The singer/songwriter talks Pip WIlliams through the songs that inspire her.
Lissie Maurus is pretty much the antithesis to the modern popstar. The American artist’s country-tinged songs have soundtracked road trips and revelry alike, in a musical career that now spans over a decade.
When we meet in London to talk through some of her favourite songs, the songwriter’s eclectic tastes will come as no surprise to the dedicated fan. Maurus’ hefty back catalogue includes plenty of innovative covers, alongside her own material.
With 2019 heralding the release of Maurus’ When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective LP, it seemed only right to dig into her own library and discover the songs that have meant the most to her over the years. It’s an all-American journey with some unexpected twists, bouncing from musical theatre to Metallica with plenty of other surprises along the way.
At the heart of it, Maurus identifies strong similarities underpinning her assorted selections, not in terms of genre or subject material, but in the atmosphere and sense of feeling each of them covey. Few people could unironically put Grateful Dead and Phil Collins together, but Maurus points to a carefully conveyed yearning at the core of them both. that marks them out as musical kindred spirits.
Maurus is not one to be won over by studio wizardry, instead she seeks out the same raw musicianship and lyrical honesty that fans of her own music stick around for. If her ear for a timeless classic wasn’t immediately obvious from Maurus’ dedication to her own unwavering craft, her appreciation for others’ efforts is second to none.
“A lot of artists get their start as kids doing musical theatre, and when I was between nine and 10 I was Annie in the musical Annie. We did 80 performances of it; I’d already loved to sing and dance and do group kids’ shows prior to that, but it was a pretty big role. It verified for me that I was born to perform and how much I loved getting up and singing for people.
“Politically, it’s about the Great Depression in New York City. FDR was president, he’d proposed this new deal to pull people out of the economic problems that were happening and there were also some environmental problems, such as the dust bowl. I didn’t know about all that when I was a kid, but I think of how - through having good leadership - we were able to get people off the streets and working on projects that built roads and bridges.
“I don’t have to get specific about it, but there’s a lot of uncertainty right now and it seems pretty gloomy; here in the UK, with Brexit as well. The song itself continues to feel really special and sweet, because it’s all about having hope, hanging in there and not losing faith that the future can be brighter.
"There’s something about having this feisty little orphan Annie get up on a table and singing “The sun will come out tomorrow” to all these politicians, that message of things getting better.”
“A lot of Phil Collins material of that era reminds me of the ‘80s, which I like. To this day, that song feels very nostalgic and reminiscent of an era that was my coming-of-age times – what was around when I was a little kid, figuring out the world.
“I remember my older brother playing the Phil Collins version of ‘Groovy Kind of Love’ on the piano. He had a girlfriend at the time and they were in high school. I don’t think my brother even knows this, but for some reason it made me want to be a teenager and have a boyfriend! The idea of this sweet, nice love set this ideal to a kid who didn’t know anything about romantic love but wanted to grow up and fall in love. I thought that 'Groovy Kind of Love' painted this really beautiful idea of what it might feel like.
“The way I write songs is very plain-speak. It’s very literal, very true to what I’ve recently been experiencing about my relationships and feelings and a very literal, simple lyric and melody is definitely the way I naturally create. The complexity of ‘Groovy Kind of Love’ doesn’t come from the lyric, the melody or the production; it comes from this yearning – the depth of feeling and passion in a person who’s been in love and knows what that feels like. It’s the emotion that you can imagine and place yourself in that makes it feel how it feels.
“When you’re doing covers, you definitely need to have a lot of respect and reverence for the original maker of the work. Growing up and teaching myself how to play guitar, before I was experienced as a songwriter, was a great way for me to learn. I’d hear a song I liked and I’d try to learn how to play it. Half the time there would be some new chord that I didn’t know, so I’d have to figure out how to play it.
“With my band, when I started putting out albums about 10 years ago there were times where I re-imagined songs I could sing in my own voice because I related to them so much. Maybe I’d change the key, or I’d change the structure. Especially early on, when Catching a Tiger came out, it was fun for us to learn and re-interpret covers.”
“Bobbie Gentry is just a hero. She stopped making music at the height of her career and nobody really knows where she went. She’s probably one of the best lyricists ever and I think she was the first woman in country music at the time to be writing her own songs.
“I’ve embraced that my strong suit as a writer is to tap into my own emotion and to speak very literally and simply, but for me Bobbie Gentry is on a level that I can’t even aspire towards, because she’s so descriptive. The detail she goes into in how she writes her songs – down to the colour of your shoe in “Fancy” – can make a family having a conversation around the breakfast table into a song and lyrics.
