Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Cover Story: Lissie

| June 1, 2018

There is a word – and indeed a whole attendant concept – that singer-songwriter Lissie (born Elisabeth Corrin Morris in Rock Island, Illinois; she long ago dropped her surname for performing) had gradually let slip from her memory, over her recent years spent living in sunny Ojai, California. And it’s not something too easy to forget – it’s winter. Particularly the icy grip of a Midwestern winter, a beast that simply cannot be appeased no matter how much salt you throw down on slippery streets or how much elbow-greased shoveling you’re prepared to do just to clear your walkway for the mailman. Not to mention the extra 45 minutes you should allow yourself at its coldest, just to defrost and methodically scrape your car windows to get to work each morning. That frigidity stays with you, no matter how far you run from your heartland home, no matter how steamy and sauna-sweltering your new state might turn out to be.

But Lissie no longer remembered winter’s significance, or it’s potentially brooding malevolence. Live in California long enough, and snowstorms? They’re merely an abstract construct from your past that no longer has much to do with daily existence. The 35-year old singer was reminded soon enough, however, when – in a move that surprised pretty much everyone around her – she impulsively bought a working 47.7-acre farm in northeast Iowa, where she ditched the meddling music business and came up with what is arguably her best work to date, the chiming new Castles, her fourth. And one of the first seasonal messages she got in 2015 as the frost set in was, she will never survive this without a pickup truck. Just getting up her long driveway when it was below freezing required every bit of four-wheel drive horsepower she could muster. “So I bought a 2007 Dodge Ram, and I call her Pearl,” she admits, then sighs. “But she doesn’t get very good gas mileage.”

The property has some intriguing features included, with which its new owner is only now becoming familiar, like its fusillade of bustling apiaries which kick up quite a thriving honey trade. “I don’t directly keep the bees – there’s a guy from town who helps me with things around the place, and he takes the bee-box frames out and shows me what they’re up to,” Lissie explains of how everything works on the new homestead. “And I rent all my tillable land out to my neighbors because I’ve got a lot of neighbors who all have gardens.” So many in fact that there’s been a crop surplus lately. “So right now, you can’t even give your food away. I’ll have an abundance of zucchini, and everyone’s like, ‘No, sorry – we already have too much zucchini ourselves!’ But I do try and give away all my extra produce, so it’s been a nice balance. I still tour a lot – that’s how I make my living. But now when I am home, I have a lot more now that I want to do. And I feel like it’s a long-term process because I’d eventually like to get some animals.  I’ll start with some chickens and work my way up to a horse – and right now I’m canning. But do I really know the best recipes for my canning? I’m trying to be as self-sufficient as I can.”

Now, the artist is finding that her two lifestyles are inextricably and symbiotically linked. In the past, Lissie says, she didn’t give a thought to her often exhausting tour schedule – she merely piled into the van and went where she was told to go. No longer. Until recently, she had no idea that she could design her own idiosyncratic itinerary, in conjunction with her non-stage needs. “So now I’m like, ‘I want to solo tour this month and make X amount of money.’ So I go out there, and I hustle, so I can go home and take care of my garden.”

The decision to pull up stakes and return to the old stomping grounds may seem spur of the moment. But it wasn’t. For years, Lissie had been scanning the weekly real estate sections of Iowa newspapers with the latent plan of pouncing on a plot purchase when the time was right. Finally, the time was right. “I grew up in the Quad Cities, which is also on the Mississippi across from Iowa, and the Iowa side was 20 minutes away from my house,” she recalls, wistfully. “So it was like one big town there, and when I was young, I’d go camping in Northeast Iowa because it was just really pretty up there. It’s called the Driftwood Region, and it didn’t get as flat as the rest of the Midwest did. So I always really liked that part of Iowa, and I always had this romantic notion that I’d eventually buy a farm there, plant a garden, keep bees, and learn how to knit. These are the things that I fantasized about. Then one day I could afford it, and I found a great spot. And it felt like there was going to be this huge fallout – I broke-up amicably with my band, and told everyone I worked with that I was going to go do a solo tour for a while. I needed a change, and everyone was super understanding. And my fans were still around, curious to see what I did next.”

Castles was worth the anticipation. It’s a breakup album of sorts which opens on the ethereal piano etude “World Away,” then drifts into the “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” mea culpa “Crazy Girl”, and the arching “Blood & Muscle,” in which Lissie’s personable rasp gets so caught up in the passion and heartbreak that it crests and cracks like some powerful tidal wave. The jangly, soulful “Best Days” and “Feels Good” show the light in the lugubrious darkness, and posit that the most optimistic times lay ahead, despite any evidence to the contrary. The disc closes on a forlorn “Sand,” underpinned by eerie female backing vocals and a choir-like harmonic chorus, followed by the existential coda “Meet Me in the Mystery,” which could be addressing the spiritual world in a grander scope or simply Iowa itself, and all the life-changing possibilities this rustic world entails. It’s her second record to be released independently, after 2016’s My Wild West and has its roots in the DIY home studio that Lissie has set up in Iowa. “It’s like a bedroom studio with speakers, a mic, and a mic stand, and a laptop,” she says. ”And I was able to track some of the album’s vocals from my new home, then write and record it, then E-mail it to my producers/collaborators in London to put the finishing polish on it. We live in interesting times now, where you can make a record remotely and still have it feel very cohesive and heartfelt.”

