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Everywhere She Goes: Returning to the Midwest with Lissie

Interview by Alexandra Martin
Photo Courtesy of Reybee Inc.

Elisabeth Maurus, more widely known by her stage name Lissie, is an American singer-songwriter originally from Illinois. She stands out from the rest thanks to vocals that demand attention and her dreamy, yet completely down-to-earth catalog of music. After years of living in California and touring all over the world, she recently returned to the Midwest to live on a farm in eastern Iowa. Here, she has transitioned to working as an independent artist and enjoyed the benefits of not being bound to a major record label. She continues to wow with her dusky, low vocals and rock-‘n-roll meets Americana spirit, exploring songwriting at her own pace.

Lissie will be bringing her Americana sound here to Fargo for a solo, unplugged show at Sanctuary Events Center on Feb. 18. We got to speak with her about returning to the Midwest, how her music has evolved over the years and what kind of show she’ll put on here.

I know you’re originally a Midwesterner hailing from Illinois. We are excited to have you back here in the region in February. Have you ever been to Fargo before? 
I haven’t. I have always wanted to go, though. My parents have really good friends there that we’ve actually always talked about visiting. I was supposed to play there, maybe last year, but I ended up not being able to because I had to finish my last album. I ran into a deadline. So I haven’t been there yet.
Well, we are excited to finally have you! What do you know about Fargo? I’m sure you know of the movie and whatnot. 
I’ve watched all of the TV seasons of the show and I love it, it’s so good. But I guess my assumption of Fargo is that it probably has kind of that Minneapolis or general Minnesota vibe, to an extent. I’ve spent a lot of time in Minneapolis and a bit of time in Duluth. Now I live up in Eastern Iowa, which is pretty close to the Minnesota border. So I kinda conclude that the Dakotas might somehow fit into that realm of Minnesota vibes.
I’d say that’s pretty accurate. So you’re living in Iowa now. What’s been nice to do there versus when you were living in the LA area? 

It’s great. Since I was 18 up until a few years ago, so from about 2001 to 2015, I did not live in the Midwest. I did visit, but I was living in Southern California and touring and traveling quite a bit. But as I got a bit older, any time I would land back in the Midwest, my heart would just kinda slow down a little bit. And I’d be like, “ah this feels right.” Something about the air and the smell and the feeling. I just always had a sense that the Midwest was home.

I didn’t know that when I was a teenager necessarily, but as I got into my 30s, I kind of knew that I was probably going to move back to the Midwest. That’s where I feel like I belong. So being back has been great. I live in a small town in northeastern Iowa, and I have a little farm that I rent out to other people who farm it, so I don’t really farm, I just garden. But it’s just really ideal. It’s a nice counterbalance to my travels because I go to a lot of cities, so being able to come back to a quiet community is really key.

I see you’ve been touring all over the country lately and soon to be internationally. I’m sure you enjoy coming back to these homey Midwest shows.

I do. And like in anyone in any sort of a profession, it’s about trying to find a balance of work and life and day-to-day life and friendships and relationships and having a dog and stuff. So I do travel quite a bit, and I have for about 10 years now, going to Europe quite extensively, the U.K. and Norway especially. My first album went gold in the U.K. and Norway, so I’m still in that sweet spot where I can go back once or twice a year and play some fun shows. But there is something nice about coming back.

I’m going to do shows in Iowa City, Omaha and Fargo, and I think my parents are going to drive me. Plus, my brother lives in Iowa City and my best friends from college live in Fargo. So there’s more familiarity and comfort to playing these shows closer to home. They’re a little more grounded.

I’m an artist and I’m sensitive and I romanticize things, but even now, I like to drive around and be like, “Oh, this thing happened here, and this is the place that really formed me.” I think a bit of it was I felt a bit stifled in my teens, but when you go back as an adult and you’ve had time to live and process things, you have this appreciation, hopefully, for where you come from.
It was funny, my sister sent me this meme the other day, because we are always saying sorry. And I think people, women in general, say they’re sorry, but in the Midwest, there’s this thing that I never noticed until someone was talking about it where you’re like, “Ope sorry! Ope excuse me!” And just noticing, no matter where I am in the world, I carry these Midwest-isms with me.
You’ve had awesome success with your covers of “Pursuit of Happiness,” “Bad Romance,” “Go Your Own Way,” etc. They are how I personally discovered you. Is doing covers an inspiration for you? 

It’s funny because, I wish there was some master wisdom to it, but when I was teaching myself how to play guitar when I was a teenager, a lot of the first songs that I was playing were covers because I wasn’t writing my own songs yet, or I couldn’t really play all the chords yet. So I’d find songs that were easy enough to play and then, inevitably, try to embody the lyrics to mean something personal to me. So yes, that is somebody else’s song, but I can very much make it fit into coming from my perspective. So over the years for fun, I would do these covers, like I love Metallica so I covered “Nothing Else Matters,” and then before too long, those were the songs, like you said, that people were discovering me through.

