The world is a pretty terrible place sometimes, and it seems especially so when things in your life aren't going well either. But for a singer like Lissie, that can lead to fruitful songwriting. Reflecting on relationships and environmental catastrophes, mixed with a heavy dose of NPR, led to an angrier album that speaks not just about romance, but also about how she'd like to see the world change. Lissie will perform in Salt Lake City Tuesday. She spoke with the Tribune about her show, her views and the bizarreness of being a famous musician.
What's the biggest change on this album? Where did you want to go with it and where did it end up compared to where you thought it would?
I wish I could tell you there was a master plan, but mostly, I got off the road in August 2012 and knew I wanted to do as much writing as I could. So in about a year's time, I was writing, writing, writing. I wrote like 50 songs, 25 of which I actually really enjoyed. I was writing a ton and reacting to the stuff I was hearing on the news, things that I was just observing. I was doing a lot of thinking about my past relationships. I wasn't currently in any relationships, so I felt like I was more able to step outside of myself and be more of an observer of everything that had happened to me up until getting off of the road, and taking time to sit with my thoughts. Going into it, it was important to me that my band play on the record, because what we do live has really shaped the way my sound has progressed. So I think I was hoping to bring in some of that edge and that rock sensibility to what we do live that's different from what I've recorded previously. But in the studio, it always sort of gets tempting to start layering and polishing. So I'm really proud of it. I think it's very frank and straightforward and I think there's a bit more of an opinionated side of my personality on display because I was in a sort of frustrated headspace when I was getting ready to make the record. So I didn't know how it was going to be. My approach was, I want the band to play on it, I'm going to give the songs I've been writing the life they deserve and in doing so, was just able to say, "OK, I like this, I don't like this, let's try out this idea," and so forth. And the result was "Back to Forever."
Speaking of being frank and a little more opinionated, one of the songs that really jumped out to me was "Mountaintop Removal." Where did that song come from and what exactly is it about?
So, I write a lot of songs about romantic entanglements, because that's a subject I have a lot to say about. In the year that I was writing, I had a lot of downtime, and one of my favorite things to do when I'm home is just put NPR on in the kitchen and do the dishes and do projects around the house. So I was paying a lot of attention to what was going on in the world. I had heard about mountaintop removal over the last few years, but I had never really looked into it a whole lot, and I was just moved one day to start reading up about it. Mountaintop removal in itself is a really shortsighted and environmentally destructive practice, and it's really harmful to the people in the areas where it's occurring. But also, in wanting to address that, and our shortsightedness in how in the name of progress we sacrifice our earth and our quality of life, I wanted to use it as a metaphor for how I see the greatness of the United States. I'm so proud to be from the United States, but we sacrifice what's great in order to progress. And so it was like mountaintop removal was this metaphor for how I thought the States were going, in listening to all the news of the things that were going on, the problems of politicians, the greed, and things that are dictating how we approach the government, the environment and policy that's being made isn't really thinking about the long-term consequences. I just was really worked up. I keep saying this word but it was just about shortsightedness and seeing people making decisions without thinking about the long-term impact.
So it's a song about the environment, but it's also about a lot of these long-term decisions that are being made. It's a metaphor for many different things and it's not necessarily an environmental anthem?
I feel like hopefully it can be both. It's direct and it's literal, in that it's setting up a story in which there's this area, this piece of land, where our quality of life, and the trees, and having fresh air, and this life that we have where we can go and dream, and then in the name of progress, you clear everything away and you put up this factory that stays in business for a couple years and when they get everything they needed, they shut down and just leave that blight sitting there. I've seen that happen where I grew up in Illinois – a lot of factories closed in the early 80s, and how it really affected the community. So it is about the environment, but I think it also goes into, like I say, being a metaphor for the United States specifically, but the world, again, sacrificing quality of life and the things that make us who we are in order to make a quick buck. You can't eat money.
You said that when you were writing and recording this album that you were in a frustrated headspace. What were you frustrated about and how did you go about resolving some of those things, either through this record or by some other means?
I was frustrated in lots of different ways – frustrated with myself over bad decisions I've made in the past, or frustrated in listening to the news. Even in "I Don't Want to Go to Work," hearing so many stories of people who have college degrees, and they go into debt and then they can't really get a good job that they can get a living wage at, and then they don't feel appreciated or valued. I was really reacting to a lot of the things that I was hearing about the world around me. So there's that frustration. But it took a long time to make the second record, just due to the nature of being on a label, and scheduling and budgeting and figuring out who is going to work on the record and when are we going to do it, and do we have enough songs. It just felt like the whole process – it was no one's fault – but it just seemed like it got drug out to the point where – you know, the best music, I think is made spontaneously and without too much pre-planning. That's how I've always excelled, so I started feeling like there were too many factors that were interfering. It became convoluted, a bit. I was a bit grumpy. And then as I looked around at the music industry I was feeling a bit bitter as well. I think it was just like I had a lot of fear and frustration, so writing songs is how I get that stuff out of my system. It's a process where I let it go, and then I feel good again.
