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.

When I interviewed Melba Moore last year, she said something about dance music that, to me, was very profound. She said, “We think that because dance music is so joyful, that it’s frivolous, but joy is not frivolous. It’s your survival.”

Ooh, I love that. She’s amazing. It’s funny you mention Melba Moore because her brother was my music teacher, Dennis Moorman. It’s such a small world. I was always in love with Melba. [sings] “Lean on me / I’ll never let you fall.” When I heard that I thought “Who’s that angel?” I love her.

I thought of Melba’s quote in relation to the dance recordings you’ve done with Louie Vega. How did you begin working with Louie?

I love my Louie Vega! I think Benny Diggs, who’s a singer and vocal contractor, introduced me to Louie. I can’t remember the very first recording session, but it could have been a song called “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun”, which was a re-make of the Rotary Connection song.

I knew “Black Gold of the Sun” from when I was young. I was in love with this song. I found it at Colony Music. It was on 47th and Broadway. It was like a source of food for me. I would go in and they had all this sheet music with what would have been current album covers. You’d see the artist and their face on the album cover and you were like “Oh wow! I’m gonna sing ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’ or whatever it is. You pick up the music there. You could touch it and you could look at the artist. You could look at the music and the words … and get the right words.

After you picked out your music, then you’d walk up to the register. You’d pay for your music. While you were waiting online, because usually, it was a long line, they had all of these cassettes. I was flipping through and I was like “Rotary Connection. What’s that?” I was reading — this is when you took the time to read album liner notes and things — and I saw Minnie Riperton’s name there. I was like “I don’t know Rotary Connection but I’m buying it because she’s on it!”

I took that sucker home and I popped that thing into the cassette player and when I heard “Black Gold of the Sun”, I thought I was on another planet. It reminded me of how I felt when I was even younger when I first heard the 5th Dimension. Each artist is unique. It’s a unique fingerprint, but it’s that feeling of freedom and floating and trusting. I could tell that the creating was like a beautiful process — that’s what I would imagine it to be — and I just fell in love. I fell in love with that record. There’s just so many great songs on that record.

Lisa Fischer
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

To go back to Louie, I knew “Black Gold of the Sun”, and so when we all came into the studio … I think it was myself, Cindy Mizelle, Benny Diggs, and Paulette McWilliams. We’re doing the session. We’d recorded a few songs. We’d had a long day. Everyone was exhausted. He’s playing the song and I was like, “Louie! I know this song! I know this song … like, I really know this song! Can you let me help with the vocals? I just want it to be perfect.” He said, “You know this song?” I said, “Yes!”

I think that’s how I first met Louie. We’d always meet in the studio and there’d always be something amazing. He did a project called Elements of Life. That’s one of my favorite things that he’s done. Recording with Louie is always a blast. He’s just so free. He has such a beautiful way of communicating. He’s like a kid. He’s just so happy. His eyes are big and excited and he’s sort of injecting you with his enthusiasm for what we’re getting ready to do, but he also allows a lot of freedom, which is really really cool.

His wife Anané is amazing. She’s also a DJ and singer and songwriter, producer, businesswoman, fashion goddess, and mother to an amazing son, Louie’s son Nico. He’s all grown up now. I just remember when he was little. I’ve known Louie a long time, now that I think about it.

I remember “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” from the Nuyorican Soul (1997) album.

Nuyorican Soul! Yes, that’s what it was. “Black Gold of the Sun” was Nuyorican Soul.

I bought that CD in high school. I remember thinking, Why can’t all music sound like this? The album had that kind of effect on me. “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” was one of my favorite tracks, along with Roy Ayers’ “Sweet Tears” …

… [sings] “Sweet tears!” And Jocelyn Brown was on it. Oh my gosh. I love her. I love that record. I like how Louie really took the time to bridge the songs. Each song holds hands with the other song. “Hi! We’re gonna go play.” I just love that. It’s really cool.

That’s back when you could just discover albums in the record store, which is how I came across Nuyorican Soul.

You just took a chance. Gee, we don’t get that opportunity so much anymore. It’s different. People do promote their things and that’s really good but it’s the difference between walking out in the world and discovering the world in a natural way as opposed to being chained to the computer and ads and pop-ups and different things are coming at you. Not that it’s bad but it is different. When I go out and I’m ready to explore, I’m in hunger mode, you know? I’m out and I’m looking for whatever it is that’s supposed to be in my path that day. Maybe I’ll look at the computer like that too someday but I feel like a lot of it is ads and this and that. I feel like I’m already full.

You and Cindy Mizelle sing a great rendition of Rufus & Chaka Khan’s “Stop on By” on Louie Vega Starring … XXVIII (2016). Of course, “Stop on By” originally appeared on Rufusized (1975), but Rags to Rufus (1974) was the first album you bought with your own money. What struck you about Rags to Rufus, where you thought, I need to bring this album home with me?

