The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Lissie

Lissie

  • musician
  • songwriter

Elisabeth Maurus, known by her stage name of Lissie, is a California-based musican who grew up in Rock Island, Illinois. In 2009, she released the five-track EP, Why You Runnin'. Her debut album, Catching A Tiger, was released in 2010 and has sold over 250,000 copies worldwide. She has played at Coachella, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo, and her music has been featured in films and TV shows. Her latest album, Back to Forever, was released in October 2013.

Interview

Describe your path to becoming a musician.

I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. I came from a musical family—my mom sang to me and my sister, and my grandfather was a singer—so singing was something I picked up and enjoyed doing from a young age. I grew up in Rock Island, IL, where I took voice lessons, had dance and singing classes in school, and performed in shows and musicals—I played the lead in Annie when I was nine.

When I got to high school around age 14, I was compelled to start writing songs because I was going through the kind of stuff everyone goes through when they’re an adolescent, and songwriting was my release. I wanted to move away from my technical training and do something with more feeling. I wanted to sing from the rougher edges of my voice, and I started teaching myself guitar. I started smoking around that time, too, so my voice changed a little bit, which probably wasn’t good. (laughing)

I had a bad experience with my high school choir teacher, and I couldn’t ever really grasp music theory. Eventually, I was kicked out of high school, but I went to college anyway. I’m the youngest of four and have three really smart older siblings. They all went to good schools because that’s just what you did in my family. I decided to fill out an online application for Colorado State University because it seemed like it would be easy to get into and because I like to ski. (laughing) I got accepted, but I didn’t study music because, to me, music was more about my passion, emotions, and the five chords I knew how to play. I had a great time at Colorado State, though, and there was a good music scene, so I got a lot of experience playing live shows in coffee shops and bars.

Then, when I was 21, I moved to LA. Growing up in the Midwest, LA seemed like the place to go to make it. About five years ago, I got a record deal and met my bandmates. Since then, my sound has evolved from that of an acoustic singer-songwriter to a four-piece rock band.

You said you moved to LA and got a record deal. Was it really that easy?

Because I was naive, and because I had the ultimate belief that failure wasn’t an option, I just thought: “La-dee-da, I’ll move to LA, play some shows, get discovered, and get a record deal.” (laughing) It’s almost like I manifested it for myself because that’s just what I believed. I was green enough not to be fearful or have an awareness of how desperate people can get—and how hard it really is.

About a year into living in LA, I was playing a gig I got from harassing a booking agent by showing up with my guitar and asking if I could play a song. He begrudgingly listened to me, said, “Hey, you’re not half bad,” and booked me a show at a place called Genghis Cohen. I only played there a few times before I was “discovered” by a woman who brought me to a producer; together, they brought me to Maverick Records and I was given a record deal. It came together pretty quickly for me, although there was a lot of waiting around to sign papers.

That didn’t last very long, though. I was dropped from my record deal with Maverick, but because of all the contacts I had made and because I had a manager at that point, I went to London and sang for some record labels there. I ended up getting a deal with Sony Music UK’s Columbia Records, and they funded my first official album, Catching a Tiger, and gave me tour support all over Europe and the US. It’s been a gradual growing process since then.

Was there an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to pursue music?

I think my “aha” moment came during my junior year of college when I did a semester abroad in Paris. Going to France sounded very romantic to me, but because it was such a test of my independence, it gave me a lot of confidence. Suddenly, I was an adult navigating a foreign city, and it made me realize that I was strong and capable enough to go out into the world and figure things out. I didn’t want to go back to college: I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or what degree to get. All I knew was that I loved music. Everywhere I went, I got really good feedback, so I knew that I wasn’t delusional for believing I could do it professionally. That’s when I decided to move to LA.

Have you had any mentors along the way?

I feel like I have, but they come and go or give me a blast of insight before disappearing for a while.

When I was nine years old, I performed in dinner theater plays with regional theater actors who came to live in Rock Island for the duration of the shows. One of the performers I remember spending a lot of time with was a singer and dancer named Carol Ann, who was really sweet to all the kids in the show. She was a vegetarian and had tarot cards, so I thought she was the most fascinating person I had ever met. Where I was from in Illinois was pretty normal and mainstream—I had never heard of tarot cards or vegetarians before. Meeting Carol Ann opened my eyes to the fact that there was a whole world out there, full of different ideas and people who did things differently. She influenced me to be an individual and question things, and I even became a vegetarian for 10 years.

