|Cover story by Lisa Snider. Photos by Guy Webster.|
She doesn’t wear a speck of makeup, not even when she’s performing, and her blond locks hang long and unkempt, but she still manages to look stunningly gorgeous. In fact, she is a sweet articulate young woman, blue-eyed and freckled, who also happens to be a cigarette-smoking, tequila-shooting, rising international rock star. But today, she’s just a local gal about town, walking her fluffy little dog, Byron, from her house in downtown Ojai to Libbey Park.
Lissie Maurus, known professionally simply as Lissie, is taking the music world by storm with her signature blend of pop, folk, country and rock, showcasing deeply personal lyrics and intense vocals that stretch from razor-sharp raspy hair-raisers to angelic affecting melodies. In 2010, she released her first full-length album, Catching a Tiger, and won critical praise from Paste, Spin and Rolling Stone. Last year she released another album, Covered Up With Flowers, a collection of a half-dozen covers, including Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
Born and raised in Rock Island, Illinois, in the heart of the Midwest, Lissie left college before earning her degree to break into the music business in Los Angeles. Three years later, she landed a record deal, but a bad break-up made her desperate to flee the bright lights of the City of Angels. After a fellow airplane passenger told her about Ojai’s small town charms, she packed up her things, rented a place sight unseen in a town she had never heard of and has been here ever since. That was three years ago.
On a break from touring and making commercials – she makes the rounds to music festivals like Coachella, SXSW and Bonnaroo, and sings in the latest commercial for Twinings Tea in the U.K. – Lissie, 29, surprised and mesmerized a standing-room-only audience recently at Ojai’s The Village Jester. The one-hour set gave Lissie and her band an opportunity to rehearse new material in front of a live audience and gave Ojaians a rare glimpse into the rocker’s world.
Lissie sat with the OQ to talk about settling into life in Ojai, writing music and making a new album.
Do you ever miss living in Los Angeles?
I was ready for a change and that’s when this came up. I kind of try not to go back to L.A. because it still reminds me of some of the hardest times of my life. But I love it, too; it’s where I was able to secure my management who got me a record deal in the U.K. I came out here and I was happy that I didn’t know anyone, stayed under the radar, low key. In the last year, though, I’ve gotten more social and I’ve been meeting a nice group of people.
Coming from the big city, does it ever feel tedious to you?
Last night I felt a little stir crazy, so I went to Jimmy’s and had a glass of wine and some potato chips and read a book, and that was my idea of a wild night. I went to a farm party a couple weeks ago. Last weekend there was a band up from L.A. at the Deer Lodge. There’s always stuff to do. When I tour I’m so busy I think when I come home I’m happy. I hang out with my dog. I watch Mad Men and Friday Night Lights. My girlfriends will come up, and we’ll just drink wine on my porch. I’m totally content.
Where do you like to go out to eat?
My favorite, favorite place to eat is Suzanne’s, but it’s pricey. I always get the same thing there – the sand dabs – it’s amazing. But, of course, I love Farmer and the Cook and Papa Lennon’s. And my favorite place to get an egg sandwich is Knead.
On one hand, you have this sweet and genuine personality, and on the other you smoke and drink and rock unabashedly on stage.
I’m goofy and silly and full of contradictions. There’s sort of a humility that comes with being a Midwesterner that’s ingrained. When I was young I was always like, “Look at me, look at me, I’m gonna sing for you!” I think being a good person and being happy is much more important than everyone thinking that you’re cool.
Do you think your small town roots growing up in Rock Island, Illinois, are what attracted you to Ojai?
Probably. I mean, this is smaller; the town I’m from is 40,000. I was a disgruntled teenager, and my good memories were canoeing on the Great Lakes. I sort of always had this relationship with nature where it was always the place I felt happiest and calmest. I think I was drawn here because of the hikes and the rivers and the mountains.
What are your favorite outdoor spots in Ojai?
I get up in the morning and go for a hike on Shelf. I’ve also been going swimming in this swimming hole I found, and it’s pretty amazing. It’s up the 33 on the side of the road, but I’ve been joking that I’m going to try to keep it a secret.
What makes Ojai special?
I noticed when I moved here three years ago that there’s definitely a vibe that they want to keep the riff-raff out. Just this past year there’s a lot more musicians coming up, and I feel like now I’m one of those people that’s like, “Hey, I found it first, it’s mine,” kind of like the swimming hole! I don’t want to feel like I’m in LA.
How has living in Ojai affected your songwriting process?
The first song I did write here three years ago came to me in two minutes. It’s a song called “Bully.” I had just come out of this hard time. I was being so hard on myself, and I was so sad, and my parents were worried about me. I used to just write a song all at once, and it was good enough. But now that I am in a position where people are actually really hearing my songs, it’s changed how I’ve written in general because I’m a little bit harder on myself. There really is a craft to writing. You really want it to build and pull and push in these ways so when the chorus comes in everyone is like, “Oh, that’s so rewarding!” It’s one thing when songs just come out, but there’s other times where you really are crafting a song and it becomes a bit more like a puzzle.
At The Village Jester, you debuted your newest song, “I Bet on You,” a heart-wrenching break-up song, which had such powerful raw emotion, it made me sad, too.
I just couldn’t handle how sad I was, but I worked through it. This cycle of writing has been interesting and it’s helped me prove my mettle a bit as a writer where I’m using more of my memory to write. I don’t actually have to be heartbroken to write about heartbreak. Now I can write about it as an observer as opposed to actually going through it, which is nice. I’m sorry it made you sad, but it’s nice (to know) when stuff makes you feel.
What’s it like to be the only woman backed by an all-male band?
It’s kind of nice being the only girl around a bunch of guys because it sort of gives me a bit of independence where I can engage, but I can also sort of disengage and do my own thing. I’m kind of a little bit of a loner, so it’s nice ‘cause there’s not that sensitivity to not wanting to do everything with them all the time. They are so sweet to me. And they are really talented. They’ve helped form my sound. I think it’s gone more in a rock direction because live that’s where I want to take it, and I want the next record to feel live. You don’t need a lot of fancy bells and whistles, just straight forward music, guitars, turn up the amp, put a little distortion on there and grit, and dirty it up.
Where are you when you are not in Ojai and not on tour?
I’m signed in the U.K. - my business runs out of London - so I go there every other month. I do a lot of co-writing, and I go between Nashville, the U.K. and getting people to come stay (in Ojai).
What’s your connection to photographer Guy Webster?
“He’s probably one of the first people I met around here. He’s just so excited and in the mix. He’s so supportive of young artists. He shot the Mamas and the Papas album cover, and I have those records from my parents, and he signed them! He’s so accomplished but he’s so nice.
What’s next for you?
I have to go out on tour again in the fall and I won’t be around here a whole lot, but this is where I always come back to. I love living here. I like staying low key. I think people here are really friendly. It’s definitely a place I came to heal and never left. Hopefully this will be my home for a long time.
For more about this rising star, visit her Web site at www.Lissie.com.