Name: Elisabeth Corrin Maurus aka Lissie
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Recent release: Lissie's Carving Canyons is out September 16th via Lionboy.
If you enjoyed this interview with Lissie and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official website. She is also also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Primarily, the overwhelming urge to put words to feelings and turn that into song has come from personal relationships and periods of existential dread. I create when I’m happy as well, but there’s a sort of urgency, a sticking up for myself and my point of view that usually bubbles up from struggle.
I write in a sort of real-time autobiographical way that is more raw emotion than imagination. I have a lot of big feelings around politics, too, but haven’t always had as easy of a time condensing such complicated matters into song.
Somehow, though, by being vulnerable and feeling feelings and growing, it seems to heal and strengthen my ability to cope in all areas of life. And to appreciate art and beauty and dreams moreso.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I write with a lot of incredible songwriters who start with a title and build from there. I have found that so fascinating and really helpful. I feel like that approach has sharpened my song crafting.
However, I only see the moment and feel the urge of the moment. Somewhere, subconsciously, I’m sure there’s a bigger picture, but I really start in little steps of a melody or a lyric that’ll pop into my head and beg me to address it and finish it.
I’d say I’m more chance-based and while planning is necessary, it’s usually the things that I don’t understand or prepare for that often resonate the most with listeners.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions’?
I am a major procrastinator. I need to clean my entire house and get caught up on all the things, water my garden, etc ... before I can really sit down and clear my head to work.
Going on dedicated songwriting trips and collaborating has really helped. I need to be removed from the distractions of my life and be held accountable.
Yet, living my daily life is the research. I see my interests outside of music bleeding into the songs.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I go up and down in terms of self care, but when I was making Carving Canyons, early on, I wouldn’t drink and would go to bed early, wake up, stretch, meditate, journal, make a list of things I’m grateful for and why, go for walks and eat well, take vitamins, everything I could just to feel clear, confident, and centered. When the stakes feel high, I can usually rein it in.
Once things get flowing though, I can ease up a bit. Have more coffee, have some wine, pizza, etc …
I really enjoy being in a studio where I can have quick and easy access to being outside too. I don’t like feeling cooped up indoors for too long. Fresh air and natural light are also crucial.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
It depends on the situation.
With my new song "Night Moves," for example, I was visiting my parents and was in the basement when the whole chorus just popped up into my head and I was able to reach out to a songwriting friend to fill in the blanks and finish that one pretty easily.
Sometimes, it’ll be a chord progression that stirs up a melody but then the lyrics aren’t as clear and I’m banging my head against a wall.
It’s a tricky balance to finish something without forcing it. It’s a delicate dance of letting it go, doing other tasks and hoping it’ll sort itself out in the subconscious. If the first note or spark is difficult, then I probably just won’t do it.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Sometimes, lyrics just pop into my head and other times I need to go searching. I can start with some lyrics usually, but then have to figure out what exactly I’m trying to say and fill in the blanks.
I work with a lot of wonderful songwriters who are true craftspeople and we can have long conversations trying to get to the heart of the song, throwing out words and pictures and scenarios that through talking can lead to the right line.
Some words that feel right might not sing well though, so that’s another factor to consider. Then it brings up the question of how to say something differently so that it flows with the phrasing of the melody and music. Lots to consider!
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I personally am all for straightforward, almost plain spoken lyrics. When something can be said simply while still feeling profound, authentic and honest. I like a story. I like detail but also universality and hope. I like for the words to make you picture a place or a feeling, like a summer night or a drive down an open highway.
The music really needs to step in to do that, too. My ambition is not to say anything unless I have to. I don’t want to be in a position to have to fake it.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I think that this has come up in some of my answers so far, in that, once I truly have a point of view and something I want to share, it’ll just flow. It’s the having to force something for productivity’s sake that will leave me feeling stuck.
So if I bring a song, some chords, melody, and lyrics to a producer and they invite the musicians that can paint a picture of what I want the mood to be, then it’ll unfold and everyone will feel it working and that excitement will be clear.
