"I need to mean everything," she tells us, "because otherwise, I'd feel like I'm just pretending."
Born Elisabeth Maurus, the singer-songwriter spent much of her teen years cruising around her hometown of Rock Island, Illinois, listening to the radio and dreaming of being on the airwaves herself. After playing the Colorado music scene while attending Colorado State University for two years, Lissie headed out to LA to pursue a record deal. She released her first two albums, Catching A Tiger (2010) and Back To Forever (2013) through Columbia Records UK, followed by the independently-released My Wild West (2016), and Castles (2018).
In April 2019, Lissie reimagined her songs as intimate piano ballads for the compilation When I'm Alone: The Piano Retrospective. Before taking the tunes on the road in the US, Lissie tested them out in Norway, where she had a #1 hit with the title track in 2010. Songfacts caught up with singer upon her return from the Nordic country to discuss the new release, along with songwriting, moving to Iowa, and showing up on Twin Peaks.
Lissie: Yeah, it was really cool, because I started to go to Norway in 2010 and it was a good convergence of events where I had a #1 song in 2010, and then I got to play some cool festivals and collaborate with some Norwegian artists. It seems like ever since, I've had this permanent awesome fanbase there, so I go there two or three times a year.
It's kind of a wealthy country and people are really chill and down to earth. It's not that it's flashy, but everything is just nice and clean and every venue has a gorgeous grand piano. Yeah, it's great. I'm a Norway lover.
Songfacts: How did the idea for The Piano Retrospective come about?
Lissie: It's funny because I never really meant to make a big deal out of it, to be honest. It's been cool because I've been having a lot of opportunities to talk about it, but basically, last year I was promoting my album Castles, which I put out last March, which is more of a traditional all-new-songs, fully-produced body of work. I was promoting that in a showcase environment where I was just performing with a piano player to introduce the songs and socialize with people in the industry. We were doing these piano-vocal versions of my songs and as I was doing it, I was like, "This is really nice."
I love playing with a band and I love playing guitar and all that, but it was nice to be unencumbered and to have these beautiful piano compositions that brought out a new side of my songs. It was just really enjoyable and very freeing and nice to experiment with songs that I've been playing for 10 years in this new way.
At that point, I was casually like, Hey, I want to work with this guy Martin Craft that I worked with a lot - he was in Berlin - and Jo Dudderidge, who plays piano with me. Let's make this record reimagining a handful of my songs. So, we did that, mostly in Berlin, and it turned out really beautiful. I feel like this is a supplement to my work that people who already care about me will appreciate, I hope. That was what it was all intended to be, and then it came out, and I think people are enjoying it. It was just like scratching a creative itch.
Songfacts: How did you go about selecting which songs to include? It seems like it would be pretty hard to decide.
Lissie: Surprisingly it wasn't. I hope I don't sound lazy, but the whole project came very natural and very smooth. I already knew I wanted to do "When I'm Alone," of course, and name it When I'm Alone: The Piano Retrospective because that was the song that was #1 in Norway - that song really kicked off my career. As I reflected, I thought of which songs over the years were some of my more well-known songs. Also, it was fun to pick the songs that people knew that were kind of bouncy, produced versions. I was deliberately choosing the more produced ones to reimagine, so it was pretty clear in my mind: "Don't You Give Up On Me" for sure, "When I'm Alone" for sure, "In Sleep" off of my first album, for sure, and it became very obvious. I didn't really have to rack my brain. I also wanted to represent something off of each album, so I was able to whittle it down in that respect as well.
Songfacts: Did changing the music change the meaning or the emotion of the songs for you?
I garden a lot, and I use the analogy that you use shit to grow vegetables... literally shit. That's how I was feeling about these things. Like, I took this shit, and I created something beautiful from it, and it brought so much more joy into my life than I could have imagined. I think doing that with these songs, with all of them, was like having gratitude for them because they gave me and give me still so many opportunities to find happiness in the world and meet people and see beautiful things.
Songfacts: Early on in your career, you were frustrated by the pressure from your record label to write hits. Was there a song you felt deserved more attention than it got because it wasn't considered "hit-worthy"?
Lissie: Oh, that's such a good question. My disillusionment didn't last very long because I'm not naive, I know it's the business. If I want to make a career from my art, I know that there are certain things that are just a part of that.
I was only bitter for a minute because I actually had a lot of gratitude to the people at my labels over the years for championing me even if it was on their terms. I would say, "Back to Forever" from my second album, for example, or "They All Want You." Sometimes these quieter ballads, at least for me and my quote-unquote "friends," weren't songs that were ever considered to be singles.
I remember being on Conan and really wanting to do "They All Want You" because, similar to making this piano album, I wanted sometimes to have the opportunity to show off my voice and let it stretch and soar and not be covered up with a bunch of music. And everyone was like, "Yeah, that's not happening, you absolutely have to do the bouncy, more poppy-sounding song because that's what people want." It wasn't the Conan people, it was the people in the camp that I worked with. I was like, "Whatever, I don't care, I'll just do whatever you say. I'm gonna get dropped soon, anyway, and then I can do whatever I want." So, I played the game to an extent.
