Catching a Tiger: a Q&A with Lissie

Lissie Maurus – just Lissie, professionally –  is probably one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. No, really. Delightfully unaffected by all of the well-deserved hype which surrounded her 2010 debut Catching a Tiger, Lissie is a natural conversationalist,  open and easy to talk to with a genuine passion for her craft. Oh yeah, did I mention she’s an absolutely brilliant musician?

Her style is varied and serves as a reflection of her eclectic taste, with Catching a Tiger refusing to follow a single thread and instead indulging in lush instrumentation and production while still remaining, in essence, a singer-songwriter friendly album with a smooth as hell edge. Her voice is thick and heady and the topics of her songs are ones we can all relate to – heartbreak, longing, growing up and apart – and that express the acuteness of those feelings in a simple yet powerful way.

In November, Lissie released Covered Up with Flowers, a covers EP containing her original takes on tracks such as Lady GaGa’s ‘Bad Romance’, Kid Cudi’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ and Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’. Continuing to genre hop with an effortlessness that’s purely her, the recording captures the raw energy inherent in her live performances.

I sat down to chat with Lissie about a little bit of everything – her new album, the songwriting process, her recent covers LP and more. Admittedly, we also went off into several tangents about watching new shows on Netflix Instant (she’s currently fond of Battlestar Galactica and Downton Abbey), pets and her love of the outdoors (she’s an ardent hiker and swimmer) – all of which only serve to make her more endearing.

Alright, first thing’s first – when can we expect a new album?

“Well, you know, I’m working on it! I’ve written, like, 40 songs and I’m feeling really confident and positive about the direction it’s going in but I feel like I want to write for another month or so. Hopefully I’ll start recording by March, so I would say by summer or mid-summer, ideally, I’ll be putting out a new record.”

How will the new material differ from Catching a Tiger? Is it a continuation of what you established on that album or are you going in a new direction?

“I don’t think it’s a completely new direction but it’s too early to say – I have this vision in my head that it’ll sound more like my band sounds live. If you’ve seen us as a three piece, I’d like it to go more in that sort of direction. That’s not to say that there won’t be some more interesting production, but I’ll say that I want to keep it straightforward, simple and live sounding as possible. It won’t be a different style or anything – I’m not going to start making heavy metal.

If you liked Catching a Tiger, it’ll be in a similar vein but just hopefully better! I think it’ll come together – there have been ups and downs but I’ve been going with the flow. I’ve been writing songs that I really like, so at this point I’m saying I’ll make it when it’s ready but I don’t want to wait too much longer. I know I had some momentum going and I want to keep it going.”

Do you have any plans to tour again this year?

“I don’t know that, yet, either! I’m doing Coachella, which I’m really excited about. I think by April, it’ll be more obvious what’s going on. I think I’ll be able to make this next record pretty quickly once we start, so if I can have it recorded in a few weeks, it can come out. That might be wishful thinking but I think by then I’ll know more of what I’m doing. I’ll probably play some festivals here and over in the UK. I’d like to spend more time in the US this time around, but we’ll see. I wish I had more clear answers for you!”

What’s your songwriting process like? Is there a particular time or place that you feel the most creative?

“The inspiration thing is so random. I wish I could control it a bit more than I can. As for my writing process… I used to do a lot on my own but now I do mostly all co-writes. I don’t know exactly why that is. I think in a way I’ve gotten more critical of myself because now I am putting my music out there for people to listen, whereas I used to just write for myself. I’m trying to find a balance between being able to sit down and write on my own and not thinking, ‘Oh no, people are going go hear this and it has to be good.’ I’m trying to get my head back, as far as that goes.

When I co-write, I sit down with another person and they’ll play a chord progression and I’ll just start humming melodies and as I’m doing that, words start popping out and that’s how you know what direction you’re going in. It’s quite random. I could hum five melody parts and they could all be a song. I could come up with a great line that says what the song is about and then I have to go finish the lyrics based on that one line. Other times, you have a great melody but you have nothing to say over it and that can be a challenge.”

Do you have a particular song that stands out to you from the first record, that you still feel a strong connection with after all this time ?

“You know, I think there’s a handful of them, really. ‘Everywhere I Go’ and ‘Bully’ are songs I’m proud of and like to sing because I can always conjure up emotion when I sing those two. There is a sadness that has a lot of strength in them. Especially ‘Bully’ – I wrote that all within five minutes, all the feeling spilled out of me in one time. I can always find new ways of interacting with the emotions I have in that song. Plus, ‘In Sleep’ is great to play live because my guitar player can rock out on it. So it’s still great.

Last week, the band and I were playing new songs and that’s great too, because I can’t wait to play them for people and it’s awesome to feel that way. ‘When I’m Alone’ is a song I co-wrote with this guy Jim in England. You just find people you have a great dynamic with sometimes and other times, it’s a total waste of time. Well, it’s never a waste of time. But when you find someone that’ll forever be in your life because you correct on such a deep level, the minute you meet you can open up to each other and talk about everything and push one another. It’s a fun thing to be that collaborative ‘cos I can be a bit of a loner if left to my own devices.”

You’ve released a covers EP – Do you have a favourite cover to perform? Any plans to do more in the future?

“The cover thing… Hmm, I don’t even know that I love covering songs more than any other artist. It just sort of worked out that when I did cover them, people remembered it because we made some odd choices. We weren’t always covering things but based on how well it was going over, it was something we sort of ran with because it was a great way to get attention.

