Lissie — Carving Canyons
Singer-songwriter Lissie, like most of us, dealt with a fair share of personal turmoil during the pandemic. The place she did it, however, was different – her very own farm in Iowa, accompanied mostly by her trusty pup – and it allowed her to heal both herself and the land scarred by generations of agriculture. She also started the process of writing a new album, Carving Canyons, which deals with, well, dealing with pain (and bouncing back from it). Americana Highways spoke to Lissie about the importance of acknowledging that pain, the wisdom in writing with other women, and what her own, personal Song of the Summer was. Also – there’s popcorn!
Americana Highways: It was interesting learning you live on and run a farm now, correct?
Lissie: Yeah, ‘run a farm’ sounds a little more involved than it is. Not to say that it isn’t a lot of work. I moved back to the Midwest in 2015, and I have 45 acres, and mostly it’s just me and my dog and a garden. The woodlands and the tillable acreage, I’ve been doing a lot of conservancy, like getting goats to clean out invasives. Then, the tillable acres, trying to take them out of crop production and putting everything into prairie. So I’ve been learning a lot! It’s been awesome.
AH: So, it sounds, in a way, almost like reverse farming – giving the land back a little bit?
L: Absolutely. I think some of my neighbors think I’m kinda nutso, but it’s more I’m working for the land than it’s working for me. I wanted to be more of a steward. Not that my small amount of acres and prairie will do a lot to sequester carbons, but there’s a lot to be said if more of the heartland was put back into prairie, that would actually sequester a lot of carbons, and I’m interested in that.
AH: You were out on the farm for a good chunk of the pandemic. How did that kind of isolation affect the songs that ended up on Carving Canyons?
L: When the pandemic started, I was actually living with my ex-partner, who was a farmer, like an actual organic farmer. That was March 2020, I was out in Virginia. Then May 2020, I was, ‘I need to get back to my house and my life and my farm.’ I’d been touring and staying with him and going home. After two months of hanging in Virginia, I needed to get back to my house and check on everything. And once I got back to Iowa in May of 2020, when things were still pretty scary and uncertain – a lot of isolation and social distancing, not knowing when will I be able to hug my parents and all that stuff. My partner and I ended up breaking up in May of 2020. So I had a good six months on the farm, just trying to not only process the break-up, but I couldn’t run away, I couldn’t tour, I couldn’t distract myself. So I had a good, hard look at myself for about six months. My dog and I just hung out on the farm, pretty much alone! Did a lot of gardening, went for a lot of walks, just really sort of tried to observe the cycles in nature, the growth and clearing space to help other things grow. Just seeing a lot of metaphor in the things I was doing in the garden, that we’re happening outside. I think that I, like a lot of artists and people – it took me a good six months, and I didn’t start writing until November of 2020. Because I just felt, not only my breakup, but just the pain in the world and the isolation, seeing other people’s pain and politics – everything was just so, so intense. So I had to really spend a good six months just trying to take good care of myself and healing and getting perspective. But once I started writing in November, it was like I had some time to reflect on these stages of grief I found myself in. Carving Canyons has got anger, sorrow, acceptance, hope – all the things. It’s like I made the album over an entire arc of healing. That was afforded by the pandemic, really.
AH: For a lot of people, it was one of the weird side effects of the pandemic.
L: It could sound insensitive to say that anything good came from COVID, because obviously a lot of people died, and it was unbelievable – still, I can’t believe we’ve all been through this really intense thing. We’re collectively traumatized. But, yeah, I think, for a lot of people, there was a sort of slowing down that, for me, I haven’t done in over a decade. I just kind of have to sit with my feelings and confront myself and sort of try and grow and have self-awareness and emotional intelligence and practice self-care and do all of these things I’ve neglected for so long. It was kinda hard, but once I was able to sort of get the hang of it, I’m kind of grateful for having so much time to just be, and be in my home and be with my dog and to eventually be around more for my family and friends. I actually ended up meeting a new person who I’ve been dating for over a year who’s amazing, and I really think, had there not been this downtime, we probably wouldn’t have been able to have a relationship, because it’s hard to date someone who’s never home!
AH: I bet, I bet! There was a lot of co-writing on the album. Is that kind of a new experience for you?