For me, I rely so much on the writers, producer/mixer, and musicians to help me shape the end result.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I want to be accurate, so I probably am controlling in that I want to tell the story and the truth. Even if adding something else would make it better, that’s besides the point for me. But once I’ve made a song and released it out into the world, that's when the narrative is out of my hands.
I can’t tell you how many songs I’ve loved throughout my life that I interpreted in a way that applied to my situation and comforted me. Whether that was the writer’s original intent, I like the idea of my songs belonging to the listener once they’re free.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
I have tried to be more open minded. I have had times in my life when I would get so focused and hung up on something, tunnel vision, that I missed out on something better.
I always try to entertain a deviation whether it’s my own or suggested by a collaborator because more often than not, it’s those sneaky side ideas that elevate a song. A rogue melody that can take something from good to great!
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I do think that artists (and people in general) pick up on collective energy and emotion. So there is some idea that we channel and deliver from that spiritual source.
But I also think that so much of creativity and people who want and have to create is organizing the stimulation of life and chatter in our heads, processing our interactions and relationships and being the sort of person who is curious to make connections and sense out of it all.
Just the act of singing for me is soothing in my chest and being able to sing my thoughts out loud and feel comforted by that spurs me on.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Making Carving Canyons, as my latest example. When I listen back to a song and I feel like every background vocal, countermelody, hook, etc. is accounted for (in agreement with the producer and team as well, their opinion taken into account) so that I continue to feel interested in where the song is going without it feeling too crowded. Once that is accomplished, a song will feel done to me.
Then it’s off to get mastered and we are set! I’m sure that in the days and years to come, I’ll listen back to my music and hear a part I missed, but I’m all for moving on.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I move pretty quickly and I move on pretty quickly. Each body of work is very specific to a chapter in my life. I use these songs to process and release and so I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling.
Once people get this music, it’s theirs. I then get to have fun performing these songs live and taking liberties if I want onstage.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I think that without a good song, these other elements can’t save a bad song. Sometimes, it can, or people try to hide a meh song with over-production. But those elements are incredibly important if you’re not just putting out a solo acoustic/vocal record (and even if you were, the engineer would be important to make your voice sound as good as it can).
I really trust my producer Curt Schneider who I did Carving Canyons with. I am very involved but also confident in leaving some things up to him. I can ask him to turn up a background vocal for example or a guitar part, but I mostly feel relieved that my songs are in good hands with him. I might suggest an additional instrumental part that he’ll try and sometimes it might not work.
It’s very collaborative, and yet I see where my strengths and weaknesses lie and feel grateful to be able to defer sometimes.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I think I’ve compartmentalized a lot in the past decade about how I define myself and how music is a part of my life. I am always cautiously optimistic and try not to get too caught up in reactions. I also like to move on quickly. I’m sure there’s some self protection/preservation in there somewhere.
What I think is nuts is how big of an undertaking it is to create an album of original songs, the effort and expense, not to mention the marketing plans and art, etc. All the things that need to be considered and then for it to come out, and in some cases, have people’s attention spans already switch over to the next, infinite amount of content that exists in media.
That being said, I feel fortunate that I have really kind and patient listeners that will be happy. And I consider that group of people when I think about my new album coming out. So I don’t expect there to be too much emptiness nor time to feel much, cause I’ll be on the road!
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I always think about this when I’m in the garden or cooking or even cleaning my house. I feel like these are all acts of creativity. Sometimes, the gardening makes me happier than the music. Yet I expect a lot from both.
There are times when making songs makes my brain feel like it’s going to explode, but when I get it right, it’s so rewarding. And then getting to sing the songs for years is so wonderful. And knowing that I’m making people feel good feelings or hard feelings but healing is so gratifying.
My songs are clear and they are where I stick up for myself. That is unique compared to the other forms in my life. In the garden, I also am rebelling in a weird way by being self sufficient but in a less obvious way.
Oh, I love this question and I’ll have to think on it some more. But this is my answer for now :)