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'It's All One Big Story': Lissie's Past, Present and Future

Monday, 23 August 2021 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Elaine Constantine

In this fast-paced and increasingly frantic world, it’s very easy for most of us to forget that life’s a journey, not a destination. It’s a lot harder, however, when you’re Elisabeth Corrin Maurus. Best known as Lissie, the American songwriter has documented her personal odyssey through the medium of music for nearly two decades and is feeling reflective after compiling a pair of retrospective releases that add even more colour and depth to both her personal and artistic development.

Fashioning songs that run the gamut from heartache, grief and self-exploration to salvation, empowerment and redemption, this rootsy singer-songwriter with a powerful and evocative Stevie Nicks rasp, and endearing flair for penning magical pop-rock hooks, made a huge impact on the back of her breakout debut record, 2010’s ‘Catching A Tiger.’ 

Initially set to mark its 10 year anniversary, but subsequently postponed thanks to the pandemic, her now classic bow has been reissued with five extra tracks recorded during the same sessions, and possessing the same charm, spirit and warmth, as those that made the final cut. But if that’s an intriguing proposition, an even bigger curio will arrive in its wake.

While diving deep into her archives, Lissie discovered a wealth of tracks written and recorded prior to that debut. The idea was immediately born for ‘Watch Over Me’, a retrospective early works collection that offers a fascinating window into the world of an irrepressible and passionate young musician.  

Wonderfully cohesive, and never once feeling like an odds and sods compilation, its impressive tunes range from vintage anthems such as On My Chest to the breezy gospel-inflected title track, gothic Americana number Call Out The Beast and sun-bleached diamond All Be Okay. We caught up with Lissie to talk about past recollections, future plans and how she’s dealt with the same surreal present as the rest of us.

Given that you’ve toured pretty regularly since ‘Catching A Tiger’ came out, and haven’t been able to perform since the pandemic struck, what’s the last year and a half been like for you?

It’s been good and bad. I live on a farm in Iowa. I garden and have lots of vegetables. I like to cook and grow flowers. So as much as I’ve missed performing, because it’s such a big part of who I am and what I do, I’ve tried to make the most of being home and being more involved in my friends and family’s lives. So it’s been weird, but also nice. Hopefully it’s given me an opportunity to see what I’m made of—the mental grit I’ve had to acquire to get through all of it.

With regards to choosing the unreleased material that features on these releases, what did it feel like when you listened back to everything in your archives?

It really was a trip down memory lane. When I looked through all the old photos it brought up memories of ‘Catching A Tiger’ and how exciting that time was—2010 was a beautiful summer in the UK. The World Cup was going on, it didn’t rain at Glastonbury. I was in London almost all of that summer and it felt electric. As much as it was about the music, it’s also about those good memories and how much fun we were having. It hasn’t always been easy or gone how I wanted, but I was able to have a lot of gratitude. It just made my heart feel full.  

When you were selecting material for ‘Catching A Tiger’, what was your criteria for what you chose to include and omit?

With any record I make, once I have all the songs, it starts to feel like there’s an arc to the story—‘What’s the note you want to start on and how do you want to resolve it?’ In between, ‘What kind of journey are we going to go on?’  ‘Catching A Tiger’, as is, has a flow and an arc to it. So those other songs, at the time, didn’t fit into that. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them or didn’t think they weren’t interesting. For anybody who loves that album, here’s some more information, and maybe it’s interesting to have that behind the scenes look at what didn’t make the cut.  

How hard was it to pare ‘Watch Over Me’ down to nine songs?

It was important to balance the despairing tracks with hopeful tracks. There were quite a few I deliberately left off because songwriting has been something I’ve turned to in moments of strife, struggle and hurt. The times when I’m scared, sad or worried, music is a real comfort to me. That said, especially when I used to write by myself, there were too many sad songs. Like ‘Oh poor little Lissie, you sweet thing. You were always so worried.’  It was breaking my heart to remember these things I went through that were hard and scary. But I'm also proud: ‘You made a life for yourself, you figured it out, good job.’ I wanted all of the perspectives to be represented by getting through things, learning and feeling hopeful. I always want there to be hope in my music. 

Some of the early numbers sound like they’re exploding out of you. Hey Boy, for example, may be the angriest song I’ve heard you sing.