Songfacts: In an interview you gave a long time ago, you mentioned you were still trying to perfect your songwriting process. What does your process look like now?
Lissie: Did I say I was going to do that? [Laughs] I don't know that anyone can ever perfect the songwriting process. I think that my songwriting abilities have definitely gotten stronger. That's also from the perspective that if I was just making art for art's sake, for my own personal expression, it would be a great song just because it felt good to make.
But figuring out things like, Is this chorus going to really lift the song? In that case, I do understand more the technical aspects. How do I have a lot of heart and earnestness and sincerity in writing a song, but also be mindful of the structure so that it's something that could stand out because it has all the right kind of angles and components to grab the listener? Trying to be a little more mindful of how to make a song pop, a little more geared to catching people's ears than just for the sake of expressing myself.
Songfacts: Are you somebody who needs a structured time to sit down and write?
Lissie: No, it's funny because lately I really don't write at all unless an idea comes to me. I used to sit down with my guitar quite a bit and be like, "I want to write a song today." I could do that, but a lot of times those songs were just OK.
It's better when I get a melody and some words that just pop into my head, usually when I'm not engaged in anything creative. Maybe if I'm out in the yard gardening or if I'm driving or if I'm cleaning, I'll start singing something to myself, and I'll be like, "Huh, that's cool!" Maybe I'll finish it then or maybe I'll finish it later.
I also do a lot of co-writing. I have a handful of people that I particularly like to work with who help me stay focused. In that case I do say, "Let's get together for a week and write and hang out." Then I'll be like, "Okay we're going to write." But, if I'm just writing by myself, I'll wait for the idea to make itself known.
Songfacts: How did the move to Iowa affect your songwriting?
Lissie: I don't know yet because I don't live there all the time. I'm on tour so frequently that I might get home for a few weeks but then I'm off again for a month or two. Especially lately, I'll be home for three days a month. I think that how Iowa and that change will have affected me as an artist and a songwriter remains to be seen. If next year I decide that I'll take time to write a new album, I think that will help me understand it. I don't know yet.
When I was making Castles, you would think that being on a farm it would be like picking a banjo on the porch. Actually, I experimented a lot more with tracks and beats and meaty synths and stuff because I was so remote. I was living out in the country and I wanted to be home, so people would bring a portable studio to me and that led to me experimenting more with digital instrumentation, whereas in the past it had always been live instruments. So, ironically, moving to a farm made me put more technology into my songwriting. Just out of necessity and convenience because what I was making, I was enjoying, so I went with it. You can tell Castles has a little bit more of that synth bass sound to it because a lot of ideas were kind of hatched there. That's how it's affected my songwriting so far, but moving forward I'd like to have a more proper studio so that I can create without limitations at home.
Songfacts: When you experiment with different styles or genres, what has to remain consistent for you to maintain who you are as an artist?
Lissie: People say, "What kind of music do you make?" and generically I say, "Well it's kinda like pop-rock." But I wouldn't say as an artist I'm known for a very specific style. I don't think I have a real style.
What I feel the consistency is, and the thread and the cohesion is, is my voice and my earnest kind of straightforward, real-life storytelling. My lyrics aren't mysterious, they're very plain and direct and just all true. Hopefully the honesty and emotion from which I write - the songwriting - and then my voice are the things that have to remain real. I've worked on songs where I was like, "Yeah, I could pull this off, I could fake it. Maybe no one would know." But I would know that I just kind of made that song up - I didn't really mean it. I need to mean everything, because otherwise, I'd feel like I'm just pretending.
Songfacts: But you're so good at doing the covers, too. How do you connect to someone else's song to really make it authentic?
Lissie: Well, across the genres these songs I've chosen to cover have felt like something that I related to, so even though they weren't my own words or it wasn't in my genre, I could say the words and feel like, yes, I am totally expressing myself because I relate to the sentiment. Whether it was Kid Cudi's "Pursuit of Happiness," having that angst and that edge and that defiance that I felt driving around in the Midwest at 2 in the morning, the lyrics talking about "rolling in the Midwest side now, living my life, getting our dreams," that was me growing up here in Rock Island, Illinois, cruising around with my friends, knowing that something better has to be out there for me.
Or "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga, I've definitely been in a few of those. With the covers, it's just being able to embody the lyrics from a place that I can relate to. There have been a few things I've been asked to cover that I've felt like I can pull it off, but my favorites are the ones where it's like, yes, I've chosen to cover this because every word this person says I feel like I could be saying myself.
Songfacts: Then on this album you did Dixie Chicks' "Cowboy Take Me Away" and Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." What was special about those particular songs for you?
