Lissie on Moving Back to the Midwest, the 2016 Election and My Wild West

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Lissie on Moving Back to the Midwest, the 2016 Election and <i>My Wild West</i>

My Wild West may be Lissie’s third album, but she’s been on the scene for well over 10 years in various projects. Still, this new album finds her at a crossroads with herself and her career. Now independent, she’s packed her bags and left her California house to return to her childhood home. We caught up with her to talk about the move, the new album and more.

Paste : Are you at home right now?
Lissie: I’m actually at my parents’ house. I’m temporarily living with them while I fix up a house in Iowa.

Paste : I feel like that’s the big story that everyone wants to talk about with you. Every record has a story I suppose, and this is the one this time around, right?
Lissie: Yeah, I think this record is different. My first independent release. While I was writing it, it sort of subconsciously predicted that I was ready for this big change. I think the personal journey, not to sound too new age-y, I was trying to figure out “what do I want.” What’s going to make me happy? I’ve always wanted to own land in Iowa and own a farm. I didn’t know this was the year this was going to happen or last year, but it was. So I think that sort of personal confronting my true wants and desires informed the songs and making the album. Putting my California years behind me is the theme of the record. This was my Wild West. This was 12 years of songs about my experience, and now I’m starting a new chapter.

Paste : As an artist, are you constantly looking for something to inspire you, to bring out the creativity? “If I move, I can be inspired.” Does that play a part of it?
Lissie: I don’t know that it’s so much about the art or music. I think as an individual, as a human, I didn’t want to get too comfortable or in a rut. I think I was seeking out something new to challenge me and help me grow and shake things up. So of course that plays into the music and the songwriting, but it’s not an intentional thing like, “I’m going to make myself uncomfortable so I can write a song.” It’s more a thing of growing as a person and confronting fears, see what I’m capable of. A byproduct of that is songwriting, but it’s not the same reason.

Paste : So many of my friends who live out in LA are always saying they want to get out of LA, but never do. And you did! You left!
Lissie: Yeah, I was in LA for five years, but the last seven years I was in Ojai, California, which is a really sleepy, bohemian town, so I got out already. Ojai was awesome, but I’m just a Midwestern girl at heart. I like space, and I like calm and nature. I’m really close to my family. I think a lot of people, before you know it, you’re 50 and you’re single and you’re in LA trying to chase that dream. All the more power to those people. That’s a good life, too. But that wasn’t—I didn’t want to sit on my porch forever. And now it’s really cold in the Midwest, and I miss my sunny porch and my 80 degrees.

Paste : You’ve come back to close to where you’re from, right?
Lissie: I’m actually living three hours north of where I grew up. I grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, just across the Mississippi from Iowa. It gets pretty cold here, but I was just in Minneapolis a few days ago and it was negative 9 with a windchill of negative a’billion, and it was so cold. Where I’m at three hours north is like farmland. The wind really blows. It’s arctic.

Paste : You moved to Iowa in 2016 when all we’re hearing around the country is about Iowa.
Lissie: Yeah, it really feels special. I’ve been to a bunch of Bernie rallies, and I’m going to go caucus. My first caucus. I’m telling my promotional team in Europe that I can’t come over to Europe until I caucus.

Paste : Some artists don’t like to talk politics because they’re afraid of how it affects their audience, but you very specifically put out a tweet about wanting your audience to know you and came out as a Bernie supporter.
Lissie: I want to be liked, and I want people to understand. I think people hear the word socialism or hear about taxes and assume “No, I’m a Republican.” But I think people should really research the issues because it might be that Bernie Sanders could make your life better. I’ve had people say that they’re unfollowing me. “Why did you have to go into politics? I loved your music, but now I have to be done with you.” I don’t have superstardom in my sights, so I just want to be myself and talk about the things that matter to me. If people don’t listen to my music, I think that’s unfortunate. I genuinely want a politician who challenges the corruption of our system and gives people fair shots at happiness and prosperity, and I think that Bernie is legit. He’s keeping it real. He has a consistent record and has a lot of doable, good ideas.