I feel very comfortable expressing anger. I know it’s a tricky emotion for people but I’m definitely not afraid of feeling anger. Sometimes you need to be angry, like, ‘No, this is fucked up. I will not stand for this.’ So with Hey Boy, there was always a handful of guy musicians who invalidated and belittled me, like, ‘You got an opening slot for this show because you flirted with the promoter.’ Always reducing everything down to my femininity.  It felt very demeaning, but it motivated me. When I was young and people didn’t believe in me, or invalidated me, rejected me, I took all of that fuel and I would run with it. It pushed me to be like, ‘I will prove you wrong.’

Simple Woman is all the more fascinating in hindsight, given how you’ve returned to a more basic way of living since you left Hollywood in ‘15.

I was in Paris, France for a semester of school in ‘03. I was walking at the seaside by myself, thinking about life, and wrote Simple Woman in my head while looking out at the water. I was 20 years old and knew at that young age I wanted to be authentic, and wanted to be true to myself, have boundaries, be able to feel like I can share myself, but for the right reasons. I don’t need power. I don’t need excess. I want balance. I want to be in nature. I always want my journey to come back to that. Now, almost 20 years later from ‘to be a simple woman who tends her flowers,’ everyday I go outside, pick a bouquet of flowers, weed and water my garden. It came full circle.  

Is the notion of wanting to be a simple woman irreconcilable with being an artist in a cutthroat music industry?

I think there’s a way to reach some sort of balance. With the industry now, and the internet too, you can have a career and a low key life. With indie labels there’s ways to get creative and be a professional musician, but also say I don’t want to be a giant exhausted pop star who gets stopped on the streets and is photographed by the paparazzi. I never wanted that.  Not that I’m so simple. I’m pretty complex but I needed to figure out how to make a life that I could truly be myself in and that was hard in the music industry. Even when ‘Catching A Tiger’ did so well, I was trying to schmooze in the music scene and it didn’t go well. I didn’t know how to be cool. For a while that made me insecure, but after a while I was just doing me.

After your last album, 2018’s ‘Castles’, you said you were going to work on yourself and try to find out why you repeat destructive patterns. Did that self discovery offer any fresh insight into your earlier songs?

When I look back on ‘Catching A Tiger’ there was some heartbreak in there, but there was more of a sweetness to it. By ‘Castles’ there was a little more bitterness or sassiness. It’s just how you become hardened. Post ‘Castles,’ I’m starting to understand that sometimes you’re in a relationship and you think one thing and they think another. You’re experiencing the same thing completely differently. You can end up being blindsided. As an artist, I wanted love to be like in the movies and for everything to be so intense, but that’s not what true love is. It’s showing up and being a good partner and that requires some sacrifices I haven’t been able to do because I was so focused on my own goals. I’m trying to figure that out now.   

What does the future have in store for you?

I’m going to LA to wrap up my new record and get it mixed and mastered. I’m working with a producer named Curt Schneider. I’ve been working with him since 2008.  We wrote Everywhere I Go together. He did a lot of stuff on ‘My Wild West’. I’ve written with a lot of women this year too, which I didn’t used to do. I got set up on these songwriting dates when I used to be on Sony and it was, almost always, just men that I would write with. I was the only woman in my orbit for such a long time. I’d say 75% of the songs for this record I ended up writing with women I really admire and think are really talented. It’s made it so easy to churn out the songs.

Can you give us a brief taste of what the new album sounds like?

It’s a philosophical kind of record. There’s a bit of a country influence coming out, maybe because I was writing in Nashville with a lot of country songwriters. It’s not a country album, but I live in the country and there’s always been something country about my voice.  We’re not going to put too much on the tracks if they don’t feel like they absolutely need it, so hopefully a pretty raw, intimate record.  

And when you hear it, you might think it’s interesting to go back and listen to songs I was writing when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, because it’s all just one big story. The story of my life. Even on the new one, it’s how I’ve had to mature and be strong, accept things, have more self awareness about the role I play, heartache and making good decisions. Now you can go back to the beginning and follow along. So there’ll be a new album early next year and then I’ll be out on tour and hitting it hard. I’m gonna have to let the garden take care of itself for a while. 

Lissie’s ‘Catching A Tiger (Anniversary Edition)’ is out now via The Orchard. ‘Watch Over Me (Early Works 2002-2009)’ will follow on September 10 through Cooking Vinyl.

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