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.

Last year, you recorded a gorgeous rendition of “Valley of the Dolls”. Fonzi Thornton told me how Luther saw Dionne Warwick perform in one of the shows that Murray the K produced at the Brooklyn Fox. That cemented Luther’s own desire to perform. How did Dionne influence young Lisa Fischer, in terms of her being a vocalist that occupied a special place among her contemporaries?

With all of the 45’s that my parents had given me, to hear Dionne’s approach to how she sang this music that was kind of difficult compared to the classic rock ‘n’ roll or classic popular music that was happening at that time, it was classy and well thought out. It had orchestration, it was sophisticated lyrics, interesting stories. Now mind you, all of it was good. Everything I was listening to was good, but this was different. I’m listening to [sings Sylvia’s “Pillow Talk”] “What your friends all say is fine but it can’t compete to this pillow talk of mine” and then you have [sings Dionne Warwick’s “This Empty Place”] “If you don’t come back to me I’ll die, only your embrace can fill this empty place”.

With Dionne, I was listening to a movie come to life and I think that was the difference. The others were snapshots of beautiful moments and so I would collect all of these beautiful moments and enjoy them all, but Dionne was serving up a movie in each song for me. I could see so much and it left a lasting impression.

I didn’t realize it then but she was really breaking barriers. You can be as Black and as soulful as you are and the pairing of that with just great music felt natural to me. I just knew back then that whatever she’s doing right now is special. Her voice is special. Her look. Her stance. She’s just special … and still is, and sweet and kind. Oh my gosh! You just want her to be your Auntie forever. “Can I borrow you? I just want to be related to you in my head!” [laughs] Just a beautiful woman.

In 20 Feet from Stardom, there’s a great clip of you singing “Hounds of Winter” during a Sting concert. In your own show, I love how you’ve incorporated songs he’s written like “Fragile” and “Message in a Bottle”. How would you describe Sting’s relationship to background singers?

I think his relationship with singers is beautiful and gentle. He makes you feel cherished and listened to and he works so hard. To me, it almost feels as though he’s truly grateful to be doing what he’s doing for a living.

He’s such a hard worker. How can I explain this? We were at his home in Italy rehearsing for that project, actually. I’m in my bedroom. It’s early in the morning. I’m hearing this music outside. It’s him practicing his guitar. It’s eight or nine in the morning. It was like another level of the birds singing. It was like a meditation for him.

Once we left there and started rehearsing the whole group, he would always be the guy that would come back from breaks first. He’d be the first one back. “Half-hour break.” He’ll take 20 minutes, then he’d come back, prepping and taking care of his business.

He would be beautifully gentle with himself, which was so healthy for me to see because a lot of times artists beat themselves up really bad. Let’s say we ran through a song or we’re going through a segment, and it’s a complicated segment or whatever, he might have made a faux pas. On me, that faux pas would be like a dagger going through my heart and slitting my neck all the way down to my knee caps, and just spilling my guts everywhere, and just being really upset that I made a mistake. It’s the horror that I wasn’t perfect. Not him. It was just like “note taken” and then he’d probably go back and figure out the transition, whatever it was he needed to do. He was gentle with himself in such a healthy way. I really need to do that. It makes sense to love yourself through [emphasizes] a mis-take. A missed take. It’s just one missed take.

One of your collaborations that I didn’t have the opportunity to see in person but I saw online is The Propelled Heart with Alonzo King and LINES Ballet. Throughout your life, would you have expected, or did you even have a specific desire, to bring your music into the realm of professional dance?

Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you see it, right? You don’t think of it until it’s there in front of you, though when I think about all of the musicals I saw as a kid … The Sound of Music was the first movie that I ever went to. It might have been third grade. I remember being in the movie theater, and we’re all nestled in these plush red chairs and the room transforms into this different universe. People are spinning and dancing and singing. Life looks totally different than what we know it to be.

I feel like a child when I’m with Alonzo. “Daddy, tell me another story!” He’s just so full of great information and passionate information in the way that he creates what he’s going to gift to the audience and to the dancers and to everyone who’s really involved. He puts the pieces together without forcing them together.

