An In-Depth Interview With Singer-Songwriter LISSIE All About Her Newest Album, ‘When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective’
Posted On 26 Apr 2019
The Midwesterner / farm owner / alt-pop chanteuse Lissie recently released her 7th full-length studio album. Entitled “When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective,” this collection is a brilliant re-imagined collection of her greatest songs (all presented as vocal and piano only arrangements) plus it features her exceptional covers of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Dixie Chick’s “Cowboy Take Me Away.”
Lissie has been releasing music since 2010 with her debut album, “Catching Tiger.” She has since put out “Back To Forever” (2013), “Cryin To You (2014), “My Wild West” (2016), “Covered up with Flowers (2016) and “Castles” (2018).
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Learn more about Lissie and her new album in the following All Access interview:
Was there ever a time when you thought about not being a musician?
I mean, no, not really. I think ever since I was a kid I was making up songs and singing. I always say I sort of got like delusionally confident in my twenties. I was pretty bold.
This only time where I maybe thought I would want to try and find a new relationship to having a music career was in 2015. When I was dropped from my major record deal and was like, “You know, I think I’m not really enjoying myself so much and music’s kind of not feeling super fun right now. I’m going to buy this farm in Ireland and move back, and maybe even go back to school.” I wanted to sort of just drive around with my guitar to make money and maybe just sort of re-approach it all. But then I made “My Wild West,” and it came out and then it kind of reminded me, “No, this is what you’re going to do. You like this.”
But I was able to at least find a better balance, hopefully, or a little more control in how I’ve approached things since then. So yeah, there’s really nothing else I really ever thought I’d be doing.
This new album “When I’m alone” is truly a celebration of all of your past albums. What finally made you decide to put this kind of a collection out?
Yeah it’s funny because I’ve been actually getting a lot of opportunity to talk about it, and I was a little shy about that, because I was like, “I don’t really want to make that big of a deal out of it.” Rather than being something new, I was approaching it as this like supplement to my existing catalog for people who already maybe know and love these songs. If new people find me that way, that’s great too.
I was doing some promotions for my last album “Castles” that came out last year and in promoting that and doing these sorts of industry showcases, I was performing without a guitar and just with a piano player. It was something different and intimate. I just enjoyed it so much. I think, I still am like, “What do I do with my hands on stage? I don’t have a guitar!” But when I sort of settle into it, it was so freeing to have all this space around my voice and for the piano arrangements sort of pulling the emotion out of the songs that maybe weren’t as well represented in the kind of bouncier produced versions.
So it’s really not a big undertaking either, it was like, “Hey, this is great, I really enjoyed performing this way. What if we recorded a bunch of my old songs and put it out?” By last summer I went over to Berlin and I started recording it and sort of finished it in pieces throughout my tours into this past fall. We wrapped it up right before Christmas.
Then I went on this Norwegian tour, where every venue had a grand piano, and I was sort of worried, like, “Are people going to get bored?” Or, “What’s this going to be like?” You know? But then I just was really able to settle into the songs and put my body and a lot of raw emotion into the performance. So it’s been just a different fun thing to do to keep it interesting.
What was it like picking and choosing which one of your songs to put on this album?
Well it was a pretty fluid, natural kind of obvious process, to be honest. I already knew from having done these little showcases that it’s like, “Well, what are the songs that people are going to know?” Also, in making this record, as I reflect on the past ten years and these last four albums “When I’m Alone” was this song that did really well for me, especially overseas and it sort of lead to everything that came after that and lead to me being able to have a career.
When I was over in Norway performing this song that I wrote about being in love with someone who just really didn’t love me as much as I loved them, it was kind of born of heartache. What a gift this song has been because it’s totally transformed my life. So, I’m kind of glad that that sad stuff happened because not only did I grow and learn, but it led me to creating something that took me out into the world and allowed me to connect with other people and share my voice.