“I don’t know that I could say she’s influenced me, because I think she’s so next level when it comes to being a lyricist. I don’t even attempt to get there! You can draw inspiration from things that are so unlike what you do, but make you feel a certain way.
“Ironically, I don’t listen to a lot of music that has singing in it. I like jazz, I like what we call “jam bands” in the States. My music, and how I write and perform, is all about raw feeling.”
“This song is the best. I was in sixth grade when her first album Tuesday Night Music Club came out and I listened to it non-stop. Across the board, everything Sheryl Crow did was great. She was, and is, such an inspiration.
“She was a huge hero for me going into high school in the late ‘90s, because it was also when real pop was coming back after grunge. ’...Baby One More Time’ came out when I was in early high school - and I love Britney Spears, don’t get me wrong – but she’s in her little skirt and her shirt’s tied up, with lots of makeup and costumes and it’s very sexualised.
“I was lucky to be 12, 13, 14, 15 when we got Sheryl Crow putting out this great music, right out of grunge. There were so many women who were writing songs, playing instruments, who had killer voices and also had a look that wasn’t sexualised.
“Strong women do have to ask “Are you strong enough to be my man?” and to be 12 and already be recognising this idea of “Are you strong enough to be my man?” I was a very outspoken girl, it wasn’t always easy to be myself and not think that the boys were going to pick on me. You just get on with it, work hard and be yourself, because you know that eventually all that crap will not matter if you can own what you’re doing.
“It left an impression on me and I’m still asking that question. The times are changing, but as a woman who was never willing to just be ‘some guy’s li’l lady’, I had my own vision! I can make my own money! I think that it can be harder [for women like me], because there maybe aren’t as many people who are willing to find that balance of power. Maybe not – maybe I’m just a crazy person!”
“I live on a farm in East Iowa now, but I grew up in a small city and I was kind of surrounded by country; I listened to a ton of country music in high school. I had my pick-up truck and was driving around listening to Top 40 Country, that was such a memory of my high school years!
“I like this song because I liked this boy at the time it came out and he was kinda cowboy. I thought it was such a beautiful song, and now living on a farm and loving gardening and the outdoors - “I wanna touch the earth / I wanna break it in my hands / I wanna grow something wild and unruly” - those lyrics, yes!
“It’s a little tongue-in-cheek y’know? - “Cowboy, take me away.” It’s not anti-feminist or anything, but on some days I just want to be swept off my feet! I’m dating someone now who might be that person, but we don’t have to get into that in this interview!
“You have to laugh at some of the country songs, it’s almost patronising how cheesy they are, but then, think of all the people who are listening to Gangsta rap and relating to it when it’s nothing like their reality. It’s funny that Gangsta rap translates more than country, but a lot of people aren’t really living either of those lives. Where I grew up it was very urban and very country at the same time, so we listened to rap and to country. You would think those two don’t mix, but they do!
“Country has maybe not become its own genre [here in the UK], but there’s so many more people in the States, it’s such a big place and it’s so spread out, and there’s this whole population of the more country-living or blue-collar people. It’s gotten so much bigger than that now. Everybody [in the US] listens to country music, and everyone always pretends that they don’t like Top 40, and that they only listen to Willie and Waylon, but secretly we all love it!
“Dixie Chicks were country, but then Natalie Maines got in a lot of trouble because she criticised President Bush. All her fans turned against her and burned her CDs and stuff! I follow her on Instagram now and she’s a hero. She’s definitely not afraid to be authentic, and her voice is probably one of the best voices of all time.”
“Being 36, I loved Metallica in junior high, but I don’t want to be a poser because I’m not super well-versed in everything they’ve ever done. For me The Black Album in particular had that angst, but there was also an element of wanting to hang with the boys in junior high school, because some of my guy friends were really into Metallica!
“‘Nothing Else Matters’ is a song that just has that brilliance; it never stops moving me. The guitar in it is so beautiful and I love Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist. I aspire to be able to play the guitar that well but I know if I’ll never be able to, I’m more of a rhythm player than lead but maybe if I practiced I could get closer to it.
“The sentiment of it, again, it’s all about this yearning. The lyrics are so simple, but you can just feel that love, that deep love where nothing else matters. I felt that! It was the song that, when the guy I liked took my best friend to the homecoming dance, I was sitting in my room crying and listening to it, feeling so rejected and lonely.
