Striding back and forth across the top floor of Toronto’s Adelaide Hall, her cell phone pressed to her ear and head down, Lissie, aka Elisabeth Maurus, celebrates her 31st birthday conducting back-to-back interviews over the noise of her raucous band soundchecking below. The Illinois native is in Toronto to kick off her North American tour in support of new album Back to Forever, an album that finds her at her most vulnerable, earnest, and passionate yet.
It’s been three years since her debut album Catching a Tiger (following the release of her intimate 2009 EP, Why You Runnin’); Lissie’s raspy vocals drew immediate comparisons to the legendary Stevie Nicks, and her candid lyrics and bluesy folk-rock garnered critical acclaim, causing the album to sell over 250,000 copies worldwide. Her unconventional covers of pop hits such as Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” (her version of which was later sampled in Schoolboy Q and A$AP Rocky’s “Hands on the Wheel”) established Lissie as original and daring. (She’s also recently started covering Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home”).
But along with success came the inevitable criticism—some accused her of veering too far from the sparse sound of her initial EP. Rather than backtrack, Lissie, drawing on her admitted proclivity for rebellion, embraced her multiplicity.
“[It’s] almost like I’m at the end of something and at the beginning of something else,” Lissie says, leaning forward comfortably. “On Catching a Tiger, I was in the midst of getting over this heartbreak. Back to Forever was me having distance from all my failed relationships, almost as an observer. I had a better, more well-rounded view to tell the story and sort of see myself as the person going through it, and then also the person who’s inflicted certain things on people.” The process, she says, allowed her to break old patterns and “steer clear of some of those pitfalls.”
But making Back To Forever didn’t come easy; Lissie describes it as having taken “forever,” with the repeated loss of her voice compounding the frustration. At home in Ojai, California, she watched Portlandia with her dog, Byron, drank a lot of red wine (she’s also a famous tequila lover and will soon release a special edition Lissie Mezcal), hung out with friends, and listened to NPR. “I was really soaking up the energy of what was going on in the world,” she says. “Songs like ‘Shameless’ or ‘Mountaintop Removal’ or ‘I Don’t Wanna Go To Work’ are really reactions to the world around me as much as it was about me personally.”
BTF’s sound summons dancing as much as its lyrics invite catharsis. From standouts “The Habit” and “Further Away (Romance Police),” to “Cold Fish” (a biting track reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street”) and “They All Want You” (her own favorite song on the album), Lissie is candid and fearless. “If I write a song in the heat of the moment I just go with it,” she says. “Like, don’t censor it.”
Her straightforward approach applies to conversation as much as songwriting; she readily admits to initially writing off Lana Del Rey on image (she’s now a big fan), and being fascinated with mysterious country icon Bobbie Gentry. Groupies? “No. I wish.” And she’s happy to admit that entering her thirties feels like a get out of jail free card.
“I really feel now─especially today, being 31─if I was ever going to be a sexy pop star, that window has probably passed, and I’m like, ‘Thank God, because I’m doing whatever the fuck I feel like doing,’” she says. “You have to just keep going and figure out how you can be all the sides of your personality and then be able to have people understand that quickly. I don’t really know,” she sighs. “I think that’s part of my problem—I don’t really care.”
While proud of BTF, Lissie’s next, which she’s already planning, will hopefully be “less produced.”
“I think all the help, and all the different versions of myself I’ve been, has helped me to really reach a wide audience,” she says. “I can go to London and play to 2,000 people. That’s such a great feeling. But moving forward now, I do almost feel the shift. Before I felt almost trapped in this weird way about what I could do. Now I feel like, fuck it! I’m going to call the shots. I’m sort of like, ‘Let’s get an RV, let’s stop at Whole Foods. Let’s camp. Let’s put out a live album.’ I think I used to feel like I’d ask permission. And now I’m starting to come into this thing of, maybe, I don’t need to. And that’s exciting.”
[magazine month=”February” year=”2014″]