When one sees Lissie perform on-stage, two things are noted: she is talented, with a strong, commanding voice undiluted by electronics or Auto-Tune or even the loud, jarring sounds of her own band; and she is different. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes the singer so unique from any of her contemporaries — her energy, steady and unwavering? Her lyrics, smart and reflective? Her look, pretty but in constant dishevel? — but there is no denying that something about Lissie is unlike anyone else. And if you think these things are accidental, just products of a musician's changing career, think again — they are purposeful, and always have been, learned long before Lissie ever played in front of a crowd.
"When I was 16 or 17, my older cousins and my sister and I all went to Chicago, three hours from where I grew up, and we went to Lilith Fair," Lissie says in a phone interview with Bustle. "Seeing the Dixie Chicks — Natalie Maines just has one of those voices that is just so powerful and so unique. I remember watching the Dixie Chicks and being like, I have to do this with my life."
And then there was Phish, also seen at 16: "I'd never really seen this alternative, hippie lifestyle," she says. "Seeing Phish changed me. Their live shows are really a foreign experience, with the lights and the vibe of the crowd and the music... my first Phish concert made me want to be different."
Lissie, 30, didn't release her first EP until she was 25, but there's no denying that the lessons she learned at 16 have stayed with her over the years.
Thanks to a non-stop work ethic that's produced four EPs and two albums over the course of six years, including her latest, October's Back to Forever, Lissie has found success in something of an anomalous way; not through scandal or shock, like so many of her peers, but through the old-school methods of talent and stage presence. She has toured with Lenny Kravitz and Tom Petty, has had her songs featured on Grey's Anatomy and Revenge, and has had her music called "tremendous" and "unexpectedly sublime." She may not be headlining Madison Square Garden or seeing her albums going triple platinum just yet, but there is no denying that Lissie has Made It. But she wants more.
"There's a lot of things I'd love to do," she says. "It’d be amazing to win a Grammy, it'd be amazing to be on SNL, it'd be amazing to collaborate with some of my favorite artists... there's so many. I’ve always thought I’d love to sing the hook on a hip-hop song, like Dido did with Enimem. I’ve always thought that Damon Albarn from Gorrilaz and Blur is just such a musical genius... I’d love to collaborate with him. I’d love to sing with Patty Griffin or Sheryl Crow or Bonnie Raitt."
"But, you know," she adds, "it’s not like any of these things will necessarily happen. But I’d be happy to do it, if they wanted me to!"
These are big dreams, but perhaps not unrealistic ones. After all, thanks to the critical success of her first album, 2010's Catching a Tiger, as well as this year's Back to Forever, Lissie has caught the eye of the music industry in a major way. She's played at the legendary Glastonbury Festival, has performed just before Bruce Springsteen ("so inspiring and so humble and he works so hard. He's a role model"), and, just this September, was asked to participate in an episode of Guitar Center Sessions, the three-year-old DIRECTV series that features live performances and interviews with selected artists. Lissie's episode, in which she performs several songs and talks with host Nic Harcourt, airs Friday, Nov. 15.
Like all episodes of the series, which, this season, has focused on artists ranging from Gavin DeGraw to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Lissie's Guitar Center session featured an interview with host Nic Harcourt. Harcourt is the radio veteran best known for hosting KCRW's daily Morning Becomes Eclectic from 1998 to 2008.
"I moved to LA when I was 21, just very naïve," she says. "I would listen to KCRW and Nic Harcourt and think that that is the ultimate thing, just so amazing, and I would go to Guitar Center... so the fact that at this point in my life, I’m sitting in this Guitar Center room and it’s all about me and then talking to Nic Harcourt... I totally should pat myself on the back because I’m actually gotten to do this thing, when at 21 I was sitting in this shitty apartment listening to KCRW and now here I am, talking to this person."
On the episode, clips of which are available to watch on the Guitar Center Sessions website, Lissie and her band perform eight songs.
"We did songs that we thought represented the new album, but we played a couple old ones, too. It was a cross section of what we think is good for people who don’t know about us and are going to see us on DIRECTV, and then what we’re doing right now," she says.
Bustle is exclusively premiering the video to one of these songs, "The Habit," the first track off Back to Forever.
"It's pretty high-energy," Lissie says of the song. "Just a really fun one for us to play."
Despite its upbeat sound, "The Habit" is fairly dark, with lyrics like "if you don't quit/you'll never get over/if you don't quit/you'll never get out/and you're always/gonna be an addict." Yet it's actually one of the lightest songs on Back to Forever, which tackles issues like job satisfaction, the state of the music industry, and even environmental damage.
"It's a frustrated album," Lissie says. "It has some aggression in it, but I think there's ultimately hope in it."
If that seems like an uncharacteristically serious message for a pop album, then that's exactly the point.
"I think I’m at a place where I’m looking back on what’s transpired, and reflecting on my relationships and my patterns, and kind of getting all the like, stuff out of my system," Lissie explains.
And that stuff makes for one hell of an album. Back to Forever is substantially different in tone and style than the Fleetwood Mac-sounding, largely acclaimed Catching a Tiger, but it is just as affecting, if not more so, than its predecessor. It's a vocally strong, sharply written album that will do much to close the gap between the singer's indie fanbase and mainstream audiences.
"It’s a step along the way for me, and I hope people can appreciate that," Lissie says. "It’s sort of a bridge between my past and where I want to go in the future."
And for Lissie, the future is wide open. She and her band are currently touring in Europe — she was in Stockholm when Bustle spoke to her earlier this week — but after that, the possibilities are endless.
"If I get too planny," she says, "then I start to freak myself out."
Still, there are some definites. More touring, through the spring and perhaps at a few summer festivals. Writing, for sure, ideally starting work on a new record, which Lissie hopes to begin "as soon as possible." Charity; "There's a lot of different charities I'm involved with," she says. "I'd love to continue to work with them and help them out."
There are a lot of things Lissie wants to do, and judging from her resume so far, there's a pretty good chance she'll make them happen. And she'll do them like no one else.
"I just want to continue to let people to know me and all the different sides of what my band and I do," she says. "I want them to embrace that, and not be confused by that, and really, just appreciate the diversity."
Lissie's Guitar Center Sessions episode airs Friday, Nov. 15, at 9pm E.S.T on DIRECTV's Audience Network. Watch an exclusive clip of the singer performing "The Habit" below:
Images: Guitar Center Sessions