Lisa Fischer
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

Song Goddess: An Interview with Grammy-Winning Vocalist Lisa Fischer

In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Lisa Fischer shares how music has shaped her life, from performing with Sting, Tina Turner, and Chaka Khan to collaborating with ballet companies and symphony orchestras.

Lisa Fischer is a more than a singer. She’s a sorceress. Her voice turns melodies into rocket fuel, spellbinding listeners in rock halls and jazz clubs while infusing symphony orchestras and ballet companies with new dimensions of sound. Even birds pause their own serenades to hear Fischer sing.

On a recent summer evening in New York, Fischer kicked off a six-show run at the Blue Note. An enraptured audience savored every second. Led by musical director JC Maillard, accompanying trio Grand Baton created vivid sonic vistas for Fischer to explore, from her rendition of “This Land is Your Land” to Maillard’s own buoyant composition “Ansanm”. Fischer’s GRAMMY-winning solo hit “How Can I Ease the Pain?” brought the room to a reverent hush, following a surprise duet with Bernard Fowler on “Gimme Shelter”, a soul-shattering homage to their tenure together as background vocalists for the Rolling Stones. In between, Fischer seemed to channel a mythic deity on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. Her opening wail stopped time.

How did young Lisa Fischer from Fort Greene, Brooklyn become the high priestess of shamanistic rock and soul? Simply by being herself. During her shows with Grand Baton, she’s as likely to perform an aria as “Dancing in the Street”, a versatility rooted in her years of singing with artists ranging from Teddy Pendergrass to Nine Inch Nails.

“Coming from the background singer head, I feel like I get the opportunity to step in and out of all these different rooms,” she says. “I’m not smart enough to realize that singers are supposed to have a lane. They’re supposed to have a sound, they’re supposed to have a style, and they’re supposed to stick to that. I know that’s kind of what record companies would really like you to do, or at least back in the day when I was signed, but to me, it’s just sound. I’m like, Let’s blur these lines. This is music. All of these spices and gumbos are possible.”

Fischer’s natural fluency in music awed anyone who saw Morgan Neville’s critically acclaimed 20 Feet from Stardom (2013), which won the Oscar for “Best Documentary Feature” (2014). While that film highlighted her career as a background singer for artists like Luther Vandross, the Rolling Stones, and Tina Turner, she’s since cultivated a devoted audience that bridges longtime fans of her solo debut So Intense (1991) with those who are only now discovering her phenomenal range. Her more recent collaborations on stage and in the studio have traced different compass points, including her work with jazz maestro Billy Childs on an exquisite rendition of Laura Nyro’s “Map to the Treasure”, partnering with choreographer Alonzo King and LINES Ballet on The Propelled Heart (2015), recording several tracks with House music trailblazer Louie Vega, and headlining programs with the Cincinnati Pops and the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.

To experience Lisa Fischer in any setting, however, is to hear brilliance manifested through musical notes. The way she approaches melodies is like a painter splashing a canvas with colors of all shades — some hues are electric and vibrant, others are soft and understated. She can sear the soul with both whispered asides and sudden flights up an octave or two. No music fan has fully lived until they’ve seen Fischer take Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” to celestial planes and spark a fire from Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” in the same show.

Yet for all of the accolades Fischer has received from peers, critics, and fans, she remains grounded in her view of success. “Success is waking up every day and wanting to get out of bed and face the day,” she says. “I don’t expect a lot of from the world. Because of that, I’m so grateful for whatever it is I get from the world. I think to be able to die and just feel like you’ve left this earth with very few scars is probably success. Not having to learn the same lesson a zillion times is success.”

Fischer is similarly thoughtful in explaining how music has brought meaning to her life, whether seeing James Brown at the Apollo Theater as a young girl or marveling at Minnie Riperton’s early recordings with Rotary Connection. PopMatters recently met with the singer where she discussed the full arc of her career, from touring with Chaka Khan to her creative synergy with Grand Baton. [Following the interview, read what Dionne Warwick, Roberta Flack, and a host of other music legends shared with PopMatters about Fischer’s exceptional talent as a vocalist and performer.]

Lisa, it’s kind of incredible to realize that when you and I first met back in 2013 for the premiere of 20 Feet from Stardom, you’d yet to perform with Grand Baton. They’re such an integral part of your sound now. I would love to know how you began working and performing with Grand Baton.

