Photo credit- Bill Reynolds
Lissie discusses her new album, life on her farm, evolving as an artist, and what’s next for her
Interview by Emily May
Elisabeth Corrin Maurus, better known as Lissie, has had a love and passion for music since she was a child. Born and raised in Rock Island, IL, she leaned on music to help her through her high school years and pursued music once out of school. She moved to Los Angeles when she was 21 and landed a record deal, signing with Sony Music UK’s Columbia Records in 2010 and releasing her debut album Catching A Tiger shortly after. The second single from the album, “When I’m Alone”, was chosen that year by iTunes UK as their song of the year. She has since performed live on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”, “Conan” and has opened for artists such as Lenny Kravitz and Tom Petty. Her songs have been streamed millions of times on YouTube and Spotify. Lissie lived in California for 12 years, 7 in LA and 5 in Ojai, where she found success and belonging.
Having left the Midwest in search of something more, she felt the pull to go back to changing seasons and to her friends and family. In 2015, she decided to leave the fast-paced California scene and bought a small, rundown farm in Iowa, moving there in 2016. Now she’s trying to find a balance between laying down roots at her farm, where she plans to garden and be outdoors, and being a touring musician. She recently released her latest album When I’m Alone: A Piano Retrospective, which features many of her well-loved and popular songs stripped back, allowing her voice and songwriting to stand out. Featuring tracks such as “When I’m Alone”, “Don’t You Give Up On Me”, “Best Days” and “Sleepwalking”, she also includes covers of the Dixie Chick’s “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”.
She has been busy touring in support of the album and is in the midst of a special run of piano duo shows featuring Jo Dudderidge of the UK’s The Traveling Band on Piano. She has partnered with Plus1 so that $1 from every ticket sold goes to support Natural Resources Defense Council and their work to safeguard the earth. With plans to tour into early 2020 and then take some time to enjoy her farm and write her next record, Lissie has plenty to keep her busy! You can follow Lissie and stay up-to-date with all tour dates and new music, as well as stream and purchase her music via the following links. Check out her video for “Blood and Muscle” below, as well as the video of her cover of “Dreams” from her new piano album.
iTunes/Apple Music- https://itunes.apple.
Google Play- https://play.google.com/
store/music/artist/Lissie?id= Atmacbivpzb3pw4mcuckushueku& hl=en_US
Lissie’s mailing list- https://lissie.us14.
list-manage.com/subscribe?u= a5dd6dcbf7509ea1378b973e1&id= 6e17e4bb00
You recently released ‘When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective’. What inspired you to make a stripped back version of some of your previous songs and how did you go about selecting the songs to include? I imagine some were better suited for the piano then others?
Yeah. I think it’s awesome that I’ve had so many opportunity to talk about this new piano album. In a way it was really meant more as a supplement to my last four albums rather than this new thing. Obviously, recording these songs was different because the songs were already written, but because I’ve been performing some of them for 10 years, I have been able to do so with a band, with just my guitar, with a duo and with a piano player. I’ve really lived with many of these songs in so many forms for a decade. In terms of when it came time to do the album, I said “Oh, I had fun singing these songs with a piano player at this showcase I did and I would like to record them”. That was the beginning of the idea, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with the recordings. I just wanted to pursue this and record these songs, and I knew pretty much straight away what songs I wanted to do based on each album and which songs had the most visibility. For example, “When I’m Alone” is the first single off of my first album, hence the title of the piano retrospective. The reason I wanted to use that one and “In Sleep” and “Don’t You Give Up On Me”…all these songs that were big band numbers on the album and live. It was almost intentional, picking the songs that didn’t seem like they would lend themselves to a piano vocal rendition. I wanted to almost pull out a new personality of each song, and I think with “When I’m Alone”, there’s not the guitar riff that is kind-of the centerpiece of the produced version. I still think it stands as a nice song. It was an exercise in breaking the songs down to really just their melodies and adding these piano arrangements that were, like, able to pull out a different depth of emotion than maybe the original had done. That’s the long answer for you!
You moved a few years back to Iowa and bought a farm. You said that before, for a while, that you wanted to stick out amongst the crowd but now you yearn to be one of many and coming to peace with getting out of the game. How have you tried to find that balance in your life between finding a sense of community and being outdoors but also still touring and writing music?