I was turning fifteen to sixteen. I had a paper route and I had different little jobs working at a supermarket, whatever it was. I think I had $35 or $50 so I really thought I was doing something special. I decided I was going to buy a record player. My parents had given me their old-fashioned record player that was a beautiful piece of furniture, gorgeous wood, and heavy. The metal that would open the top of the record player would be heavy-duty. When it closed, it closed. They gave me all these 45’s and the little discs that go in the middle and you snap them in and just something about the “snap” just made me go “ooh!” Then you’d have to remember if you’re switching from 45’s and you’re going to 33’s that you have to change the speed otherwise it just sounds crazy.

To be able to go to a store and buy a record player, I was just like, Okay, now what record do I want to hear? I’m in the record store and I see “Chaka Khan … Rufus!” I was so taken with the album cover concepts and just hearing Chaka on the radio. You hear a song on the radio and you have no control over being able to hear it again unless you purchase the record or you go on by somebody’s house and they’re playing the record and you’ve got to beg them to play it.

The way I like to listen to stuff is usually like 500 times in a row. I’m laying my head on the speaker and I’m falling asleep and I’m imagining every word and I’m memorizing every word. I’m listening to all of the backgrounds and the parts and then I hear the strings by Clare Fischer. I just thought, “Oh my God. Could we be related?” [laughs]

It’s so weird because on one of the albums, Ava Cherry, who sang with Luther [Vandross], was singing background with Chaka on “At Midnight”. I didn’t know her of course because I didn’t know Luther then. I didn’t know anything. I just remember playing that record over and over and over again. Those background parts are so fierce, and then Chaka was just always off the chain.

Nobody sounds like her. She seemed fearless and strong and unique and excited about life. You would look at that big gorgeous smile and those beautiful cheeks and those little eyes and this explosion of hair. I remember one of the album covers [Rags to Rufus] was her with short hair and I was just so happy to see her. Her beautiful little face. She’s still beautiful. She’s still gorgeous … and she’s still singing her butt off! I guess this must have been an album prior to the “hair” look and the whole thing.

There’s that part too — as badass as Chaka is, the world still wants a little powdered sugar on their beignet. [laughs] Yes, the beignet is good but can I have a little powdered sugar, please? You put on top everything that you think you need to lure people in, at least to give them a quick look because sometimes some people don’t only use their ears, they use their eyes and they use their emotions, and they use their sensuality and attraction. You want to try and do everything that’s gonna be cool and that you can live with and that you have fun with and that you enjoy, that makes you feel great … and you can tell Chaka felt great. In the moment, it’s about how you’re feeling, and walking on stage and feeling confident and strong and sexy. She just had it all. She was a big inspiration.

Lisa Fischer
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

Lisa, I must know how you got the opportunity to tour with Chaka as a background vocalist!

It was because of a wonderful young woman named Sandra St. Victor. I was working with the Crystals. It was my first gig. We were in Houston and we were playing somewhere at a really cool club. She just came up and was friendly and sweet and kind. She might have been singing at the club that night. She said, “Why don’t you guys come over? I’ll cook.” Cook? I’m in! She made us food and we had the best time.

We always stayed in touch. She ended up moving to New York and then we reconnected. We were in similar circles. She was just writing and doing her thing. She somehow or another had met Chaka. Chaka was going on tour and needed singers. Sandy called me and said, “Do you want to audition for Chaka Khan?” I was like, “Are you crazy? Of course, I want to audition for Chaka Khan!” It was with Brenda White-King and it was for the I Feel for You tour.

It’s so weird, life. It’s so freaking weird. Sometimes you can have your eye on the target and you keep shooting those arrows at that target but sometimes you have to play around the target. What I mean by that is if somebody said, “Gee my whole life’s mission is to sing with Chaka Khan, I think I’ll work for the Crystals first”, nobody would ever put the two together, right? [laughs] So you follow the path that you’re given. You follow it and trust in it and let it take you where it’s supposed to take you because I could not have planned that.

It’s always something that I dreamed. God, I just wish I could meet Chaka. I never thought I would ever sing or spend time in a room with her and do makeup and talk girly talk and go clothes-shopping … just all the fun stuff that women do, and just all the lessons that she taught me. Sometimes it’s not so much that people try to even teach you. You try to watch and be a sponge, and try your best to not take up too much space, especially when you’re in service and you’re there to support them. You’re there to make sure that they have everything they need and that you’re not causing them any stress or not trying to take away anything at all.

To be able to sing background for Chaka, to me, was like the least I could do for everything that she’s given me. To stand behind her and see all that hair and that little hip-shaking, then she’ll turn around and give a smile, and all of a sudden she’ll do something she didn’t do the night before, and you’re like “Ahh!”

So, Sandy St. Victor … thank you.