In a world where Lady Gaga is grinding up on R. Kelly, 16-year-old Lorde is scoffing at sipping on Grey Goose and Miley’s just being Miley, a singer/songwriter like Lissie is a bit of a lone wolf. Back to Forever, the gritty, unapologetic follow-up to the sunny, folky strains of her 2010 debut, Catching a Tiger, drags uncomfortable topics of conversation kicking and screaming back under the scrutiny of a spotlight with none of the cutesy stuff that keeps a devastated ballad from getting too bitter. Heartbreak and dashed dreams are present here, as they would be on any other pop or rock record, but Lissie delves deeper, launching into rants about the industry that dissect the most superficial aspects of it while she strums her guitar and cracks her voice on the high note. The triumphs of Back to Forever are borne from the fact that Lissie’s been doing a lot of thinking with her guitar in her hands, and the only way to work out her feelings about the world at large is to do so without a filter.
That’s not to say she doesn’t love Miley and Lorde, or that she doesn’t respect what they do; when we chat via Transatlantic call, she’s nothing but pleasant, laughing about a crappy connection but eager to tell us how her European tour dates are going before we dig into “Shameless,” the aspiring pop dynamos mentioned and the rest of the record. The difference between Lissie and Lorde and the rest of these pop stars that are trying to change the artificial aspects of the music industry one chorus at a time is that she’s a rock musician through and through, and that her ability to shred onstage with an electric guitar firmly in her grasp is one that adds a severity to “Shameless” that “Royals” lacks. Back to Forever is brimming with these moments, and when you bring them onstage in front of a room full of people who are hanging on every word, the intensity breaks, and what we’re left with is a rock experience that feels more at home in a dank and dirty rock club than on the cover of a magazine.
When you take a look at Catching a Tiger and Back to Forever, what’s a drastic shift you’ve seen in your songwriting between records?
I wish I could be real methodical about that, but really, it’s a lot of songs about what I’m currently feeling and reacting to. I guess on Back to Forever I was doing a lot of reflecting on my past, both longing for being younger and feeling like I had forever ahead of me, and then reflecting on relationships that I’ve been in and patterns that I’ve continued to repeat. A lot of [Back to Forever] is just working through it, at least lyrically, but I’m kind of just getting all of this shit out of me. It seems almost negative, because it’s everything from me listening to the news to being pissed about mountaintop removal to celebrity culture to me pointing out all these different pratfalls in relationships. From my perspective, I write songs. My band and I, when we play live, we have our own style that’s totally separate from any of my albums, to be honest. Back To Forever was a combination of my mindset at the time and the amount of time it took to make, my band playing on the record and lending more of that rock sound we do live. I wish I could say that there was this whole masterminded-like concept behind it, but I just kind of like to keep moving.
What kind of life has Back to Forever taken on the road?
The band and I are getting stronger and working onstage more as one brain. Now, as different as Catching a Tiger and Back to Forever are from one another, in certain ways, when “When I’m Alone” sits next to “Further Away” and “Sleepwalking,” I think that all the variety that’s really apparent, on record, is a little bit blurrier live because it all seems to flow together differently. When you only have four instruments, everything just kind of takes on a certain sound. We haven’t over-thought it. We’ve just sort of played the songs as well as we could, the four of us. Records, those are the places where you can have fun and mess around in a way you can’t onstage. You can lay down five different guitar parts. I can’t do that in real life unless I got five guitar players, so, records are a way and a place where you can work with a group of people and collectively make something that you really had fun doing and are really proud of. I think that the live show is meant to sound different from the record. I might be in the minority, because I know people can just use backing tracks and they can make the live show sound exactly like the record, but that’s not something I’m really interested in doing, because I don’t think that’s interesting. I think that’s pushing a button. It also kind of contributes to me feeling like I’m all over the place, because I’m one thing when I’m with the band, and I do another thing with a friend that’s a producer, and I just kind of want to keep writing songs without over-thinking it, which keeps me from being as successful as I could maybe be, if I were to pick one thing and stick with it.