You ride a lot of fine lines between folk and pop, between success here and success abroad, between being a star and an artist. How do you balance all of that and continue to ride those fine lines?
Well, again, it's this thing I said: Don't really over think it too much. Growing up, I had a lot of folk influences in my life, as well as rock, and pop. I've sung with electronic DJs and I've sung background vocals on pop stars' records. I think my main thing, as simplistic as it sounds, is that I just really love to sing and write and perform. I never really wanted to be put in one category, so then I [would be] stuck being this one thing and marketed as such. I always wanted to honor whatever kind of creativity I'm feeling at any given moment. So it is like I'm a bit all over the place, but then I think as I progress, the dots start connecting a bit more to where I can have my own unique sound that has a foot in lots of different genres, I hope. But most of the time we're just on tour or making a record or writing, so I feel like I don't really have time to think about how I'm perceived.
Because there's so much to do, you have to just keep on going.
Exactly. And I think too, the thing about this record, "Back to Forever," which I'm so hugely proud of and I think is a really great album start to finish, is I'm, in my heat, already thinking of moving forward. I want to put out a live album and I want to keep writing, so I think you just keep going. No one thing is ever going to be my ultimate statement. At least at this point in my life. Maybe at some point ... I will put out something very definitive, but my thing is, let's keep going, let's keep writing, let's keep creating, trying out different ideas. My band and I, on the road, can really try out different ideas, different versions of songs, add instrumental breaks in our album. So I think it's just staying busy not getting too caught up on one thing. That's kind of how I like to approach it.
You mentioned tour and being out on the road. How does your live show factor into your life as a musician and the way that you approach music?
It's probably the guiding light, really. Where I excel with my band is in the live setting. From a young age, being a singer was always sort of doing theatre, and I like that live performance and the energy you get from the crowd. I think too, a lot of us working out songs on the road really informs how my sound is continuing to develop. I think the number one element of what I do is the live show. I think everything else will hopefully come from that and out of that.
How often do you play?
It depends. The first album, we were pretty much on the road for two years straight. We would take a week or two off every month and a half or so, but it was pretty much full on. This last album cycle, probably since May, we were on a tour, and then we went over to Europe to do festivals, and then we were back to the States, and then back to Europe, and then starting promotions, which might not be a tour but is traveling to do interviews and blog sessions and all that kind of stuff. … We went over to Europe like October 14, and just got back last week, and then immediately started up this U.S. tour. For the last month and a half, it's been pretty much non-stop. We have a day off every three days or something. You sing three nights and you travel on, then you take a day off and sleep or be lazy, try to go for a walk or see something cool.
You've had plenty of success so far and received some acclaim, but where do you want to go? Where do you see this taking you in the future?
Well, I think I'd like to get to a point where I could play to 5,000 people no matter where I went. I think that would be a really healthy point for me to get to. Because it's really not my ambition to be famous, I don't really want a lot of people nosing into my life or stopping me, thinking that they know me. In think it would be kind of like prison to be a super famous star. It's funny, because I wonder sometimes, "Am I sanitizing myself because I'm afraid of what success brings?" I think being able to play to 5,000 people, putting out albums that I'm really proud of and have a huge role in, and collaborating with people that I respect, maybe win some Grammys. It's always been a dream of mine to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. That's a goal. Being on Saturday Night Live would be pretty cool. But I also try to temper it. I lay awake at night sometimes thinking, "What a bizarre life I lead." The most important thing, I think, is that I really just want to be happy and be authentic and be a good person, and hopefully find a mate at some point and have a family, own a home. Be able to balance my career with being a normal person who has roots.
What are you listening to these days.
I get asked that a lot and I feel like I'm such a grandma, or something. I don't listen to music anymore and I don't know if it's because I'm living so much music that it's not really my go-to relaxation thing. I really haven't put a song on to listen to in a while. I think the last thing I bought was a couple months ago I bought The Weekend, I don't even know what album, and I was getting into that. But my phone has too much stuff on it, so I can't get it to play. I have the NPR app, for Southern California's 89.3, KPCC ... I really just like listening to that, like if I go for a walk. I really like the balance of news, human interest stories and the arts and culture. I think NPR is so well-curated. I think it's always such an interesting listen.
Lissie with guest Kopecky Family Band
When • Tuesday, Dec. 3
Where • Urban Lounge 241 S. 500 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18 advance, $20 day of, at Smith's Tix