Straddling the fence between folk-rock and pop music, Lissie’s last album My Wild West dances with the ethereal but is ultimately grounded by Lissie’s earthy singing and the sound of guitar strings. The midwesterner’s voice is scratchy and cracked and contains a distinctly human quality missing from much of today’s pop music scene. Often drawing comparisons to Stevie Nicks, Lissie is one of those rare acts whose live album is actually better than a lot of the things she’s done in the studio.
True to her style, Lissie’s last two releases are miles apart both in color and timbre. On the one hand, the heavily produced electro-groove Boyfriend is a stark departure from Lissie’s formative work. On the other, a remix of her last album’s title track Wild West showcases Lissie’s music in a sparse and stripped-down version more akin to the way she plays live. Both songs are fantastic but it was the latter, through fortuitous circumstance, that recently landed Lissie a cameo on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. She played herself, singing with her band in The Roadhouse’s dusky yellow light as the credits rolled in what is undoubtedly her most beautifully shot live performance.
With her new album set for a March 2018 debut, we decided to give Lissie a call to discuss Lutheranism, The Many Worlds Theory, Twin Peaks and of course, her music in this Popdust extended interview.
Tell me a little bit about how you got into music. I read somewhere that you were the lead in Annie when you were younger. Was that on Broadway?
I was not Annie on Broadway but it was a professional, regional dinner theater. For the area it was more than just being in the school play because I got paid and I did 80 performances. It was my first experience working professionally as a creative. I learned that responsibility and realized how much I love performing, singing especially. Then I started playing guitar in high school. I always sang. I started writing songs in high school and I actually got expelled. I was kind of bitter on my home town. I left when I was 18 thinking I would never come back.
Why’d you get kicked out?
It’s kind of a long, convoluted story but basically, after a series of soul-crushing events, I thought I was [supposed to be] singing the national anthem at a basketball game but it was never really communicated properly. When I got there, the band director basically told me to “shut up” and I just snapped and spit in his face and said “Fuck you and fuck this school!” I got arrested and went to jail for assaulting a public official. It’s funny because I never really talk about it anymore. It’s not necessarily something I’m proud of but it was the culmination of a lot of pent up frustration. I never really felt like I found my place or had a lot of support at my school. I loved to sing and I was good at it [but] I had no outlets for it. The band director and I have actually had a conversation, now that I’m an adult. I apologized. He bore the brunt of a lot of frustrating experiences in that moment. I left after that but I had to go to court.
They called spitting assault?
Yeah, they made an example of me. I was expelled and pled guilty so that I wouldn’t get a felony. It was a significant event (next to being in Annie) in my life. [After that] I left the midwest and went to Colorado State. I ended up opening for a bunch of bands there and was playing concerts and going to concerts more than I was going to class. I dropped out of college after two years, went to L.A. and did a bunch of odd jobs. I ended up getting a record deal that then fell through but really was able to start my path towards become a professional musician. Just a couple years ago I bought a farm in Iowa. I live on like 50 acres in very rural northeastern Iowa. So, I did come back to the midwest. I said I never would but I’m 34 now so I missed it. I missed the seasons.
What really prompted the move? Were you just sick of L.A.?
I just sort of realized that I had some fun years in L.A. but I’m more of a nature person. Peace and quiet. Solitude. I moved up to a town called Ojai which is about an hour and a half north of L.A. in 2009. So I had already gotten out of the city and I was living in a small peaceful town where there were a lot of citrus farms and organic farming. In 2015, I got dropped from my label, which I was totally okay with. It sort of seemed like the people who worked at the label had all turned over so many times that I wasn’t even really with my original team anymore and was just sort of disillusioned. I felt: “There’s nothing really keeping me here. My family’s in the midwest. I can really live anywhere and tour.” [I missed] the way the air feels and smells and the people and the Lutheran Scandinavian vibe. There’s this openness and this willingness to be helpful that I missed about the midwest. I don’t know. It just called me back. I also always romanticized the idea of owning a farm in Iowa [and] I just decided to buy [one].
You mentioned that you’re Lutheran. Does your religious background have any influence on your work or lyric writing?
No. [Lutheranism] I find, as far as Christianity goes, is very mild. It isn’t so much about the religious part, I just notice from being back and being around Minneapolis that people really strongly identify with their Scandinavian, Lutheran background. My religious beliefs are kind of all over the map. I’d say I’m curious about The Many Worlds Theory and quantum physics.
What’s the Many Worlds Theory?
There’s this idea that every possible version of reality exists simultaneously [but] you can’t see what happens on the other side of an event horizon so you have these black holes. I find some sort of comfort from knowing that every possible version of reality in all its forms and onto infinity does simultaneously exist. While [I also take] principles from being Lutheran. [With] my church it was always just “Try to be a good person and help people”. There was no dogma.
Other than your tumultuous high-school experiences and being in Annie what else influenced you? What musicians?
I think when I was a kid, musical theater was most of what I would listen to. I remember loving Janet Jackson and Madonna. The showy side of music was really appealing to me. As I got into high school, I got lucky and there was Sheryl Crow and Fiona Apple and all these women who were expressing themselves. They played instruments and the content of what they were doing was more the focus than some costume or some persona they’d put on. I think I was fortunate to have all these great female role models when I was teaching myself guitar and I think I lucked out with the time that I got exposed to music
Who are you into right now?
