Lissie: Honey saleswoman turned rock star
- 8 August 2013
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Illinois-born, California-based singer Lissie has come a long way since she sold honey at farmers' markets to make ends meet.
As she gets ready to release her second album, Back to Forever, she explains how the recording was fuelled by heartbreak, honey and Hugh Grant.
"I don't know why my voice is doing this. I may have to squeak my way through the set."
It's 7 May, 2013, and Elisabeth "Lissie" Maurus has lost her voice.
The timing couldn't be worse. Tonight is her comeback gig, the first time she'll perform material from her new album in the UK.
Her vocals, normally husky, are this evening mere croaks. But she soldiers on, buoyed by an appreciative audience and (perhaps unwisely) several tequila shots - her own brand no less.
Two days later, Lissie's vocal cords have recovered enough for a chatty, wide-ranging interview - although she's off to see a specialist later, just in case.
"It wasn't how I envisioned coming back to London after two years," she says. "About halfway through, I knew it hurt and I couldn't hit the high notes.
"But because the audience were so supportive and singing along and clapping, I sort of let it go."
"I mean, that can't happen again, but I made a conscious decision not to let it crush me."
Lissie's philosophical attitude to what many singers would deem a disaster is born of experience. Now 30, she's been on stage since her childhood on the banks of the Mississippi River in Little Rock, Illinois.
"I was in musicals as a kid," she grins. "I was Annie."
A singer and dancer, she started writing her own material "to get attention". Eventually, aged 21, she dropped out of college and drove to LA "thinking, that's where you move to make it".
Instead, she says, "I worked in an ice cream store. I worked at an Urban Outfitters. I worked at a coffee shop. I sold honey at farmers' markets.
"I had to do this thing where I'd stick the spoon in the honey and get people to sample it.
"I'd have to say, 'have you tried the world's best-tasting honey?' And some guys would say, 'oh, I already have the world's best-tasting honey' and put their arm around their girlfriend."
No wonder her new album contains a track called I Don't Want to Go to Work, a ballsy, bluesy sing-along about... well, not wanting to go to work.
"It's such a universal statement," she says. "You're drunk at the bar at 2am and you don't want to go to bed.
"You're thinking, 'I don't want to go to work tomorrow, 'cause they don't pay me what I'm worth'. But you've been using your credit card and now you're in debt and so you have to keep working.
"It's sort of a depressing song if you really listen to it."
In those early days, Lissie "figured out how to support myself as a musician pretty quick" but money was "really tight for a good few years". Even now, she still drives her dad's old Honda.
Were her parents ever worried about her?
"I think I had a lot of freedom that maybe my brother didn't have," she says.
"He's 13 years older than me, and he got the new, young strict parents. By the time I came along, they were like, 'whatever.'"
"That's the greatest thing about being the youngest. If everything falls apart I can go and live in my parents' basement. And they'd be happy to have me."
So far, that hasn't been necessary. Lissie's first album, Catching a Tiger, was a slow-burning success, nabbing a gold disc 15 months after it came out in the UK.
As word spread, the freckle-faced singer was frequently compared to Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde and became a star in, of all places, Norway.
"I guess they must really like us there," she marvels. "We do so well that every summer we'll do four or five shows in a row in Norway.
"My parents have come along the last two summers, and they love it because we have Scandinavian ancestors."
An eclectic collection of rock, folk and country, Catching a Tiger was a typical debut - a songwriter going, "look at all the stuff I can do."
But Back to Forever, recorded with her touring band, focuses on the free-wheeling, open-chord rock that best suits her parched, dry-toast voice.
"I didn't really want it to be electronic," she says.
"I've seen a lot of great bands who use laptops, but I wanted to do something that four people can get on stage and pull off. To keep it as pure as possible."
On some songs, including new single Further Away (Romance Police), that meant adding guitar solos where there had previously been none.
"It's so exciting live, and it doesn't maybe always work on record, but I fought for it on a few songs," she says.
The single, currently the second most-played song on Radio 2, shimmers with staccato harmonies, calling: "Stop! Thief! Somebody help! He just stole her heart and he's getting away."
But the pop hook hides a much darker lyric. "Does anyone love anyone any more?" asks Lissie repeatedly over the song's three minutes.
What prompted an observation so unremittingly bleak? There's a lengthy pause before she answers.
"I'm not bitter or anything, but I have problems sometimes with guys. A string of situations where it's not love, it's lust.
"I'm a woman in the public eye or I have a bit of power, in a way. They like the idea of people paying attention to me, or that I'm sought after. And if they're with you, then people pay attention to them too.
"But then they have to actually get to know you and realise that you're not always going to be sunshine and light.
"Not that I'm difficult. It's not like I was doing anything crazy or awful. But it bummed me out after a while.
"So I do think love is good and alive. But for me, of late, I've been wondering out loud what is this about?"
Love and heartbreak feature heavily on Back to Forever. The Habit is about "getting addicted" to a boyfriend who's no good for you, while Can't Take It Back is about the awful things people say in the heat of an argument.
"I was notorious for doing that," says Lissie, cringing. "To my mom, I'd say 'I hate you' just to make her feel bad."
Other songs are more political. Mountaintop Removal is a grungy environmental protest about the practice of dynamiting mountains to mine for coal.
If it all sounds like doom and gloom, it's not. Like the best heartbreak records (specifically Fleetwood Mac's Rumours), Back to Forever is dressed up in sunny West Coast melodies, ripe for the recently dumped to sing in their pyjamas.
"I'm from the Midwest and it's not like I'm all folksy and things, but what I'm inspired to write is very universal," says Lissie.
"It's not that I set out to do that, but if I sit and I ponder on it, I'm not over the top. I'm not dressed in weird glitter and things."
Taking the songs out on the road for the first time, the singer noticed she had been writing in a higher register than normal.
"I was like, 'why did I write these songs so high?'" she says.
"You record in chunks sometimes. You drop in notes. So I can sing this really high note when I'm just starting at the chorus, but when you're singing the entire song it's a real work-out.
"It's about the sing-ability of words, too," she adds.
"Really hard consonants stop you in your tracks, so instead of 'you', you sing 'hugh'. Which sort of means all my songs are about Hugh Grant!
"It sounds silly, but I have to think about whether I can sing something night after night without destroying my vocal cords."
Thankfully, the vocal troubles that plagued her in May were short-lived. Back in London to support Bruce Springsteen last month, Lissie was back on full power - all hair and spit as she stormed the stage at the Olympic Park.
And the weekend was capped off by a back-stage meeting with 'The Boss'.
"We were getting ready to leave when Bruce walked out," she said later, giddily posting a series of photos like the one above.
"He said, 'oh, you're Lissie. I've heard all about you.' I almost died!"
Further Away (Romance Police) is out now. Lissie's album Back to Forever follows in October on Columbia Records.