In the fall of 2014 I started hearing about an artist from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, by way of Mobile. Her name was Lisa Mills. I had not yet heard her music, but the word of mouth was good — very good.
Not long after, I received an advance copy of her album I’m Changing, and I realized the kudos were, if anything, greatly understated. The songwriting was first rate, and her singing was heart-stopping. A combination of raw emotion, incredible power, and subtle nuance, Mill’s voice commanded the listener’s attention.
That album earned scores of critical raves, including one from this writer in these very pages. An interview followed. Months later I saw her in an intimate house concert venue. Sitting in a living room in the spring of 2015, her voice filled the place, holding the crowd in rapture. Her live performance was more than a show, it was an opportunity to experience an artist in full possession of her formidable skills.
Fast forward to July 2016. Lisa Mills has finished recording twelve tracks for a very personal project entitled Mama’s Juke Book. The new album reunites Mills with Grammy Award-winning producer Trina Shoemaker, who was at the helm for I’m Changing. The record also features guest appearances by David Sutton on bass (Lucinda Williams) and Mike Finnigan on B3 (Etta James, Bonnie Raitt).
With a week to go on her Kickstarter campaign, Lisa Mills was animated and in a mood to talk.
Joe McSpadden: Mama’s Juke Book…give me a little background on it.
Lisa Mills: After my mom died a few years ago, I was going through some of her things. I found this notebook of hers. In that notebook were thirty-two songs in her beautiful handwriting. They were some of her favorite songs from the early 1970s. It included Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, Porter Wagoner, Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn, that sort of thing. I got the idea of recording those songs as a musical tribute to her. It grew from that simple beginning. There are twelve tracks altogether. Eleven covers and one set of lyrics I found that Mom had actually written. I put them to music. I was talking to my friend David as I was going through these songs. David is a bit of a musical genius. I was reading these lyrics to him and hallway down the page I saw her name. I had to hang up the phone because I got chill bumps. David and I talked to a friend of his, an expert in music from that time, to make sure those were her words and they definitely are hers. There is no professional type of rhyme scheme employed here.
Is all the recording done?
Yes – I just picked up a cd of mixes from Trina’s house the day before yesterday. I’m living with them for a few days until she gets back in town. We have a mastering session scheduled for July 28th out in Los Angeles. I am also working on the sequencing. I have rough draft of the cd layout from the graphic design company. It’s all coming together.
There will be a pre-release version of this cd for the folks I call “Mama’s Angels,” a select groups of super fans who through donations and loans made it possible for me to go in the studio and record the first eleven tracks back in February. The Kickstarter campaign is to help finish the cd and pay back the loan. That’s where I am at right now. Those “Mama’s Angels” will be prominently displayed on the album packaging, and there are some levels on the Kickstarter campaign where people can pledge to have their name on it as well. There are a limited number of those.
Because I am leaving for a long European tour, from August until mid-November, I am delaying the release of the album until early 2017. So right now what I am making is a collectible version of the album, it will have all the same music, but will be called the Angel Edition. It will be available to those contributors, and at shows until early 2017.
When does the Kickstarter campaign end?
Six more days! Kickstarter to me is the most viable way to do something like this. I am getting close to my goal, but there is still a little ways to go. I spend a lot of time getting the word out on social media, emailing, texting, connecting with my supporters.
I look forward to this project, the story behind it is powerful. Having heard some of the demos, this is emotionally honest, without being saccharine.
In any great art the essential thing is truth. If you are doing your truth as you know it, it has a power. I am seeing that in the way people are responding to this project. They haven’t even heard the (completed) music yet. And the music is incredible, it’s just incredible. It is going to be different than what people have become used to hearing from me.
That’s not a bad thing.
No, I like it. It is a challenge and I think every artist needs to challenge themselves and reinvent themselves. I may, on the surface, look like I am giving my mom a gift. But in reality she is the one that gave me the gift. She gave me this gift, this project, she gave me hope. It has been quite a journey, on so many levels…you hope to discover something that is timeless. It’s why the song Amazing Grace is still around. Everybody knows it. It is a bright and shining truth. I feel like my mom’s spirit is guiding me on this.
The last record consisted of 10 original songs and two covers. This time out you are tackling the work of other artists. What do you see this project doing for your career in a broader sense, and also in terms of artistic growth?
My intention first, is to honor my mom. And along the way I started discovering my roots as a musician and as a person from the Deep South. So that mission is accomplished. As far as the other aspect, career-wise, I think what I hope for is that people get a more comprehensive view of what it is that I do. Although I love blues music, I don’t consider myself a blues artist per se. I do a wide variety of styles, I have a wide variety of influences. I get to explore that aspect, and I don’t have to be the songwriter, I can be the singer.
Did you find being an interpreter was liberating in some way?
It was incredibly liberating. Because they weren’t my songs, they were novel to me.
Before I heard I’m Changing my impression was that I would find you to be more of a blues singer. But when I heard the album I could see that you can handle the blues, but it was more of a roots record.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, that is exactly what I am.
Did I’m Changing take your career to another level and open doors for you? Would this record have been possible after Tempered in Fire, or is this record made possible now because of I’m Changing?
That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. It could have been possible after Tempered in Fire, but I think it is more of a natural progression because what I’m Changing did — you mentioned it earlier — you saw more versatility. I think it is the most natural step to getting to Mama’s Juke Book. I think Mama’s Juke Book and I’m Changing were necessary to free me up to do a new original album. I have been so busy gigging that I haven’t taken time to nurture myself as a songwriter. I will admit that being a public performer, the thought of how an audience will respond to something you are writing can creep into the back of your mind. When I wrote I’m Changing, I didn’t have an audience, I wrote those songs for me. I was uninhibited. As much as I love my audience and want them to love my songs, I need to stay in that place where I am uninhibited. This project has allowed me to step away from songwriting so that I can return to it feeling free. Being an interpretive singer on this effort has freed me up to write more. I have song ideas cropping up like crazy. Some of them are just about finished.
Listening to the demos, I think this could broaden your audience.
I think it will. It is the ultimate blend of where I came from, and who I am now. All of these songs … even though I don’t sing them like they were recorded, they all influenced me. As a child I heard my mom play these songs over and over again. In some subliminal way they are a part of my DNA. It’s like the Middle Ages when people tried to take different elements and make gold. It’s … uh … what’s the word?
That’s it! It’s an alchemy of sorts, all these elements are there. … It finally hit me. We take our parents for granted. I took for granted that my mom loved me, no matter what. And I took it for granted that she was my biggest fan. I thought it had a lot to do with her being my mom. In reality her being my biggest fan had a lot to do with how much she loved the music. She loved it that much. Not only did she love it that much, it was her savior. After reading her notebook, it became apparent to me that her holy trinity was family, church, and music. I don’t mean to be blasphemous. That is what she lived for. I did not realize, until lately, how important it was to her and how it had gotten her through some incredibly hard times. The hard times when we were growing up. She used to tell me, “You just don’t know what you’ve got.” I am just trying to own what it is I have been given, without being stuck up. Mom was really good at making sure I never got too big for my britches.