The Women of '20 Feet from Stardom'

Lisa Fischer

by Christian John Wikane

17 June 2013


"How Can I Ease the Pain?"

If you were to travel back to 25 February 1992, what would you tell Lisa Fischer after she took home the Grammy for “How Can I Ease the Pain?”

Take a minute and just take a deep breath and just be at peace with this moment. I didn’t take the time to enjoy much of anything. I don’t know why. (extended pause) I felt so thankful and I felt freaked out at the same time because I’m in a category of every single woman that I absolutely adore. If Chaka Khan had been in the same category I think I just would have dropped on the floor! I would have been a puddle. These are all women that I look up to. I wish the category could be bigger and include more people but it’s got to be narrowed down. The fact that I was in the category? I had already won as far as I was concerned. My manager called me and said, “By the way, they announced the names and you’re in two categories.” I was like, “Get out of here. Stop. Which ones?” “‘Best R&B Song’ and ‘Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female.’” “Who’s in the category?” He said, “Are you sitting down?” He rattled off the names (Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams). I was like, “Get out of here! Listen, I know I’m not going to win. I don’t even care. I just want to be there.” I mean I had won at that point.

Did you feel like the industry treated you differently after you won that award? Were certain expectations projected onto you?

I think that the record company was doing its best to protect me as best as they could but also get a return on the investment that they made because that’s what record companies do. I think that with that spotlight of the win also came this pressure that I was not prepared for. I think it made me more afraid than I’d ever been in my life. I was afraid to fail. I was trying to forge through those feelings. I was just scared to death to make a mistake, to do anything, to make any decisions. You get to this point where you do something and folks say, “That’s just amazing” and then you don’t know how to repeat it? That is the scariest thing of all because you don’t know what you did in the first place. You don’t know if it was even you. You have no clue so you don’t know how to repeat it.

I know that everyone was really trying to help me and support me and get me to a place of where they thought I should be. Sylvia Rhone was trying to help me. She sat me down. We had great meetings: “What do you think I should be doing?” “I think you should try this ...” She was amazing. I think after a certain point it just took too long. After the win, I should have been ready then but I didn’t think I was going to win. I was just trying to sing and just be happy and just do things on the proper schedule of when a record is supposed to be done. If I look back on it, business-wise, I should have already had an idea of what I wanted to do for the (second) record. It’s a different kind of mindset and I was just not prepared at all.

How would you characterize the experience of that detour into a solo career? What’s the alpha and omega of that period?

I think the beginning of it was the fact that I thought that background singing and lead singing were two different worlds. The end of it, the omega of it, is that it’s all one and the same. It’s just the focus and the purpose is different but it is really all one and the same. I’m just starting to get that, where intent is everything. Across the board. People can sense your intent. If I’m singing background for someone and they realize that I’m there for another purpose, not to support them, they’ll feel that intention. If they realize that I am them and I, too, could be the artist but I’m here also to learn from you and to support you, they’ll know that intent too and that’s beautiful. They’ll also know if you’re slimy: “Yeah, I’m just here to get what I can get.” You might be able to hide it for a minute, but they’ll sense that.

Yes, other background singers have shared stories with me about that very dynamic, where you can just tell that one person out of three or four background singers has another agenda ...

And all of it is all good. It’s not that any one way is a bad way. The only time that things get weird for me is when people don’t complete their intention, of the purpose of why they’re there. You can have your aspirations. You can have all that but if you say that you’re going to support someone, you have to do that in that moment and set aside what your thing is. I think even in work places, you learn from the people that you’re around. If you look up to someone who’s a boss or a CEO of a company and say I would like to be a CEO of a company one day, that’s healthy, that’s good but that desire can’t be so so strong that you don’t do the job at hand well.

At this point, would you ever record another solo project?

You know what it is? I would do a project. I would present it and hope that it’s taken with an open heart. I want it to be healing, I know that. I want it to have a purpose, I know that. I don’t know how that’s going to get done but I’m going to move forward in it and whatever happens, happens. No pressure. For me, the pressure clouds the intent.

How did you get the gig singing with the Rolling Stones?

A gentleman named Tony King had spoken to Mick about me. He’d come to a Luther concert and saw me there. Mick was auditioning singers for his solo tour. They’d been auditioning people in London, New York, LA and all over the place. I was on tour so I didn’t hear anything about anything. Somehow or another, Tony or maybe Vicki Wickham—I love her, she manages Nona Hendryx— got to Danny Marcus who was managing me and maybe somehow or another got to Alan Dunn who was road managing (the Stones). I’m not quite sure of the conversation because I wasn’t there. I don’t know how this whole thing happened but it took a village to raise this little crazy child!

I ended up auditioning for Mick. I brought my demo tape. I think he was videotaping the “Let’s Work” video or something. It looked like it was in an old abandoned school. I had on a pair of daisy dukes with some white skirt thing that was really too short. I was half naked, looking crazy! It’s funny because Tony said, “I told Mick all about you. You’re so classy and beautiful with the beads and the make-up”. That was Luther’s vision—he cleaned me up and he made me what he needed me to be. Then I come in looking like crazy Daisy Duke! I’m just being me, you know? I think poor Tony was probably in shock when he saw me. “Oh God, I just told this man that she was fabulous and she’s walking in looking like a crazy woman.” He was cool. Everybody was cool.

