Songwriter Interviews

Rissi Palmer

by Shawna Ortega

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When she was 12 years old, Rissi Palmer wrote an acceptance speech for her first Grammy Award and put it in her bible for good luck. Maybe this will be her year to read it.

Palmer released her first album in 2007, earning her an invitation to the White House where she performed for President George W. Bush at the 2008 Christmas tree lighting ceremony - a long way from her days of standing on a milk crate at the church belting out hymns. Palmer felt she was being packaged, however, and after being coerced into covering the Jordin Sparks hit "No Air," she left her label and focused on family, getting married in 2010 and giving birth to her daughter Grace the following year.

In 2013, she rebooted her music career with the album Best Day Ever, which is filled with songs she wrote about her blessings. 2015 finds her with a five-song EP called The Back Porch Sessions, its title a tribute to her great-grandmother.

In an age of over-produced vocal-fry, this working mom writes from the heart and leaves it all out there when she sings.
Shawna Hansen Ortega (Songfacts): You are one of those artists who doesn't need a lot of production - your acoustic performances are my favorites. What is your opinion of the "big" sound (for lack of a better term) on your albums as opposed to the more raw versions when you perform live?

Rissi Palmer: First of all, thank you! I appreciate the work that producers do to create an "experience" for the listener and have fun sitting and picking out the various instruments and parts but I have to say that after years of playing live, I favor the acoustic sound. I'm a product of the MTV Unplugged days, so I tend to gravitate towards a simpler, intimate, and more organic sound that a couple guitars can provide.

Songfacts: You said that "Hurt Don't Know When to Quit" was your favorite song on your debut album. It's such a wrenching experience you wrote about from a very emotional point. Is it still one of your favorites, even now that you're in a much better place?

Rissi: It's funny that you ask because I am currently putting my set list together for my summer/fall tour and trying to decide which songs from my first album I'll perform, and I'm having a hard time, honestly. It's not that I don't still love those songs (and that song in particular), but it feels like another life, another person. The good thing is that when I start singing it, I remember how bad felt at that time and can go back there... luckily just for three minutes!

Songfacts: Many artists write from pain, and even Clint Black once said when he's happy he finds it tough to write anything, so he mentally has to put himself into an unhappy place to write a good song. When would you say you are at your prolific best?

Rissi: I'm a pretty even-keeled person normally, so I write my favorite stuff when I am either sublimely happy or deeply sad. Extreme emotions bring out a deeper sense of honesty and freedom. I don't worry about what people might think, I'm just letting it pour - good or bad.

Songfacts: What inspired you to do a cover of (Chris Brown/Jordin Sparks) "No Air"?

Rissi: "No Air" was done at the request of my former record label. I'll just leave that there... (laughing)

Songfacts: From Best Day Ever, what songs do you still perform live?

Rissi: I still include "Be Me" and "Not Afraid of the Dark" in my live shows. Those two songs transcend age. They're like anthems for me.

Songfacts: What is your daughter's favorite song from the album?

Rissi: Grace's favorite is "Pretend." She likes to act it out in our living room whenever it comes on. She also likes "Twinkle Twinkle" because I say her name at the end. That always gets a smile.

Songfacts: I notice that in two of your videos, you use collages of photos/videos ("Best Day Ever" and "Grown-Up Christmas List"). How do you come by all those photos - do you put out an open call on your website?

Rissi: Yes, those pictures came from an open call to fans. For "Grown Up Christmas List," I just posted on my own social media pages. For "Best Day Ever," I had a few awesome mommy blogs (Moms in Charge and Go Ask Mom) where I posted that I was looking for pictures, and they poured in. It was awesome seeing all the little sweet faces, and I got to slip a couple of Grace and I as a baby in there, as well.

Songfacts: Take me through your experience performing at the White House. Wondering what the security process was and if you got to meet the President.

Rissi: Going to the White House was a pretty awesome experience. I remember asking my manager over and over, "Are you sure they want me?"

Clearance was pretty straightforward; they checked your social security, driver license, etc. I was clean but it made me anxious. I started thinking about every parking ticket I've ever had and being nervous about stuff I didn't even do!

The President and First Lady were seated on the stage while I was performing so that was pretty nerve wracking... especially the huge men in black standing next to and in front of them. The thing that sticks with me about that show is that it was FREEZING and it's rough trying to sing when it's cold. I was more worried about my voice than anything, honestly.

