Interview | Lissie Talks New Album And Jamband Roots

Written By: Ryan Dembinsky

Catching up with the ever adorable Lissie in advance of her latest full-length release, Back to Forever, made for wildly entertaining conversation as far as interviews go. Not only did Lissie share her interesting insights behind the nostalgic undercurrent that permeate the Back to Forever idea, but she also talked about her days as a dready jamband fan in the early 2000s, performing with Umphrey’s McGee when they were still a lesser known quantity, and her thoughts on the hippie mafia. If couldn’t tell already, Lissie is pretty down to earth girl and she brings a real music fan approach to her career.

[Photo by Andrew Whitton]

The new album has a more pop leaning sound overall as evidenced by the early singles, but the true standout tracks are sentimental title track and the powerful vehicle for vocal soul called “Mountaintop Removal.”

JamBase: Before we get into to talking about the new album, I noticed something in a previous interview that I have to ask you about. You mentioned at one of the festivals you were playing at that you were a big Umphrey’s McGee fan and were looking forward to seeing them and also that you had gotten up on stage with them a long time ago. So, I wondered if you wouldn’t mind telling the story of how that original sit-in came about.

Lissie: Sure! When I was in high school, I got into Phish but I didn’t really live in a place where they had that jamband culture really, but I got into it and then got taken to a Phish show by this guy who was older than me. I got really into them. So then when I went to Colorado State in Fort Collins, I sort of dove right into the jamband scene there.

There are really just two venues and they have a band every night, so I basically became friends with all of the security guards and they would let me into the shows for free. I saw so much amazing music and I loved to dance and drink microbrews. So I was at the Aggie in Fort Collins and I met one of the managers of the venue and he would let me open for the bands that came through because I sang. I opened for G Love, Ozomatli, and some good stuff like that.

So, he knew the Umphrey’s guys and he convinced them to let me get up and improvise on a song. They were so sweet and just said, “Yeah sure, that’s fine!” So without having ever heard me sing, they let me get up there and sing. It probably exists on a bootleg somewhere, because I know it was recorded. I got up there and sang and we all improvised and it was so much fun. Then, every time they came into town I go and see them and talk to them. I became friends with Ryan and went and saw them in Chicago and L.A., but we’ve fallen out of touch a little, but they are really good guys and great musicians.

JB: That’s great. On the new album, in a general sense, it starts out a little more poppy than your first album and that seems like what the single is going for is a crossover appeal, but as it moves along it definitely gets back to a more gritty sound. What were you shooting for in terms of an overall vibe?

Lissie: On my first album, I hadn’t ever really played with a band before. I was always a solo artist, but I got hooked up with a producer and studio musicians, so I learned a lot about how it worked. I was always a big music fan, so I had a sense as to how it all fit together, but it was actually pretty new to me. I think having played with my band since then in promoting Catching a Tiger, I’ve gotten a lot better at it and we’ve become a live band. I always tell people you have to come see us live, because that really puts all the pieces together.

So, going into making this album, it was just important that my band be a part of it and that every song was given the life that it needed. I have pretty diverse tastes in music and there are a lot of sides to my personality, so I ended up with a little more rock-pop vibe on this one, but I hope it’s a bit more cohesive. I do like variety though, and I think that’s my right in a sense as an artist to not overthink and just do what feels right. Then, I just tried to find a track listing that tied it all together. I think ultimately what ties it all together is my voice and my perspective on where I’m coming from.

It probably sounds flaky, but I wasn’t really going for anything. [laughs] It was more just saying, “Let’s get in the studio and make some music!” I’ve been writing for about a year and a half, so I had a lot of songs to bring to life.

It’s kind of all over the place, and that’s why I think people have a hard time deciding what I am. Some places I’ll go, they will say “Are you a country artist, or a pop singer, or a folk person, a rocker? What are you?” I’m all about being natural and trying not to overthink things. I mean, you have to do a bit of over-thinking to put together a studio album, but you still want things to happen pretty naturally and not worry too much about making things sounds a certain way or fit into a certain genre. I just do what feels right.

JB: I wanted to ask you about the song “Back to Forever.” I really like that one. It sounds like it has a nostalgic childhood type feeling, so I was wondering what you were thinking about when you wrote that song.

[Photo by Andrew Whitton]

Lissie: I’m so glad you brought that up. I’ve been speaking to people about the album, and it’s kind of fun because everyone has a different song that they ask about which is a good sign. “Back to Forever” is very personal and it means a lot to the record, because it’s essentially a song about going back to where you were born to be buried.

I wrote the lyrics before I wrote the melody or the music when I was visiting my grandparents in Florida. We went to bed really early one night and I was on California time and there is no TV or internet, so I was lying in bed staring around the room and I couldn’t sleep. So ultimately I got up and found these old photo albums inside their closet. It’s big enough to close myself in this closet, because my mom was sleeping, and I went through like 15 photo albums and I was in tears by the end of it for hours.