So in making this record, I thought about which songs were the more high profile ones. I also picked songs that maybe weren’t at all piano vocal songs because I have some songs, through the years, that are kind of already in that stripped down sort of way. So I was not really wanting to re-do those ones. I think I was almost deliberately picking the more produced songs, to just kind of strip away, as just a way of reconnecting to my songs and finding different emotions in them. Also, it’s kind of like this challenge, like, “Is it still a good song if it doesn’t have the guitarist?” Or, “Is it still a good song if it doesn’t have the drums?” And kind of figuring out if these songs could stand on their own.
“Everywhere I Go” and “In Sleep” are two of my favorite songs so I was particularly eager to hear how you would recreate them on this album. Can you talk about the musical journey that those two took on this collection?
I mean ‘Everywhere I Go’, I think was a little bit more obvious because it was already kind of a lower heartfelt ballad of a song. But, as I performed it over the years, sometimes I would have the whole band play it, sometimes it would be a moment where I would just play the guitar by myself and play it. More recently, I had been doing it where I did just have the piano player and my band play it. So, I’d kind of already started to mess around with how I present that song. That one is just such a heartfelt song already so that didn’t really take too much imagination.
For ‘In Sleep,’ I feel like I just go on and on about myself, but I really need to credit Martin Craft and Jo Dudderidge, who played piano on this album, because they really came up with the arrangements. I could give them a sense of tempo, or emotion, and give them some ideas, but essentially they were the ones that came up with their own re-interpretations and arrangements. So, Jo Dudderidge, played on ‘In Sleep’ and it almost sounded like an old piano in a saloon, or something. I really liked how it sort of turned into this kind of spooky song, somehow. Whereas the one with my band, the guitar solo at the end just ripped. It’s such an upbeat song with the band and on the record. It was really fun to see how with the new arrangement you get more of the emotion and desperation of that song, when it’s put into that context, as opposed to the rock and fun.
It takes on a new amazing emotional life on this album. I love it!
Yeah and thank you. I’m glad that you appreciate that, because I’ve gotten so much great feedback, but there was like two people who were like, “I just don’t understand why she thinks she needed to make this, like, it seems self-indulgent and premature.” And I just want to say to those people, “Then just don’t listen to it. Obviously, I didn’t make it for you then. Someone’s going to enjoy this, even if they only like one of the songs.” I’m an artist. That’s what I do. I just keep creating and reflecting. So, I’m glad that you enjoy it.
Loved it! And I already love the Dixie Chicks song, ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’, but you sort of transformed it on this album. Why did you choose this song?
Well in high school, I was a huge Dixie Chicks fan. I listened to a lot of country music too. I had like a pick up truck in high school, and me and all my friends listened to country music. I went and saw them perform in our town’s arena and stuff.
I can really go back to hearing it for the first time. I think also liking a guy, who was kind of a country guy, and feeling like all swoon over him. It is such a dreamy song. You just want to be swept off your feet by a good-hearted strong man. It’s a little tongue in cheek too, because I don’t feel that way per se. I don’t really need a man to jump in and save me. But there is something very romantic about that song. Even now, being on my farm and stuff, wanting to touch the earth and break it in my hand. So I started dating this guy who’s a farmer, and I would play that song for him. It’s such an idealistic, romantic tune for me.
I really relate to that sentiment of wanting to be out in the country, away from the tall buildings, with a good partner. It sort of reflects where I’m at now in my life, as well as loving it so much when it came out, when I was a teenager. And I love Natalie Maines. I love her voice. All my foreign collaborators were like, “who’s this? What is this song?” And I’m like, “You’re gonna love it.” Then it ended up being one of their favorite songs to do.
Oh that’s amazing. Was it kind of emotional at some points, revisiting some of these older songs of yours? What was that process like?
Yeah, I mean I can kind of fall in and out of it, because I’ve had so many years to live with these songs and perform them. I mean but still with a song like ‘Everywhere I Go,’ I can be performing it live and I still get this lump in my throat sometimes or my eyes will tear up.
