Lissie - A little bit country and a whole lot rock'n'roll

The 27-year-old Illinois singer Lissie has drawn much acclaim for her debut album and Lady Gaga cover – and she can drink you under the table. Gillian Orr meets her

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:27

Lissie is not feeling well. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter is slumped on a sofa in Sony headquarters' reception, eating noodle soup. I almost feel bad for dragging her out of bed when she lets out a husky, throaty laugh, "Oh, man, I'm just so hungover."

Born and raised in Rock City, Illinois, Lissie has been slowly garnering buzz for her rock/country crossover tunes, which make you yearn for a beat-up convertible and the open road. She has spent much of the summer in the UK, having played just about every major festival and a bunch of solo shows in support of her debut album, Catching a Tiger, which was released in June.

The hangover, she tells me, is the result of a night out with Band of Horses, one of whom, Bill Reynolds, produced her first EP last year, Why You Runnin'. Lissie describes the EP as "a bit more stripped-down and Americana and minimally produced" than her album has ended up sounding.

Catching a Tiger was produced by Reynolds and Jacquire King, Kings of Leon's producer, and recorded in Nashville in 2009. That's not to say the capital of country completely shaped the sound of the album.

Lissie's music has elements of pop, blues, rock, folk, country and even a bit of gospel but there's something indelibly American about it. But not urban America. Not Los Angeles or New York. It's the mythical, romanticised America, the one of freight trains and sprawling plains and the Mississippi.

This isn't surprising considering Lissie's story. She was very much the Midwestern girl dreaming of bigger things. Growing up in Rock City, she was restless and reacted against an oppressive high-school experience filled with girls who picked on her and teachers who didn't understand her. "In high school," she explains, "I just got bored and didn't feel like I had any outlet to turn to other than writing music.

"I had this teacher who called me a ditz all the time and I was like, 'It's not OK for you to do that. I'm not a ditz and you're a jerk.' And I'd get into trouble for calling him a jerk." This outspoken behaviour culminated in her being kicked out of school for spitting in the face of a band teacher. "I dunno, if someone corners me or tries to oppress my free speech in any way, I will freak out on them verbally."

Her only release came in the form of an old, unused guitar that her father had given her mother years ago. Aged 12, she started to teach herself to play but it wasn't exactly an instant achievement: "I would teach myself a chord, then a year later would learn another chord." In keeping with the difficulty she had dealing with authority figures, Lissie shunned "proper" guitar lessons because they were always trying to teach her "scales and stuff".

There doesn't seem to be an explanation for Lissie's natural musical talent. None of her family is particularly musical (although her grandfather was an international barbershop quartet champion) and she claims to have no overriding musical heroes. She spent her youth listening to a bit of everything: grunge, rap, country. But she always admired strong female artists such as Fiona Apple and Liz Phair. "My music styling wasn't like theirs but I thought they were cool," she says, "and writing good lyrics, and had great voices. That was inspiring to me."

After playing at various small shows and coffee shops, she eventually moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of becoming a musician.

The final track on the album, "Oh Mississippi", could cast Lissie as the roaming adventurer, going west in the great American tradition, from her town in Illinois to Los Angeles to find her fame and fortune: "Oh, Mississippi/ Oh, all the troubles your banks have seen/ Carry their stories from north to south/ But round these parts you're westward bound."

She now lives in Ojai, California, a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, which she had to leave after splitting with her boyfriend, who was responsible for most of the heartache that made its way on to Catching a Tiger. And although she likes to talk about her love of sitting on her porch, hiking with her dog and making pies, it's evident she has a mischievous side as well.

In fact, she seems like the sort of person you could have a really fun night out with... if you can keep up. Lissie is truly disappointed that her tolerance to alcohol has gone down since working so much, and laments that the previous evening she "only had three shots of tequila, some whiskey, probably five beers, which normally would be, like, nothing".

If, after hearing Lissie's idea of a "dry" night out, you're not sure you could keep up, don't be fooled into thinking her music is as full-on. It's mainly laid-back fare, which meets somewhere in the middle ground between Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow. But it's her voice that really marks her out. Ranging from husky to crystal clear, it is a voice that has lived, one that has history. A voice in which you can hear the cigarettes that have been smoked in dive bars, the raucous laughter from a dirty joke, the whiskey drunk until the early hours and the tears cried over a lover.

Her album is an honest account of heartbreak and someone trying to find their place in the world. There are soulful numbers such as "Bully" and "Everywhere I Go" alongside plenty of rollicking, guitar-led and slickly produced tracks, such as the former single "When I'm Alone". "I think there are those songs on there that can really pack a punch and can stick with people and there are the more tender songs," says Lissie. Throughout, you can hear someone with a real zest for life, understanding the good and the bad.

Befitting her music, Lissie's image is very natural. She's all uncombed hair, freckles and jeans, and is a rather refreshing antidote to various, current, over-stylised female singer-songwriters. Some of the artwork in the album could be mistaken for stills from Little House on the Prairie.

"It's fun to be a woman and put on make-up and get gussied up sometimes and I do occasionally, depending on what I have to do," Lissie explains, "but my music is all about me and my life, and so I see no reason to have to wear a costume if everything I'm doing is a true thing."

That's not to say she can't appreciate some of the more image-conscious chanteuses of today, though. She describes Lady Gaga as "awesome" and has done a great cover of her song "Bad Romance"; after being a big hit on the web, it has made it on to the B-side of Lissie's next single, "Cuckoo".

She has also become firm friends with Ellie Goulding. The two of them often perform together at each other's gigs. "I feel a bit like a proud older sister, watching her. She's so sweet."

And, with that, it's time for Lissie to go and have her picture taken. "Oh, man, I feel like I'm going to throw up! Maybe we can catch it on camera." And, then, that laugh again.

Lissie's single "Cuckoo" is released on Monday. The album, 'Catching a Tiger', is out on Columbia Records. Lissie plays Bestival and starts a UK tour on 26 October (

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