Lissie tells Jen Long how her experience of owning a working farm helped her to reflect positively on a decade in the music industry.
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  • Post published:31/08/2021
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In 2015 Lissie bought a 50-acre farm in Iowa, moving a year later from LA and learning to grow vegetables, keep bees, and self-sustain. Through her experience of farming came a new perspective of the music industry and her career as a musician, as well as the ability to be grateful for her past. Her fresh outlook has helped inform and shape her ten-year anniversary edition of debut release Catching A Tiger.

Before the pandemic set in, Lissie – full name Elisabeth Corrin Maurus – was planning a ten-year anniversary edition of her 2010 debut album Catching A Tiger, culminating in a performance at the Oslo Opera House. Recorded in Nashville with producer Jacquire King, the debut set her up for a long and rewarding career which now spans four albums, countless sold out shows, and even an appearance in the third season of Twin Peaks. Picking up awards and acclaim, as well as a devoted fanbase, Catching A Tiger put Lissie on the map.

Born and raised in Illinois, Lissie moved to Hollywood in her early twenties to follow her dream of making a living as a musician. During her time in LA she faced setbacks and personal hardships, overcoming small battles along her creative path. When lockdown set in last spring, Lissie’s plans were put on hold, and she watched the pandemic unfold from the comfort of home. Without new stimuli or a busy schedule, like many of us she began to look inwards and to the past. With her ten-year retrospective already in mind, for Lissie it marked a period of reckoning and personal discovery.

“Even if things aren’t okay, you’re still going to be okay,” she smiles from across a Zoom call, often distracted by the farm life that pops up through her window, reminding her of pending tasks. “I look back and yes, I’ve had a lot of disappointments. But I’ve also had a lot of really amazing opportunities. To have landed in Iowa on this farm, it brings me so much stress, but also so much joy. I couldn’t have known that back then. So, I think that got me through last summer being hard. It’s like, someday I’m going to be some sixty-year-old woman and I’m going to look back on me now with so much fondness, you know?”

For Lissie, the skills and outlook she’s developed from working on her land are transferable, helping inform the way she tackles her music and career. “I have had to learn a lot of things that seemed intimidating,” she says. “But once you start, it’s empowering to just have a better sense of all the things that make a music career. Even just to have a better handle on my finances is huge.”

Originally her fifty-acres were put to use for commodity crops. “It was corn and soy. The soy puts the nitrogen into the soil that the corn loves, so it’s sort of this symbiotic relationship,” she explains. “I was able to then realise like, ‘Oh, my neighbour needs hay for his cows so he’ll run it from me.’ Then we started doing a cost share thing where he’d sell the hay and give me half the money. And then I started realising, ‘Oh, I should get this into wild flowers because that could take a year or two to establish. I mean, I’ve learned so much.”

“Look around and focus on the things you have done and what is going well… that’s in life too… focus on what is positive and good, instead of having a critical eye.”

A keen conservationist, having swapped out five acres of land, she’s now focusing on rewilding most of her plot, with a small section reserved as a garden. Her experience and knowledge have grown with every year and she looks back on her past mistakes with a wry sense of humour. “If you tried to tackle your garden thinking that you were gonna know everything, your brain would explode,” she laughs. “It’s so frustrating. It’s time and it’s making mistakes, and you probably wouldn’t necessarily learn some of the things that you learn hadn’t you been like, ‘Why did my tomatoes look like shit?’ You’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not supposed to water the leaves because then they get fungus on the leaves.’ Or you start to pull weeds and then the next year you’re like, ‘Oh, that wasn’t a weed. That was a flower.’ It’s like time is the only teacher.”

The longer you spend digging into the details of a pastime, career or industry, the easier it is to have your eyes drawn to its faults. What was once a blissful ignorance can become a jaded thought-cycle. “When I moved here, I had all these invasive non-native trees, and I’d be like, ‘Oh that’s so pretty,’ you know? It was just such a novelty when I got here to be on this farm, and to look around and be like, this is so peaceful, and it’s so pretty. Even the things that kind of looked like shit were kind of charming, because it was romantic and new,” she explains. “Some of that has faded. Now, I’ll look around and be like, that looks like shit, that looks like shit, I gotta fix that, that’s no good, that tree’s sick. I have to really, every day with my coffee, take a breath and be like, don’t start looking around and being judgmental. Look around and focus on the things you have done and what is going well. I mean, that’s in life too. It’s like, focus on what is positive and good, instead of having a critical eye.”

