LISA MILLS INTERVIEW
December 10, 2016 By Vienna Borowska
The undefinable Lisa Mills is back in the UK! Following the sell-out success of her 2015 UK tour of remastered debut I’m Changing, Lisa is back with a new album literally fresh off the press. Despite driving herself up and down the country (as well as slightly mad) she managed to find the time to chat about her deeply personal new record, the perils of British roads, and the true force of fan power.
Critics and reviewers alike have been unable to totally define the mysterious Miss Mills. A fusion of country, blues, soul and gospel with a dash of jazz, her top-notch songwriting and blisteringly raw performances captivated UK audiences last July and left them begging for her return. Fans are continually blown away by Mills’s astonishingly powerful voice, and it’s clear to hear how she became one of the first singers to take over from Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company.
Born in Mississippi but now residing in Alabama, Lisa Mills has had an incredibly busy year running all over the Deep South collecting musicians for her new record. Piano players from Texas, drummers from Baton Rouge: all the stops have been pulled out for this labour of love; Mama’s Juke Book. Based on the unearthing of a notebook tucked away in her mother’s possessions, Lisa spent the next 2 years planning, prepping and picking tracks for this homage, and less than a week after receiving the finished product, she was back out on the road. Though she may seem like she never stops, I managed to pin her down on a break between live shows…
Hey Lisa, thanks for fitting this interview into your busy schedule! You’ve just been up in Scotland for the Falkirk Live Festival, how was that?
Wonderful! It was one of my favourite shows of the whole tour; quite unexpected, a late afternoon show. I had driven a looong way up from East Yorkshire and got to the place probably an hour before I was supposed to play..(laughing)..no changing rooms, so I was in the ladies toilet doing my thing. It was in the top floor of a really nice pub with a separate listening room, and it was jam-packed full of people…nice little stage…terrific sound…enthusiastic audience; encores, ovations, y’know…what every artist wishes for! Those kind of moments when the music is flowing, you feel comfortable, you feel appreciated. It was a great way to end the week.
Sounds like a brilliant gig. How has the rest of your UK tour been?
Mostly driving! This has been the best tour experience ever, in spite of the challenge of driving myself around, which has been outright frightening at times, and exhausting! Y’know, there’s been more than one moment when I’ve been driving and I look up and there’s cars coming in my lane and I think ‘What are they doing there??’ and then I realise….I’m in the wrong lane! (laughing) It’s not only driving on the other side of the road, but learning the different rules for roundabouts, learning to shift with my left hand instead of my right, and um…it’s just turning my brain around! I’m kind of afraid that when I go home I’ll have trouble driving on the right side of the road! So I feel that I’ve had some angels looking out for me, and that’s why I’ve been starting the show with this song I learned recently called ‘Sending Me Angels’, so that’s the unofficial theme song for this tour.
I think even people who live here wish they had some driving guardian angels too! Which guitar are you travelling with for this tour? Are you favouring a particular one at the moment?
My absolute favourite guitar is the vintage Epiphone Archtop, the 1947; she’s called Josephine. I can’t carry her with me anymore, it’s too risky, but I used her to record the songs on Mama’s Juke Book. Guitars for musicians are extraordinary things, it’s like choosing a mate for yourself; it’s gotta be the right fit! It doesn’t matter if it’s the best guitar on the planet, it just has to be the one that fits you. I used to play a lot of acoustic…and then I played a lot of electric, but I found that eventually the Archtop was more suited to me, because of what I do; it can give me an acoustic thing with the attack, but still gives me an electric sound with certain things. So it’s a very versatile instrument and I personally, aesthetically speaking, love the form of the shape of that guitar. I have a background in fine art sculpture, so it matters to me.
At this moment, my work guitar is a used Epiphone Archtop that was purchased for me by a friend of mine because he was worried about me carrying round my vintage Archtop. I got a local luthier to put some fairly vintage Gibson pick-ups in it, and it’s just the one that feels right and works well. Her name is Evangeline and I do make a point of introducing her to the audience, she’s special to me.