‘Pursuit of Happiness’ is one of my favourites because it has a badass energy to it and is really fun to do. I don’t know what I’ll do in the future – I’m sure I will find something, but when covering songs, I always did it as I thought of it. It’s not really something I think a lot about it – if it happens naturally, great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. But it’s been really helpful in getting our name out there, for sure, and I do have fun doing it.”

Your cover of Lady GaGa’s ‘Bad Romance’ has been really successful, as well. GaGa can be pretty polarising but you were able to put a unique take on it and make it good.

“I think to Lady GaGa’s credit, she’s a great songwriter and that’s what a lot of people need to remember. Trends are crazy – one year it’s going to be house music, one is going to be R&B but at the same time, a song is a song and if you put a melody together with good lyrics, you can sing it in any genre you can imagine and it still works. That’s what art is all about.”

You’ve developed a pretty great friendship with Ellie Goulding – how did that come about?

“I don’t exactly know! It came about because we met – she mentioned me in an interview and some of the people she worked with knew the people I work with so we exchanged numbers and then met up at Great Escape Festival in Brighton and had wine. It was great to meet another female ‘cos I was always on the road. Sometimes musicians can be slightly stand-offish and you want to reach out but don’t know how to go about it. But she was so bright and warm and easy to talk to and we hit it off immediately.

The day we met is when she learned ‘Everywhere I Go’ and we sang it together that night. But to be honest, we haven’t talked too much lately. We were seeing each other a lot when I was in England ‘cos we were at the same festivals. I’d like to sing with her again in the future but I don’t know if that’s in the cards. We had talked about trying to do more – we even joked about starting an all-girl band and who knows, maybe at some point we will! She’s someone I feel like if we’re in the same place at the same time, well probably sing together ‘cos it’s so much fun. But as far as making definite plans, that’s not something I really know about. I’d totally be up for it, though, she’s awesome.”

On your Twitter page, you often talk about what you’re watching on Netflix and Hulu – what have you been into lately?

“My thing right now is Battlestar Galactica. You know what’s funny – you start watching shows a lot and then you talk about the characters like you know them! I like a lot of stuff. This show Revenge on ABC is one I really like. They used one of my songs [her cover of Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters] but I got into that show on my own and coincidentally my manager told me that they were going to use my song after. There’s hardly anything that I don’t like. I like Parks and Recreation, The Office, Modern Family, Gossip Girl… I’ve had a lot of time on my hands so everything that’s come out like The Secret Circle and Once Upon a Time, I get into. I haven’t been watching as much TV lately but I’m getting back into Battlestar Galactica.”

Did you grow up in a musical family?

“Sort of! My dad’s dad – my grandfather – he was a singer and performer. He did a lot of theatre and was an international barber shop quartet champion in the ’50s. He was always singing. My dad’s mom sings in the church choir, and so do my aunts and uncles. My mom and sisters also have a nice voice. My family, genetically, seems to be capable of recognising pitch, which I think is something you’re born with. Aside from my grandfather, though, no one in my family has ever pursued music as a huge hobby or as a living. My sister sang better than me when we were young – she was always the one with the beautiful voice but she was more interested in playing basketball. I just sort of stayed with it.”

Did you take guitar or singing lessons when you were younger?

“I kind of naturally started singing when I was young. My grandfather would come around and we would sing. My parents didn’t play me a lot of music but you’re naturally exposed to music in life. When I was 5 and my sister was 7, she wanted to go take lessons at this performance studio. Since she wanted to do it, I did it from the ages of 5 to 12. I did dance classes and put on little shows and I had a really strong, husky voice as a kid so I got solos a lot.

When I was 9, I tried out for Annie and got the lead part at a local dinner theatre. It was like a professional thing! It was a big experience for me because I was 9 but I was responsible. I had 7 shows a week and was going to school but I still learned my lines. I was young but still was professional and worked really hard. By junior high, I started teaching myself how to play guitar and in high school I started writing songs and playing at coffee shops. I just stuck with it – I didn’t go to college for music but I would do little gigs. I then dropped out of college and moved to LA to ‘make it’, whatever that means. I got lucky over time and found some good people to work with.”

Most difficult part of being a musician?

“Because it’s something that creative and you want it to sort of come to you, what’s sort of hard is when you know you have to get a certain amount of work done and you want to stay active but creativity is fickle. You know you’re supposed to be working on a song but you don’t have any ideas. You can’t really force things, so you have to stay diligent about doing what you can while you can and try to stay on a schedule. You might not always have ideas, but when you do they just come pouring out. I think being patient with my muses is really hard.

When it came to touring, one of the biggest things was taking care of my voice. You’re not sleeping much and you’re singing and talking. I belt, so I found it a challenge at times to keep my voice healthy and just stay healthy in general. When you’re traveling that much, it can start to really wear on you. Now I’m off the road, I think of it fondly. Towards the end of the two years we were on tour, I thought, if we never did again it will be too soon. But then you’re home for a while and it’s nice but you want to get back out there.”

It seems like you have some great things coming up this year, though!

“I’m really excited. I’m hoping this is going to be the defining… Well, not to put too much pressure on myself that it has to be number one or so great to everyone, but this is my defining record. I have people’s attention and now I have to mold a bit more of what I am and be able to present that. I hope it comes together really nicely.”

Read more about Lissie at her website or follow her on Twitter @lissiemusic

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