Rock musician Lissie — better known as Elizabeth Maurus to her friends — hails from Rock Island, Illinois, a Midwestern town on the Mississippi River that has a rusted and rustic heritage. The town saw better days when shipping farm goods down the wide and muddy river brought economic prosperity to the region. The place still has many charms redolent of the past and the promise of a resurgent future. The river itself is a magnificent beast, and there is still a lot of local pride in being from there.
The fair haired, blue eyed singer with a big voice may have moved to California, but the place in which she grew up still shapes her creative work. Still, she struggled to get out. She was expelled from the public high school and really did not become a professional musician until she left the state. Lissie’s career really exploded last year. Her single “When I’m Alone” was picked as iTunes Song of the Year in the UK, and Paste Magazine named her #1 Best New Solo Artist. Her debut album Catching a Tiger was released in June and has garnered great reviews across the globe. Her second album is eagerly awaited, but doesn’t have an assigned release date yet.
She spoke to PopMatters by telephone during a short hiatus before her next tour. She was planning to return to her parent’s house in Rock Island before heading to Europe for an extended set of performances until the end of July, including the massive Isle of Wight Festival. Lissie had performed at the Redstone Room in Davenport, Iowa just a few months before. Davenport, along with Rock Island, is a part of the Quad Cities area. For Lissie, this was her native land.
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There’s a completely different vibe when you are playing for your family and friends, your nieces and cousins, than when you to play before strangers. It was a hometown gig and there was a warmth everywhere in the room. People were smiling at each other just because they were there, and I was smiling too, just to be part of it. I brought my music back to its roots.
How has being from the Midwest affected you and your music?
Well, it has made me more open and receptive to people. In general, I talk to strangers. Even when I am in New York City, I am open and friendly. And that goes into my music, too. I don’t put on a front. I am an honest person processing my thoughts into song with the best of intentions.
I don’t put on a spectacle, although I admire many of those that do, like Lady Gaga. But that’s not who I am. I put who I am in the foreground. My songs are about my life, my family, and what I am feeling. I moved to a small town outside of Ventura in California, Ojai, but its more of a place I have put my things because I have been traveling and touring so much during the past two years. The Midwest is what made me.
But most of your shows are in England and Europe, rather than the United States. This is true for many American musicians. Why is that?
My stuff did not take off in the U.S. as well as it did abroad. I am on Sony International, and my record came out on a major label in Europe, Columbia Records, while here in the States I am on an indie, Fat Possum. In Europe I play to thousands while in America I might play to hundreds, and at great festivals, and I am regularly featured on television and radio in Europe. The demand is strong.
I am not surprised that American music is bigger in Europe than at home. It’s natural to be curious about people who are different. In the States, we love shaggy-haired English bands. They like American troubadours. The media paints a picture of you as an alien creature, and that generates a positive response.
Photo: Valerie Phillips
So being a Midwesterner was never held against you? No one did not take you seriously just because you were a blond waif from the middle of nowhere?
No. not at all. Most people asked where you were from and saw that it was somewhere near Chicago, but most people thought it was cool when I said I grew up by the Mississippi River. A lot of my girlfriends in California only date guys from the Midwest because they say they are non-threatening in a nice way. If anything, I thing being from the Midwest gave me an advantage. People have a positive perception of the place. People from the big cities think it’s cool.
Yet you couldn’t wait to leave. You had problems fitting in the local community.
I don’t think that was just the place I was, but it was my age. I had good parents who were passionate about me doing what I wanted to do. School is boring for most kids. They don’t know what they want to do. Most are given the message that they are aren’t really good at anything. People need to be encouraged, but too many young people just fall through the cracks and have to fight the system. It’ a whole other topic, but many, many kids would be better off if they weren’t forced to take college prep courses, but could discover their own strengths and talents.
How is it being a musician in these times — of economic recession, war, and political unrest?
I pay attention to the news. I listen to NPR. It doesn’t make me want to write specific types of stories. But it gets me thinking, that if you boil everything down to a specific point — some people’s lives are just hard. Hold on to your goodness and the good things in life.
All of my songs are autobiographical. They are completely literal. I don’t make up anything, I just dribble out my heartfelt and personal feelings, and I have no trouble sharing what comes to me.
The song “Oh Mississippi” with its evocation of the river as a place of reflection, and the journey out west seems to be describing your life.
Of course, but every song is. Lines come to me. I hum them over and over. Then I sit down and try to figure out — is there something in the words I need to pay attention to. I will be doing dishes and my heart will feel heavy, so I just have to write it down. Or sometimes streams of consciousness type language comes pouring out and I will try and capture and shape it into music. But I don’t censor anything.
Lately, it seems like the song “Cuckoo” has become the local anthem. “I fell in love with being defiant / in a pick up truck that roared like a lion” — that just captures the spirit and freedom of youth and their vehicles.
Thank you. It’s certainly the way I felt growing up. And I haven’t really changed. I may be in my twenties instead of my teens, but I still like to get loud! People need to express themselves. I know I did and I still do.
So it sounds like you have everything figured out now and you are on the road to success.
Ha! Life is crazy. I am constantly traveling, playing, writing, and performing. Everything is mad, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. My adrenaline is flowing, and I am having a ball.