I’m so sentimental and nostalgic. I grew up in the Midwest and I was the youngest of four. We’d go swimming in the summers with all of our cousins. I remember so much about how the grass smelled when it got cut or how a humid August heat felt or the smell of my mom’s perfume if she was going out. I remember riding my bike home and the smell of everyone cooking out in the summer. I have very John Hughes memories of innocent times when the world was less scary. I felt pretty sheltered.

Also, my aunt passed away a couple years ago and there were all these photos of her when she was young and healthy and when my grandparents were young and healthy. That was what really kicked off the desire to write that song. My home and my roots is the “forever.” Back when you’re young, you had forever. Now it’s starting to feel like I’m 30 and there isn’t as much time ahead of me and I’m getting older. A lot of my nostalgia and fears are in there.

JB: One other song I really like is “Mountaintop Removal.” It seemed like the most soulful vocal songs and has some power in the music.

Lissie: By the way, I apologize for being so longwinded; I had coffee today so I’m super hyper [laughs]. I don’t usually drink coffee, but I had to gear up for interviewing. [laughs] So “Mountaintop Removal” actually started from Google. I had heard of this concept of mountaintop removal and it just sounded awful. It’s something I knew about for a few years, but around the time I wrote the song I had been reading about it a lot and it was fascinating.

It’s not hugely practiced, but it’s crazy. They blow off the top of a mountain and take all the chemicals and sediment and put it in the valley and riverbeds. It wipes out the biodiversity and pollutes the water and it ends up polluting places where people live and causing increased cancer rates and birth defects.

So then they scoop up the sediment and basically try to replace it and put quick growing trees instead of indigenous plant life. They try to basically cover it up. It’s kind of a big metaphor for the shortsightedness of human nature. You’re destroying an ancient formation for a little bit of coal and money. In the end, people are left with no mountain, barren soil and higher cancer rates. Same goes for all this fracking. It’s not even clear what all the implications will be. I got really pissed off as I learned more and more about it. [laughs]

JB: One last question I had was do you have any funny stories of fan interactions like getting hit on by a fan, or maybe cool things a fans have done?

Lissie: I mean, yeah! [laughs] No, in general my fans are cool, because they are really enthusiastic and supportive, but they are also not creepy or grabby [laughs]. If I’m out, they say “Hey you’re Lissie. How’s it going?” It’s not like they perceive me to be some god musician or something like Lady Gaga and I’m the Mother Monster. [laughs] I’m not that person at all. There’s no illusion of grandeur there. At my concerts, I’ll have like a grandma, a mom and a daughter who can all come an enjoy it together. It’s kind of just timeless straightforward music.

I did have a fan once who had me sign her back with a Sharpie and then she got it tattooed on here, which I thought was pretty committed [laughs]. All of her favorite bands had done the same thing, so her whole back was covered in tattoos of signatures. Other than that, it’s nothing crazy. I really like the people who comment on my Twitter. It’s usually people who like me. I don’t have to deal with people telling me to go die or that I suck, so I feel pretty good about that. [laughs]

Sometimes when we’re overseas and stuck on a different time schedule, we’ll stay out until six in the morning and go wandering around and meet crazy people and laugh. I’ll be like bleeding and I won’t know it. [laughs] I think once I tried to go swimming and cut open my leg and didn’t even notice it. Somebody might come up and say, “Hey you’re bleeding” and I’ll just laugh. It’s kind of hedonistic. So those are just fun innocent nights of drinking tequila and meeting crazy people. Just tequila though; nothing stronger [laughs].

So yeah, nothing too crazy. I’m pretty normal and the people who come to see me are pretty normal. We have a good time. I like that the fans are all nice to each other. I always hoped people could come to my shows and become friends through coming to the shows, which is like what I always liked about going to see jambands. I know I’m by no means a jamband, but I always sort of liked how the crowd had a sort of symbiosis and sort of worked with each and helped each other out. My fans try to create good vibes like that. I hate going to shows where somebody is like, “That’s my spot” and they elbow you out of the way. That’s so lame. So my fans are nice down-to-earth people.

JB: Yeah, I sort of had a feeling just based on your style that you kind of had a hippie side to you and probably had some roots in that scene.

Lissie: Yeah, definitely. I mean people are complex. I had dreadlocks for a year, and the band and I will all go see Phish together. My guitar player is a much bigger hippie than I am. I’m pretty firmly planted in society whether I like it or not, but we all live in Ojai, California which is a town of 8,000 people and it’s a lot of organic farms, and a lot of natural living.

There’s definitely a lot that I’ve taken from that culture, the real side at least. On the other hand you have all these hippie thugs who are basically just drug dealers. You go to some of these shows and it’s like geez who are these gangsters? The hippie gangsters selling Oxycontin and everyone is dying. That’s definitely not what I remember from going to shows.

So yeah, when you listen to the album there is definitely a side of that. Some people might say it’s overproduced, but I’m proud of it. I love pop music. But if you see us live, my guitar player takes these amazing solos and I think we are really talented live. We definitely have Grateful Dead fans in their 60s and 70s who come out and those guys always stand right in front of Eric, the guitar player, to dance. It’s all meant to be cool and eclectic, so I think there are a lot of similarities.