Lissie steps into new frontiers on 'My Wild West'

Lissie performs a stripped down version of "Hero" live in the studios of 89.3 The Current. (MPR/Nate Ryan)
Lissie performs in The Current studio (full session + interview)
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| 00:21:20
  • Lissie performs in The Current studio (full session + interview) 21:20
  • Lissie - Hero (live on 89.3 The Current) 03:36
  • Lissie - Daughters (live on 89.3 The Current) 04:18
  • Lissie - Don't You Give Up on Me (live on 89.3 The Current) 03:58

Singer-songwriter Lissie is taking some new steps. She's stepped away from a major label to create and self-release a new album, My Wild West, due out on Feb. 12, 2016, on her own label, Lionboy.

To talk about her forthcoming album and her evolution as an artist, Lissie (along with guitarist Stephen "The Kid" Howard) stopped in to The Current's studio to play some songs and to chat with Jade and with Sean McPherson on The Current's Morning Show.

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SEAN McPHERSON: This is the first record you're putting out on your own; you're self-releasing this one.

LISSIE: I've teamed up with Thirty Tigers in the U.S., but it's under more of an independent model where I financed the creation of this album, I oversaw it. I own my own music, which is great!

SEAN: How does that change everything about doing the record, besides self-financing? How is it different if you're doing that way instead of working with labels as you've done in the past?

LISSIE: I got really lucky; I was on a major label based in the U.K. on Columbia/Sony, and I got really fortunate with the amount of exposure I got and support and marketing. I did have a lot more people involved in when you get to make a record and when they give you a budget and whether or not your songs are up to par, and so going into this record, I actually — earlier this year — just decided, "I don't really want to make a record right now, I'm just not going to make one."

Then I sought out my friend Curt Schneider out in L.A., who's a great producer, and said, "Hey, I have a few songs that I want to finish." I just started having some much fun that I started bringing in more songs and we were getting together once a week and I was just writing songs and being like, "Hey, let's record this!"

Long story short, suddenly it was like, "Oh, I have an album."

So I think the difference was I got to get back to a place where I was creating without any idea of what an outcome would be, and I think that it made it just more pleasant and fun as opposed to there being pressure in the past, of like, "You've got to get a radio hit."

I think it freed me up.

JADE: Was it different doing the co-writing process? I know you've written just by yourself in the past.

LISSIE: It's nice to co-write … but going into this album, it's like, well, I have these nice little songs that I wrote by myself that maybe an A&R guy would say is a toss-away kind of song, but it's like, "Well, I don't care, because I have something to say." Now no one is telling me what to do; I can just be like, "Here's a song I wrote about a guy I liked that didn't like me back" or whatever, and have no one say, "Well, that song's not good enough!"

This album, I think, has a nice blend of songs that I really did think about the craft and the chorus and the melody, but also songs that are just, "Hey, this is something wrote about how I felt one night when I was at home, and I'm going to put it on a record."

But I think moving forward I may sing on dance tracks and I might make an acoustic album and I might make super, super poppy songs. So I don't think that this means, "This is my sound now." I think I'm always wanting to just be creative and enjoy it and not limit myself or put myself in a box.

I like a lot of rap music and stuff, you know. You might not ever hear me doing that kind of music, but it's nice if I can show up and just lend my voice. You might find it anywhere.

SEAN: I've certainly heard you doing rap music. You've done some Incredible covers of a lot of stuff, and it's not something that a lot of people from your world are touching. You also seem to have done a lot of covers for somebody of this generation ... it shows you care a lot about songcraft. You did the "Hands on the Wheel" song by Schoolboy Q, "Pursuit of Happiness" by Kid Cudi, and you did the Drake song, "Just Hold On." How do you pick what songs to cover, especially when you're going out of your home genre?

LISSIE: It's never really deliberate. I've got kind of known for my covers, which I'm grateful for because people kind of discover me for my covers and then hopefully go on to listen to my originals.

But "Pursuit of Happiness," I was just driving around with a girlfriend of mine that I grew up with when I was home in Rock Island, Ill., a few summers ago, and we were listening to "Pursuit of Happiness" and it was like, "This song is awesome. I want to cover this." I don't try to do weird songs people won't expect. It's more like, "Oh, I really like this song. I want to give it a go."