Lissue

With a new attitude and outlook, Lissie was able to handle the disappointment and grief that came with abandoning plans and adjusting to a new life during the worst of the pandemic. “I think gratitude has saved me this year,” she nods. “You can reprogram your brain to focus on what’s good instead of what’s bad. Because there’s always going to be bad stuff and good stuff. So it’s like, what are you gonna prioritise? And it’s such a practice every day to pull yourself back from going negative.”

By allowing herself to take a fallow year, Lissie was able to focus more attention on her farm and the wildlife that thrives across its acres. The break gave her fresh ideas and a renewed energy, even though it meant letting some things go. “There was a part of me that was like, it’s great to be home. There was a part of me that was really restless and missing my band friends and my music friends,” she explains. “I never would have thought I’d even miss being on an aeroplane. There was a period of antsiness about it. But I think where I’m at now is, I’m okay with this year being slow, and it’s going to give me a little more time to work on my music and garden.”

Having regained the rights to her debut release from previous label Sony last spring, Lissie was working with The Orchard on the reissue when the whisperings of restrictions began to grow louder. “We were all just in that collective shock of like, holy shit, what is happening? she recalls. “So, of course, I understood we just needed to hit the pause button, and all just kind of survive. Throughout early quarantine, as we were all adjusting, we put a pause on getting the anniversary edition together. It was becoming clearer that the Norway show wouldn’t happen in June, and so forth. But then as the year went on, earlier this year, I was able to start going through old journals, and songwriting books and photos and hard drives, and found lots of old little pictures and clips and journal entries. I was able to dig even deeper with the time that I had, to try and put together something for the anniversary edition with new art. The time and space to reflect due to Covid did give us more time, and maybe put me in a more reflective mood to be able to create this anniversary edition.”

Finally getting its release this week, the new edition comes with five bonus tracks, originally recorded in Nashville during the Catching A Tiger sessions. Early next month Lissie will follow this release with a further retrospective titled Watch Over Me (Early Works 2002-2009), a compilation of demos and formative recordings compiled during the height of the pandemic.

For Lissie, the space that came when the world shut down gave her the opportunity to reflect on both the hardships and successes of her past. “I read this book called Wintering by Katherine May in January and she talks about liminal space a lot. That liminal space is like, right between no longer and not yet, where you’re kind of almost in this purgatory,” she explains. “So some of the things that had happened in my life that I just was like, whatever, became even more special, because you can’t take any of that for granted. It’s almost like, let’s put this chapter to bed as we all collectively get ready to create a new world together. On a personal level, that was like tying up this past special thing, but then also on the bigger scale, there’s a lot of grief for what life was, because it’s never really going to be the same.”

Resurfacing the five tracks from 2010 brought with them an old sentimentality and new context. “Those were very Catching A Tiger-specific tracks,” Lissie nods, “One of the songs on there, “This Much I Know”, it’s lyrics that I wrote back in early 2000. Like, “The past is behind me, the future don’t exist. But light is inside of me, and I must live with it.” And I feel like that song felt very appropriate in the scheme of what’s been going on.”

Most of Lissie’s plans for the Catching A Tiger reissue were in place before any mention of the dreaded c-word. However, the time she had for reflection over the period which followed allowed her the chance to dig into the past, compiling Watch Over Me from a deluge of near-lost material and frozen history. “Between my management and myself, we found all these old songs that I’d written thinking I’d record them for my first album,” she explains. “But time had passed, and I was writing about different things, and they just didn’t seem applicable anymore by the time I made Catching A Tiger. They’re not really the best songs in the world, but they’re also very special in that they’re part of my journey. They’re part of my journey as a songwriter, they’re a part of my journey as a person, the relationships and the things I was going through and the things that shaped me. Maybe it’s a little self-indulgent, but none of these songs were ever going to see the light of day. So why not just make all of this stuff available to people who may or may not be interested in it, you know?”

The five bonus tracks on the new version of Catching A Tiger sound very much at home on the record. Vocal-driven and rich in storytelling, they’re a postscript of delicate country-flecked folk-pop. “It’s Not Me” glistens with a fluid bassline, while the aforementioned “This Much I Know” is a stark and heartrending rush of harmonious and vulnerable confession. Watch Over Me gives a similar, intimate insight. It might not be the most accomplished songwriting or the most intricate or explosive production, but it has a really genuine charm. There’s an authenticity and – without trying to sound patronising – an innocence in the writing that’s incredibly warm. For even a casual fan, it’s an insightful and rewarding listen. Tracks like “Hey Boy” showcase Lissie’s innate talent for lyrics that cut through, while “No Sense At All” highlights her ear for a melody that hooks deep.

