In the video for her song “Coals,” Alicia Lemke (who performs as Alice and the Glass Lake) can be seen standing on a California beach, her hair dyed bright magenta, singing as the waves crash around her.
What can’t be seen is the catheter, known as a Hickman line, doctors had inserted in Lemke's chest for chemotherapy treatments.
Three months after the video was shot, on Aug. 9, 2015, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter from Madison died of acute myeloid leukemia. Over a year later, her family, friends and colleagues have finished the project she started, releasing the Alice and the Glass Lake album “Chimaera” on iTunes and Spotify in November.
“We knew that was her desire,” said her mother, Gale Lemke. “She wanted that album out.”
While Alicia was hard at work on the songs for the album right up until the end (she was still giving notes to her record producer two days before she died), the album is anything but depressing. Her life-affirming vocals and powerhouse lyrics float on lush dream-pop arrangements, drawing comparisons to artists like Florence and the Machine or Sylvan Esso.
Gale said that spirit absolutely represents how her daughter lived her life.
“She had this amazing strength and indomitable spirit,” she said. “She was full of light to the end.”
Growing up on Madison’s west side, Alicia attended Shorewood Hills Elementary, Blessed Sacrament School and West High School. She was big into performing music and plenty of other creative pursuits including theater, appearing in numerous Children’s Theatre of Madison productions.
“It was like raising two children,” Gale said. “She was driven so creatively in so many different areas. Everything she touched she did amazingly well.”
After graduating from West, Alicia went to school at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, taking a double major in biology and musical theater that reflected her passion for both science and the arts. She eventually pursued the arts route, attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then moved to New York, gigging around clubs in the city. It was during those New York years that she developed her voice as a musician.
“She started off kind of folksy,” Gale said. “And then she found her sound, which ended up being more of an indie sound with these beautiful lush ambient nature landscapes. She started getting some real attention and incredible reviews. In 2013, they were calling her the ‘dream pop queen.’”
Alicia began working with people in the music industry in New York and Los Angeles, who urged her to change her name so as not to be confused with other musical Alicias like Alicia Keys. She came up with the name Alice and the Glass Lake as an ode to the lake in northern Wisconsin where the family had a cabin.
“The first time she ever saw it she had this incredible reaction,” Gale said. “She shook and said it was the most incredible place she’d ever seen. She’d go up there all the time to write and find her center and dig down deep.”
Alicia talked about how nature inspired her music, and how she tried to stay "green" as a touring musician, in a video for Timberland:
Just as Alicia was starting to get some momentum as an artist, she was diagnosed with leukemia in December 2013 while on vacation in France. She spent the next 20 months in and out of hospitals like the Mayo Clinic, receiving a bone marrow transplant, all the while working to finish her songs.
“She never, through the whole thing, didn’t think she was going to make it,” Gale said. “I think the music really helped to get her through the whole experience. It healed her. It comforted her. It allowed her to express her inner, innermost deepest thoughts and feelings.”
Of all the songs on “Chimaera,” only one, a hidden track called “Disappear,” directly references what Alicia was facing. “It’ll be so surreal, change is coming in the atmosphere. When it does there’ll be no fear, and all the trauma will just disappear.”
“She wrote it at the end when she was really sick,” Gale Lemke said. “That’s the only song that reflects her coming to terms with her mortality and transitioning to the next phase.
“Everything else is filled with life.”