And it could be in any genre. I want to cover that Muse song, "We will be victorious…" That's one I heard the other day. I'm like, "Oh I want to learn that, I'm going to do a cover of that." So maybe next time you see me I will have worked on that.

SEAN: Can you tell me a little bit about writing your song, "Daughters"?

LISSIE: I'd seen a few years ago a documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which is about a woman named Leymah Gbowee, who won a Nobel Peace Prize. Essentially, there was so much civil war and unrest in Liberia — like arming children, murder, rape, terrible things — and in a culture where women are not equal to men. And what Leymah did is she got all these women — like 3,000 women, Muslim women, Christian women — and brought them together and they dressed in white and they marched peacefully. And they were able to — long story short, you should definitely see the documentary — bring peace to Liberia and oust and hold responsible these people who were causing all these years of violence and chaos.

It was just so inspiring to me, in this current climate of what goes on in the world and how scary it can be, that women can play and will play a major role in bringing peace to the world, I hope, in an ideal world.

JADE: Do you feel like you're more drawn to not necessarily political topics but thinking about songs in a more global way?

LISSIE: I don't even set out to write songs, they just sort of happen. I know some of my fans — if I post something on Twitter or Instagram about Bernie Sanders, who I think is great — they say, "Oh, why did you have to take it into politics? Now I'm not going to follow you." So I think a lot of artists are afraid to speak up on that because they might not be able to reach as big of a fan base because we're so divided politically in this nation.

But I think for me, I've got to just speak my truth, and if someone doesn't want to listen to me, they don't have to.

JADE: Did that have anything to do with your move from California back to Iowa?

LISSIE: My definition of success has sort of changed over the years based on my material needs not being great and my anonymity being important to me; like, how do you have a healthy career where you're respected and able to support yourself but also still have balance?

So I think in leaving California … I grew up in the Midwest: I missed the rain, I missed the thunder and lightning, I missed the snow, even — seasons. And my family is back here. It was a lot of things. I bought a farm, and I want to be a beekeeper, but it probably won't happen for a few years … It did prompt my move in that I want my art and what I do with my voice to really mean something to me and not just be an endless climb sort of notion of what I should want.

A lot of the songs on this album aren't about boys; they're really about me figuring out my relationship to myself and to the fact that I'm here on this earth. So yes, that is a part of my move.

SEAN: You still do a lot of travelling and a lot of touring. How do you keep that kind of serenity that it seems you want to surround yourself in while you're traveling and while you're going to clubs and doing appearances all the time?

LISSIE: I don't know if I do keep the serenity. I just love performing so much. It's this thing of like, for 70 minutes in front of people in another part of the world and seeing how much good energy there is is worth the overseas flights and the trains and the weird hotels and the loneliness. When you love to perform and you love to sing, you forget about the fact that the airline lost your luggage and you can't turn your neck because you tweaked it. So that's what keeps me going.

But I hope eventually to find a balance where maybe I tour for a few weeks and then I take a month off, and then tour for a few weeks. Right now, I'm just touring straight through till May, and I just tell myself, "Put in the work now; it'll pay off later."

Songs Performed

"Don't You Give Up on Me"
All songs are from Lissie's forthcoming album, My Wild West, which comes out Feb. 12, 2016, on Lionboy, together with Thirty Tigers.

Hosted by Jade and by Sean McPherson
Produced by Derrick Stevens and Anna Reed
Engineered by Michael DeMark
Web feature by Luke Taylor

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8 Photos

  • Lissie - Stephen Howard
    Stephen "The Kid" Howard (L) accompanies Lissie on guitar in The Current's studio. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)
  • Lissie - Stephen Howard
    Stephen "The Kid" Howard plays guitar with Lissie in The Current's studio. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)
  • Lissie performs in The Current studio
    Lissie performs in The Current studio, accompanied by Stephen Howard (foreground) on lead guitar. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)
  • Lissie - Stephen Howard
    Stephen Howard (L) plays lead guitar with Lissie in The Current's studio. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)
  • Lissie portrait diptych
    Lissie portraits taken during her visit to The Current. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)
  • Lissie portrait diptych
    Lissie portraits by Nate Ryan, taken during Lissie's visit to The Current. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)
  • Lissie portrait diptych
    More Lissie portraiture by The Current's Nate Ryan. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)
  • Lissie in studio diptych
    Lissie, accompanied by Stephen Howard on lead guitar, performs in The Current studio. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)