Lissie Draws Outside the Rock Island Lines
Professionally known as Lissie, Elisabeth Corrin Maurus identifies with another one-word pop-culture phenomenon not named Madonna, Beyonce or Pink.
The rock-pop singer-songwriter who was raised in the Midwest still has googly eyes for Annie, the spunky fictional character she played as a precocious 10-year-old at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse in her hometown of Rock Island, Illinois.
More than two decades later, Lissie (rhyming with missy, not dizzy) still identifies with Annie, even though that past life spent inside a onetime vaudeville and movie house in one of the Quad Cities seems as far removed as silent films and soda fountains.
Lissie has since rubbed elbows with Ryan Adams, Morgan Page and Ellie Goulding, studied in Paris, covered everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Metallica and heard her own music blasted all over the airwaves on hit TV shows and feature films.
Yet the raspy-voiced performer and outdoors enthusiast, who just resumed her touring schedule with a headlining club date in London and is on the eclectic bill at the Hangout Fest that officially starts Friday, seems as natural as a daisy on a spring day.
“OK, hold on one second,” she said warmly over the phone only seconds after this interview began from her parents’ home in Rock Island, which is mere minutes away from the mighty Mississippi River. Apologizing for the brief interruption while tending to what sounded like a visit from the Orkin man, she followed a nervous laugh with the universal expression for moving forward — ”Anyways …”
The granddaughter of an international barbershop quartet champion, Lissie had the good fortune of growing up in a household with the shared desire — and genetics — to carry a tune. But one prized possession that now hangs on a wall surrounded by guitars in her Ojai, California home gave her the proper motivation.
“I have this really nice card from my grandpa … saying, ‘I’m really proud of you and as you go through life, try to always be like Annie. Be humble and truthful and always have a song in your heart,’ ” Lissie revealed during her family visit.
Lissie went on to perform in other musicals as well. The King and I, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Little Mermaid (the “cheap version” with songs not in the Disney movie) followed.
Tiring of the theater culture, the “angsty” eighth-grader started learning how to play the guitar just so she could write songs as a teenager, “as flaky as that sounds,” Lissie said. Starting out playing folk songs acoustically in coffee shops, she didn’t stay unplugged for long.
“Once I went electric and I had a lead guitar player, then it was possible to go a little bit further and branch away from the folk and feel like I could play what my version of rock music is to me,” she said, always eager to also try piano, bass and drums but downplaying her musical abilities, limiting that proficiency to an evocative voice and a rhythm guitar. “So I think it’s just really been an evolution of me understanding what the other instruments do.”
Growing up in an area where country was just as popular as rap, Lissie developed an appreciation for all genres, and became versatile enough to handle girl-group anthems (“Stranger”) as adroitly as beautiful, Tift Merritt-like ballads (“Oh Mississippi”).
Songwriting was an obsession that began at the age of 8, an impulse activated when “I got my feelings hurt,” she said. As the youngest of four, that would happen at times. “You kind of feel a little bit like no one listens to you. So that’s probably why I became a songwriter.” (laughs)
Though she admits having memory lapses about specific dates and occasions, Lissie doesn’t want to forget her past. She attaches almost as much sentimental value to a tattered sleeping bag — pleading with her mother not to toss out the camping gear that lingered in the basement — as she does her childhood lyrics.
Then there’s a certain little redhead that will forever stay with her.
“I still like the character of Annie,” Lissie said. “And at the age it was like she was a little bit of a little firecracker. And kind of growing up I was always a little bit of … sometimes it can misconstrued as being a little bit of a punk. I’m just gonna speak my truth. And I think that my grandpa was someone that did what he wanted to do in life.”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the fruitful family tree. The free spirit with an engaging manner and unfiltered mind might occasionally stray off topic during the course of a freewheeling one-hour conversation. But when it comes to her career, Lissie is as focused as a successful Lasik surgery patient.
Rummaging through her past like it was a box of cherished keepsakes, Lissie entertainingly went far beyond the CliffsNotes version of a wide-open book. Just her education after high school was an exhausting series of events.
She initially enrolled at — and prematurely departed from — Colorado State University, worked and/or sang in Fort Collins venues like the Starlight and the Aggie (while connecting musically with Umphrey’s McGee and G. Love ) and dealt with the mile-high dry air in Denver (“I always end up losing my voice”).
Her idea to go pro came after she “sort of convinced my parents that I was saving them money by not going to another year and a half of college and that they should support me when I moved. … And they did for one year.”
After another “anyways” transition, Lissie managed to succinctly sum up her professional path:
“I moved to L.A., and then I eventually got a record deal (Fat Possum), and started being able to support myself and got a manager (Peter Leak). All these things started happening. I went to London, I got a different record deal (Columbia UK) and then I made my first (full-length) record (2010’s Catching a Tiger) and toured for two years and then now here I am, ready to put out my second album. … That’s the basic timeline.”
Lissie, whose still-untitled next album (she’s 99 percent sure it’ll be called Back to Forever) is scheduled for a September release, will turn 31 on November 21, but is still young enough to remember being “the little one (in a family with two brothers and a sister) who can’t get away with not being as good in school or as well-behaved.”
Although she said it “sounds kind of pretentious” to say, Lissie feels she has grown as an artist since her first album. Confidence is the key, along with a relaxed recording environment in Topanga Canyon, light years and moods away from the more serious atmosphere with session players in Nashville.