You know, I’m still definitely trying to find that balance. I feel like this year more than ever I’ve been gone quite a bit. I’m not complaining because it’s awesome to have opportunities and I pinch myself that I get to make a living off of making music. I know that’s kind-of a rare thing! I think I do have some balance and do really feel like I have a good family and close friends that I’ve had for years. I feel connected to my friends and the community that I live in in Iowa. I don’t really feel that I “talk shop” much anymore. I go out on tour, have fun, get to see people I know around the world and hopefully connect with my audience. Then I go home and clean buy house and see my dog and whatever, you know?
So you’ve found a way to separate the two (music/tour life and home life)?
Well, I think so. I guess just the fact that I’m good at singing and make music and am confident in and proud of what I do. I guess I just don’t really think it’s as big of a deal as society makes it out to be. So, how do I have a career and get attention but also not make a big deal about myself? I don’t know. It’s some weird thing that I’m trying to figure out that might be impossible (laughs)! I was telling my mom actually today that I’ve been so busy lately that I kind-of feel like I’m not doing anything in my life as well as I could because I’m trying to do a lot of things. I think that’s probably how everyone feels, whether they’re an artist or not. I’m trying to do my job as well as I can while also be taking care of my house and my dog and be a girlfriend and a daughter and all that stuff. I’m definitely still trying to figure it all out and it could take a lifetime.
Having been signed to a label in LA for your first two albums, what do you feel you learned from that experience that has maybe helped you to better operate as an independent artist?
I think I just got so lucky. I think that people can kind-of bash the major label system, and I definitely had my frustrations, but I’m super grateful for my years at Sony over in London with Columbia. They were really able to put some muscle and resources behind me so that I could tour, get press, have a billboard and could make an album that had these well-known producers behind it. I think that having had that experience to get me in front of people, it was up to me to keep them around, you know, once I became independent. I think when people find out I’m independent, I never want to say “Oh yeah. I do it all myself”. No, I still have a team of people. I license my records to smaller labels that do the marketing and distribution. There’s still a tremendous team around me that helps in so many ways with things that I wouldn’t even know how to do on my own. I think I’ve realized that while I have a lot more say in my creative process and when and how I want to do things, I still have to weigh people who I trust and have done a good job for me all these years. I have to take their opinions and advice into consideration and not get cocky and think “Oh, I don’t need anybody. I can do it all myself”. There have been times where I’ve tried to be like “I’m just going to do this thing and it will be great” and then no one ever heard about it because we didn’t have a team of people marketing it and I was like “Oh yeah, that’s true”. It got lost in the ether! I think it’s realizing that when you make your art/music a business, you want to succeed by making as many people aware of it as possible. You do really have to have an appreciation and recognition of the amount of people that it takes and do a good job creating campaigns and things like that.
You’ve said that you did have some frustrations when writing songs because it was so subject to other people’s opinions and criticisms and whether or not the song would make a radio hit. How do you feel like your songwriting has changed since becoming an independent artist, if at all?
I think…this is another kind-of answer where I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle. I see that there’s a lot of value in having other people’s opinions on what songs might be more, almost scientifically, proven. The way music theory operates, there are certain chord progressions and ways that you can build choruses that are a lot more satisfying then others. I still am aware in writing that a catchy chorus is a really great thing to aspire towards. One of the things that was refreshing was that once I became independent…when I was on a label, every song that was on the record was an attempt at a hit. Anytime I was like “Well what about just this little somber ditty that doesn’t even have a chorus? I kind-of want to put that on the record”. I wasn’t really allowed to, to be honest. The producer was only going to do 12-15 songs and they didn’t feel that that song was good enough. That did, after a while, become a bit stifling and frustrating. It’s been nice being independent, but while I’m still definitely trying to create something that more people will like, if I write some noodley song in my bedroom, I can still put it on the album. No one’s going to tell me that I can’t and that’s nice because I think an album is supposed to be an entire journey in a body of work, not just 12 attempts at a hit and half of it’s filler. I’ve sort-of been able to take the good stuff from that and reclaim my artistic freedom in saying “You know, I really like this song. I know it’s not a hit but it’s still a song that is important to me so I’m gong to put it on the album”.
