April 2, 2019 Interview – Lissie
Sometimes, we could all use a change of pace in our lives. Whether it be redecorating your home, or move somewhere new, it can help refresh our sensibility, and exchange, help us grow. For singer-songwriter Lissie, after spending over a decade out in California, she decided maybe it was time to go home, returning to Iowa in 2015. Releasing two albums since relocated back to the Midwest, 2016’s My Wild West and 2018’s Castles, she continues to evolve along the way.
Experimenting with new sounds for Castles, Lissie now takes a step back to reflect on the past decade of her life with her latest album When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective. A record that covering her entire career, with the addition of a wonderful cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” Lissie is excited to offer listeners a different side to the prism that makes her who she is. Preparing to go out on the road, she recently took the time for a honest recollection of her journey in music, what she has learned about herself, plus much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music professionally for over a decade now. Releasing four studio albums, you have toured all over and built a strong following. First, briefly tell us what has your experience been like in music?
Lissie – I’ve have had a very rewarding and expressive time getting to make music for a living. I think it’s been a very positive experience.
Cryptic Rock – That is good to hear. Your style has shifted through the years, and in 2018 you released a really magnificent record, Castles. What was the writing and recording like for that record?
Lissie – It’s funny, because Castles came out a year ago, and I feel like I’m still trying to sort of figure out how to explain or describe it. I feel like Castles was a bit of a detour for me, in terms that I made all these changes in my life. I moved back to Iowa and put out My Wild West (2016), my prior album which was a lot about moving and changing things up. I had been in California for 12 years, I was heading back to my native Midwest and it was a new chapter I was embarking on.
Then I met a guy who drove me nuts, as they tend to do. (Laughs) A lot of Castles was kind of unpacking what the heck had happened between him and I. I let the mood lead me to incorporating, for me, fresh and fun elements. There was more synth and programmed drums, things I never really experimented with.
I kind of got detoured. We never know where we are going, but I met this person who made me learn a lot of hard stuff about myself. Now I’m grateful for it, but at the time, it was sometimes painful. A lot of Castles was really just me working through how I behave in relationships and what was going on that made me feel those feelings. It was trying to cultivate this self-awareness around my relationship. Then I ended up working with a handful of really talented musicians and producers which helped bring a sound to the emotion of the record.
Cryptic Rock – Interesting. It was different, but also a therapeutic release for you as well.
Lissie – Absolutely. If you listen to the songs in order, the first song ends with the sentiment, “I’m not ready to let go.” Then the very last song of the record, ‘Meet Me in the Mystery,’ ends with, “I’m ready to let go.” I hadn’t really planned it that way, but when it came all together, it actually worked out really well. I started out feeling I couldn’t let go of this thing I am clinging really tightly to. By the end, I felt, alright, I’m ready to dive into the pain of getting this thing out of me. (Laughs) I did and now I feel a lot better for it. Thank goodness for songwriting!
Cryptic Rock – That is a very positive thing. You are now set to release a new album, entitled When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective. A stripped down collection of recordings with just your voice and piano, it is really a beautiful sounding album. What inspired you to do this record?
Lissie – It’s a collection of songs that span my 4 albums re-imagined as these piano/vocal performances. When I’m putting out a new record, or doing a lot of promotion, doing radio gigs and showcases, I don’t always bring my whole band with me. When I do that, I am going to just keep it real; it’s kind of cost prohibitive to be flying 6 people all over the country to promote something.
I was trying to get creative and there is a piano player who I love working with from the UK who plays on a lot of songs on the album. Last year, he and I had just been doing these promo things with piano and vocals. I thought, let’s switch it up, let’s just present the songs in this really stripped down form; at least people will get an idea of my voice and my songs.
It was such a pleasure to do. In a lot of cases I was just singing in a room totally unplugged, and I loved it. I love playing with bands and the musicians I get to work with, but there was something very freeing about letting my voice do the work unencumbered by anything it is competing with or straining over. I just enjoyed that process of stripping it down and doing these little piano performances. I thought, “Hey, let’s go make a record of this.” I already had in my mind what songs I would want to re-imagine. The album itself came together pretty naturally and easily.
Cryptic Rock – It came together well and sounds wonderful. As you stated, the album features various originals, but you also do a really spectacular cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” You have always done exceptional jobs covering songs. What helps you decide which songs you would like to cover?
Lissie – They are definitely songs I like. “Dreams” was a funny one, because I almost didn’t cover it. I tend to not cover stuff I would call “too on the nose.” Plus, Stevie Nicks is kind of the queen, it’s sacred territory to even attempt a Stevie sung song. I had been doing it for fun over the years, so I thought, “Why fight it? I should just get this out and hopefully people will enjoy it.”
My thing was usually, I’m going to cover a Metallica song, then a Lady Gaga song, then a Bob Dylan song. It was never really anything too much in my realm that I was attempting. My cover choices are usually ones you would never expect, but with this, I love “Dreams,” and I love Fleetwood Mac. I am so glad people are responding to it well; you have to be careful when you cover songs, they mean a lot to people.
Cryptic Rock – Right, covers can be tricky sometimes. You mentioned how When I’m Alone allows people to get more antiquated with your voice. As a songwriter, you express very personal emotions, and as a vocalist, you express those feelings quite vividly. How have you developed your vocal approach through the years?