L: No, Since I put out [2010’s] Catching a Tiger, my first big release – I’d written a lot of songs prior, but my proper first album – I’ve always co-written. In part because songwriters aren’t getting enough love right now – not only recognition, but the industry really doesn’t compensate them properly – I felt even more compelled to shine a light on the fact that I couldn’t really write these songs alone. All the lyrics are true to me, and I’m making these songs about my life. But I kinda joke, I don’t write songs alone anymore because I’ll start something, then I’ll go clean my kitchen, or I’ll go to the grocery store – I’ve turned into such a procrastinator that I’ve felt like if I’m really going to do this and I’m gonna write this song and see it through to the end and be able to be objective about it…some of the songs on the album I mostly wrote by myself, but I always like to bring in someone that I trust to bounce some ideas, because it’s sometimes hard to see things objectively when you’re just in it by yourself. I’ve always co-written a lot but, particularly on this record, because I’ve been in the game and I’ve made friends, I was really able to write with a lot of friends and sort of navigate setting up writing – a lot on Zoom and FaceTime – just through relationships that I had, “Hey, you wanna write a song on FaceTime today?” It was surprisingly effective, and really worked out! And not even on purpose, but there was just a ton of women who I wrote with on this record, and I did find there was something much more somehow efficient about that, whether that’s a coincidence or not. I felt like I was writing with a lot of my women friends, and we’re just bustin’ out the tunes. It felt really good.
AH: You probably have a communication shorthand between you where you don’t have to work so hard to explain an idea, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I get it!”
L: Yeah, and I never want to throw any of my male co-writers under the bus, because we all have our strengths, and you can’t generalize. But I do think that, for as much as I felt like a lot of these songs are about me, and they’re very specific, and they’re about MY life – some of the women I wrote with, they had an equally emotional life experience, that they were really their own perspective to the song, too. And that ended up becoming extra-healing, because sometimes when you go through hard stuff, you feel like, ‘Oh, I’m so alone in this. No one’s ever felt this sad.’ Well, the thing is, everyone’s gone through something, and it’s so universal. Once the song comes out the other side, it belongs to the listener, Writing with people, it was also healing to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, YOU felt this way. YOU felt betrayed. You felt lost. You felt whatever these feelings are.’ It was helpful to remember that this is just a part of life – we all go through it. We’ve all been through it.
AH: That kind of leads me to Madi Diaz – she co-wrote one of the songs with you, and she’s becoming a favorite of mine, too.
L: Yeah, she’s just absolutely brilliant. Her [2021 album] History of a Feeling is very solid, an incredible record.
AH: And you co-wrote “Sad” together – seems to be a lot of heartache in that song.
L: Well, you know what’s funny with that song – I think it’s self-owning in its anger. I think there still is an awareness of, even if it’s immature, ‘You made me feel bad, so I want you to feel bad.’ It’s an emotional honesty – we feel that way sometimes! I think by the time you get to the end of the song…a lot of this album was me just sticking up for myself and saying, ‘I’m allowed to hurt. I’m allowed to be angry. Don’t tell me to get over it. I’m allowed these things.’ But Madi and I, her manager, Christian [Stavros] and I have been friends for a long time, and I’ve known her through friends of friends, but we’ve never really spent time together, and he set us up to Zoom write, and we wrote that song so quickly. But you know, listening to her album, she’s seen some things and been through some things and battling that sort of resentment and the anger, but also the acceptance and the hope. Again, it’s very universal, so she was probably able to tap into some of her own life experience of break-ups and people who maybe have hurt you who never had to really answer for it, and how that fits as time goes by. Then, eventually, you just are over it, and you let it go. But when you’re in it, there’s some fury there, and being denied the right to feel anger is SO BAD. It’s the worst. Let me have my anger, let me have my sadness. I will get over it, but only if I’m allowed to feel my feelings and express them.
AH: “Yellow Roses” was written with Natalie Hemby, correct?
L: Yeah and, I mean, talk about working with a total legend – she’s written some of the best songs ever! That was a huge honor. We again have a lot of friends of friends and kinda knew each other, but were connected through our teams to do a write. And we ended up writing over FaceTime, because it was during COVID, and it was right before Thanksgiving, and everyone was getting COVID. So November 2020 I was in Nashville, but we ended up just writing via FaceTime. With that song, Natalie, since she’s just an incredible crafter of songs, really had brought a title and a shape with her to the session, so I was able to sort of fill in the blanks alongside her via FaceTime to make the story work for me. To tell a side of my story which is, ultimately, you can’t make people love you, you have to love yourself, and you have to find the people that will.
AH: One thing that stood out on that song for me was the harmonies, which were fantastic. It sounds like something that would really work well on country radio. Is there any thought toward pushing it in that direction?