I was getting calls to do these shows. I asked Linda Goldstein, who manages Bobby McFerrin, to help me. Thank God she said yes. She said, “You need a band.” She had just seen JC Maillard perform. Grand Baton is JC’s alter-ego, his band, his concept. He’s really a great arranger and songwriter. He just knows what to do and he trusts his instincts. He’s like a cat waiting for the mouse to come out of the hole and then he pounces on it, but he doesn’t kill it — “ahh, nice mouse”. He’s just super sweet.

Through JC, I met Thierry Arpino, who plays drums, and then I met Aidan Carroll, who plays bass. Thierry and JC have known each other for a really long time and so they have a sound together because they’ve had time to develop it. I just fell in love with all of them, their whole energy, the sensitivity that they brought to the table, and their sense of adventure because a lot of times I never know what I’m going to do. Currently, it’s JC, Thierry, and Richie Goods, who’s an amazing bassist as well.

I’m loving all the turns and just the different ingredients that help make up the sound, the spiritual ingredients of each person, and learning them. There’s a trust that happens in time within the music. Each soul, each person, is just connected to the music. They just want to make good music and I so resonate with that.

The first time that I saw you perform with Grand Baton was an outdoor show in Brooklyn that following year. There was definitely an element of surprise when you did Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”. I had no clue it was coming and it’s one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. “Rock and Roll” has remained in your set all these years later. What kind of release does performing that particular song give you?

It just makes me feel a total sense of freedom. I feel like music is so universal. People like the Stones and so many groups who have listened to American blues music have been inspired, so now it’s sort of seeped out into the rest of the universe. To kind of freely visit what people have put into boxes for themselves, for whatever business reasons they do, it’s just nice to be free in the music and just do anything I want, sing anything I want — sing classical songs, sing rock songs, sing Broadway songs, sing a lullaby, sing anything. It’s just beautiful to kind of keep shifting through the music.

Lisa Fischer
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

Aretha Franklin once equated the experience of singing to “traveling” with her voice. When you’re onstage, does singing take you somewhere else?

It really does. It takes me within myself, but at the same time, in all spaces, in everything that exists. It just feels like a universe where you can color and you can dream and every second is potent and every second feels like forever. There are all these seconds that are tied together, and it just keeps circling like breath, in and out, round and round. It’s a pretty special feeling.

In recent shows, you’ve paired “Blues in the Night” with “Dido’s Lament”. You convey such a wide range of emotions in that sequence. How were those two pieces brought together and what do they evoke for you, personally?

That was Linda Goldstein’s doing. Linda’s really great at framing things and giving things life and purpose. We were doing a program for a symphony show and she asked me, “What classical songs do you know?” I said, “I don’t know a whole lot, but I really love ‘Dido’s Lament’.” Between Linda and JC, they came up with the idea of coupling “Dido’s Lament” and “Blues in the Night” together, along with giving that information to the arranger, Chris Walden. He did the charts for that show. He’s also amazing.

Emotionally, “Blues in the Night” and “Dido’s Lament” really bring me home to my mom. You think about when you were little — “My mama done told me when I was in pigtails” (or knee pants) — and just the protectiveness of what mothers want to tell you about menfolk. Not all men are that way, but there’s always lessons that a mother wants to impart to her child, so I always think of her during that song and all of the things that she wanted for me that maybe she wasn’t able to give me because she was called to leave the earth.

A lot of times I think about, “What would my mom’s life have been had she lived?” When her birthday passes or the actual day of her death passes, I think to myself, I outlived my mom by almost twice her lifetime. She died when she was 35, and I’m going to be 63 this year, so in a couple of years, I will have lived twice her lifetime.

All I have is my memories of my mom, so joining “Blues in the Night” together with “Dido’s Lament” patches a hole in my heart. It’s like a way of honoring her because the line in “Dido’s Lament” that always kills me is “remember me”. I think we all really desire to be cherished and remembered. There may come a time if you’re the last one in your family and maybe you don’t have any kids and you might be the last of your line that you might be afraid that no one will remember you. What I say to that is to try to live your life in a memorable way. Try to touch people’s hearts in a way that people will tell the story to their kids or their grandkids or their great-grandkids.