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.

Watching footage from the I Feel for You tour, there’s a moment during “A Night in Tunisia” when Chaka screams, “Lisa Fischer” and you get a solo. Take me back to that moment. What is going through your body as the spotlight’s on you?

It’s a beautiful feeling but it’s also an odd feeling because I will never be Chaka Khan. I don’t care how bad I wanted it. [laughs] It’s weird because at that point I’m not thinking “lead singer”, I’m thinking “support singer”, so I really didn’t know myself then. To me, it’s a part that you’re singing that just happens to be a background part by itself, but that Chaka wore out on the record because she’s such a badass.

It’s a weird combination. It’s like yeah, you sing the notes but man, nobody sings like her. It’s exciting to sing it, but it was also nerve-wracking because it’s freaking Chaka Khan already! [laughs] It’s crazy! She was always kind and gracious and funny and honest. It was exciting and it was a beautiful opportunity for me. I was really grateful for that moment … but for my money, I just want to hear Chaka sing that all day long.

Along this continuum of phenomenal women you’ve worked with, TINA (2021), the Tina Turner documentary, was just nominated for three Emmy Awards.

I’m so happy for her.

At what point in your life did Tina, or Ike & Tina, first make an impression on you?

Ooh. I’m trying to remember the first Ike & Tina song I ever heard. It was probably “Proud Mary”. I was born in ’58. At that point, we had AM and FM radio — that was music for me. That’s what I listened to other than the records that my parents bought. For some reason, I never remember my parents playing Ike & Tina records. I don’t know why. When I heard that song, I was just like, Oh my God. That voice! That energy!

When Tina got her new manager, Roger Davies, and just her whole beautiful “I’m over 40 and coming back whether you like it or not” energy, it gave me hope. I always just feel like good music is good music, good artists are good artists. It shouldn’t be an age thing. I don’t think about age in that way, but the business does. I had signed my first deal at 31 and that was considered to be “old”, so it gave me hope.

To get the call to tour with Tina … I’d met her once before on the road with the Stones. She did a duet with Mick. I think she had on a little red number and after the show, we went out. We had the best time. It was just so lovely. It’s freakin’ Tina Turner, okay? With Roger Davies. Okay, somebody pinch me. I was trying my best to be cool. I was like, I’m just gonna watch this and try to soak in as much as possible. I don’t want this moment to end. I just didn’t think I would ever see her again.

Lisa Fischer
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

How exactly did you get that call to work with Tina?

Jake Berry was a stage manager and took care of all things stage for big tours. He calls me out of the blue and says, “Lisa Fischer!” “Hey, how are you?” He said, “Listen, how would you like to sing background for Tina Turner?” I was like, “For real?” [laughs] Gloria Reuben was singing background but then ended up getting another job, so she had to leave. Lucky me! I was just a happy girl.

At some point, I met Tina in a hotel room. I came up to the room and Roger opened the door. This was like [emphasizes] you … and her … in a room. Oh, God. There’s a magnifying glass on you! I sat down and I heard her heels — “click click click” — walking through this big beautiful room with a marble floor. She comes out. Her head’s held high. I’m sitting and it seems like she’s seven feet tall to me. She looks me up and down. “Okay okay, stand up.” Do what she says, chile. How do you say “no” to Ms. Tina? She just kind of gave me the once over.

Then she said I reminded her of someone. I wish I could remember the name of the person she said but I was assuming that it was a previous background singer from back in the day … or maybe not so back in the day. I’m thinking, Oh God, I’m hoping this is a good thing. I’m hoping that it wasn’t somebody you fired that I remind you of! She just looked at me and I felt like she had some kind of secret scanner in her eyes that can read whether or not you’re gonna be a pain in the ass. She’s just kind of looking me over with this all-knowing energy. She’s such a queen. She’s so fabulous and I just absolutely fell in love with her.

We did a couple of tours. Stacey Campbell was my singing mate with Tina and it was just awesome. It was amazing. We traveled on the bus with the dancers.

On the last tour, when Tina’s birthday came, I was inspired to crochet her this beautiful scarf. It kind of looks like mohair — grey, fuzzy — it was huge. It was really long. Once it got long enough, one of the dancers would sleep on it while I was making it, so it was kind of like love energy from all of us, really. I put it in a little box and brought it to the dinner for her. She’s opening everyone’s gifts. She’s loving everything that everyone got her. She opens up my box and she looks and she’s like, “You got this?” I said, “Yeah, I made it.” She was really shocked that I made it. She didn’t say anything, but I could feel the energy. For the rest of the tour, she wore that thing. She loved the drama of it. It was just so cute and so sweet because I really wanted her to know how much I love her and appreciate her. She’s amazing.