You have said that after you moved out of LA, you saw your peers go on to be massive stars but that wasn’t necessarily what you wanted for yourself. You thought that people kind-of looked at you as a failure because you didn’t reach that level of success. Do you feel that artists right now are redefining what success is in the music industry? You’ve said it’s a good time to be an independent artist right now.
Yeah…well it’s funny because I can’t quite remember what all I’ve said over the years because my feelings, opinions and thoughts are always changing (laughs). I think, too, in getting older I’ve realized that I was a lot more concerned with what other people thought when I was in my late 20’s then maybe I even am today. I think that there are these pre-prescribed ideas of success that are delivered to us and in popular culture and you sort-of fall into it. Then you have to take a step back and think about what makes you happy and how recognizable do you want to be. Maybe I was bitter for a while because I had friends…it wasn’t just that I was jealous of their success but it was almost like you couldn’t have a conversation with them without 20 people coming over to ask for a picture. I would almost feel bad for them like “That must suck”. They couldn’t really do anything anymore and what was that like? I was like “I don’t want that! That seems terrible!”. I want to be appreciated and heard and respected for sure, but not at the price of my anonymity. I think that finding what made me comfortable was important and then letting go of the bitterness and just being happy for everybody. Everybody can do what makes them happy. I’m not hating on anyone. I think it’s a good time and a hard time to be an independent musician right now. I think it’s cool because somebody can make themselves heard and successful on their own terms, but because there’s so much out there now with computers and the internet and all of these people being famous for being pretty of Instagram, there’s a lot of noise. It’s probably harder to carve a path for yourself, so I think there’s pluses and minuses to being independent in the way that technology has given people more power. I think that if I hadn’t of had those years on a major label and all of that financial support and had press that was getting me in front of people, I don’t know that I could say I would be where I’m at today.
What can you tell me about life on your farm? What kind of gardening do you enjoy doing? I read that you’ve been taking Scandinavian hand craft classes. What kinds of crafts have you been doing? That sounds like fun!
It is fun! Life on the farm is…even though I got the farm about 4 years ago, time is just flying and I am constantly on the go. I don’t think life on the farm is a set thing for me yet. I think it will continue to develop. If I ever take more time off it will become more apparent, like what it is actually like to just be here and live here. I have had some stretches of time over the last few years to be home. I took a one month, I think they call it a J term…a one month January Scandinavian hand craft class at the local college. There were a few different things we learned but a lot of it I couldn’t quite do, so I focused on whittling spoons. I whittled spoons! I mean, they don’t look great, but they’re functional and it was really meditative and relaxing. If you have good box elder trees, they’re kind-of like a weed. People don’t like them. They have a nice, soft wood for carving though, so they have this nice feeling of smooth motion while carving the wood. It was a very tactile and satisfying experience. That was, like, two years ago now and to be honest, I haven’t really kept up with my whittling or my knitting! I have all of these things that I sort-of start in the winter when I’m home and then I go back out on the road and am like “Uhh, I screwed up this thing I was knitting. I’m just going to put that aside for now”. I love gardening and being outside. I love to be busy and have a task. I love to clean, organize, clean my garage and garden shed and hang up my shovels and my rakes and have my seeds where they’re supposed to be and have everything organized. The last time I was home I put a bunch of plastic sheeting down to prepare my beds so that a few weeks prior to actually putting my seeds in over Mother’s Day weekend, I’m trying to kill a lot of the weeds that are on the surface, like in my beds and the places I want to plant things. So when I go for it, I’ll plant broccoli, tomatoes, celery, melons, zucchini and herbs. I’ve actually canned my tomatoes in the past, so I’ll have an endless supply of tomato sauce whenever I want to make pasta. I’ve made pickles and jams. There’s some grapes on my property and some raspberries. I’ve made jams in the past and I just love all of that stuff! My ideal is growing my own corn to grind and growing my own sunflower seeds to press for oil. I want to do all of these things. They may never happen. I may be on tour forever (laughs)! Someday maybe I’ll fulfill my homesteading dreams. It is a lot of work and things can go wrong. You can put in hours and hours of effort and maybe something won’t grow or there will be a storm or something that will wipe it out. But that’s life and it’s all trial and error and you just learn as you go. If something didn’t work last year, maybe I’ll try something different this year. I love the seasons, too, and when I sit out on my porch, I see the deer, geese, coyotes and frogs and the bunny rabbits are hopping by. There are some groundhogs living under my porch that I’m trying to catch and get rid of, like humanely! There’s a lot to do!