Lissie – I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. Everyone in my family can sing pretty well; my grandfather was a barbershop quartet international champion. I grew up around singing and naturally wanting to sing. I’ve always had a pretty big, loud, and powerful voice. I did musical theater as a kid, started taking voice lessons in 6th grade, and I sort of knew theater and soprano kind of classical singing really wasn’t my kind of thing. In high school, I thought, I was going to teach myself how to play guitar and write Rock songs.
Throughout all of that, I am so glad at a young age I was taught about warming up my voice, singing properly, and breathing properly. They say it’s a muscle, if you stretch it before you use it, you will have more and more control over it. I think years and years of singing has led to my voice now. I also think I have a kind of weird sinus passage, I kind of have a deviated septum and that properly influences the tone in my voice. It sort of rasped it up. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – It makes your voice yours. You mentioned about moving back home to the Midwest from California. Ten years is a good snapshot for anyone’s life. So, how would you describe the past 10 years of your life?
Lissie – It’s crazy that it’s been almost 4 years since I moved back. I would say, for one, time goes by a heck of a lot faster as you grow older. I would say it’s been a time of so much growth and change. I haven’t experienced a tremendous amount of loss in my life, but my dog died last year. I had dogs when I was a kid, but I was amazed how losing my dog last year hit me and how a little bit of my light went out through that loss too. Those are the sad and hard things.
I’ve also had a lot of joy in my life as well, I’ve lived in a lot of beautiful places. I’ve learned more and more to appreciate the natural world/nature as a source of inspiration and wisdom. I’ve definitely become a lot more accountable with myself with what my kind of bullshit is, trying to be self aware about it, so it doesn’t keep creating the same situations over and over again. (Laughs) I guess the last decade for me has been a ton of change, a lot of ups and downs, hopefully a lot of growth, and probably mellowing out as well.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, a lot happens between your twenties and your thirties. If you are moving in the right direction, you become more aware of yourself and who you are.
Lissie – Totally, I agree with that. Not to be a bummer, but I have also become more aware of limitations and doors closing. That’s a new thing as you start to get closer to your forties. You say, “‘I’m probably never going to be a professional soccer player, not that I ever wanted to be.” (Laughs) That’s done for me, by the time you’re forty, your body is starting to go down hill. I am teasing, but there is this awareness. When you’re young, the future is wide open, you can do anything, and then you get older and you realize, some of these doors are probably closed. Maybe that’s a kind of relief and a nice feeling.
Cryptic Rock – It is very true. Beyond your own music, you have collaborated with many others from Snow Patrol to a-ha. What is like working with others like that?
Lissie – It’s really flattering. All those situations, where I’ve gotten to work with really big name, successful artists, somehow, they’ve heard of me or gotten wind of me and say, “Hey, we want you to be apart of what we’re doing.” First and foremost, it’s very validating that people are interested in your talent.
It’s also really cool and interesting to see how people who are in this major spotlight have navigated fame, career, and personal life. I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten super close with many of these people; maybe I just get a little shy. I just show up and sing, and I don’t want to overstep my boundaries, so I always hold back for whatever reason. It’s definitely really cool to see how people who are playing arenas conduct themselves with such poise, confidence, and grace.
Cryptic Rock – You learn something new from everyone you work with you. You have a list of shows coming up. Will these shows be stripped down performances like the new record?
Lissie – For the most part I’m really promoting this piano/vocal album in parts of Europe and the US until summertime. Then when summer hits I have some festival dates. I have a band I play with in Norway, then a different band I play with in the US, and actually, I have a different band I play with in the UK. It will be back to full band stuff this summer. It’s fun, because you get to rock out a little bit and celebrate.
Cryptic Rock – Very cool. The stripped down performances are fun too, because you get to be more intimate with your audience.
Lissie – Yes, especially going to Norway. I’ve played a ton of shows with my band in Norway over the years, it’s such a beautiful country. Getting to go there to play in these venues where there are pianos there, where there are people seated and attentive, it’s whole different thing for a performer.
I get a lot out of both. I get a lot out of going to play sweaty clubs, being loud, and jumping around. There is also something really nice about standing next to a piano; I don’t play the piano, I will have a piano player, I play guitar. It’s a different thing, hopefully people can close their eyes and drift away.
Cryptic Rock – It is a different and exciting type of performance. Last question. Beyond music, Cryptic Rock also covers movies. With a concentrations in Horror and Sci-Fi films, do you have any favorites in these genres?
Lissie – I’ve always been really afraid of Horror movies, I’m a really big wimp. I love A Quiet Place (2018), the guys (Bryan Woods and Scott Beck) who wrote that movie with John Krasinski and brought it to life, actually grew up in the same town I did. It’s kind of random because I’m from this place called the Quad Cities; it’s the Iowa/Illinois board on the river, and no one has ever been there or knows what it is. (Laughs) It was a really big moment to say, those guys are from the Quad Cities, that’s amazing!
I’ve found I love Stephen King, I love The Stand. I can definitely get down with the psychological horror, which I know some people think is scarier than the gory stuff. I can handle the stuff that leaves it up to your imagination, but it’s the stuff that’s really graphic that is hard for me.
For Sci-Fi, I’m more into Fantasy than Sci-Fi. I definitely like His Dark Materials, which is kind of in that vein. Philip Pullman is almost like a physicist, but he’s also a fiction author. I like the idea of parallel universes, dream theory, and multiverse. I would say, yes, to an extent, I can get down with the Horror and Science Fiction genres.