Lisa Fischer
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

“How Can I Ease the Pain” is featured in The Propelled Heart. I only saw a snippet of that sequence online so I’d be curious to know the context of that song in your collaboration with LINES.

For that piece, I think it’s called “pas de deux” where they have two couplings of dancers together, but I think there was a group of three … possibly four. I was so in the song I can’t remember now. It’s been a few years. Alonzo suggested me singing “How Can I Ease the Pain”. I said, “Sure!” It was nice to do it because JC was also playing in the background as well. Usually, when I’m doing it, it’s with the band, but with just JC and I, it was a different emotional conversation and it was also like a duet musically.

I think that energy worked really well for the dancers to emote heartache. I hesitantly say “heartache” because it’s more than that. What the dancers bring to the table is more than just their interpretation of heartache. They bring to the table an opportunity for the audience to see themselves in the movements, to feel themselves in the movements. It might not be heartbreak. It might be something else and it gives people the freedom to look at this full palette but to also emotionally lay on the palette that they see. It’s really a beautiful marriage and coupling of what Alonzo does.

I’d like to ask you about touring life. When you’re doing these tours, whether it was during your time with the Stones or whether it’s just you and Grand Baton, how do you anchor yourself on the road?

I do my best to rest. That is huge for me. Sleeping is a gift. I need it in order to get through a show. Drinking a lot of water. I literally have this big ole jug in my bag. I try to eat healthy. If I’m gonna have some french fries, I really am gonna have a big ole salad with that. Just even now, today, I ordered a salad … and some guacamole and chips! [laughs] I’ve been dealing with that since I was young, just that feeling of having to fit the clothes, and eating disorders, and just all that kind of crap.

To me, in a weird way, now that I am thick and juicy like a steak, I feel healthier because I’m not allowing that anorexic mindset to take over. I’m going to have to find my way to being healthy in other ways. Joining the gym … and ignoring the gym … and then looking back at my life and going, “So what did I enjoy doing?” I enjoyed Pilates. I really enjoyed that. There’s something about the movement and the feeling of dance and alignment and breathing and feeling parts of my body on the inside. Pilates reaches places that you didn’t know you had! I really enjoy that. I read all this healthy stuff and do all this stuff but I know I still have work to do.

As long as I rest myself and I feel good because when I get on that stage I don’t want anything clouding the conversation with the audience. Everybody’s got their baggage — they come to a show to get rid of theirs — so that last thing I want to do is … [sobs dramatically]. I just want to bring joy and I want people to feel good.

Lisa Fischer
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

What would you say is one of the greatest challenges you’ve overcome in your career?

[laughs] The greatest challenge! What is the greatest challenge? Because it’s hard to talk about the world outside of myself, because it’s all going crazy and I don’t understand any of it, I would say a personal challenge for me [exhales] is accepting where I am today. Not being upset that I can’t fit in my GRAMMY dress from 19-whatever it was. I am not gonna be who I was 30 years ago. That’s never gonna happen and shouldn’t happen, though there was a time when I believed that’s what I needed to do. I see people aging and changing and going through their path, whatever it is that their thought processes are and habits are and attitudes are, about where they think they ought to be. I pray for balance for all of us, not only artists but everybody.

I was walking down the street and looking at a woman and it’s obvious the work that she’s had done on herself and I thought to myself, she’s so beautiful. She was probably beautiful before she got the work done, but people need to do whatever it is they need to do to feel alright. They have to do that and so I accept that part too. It’s like I don’t begrudge anyone being happy. I guess there’s just a little part of me that wishes that the world would see the beauty of age and wisdom because if we’re all lucky enough, we’ll all get there.

One of the things I have noticed is as I get older, and I look back on some picture, I can remember where I was at, as far as my weight and my mindset, what hell I was going through in my head if I liked how I felt, if I liked how I looked, and I usually never did. It wasn’t good enough. “You’re too fat, you’re too this, you’re too that.” I look back and I go, it wasn’t that bad. What is wrong with you? Now my new theory is I try to act like I’m ten years older than I am today so that when I look at myself now, I’m actually cool with myself. I look good right now. I figure if I live the rest of my life like that, I’m good.