Paste : How do you feel about Hillary?
Lissie: I think that Hillary is a really smart, capable person. Yes, she’s a woman and I’m a feminist, and I believe there should be more women in power and help to make decisions alongside men, that we all should be equal, but I wish I had more than one woman to chose from. I think that Hillary is such a politician. She’s changed her mind on different issues. She’s so in bed with all of the ways that corporations affect politicians and lobbyists. I feel like she really plays the game. I’m a little skeptical. But if she were the candidate, I would support her. I think the media isn’t really giving Bernie coverage. Joe Biden was singing his praises and the interviewer kept going back to “What about Hillary?” The media doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s a viable candidate. But in the world of social media, you can’t keep him down.

Paste : There’s a little bit of “once bitten, twice shy” for me. I turned 18 when Ralph Nader was running for president. A bunch of us voted for him, and it split the Democratic vote, so Bush won. So someone like Bernie comes out, I get a little PTSD.
Lissie: Yeah, you get excited but don’t think it’s realistic. I think in the past before social media, name recognition is what people voted for. But I think in this day with how information travels, Bernie may get the name recognition that could put him in the running. I don’t know, I want to be involved as much as I can and pay attention to the issues, but also we’ll just see what happens.

Paste : One way or the other. But I find it exciting that you’re there and a part of it all.
Lissie: I think I have a unique perspective because I grew up in a place where my family and a lot of people I know are conservatives. And I was out in California and knew a lot of liberals. I try and really know what I’m talking about and be open-minded. Ultimately what I see is everybody wants their families to be safe and healthy. And how we get there, there’s a lot of different ideas. But I don’t think we’re as divided as people as we’re led to believe.

Paste : I hope you’re right about that, because when you look at the news, or look at Facebook, it’s a civil war going on. That’s what it looks like. But you’re right about everybody fundamentally wanting the same thing. Everyone wants a safe family.
Lissie: Yeah, and wants opportunity. You may have been led to believe that taxes are bad, but if your prisons are privatized and they’re intentionally jailing 30 percent of black men between 18-30 because it’s profitable, take that money and put it towards job programs. Make the communities and schools better. I don’t feel like people know what really goes on. Or that our media is owned by companies that make weapons. General Electric makes weapons and has oil interests, and they also own NBC and paid no taxes in 2010 but got 3 billion dollars back. They cut their job force by 20 percent. All of these hard-working, blue-collared Americans think that their party is supporting them, but they’re just figuring how to send your jobs elsewhere. That’s the truth. They make it all about guns and gays. That’s distraction.

Paste : Lissie 2016.
Lissie: Yes!

Paste : Does all of this come into your songwriting?
Lissie: On my last album, I had a song called “Mountaintop Removal,” which is a really destructive mining practice which makes a few people rich, but really pollutes and destroys communities. The Appalachian Mountains and in West Virginia where there was a chemical spill that tainted the water to 300,000 people. It wasn’t considered terrorism, but that’s terrorism to me. And on my new album there is a song called “Daughters,” which is about how I think women have a bigger role to play to bring peace to the world and participating in being equals. I think I do get a little political, but mostly I just sing about my feelings and boys and my personal quest to find peace and happiness in my own mind and life.

Paste : There’s one line in “Hero,” “I could’ve been something.” Should I look into that as that’s you or a character study?
Lissie: It’s me saying that because I’ve grappled with what I should want as a musician. When you peruse it as a career, I think people assume you must want world domination and riches and fame and glory, and I don’t think I’ve found that’s really what I want or maybe even what I’m capable of. But I think I was really just looking at the idea, even of the many worlds theory in physics, there is the possibility of two things existing at once. So that sort of informed it, but also it’s just that I have this ambivalence now, and I think that’s a really good way to live your life. It’s not really about the outcome, it’s about the process. This next album could be a hit or people could hate it, but if I enjoyed making it, and I am enjoying my life, it’s about maybe being more interested in the process and not so much the outcome. It was informed by a lot of different things. I’ve been watching a lot of Big Bang Theory. They’ve been talking about Schrodinger’s Cat all the time. That had something to do with it, too.

Paste : You and I are about the same age. You’re 33, I’m 34. I had another friend who once told me that you kind of go crazy in your 30s, because that’s the stuff you start thinking about. You’ve gone through your wild 20s, maybe you haven’t hit the midlife thing of the 40s, but you start worrying about “who am I and what am I doing?” and it becomes a mid-30s thing, which is what I take from a song like “Hero” and even a bit of “Don’t Give Up On Me.”
Lissie: Yeah, I think it’s sort of like, my first album was a lot about a relationship. My second album was more about facing the fact that I didn’t have forever to live. When you’re little, you think “I have all the time in the world.” When you creep up on your 30s, “I don’t have all the time in the world anymore.” So this third album is reflecting on the past and gearing up for what I want my life to look like. And it is some of the things like buying land and owning a home and thinking, “I don’t really have a retirement setup.” I haven’t been in a relationship that’s lasted. I want to have babies. You have to start thinking about all of these things because you have a window to focus on it.