More often than not, a lot of people say they discovered me through my covers. And it’s been fun, too, because I’m doing genres that people don’t expect. I’ve done Danzig and Metallica, but I’ve also done One Direction, Lady Gaga, Kid Cudi and Bob Dylan. It’s fun to leap through genres and almost show how a good song is a good song and can be presented, in its most basic essence, in any genre.

The way you can reinterpret them is really amazing. 
It’s been such an awesome way for people to find me. It wasn’t my intention, and I tried to do things out of pure joy of doing them, but it was a bonus that people who maybe wouldn’t have listened to my kind of music could discover me through that Kid Cudi cover that I did. They were different avenues of getting myself connected to people who might not find me otherwise.
Your original songs are even more impressive than the covers. What’s a song of yours that you prize the most or are really excited about? 

Well, thank you. I’m at this place where I’ve put out four full-length albums now. So I don’t know exactly know what’s next. But in terms of my songs, I’ve had time to think about that lately because I am actually in a healthy relationship right now, and it’s funny because all my best songs came from dysfunctional relationships. It’s like, what am I going to write about now? [laughs] It’s sort of funny to reflect on my body of work and remember who all the songs were about.

There’s a song from my first album called “Everywhere I Go” that is just a very pure, simple, very direct song that time and time again I come back to. Some of the songs that were written about people are times in my life have sort of come and gone, but I feel like “Everywhere I Go” continues to be very relevant to me in every stage of my life. It’s really simple and emotional. I think that sometimes with songwriting, it’s like I try to make things so complicated, and it’s usually the more direct and simple you keep it is the most moving because it’s so universal. Anybody can tap into it.

You have such emotion in your songs, whether that be positive in “Best Days” or more somber like in “Everywhere I Go” or “They All Want You.” Is the songwriting and performing process therapeutic to you?
It most definitely is. I think that’s why I’m in this interesting place where I’m not a songwriter that approaches it like I have to write a song every day to be prolific and stay up on my craft. I always write songs when I need to. I feel like they often will come and bubble up to the surface like they’ve been sitting in me waiting to come out. When I’ve been processing things and then ultimately let stuff out that’s been on my heart, I get lighter when I write a song about it cause I can let go a little bit.
Your breadth of songs is wide, from singer-songwriter ones to more pop-reminiscent, to heartache, to confidence, etc. What’s your show like? 

It depends. When I come to Fargo, I’m going to be a solo and acoustic show. Those shows are really fun for me because I can dig into my repertoire and kind of have a banter with the crowd in a different way. When I’m with a band, it’s kind of like, okay I’m in a rock show, high energy, sweaty and we are going to just cruise from song to song, and I might talk a little bit, but we have a mostly set performance. Whereas I feel like these solo shows are really fun to do because I am more flexible. It feels polished, but loose and spontaneous because I will encourage the audience to yell out requests. Sometimes you have really outgoing crowds and then you end up having a feeling like you’re just having a little party together and everyone is being nice.

So to answer your question, I think with this show that you guys are going to see it’s very much this raw kind of evening where I might talk about my songs, where they came from, what the things were that made me want to write them and what I’m doing next. I can talk more about my dog or the farm and be a bit more personable than just “I’m going to put on a rock show for you.” It’s nice being able to do both. As a musician, you go through cycles where you’re doing the band stuff and then maybe you have an in-between year where you’re doing more stripped down stuff, so it’s always a little bit different.

Here in Fargo, we have plenty of aspiring musicians. As someone who has been with a label and is not independent and has continuously been making waves, what advice do you have for future musicians wanting to make it in the music industry?

I get asked this and I’m like, I shouldn’t be giving anyone advice! But I think for me, I really, really, really loved to sing. I loved to share and perform. Whether I was in college playing on a patio of a Pizza Hut or playing at a festival in front of 10,000 people, I brought the same amount of eagerness and passion into my performance. I think it really is about doing it because you love it and having faith. Sometimes people develop tunnel vision, like: this is the thing I want and these are the things I’m going after. But I think having enough faith in yourself and being willing to put yourself out there and work hard, it then allows these opportunities to present themselves.

There was a time when an electric DJ wanted to write a song with me, and I was like, well that’s not really what I do, but I said yes and then it ended up being this Grammy-nominated remix, and that brought a lot of exposure and new fans into my life. So I think my advice is to not develop tunnel vision, to say yes to everything, but also keep a firm grasp on your morals and your identity, but be open to things that come up. I think that’s really important because some of the best opportunities are the ones you had no idea even existed.

Lissie’s new album ‘When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective’ comes out April 5th 2019. Pre-order here: The album is a retrospective collection of her greatest songs and covers like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away,” all presented as vocal and piano-only arrangements.

Written by Alexandra Martin

Alexandra Martin is the editor of Fargo Monthly. She hails from Huntsville, Alabama, but graduated from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri with a degree in Fashion Communications. When she's not in the office, she is busy taking care of her small zoo of pets, cooking up vegetables, or listening to true-crime podcasts.

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