How has music shaped your life?

Music has saved my life. It has given me a reason to dream. It’s given me a vehicle to paint the world. It’s given me the heart to see other musicians in the way that they practice and just how hard they work. Part of it is what you do and the other part has nothing to do with you, right? With that said, I know how hard I worked. I could have worked harder — you can always say I could have worked harder — but some things are not supposed to be worked on. I think some things also need to be intuited.

When we’re putting in information all the time and learning and sponging, there comes a point where you have to squeeze that rag out in order to get some more liquid in there and so, for me, the squeezing of that rag to get more liquid in is the balance of using intuition and really clearing all the chatter. Once that beautiful dust is settled, that gold dust is settled, you kind of are left with you. How did this information change me? Did it change me? Did it help me? Does it augment what I do? Maybe I don’t even know it.

I’ve been taking this guitar course lately. Some of the stuff is just practice. It’s not necessarily writing a song. A lot of it is muscle memory and mental stuff. I’ve been doing it for three months now, and I’ve got another three months to go, and I’m thinking, Okay, so can I play a song now after three months? I don’t know if I can. I go back to something I was practicing before and I realize [looking at fingertips] “Oh wow! I really do have some callouses. Oh wow! That’s easy to play.” You don’t see it happening but it does happen. Practicing and preparing are great but intuition and listening to that inner voice is important too.

Lisa Fischer
Lisa Fischer and Christian John Wikane / Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

We Love Lisa: A Tribute to Lisa Fischer

“Lisa Fischer is one of the most beautiful people I know. As a friend, she is the utmost, and her humility about her massive gift is what makes you love her so much. What I love best about Lisa as a vocalist, she has always been supersonic with her range and vocal tone, as well as totally unique, like singing with two mics and playing between them with echo. I’d never seen any singer do that ever, and do it with perfection.” — Brenda Russell

“I have had the great pleasure of knowing and working with Lisa Fischer for so many years. Having seen her perform on such varied stages such as the Rolling Stones, her own solo records, and thankfully with me on my stage for a few years, I can honestly say she is one of the most superb artists I’ve have ever worked with. Her elasticity, grace, and voice is unmatched and unparalleled and I’m sure I share this sentiment with every musician that has ever heard her.” — Chris Botti

“I met Lisa through Luther Vandross.  She was part of his vocal backing group. I was, and am, impressed by her voice and moreover her unique way of how she uses it. Her range is most incredible with true flexibility that she makes look so very easy. She is one that was very easy to get to know and like, and she gives the best hugs!” — Dionne Warwick

“Lisa is THE SUPREME ROCK GEM STAR OF THE UNIVERSE! Raised up by Luther Vandross as his star backing singer into her own incredible solo career! Winning the GRAMMY on her first album with ‘How Can I Ease the Pain’! She is one of three living who have mastered the fifth high octave range — Shanice, Mariah, and Lisa Fischer. These three took the inspiration from Minnie Riperton and brought it to our current generation. And Lisa soars in any and all genres of music … Tough Rock and Tender Soul. She is it!! And a marvelous person to boot. I’m her fan and producer.” — Nārada Michael Walden

“Lisa Fischer is a talent that comes once in a lifetime. Like Haley’s Comet, her brilliance is dazzling and brings light into the world.” — Roberta Flack

“Singing the praises of Lisa Fischer … Oh my, don’t get me started! No wonder the Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross, and everyone under the sun wanted to have Lisa on their records, on the road, and be part of her world. With an incredibly trained voice, amazing ears, and taste, she can sing anything and be in the moment of that style. But at the same time, she has her sound and her way of making every song she sings that much better. What’s not to love?!?! When we produced ‘Earth Voice’ at the Budokan in Tokyo in the early ’90s, we had a cast from the Heavens on stage … James Ingram, Michael McDonald, Roberta Flack, Anita Baker, Brenda Russell, Gilberto Gil, Maxi Priest … one legendary singer after the next … and when Lisa came out and sang her hit, ‘How Can I Ease The Pain?’, needless to say, there was no following that performance! Count me in. I’m in her ‘#1 fan club, for sure!” — Lee Ritenour