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This filmed music series features local and nationally touring musicians performing in the Lake Effect Surf Shop in Shorewood. Live at Lake Effect is hosted by Lake Effect’s Audrey Nowakowski and Milwaukee musician Trapper Schoepp.

Willi Carlisle: Live at Lake Effect

"Live at Lake Effect" is our music series featuring local and nationally touring artists performing in the Lake Effect Surf Shop in Shorewood, Wisconsin.

We brought the Lake Effects together, along with Visionary Studios, to showcase musicians once a month through an interview with the band exclusively on Lake Effect, plus filmed performances. Today, we have folksinger Willi Carlisle. A one man performer, his music takes listeners to the backwaters of his mind and America, embracing the complicated truths surrounding the beauty and pain of life and love.

Carlisle's music and his stage shows are like a patchwork quilt of traditional American music where extra elements and instrumentation aren't necessary. In fact, anything more added to it could take away from his poignant lyrics.

"Being a folksinger, you end up becoming a generalist if you want to know a lot of people. So on stage I play banjo and fiddle and guitar and accordion and harmonicas and that’s it right now, that’s plenty. But the reason I like to do it is because I always needed to be in a different spot," Carlisle explains.

From playing and calling square-dances, to learning fiddle tunes, and picking up the accordion because he wanted to play more like his grandparents, Carlisle says that "having that [musical] interest be a moving target, it keeps that emotional roller coaster moving ... I like to have a lot of arrows in the quiver."

While his music had many elements of early folk, Carlisle entwines it with modern themes and social issues. He notes he likes to believe that he's following in a long line of folk singers that goes back to the Zapatistas, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) movement and the American Leftist movements of the 20s and 30s, and more preceding that.

"In a lot of ways though, I think that it's probably Pete Seeger that invented the way that the profession is in modernity," notes Carlisle. "But linking folks songs to regular people is not hard, because they come from regular people."

The way I like to put it is revision, and reverence and revulsion all at the same time.
Willi Carlisle

He adds, "In a time where oral tradition oftentimes takes place in a digital realm, it's easy to just kind of accidentally stomp on what might be forgotten or what might be relegated to the dusty annals of an archive or something like that. So while I am trying to stay up on things, I try to spend more time with my nose inside of old folk's houses or in between a book than I do I guess indulging in our everyday outrages so that I can try to keep one foot in the long 19th Century, if you will."

Carlisle also takes inspiration from literature. Take for example his song, "Two-Headed Lamb" that was inspired by Laura Gilpin's poem "Two-Headed Calf."

"Let me be totally clear, it's an absolute pull and I'm comfortable with that because I kept trying to set this beautiful poem to music, because I do that for fun sometimes. And then ... I wanted to add an antagonist, I wanted to add an extra verse, I wanted to put some kind of natural reciprocity in my version of it," he explains. "So I just kind of changed the placement of the miracle and extend the conceit a little bit. And then I wanted it to be a lamb instead of a calf pretty badly because I like lambs."

This song in particular also echos a theme often present in Carlisle's music: having pride yet recognizing the faults of where you come from.

"I think we should do that with all history," he notes. "The way I like to put it is revision, and reverence and revulsion all at the same time in a swirly little vortex. And if you don't want to get into that vortex, that's fine, but to me that's the current that carries you forward. Because it has nuance in it, and I think a lot of our discourse doesn't want to have nuance."

"Instead I hope that [people] want actual communal, corporeal experiences," Carlisle adds.

When Carlise isn't touring on the road a majority of the year, he goes back to his home in the Ozarks to reset and get inspired by its folklore that often works its way into a song or poem. If he's not working on his own music, Carlisle says he enjoys taking the time to learn new music, sit in on old time sessions, look at the dogwoods and "breathe home in for a minute."


  • The Arrangements (0:18)
  • Two-Headed Lamb (4:52)
  • Critterland (9:02)


  • Willi Carlisle: vocals, guitar, banjo, accordion, harmonica

Live at Lake Effect Team:

  • Executive Producers: Audrey Nowakowski & Trapper Schoepp
  • Audio Engineering: Jason Rieve
  • Location: Lake Effect Surf Shop in Milwaukee
  • Production Company: Visionary Studios
  • Camera Op: Brad Roehl, Jessica Wolff & Ben Albert
Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Trapper Schoepp is co-executive producer of Live at Lake Effect, a filmed music series from WUWM's Lake Effect.
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