As far as musical mentors, I can’t specifically think of one. There have been so many people who have been wonderful and believed in me, given me advice, and supported me, but I haven’t really had a mentor. I’m a little too stubborn to have one: I have to do everything my way. I probably would have been abandoned by my mentor before any mentorship even began. (laughing)

“…I don’t want decisions about my creativity and happiness to be based on financial fear…it’s a risk to choose freedom over money, but that’s the choice I’ll always make.”

Was there a point when you decided to take a big risk to move forward?

Moving to LA without knowing anyone or having an education was a big risk. I didn’t see it that way, though, because I don’t think about things that most people see as being unrealistic—people say that you need to have a practical backup plan, but I never had one. I knew that, at the end of the day, if I fell flat on my face, then my family would be there—not to give me money, but to pick me up and help me in any way they could.

Right now feels like a risky time, but in a positive, optimistic way. I just parted ways with my record label; I had a great run with them, so it was really amicable. The music business has been changing and there are a lot of new models developing surrounding how to have a career in music. Being independent and figuring out how I want to move forward with more control by bypassing some of the more traditional deals may be a risk, but I don’t want decisions about my creativity and happiness to be based on financial fear. I guess it’s a risk to choose freedom over money, but that’s the choice I’ll always make.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something greater than yourself?

I definitely do. I try to use my music to bring awareness to different things I’m passionate about, and my band and I like to get involved with causes we believe in. My guitar player and I went to Haiti to visit an orphanage that my friend started; we do a fundraiser for them every year, and we’re also making a video series about our experiences there. I also play at fundraisers for ALS research. ALS is an awful, terrible disease—I lost my aunt to it, and it was devastating for my family and me.

On my last album, Back to Forever, I wrote a song called “Mountaintop Removal,” which is about a really destructive mining practice that, to my knowledge, is mostly done in the Appalachians, specifically West Virginia. I follow a group called Organized Voices and Empowered Communities (OVEC) on Twitter, and just yesterday I talked with one of them about the chemical spill in the West Virginia water supply. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected, and I feel very driven about doing something, even though I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to do it without alienating people. I have a huge carbon footprint—when I was on tour last year, I flew over 100,000 miles, so who am I to talk about energy and fuel?

As I move forward with my career, I really want to draw people’s attention to the impact of things like mountaintop removal and the chemicals that are used in those practices as well as genetically modified foods. No one knows the long-term health effects of these chemicals and there’s no good data on what they even are or do. I was listening to NPR and scientists were saying, “We don’t really know anything about this chemical because we didn’t really know it existed. We don’t know what it does, but it’s probably fine.”

We have to start treating our environment more kindly, and that’s something that’s been on my mind lately. I’m fascinated by the short-sightedness of human nature, of how we don’t think about the long-term impacts that our decisions make—not only for ourselves and our families, but for everyone. We’re going to have to make some hard decisions in the short-term so that our offspring have a nice planet to exist on. I’m not sure what I can do to help change that, though. I feel motivated and inspired to do something, but then I feel helpless and think, “What can I really do?”

Lissie - Catching a Tiger
Lissie’s first full-length album, Catching A Tiger, which debuted in 2010, has now sold over 250,000 copies worldwide and been certified Gold in the UK and Norway.

“We have to start treating our environment more kindly, and that’s something that’s been on my mind lately. I’m fascinated by the short-sightedness of human nature, of how we don’t think about the long-term impacts that our decisions make—not only for ourselves and our families, but for everyone.”

Sometimes it’s challenging to feel like you can make a difference on your own.

Yeah. I’ve noticed that if I share a link on Twitter about the chemical spill in West Virginia, I won’t really get any favorites, retweets, or comments back. But if I put up a picture of me and a famous person, I get hundreds of responses. I guess you can’t blame people for what they choose to spend their energy on: they’d rather hear a story about something nice than one about environmental destruction.

Yeah, for sure. So, are you creatively satisfied?