L: I will say, just to add quickly – all of these songs that I wrote – not all of them, but most of these songs that I wrote, I had my co-writers come and sing background vocals. So Natalie Hemby actually is the one singing the harmonies on “Yellow Roses,” Madi Diaz came and sang some harmonies on “Sad.” Kate York and Sarah Buxton, who are also incredible artists and writers, they sang on “Carving Canyons,” which we did together. So it was really nice to be able to have the harmonies, it wasn’t just my voice – I used to just always, it was my voice singing with my voice, because I had a lot of ideas, and that was cool. But it was REALLY awesome to not only be able to have these women I admired voices on my record, but to have it be on the songs that they helped create. Because it’s not just about me. I couldn’t do this alone. I have so many people in my camp and in my world, from my producer to my musicians to the songwriters to my manager and so forth. You know how it goes in the biz – there’s so many people that make things possible. So to your question – I’ve never really known what my ‘genre’ is. A few years ago, someone told me I’m NOT Americana. I don’t really know what I am. I’m from the Midwest. I have a British friend who tells me I’m the most American person she knows, because I’m always sitting on my porch! I think that I have done better overseas and in the UK. I’m kinda considered maybe more pop or indie rock, but I definitely think, just by virtue of my life and who I am and where I live, there’s definitely twinges of folk and Americana and country. And just my voice and my accent and my inspiration. But I’ve never been able to really define myself, so I don’t know if my team would even know how to get me on country radio! It’s not as simple as ‘I’m just deciding to play you’ – you kinda need a bunch of people to go to bat for you and come up with a plan, get the right people involved. But, if that were to be played on country radio, of course I would be totally pleased. I mean, I love country music.
AH: Well, you mentioned the songwriters coming in and singing with you, and it did make several of the songs, definitely “Yellow Roses” and some of the others, stand out. It gave them all a different flavor.
L: Yeah, I think that happened very loosely and naturally, which I loved. I didn’t have to make a big to-do, I was just in Nashville, and my producer [Curt Schneider] had come from LA to get some vocals. I always feel like I sing better in Nashville, because in LA it’s dry, so my voice is always a little pinched. But then I come to Nashville, and it was all humid – the humidity is good for my vocal cords – so I was just singin’ my butt off and was able to just call up Kate and Sarah and Bre Kennedy and Madi and Natalie and be like, ‘Hey, what are you doing over the next two days – can you pop into the studio. No pressure.’ And everybody just rolled through and it was awesome! I really gave them freedom to ‘sing what you feel – I have a few ideas, but I’d just love for you to take it away.’ It adds such a dimension and a texture. I’m just so glad that that was able to work out, because it just adds more life and more perspective. It’s a group effort.
AH: You mentioned influences. When I was listening to “Night Moves,” one of the singles – that could be a long lost Fleetwood Mac song, between the feel of it and your vocals in it. Stevie Nicks, I’d imagine, is a huge influence for you?
L: You know, not consciously. Of course, like pretty much every person, I adore her, and I think she’s just amazing, and I love her style and her voice. I’ve loved Fleetwood Mac over the years. They were never my main band I listened to, but I definitely LOVE Fleetwood Mac, and I LOVE Stevie Nicks. So I think maybe, on some subconscious level, that has happened. I’d almost say more to my producer and my musicians’ influence over recognizing that my voice can do those things, so they sort of nudge me in that direction. But I don;t know that it’s ever been intentional on my part to be like, ‘I have to be like Fleetwood Mac!’ I think it’s just sort of been this subconscious nudge that’s happened over the years, because of comparisons. And just the spirit of my music has lent itself to that kind of driving rock guitar and intense, smooth, sultry feeling that the songs and the voice have lent themselves to. But anytime I get that comparison, I’m just, ‘I’m not worthy.’ I’m honored. That’s really, really huge – I’m very grateful. This album, too – it’s funny, it also really doesn’t have a genre. “Night Moves” was the most obvious radio-ish song, so that’s the one you push. But, of course there’s 10, 11 other songs on the album that are kind of all existing in their own kind of world, hopefully.
AH: Reading the bio, you had a quote in there that really got my attention – the album’s about grief, but also ‘addressing how things are always eventually going to change.’ Not many people seem to be able to wrap their heads around that, that things are just bound to change. How did you get there? How did you realize that?