“James Hetfield has a great voice, a beautiful voice. People do think of the Master of Puppets super heavy, fast, shouty stuff, but he has a gorgeous, gorgeous voice. I think that’s why they’ve done so well and stood the test of time, because it’s not just a gimmick, “Oh, we’re going to be loud and rowdy and heavy metal.” There’s so much heart and depth to their music and the level of musicianship is definitely there with them.
“I just love that song and I feel it when I sing it. When I finally had a band and I had a lead guitarist that was amazing – is amazing! – Eric Sullivan, it was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this guitar player now and he can play the solo and the lead parts! This is a dream come true! I can finally cover that song the way I have always wanted to!’”
“Around the time of ‘Like A Virgin’ and ‘Material Girl’, when I was five, six, seven, eight, nine and wanting to become a singer, I would make up dances in my basement and lip-sync to stuff. I’d put on these shows and I’d listen to Janet Jackson, I’d listen to Madonna – even to the point where the boys at the swimming pool would call me ‘Li-donna!’
“I was so into Madonna and I wanted to be a popstar when I got older. That was a phase I grew out of, but she was the epitome of a popstar. That was early MTV and music videos, it all just looked so fun and exciting. I wanted to grow up and be that!
“It’s funny to think of a kid listening to ‘Like A Virgin’, I didn’t know what it meant, but I was like, ‘Oh my god, she had such goals.’ She really was pushing boundaries, but I was too young to even understand that.
“When I was little-little, maybe I thought that I would dance and sing and be this beautiful, hot popstar, but as I got into high school I got a little more edgy and alternative, and that didn’t interest me anymore. Then I wanted to play guitar and I wasn’t really dancing. I was a bit of a hippy at that point, I didn’t really care about material stuff and I didn’t wear a lot of makeup.”
“Grateful Dead are an example of a bunch of really good musicians. I don’t know if they were as much of a cult thing here as they were in the States, people would live on the road following Grateful Dead. They were an institution, they were a movement.”
“The musicianship is to the point where they’d all get together and be playing a song that they all knew, but it would change. The guitars would take a solo and noodle on, meandering. Some people don’t like that, but I love that. I love Jerry’s voice as well, even though it’s imperfect.
“When I think about my preferences - and I’ve gotten more into jazz - the reason why I like ‘Wharf Rat’ and why I like Grateful Dead is there’s all this dynamic and a looseness to it. It’s the way in which a song doesn’t have to be a three-minute-long pop song with a perfect chorus, it’s different from that. It’s really about being totally washed over with music; letting it wash over you and taking this guitar solo that might noodle around aimlessly for a while, but then it hits a big moment and its super satisfying when he finally gets to the note!
“In a weird way, it’s comparable to EDM now, I suppose. People wait for the drop – you build them up to it and when you finally give them that moment it’s like, ‘Yeah!’ It’s the olden day equivalent of when the beat drops, when the guitar solo finally reaches its apex and gives you the satisfaction of hitting that big note. EDM is the biggest music genre ever and it’s basically doing what these old hippies did, but with computers! Making people wait for that pay-off moment, that satisfaction.”
“Liz Phair was such a pioneer, I love her. With Exile in Guyville it was the whole album, it was really low-fi, and she was heavily involved in the recording. It was done on a four-track in an apartment and it’s imperfect, but it has so much character and so much heart.
“She’s another one of those badass females. She was doing things her own way, she was being very plain and speaking about the boy’s club and dudes who wouldn’t let her play with them.
“I feel like I still make albums where each song goes together to create a body of work. Maybe now it’s more about singles [in the industry], but my satisfaction of creating something is in it being an entire body of work, rather than one little piece of it. Exile in Guyville is very much that; you need to listen to the whole thing because it ties together so well. Some songs are just tying the story together, and they’re pretty!
“In the mainstream music business, the hope is that you have singles. Each song that you write for an album seems like you wanted it to be a single, and maybe it wasn’t, then it turns into filler. If you intentionally know that some of these songs aren’t meant to be singles, but it doesn’t make them not valuable songs, then maybe you have an album that has a little bit more of a flow to it.
“My first two albums were on a major label, but my last two I’ve created on my own and licensed them out. It was like, ‘No one gets to say what songs I can put on my album!’ I used to write these really pretty songs that I liked that weren’t hits, and they wouldn’t make it on my album. I feel grateful that I’ve now found the thing that works for me. Hopefully people will keep listening!”