Wow, a Fine Art Sculpture Degree. Was there ever a moment when you had to choose between music or art?
Isn’t that funny? In all honesty, music has always been number one. It’s more like the art has been a companion to the music. I have always expressed myself: I painted, I drew, I played with play-doh, clay, y’know, worked in the mud and what have you. I always had the desire and the interest but it wasn’t until after I had gotten divorced that I wanted to go back and finish my education. I got a scholarship to a college that had a really great art department, and I discovered that I wanted to do sculpture. There’s a strong tradition of that in my background; my dad and his dad worked with wood, they carved. My dad drew pictures and sketched and what have you. I think it was just in me. But yeah, I went to school and got a degree in Sculpture with a minor in Art Education, and a certificate to teach that I haven’t used yet. But one day…(chuckling)…one day…I can retire from all this craziness and become a teacher!
The Lisa Mills School Of Arts maybe! Do you remember first realising that you had this drive to perform music?
Well, I got my first paying gig in high school playing locally at an Italian restaurant. I even remember singing to the other kids on the playground! I don’t know exactly where it happened that music became the direction that I pursued, as a way to make a living or just doing it more than art, but it just kind of happened. Even now, even though I’ve been doing it for so long, I still question myself. I wonder ‘Am I doing the right thing? Should I be doing something else?’. And I get my heart broken, I get disappointed and disillusioned, and I think ‘Maybe I’m just not cut out for this? Maybe I don’t have the nature to be a performing artist, I’m just not tough enough…not smart enough’ All those things cross my mind, but then I can’t deny the pull of the…not only the making of the music, but the interaction with the audience. I think that’s the big difference between the artistic and the musical side of myself; art is more of a genuinely solitary endeavor, whereas the music is solitary in it’s creation, but in it’s delivery you have this communication that takes place, and this exchange of energy in the moment. So I would say that in some ways music is much more immediate and evocative form of expression. It’s not like I had an ‘AHA’ moment…but I will say though, a while back, one of my friends from high school came to a show. We were talking and he said that he remembers me coming up to him, playing part of a song to him, and saying ‘I only know part of it now, but I’m going to learn the rest of it later and I’m gonna do this for a living.’ So my younger self said that and I just don’t recall, but he reminded me!
Seems like proof of being born with a great gift, and having a keenness to share it?
I think sometimes I can take it for granted. I get all caught up in my own insecurities, but my mom always used to remind me how much music means to people, and that I’m actually helping others, which is something I need to remember. It’s great to hear it means something to people, because it can be a lonely old road.
You mentioned your mom there, she influenced this new album didn’t she?
She is the inspiration for the new album, and it is a tribute to her. (hushed voice) It’s based on my discovery of a little beat up old notebook after she died. Inside her notebook, which I’d never seen before, were the lyrics to 32 songs in her beautiful handwriting, from the early 1970’s. Most of them were country songs by people like Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, that kind of thing. So I got the idea of recording some of the songs and dedicating it to my mom, and it became Mama’s Juke Book. Mama because it’s for my mama, book because of the notebook, and juke because of course it references jukeboxes, right? But it also made me think of my childhood, and my parents when they were together. They’d say to us ‘We’re going out juking!’ which meant they were going out on the town to have a drink and watch a band or something so…Mama’s Juke Book! I’ve been thinking about this project and working behind the scenes on it for probably almost 2 years really, because mom’s been gone for 4 now, and…it was much later after I’d found the notebook that I found inside it were a set of lyrics that turned out to be hers.
Wow, that’s incredible!
Yeah, I’ll never forget, I got chills from that. So I took her words and I created an arrangement, and added a chorus, and tried to stay true to it as much as possible. Y’know, she was not a professional song writer, I don’t think she ever wrote another song. I did remember that she had written some poetry and had talked about wanting to live in a little cabin and write a book, and she journaled a lot, but I never knew she’d written a song. I treat it like an oral poem, and it’s called A Song Of Love.