L: There was a song that I never really quite finished – it wasn’t strong enough – that had a line in it, “All it took was time.” I think that through lived experience I’ve had, just based on me focusing on my career – as a woman, I’ve had to make certain choices in my life, in focusing on my career, or even in buying a farm, I’ve sort of given up other things. So I’ve had this sort of pain of letting go of a lot of relationships that didn’t work out, in particular, but not just specific to relationships, just any kind of grief in life. I went to a pretty dark place in the summer of 2020, and just watching the seeds that I’d planted sprout, and then grow, and then as the fall approached, everything stood this term called ‘senescence,’ when everything starts to yellow and decay, and the light gets kinda long and low – I kinda sound cheesy, but I feel like just watching. Nature knows, and nature’s brutal. I’d plant radish seeds, and maybe five of them would pop up in the same little spot, and four of them would have to go, and I was, “Oh my god, which one can stay, and which one has to go?” And I would kind of internalize it – life is so brutal! In order for this one radish to reach its full glory, I have to sacrifice these other four! So I was seeing so many parallels in nature. And life is brutal, life is full of pain, and it is hard. But it’s also amazing and joyful. And so I think that thing of just, take it day by day, give it time, that old cliche “Time heals all wounds.” When you’re stuck in a really sh!tty spot, you can’t think too much about it. You just need to feel your feelings and know that, eventually, you’ll process them, and you’ll get to the other side. And as much as it’s terrible to have to go through hard things, these are the things that create this landscape of our lives, and all of its texture and its edges and its depressions and its color, that rich pageant of life that we all experience. Simply put, all it takes is time. And I know that – I’ve gone through some stuff that felt like I don’t know how I’m going to get through this, but everybody has. And you just gotta give it time. I’ve learned I have to take really good care of my physical health when I’m going through that stuff, too. Just going for walks, moving your body, and taking breaths and eating nourishing foods, all of those things that I think aid you in the process of getting to the other side. But I think feeling your emotions is just such a theme of the album – I’m allowed to hurt – because you can’t go around it, you can’t skip it, you’ve gotta feel the feelings. Otherwise, you’ll just box it up somewhere toxic in your body, and it’ll just follow you around forever. So you gotta feel it and get through it.
AH: You’re about to head out on tour. Is this your first tour, semi post-pandemic?
L: I’ve done a few little one-offs – I was able to go over to the UK last spring and did, like, three shows, and I did a couple shows this summer in Norway. Yeah, this’ll be the first time consistently like, ‘Let’s do this.’ Going to the UK to rehearse, and then we’ve got five or six shows in Norway, and then I go to the UK to do all these record store in-store promo things, and then I come home, then I start my US tour. So aside from some one-offs in the last couple years and some socially distanced things I did during COVID, this is my first time really, ‘OK, we’re goin’ on tour.’ And it’s awesome, and it’s also kinda scary!
AH: Well, continue on that, because that’s basically what I was about to ask – how are you feeling about all of this?
L: I think, just like anything, muscle memory, a decade of kind of being on the go non-stop, you kinda get used to that lifestyle, and the plane rides, and the jetlag, and the days of adjustment to get into the swing of things when you go overseas, and you’re immediately hittin’ the ground runnin’. Those were things that I was pretty in the habit of being able to do. And then I think, even just the last two years, being such a break, that even without touring I’m getting busy. I have a popcorn company and I have a store that I opened. I have my farm and my partner and my family and my friends, my music and my dog. Suddenly, with being busy it’s like, ‘How did I do this before?’ I’m just starting to learn what it’s like again to be on the go. So I think I have felt really excited, I’m really excited to be part of a team again. I love being part of a band. Being able to see my band again and play with them is gonna feel good. I love to be part of a team. I never played sports, really, in high school. It wasn’t ‘til I was an adult that I felt like I knew what it was to be on a team. So I missed that. I’m not drinking. I’m exercising, I’m eating really good food. I’m training as though I’m an athlete right now. Because I’m also turning 40 this year! I know that’s still young. My body doesn’t put up with the things it did when I was 25, and I started doing all this stuff, so I’m a little nervous! But I’m also excited.
AH: What else are you listening to right now? Who are you listening to, and who’s grabbed your ears lately?
L: You know, it’s interesting, and I feel like it’s kind of an obnoxious thing to say, but I listened to so much music growing up in high school and in college and in my early 20s in LA and I was always at concerts – I kind of feel like, once I started doing this for a living, that the thing that I listen to or go to when I’m trying to just go through my day, I’ll just put on classical music radio around the house – no singing, just music and dynamics and beauty. I watch a lot of TV, because I really like just watching comedies over and over. I listen to healthy podcasts and stuff. The Current radio station [89.3 Minnesota Public Radio], which is up in the Twin Cities, my closest city to where I live – I listen to a lot of The Current, and they’re playing a lot of Maggie Rogers, Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Barnett. I feel like there’s so much great music coming from women these days. I also tend to like to re-discover old stuff. There was a song…”Steppin’ Out,” by, uhm…
AH: Joe Jackson?
