2013 was a great year for MIMO interviews, from industry representatives to Platinum-selling artists. In this piece from June, Jeff McQ got a chance to ask folk-rocker Lissie a few questions about her upcoming record Back To Forever (released this fall), and about the single “Shameless” in particular. The conversation produced some insightful and vulnerable moments that are worth revisiting. Thanks again, Lissie. –Ed.
Folk-rock singer/songwriter Lissie is one of those artists whom you have probably heard without even realizing it. Her song “Everywhere I Go” (from her 2010 debut album Catching a Tiger) was featured on numerous TV shows, including episodes of So You Think You Can Dance, Grey’s Anatomy and 90210, and her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” featured recently on the film Safe Haven.
With her new single “Shameless” already generating plenty of buzz, a new album in the works, and a summer full of tour dates, Lissie is staying pretty busy these days. MIMO caught up with her on the road, and she was good enough to talk with us for awhile about the back story behind “Shameless,” the upcoming record, the experience of working in the studio, and her songwriting process.
MIMO: Lissie, thanks so much for taking some time with us.
Lissie: Yes, thanks for your interest. I’m happy to talk to you.
MIMO: Let’s start with the new single, “Shameless”. It’s a strong single, it’s got a powerful, bold message. Tell us a little bit about how that song came about for you.
Lissie: I guess the great thing about being a songwriter is that stuff that kinds of bugs me, a great way to express it is to write a song about it. I think I’ve been feeling frustrated about all the things sort of besides the point of music that can help someone advance their career, just sort of observing people that I’ve seen who are very calculated and never really wanting to resort to that myself. It’s kind of an observation and a proclamation as well. I guess I was just basically feeling frustrated and I felt the need to say something about my frustration…I don’t know, I guess just felt like, you follow the entertainment news and it’s just seems like a bunch of silliness.
MIMO: I happen to totally agree with that. I just hate to see the way musicians, talented people are kind of pressured to, for a lack of a better term, prostitute themselves a little bit to get their message across. I think it should be about the music.
MIMO: Now, as far as the style goes, do you think that this song is a bit of a departure for you? Some of your earlier singles seem a little more folksy, and this one seems a little more rock and blues. Did you intend that?
Lissie: “Shameless” isn’t indicative, really, of the [new] record, [although] I’d say that it’s more rocking and more cohesive than the first album. There’s not really a lot of sulky moments aside from maybe just some inflection in my voice that’s just sort of naturally there. I think that “Shameless” is a bit of a one off, really. And it was such a good song, you know, the version you’ve heard was really actually just a writing demo, and I tried to re-record and I could never really get the same energy. We ended up using the writing demo. I think “Shameless” was an important statement for me to want to make. But I wouldn’t say it’s indicative of the whole record.
MIMO: Can you tell us a little more about the upcoming record? Do you know when it’s coming out and the name of the record?
Lissie: It will be out in September. I’m planning on calling it “Back to Forever.” I had a lot of fun making, I made it in Topanga Canyon, and my band played on it. I worked with a producer named Jackknife Lee, who was a lot of fun to work with. The setting was nice because we were kind of up on top of this mountain, really, in Topanga Canyon, and like we are able to… I could be singing my vocals while the door was open and I was practically standing outside. I really liked that; I kind of hate being trapped inside. Studios usually are sort of dark holes, you know? It was nice to be somewhere where there is a lot of air and light. It felt very, loose–we could try anything we wanted to try. That was sort of fun making this record, I didn’t go into it with like a specific sound I was trying to do. I kind of just felt like I knew that it would work itself out as we played the songs. And it really did.
MIMO: Other than the typical dark atmosphere of the studio, which you mentioned, do you enjoy working in the studio? Are you a hands-on kind of an artist in the recording process? Or do you prefer to lean more on a trusted producer?
Lissie: I have this friend Bill Reynolds [from Band of Horses], who produced my EP that I put out a few years ago, whom I work with quite a bit. And the way that he and I work is I just sort of– it’s almost like I don’t really want to listen back to my stuff. Like, the first couple times I do it, it’s going to be the best. I don’t want to over-think it. I’m just going to sing then I’ll let Bill decide what he wants to do with it. But since this was my album, I did try to be vocal about the things that I thought and understood. I mean I’m happy to just defer to the producer if everything is going well. But it’s like, if there is something I want to try or something I don’t like, you know, I’d say that I’m pretty involved in there. There are a few key musical decisions on this record that were at my suggestion or insistence–things that I could tell, they were like, “I don’t know if this is going to work”–then we ended up doing it. I thought that was pretty cool. I would say I am pretty involved. I’ll probably get more involved as I learn more about what the process is.
MIMO: What does the song writing process look like for you? Is it different each time? Or is it pretty consistent?
Lissie: Well, I do a lot of co-writing now. If I’m going to write by myself, if I get an idea, I capture it on my voice memo on my phone, like a melody, or you know, if I have lyrical ideas I’ll write them down in my phone now if I’m on the go. And then I have like a composition notebook that at the end of the day I’ll put things into. If I’m feeling inspired, I’ll expand on the idea. If I’m not, I don’t really worry about it. And then so a lot of times I’ll have those bits with me when I go and write, and I can say “Hey, this is something that I was sort of working on.” I have a handful of co-writers I stick with now. You have to have a good chemistry with someone you’re going to write a song with and be that open and honest about yourself with, you know?
MIMO: Right, of course.
Lissie: So if I’m co-writing, my co-writers usually propose maybe some chords, and then I’ll just sort of off the top of my head just start singing melodies, and I just kind of stick with that until I find something I really like. And usually when I sing my improvised melodies, I’ll sort of sing made up words, as well, but a lot of times, those words are a clue into something subconscious. So it kind of comes out, and then I can sort of write the rest of the song around the gibberish, you know? But it’s all very literal and personal, it’s not really like made up stories. They are stories about how I feel and things I’ve experienced, so it’s storytelling about me.
MIMO: If you could sum up your whole motivation for why you are a musical artist into one word, what would it be?
Lissie: Understood. Understood, because I feel like I just started making music because I feel like I want to work out who I am and how I feel, and just really to be understood. My sister sort of pointed that out to me, because I was sort of going on about all these that I was stressed out about, and she’s like, “You know, you’ve always just wanted to be understood, and if you just keep doing that, it will be fine.”
MIMO: What’s on the horizon for you? You obviously have the record getting ready to come out, but are you going to be touring over the summer?
Lissie: Yes. We’re in New York right now and we’re doing some radio promo today, and basically we’re probably going to be touring now for the foreseeable future. I’m going to be on the road until July 1st on the East Coast. We are going over to Europe. Then I have like a week off, and then back on the road for the rest of the summer. Lots of European festivals, and like UK festivals and Norway, I think we are going to Finland and Switzerland…I feel like the best way for us to win fans is to have people see us live. I guess, I even touched on it in “Shameless”, because it’s like, if a radio like a big top 40 radio station would give “Shameless” a chance, and play it, it could make such a big difference in your career. But it’s also political as well. I’m just hoping that people find my music, but most likely, the best way to do that is just to go out to perform, and word of mouth, people bring their friends, and then their friends come back the next time and bring friends, and that is sort of how it goes.