Mick played the tape. It was some demo that I had done at some studio for someone. I knew he wouldn’t be judging the song but more the voice. Mick gets up, and he doesn’t know the song because it’s a demo, and he starts moving around. I was a bit taken aback because I had never seen anybody do that before. Usually when you audition for someone vocally, they ask you to sing something vocally with them. He was more about the energy. That totally threw me. He’s dancing around and he’s doing his thing. I just watched and just kept moving and doing my thing. At the end of day, I just realized that he was trying to feel my energy. I didn’t know anything about the Stones really. I’d never seen them in concert. I knew “Harlem Shuffle”. What do I know? I’m not sure what it was that got me the gig because I don’t know what was in their heads but I’m hoping that that played a part in it—me just observing him and trying to feel him and just not being shaken by any of it.

It was such a treat to see you perform with Tina Turner and be part of that whole live experience. What did you learn from her?

She is a freakin’ fire ball, man! She’s so magical. She’s got that little twinkle and edge about her that’s just so saucy. I love her. You know, I wish I had learned the one thing from her that I was blessed enough to witness—her fearlessness. Imagine, I’m at the rehearsal. You know that thin walkway with no bars? (Note: it protrudes out from the stage over the audience.) She runs up and down that bad boy like it’s her home. I look at it and I’m scared to death of putting my foot on it. You hear me? Not only does she walk across it, she runs. She gallops like a racehorse. She just wrangles it. One day, as she stepped off the thing with the Louboutin shoes on—and she’s still alive, she has not fallen, she has not tripped—I said, “How do yo do that?” She said, “Do what?” I said, “I would be scared to death to go across that thing.” She’s got this fearlessness that she has developed that is unique to who she is. It’s not anything that you can learn. You can only witness it and pray that you get a little bit on you. She just inspires me to be stronger.

How did you get invited to participate in 20 Feet From Stardom?

I got a call from Gil Friesen. Sting’s manager, Kathy Schenker, called me. She said, “There’s this gentleman named Gil Friesen. You know Gil Friesen?” She explained to me gently and sweetly who Gil Friesen was. She gave me the whole run down. She said, “He wants to do a documentary about background singers.” I said, “Oh, that’s nice.” Back in the day, a documentary wasn’t like having a film. It was a documentation of a story so I just looked at it as a documentation of something. I thought, This is great. They want to document background singers.

I met with Gil and fell in love with him. Through him, I met Morgan and fell in love with Morgan. At the same time, you’re bearing your soul to these strangers. It’s like being in your gynecologist’s office. They were so respectful and so gentle about the whole thing as they were putting it together and figuring it all out. Morgan is brilliant and sensitive. He knows how to put together ... it’s like being in a kindergarden classroom where you’ve got these boxes of puzzles and a lot of them have some missing pieces in them. “Wait a minute, the giraffe’s nose is not in there!” So you go to another box of puzzles. He somehow puts it all together and it makes sense.

In watching 20 Feet From Stardom, what kind of revelations did you have about yourself?

Let’s see ... I think I’m always just being hard on myself. I’m learning to be a little bit gentler. I never think about myself in the moment unless there’s a job to do. The movie forced me to look at myself in a way that I don’t take the time to do because I’m so busy trying to do the work. “What do I need?”

Morgan includes a clip of you singing “Gimmie Shelter” in concert with the Stones. What does that song mean to you?

On so many different levels, there’s just so much. When I first heard the song, it represented total fear. When I heard the woman singing it ... back then it was “the woman” because I was so busy trying to learn the bad boy that I didn’t take the time to figure out who was singing it. I was just trying to learn all of this new material so I wasn’t really reading the liner notes but I read her intent in her voice. I knew (Merry Clayton’s) heart and spirit before I knew her name because I’d studied her. Sometimes you’ll be studying something and you just don’t have the dictionary to get all the words. You may get an idea of what the intent is but I didn’t know every detail of what she was trying to impart to me as a listener. It seems like every time I would listen, it would peel down another petal of the rose.  I knew back then that I will never ever be able to do what she had done. The only thing that I can do is let in and feel what she’s done and experience what she’s done and try to relive it in my body. That’s all we can do. We inspire each other. We just try to do our best to pass it on.

So fear was the first thing the song represented. The second part was awe. Just awe. Awe at the crafting of the song. Awe at just the whole magic of the song. You listen to it and it’s just got an energy—the way the guitar comes in. Even though it’s difficult to hear the lyrics and it’s not a happy thing, there’s something about coming out of the other side of something that is not happy and surviving it that makes me feel good to sing the song. It’s an asking. You’re asking to be sheltered from these things. It’s sort of like a subtle constant prayer. That’s sort of how I take it when I sing it—that I’m constantly asking for protection. It’s such a great song. I’m just so thankful to be able to do it with them live and I’m so thankful that Merry did it with them and put the stamp on it. She sent it around the world.

In what ways did the stories of the other women that Morgan profiled resonate with you?

The thing that we all have in common is this desire to be still in time. It’s almost like a meditation. You know when you meditate and you’re trying to find that moment where there’s a timelessness? When we sing, that’s what it’s like. When you’re really in it, and you all are vibrating in that same wave, it stops time. It really does. At least to me. We all sort of want to be in that space. Whether we’re backing up or on the lead, we’re still in this timeless place, so it’s all beautiful. Even though each story is personal and different and each person’s journey is unique unto itself, we all desire. We share this yearning, this desire, and sometimes we get to stop the clock and sing together. That’s what is beautiful about the film.

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