It sounds like an annoying answer but I don’t listen to a lot of music. I feel like since I started touring so much, it’s the last thing I do. I think Haim is great and Lana Del Ray and I think there’s a lot of cool musicians out there. The most recent [thing I’ve been listening to] is Jeff Lynne from Electric Light Orchestra. He recently put out a solo album called Jeff Lynne’s ELO. It’s so beautiful. It’s produced but also very simple and clear. That’s kind of the last album that I’ve listened to over and over again.
Does it feel like work when you’re listening?
No. I like it! Sometimes I’ll think, “why don’t I listen to music more” because I do like listening to music but I think maybe that what has happened is that I can’t just listen to it. I have to figure out what’s going on or [I find myself] forming an opinion about it. I can’t really detach myself and just enjoy it.
Let’s talk about the track Wild West which was just on Twin Peaks. I remember reading that you said it was about being disillusioned with your record label and the constraints it put on your creative process. Is that still what the song means for you or has it taken on a new meaning a year and some change later?
I broke down in the studio as I was starting to record My Wild West. I was ready to quit the music business altogether. That song has a lot of themes of not being afraid to step out on your own. Because I lived west for so long and the whole album came about [from] reflecting on my 12 years in California and moving back to the midwest, I think the song has a general vibe of deciding “That’s it. I’m setting out on my own. I’m charting a new course.”
The video for the Twin Peaks version of the song made it feel like it was about growing up, specifically with the kids being lost in the wilderness.
I think even now as I’m making this new album, there’s a lot of ways in which I didn’t emotionally mature like most adults have. I still feel sometimes like a kid. In the song there’s this, continuing-to-grow-up energy that I was able to capture. It has a lot to do with my inner child.
The video for the Twin Peaks version was shot by your friend’s son right?
This friend that I’ve made has three sons. Her youngest, Finn, who’s fifteen now, asked me if he could interview me for a school project and that’s how we initially met. He’s a really creative talented kid and I asked if [he] would make a music video for the Twin Peaks’ version of the song. He didn’t even really know what it was because I couldn’t talk much about Twin Peaks prior to it airing. I just said here’s the song, go out and do your thing and he made what I think is a really beautiful video. When I go into town it’s fun because a lot of people watched him grow up and say “Oh I teared up watching it. I can’t believe he’s turned into a talented young guy.” It’s nice to foster young talent because I didn’t have that when I was younger.
Was it awesome working with David Lynch? Were you into Twin Peaks in the 90s?
Not in the 90s but [the situation] was very Twin Peaks like. My band and I were on the bus in Europe and we thought “Oh we should start Twin Peaks” because it’s a classic and we got the DVDs on the bus and we couldn’t wait for our shows to be over so we could watch the next episode. In the midst of just starting to get into David Lynch, he started tweeting about my band, particularly this live video he had found of us online. I ended up talking to him on the phone when I was in Germany in 2010. He came to my concert in L.A. And just a few years ago I followed up with him because in Iowa they have this transcendental meditation school and he’s really into TM. I had gone to take a little course and I followed up with him there. Then I went to his house and we had coffee and caught up. He became a fan just when we were getting into him and it was almost spooky. Then we had gotten asked to play at a casino in Snoqualmie Washington which is where the hotel and the waterfall are too. So, we just started watching Twin Peaks, David Lynch was on the phone and we booked a gig in the town where the show was shot. It was crazy.
What are you working now? What’s coming up next?
I’m going to put out a new album in March. I’m nearly finished. I’ve done all the writing and the singing and the producer I’m working primarily with is in London. It’s definitely a little bit of a departure from what people have experienced on my prior albums. In the past I’ve really tracked with a live band. There’s typically more of a rock feel. With this newer one it’s been a lot of electronic instruments which I think was really afraid to try. I’ve experimented with making a record more like how I think people make records now which is done on the computer. I think it’ll be a little bit different of a sound than people are expecting. Pretty much every song is about romantic love whereas on my last record, there were hardly any songs about romantic love. I think it’s almost kind of a cynical take on love based on the experiences I’ve had over the last couple years. I’m coming out of a traumatic relationship that really inspired every song on this record. It’s pretty fresh emotion.
They say that breakup albums are often artists’ best work. This could be your Jagged Little Pill.
Yeah totally. I think having the perspective now that I do, this isn’t my first rodeo. One of my songs is called “Love Blows” because [I keep asking myself] how am I still at this point in my life still just a silly girl singing “I need your love?” I feel like it’s almost self-indulgent and I’m sort of poking fun at myself. I’m actually going to a therapy retreat next week to identify my patterns and why I keep repeating certain destructive [choices].
Do you want to go into detail on those bad decisions?I think I’m just a hopeless romantic and it’s fed my creativity but I’ve had several kind of obsessions where it stops being about the person and it starts being about my ability to love myself. I think I project a lot of this romanticized idea of a person onto [the people I date] and then when they can’t quite live up to it and I’m disappointed but then after time passes and I look back on it I think “Well that was a waste of time. You didn’t even know that person. Why did you do that to yourself?” I’m probably pretty selfish and kind of baby and I don’t have very good impulse control. But the music is a really helpful thing I think. It’s helped me to work through stuff and to identify and understand my feelings. So with this new album there’s definitely [been] a lot of time to dig in and understand how I got to the point that I’m at. That’s what being creative is good for. You get to work through stuff. I feel good about that and I’m excited to put out new music. I put out a new song called Boyfriend. I haven’t put out a single from my new album yet but Boyfriend is a little summer time hint at things to come. It also shows that it’s a different style of production than I’ve really done up until now.