Lissie was born in Rock Island, Illinois, one of the Quad Cities on the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s the city that inspired Rock Island Line and that bore Bix Beiderbecke; it’s the stuff of spring floods and pick-up trucks and bona fide blue-collar country music. She’s a straight-talking Midwestern girl, all flaxen hair and big blue eyes, and this girl is smart and gutsy and tough, with a big old voice to match it: Laurel Canyon prettiness stewed in campfire and bourbon.
Lissie was always musical. Inspired by her Grandfather, a former international barbershop quartet champion, she would sing along at her Lutheran church but she was never a choirgirl. She scored the lead in an 80-date production of Annie for the local dinner theatre at the age of nine. “I was always humming,” she says, “making up these little songs and melodies, writing these poems and putting them to music. I know if I’m feeling bummed out just the vibration of singing is kind of soothing to me.”
She was also the family rebel. Trouble seemed to have a knack for following Lissie, from once dyeing her hair with pen ink in 6th grade to cutting class, talking back, eventually getting thrown out of high school. “I felt that people didn’t know what to do with me, and tried to squash my spirit a little, which gave rise to a defiant streak within me early on,” she self-describes. “It was that that made me bend my ideas around convention.” She taught herself a handful of guitar chords, wrote about the girls who snubbed her and the boys who broke her and all the scrapes she got herself into. Playing them out loud at the local coffee shop where she worked, she dreamed of the world beyond her hometown.
Colorado State University was sort of a back-up plan, a brief toe-dip into academia. She played music, honing her songs, headlining the local theatre, writing and recording a track with a local electronic DJ that found its way onto TV, soundtracking The OC, Veronica Mars, and House. She spent a semester in Paris, kept writing, kept playing, and then ditched college altogether when she returned to the US, moving to Los Angeles to make a go of her music career.
In LA she played bars, showcases and residencies, sometimes performing in clubs to an audience of one. In the spring of 2006, she started a weekly residency with musician friends at Crane’s Hollywood Tavern in her neighborhood, which she named ‘Beachwood Rockers’ Society’. Lissie made ends meet handing out restaurant flyers and selling honey every Sunday at the local farmer’s market. “Raw honey,” she recalls. “I would say, ‘Have you tried the world’s best-tasting honey? It’s not heated, treated, whipped or spun!’”
Little by little, things came together. She recorded a five-track EP, Why You Runnin’, with her friend Bill Reynolds (of Band of Horses) and in London with Ed Harcourt, which Fat Possum released in November 2009. The EP caught the attention of new fans and the U.S. press, with praise rolling in from Paste, Nylon, Filter, and Marie Claire, among others. She toured with Ray LaMontagne, A.A. Bondy, City & Colour, and The Low Anthem; she eventually tackled a whirlwind SXSW schedule (10 shows, 4 days) with ease and won over tough critics like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and even Perez Hilton.
She headed to Nashville to record with Jacquire King (who was fresh from working with the Kings of Leon), and also recorded some more with Reynolds. What came out of these sessions is the bulk of her debut album, Catching A Tiger: 12 songs that range from bluesy-folk to unfettered pop, and showcase both her remarkable voice and her songwriting chops.
Lissie left LA, spent time in London and Tennessee, hankering a little for that midwestern hometown in Illinois. Eventually she extricated herself from a long, troubled relationship and relocated to Ojai, CA, population just shy of 8,000. She rented an old farmhouse she had never seen, in a town she had never visited, “just because I sat next to someone from there on an airplane who told me it was nice.” She likes it up there. “It’s fairly slow, everything closes early and you can see all the stars at night. There are mountains outside my front door and it’s really quiet, which means I get a lot of work done and have time to myself, which is essential for me to function. I can still drive into LA for some excitement when I want, going out and being around other people is equally important to me.”
“All these things,” she says, talking a little about her new hometown in CA, and a little about her music, too, “I do them without thinking. So much of my process is instinct and it’s natural. Even in photo shoots I won’t wear concealer, I don’t want to look like someone painted my face. Everything I do I want to feel natural; I want it to mean something to me. If it doesn’t feel natural I can’t do it. I can’t act. I’m not good at faking it.”
And this is the essence of Lissie, something straight-down-the-line, unaffected. “Now I’ve gotten older I really found myself recognizing the hometown Midwesterner in me and embracing it,” she says. “For better or worse it may not be all that tactful or that cool, but there’s no phoniness. It’s pretty direct. And I’m direct; I’m not hiding anything. I don’t really know what or why or who I am,” she says, “but I don’t know how to not be how I am.” Lissie is, you might say, ‘not heated, treated, whipped or spun.’
Since early this year, Lissie has largely been based in London, where Catching A Tiger was first released. Embraced lovingly by the British press, she’s been featured in Q, The Sun, The Sunday Times, The Mirror, Time Out, The Big Issue, and on the BBC and Later…with Jools Holland, among others; she’s played with Joshua Radin, Local Natives, and Alan Pownall, in addition to performing at Bonnaroo in Manchester, TN, and The Great Escape in Brighton, England. She’s also picked up praise and support from a wide range of fellow artists, including Katy Perry, Courtney Love, Mumford & Sons, and Ellie Goulding, who joined her onstage to perform “Everywhere I Go” at The Great Escape in May.