What a special songwriting process. Do you think this album has helped you deal with the loss?
I feel like it’s tying up loose ends and also, as painful as it’s been, allowed me to continue with the grieving process. All of a sudden when I was working on these songs, I just broke down and said ‘Oh my god, she’s gone. She’s really gone.’ and it’s been 4 years for Gods sake, I know she’s gone! But when I recorded these songs, especially when I did A Song Of Love, and I put that off for as long as I could, all of the grief just hit me anew and I was devastated, sobbing. So I guess that doing the project was more than just a tribute to her, it’s more of a musical exploration, and seems to be a very important part of the grieving process. Yeah, it’s been a journey.
How did you pick your 11 other songs from the original 32?
The basic criteria was making sure I did ones that I had a connection with both artistically and personally, and remembering the ones that mom played, because some of the songs in there were obscure to me, and there were little nuggets in there too. There was one tune in there by a country artist named Donna Fargo. I remember her songs that mom played; ‘Funny Face’ and ‘Happiest Girl in the Whole USA’, but I didn’t know the one that mom had in her book, titled ‘The Awareness Of Nothing’. The minute I heard those lyrics I was instantly attracted to that song, and it is one of my favourite tracks of the whole album. An incredible magical moment in the studio, because to try and record live and capture the magic is a rare thing that happens, and it really happened on that song, it was in the zone! That song, of all the songs, I feel that I made my own, and I love it. The studio was phenomenal; there was a huge echo chamber next to me when I was singing that gave this beautiful, warm sound. It was a beautiful experience.
Any other favourites?
Definitely, there’s this one by Conway Twitty that I remember her playing over and over and over again…’Hello Darlin’. Even though I felt funny singing that song as a woman, I felt compelled to record that particular song because I knew how important that song was to her, and so I did a little research and found out that Loretta Lynn had recorded a version of that song in the past so I thought ‘Hey! If she can do it I can do it!’ And um, I will say that when it came time to record that one in the studio it was pretty emotional, because that one struck me really, really hard because it was such a memory of her playing it.
With such a personal project that’s completely understandable. How did you manage to produce this album independently, without a record label?
Through appeal letters, I got the money together to go into the studio in New Orleans in February for 4 days. A terrific piano player from Austin Texas flew in, good friends from nearby who play some strings came in, a wonderful drummer from Baton Rouge, a wonderful guitarist and..um…a fabulous local trumpet player. We just went to work and recorded 11 tracks in 4 days there. And then of course I had to find the money to actually finish the album, which is quite involved, you have to get it mastered and mixed, purchase the song licences etc. That’s when I got the Kickstarter campaign up and running: that was a monumental effort, believe me! Preparing all that and then manning the campaign for a month, on pins and needles to see if it’s funded, but it was!
Thankfully it was and I got the album finished and manufactured…actually within days of leaving on this tour! I mean, they were delivered to me on the Friday, and I flew out to London the following Wednesday! Of course all the people who got me started, I called them ‘Mama’s Angels’, they all got their CD’s first. I must have mailed out almost 400 CD’s before I left on the tour. Yeah! So anybody who gave me their address has now received their copy of Mama’s Juke Book, and when I get back I will fulfil the rest of the rewards on the campaign.
The rest of the rewards? Have you been giving yourself away?
Well I have 3 house concerts that I will be doing. I have 2 people who pledged for Lunch with Lisa, so they will be coming over to my friends house and we’ll be cooking them dinner and I’ll be singing a couple of songs for them! I have one really interesting reward on the campaign: for every show that I am playing on this tour, I am writing down set lists, and certain people will get signed set lists from different places. And there are t-shirts that I have to get designed and made and sent out. One person pledged for a piece of my artwork that I did in college, so yeah, a bunch of different things!
Well with 3 house concerts and 2 Lunches with Lisa, you really are willing to give a lot of yourself to your fans?
Well, they’ve given a lot to me, I’m telling you! So I really appreciate it.