That one in particular is just very powerful. It’s a song too that I think a lot of people connect with. I remember writing it and feeling very lost, scared of life and the future and not really knowing how things were going to work out, but feeling as a somewhat spiritual person, “Everything’s going to be okay.” That sense that everyone that came before me, and my ancestors, in some sense are they looking out for me? If you try to surround yourself with good energy, and good people, and you try to be a good person, bad things will happen, but if you’re strong enough to handle it, everything will be okay.
So it’s almost like this pep talk of a song, that still comforts me every time I sing it.
Wow, that’s amazing. This album really showcases your voice and it’s still so incredibly warm, and rich, and beautiful tone. How do you take care of it, and keep it at this level still?
Aww, thanks for that. I have friends who like to sing, who are good singers, but they don’t feel like their voices are as strong as they want. And I’m like, “You know, your vocal cords are a muscle.” Any exercise that you do, if you’re going to be stretching and lifting weights, you use those muscles so it just gets stronger and stronger.
I think for a lot of singers, you have to be careful not to lose your voice and sleep a lot and drink tea. I mean, to be honest, I don’t take excellent care of my voice, but I know that as long as I sleep a lot, that’s the best thing I can do. I think just because I’ve used it so much for so many years, it’s like the muscles are strong in a way that it kind of does what I want it to. So I say that just comes with putting in the hours, I warm up my voice anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, without exception, whenever I sing. The day of the show and before the show.
I have a really great vocal teacher in LA, who gave me some warm ups. So, as long as I do those and I sleep, I think it’s just allowed me to strengthen my muscles over the years.
Can you talk about your partnership with Plus1 and your support for the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) with this album in particular?
I’m so glad to be working with them. It’s something I didn’t know would even be a possibility until, maybe within the last year or so. I’ve always sort of followed NRDC, because I consider myself somewhat of an environmentalist, now that I’m living on this farm.
It’s a lot of what I was hoping to do with my acres, just getting out of conventional farming, and putting it into conservancy, or into hay, or things that will allow the earth to heal to a degree. I’ve always admired their efforts to protect our planet. It’s such a no-brainer. Of course, we need to. Everything else that we fight about and we worry about is completely irrelevant if we don’t have a planet that can sustain life. So, I admire what they do, and so it was when I realized that that was something we can do- We could take a dollar from every ticket sale and give it to them and their efforts. Absolutely.
Last summer, I played Bonnaroo. They were there, and they had a girl who dresses up, Megan. She dresses up like a honeybee, and they hand out stuff about “How to save the bees”. So, at the end of our Bonnaroo set, when we performed ‘Pursuit Of Happiness’, Megan the bee came up and danced with us, and handed out fake tattoos and stuff to just spread the word. That was sort of a way that we got more connected. I’m not super active on social media, but I share posts of theirs from time to time. I just really appreciate everything they’re doing for all of us and for the planet.
My final question is what can fans expect from the rest of your tour dates this spring?
For this next run of shows that I’m doing around the US, I think there’s only about seven shows: LA, San Francisco, D.C., New York, Chicago, and Philly, it’s different. It’s not a rock show. It’s a very raw, kind of intimate, soul-bearing evening of music. Where the piano is beautiful, and my performance is kind of unrestricted. I don’t have my guitar. I don’t really have anyone that I’m needing to be playing off of as much, except for the piano player and I, who have a very good unspoken connection. So definitely, I’d say kind of just an intimate, soul-bearing, stripped back evening. There are lots of big, high, long notes. Being self-indulgent I suppose. Just being able to use my voice to its full capacity and really let it kind of shine and push through.
At first, I was a little shy about it but I think there’s definitely going to be a bit more storytelling too. I think when I play with my band I try not to talk too much, because I think, “Let’s just kind of keep the energy going, and not stop, and start, with too much talking.” As you can tell I talk a lot so I really need to keep an eye on that. But with this piano stuff, I really do have an opportunity to share stories. What I wrote the songs about, what I think about them, what I think about the last ten years in my albums, what I’m currently doing, what the future holds, and kind of have more of a conversational tone, in this context and maybe in other shows.