L: Joe Jackson! That song! That was the song of my summer. I was getting that song stuck in my head, and I’m ‘What song is that?’ I could never figure it out. And then I was in a hardware store, and I heard it, and I was ‘Siri, what song is this?’ So “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson was literally – I would listen to it seven times in a row every single day for two months. I’m the person that gets stuck on one and listens to it ‘til I’m sick of it.
AH: Yeah, I’ll get myself into those ruts, too, but one there’s one thing you want to hear, that’s all that’ll work for ya.
L: Mm-hmm. That song just gets you feelin’ like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m feelin’ intense now. I’m feelin’ good. I’m ready to step out!’ I’m all about that music that puts you in that space – like Boney M. or ABBA – just things that I’ve known forever that I kind of come back around to. But of course there’s just so much great new music, and I should be better at – do you ever feel just the sheer volume of what’s happening on the internet is overwhelming?
AH: Yes! I get overwhelmed sometimes about how much I want to listen to something new, and I just don’t get the chance sometimes. I just don’t have the physical time.
L: Yeah, it’s almost like this action paralysis. I used to listen to so much music, but there is something now that the possibilities feel literally infinite, and I will sometimes find that there’s things that are flashy to the eye that I’ll see on Instagram, something that will kind of pull my attention, and then it doesn’t really have the substance that I’m looking for. But it’s definitely visually pleasing. So it’s sometimes hard to weed through and find what you really like, you know?
AH: Yeah, yeah. But it’s fun, too. You end up, if you do it enough, you find some really good ones. And you find some not-so-good ones, admittedly.
L: Yeah, there’s this band that’s been around forever called Mountain Goats? I was recently at a Record Store Day Summer Camp thing in New Orleans and just bumped into this guy in the hallway, and we were, ‘Do I know you? I feel like we’ve met.’ And it was the lead singer of Mountain Goats [John Darnielle]. So I’ve kind of been back into The Mountain Goats, realizing that’s a good reminder, I bumped into him in the hallway, I gotta get back into them. And they have a really cool new song out. So I’m always sort of trying to be aware of what’s going on, but sometimes I don’t do a great job. I think we’re all just too busy right now.
AH: Sometimes, though, there is that rush of hearing something new, or new to you, and it just does knock you out, and that’s great.
L: And I know there’s an example like that that I should be giving you, and I cannot, for the life of me, pull it from my brain right now. But definitely Madi Diaz, for sure. That History of a Feeling album was, from beginning to end, just breathtaking. That album has so much substance, and it’ll really suck you in, and you just really want to keep listening. There’s no filler.
AH: Anything else you want to say about the album or tour or life or the farm or anything?
L: It’s been four years since I’ve put out a full album of new songs. I did a lot of reissues and covers and things in the meantime. Like so many people, COVID definitely hit the big pause button, but I’m proud of these songs. They’re all true, and it was really healing for me to make this record. So I think as a musician, what I really hope, even aside from how the critics respond, or the industry, it’s more important to me, I think, that the people who get this music can then use it and apply it to their own experiences and heartaches and process, because I think that’s just such a gift. I feel honored to make music, and it sounds cheesy, but you have to feel your feelings, and if I can help people feel deeply and cry or ruminate on something in their own life – I just think that process of feeling and release is the path toward peace in this world. Is everyone taking responsibility for their emotional world and not going around projecting it on other people? I think it would just be more peaceful if more people took responsibility for their emotions and did a little bit better of a job of being right with themselves so they didn’t have to go around and be sh!tty to other people. So that’s how I feel about that! Other than that, I’ve got a popcorn company – it’s called Otts’ Pops Indie Pop, and we make pop music-themed popcorn, so we have Folk Pop, Cheesy Pop, Dream Pop, Synth Pop, Country Pop, Brit Pop. We make all this popcorn that’s based on pop music, and that’s been a really good project to do during COVID, since I couldn’t really play shows. I like to stay busy! I like a project.
Go here to order Carving Canyons (out September 16): https://lissie-us.myshopify.com/
Check out tour dates for Lissie here: https://lissie.com/
If you’ve got a hankerin’ for popcorn: https://www.ottspops.com/