For some artists, exposing the naivety and vulnerability of their early work can be painful or embarrassing, but it’s an approach that Lissie treats with tender care and a fond warmth. “Throughout the process there was a part of me that’s like, ‘I would hate for someone to hear this song I wrote when I was eighteen and be like, who’s that?’ Because that’s not me now,” she laughs. “So I was really clear, like, if we’re going to do this, we have to make sure that it’s in the context of these are songs I wrote when I was a baby, you know? But I think there are people who have been invested in my story that would find the progression somewhat informative. It felt really special to be like, here’s some stuff to give you some insight. I hope no one takes it too seriously. But you know, I’m like, why not? Let’s just get it out there.”

With a positive attitude and a renewed sense of gratitude, Lissie feels comfortable sharing her journey with those who wish to follow. “Maybe you reach a point where what you’re putting out is really great, but at the same time you had to learn how to write songs and learn how to navigate the world prior to that, so I’m very transparent. Like, why hide that away? Just let people who are curious have it,” she says.

As well as a journey of rediscovery, the process of trawling back through old harddrives and CDs had Lissie playing detective, allowing her the chance to reconnect with ghosts of her past. “They were early demos and it was so funny, some of it was just like where’s this from? I have saved every journal I’ve had since high school. I’ve bins of books. I still write my songs in a notebook with pen and paper, I don’t use a computer. So I just have bins and bins and bins full of journals and planners and songwriting books, and the dates are on the front,” she explains. “So I was pulling those out, being forensic, connecting the dots like, ‘OK, I was here on this day and it said that I went to this studio that week in 2007, so this is probably from that recording.’ Like, finding an old song and being like, ‘Oh I haven’t talked to that writer in twelve years,’ and trying to find them on Instagram to get their contact so that I could connect with their manager.”

Lissie

As well as unearthing some lost memories and acquaintances, Lissie’s journey into the past also brought back old feelings, some more welcome than others. “Last summer, in the midst of everything that was going on, there was a night that I sat and I listened to a lot of the songs from Watch Over Me, and I had a lot of sorrow for little me when I listened to some of the songs. It brought back some of the really rough stuff that I had gone through,” she says. “Thank goodness I had music to help me process it and release it because there was a night where I was like, I don’t even know if I want to revisit this because there’s so much stuff that I feel like I’ve moved past that is probably still somewhere in my nervous system. Like, lurking behind a corner in my muscle memory, forever there to be slightly traumatic. It was a little bittersweet. But the other side of that was that I was proud of myself. Like, you got through a lot of really hard, lonely times, and you kept going, and good for you. Not to speak of myself in third person, but, you know, good job little me, you didn’t give up.”

After a year and a half of introspection and reflection, and with a fresh and gracious outlook, Lissie is ready to leave her garden to grow on its own and get back to playing music. And of course, to finally celebrate a decade (and a bit) of Catching A Tiger. However, she believes that we could all use a little more perspective on the way our lives intertwine with nature, especially given our collective experience with Covid. “If it started because of wet markets, that brings into question how we treat animals that are in captivity. How is the way that we’re treating animals creating new viruses that our bodies can’t fight off?” she asks. “That’s a conversation no one’s having that I think is very important. Because these viruses are born of unnatural treatment of animals. The earth is gonna keep trying to kick us off of it if we don’t get our act together.”

The pandemic has, if anything, reinforced Lissie’s passion for environmentalism, as she sets new goals for her farm. “I just focused on this fenced-in garden area and my goal was that it could survive without me and then it would be fun to come back and be like, ‘Oh look, there’s food,’” she smiles. “But this year off I’ve really expanded my goals. Every perimeter of every outbuilding now has flowers growing, and I’ve expanded the garden to this other fenced-in area.”

Her goals have even expanded into a new business venture. Working with Diane Whealy, one of the co-founders of local organisation Seed Savers Exchange, Lissie has started the popcorn business Otts’ Pops Indie Pop. “I had this idea. Every flavour would be a different kind of pop music,” she laughs. “So like, dream-pop and folk-pop and pop-rock and classic-pop and country-pop and emo-pop and K-pop and so forth… And so we were kind of joking about it, and we’re like, let’s just do it.”

The duo sold out of their first production of two-hundred bags and are now planning their next small-batch releases. “Eventually my goal would be to grow this heirloom kind of mushroom style popcorn. It’s really big and fluffy. We currently get it in Nebraska but the goal would be to actually grow the popcorn here,” smiles Lissie.

Who knew music and agriculture could go together so well, hand in handful?

Catching A Tiger (Anniversary Edition) is out now; Watch Over Me (Early Works 2002-2009) is released on 10 September

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