There are times when retreat is not defeat. It’s strength. It’s joy. It’s self-care at its most enlightened and brave.
After two major-label albums and more than a decade in California, folk-pop artist Lissie bid farewell to the West Coast and everything implied by the idea of “Hollywood.” She parted ways with Columbia Records, bought a 10-acre farm in northeast Iowa and, in February, released her third album, My Wild West, on her own independent Lionboy Records.
“I feel like my life is my own again,” says Lissie, who has “no regrets” about her major-label time, but admits, “Sometimes I had to do things I didn’t want to do, or there were creative decisions that too many people were weighing in on that would, like, psych me out. It made me think I didn’t know my own mind anymore.”
My Wild West’s title is twofold — Lissie’s returned to her Midwestern singer-songwriter roots, stripping her sound of the slickness A&R guys injected into 2013’s Back to Forever. But it’s also an analogy for the music industry these days (it’s kind of like the Wild West; anything goes), and Lissie’s new role as entrepreneurial boss-of-her-own-life. “It’s my business and I’m learning more about being a businesswoman,” says Lissie. “It’s very empowering, because when I made this album I didn’t have to run anything by anyone. I didn’t have to ask permission.”
My Wild West pays tribute to Lissie’s 12 years in California, where she found a place in that Hotel Café scene of folksy, radio-friendly artists like Sara Bareilles, Rachael Yamagata and Ingrid Michaelson. Her songwriting is as personal and as universal as ever, starting with “Hollywood.” In that song, she muses, “Oh, Hollywood, you broke my will, like they said you would” over sparse piano; she ends with the plaintive acoustic ballad “Ojai”: “I feel the knowing that I must be going … I miss the seasons, I miss the land.”
It’s on “Shroud,” though, that Lissie is most exposed: She bellows, “I feel like I have lost my mind” repeatedly, almost like an anthem, followed by, “I know the thing that everybody says, that it’s OK. But I am broken.”
You can sense why Lissie would need a change.
Lissie’s songwriting is powerful, but it’s her voice that anchors her music and turns it into something truly heartbreaking. Paste describes it as an “intriguing, earthy alto — one that contains hurricanes of emotion without feeling wrought, then glimmers like a flicker of light on water.”
“It’s just always been the part of me that was there, and was easy,” says Lissie. “There are so many things that don’t come naturally to me, that I’m not good at. But this is one of those things that — this is going to sound kind of cheesy — but I’m just born to do.”
And Lissie is through letting anyone make her question that birthright.
“There’s this way that women are treated, like with kid gloves, or like they don’t know their own mind. I think sometimes people try and placate you, or act like you don’t know what’s good for you,” says Lissie. “And in early 2015, I had this moment where I was just like, I am stifled by everyone else’s expectations of me, and feeling like there’s this passive implication that I don’t know what I should be doing. And I was really paralyzed by that at times.”
This self-doubt caused by others’ expectations is perhaps why Lissie feels vindicated that My Wild West is doing so well, especially in Europe, where she’s always had a larger fan base. It debuted in the Top 20 in the U.K., and in the Top 10 in Norway. “I have good instincts,” says Lissie — a more gentle version of the “I’m a badass bitch, I can do whatever I want” clap-back she made in a recent London Evening Standard interview.
This gentleness may come from the presence of Lissie’s mother, who sits next to her throughout the phone interview, with Lissie’s Lhasa apso, Byron, in her lap, as they drive the roads around her Iowa farm, not far from where Lissie grew up in Rock Island, Ill. Lissie has big plans for the land and herself now that, as she says, “I don’t feel like I’m afraid anymore.” She’s looking forward to converting the barn into a recording studio; to getting better at driving in the dark and rain and snow; to raising chickens and keeping bees and getting a lawnmower (“I have a lot of land”); and to spending more time with family and friends.
“I want to learn how to do things that scare me. Maybe a little more exposure to wildlife and farm life will toughen me up,” says the woman who sounds pretty damn tough and wise and courageous already.