US singer Lissie talks to DUNCAN SEAMAN about her piano and vocal tour, which is coming to Leeds.
It’s almost a decade since Lissie released her debut album, Catching A Tiger. A record that successfully channelled Americana and melodic 80s FM rock, it was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet barely five years later she found herself dropped by a major label and re-evaluating her life. Since leaving southern California and buying a farm in the US Mid West, where she grew up, she has rebuilt her musical career independently.
Castles, her fourth longplayer, breached the top 10 in the UK last year; now she’s touring Britain again on the back of When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective.
“I describe it as a supplement to my catalogue because I’m pretty fortunate to have a long-lasting relationship with my fanbase,” the 36-year-old – born Elizabeth Corrin Maurus – says of her latest release.
“I’ve been singing all these songs form my albums for the last decade in some cases and I’ve performed them in so many different ways – sometimes it’s just me and a guitar and sometimes it’s full band. I had started to perform with a piano player and no guitars, so it was fun for me to develop this new relationship with my old songs, to tap into different emotions that weren’t in the produced band album scope of things.
“It was more to my own benefit that I felt I wanted to tour in a more simple way and that this album would be more like a supplement to my albums for my fans who were interested.”
The singer-songwriter believes she learnt a lot from subtracting elements from the songs as they were originally recorded. “I had almost intentionally chosen the poppier, more produced album tracks to reinterpret in this piano way because I do think that context is interesting, to tap into the tender, emotional side of the songs. I gives me the ability to reflect on the life experiences that the songs came from and to have kind of a new relationship.
“I think I was able to be a little nostalgic almost, seeing how some of the situations that led to the songs are so far in my past, and how far I’ve come since I started and how I’ve grown, even in my approach to my relationships in my career, because I was able to remember the steps I’d taken.”
One of the standout songs on the new record is Daughters, a song with a feminist message that Lissie originally wrote for her third album My Wild West. “I think the original version of Daughters is really effective because its powerful and it really drives, but reinterpreting it with a piano it tapped into this other angle of it, this maybe kind of vulnerable plea, rather than the triumphant chant. There are two sides to that – it’s a plea when it’s reinterpreted in a more delicate way, I think. The women of the world should have peace and power that they deserve.”
I did all the things that I thought I was going to do in California and it was time for to me to own a house and put money away for retirement and figure out a better work-life balance.Lissie
When I’m Alone also includes a cover of Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, a band to whom Lissie has often been compared. “Early on I was getting some comparisons to Stevie [Nicks] and Fleetwood Mac which I thought was a huge compliment, but it wasn’t ever deliberate,” she says. “Fleetwood Mac was really in my musical vocabulary as much as anything else. They’re an incredible band but I never felt like they were this big inspiration for me necessarily.
“I liked lots of classic rock and country in high school, so Rumours was definitely on rotation, but you know in both cases, with Go Your Own Way [which Lissie has also covered] and Dreams they were songs that people requested that I cover and I almost did so hesitantly but once I did those were things people really wanted to hear time and time again.
“I kind of try to accommodate requests, and sometimes I can’t see myself like other people do, so it was a good choice, I think, to cover those songs, in a way that I might have avoided, so I was trying to emulate.”
Another song Lissie covers is Cowboy Take Me Home, by The Dixie Chicks. When introducing it in concert earlier this year, Lissie enthused about settling on a farm in Iowa, getting her hands dirty and living life on her own terms. “When I was 18 I couldn’t wait to get out of here,” she says now. “I found the Mid West to be a stifling environment. But with anyone, I think where you grow up, for a lot of people, that nostalgia returns and you miss your home, and my family is all back here, so there were a few factors.
“I’d always said throughout my twenties that my dream was to someday own a farm in Iowa. I didn’t think that would happen necessarily in my thirties, but I had got dropped from Sony Records after my second album in 2015 and there were people interested in signing me up, I was going to start the whole process again of going and getting another major deal and doing the album and the promotional cycle, and I was just kind of like disenfranchised with all of it. I wanted to have more control and say in my life.
“Rather than go get another record deal, I quietly made my third album, My Wild West, on my own and while I was making that I realised that while I loved California I missed the Mid West, I missed the seasons, I missed my family. I was paying a ton of rent in a place that at the time really didn’t have much water. Even global warming factored into my decision.
“I did all the things that I thought I was going to do in California and it was time for to me to own a house and put money away for retirement and figure out a better work-life balance, hopefully meet somebody and spend time being creative in other ways like gardening and redoing my house. I just didn’t want to be afraid, like I could only do one thing and there was only one way to do it, that made me feel really limited and made me not enjoy music as much.”
Lissie has gone into the “hay business” with the help of a neighbour, who farms her land; she also has a hand in helping the local bee population. “This guy Gary, who’s my buddy now, he keeps the bees,” she explains. “I’m travelling constantly but if I’m home I’ll go out and check on the bees and he’ll show me what’s up, and try to identify the queen. He just got a bunch of honey the other day, which was exciting and the bees are really thriving. Some years they don’t do so well because it gets really cold here. Bees are really struggling as it is because of some kinds of mites and chemicals that are used in farming. I’m not the beekeeper, but the bees are on my property.”
Lissie seems to be revelling in her independence. “There’s ways in which I’m sure other artists would want to keep growing and growing and growing. I feel my place is like maintaining and sustaining because there’s a limit to how much I want to be responsible for other people. I don’t feel like everything I’m doing is affecting so many people. I have different bands in each country I play in – I have a British band, a Minneapolis-based band, a Norwegian band and they’re all working in convoy with other artists. I have a small team.”
On her UK and Norway dates in October and November she will be working with a British piano player. “I’m not even going to be working with a guitar and that took a lot of getting used to,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do with my hands for a while. It’s just a totally different way to perform, I use my body in ways that I can’t if I have to use my hands to play the guitar, I can pace and go in the crowd and talk to people, there’s more freedom. This will be just the piano and vocal tour but there are so many ways to do what I do. I’m sure I’ll be back with the band.”
Lissie plays at Leeds City Varieties on October 22. lissie.com