In addition to now living on the farm and coming back to this song, I'm dating this man that's a farmer. It's like, "I want to touch the earth, I want to break it in my hands and grow something wild and unruly." There is no time that I feel more connected and heart-filled as when I get outside and get my hands dirty, so I connected to it on the memories of when I first heard it as well as my current situation in life. It just felt like the right song to sing based on the relationship that I'm in and my relationship to the earth that I live on.
With "Dreams," I never thought I should cover Stevie Nicks because it just felt too on-the-nose. It's similar to Natalie Maines, she's one of my favorite singers, and with Stevie Nicks, that's almost like sacred territory, so it seemed a little bit cheeky almost to cover that song. She's kind of the queen to rule all queens. But, I performed it in these showcases and people were really enjoying it, and people love that song, so we included it on the collection.
Songfacts: But you also did "Go Your Own Way."
Lissie: Yeah, I did. I was asked to cover that for a Twinings tea commercial back in 2010. I love Fleetwood Mac, of course, but it was just one of those things where it was like, oh, cover this song for this tea commercial, and I ended up doing it. Then that song and that recording has over the years continually been used and placed in stuff, so that's really been a cool thing.
Songfacts: What has been your favorite placement of one of your songs so far?
Lissie: Oooooh, let's see. Well, when I was living in Ojai, California - I was there for seven years - I got to become friends with [film director] Peter Farrelly of the Farrelly Brothers. I guess I knew who he was, but it wore off really quick because he and his wife and family were just so nice. We were living in this small town and we would see each other around town, so, the starstruckedness passed quickly because he's just a really funny, down-to-earth guy. He has used my songs in Hall Pass and Dumb and Dumber To, so I thought that was pretty cool.
Songfacts: Then you were on Twin Peaks, which was also pretty cool.
Lissie: Oh yeah, that's true. That was a good one. I should've thought of that one, too. That's been incredible because I'm a huge David Lynch fan and a big Twin Peaks fan. He started tweeting about me back in 2010 and it was this almost "Lynchian" thing, so mysterious. How can this guy, who is like a legend, know who I am? This is amazing. Then we became friends over the years and when I got the call to do that, I was like, "Hell, yes." I was so flattered and in awe of the fact that I got to be a part of this cultural phenomenon. Yeah, that was a pretty incredible experience, too. And I actually got to perform the song on the show which is like next level.
Songfacts: Did they ask you to do that particular song, "Wild West"?
I sort of made a guess and picked a song and it really seemed to resonate. I can't tell you how many people in the last year or two have been coming to my shows, and are like, "We found out about you from Twin Peaks," and I never perform that song live and they are so bummed out, and I'm like, "I'm so sorry." I have so many songs, I don't know why I always forget to do that one.
Songfacts: There's a lot of sleep and dream imagery in your songs, especially the ones you picked for the retrospective. Are you often inspired by your dreams?
Lissie: Not quite so much, but that's a good call, thank you for noticing. It was actually a joke for a while because I had started writing a song called "Sing Me To Sleep" and I had already had the songs "Sleepwalking" and "In Sleep," and it was like, "Oh, all these songs are about sleeping." Basically, I just love to nap. [laughs] Also in "Don't You Give Up On Me," there's the line, "What kind of world will there be when I wake up from this dream?" I had thought about that line when I was reading the [Haruki] Murakami trilogy 1Q84 - that didn't really influence the entire song, it just influenced that particular line of the song.
But yeah, I'm a really, really vivid dreamer. My song "In Sleep" - I have songs off of my first EP and album that I swear were foretelling choices I would make in the future, subconsciously, and there's a lot of dreamy stuff like that. Not that I think that I can dream the future, but I have weird dreams that way, and they really influence my moods and my decisions.
Songfacts: What are your memories of making the "Sleepwalking" video?
I just remember the gratitude and awe, the appreciation I had for people who were willing to not only come out, but then to be subjected to some pretty intense weather and hours, and still stuck around and made it work. I mostly think about all the people who made that happen and how appreciative I am.
Songfacts: Well, you guys did a good job faking it because you didn't look like you were freezing.
Lissie: Yeah, well those Vikings, I guess they're hardcore. Sometimes, adrenaline does amazing things. I could say that for performing live or shooting videos, you think that you're not going to be able to do something and then your adrenaline kicks in and you surprise yourself.
Songfacts: What other projects are you working on now?
Lissie: I don't really sit on things, I don't really overthink stuff. I'll just continue to generate a lot of content I'm sure. I've put out a live acoustic album, and I'm sure there's probably a more proper, brand-new-songs, produced album on the horizon not too long from now. I just keep doing my thing. Right now, I get to perform in this piano-vocal way and I've never done that before, so it's continuing to feel this freedom to explore what makes me feel fulfilled. I'm just so lucky that there's people who even care enough to listen or come to my shows, so just a big thank you to the people who are here and who support me.
May 2, 2019
For tour dates and more on Lissie, visit her official website
photos: Finn Deen-Lester (1), Bill Reynolds (2-4)
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