilson
Hell Gate Social in Long Island City has an unassuming exterior: The metal front has no windows, and even event coordinator April Rose Lucas likens it to a “closed garage door.” A step inside, however, reveals a candlelit bar with surreal wall portraits and a front-room screen for films or music videos. The bar maintains this low-key image to make people seek them out.
One such person is singer and songwriter LiLi Roquelin, who premiered the music video for her song “Thank You” on Jan. 31.
Those who stopped by the barroom located at 12-21 Astoria Blvd., after 9:30 p.m. were treated to live selections from her album “Beautiful Sun” before the video. Her skill range was on full display as she both sang and played the piano – “Thank You” was the night’s grand finale.
“I try not to take anything for granted,” said the slender, dark-haired artist. “When you’re grateful, you are truly happy because you consider your glass full. I want this song to reflect that.”
Her latest creation is a 5-minute declaration of freedom and gratitude, notably stressing everybody’s right “to what the heart wants.” The Thursday night bar crowd grew silent as Roquelin filled the room with her message. Whenever the artist is asked what she is thankful for, she thinks back on her life’s journey.
Roquelin was born in Toulon, France, to a musical family: When she and her sister were growing up, her father played guitar in a cover band for weddings and summer festivals. She did not play any instruments as a child, but singing always came naturally. At the age of 4, her father recorded her singing a French children’s song. To this day, she is impressed when she listens to it and is convinced she was born with her father’s ears.
“I never had to teach myself to sing in tune or have a musical ear,” said Roquelin. “It was just there.”
Despite Roquelin’s talent, moving forward in her home country was difficult. She found French musical education there to be very limited and biased toward record-spinning DJs. As a result, she gravitated towards English music in middle school, specifically The Beatles and Abba.
Despite this love of “Brit-pop,” Roquelin always leaned toward American music and culture. A childhood love of Marilyn Monroe became a fascination with Western artistic culture, and she decided it was the best place to launch her musical career.
Roquelin first moved to Cleveland. There, she further developed her singing and songwriting skills with two American bands, Phizzy Lager and Hate Dies Hard. With them, she released her first two albums, “A Taste of Departure” and “Neverending Sundown.” Through this work, she came into contact with producer Sean Bilovecky, who was impressed by her voice and worked with her to create the independent, awarding-winning song “I Saw You.”
“The band was in a transition,” she recalled, “and at that point I was ready to do solo stuff.”
Independent work has always been a priority for the artist. In 2007, her love of piano music brought her to New York, at first for private jazz-style lessons. She looks back on this as “nuts,” since she “had not touched a keyboard in eight years.”
This independence extends to her marketing. Roquelin has never had a PR manager, and promotes her own material through new media. The recent Thursday premiere was, in fact, a test run. The video appeared on her YouTube page the next day. There is also a mini-documentary on the making of “Beautiful Sun.”
Roquelin currently lives in Astoria and composes in her home studio. “Thank You” began as a poem in Astoria Park in 2011. The final product reflects a spiritual awakening that meant enough for her to make into a music video with film director Arnaud Muller’s help.
“I suddenly realized everything I’ve been through,” she said. “I came to the States and made it all the way to this point. My music was just starting to be featured on television. Since then, I’ve tried to be grateful every day.”
Her music has drawn fans of all ages, the oldest of whom consider her “an old soul.” Her current aim to “make people think” will carry on to future projects, which will integrate new instruments and sounds.
Roquelin was fascinated by Hell Gate Social’s because it is often the beaten path and decided it was perfect for her third music video’s unveiling. Despite that secrecy, Hell Gate is unique in trying to bring local talent into the light, and Roquelin is very serious about getting there.
She is equally serious about her spiritual outlook. Before every show, Roquelin steps into the bathroom to meditate for five minutes.
“Zen practice can totally flip the way you think,” she said. “It’s incredible.”
Visit LiLiRoquelin.com for current news, tour dates, list of awards and TV features. Roquelin’s new record “Beautiful Sun” is available now on iTunes and Amazon. Her next show is in Brooklyn, Feb. 21 at 7 pm at Two Moon Art House and Café, at 315 4th Ave.