Are you in the market for a great songwriter who doubles as a fantastic cleaning lady? If you need someone who can clean your cabinets and pen a mean chorus, look no further than Lissie. You see, Lissie likes organization. She needs things to be clean and orderly in the space around her. For example, she likes to put things in pouches. Then she puts those pouches inside other pouches.
The irony in all of this obsession with order is that her writing process is anything but organized. Lissie is all about the stream of consciousness process, where she just lets everything flow out in one giant mess that she organizes later. For thirty minutes, she'll just write, with little regard for how it looks or what's coming out. For someone who insists on the proper placement of the salt and pepper shaker at the dinner table, this can be surprising.
Lissie new album, "Catching a Tiger," is out on Fat Possum Records. I reviewed it for the Washington Post recently, and as I said there, she draws the typical comparisons to other singer songwriters like Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, and Stevie Nicks mostly because she is, well, a female. But more than any of them, in her voice I hear artists like Karen Peris from the innocence mission. Regardless of what comparison you draw, Lissie has a killer voice.
So read my interview with Lissie after the video and learn more about the constant tension between order and chaos in her life. It makes for great songwriting.
I know this sounds strange, but my other creative outlet besides songwriting is cleaning. I like to organize space. I was just staying at my parents' house recently, and I moved all the furniture around in the room they put me in, and I cleaned. It's my way of feeling inspired. I set up a station for myself to email and write. That's my thing: being compulsive about my space, neat and tidy. And putting things in pouches. I lay everything out on the floor and decide what category it goes into and what pouches it should go in. People laugh at me because I put pouches inside of pouches.
I like to compartmentalize things. I am not too out of control, but if I am sitting at a table with people, I like to organize the things on the table. I like to make sure the salt and pepper sit in a certain place and that all the crumbs are off the table. But I can let it go; I don't always have to do it. Laughs.
But when you organize things at home, do you do it creatively with a designer's eye?
Functionality and cleanliness is the most important. There's a design element, but I want my space to be as conducive to me feeling as unfettered and uncluttered as possible. I want the space in front of me to reflect my mental state. I want things to be where they belong so that I am not overwhelmed when I am trying to clear out my head.
Then what's your ideal environment for a good writing session?
It's funny, because I make space each morning for things to be in their place, but then I don't sit down and try to write. Just last week when I was outside sitting on the porch looking at the stars, lots of ideas came. When something like that happens, I run up to my room and get my notebook to write it all down. So my writing is actually impulsive. Sometimes before I go to bed, I like to sit down at a desk and just write to see if anything comes out. But I don't sit down and say, "Ok, I am going to write a song now." I wait for it to come.
But do you ever sit down and write because you have a thought to express?
90% of the time I sit down because I have an idea in my head that I need to catch before I forget it. The other 10% happens when sometimes if I feel anxious before I go to bed, because I travel so much and have so many things to think about, I'll write.
Back to the organization: do you need a clean space to write?
It actually doesn't matter. I feel like I need a clean space just to function on a day to day basis, but I could be in a toilet at a bar with a napkin with somebody's lipstick, and I could still write as long as I have an idea. Then I'll transfer my ideas from all those loose pieces to the master book, which has all the lyrical bits.
And what does that master book look like?
It's just one of those black and white composition notebooks. I also make a lot of lists, so I have my school-looking notebook for all my lists and plans, and I have my composition book for my creative writing. I also have a journal that write in when I feel like it. Laughs. So I have all these different compartments of books. Each has a different purpose.
The other night, when I was sitting on the porch, my aunt had just died and I had just postponed those shows because of my voice. I was sad and also worried about my voice. It ended up being good because I was home with my family. I was sitting on the porch, thinking about my aunt and thinking about my childhood and all these things that had changed. At one point I ran inside and grabbed some scratch paper and a highlighter and wrote it all down. If I didn't do it then, I would have forgotten. I can get really anxious because if I don't have something to write it down on, I have to recite it over and over so that I don't forget it.
Would you call yourself a disciplined writer?
Unless I write with someone else and have a plan to write, I don't make myself write. Weeks can go by before I write a song, then all of the sudden I'll have so much to say. I try to strike when the iron is hot. I can't do something forced.