On Tina’s 50th anniversary tour, you’d come down center stage and sing “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” with her before she changed costumes. It’s as if Tina’s passing the baton to you — “You got this”. In watching the footage, it seems like she doesn’t want to leave the stage. She just wants to play with you.

[laughs] Man, I don’t even think it’s me. I don’t think she wants to leave her audience. She loves her audience so much and she wants to be sure that it’s cooking before she leaves because “Don’t be dropping no baton on my stage! Don’t be messing up no energy on my stage.” She’s serious about what she gives her audience. Luther was, too. She wanted to make sure that she gave me enough gas and gave the audience enough gas to let them not throw rocks at my behind before she comes back on stage, so she was probably doing it to save my life.

I remember rehearsing for that. It’s a Stones song. She does it different from the Stones. I knew the Stones’ version and I was trying to learn her version. I felt like I wasn’t getting it quick enough. Eventually, I got it and then it was all smooth. I could get a little teeny bit of rope — but not too much — just enough so that she could change her clothes and come back and finish wrecking the audience! It was perfect. It was what was called for, so it was a really great opportunity to keep them slightly entertained while she changed her clothing! It was the best feeling in the world.

I’m just so grateful for the chance to be able to do these things. I’m just so grateful to God for the opportunities and for each artist and all the musicians around them that just allow me to be me. I’m really grateful.

Going back to your own solo career, 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of your debut album So Intense. I’d love to ask you about your rendition of “Wildflower”. I know several people recorded that over the years but I love the original version by Skylark with Donny Gerrard’s unforgettable lead vocal. I’m assuming you heard that version growing up.

Yes! [sings] “She’s faced the hardest times you could imagine.” I was young and I was boo-hooing. Why am I boo-hooing? I’m not a woman yet. It was such a great song and that arrangement …

How that song came about for me was because of Luther. He chose that song for me. To me, he’s the king of picking a remake. That’s an art form. I did not realize that “A House is Not a Home” was a re-make. The great Dionne Warwick did it before Luther. Hers is gorgeous as well. He was always inspired by the voices and the lyrical choices that these women would make. Just the way that he caresses a word, it made sense for him to do that song in his own beautiful way.

His gift to me was to choose “Wildflower” as mine. He got Nick Ashford to do the spoken part. He created that, God rest his soul.

Lisa Fischer
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

You had your own little spoken word moment like Diana Ross.

[laughs] I love Ashford & Simpson. I love them so much. I was just so young and dumb and didn’t know anything. Luther would do his best to try to teach me: “You should listen to this. Listen to Valerie’s [Simpson] first record.” I was like, Okay! There was so much to take in. It’s interesting, now that I’m older, I get it. I get it now.

In promoting your first album, you performed on Showtime at the Apollo. Having grown up in Brooklyn, did you have many opportunities to go to the Apollo as a young girl?

Luckily for me, my dad took me to see James Brown at the Apollo. The only reason I got to see James Brown at the Apollo is because my mom and dad had an argument. [laughs] I ended up going. He had the two tickets and he took me. I felt special. I was having a date with my daddy.

We took the train and got off at 125th St. I remember being on the train. Back in the day, you could ride between the cars. A lot of people really liked riding between the cars. I was not with that! I was too little. The train would move and I’d feel like I was gonna fall in and die. He kept trying to get me to cross the two cars. I was not having it.

We get to the Apollo. I remember the hush of the room because of the carpet and because of the seats, the velvet. I remember reds and browns. I do remember being in the bottom tier. It might have been the second section behind the front row seats. It wasn’t underneath the balcony. It wasn’t that far back. It was definitely all open above me. I could tell these were good seats, looking back. I wasn’t thinking like that as a kid but now when I talk about it, I think “Those were good seats!”

My dad put me in the seat and then I think he said he was going to go and get a soda for me. Really what he was doing was going to the bar to get himself a drink, right? He wasn’t driving. We didn’t have a car. We were taking the train. My dad was a good-looking guy and so I’m sure he didn’t want me tagging along as he’s going to the bar!

Eventually, the room starts to get darker. I’m peeking up above the chair. I was really impressed by the way that whatever was happening onstage sort of transformed the people in the audience. It took over in such a beautiful way. I could see the release of these adults. They paid for something and they want to get what they came for, chile, and they got it. They were happy to be getting it. Butts in the air, folks shaking and wiggling and dancing. I’m sort of half-sitting and looking above and watching everybody lose their mind.

Eventually, my dad came back — I guess he couldn’t leave me there! — and it was really beautiful. Back then, they weren’t thinking about earplugs for kids. It was just, “Hey! Rock and roll!” My dad was also a singer so I’m sure it was a groovy thing for him to be there as well.