Maybe folk music singer/songwriters have different relationships with their fans, with their music. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the genre and the blunt directness of performers that endears them to their fans. And maybe it’s Lissie’s hyper-direct artistic honesty that’s earned her the adoration of a committed legion of folk music fans.
Lissie has been involved with music her whole life, maturing quickly into an established and highly regarded singer-songwriter. She’s been on tour with Lenny Kravitz, been produced by Band of Horses Bill Reynolds and even had her music cross-genre remixed by Deadmau5. She’s traveled extensively around the US and Europe on tours as both a solo artist and accompanied by her band, supporting music legends like Tom Petty when she wasn’t playing her own shows. This last February she released her 3rd album, a beautiful collection of her stories titled ‘My Wild West’ her fans devoured. These fans- they adore her travelling from the far corners of the globe to see her perform anywhere they can. At her show at Bowery Ballroom in NYC last week, someone traveled from Norway to see her play the intimate show, an unmissable opportunity for a Lissie die-hard. And Lissie is equally dedicated to her fans, recognizing the “regulars” in the crowd and gleefully recalling in detail the last show she saw them at with a casualness that might suggest they were neighborhood friends that happen to bump into eachother at the supermarket from time to time.
The minute you meet Lissie you can sense she’s truly a special spirit-spunky, intense, funny- she lights up the room. Since this was her solo tour, the Bowery stage was empty, a spartan frame filled with nothing except for one mic and the guitar stand. Yet Lissie’s presence up there was strong enough to fill two stages. She joked that she gets too “chatty” at her shows, but her banter between songs wasn’t banter at all; it was raw and real and spoke directly to each of us. And she held the room together, a glue that brings together people across great distances, and holds them in place.
In the middle of a beautiful set, Lissie pauses to speak about charity:water, an organization she’s collaborated with to help bring clean drinking water to people in developing countries. This segways into her commitment to raising up women, and making sure that they are respected, especially now. As a feminist, it was great to see her speak so candidly and freely, especially given the stigma attached to women speaking out (it’s 2016, people!). She laughed lightheartedly as she said “sorry guys, we’re breaking the patriarchy”. Then she appropriately went right into her beautiful and empowering song “Daughters”. Lissie’s performance was powerful. I could feel the people in the room absorbed, entranced.
Before Lissie’s performance we spoke a bit about current projects, where she’s heading and how to find balance in life.
[Liz] Tell me what you’ve been working on right now. You’ve been doing this for a while and you’ve just come out with your new record this year.
[Lissie] What’s going on now is that I’ve been touring with a band mostly for the last 6 or 7 years and I’ve been playing music my whole life and really love it but I think my priorities and expectations have changed. After I was dropped by my label in 2014 and in 2015 I was sort of going through the motions of trying to get another deal and make another record and I just was like, I don’t really want to do that. I actually have always wanted a farm in Iowa, so I’ll just move to Iowa. In the months after I decided that, I continued to work on music and I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it. That became ‘My Wild West’ which I released in February of this year. So I’ve been on 2 full band tours, one in the US and one in Europe. And this year I did a bunch of festivals in the summer.
[Liz] And that was solo or?
[Lissie] The band stuff was in February through May; that was the US/Europe band stuff and then the summer was mostly with the band. A little bit of solo and duo stuff. I put out a new live album and I recorded that last year in London. I think it’s good to keep your supporters, your fans, happy and give them new content whenever you can. So it just sort of coincided that to wrap up My Wild West and sort of promote the live album that I’d do some solo touring. This tour has been very chill. I was in LA and San Francisco, Austin, then went home, went to a wedding, did Minneapolis, went home again, then came out here. So it hasn’t been like ‘boom boom boom’. It’s a way to tour and promote and make money without having it seem like such a grind. This tour is really a “wrapping it up but see you guys next year”. And I’ll go back to Europe after thanksgiving and play some solo stuff there. And people are liking it, I think. It’s just a different way to experience my music, when it’s just about the voice and the lyrics and not so much about the production or the band.
But really where I’m at now is that I have this new land in Iowa and I’ve been fixing up my house. I still have a ways to go but it’s comfortable enough that I can live there. And I’m just going to go hibernate for a while and write songs. So this is a ‘wrapping things up’ sort of time, but with the idea in mind that I’m going to be making a new album. I’m not going to go away for too long; but going into writing/recording/living mode for however many months it takes, just to feel like I know what I want to say. And figuring out what my new life looks like because I haven’t really been living on the farm yet; like I’ll go there for two days then I’ll go out of town for three weeks, then I’ll go there for four days, then go out of town for a month. I don’t even know what my reality of being there is yet so it could be a very prolific time; to be hunkered down in a new place, in a new house, in the snow. Kind of forced to keep myself busy. [laughs] I’m going to take a Norwegian language course at a local college. and maybe learn how to knit.