After the performance, my manager and I were invited to a reception in the White House. I got to take a pic with the President and First Lady and the food was fabulous! We were sequestered to a particular section of the house so I didn't get a full tour, but I got to see the room with Jacqueline Kennedy's portrait and a couple other rooms.

Songfacts: I love "Well Enough Alone." What inspired that song? Can you tell me a couple of your grandmother's pet phrases you used in it?

Rissi: Thank you!!! I love performing that song live. "Well Enough Alone" was inspired by an ex (who shall remain nameless) who was trying to pursue me through several mutual friends when he heard I had gotten married. It really is true that you're nobody (to your exes) until somebody loves you (laughs).

This was a fun song to write because Rick Beresford, Deanna Walker (my co-writers) and I incorporated a few "Poopooisms" (PooPoo is what I called my grandma) in the lyric. "Hit dog's gonna holler," "Leave well enough alone," "A hard head makes a soft behind" (I heard that A LOT growing up) are just a few. She had sayings for days, so it was fun figuring out how to make them fit.

Songfacts: What does Grace Ella think about appearing on "Sweet, Sweet Lovin'"?

Rissi: She is SO excited. She tells everyone she meets that she's singing on Mommy's song. She did it in two takes, she's a natural.

Songfacts: "Love On You" contains some interesting thoughts. For example, "Two is better in a fight." I have never thought of it that way (I like it!). Can you tell me what the seed for that came from - was it something you heard or just pulled out of the air one day?

Rissi: It's one of my fav songs on the project. I have to say that my co-writer Britten Newbill came up with that particular line. It means that if you have to go into a fight/battle, it's better to do it with someone by your side.

This song was inspired by my grandmother calling me to say she wanted me to come home so she could love on me. I wrote it down in my notebook while on the phone with her one day. Britten and I sat down to write something and he started playing the chords. We started talking about relationships and how you sometimes find yourself telling your love interest that "I don't want anything from you, I just want to love you." Aaron Rice came in and saved the day on the bridge and second verse and the song was born from there.

Songfacts: "Summerville" is a beautiful portrait. Tell me about the song and what inspired it. Wondering if it's a real town. (Love the chimes at the end, perfect closing for the song.)

Rissi: "Summerville" is written about a real town: Summerville, Georgia. It's where my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all born and where I would spend part of the summer every year until my great-grandmother died.

I wrote this song with Sarah Majors and Deanna Walker through a lot of tears and laughter one day. I was missing my mom (she passed away when I was seven) and great-grandmother and wanted to write something for them. My grandmother died nearly two years ago and when we started working on this project, we rewrote the bridge to reflect her loss. It's a tribute to the impact they each had on me. I haven't been back to Summerville since 2007, because truthfully, it's hard for me. Lots of memories. My great-grandmother's house is still there, but it's a social club now.

The chimes were Shannon Sanders' idea (he's one of the producers). I literally started crying when I heard them because it took me back.

Songfacts: You said that you've changed as a result of finding true love and happiness, and it's no longer about figuring out "what box to fit in." Can you explain that comment, as far as the "box," what your experience has been in that regard? And did you ever find the "right" box? If so, what is it?

Rissi: Love, specifically having a family, really did change me. It made me grow up, made me patient, and gave me confidence. I feel like I can do anything, honestly. I'm not scared to take chances because I have everything I could possibly want, everything else is gravy.

As far as fitting into boxes, in the first incarnation of my career I was constantly trying to be what everyone wanted. It was exhausting. Now I feel really comfortable in my skin and more willing to just do what I do and let the chips fall where they may. This project was so freeing; I just sang and wrote what felt good, I didn't think about how to categorize it.

Songfacts: Do you have plans to release an acoustic album in the future? It seems like natural turn for a voice like yours.

Rissi: There will definitely be a longer project in the future, for sure. Shannon, Drew, and I have talked about maybe doing a more stripped-down project, so we'll see.

Songfacts: Also, do you still have your Grammy acceptance speech?

Rissi: (laughing) I do! It's still in my bible... here's hoping!

May 26, 2015
Hear more Rissi at rissipalmermusic.com
Photos: Jimmy Burch

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Comments: 1

  • Daisy Woods from Round Rock, TexasRissi is an amazingly talented singer and I am praying she gets the recognition she deserves!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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