Lissie has an unusually long and colorful history with England, oddly enough. After leaving Rock Island to study at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, then in exotic Paris, she released a 2009 EP, Why You Runnin,’ that featured the first of a long line of top-shelf collaborators — producer Bill Reynolds and, on “Oh Mississippi,” the wily Ed Harcourt. And while Lenny Kravitz himself would throw his estimable weight behind the kid by hiring her to open his Love Revolution Tour, it was London that proved most influential. “I was actually signed to Columbia Records in the UK, signed out of London on that major, and in the States, I was on (hip indie) Fat Possum,” she says. “So in the States, my career always grew at a slower, more DIY pace. And I’m not complaining – I’ve always seen my career as something where I’ll be able to get up onstage with my guitar when I’m 70 and still hold people’s interest. So I was on Columbia, but I was still close enough to L.A. that I would pop in and out whenever I needed. But I did feel creatively stunted at times or felt like I had people overseeing everything that I did, and it made me a little miserable. So I got dropped from Sony after my second record in 2015 (Back to Forever, which followed her overseas smash debut Catching a Tiger in 2010) which didn’t do as well as the first one, which went gold.” After losing her coveted contract, all of Lissie’s friends contacted her, urging her to get back on the horse, get back out there and find another lucrative deal. But the more she considered that option, the more her gut instinct pushed her in the other direction. “I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t think I want another record deal. And I’m actually going to buy a farm in Iowa, and I’m going to move and simplify my life and make music for me again.’ So I did that,” she chortles. “And it worked out.”

Many more kudos and honors would continue to come the lady’s way. She performed a version of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” that picked up enough speed to be included on her Cuckoo EP, and her take on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” stunned the presenters of BBC Radio’s The Great British Songbook. She guested with Gary Lightbody on four cuts from Fallen Empires, his 2011 effort with Snow Patrol, and her version of Fleetwood Mac’s classic “Go Your Own Way” found usage in a popular Twinings Tea commercial overseas. In 2014, she issued her own covers EP, Cryin’ to You, including Danzig’s “Mother,” Dylan’s “To Ramona,” and even Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home” – exemplary of Lissie’s diverse, often simultaneously arcane and playful taste. Last but not least, Lissie had the remarkable honor of appearing on David Lynch’s rebooted Showtime series Twin Peaks last year, trilling her track “Wild West” live. She also guested on last year’s MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice album from Norwegian New Wavers a-ha, singing “I’ll Be Losing You” with bandleader Morten Market.

Castles seems to encapsulate more of its composer’s zen-like life philosophy than any of its predecessors. Lissie herself isn’t certain. “But each album’s like this little marker in time, like, ‘Oh. This is what I’m going through,’” she reasons. “And with this album, I went through a pretty agonizing relationship that wasn’t even a real relationship. So a lot of Castles was in real time, just me processing and working through things, and holding a mirror up to myself, too, because you can’t really blame other people for things that you’re participating in. So you can see it on all the songs, really – I don’t want to waste any more time repeating the same old patterns, so this is a darker album because I actually had to go inside myself and focus on what you don’t want, and then draw a line in the sand and say, ‘That’s it. I’m done with all this faffing about – no more squirrelly dudes.’ So Castles helped me let go of a lot of toxicity.”

These post-winter days, Lissie has found herself thawing with her spring surroundings. And she’s thinking beyond simple dalliances, to a climate-change reverent future. “It’s a long process with some of the things I want to do,” she sighs. “I’ve realized that even the trees I want to plant, I won’t see the payoff with that until 20 years from now. So it’s an evolving process, but it’s been a comfort to have it. But it’s great to get home because I do like to knit, and I’ll go down to the local knitting store, and I’ll get help. So I try to keep myself busy and crafty and creative.”

Given the abundance of its Hee-Haw cheesy TV ads, no conversation with this Thoreau-ish hermit would be complete without raising the possibility – has she ever once considered logging onto in hopes of finding real, salt of the Earth love? Lissie wants to laugh at the innate absurdity, but she can’t quite bring herself to. “You know, I should sign up – I really need to,” she cedes. “People tell me that all the time, and I really probably should because I live such a bizarre life in terms of consistency and dating in any kind of normal, gradual way. So I probably will need to get on some kind of app….”

Lissie plays in Rock Island on June 2nd as part of the 7th Annual Laura’s Legacy concert at Schwiebert Riverfront Park, an event she created with her family to honor the memory of her late aunt, Laura Swedberg Schoonover Bartel. All proceeds go to support the ALS Association of Greater Chicago and ALS Research University of North Carolina.

-Tom Lanhan

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