Yeah, especially right now. It’s been a good transition, and I’m in a pretty great place: I feel really proud of everything I’ve done, and I’m very fortunate to have had so much support. Right now, I don’t really have a deadline for what I have to do. This week, my band and I are going to go into the studio to record some new songs and then we’re going to go play a show in Mexico and hang out on the beach for a few days. We get together, play music, laugh, and have fun—creatively, I feel pretty good right now.

I have momentum for a lot of things that used to feel stalled. I’ve been picking up my guitar and writing a lot more on my own, and I have lots of little ideas popping into my head. I’ve been recording stuff onto my phone whenever I think of something, and then I’ll pick it up later. I’m feeling positive, but that could be the energy from the new year making me think anything is possible. Anyway, I’m getting shit done.

Is there anything that you’re interested in doing in the next 5 to 10 years?

I want to let the universe lead me to people who are doing great things and trying to make the world a better place. I’m hoping to get more involved in environmental causes, and I’d like to go to West Virginia and check out the mountaintop removal with my own eyes. My family and I started an ALS fundraising organization called Laura’s Legacy in honor of my late aunt, and we have spoken about turning that into a registered nonprofit. I also want to continue to raise money for my friend’s Haitian orphanage so that they can build a new school. I just want to do good; I want to lend whatever energies or abilities I have to the things I believe in, and there are a lot of different things I’m feeling excited and empowered about.

Artistically, I don’t know. It’d be great to score a film, design some clothes, or write a book. I’m about to put out a limited-edition mezcal and tequila for a friend’s liquor brand. (laughing) I’d like to win Grammys, be on Saturday Night Live, and perform at the Super Bowl. Personally, I’d love to meet a guy who I can actually be with forever, and maybe have some babies with. (laughing) There are all kinds of things I’d like to do.

If you could give advice to a young person starting out, what would you say?

I don’t know if I should give advice. (laughing) It’s important to go with your instincts and intuition. Have an opinion or a stance that you’re coming from and stand behind it.

And don’t be desperate. In this industry, there’s nothing more judgement-clouding than desperation. If you’re starting out as a musician, be yourself and really work on that. It’s hard to be confident and self-assured, but you have to learn to be comfortable in your own skin and stick to your guns. Decide what you want to do, and if you’re going to compromise, make sure it’s a compromise that you really want to make. Happiness is more important than fame and money, so make sure you’re making decisions that are going to lead to a life that you’re going to enjoy.

“…don’t be desperate. In this industry, there’s nothing more judgement-clouding than desperation…Decide what you want to do, and if you’re going to compromise, make sure it’s a compromise that you really want to make.”

How does where you live impact your creativity?

I’ve lived in Ojai, which is an hour and a half north of LA, for about five years. It’s a small, open, and lovely town of about 8,000 people, and I can sort of shelter myself here. I don’t go into total solitude, but I’ve noticed that when you live in a city, you don’t get to choose what you’re exposed to. You’re surrounded by advertisements, billboards, noise, and social media; you’re flooded with images and ideas that make you want to have an opinion about things. For instance, sometimes when I see a picture of a celebrity—someone who is probably perfectly nice in reality—I might say, “Ew, I don’t like that person.” (laughing) Then I’ll catch myself and wonder, “Why do I have to think like that?” (laughing) Ojai is good for my creative process because I can shelter myself from all the stimulus that I would otherwise choose not to see. My mind may be a little more focused on, say, going for a hike or reading a book instead.

At the same time, things I don’t want to be exposed to are good for inspiring me to write music, so it kind of depends on what kind of music I’m trying to write. It’s good for me to be in a place that is calm, quiet, and easy: it sets me up to be able to sit and think. Constantly looking at my phone or computer makes me believe that sometimes we’re afraid to just sit with our thoughts. I really try to be mindful about doing that, and it’s easier to do in Ojai.

Is it important for you to be a part of a creative community?

Yeah, but I think it was more important when I was in my 20s and living in LA. When I was there, I helped start a really great community of musicians called the Beachwood Rockers Society. We did a weekly night of music for years, and they’re still like family. If I’m being honest, a creative community isn’t something I’m currently seeking out as much as I used to. I get so much love, creative support, and stimulus from my band; and we get so much support when we’re on the road, too. There is a great music scene up in Ojai that I like to go out and support, but I tend to stay home by myself when I’m not on tour.