Lissie was pleased to record from September to November 2012 in the close-to-home studio of producer Garret “Jacknife” Lee with touring members Eric Sullivan (guitars) and Lewis Keller (bass, kick drum). Ojai neighbor and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Siebenberg, the son of Supertramp drummer Bob Siebenberg, is the group’s newest addition and also plays on the album.
The final cut will include 13 or 14 songs, with “Shameless” the first single already released.
Lissie has collaborated with the Bird and the Bee’s Greg Kurstin and English songwriters Jim Irvin and Julian Emory. Michelle Branch was such a fan of Lissie’s that she tracked down the British pair to take her back to her pop roots on 2011’s West Coast Time.
Lissie compared working with cowriters to class assignments “when you turn in an essay and your teacher circles things with a red pen and says, ‘You were being lazy here, you can make this better’ kind of thing.”
While she came this close to writing with Adams, who liked her 2009 EP Why You Runnin’, Lissie laughed about the first time she and the alt-country rocker met about a year and a half ago.
“We ended up just talking the whole time. … We had ideas but we weren’t really in a rush and had no specific goal in mind,” she said. “But him and I have stayed in touch and we’re gonna try and do some more writing together. I respect him so tremendously. …
“I don’t really listen to a ton of music but his … I went through a breakup when I was 21 and I just listened to Ryan Adams for months to get over it. So it’s like so funny now to get to meet someone that you had all these intimate moments with when you didn’t even know them.”
Though she respectfully disagrees regarding how much buzz is building (“I don’t know that I’ve hit it big”), Lizzie has indeed constructed a sturdy fan base with the help of Leak, formerly of Nettwerk and currently with Red Light Management.
That successful association helped make her a media darling for numerous song placements, played on such high-profile ABC dramas as Grey’s Anatomy and Revenge. Then there’s an adventurous take of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” on the trailer for Safe Haven.
Yet it was Lissie’s rendition of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” on Episode 11 of Revenge’s first season, which first appeared on her EP of covers (Covered Up With Flowers), that really caught her by surprise, though she was aware it would eventually air.
“That was pretty awesome,” she said. “I’m so into the show that I, like, leave reality. So, like, as I’m getting into their whole world, it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s me singing. That’s pretty cool.’ ”
While “loving the 30s” as much as Revenge, Lissie knows she has to get back to living in the real world, too. After breaking up with another boyfriend almost two years ago, there’s no more time to waste or fences to mend.
If any detractors are out there, that little girl with the hurt feelings might make a cameo. But despite her soft features and pleasant personality, Lissie will bring along that Annie-like feistiness that’s as evident as the freckles on her fresh face.
“I kinda just feel like I don’t … pardon my language, it’s like I’ve kinda started not giving a shit,” she said, going deeper than responding to a simple question about people knowing how old she is. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I can handle that. I’ve been through this. I’m not gonna get all worked up. I never really cared about what people think but I think I care a lot less about being insecure or nervous or wanting people to like me.”
Just realize that in an age when social media is all the rage, words can cause damage to a tender heart, especially one belonging to a precious yet wild flower child formerly (and formally) known as Elisabeth Corrin Maurus.
“If anyone says anything mean on my Twitter, which like never really happens, but if someone does write something mean on Twitter or something and I see it, it bugs me,” said the woman you can find @lissiemusic. “So I guess I haven’t completely overcome giving a shit.”
Lissie and her band — Eric Sullivan (guitars), Lewis Keller (bass) and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Siebenberg — are scheduled to perform from 12:30-1:30 p.m. Friday (May 17) on the Chevrolet Stage at the 2013 Hangout Festival. Photos courtesy of the artist.
Previously in the series: Jason Isbell Opens Up About Alabama, Adulthood and Alcoholism; Ryan Bingham Will Ring Your Decibels.
ALABAMA GETAWAY: LISSIE ON THE HANGOUT, COVERS AND MORE
If you could hang out with another artist performing at the Hangout Festival, who would it be?
“Well, who’s all playing it? Because I can’t remember. (She’s told British pop star Ellie Goulding, with whom she supported in the UK during 2010, will perform Sunday.) Yeah, I haven’t talked to her in a couple years. I saw her last year. We were friends and, I mean, we’re still friends, but she’s like, I guess, been busy. I’ve kinda fallen out of touch with her. But it would be nice to run into her.”
What can Hangout listeners expect from your set at the festival?
“Well, this new record is pretty cohesive. It’s most like a rock kind of pop record. And most of the songs on the new record are high energy. And live we get to extend guitar solos and sneak in, work in more instrumental stuff. The musicianship of my band is awesome. We really just give it our all and are excited to share a lot of new songs.”
You have an EP of cover songs and also did “Go Your Own Way.” What’s your favorite song to cover and why?
“ ‘Go You Own Way’ is one we haven’t done a lot. It sort of took off after we weren’t touring, like became more popular in the down time. ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ is a cover of a Kid Cudi song. We’ve been doing it for over two years but people just continue to get turned on to it. So we’ll probably end up doing that one. That one is just a whole lot of fun to do because it’s so defiant.”
What was your best or worst festival experience either as a performer or spectator?
“This is kinda my go-to answer but I really still, we played Glastonbury in the summer of 2010 and that is a massive festival (in England). There’s like 200,000 people there and it’s just so cool. I had never really been to something that big. … And so we go there, and I think now it would probably overwhelm me. Not than I’m jaded now. I think maybe it didn’t overwhelm me just ’cause it was all so new to me. … And then we played and there were so many people that came to see us even though I hadn’t released any music yet. Just looking out at all these people. It was just sort of a moment where, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, like this is happening. People are responding.’ … The whole weekend felt really magical and fun.”