Not really. When I lived in LA and wasn't as busy and I had more time, maybe I would get anxious if I hadn't written anything good. But now because I am so busy, I give myself some leeway since I am focusing on so many other things. I'm always writing something down, with all of the people that I meet. Then when I take a break and hunker down to write, I have many half-written things to finish. If I already have something started, then I make the time to finish it.
With so many reviews I've read, people say that all my songs sound different. And it's because I don't have a clear identity of one thing I am trying to say. I'm writing about things like ending a four year relationship, my aunt passing away, riding my bike in nature, and feeling really happy. I have something to say about all of those things. If I don't have experiences like that, I could probably write a bunch of fake stuff, but music is a way of expressing my true feeling, not a way of expressing an idea of how I am supposed to feel.
Take me through the process when you sit down and write.
There are a couple different ways. Say I come up with a bit of a melody with an accompanying lyric that just occurs to me, maybe some words that pop into my head. Then I'll record it on my phone. I'll go through and take those bits of melody and pretty quickly know what the other bits of the song are, based on that one chunk.
Then there's what happens if just lyrics come to me. I'm usually scrambling to find a pen and paper and writing feverishly. Or the third way is if I am writing with someone else. They'll give me a musical part like a loop or a progression, whether it's on guitar or beats. Then I'll get on a mike and sing over it for 30 minutes with just a stream of consciousness. Usually from that 30 minutes, there's some strong melodic bits and I'll pick those out. In that phrasing, I am using fake words, so I have to listen to the fake words and put real words in to fit the syllabic picture and rhythm.
Sometimes I'll also go through my lyric book, because I have lots of lyrics that aren't a part of songs. I'll have a melody with a certain emotion, and I'll find some words to fit that. But that can be harder because then it feels like I am trying too hard. I do find that stream of consciousness writing elicits the most heartfelt lyrics.
So you use that stream of consciousness to compose whole songs, or just bits and pieces?
I guess maybe I use it to get a good beginning, at least to a point where I know it's going, then my intellectual mind kicks in to piece it together. But it all starts out very loose. At some point, though, I need to be an editor, cleaning it up and making sense of what's there: adding stuff, taking stuff out, and organizing it so I am telling the story correctly.
When you revise, what do you do?
I've never used a rhyming dictionary or thesaurus; I'm not technical in that way. I'm much more emotional. I go through and find lines that seem too generic and try to come up with a different word to fit that holds more meaning. Or I'll just sit down and ask myself what I am trying to say in a song. Take "In Sleep," for example. It's about when you have a dream about someone you've been dating and in your dreams everything is fine, but you wake up and realize you are no longer together. When I was going through the lyrics, I had to remind myself that I was talking about a certain feeling and to not be too forced. The way I write is so unintentional and unconscious. I feel lucky when I get a song. Like "Bully." I wrote that in three minutes. I don't know where it came from. If I write on purpose, it wouldn't be the same thing.
But when you write something with such a burst of emotion, when you go back and revise do you ever wonder what the heck you were thinking?
With "Bully" and "Ol Mississippi," I wrote it and didn't think twice. I didn't want to mess with it. If it comes to me that quickly, I am not going to mess with it.
How do you know when a song is done?
When I write alone, if I enjoy playing it, I know it's done. If it feels cathartic, I know it's done.
What's your perfect writing environment?
It would have to be the calm after the storm. For me to write, I feel like I have to have gone through a lot of changes. A lot of experiences that expand my horizons. So I'd need a crazy spell that gives me something to think about. And I need to be somewhere relaxing.
Who are some of your favrorite authors?
Tom Robbins, I love Jitterbug Perfume. And Harry Potter. I love the obvious battle between dark and light forces and the dark Harry Potter material. It's an innocent way of explaining something that is very real: you can choose to go to the dark side or the light side in every decision you make. A lot of my music is about being real with people and wanting to grow, so cheesy kids books are my favorite. I just read some paperback fiction that I got at the airport. It's probably not the best writing, but I like to be able to identify with the characters and think about how I can be a better person, whether it's as a friend, daughter, aunt, whatever. You can feel their humanity. In anything I read, if I can have compassion for the characters, then I get welled up with humanity and get inspired to be a good person.
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