“I want to put out a new album, want to hit it hard, want to do the tours, want to get a song on the radio, I want to do that. But I just need to let it happen naturally”
[Liz] It seems very much like a vacation from all of the running around and touring. It must have been very different going with the band on tour versus solo and now heading home. It’s an interesting transition going back.
[Lissie] It’s a good kind of balance though, I think, because the stuff with the band is fun and I’ve played with a bunch of different musicians this year. I had a band for 5 years that was always the same dudes, but when I decided to move, they live west, so it was bittersweet. So I played with different musicians in Europe and in the US and got along great with everyone. And that’s been very fun to meet new people and make those close bonds over touring. But it’s way more of a schlep. You have so much stuff and there’s a lot of traveling and a lot of early mornings. When it’s with a bunch of people it’s really fun and it’s really dynamic but when it’s just me, I have a friend or a family member in pretty much every city that I play in so it’s an opportunity for me to reconnect. I stayed with a cousin in Minneapolis, hung out with a friend in Austin, San Francisco I have family, my brother lives there, so it’s been real mellow to do it this way. And then going home, you know, I need days where I don’t see or talk to people because I am very chatty and very intense and extroverted-sorta-seeming but I’ve got recharge my batteries and when I go home I might not talk to anybody for a while — except for my sister, but I talk to her on the phone every day. I might not be trying to socialize as much. I think if you have balance then it’s good.
[Liz] I’m a social introvert, so I can relate — I can be out there with everyone but then really do need to take the time to recharge. To just be on your own is important and then if you are comfortable with yourself it’s really good to just be able to “be”.
[Lissie] And then you recharge your battery and then you get hungry for interaction again and you can just be a better person to be around. Because I know that sometimes I’ll be around people and if I’m distracted it’s not like I’m any fun to be around but once I’m like rested then I can do my job better, I can be a better friend, a better family member, etc..
It’s a real time of transition but I’ve been really enjoying myself. I think there’s a time where I thought “well, I don’t really want to work but I don’t really want to feel like I have to keep getting more and more and more successful” and I think for a while I thought I did but now I have this peace of letting it just slowly ebb and flow. If I’m creating good content and I’m willing to do tours that will be able to feed whatever it is I’m doing – you know I’m my own business woman now – so it’s trying to figure out, well, what kind of money do I need to be making to fund the projects I believe in? And try and build a studio at my house or whatever it is, what my goal is. How do I build a balanced life that allows these things to happens but also not getting to freaked out or concerned about outcomes or chart positions and things.
[Liz] I’m sure that you’ll have those days where you’ll feels like it is really rough but what is important is that payoff and creating things that really connect with people.
I’m always super interested about songwriting and lyrics – do you write poetry? Or is it mainly lyric based? I feel like it goes almost like poetry.
[Lissie] Yeah, it’s weird. I think that whenever I have word and lyric ideas that come to me they are usually with the intention of trying to turn them into songs but they don’t always become songs. So I have these books of songwriting ideas. But I guess if you read one of my books they could almost read as poems.
[Liz] Or journal entries sort of?
[Lissie] I mean my journal entries [laughs] I also keep a journal that is not creative or interesting at all. It’s like “today I went here and I need to quit smoking”. My journal is the lamest thing in the world; there’s no wisdom or creativity. It’s just me complaining about some boy that doesn’t like me.
Mostly though I don’t really sit down and try to write, it’s more like if an idea comes to me I try to put it in my phone or notebook. I’ll co-write with people sometimes in which times it very much just songwriting, where I’m writing words that fit a melody in a musical way. Words come into my head but they’re usually attached to a melody. I’m a pretty literal writer too. “I did this, then you did this, and made me feel this way and now I’m figuring this out and this is the conclusion”.
[Liz] I’m always fascinated about the process behind taking words and making them into music.
[Lissie] I’m asked about songs and I don’t always have a ton of confidence, but with that I don’t even know sometimes where it comes from. I’ll just even be around my house, like, there was a mouse in my basement and I start talk-singing about whatever’s going on. It’s almost like talking to yourself but singing. [Sings] “There’s a mouse in the house what am I gonna do”. Or I’ll sing to my dog or something and I will like that melody. Or I’ll be thinking about something that’s going on, it’s usually the times of emotion, whether it’s a relationship romance thing or just a personal kind of existential dread kind of thing. What is the path here? What am I supposed to be doing? How do I find peace, and how do I be a good person? And how do I be good to myself? There’s just a lot of questions in my brain at all times, which I think is everybody’s experience.
[Liz] And then it is just channeling it into making a beautiful piece of art, like music.
[Lissie] I think that’s why a lot of artists are the troubled characters because it’s all that extra chatter inside and passion. Having an outlet, like design or writing or dance — those things help people process and release a lot of that stuff, for sure.
“that’s lazy, you can do better”
[Liz] Do you have a favorite line that you’ve written so far? Something that still to this sticks with you? Or does it change through different times.