I remember when my mom tried to get my grandpa to go to a party once, but he refused by saying, “I don’t need to meet any more people in my life.” I always thought that was funny, but now that I’m in my 30s, I’m kind of starting to feel that way myself. (laughing)

What does a typical day look like for you?

It’s quite different when I’m on tour. My band and I tour a lot, so we’re gone most of the time. On tour, most of my time is spent traveling, eating, doing sound checks, playing, going to bed, and repeating everything the next day.

When I’m home, I get up around 8 or 9am, which is pretty early for me—I used to sleep in until noon. (laughing) I try to do a little yoga, make a smoothie, and have some green tea: that’s the healthy version of me. (laughing) I might take my dog for a walk, then sit on my porch to go through emails and lists of things to get done. If I don’t have anything to do during the day, I’ll go for a hike or make some food. At night, I like to make a fire or watch an episode of Scandal. When I’m not touring, I give myself permission to get work done during the day, and then I watch shows or read or work on a song at night. I take it pretty easy when I’m not on the road.

What music are you currently listening to?

There’s so much to choose from now. I used to listen to a lot more music before I had hundreds of thousands of songs at my fingertips—that has changed the way I find music. Now, I just end up going back to my old standbys. The only music I’ve been wanting to listen to is John Prine, Bobbie Gentry, and Townes Van Zandt—the songwriting is so good, and it’s such mellow, tastefully produced music. Stuff doesn’t sound like that anymore, so I kind of stick to the oldies.

As far as new bands go, I think The Weeknd and Tame Impala are great. I don’t really know about new bands, though. I was actually trying to think of a song to cover in the top 40, but I went through the list and couldn’t find one with lyrics that spoke to anything I could relate to. I’m sure there are all kinds of great independent musicians who I don’t know about it.

Ryan is more of a music connoisseur than I am, and he’s the one who actually introduced me to your music. He’s great about finding new stuff, and I just listen to his playlists, so it’s super easy for me to find new music. (laughing)

I need to be around someone who is paying attention and can expose me to stuff. There’s so much hype around different things, too, that sometimes I’ll listen to a song or a band and think, “I don’t get it. Maybe I don’t have good taste?” I need a curator of good music to live in my house and tell me what’s cool.

You mentioned Scandal. Do you have any other favorite movies or TV shows?

I’m into pretty much everything as far as TV shows go. The Internet has changed how I enjoy things. I used to be able to sit down and watch an entire movie, but now I think, “Oh, that’s too much of a commitment.” (laughing) I like binge-watching shows, and I just re-watched Sex and the City, which is a guilty pleasure. I love Revenge, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and True Blood. I haven’t started Breaking Bad yet because I’m waiting for the final season to be on Netflix.

As for movies, I know I’m late to the game, but I just saw Silver Linings Playbook, and it was really good.

Do you have a favorite book?

I have a few, but the one that I always come back to is Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. I picture myself as Ayla, and it makes me want to go out into the woods and survive on my own—I love that book.

I also like Brave New World, 1984, the His Dark Materials trilogy, the Harry Potter series, and the Hunger Games trilogy. I just read 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I like books with dystopian futures and strong heroines. I’ve been reading a lot of Ken Follet’s books, and I started reading a lot of John Irving after finishing The Cider House Rules. Now that I travel a lot, I always have to have a book with me.

Any favorite foods?

I don’t really have a specific favorite, so I’ll just say pizza. (laughing)

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

It’s hard for me to think that far ahead, but I want to have stayed true to what was best and most creative in myself. I want to be remembered as someone who treated people with compassion and respect; a person of integrity who didn’t take herself too seriously; someone who was generous, fought for things she believed in, and tried to make the world a better place. I want to be remembered as a loving family member and dog owner, and, someday, a loving wife and mother—I want to be someone who chose the light.interview close

Lissie by Andrew Whitton
Photo by Andrew Whitton

“I want to have stayed true to what was best and most creative in myself. I want to be remembered as someone who treated people with compassion and respect; a person of integrity who didn’t take herself too seriously; someone who was generous, fought for things she believed in, and tried to make the world a better place.”