“I feel so exposed,” says Lissie. “Normally I have a guitar or microphone or something in front of me. I’m going with it though, I’m working this space…”
The American singer-songwriter is known for her stripped-back sound and emotive husky tones, often likened to Fleetwood Mac’s legendary Stevie Nicks. But this intimate gig is one step further removed. No more than 20 of us gather around the sun-kissed, golden-haired singer, backed up only by a pianist atop a grand piano, in an utterly unique space in the St.Pancras Clock Tower, where she provides a taster of new material from latest album 'Castles'.
We hear passionate optimism in single ‘Best Days’, haunting emotion on ‘Blood & Muscle’ as well as spine-tingling new depths in a piano ballad version of ‘When I’m Alone’ from 2010’s Catching a Tiger. With nothing more than piano keys, her own silver-boot-clad foot tapping and finger clicks, the unique quality of Elisabeth Corrin Maurus’ exceptional voice is laid bare. Without the usual separation of performer and audience there is an overwhelming sense of privilege, that here is a musician baring her soul.
The breathtaking simplicity to her performance is a sense that carries through the Illinois-born artist’s fourth album Castles and something she remarks is present in her songwriting process: “When I was young I did musical theatre and I think there's probably some influence that has on how I write a song. Because everything is pretty literal and straightforward. Like I'm telling a story.”
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Lissie paints a romantic image of wandering around her Northeastern Iowa farmhouse, humming melodies and singing lyrics as they come to her, sometimes performing songs to her (sadly recently deceased) dog: “When I'm kind of struggling and feel misunderstood I will naturally find myself singing. Melody and words will just come in the moment. I’ll voice memo them and then either sit down and finish a song on my own or take these snippets of ideas with me to work on with someone else. So really I try to let it be natural and genuine.”
But that’s not to say her material lacks profundity or edge: “Castles is very personal and dark at times. I think there's a paradox of being broken and vulnerable and longing but at the same time very strong and hopeful. Those two opposites living somehow together in equal parts.”
Thematically she sees her songwriting has matured as she has. “As you grow as a person you begin to learn more about yourself,” she tells me. “At first I wrote all these romance songs, like ‘oh this guy doesn't love me and I'm so sad.’ That's still going on but now I have more self awareness about it. Or on some songs I’m almost taking a jab at myself.”
“I’d had all these dark, painful, unhealthy relationships and I could see all this is what I'd been doing my whole life and was tired of it,” she further explains.” I don't want that kind of awful unhealthy love. I want good strong love. I want to be a full person. I want to love myself and I want to meet another whole person that can be my equal.”
In particular, title track ‘Castles’ holds this a sense of empowerment: “It’s saying I am an entity in my own Kingdom I've created. That I can stand in the tower of my castle in my mind and be an observer to my own life.”
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Creating music can also be somewhat cathartic for Lissie: “That’s how I process something that’s happened, by making songs. I am blessed that I get to share them with other people so I can then release the experience. I also find comfort in knowing other people can make my songs their songs in there own hearts. Because we all go through these shared experiences, this universal pain.”
Sonically, Lissie has also taken a shift. Since her talent was first catapulted to fame by opening for Lenny Kravitz in 2008, the artist has seen commercial success with her three previous albums 'Catching A Tiger' (2010), 'Back To Forever' (2013), and 'My Wild West' (2015) which all hit the UK top 20. Plus she recently featured in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. But she acknowledges in the past she was something of a “purist”: “Before I was like ‘we've got to have all real instruments and we have to re-track all of our demos.’ This time round I was just a lot more free.”
Now based away from the world on her own farm, and without a strict schedule to work to, Lissie has been able to follow her own creative whim, working with something of a DIY, low-fi studio with input from the likes of Bill Reynolds and Martin Craft and new collaborators such as Liam Howe: “I had a lot going on in my head wanted to make these songs about what was happening in my life. And I became more open, like we can build a song on a computer and if we like it we can go and overdub the guitar and the drums later. There's more synths and sounds and beats I've never really explored in my prior albums which were more rock-tinged. This is a bit different.”
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She takes the near-constant Stevie Nicks comparisons with modesty, expressing deference to the brilliance of the singer and Fleetwood Mac. She also recalls a predominance of female artists around during her formative years who she suggests subconsciously inspired her to carve out the path she did: “When I was around 15, it was a pretty awesome time to be starting to teach myself guitar and writing songs. There was Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Sarah McLachlan, Liz Phair. And I loved the Dixie Chicks. All these women songwriters, singers, instrument players who weren’t sex symbols but just these relatable, beautiful, natural women who were writing and playing their own songs.”
“All these women who were happening at that time in my life opened a window in my mind to ‘oh this is something that I can do, a real kind of thing I can achieve. And I can also be myself and use my own words.’”
With gender relations in Hollywood and beyond under intense pressure for change, she thinks now could be an even better time than ever for female artists. Although ultimately she believes women who are going to succeed are going to succeed no matter what: “Women are so strong, like if somebody says something rude to you or makes you feel uncomfortable you can just tell them to go f*** themselves and carry on. That's what I've been doing. I never let that break my spirit. But now there's so much support more that gives women the courage not to be daunted or afraid. To be strong and go for what they want. It's such a crazy time but I feel like all this chaos is helping to expose what we need to work on as humans.”
While her music has been overtly political at moments, such as 2016 song ‘Daughters’ about women seeking change through non-violent protest in Liberia or 2013’s ‘Mountaintop Removal’ about destructive mining practices, she wishes to use her art less directly to instill positivity: “With music I just want to make everybody feel hopeful. Sometimes music is just a distraction and it's fun. But I think more what I do is help people access their emotions and feel like at the end of it all there is hope and there is light. Help people access their humanity.”
Her future ambitions run on perhaps contradictory paths, symptomatic of the reality we find ourselves in as a society. She’s quietly ambitious to see her career flourish: “My definition of success has to be to be my authentic self and do my best and work hard but not really have any expectations. I'm really fortunate I get to make a living as a musician and I have flexibility and control. But I’d love to consistently play to 5,000 people wherever I go. Also I’d love to play Saturday Night Live. And sing the national anthem at the Superbowl,” she adds with a laugh.
Yet her recent move to the country is driven by a longing to be connected with nature. To learn to knit, rear her own meat, make fires. Find balance, be self-sufficient. A longing she believes many others share: “It’s a really a weird time to live. We need to figure out how to find balance with our technology. I’m looking for that balance, life is too short to not be present.”
Self-deprecatingly she expresses frustration with her own addiction to her phone and the pervasiveness of social media: “Even if you’re being yourself, you can still end up having an off day. Sometimes I just want erase everything I ever put on the internet because I feel over exposed. I get Instagram shame. If I’m looking at a sunset I tell myself ‘you don’t need to take a picture of it, you can just look at it.’ And there are many more ways to get your feelings hurt now, it used to be someone didn’t call you back. Now there’s 18 different ways to feel slighted.”
It’s a tricky balance to strike, admitting she still “sucks” at knitting, but one she’s determined to keep at: “I just have a lot of enthusiasm for living a full life where I’m looking at my phone last and using my hands more.”
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'Castles' is released today on Cooking Vinyl.
Words: Sarah Bradbury
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