I think this approach works for you in all your unabashed, strongly opinionated glory. Let’s talk about “Shameless,” with everything going on now–Miley, Lorde, Gaga, etc.–not to say you’re necessarily getting on a soap box, but when it comes to the industry and your thoughts, you’re in an interesting spot as you’re signed to a major label. Have you ever felt like you’ve gone too far when it comes to speaking your mind?
Well, I think I didn’t really have those same strong opinions on Catching a Tiger, because I was just kind of this naïve, positive person who got into music because I loved it, not because I wanted to be famous. I had some success, and going into the second record, seeing almost how you could get pitted up against different people, and you see them scaling a pile of bodies to get to the top or something … I never want to jump in and compete. I wanted to sort of back off and go stand over there and do my thing. I don’t want to be bitter or sound angry. One thing I will say, not to pull the girl card, but if you’re a guy, and you’re angry in a song, it’s like, badass. To be a woman and angry in one song, suddenly, people are like, “WHY IS SHE SO ANGRY?!” It’s not becoming. Now you’re a bitter bitch or something, and it’s like, that’s not my entire personality! It’s just one song. In that way, I worry that people will misunderstand who I am, but I think I’m making a really valid point, and I’m also standing up to people and laying the groundwork and saying that this is what I’m going to do. I’m not going to be a social climber, and I’m not going to base my career around what my image is and make that more important than what my message is. I don’t know how to play this game and I’m not going to try to. Anyone who tries to make me can go climb up a tree. (laughs) You’ve got to make boundaries and sometimes you get pissed off. It didn’t occur to me until now, but if a guy did that, you wouldn’t say the same thing. Lorde’s song, “Royals,” is similar to what I’m saying. It’s different but it’s sort of like just saying that you don’t give a shit about all that stuff. She does it more subtly.
Right–but Lorde is making pop music, and your fabric is rock and roll. It’s almost as though the claws are sharper with you because you’re playing a guitar and writing these songs with teeth, and you can therefore take it.
I think Lorde is a breath of fresh air. Even if we want to talk about Miley, if I had that skinny little body, I’d probably want to be naked all the time, too! There’s no one in particular I hate on. There’s no particular person I’m lashing out at. If anything, it’s the population, media and technology. It’s the fact that we’re so shocked that we need something more shocking to keep happening so that we can be more shocked. It’s not a specific person, but I do think that yeah, it’s that double standard … and that’s what I find really challenging, not comparing myself to other people or calling them out, but trying to be able to make a statement and not have people turn around on me saying “Well, wait a minute.” People are complicated. Everyone has bad days; I just happen to sing about mine.
See also: Lorde – Webster Hall – 9/30/13
You opened for Petty and Springsteen recently. What is it about your music that makes sense on a bill alongside these guys? What do you think it is about your music that keeps this contemporary/classic rock balance?
I read a review [of the Springsteen show] where they were positive, but they said “This isn’t really groundbreaking, but it’s solid.” I think the reason why they said it is because I’m very straightforward and all the instrumentation is about playing the guitar. It’s not like we use weird effects pedals. What we’re doing really isn’t a part of any wave of what’s happening currently in music. It’s not electronic, or dubstep, or trip hop. People who are playing instruments in a band, that can be boring for some people. It’s not classic rock, but I like it when people use the word “timeless,” because I don’t think we’re trying to fit in a certain genre or trend. We’re just making what we think is straightforward music … I do have to say on this album, I think right now, I have so many questions in my head. I think I’m trying to figure out how to live a nice life and be happy, and that’s why I write music. Considering all the stuff that’s going on in the world with the economy, the environment, politics, celebrity, technology and how that’s affected the way we connect with each other, it’s hard to write a super positive record about how great life is. I listen to a lot of NPR, and I’ve had a lot of shitty relationships, so I think this album is particularly aggressive because I was just living in the world and responding to what’s around me. I think there may come a time where I put out another record that’s more softer and more tender and positive, because I think I’m just this sponge that’s soaking up the energy that’s around me, and that’s what I end up writing about. It’s me reacting to what I’m experiencing.
Lissie headlines Webster Hall Monday 11/25/13.