[Lissie] It’s weird because I’ll completely forget about songs of mine that I love and are my favorites — ones that I’m so proud of — I’ll just completely block them from my memory. There was one line that I thought was pretty clever and it was a song I wrote with two other guys. Usually I’m the words person and most of the melody and the other person does the music, but there are these two guys that I write with, and one of them is more like the lyric police — “that’s lazy, you can do better”. I feel like I came up with this line but it was with him so I don’t want to take 100% credit. There’s this song called “The Habit” which I never play really, I forget it exists always, I haven’t played it in such a long time. It was on my second album. But there was one line “the heart breaks way before the habit”. That’s the thing, you have things you’re stuck in, or like people, in my case, that kind of break your heart but you’re still kind of addicted to them. Or with substance abuse, it’s similar. You kind of have to go through some stuff before you’re able to let the thing go.
[Liz] Anything songs that you’re working on right now?
[Lissie] I’ve had a couple of songs recently that I’ve been working on. You know I’m kind of in this thing now where I’m in the final stages of really letting someone go that I’ve just been pursuing and pursuing and pursuing and just makes me absolutely crazy. I don’t know why I do it to myself. I’m actually trying to do some self work in terms of like, okay, I see a pattern here. Is it even about this person, or are you just projecting this set of things you keep passing on to person after person and you misunderstand the situation? And it just turns to rejection and then you get even more obsessed because you feel like you need validation. It’s just a bunch of nonsense and then you get over it and look back on it and you think why did I do that? Why didn’t I just enjoy my life? What a waste of time. You know, another question is, do I enjoy the ups and downs? Is there part of me that gets some sick satisfaction out of it?
“I’m 33, it’s time I got over some of this teenage nonsense”
[Liz] Then you think about that and wonder, is it just that you need real high highs and low lows because if it is just neutral all the time, what will that feel like?
[Lissie] Wanting life to always be exciting. It’s like you want life to be like a movie. I drink a lot and I smoke and I travel and meet lots of people. I think there are times where I want every moment of my life — when I’m not just sitting in my house watching TV, drinking wine, which is my favorite thing to do — to be really full of emotion and meaning. One of the songs I started writing recently, the chorus: “what am I gonna do when I’m no longer unhappy about you; who’s gonna turn me out and be all I ever sit and think about”. It’s almost like, what am I going to do with my thoughts if I’m not just constantly thinking about you. [laughs] So that’s something I’m exploring. I’m 33, it’s time I got over some of this teenage nonsense.
[Liz] I mean, they are important feelings and it does take a toll. It is a lot about “when I’m going to take care of ‘me'”.
[Lissie] Right. And I think that’s what it’s coming around to. Like is sadness and desperation really worth it and when are you going to wake up? And how about I just try being nice to myself and valuing myself instead of putting myself into these situations where I’m just doomed to feel like shit. You know, I think the person is going to be coming tonight. It’s good because I also want to have some dignity and grace and it seems like it’s going to be okay.
[Liz] I’m sure it will be a cathartic moment to have a person in the room who was super important and letting them go; moving on to the next phase.
[Lissie] They can witness me as I’m kind of putting my heart out there for everyone to see. Maybe help with some closure or maybe I’ll just get sucked back into it. [laughs]
Tomorrow I’m going home until after thanksgiving so it’s going to be reality. This is my house, I need to figure out what living here is. Write songs when I feel like it and hope for the best in the future months. I’m probably going to play in Minneapolis. It’s 3 hours from where I moved and I have a great fan base there, so I’m toying with the idea of doing some residency things. I’ll still pop out and play shows here and there but maybe I’ll need to just disappear for a second. I want to put out a new album, want to hit it hard, want to do the tours, want to get a song on the radio, I want to do that. But I just need to let it happen naturally.
[Liz] It will be cool to see the progress from you doing it on your own terms.
[Lissie] Yeah I think so. And my financial pressures lessened when I moved out of California. Like, what do you really need to get by every month if you want to live? It’s a lot lower than southern California. [laughs] How busy do I have to stay before I miss a mortgage payment or something, you know? That’s sort of my thinking, to just go with the flow until I run out of money. [laughs]
[Liz] That’s exciting!
[Lissie] Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. I had a weird summer where everything has been going well, but because of the emotions around that situation, I felt like I was in this kind of dark haze — just staying busy, which was kind of helping but also keeping me from facing it and not being in my bubble of love from my family, or having my things, or my dog. I’m just out here flailing in the wind. But then there’s this sense of pride at the end of all this. I’ve worked really hard and I got through it and I did it and sometimes it was really hard because I can’t get up because I’m so tired or I’m lonely in this hotel room in the middle of wherever country I am. But somehow it is starting to all get less. I’m coming to the other side of it.
[Liz] You got this.
[Lissie] I hope so!