Paste : Lucky for us, you’re a person who writes about it all and we get to benefit with catchy songs.
Lissie: I hope so. I hope people see their lives in my songs. We all kind of have a lot of the same ups and downs.

Paste : Does it seem odd that you’re only on your third record, for as long as you’ve been a part of music? When you trace it all of the way back to Colorado and working with DJ Harry, I know there was school and travel in there, but you’ve been in the business a lot longer than three albums would suggest.
Lissie: Yeah, I know. It’s annoying. I made an album in college, but it wasn’t released. I think now I feel a freedom being independent. I have more financial responsibility. I funded my own record, videos, tours, photos. And a lot of artists have done that, but I didn’t do that for a long time. I had major money behind me. But part of that tradeoff is that you promote an album for two years, you get off the road and maybe you’re writing songs, but you have an A&R guy who rightfully so is doing some quality control. Because if it was up to me, I’d release every little ditty that popped in my head because I create and move on. But when you’re doing it as a finely produced entity that you want to sell and promote and be strategic about, it would take forever to get the green light. “We’ll give you a budget to record now.” And then when’s the best time to release it? You don’t want to release it the same day Adele’s album comes out.

Paste : It doesn’t matter when you release your record. Adele will gobble it up anyway.
Lissie: Exactly! But I think there is all of this strategy to it, so it ends up making things take forever. Whereas this album, this is the first time where I wrote a bunch of songs and made something and was going to have it actually come out within a year of creating it. So that’s refreshing.

Paste : There is a sea change happening. There was a time when you would have some artists, like Joseph Arthur or Ryan Adams, who were releasing three albums a year and labels didn’t know what to do with that. But now with the way—and I know the web and streaming has a lot to do with it—but someone like Drake, instead of releasing an album releases singles whenever he wants to. And I know that happens in R&B and hip hop, but I’m seeing it more in rock and folk. You can make a song and just put it out and not worry about a campaign that has to go along with it.
Lissie: I think there is so much music out there, that you have to be a little bit smart, because if you just put a bunch of stuff out, people who like you might have missed the tweet. I think you have to figure how to let them know that there’s new stuff to listen to and also not overwhelm them. My album is called My Wild West, but the music business is kind like the Wild West. Anything goes. No one really knows what the rules are. Things that some executive would have said, “Oh you can’t put out an EP instead of an album.” But you can. You can do whatever you want, and I think I’m learning to embrace that, but also take other people’s experience and expertise and opinions into account, because I need help, but also be like, “Well there really are no rules.” I already have another album of acoustic folk songs that I wrote last year. When can I put those out? And I have these five songs I did in Nashville. Do I do that as a deluxe of my album? Do I put another EP out?

Paste : I love EPs. I love the idea of an EP. They don’t have to be as serious. Like the Crying EP that you put out in 2014. Here is something for fun and here it is. And you covered Danzig.
Lissie: And One Direction! I think that’s the disconnect between, it’s another thing that prompted my move. Earlier this year, I had a full-on panic attack for the first time ever. I didn’t even know I was having one. “I think I have a health problem. There’s something wrong with my heart.” I went to the hospital and they told me it was just anxiety. “No, there is something definitely wrong with my heart.” There was too much scrutiny and pressure. I’ve been singing my whole life because it makes me happy. I feel like I have something to say. That’s where I’m coming from. All of this other stuff is making me hate making music, and that’s so sad. I would rather keep my music to myself and love it than have trying to make money off of it make me hate doing it, feeling like I can’t just sing the songs I want to sing. That sort of prompted the move, too. I can always get in my car with an acoustic guitar and make a living if I have to. I’m not going to be held back by financial fear. I can sing. I can sing, you know?

Paste : I hope you continue to find the balance. Everything I’ve heard from My Wild West, I’ve loved. So keep it coming, and we’ll look forward to the next EP.
Lissie: I’m going to call it My Mild Midwest.

Check out Lissie performing “Further Away (Romance Police)” on a Brooklyn rooftop in the player below.