You’ve also talked about wanting to create a conservancy compound in Iowa. How did that idea come about for you? Is that something you’ve wanted to do for a while now?
I think that for me, having this farm in Iowa was more about having an opportunity to be a steward of the land. And yes, I’ll have my gardens and I’ll plant my trees, but I wanted to put all of my tillable acreage into a conservancy program through the government. I was all signed up and ready to do it, but then once I became eligible for that…the state basically pays you a comparable rate, like a rental rate, per acre and give you resources to grow wildflowers or prairie grass…when I became eligible for that program, I called but it was while the new Farm Bill was being determined and now those conservation programs are no longer available to me. They might come back. I sort-of missed that window, so what I’m doing this year is just taking all of the stuff that has previously been in corn and soy and putting it into alfalfa grass which is then made into hay. Alfalfa isn’t treated. There are no chemicals and it’s not inoculated, so if I keep my land in alfalfa for 3 years I could move towards having an organic farm. At that point I’ll decide if I want to grow food, turn it into native prairie land or do a little bit of both or maybe just plant a bunch of trees. It’s still very much a process. For the short term, until I have a better plan, I’m just going to put all of my acreage into grass, into alfalfa.
You’ve said that during your formative years, when you were 15, you were inspired by female artists of that time like Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple and Liz Phair who helped you to carve out your path as a musician. Do you see yourself as helping to inspire future generations of female musicians in the ways that you were inspired?
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to see myself as other people see me. I’ve definitely had interactions with fans who say I’ve inspired them in one way or another and that my songs have been comforting or motivating for them. Of course I would hope to be someone that if people experience my music it makes them feel good about themselves or about the world. But I don’t know. It’s hard for me to see myself that way.
You are currently on tour to promote your new album and you partnered with Plus1so that one dollar from every ticket sold goes to support the Natural Resources Defense Council and their work in safeguarding the earth. How did you come to partner with them for the tour and what have some tour highlights been so far?
I’ve been following the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for many years and their efforts and have received their emails and follow them on Instagram. I just think it’s so important that they are out there doing this great work of protecting our planet and resources. I think people argue about so many things but can’t we all just agree that it’s important to take care of our planet because if we don’t, and it becomes uninhabitable, then what’s the point of any of the other stuff? I was familiar with them and give mad props to my manager Anna who is involved with all kinds of environmental causes. She knew about the Plus1 opportunity, and because she was aware of it, she brought it to my attention like “Hey. This is something you could do and you can choose where you want the dollar to go”. Last year when I played Bonnaroo, NRDC had this girl who was dressed up like a bee and was trying to raise people’s awareness of the plight of the bees. She got up on stage with me while I was performing and we danced together, so I had already kind-of collaborated with them. Based on that initial connection, it was a no-brainer. I decided to the Plus1 thing and wanted the money to go to the NRDC.
What’s next for you? What do you have coming up after tour?
Another tour and then another tour (laughs)! I’ll probably be on tour until, like, February or March of 2020 pretty consistently. I’m going to take a little bit of time off this summer to enjoy my garden and spend time with my dog and my boyfriend. I think once things slow down in early 2020, it may be time for me to take a bit of a break so that I can start writing songs for my next album. I haven’t really written any yet because I haven’t really had an opinion on much but traveling and performing my old songs. I’m kind-of thinking I’ll get through the year joyfully and be present, but in the back of my mind thinking it’s probably going to be time to chill at the house and start writing songs with more focus. So that’s what’s next hopefully! I have to stay flexible, though. Who knows what else could come up or what might happen in my life?
Thank you so much for taking the time out of your afternoon to talk with me today!
You’re so welcome! And I love Louisville, so hopefully I’ll get to come back soon! I appreciate the opportunity and hope you have a good afternoon!