Lissie Talks Getting Comfortable With Unpleasant Emotions And Learning From Nature For ‘Carving Canyons’

[Cover photo credit to Lili Peper]

Midwestern independent artist Lissie will be releasing her album Carving Canyons on September 16, 2022, via Lionboy Records, and has a number of US shows happening in the near future, alongside European shows, to support its release. This is her fifth studio album, not counting two live albums and a compilation, and follows 2018’s Castles. It finds her navigating a very different interior and exterior world in some ways, though you may recognize the album’s themes of introspection and consideration of one’s place in life as a subtle through-line in some of her previous collections.

This thematic focus was prompted by finding herself in a place of real self-evaluation in the middle of the pandemic, the early part of which she spent sequestered alone on her farm with her dog. Some people wouldn’t consider a painful breakup the starting point for self-evaluation, but it speaks to Lissie’s determination to bring hope out of devastation that she took it as her mission to understand herself better, even if that meant dealing head-on with anger and frustration.

The sonic direction that came out of her music during this time sometimes leaned towards Americana and Roots traditions, and sometimes leaned towards more scintillating and “shiny” Pop elements, depending on the needs of each song and the suggestions of collaborators. Natural themes and observations of the human place in the natural world provide a prevailing wind, one that brings honest reflection and a healing atmosphere. I spoke with Lissie about the realities that she faced in her life that led to creating Carving Canyons and the insights she’s gathered on that road.

Hannah Means-Shannon: For a lot of people, this period has felt more like being an actual human being, figuring out how to do things more manually and intentionally. Was that something that you felt on your farm during the pandemic?

Lissie: I think it’s something that everyone has experienced, no matter what their career path is, but now, here in Iowa, it’s like we’re suddenly busy again and it’s like we’re too busy because we’re not used to it. Through Covid, definitely had to face ourselves and come to some conclusions about what life really means dealing with existential stuff. I hope, moving ahead, people will be more mindful in terms of quality of life and productivity.

HMS: Is this collection the most existential that you’ve done?

Lissie: I think across my albums, there’s always been a little smattering of introspection and existentialism, but this album was actually made in chunks. With past albums, I just wrote and album, then recorded an album in one window of time. With this album, because of covid, and also being independent, it was done differently. First Covid happened, then my partner left me, and I was isolated on a farm with my dog for months.

So I’d write a few songs, then record them. Then, a few months would go by, and I’d write a few songs, then record them. What I love about this album is that it kind of walks you through my stages of grief, which are about a romantic relationship, but eventually I’ve accepted what’s happened and am looking forward to the future. That’s where I think the hope and the introspection kicks in. I was angry, then sad, then accepted it, and started feeling more hopeful again. So the arc has more well-rounded reflection than maybe my previous work has had.

HMS: I noticed that on the album. Obviously, I could follow these clear relationship themes, but when I looked at all the songs together, I felt that it was bigger than that, as a whole. The statement that the album makes is almost about a bigger aspect of life than just surviving a single relationship, possibly because it has a lot to do with getting to know oneself.

Lissie: I’ve had a lot of relationships that haven’t worked out, and my life hasn’t exactly lent itself to stable relationships, but I’m the common denominator so I’m aware that the album is about the breakup, but it’s not really about the breakup. Because it was Covid, and I couldn’t tour, and I couldn’t travel, and I couldn’t even see my family, I had to sit and look at myself. I think that is it. It was painful, but I had to ask, “Maybe it’s not really about this guy. Maybe it’s about me, my patterns, my coping mechanisms, and wanting to be more present.” I wanted to be able to go out into the world with hope, so it was about facing myself. I know it’s universal. Everyone has these questions, “How come some relationships don’t work out? Why is the world so full of pain?” We try to reconcile all of it.

HMS: I think lack of closure is a huge part of human life that disturbs us, and much of that has to do with relationships. A couple of these songs really pick up on that. We have these big emotions and don’t know what to do with them.

Lissie: What I realize, too, is not that I’ve had a terribly hard life, but I have abandonment issues, rejection issues, and poor coping skills. I had to take a look at that and ask why I was feeling so emotionally out of control and impulsive. These are a lot of things that artists are. We are emotional and feel things in a big way, but the wiser thing is to process things. I eventually got my closure, but I realized this was more about my abandonment issue because everything happened very quickly and I felt so betrayed. I had to get to the point where I could say, “Maybe it’s for the best.”

HMS: Easier said than done, I know. I do feel like there’s a lot of pressure, even among friends and family, to get over things quickly because you don’t want to bring them down. Was it your immediate thought to bring this to music, or did you feel any uncertainty?

Lissie: What happened was that for about six months afterwards, I didn’t write. At first I would sing to myself and come up with little ideas, but it was not just the breakup that contributed to that. It was going out in the [Covid] world into town and seeing old women who had been widowed weeping, the news, politics, George Floyd, and the pain of the world. I was feeling that collective pain on top of that personal pain. I didn’t know how to start to process all of that since I knew I couldn’t put that in a three-minute song. So I didn’t really use music to heal. I went to therapy, I didn’t drink, I went swimming every night, I gardened. I tried to find these hopeful, positive things to do.

In a song like “Flowers”, you can see that I was really angry at first. There were only a handful of my girl friends who were comfortable with me expressing my anger. It made other people uncomfortable, which made me even more angry. Was I not allowed to feel what I felt? That’s why “Flowers” says, “I’m allowed to hurt. I’m allowed to burn.” I found it was important to surround myself with people who were comfortable with unpleasant emotions. Being from the Midwest, there is this idea not to burden people with your unpleasant emotions. I gave myself permission to feel those things and allow myself to go through those stages. I’d say if you’re going through this, go to therapy if you can, but also surround yourself with people who are okay with you expressing this stuff.

HMS: For a number of these songs, you also worked with other people. Did you feel okay sharing those emotions and ideas with them?

Lissie: Absolutely, and I’m glad you brought this up, because when artists put out a new album, a lot of people don’t realize there are others involved. On this album, almost every song I wrote with another artist, and I also have a great Producer and a great team. These things go into the music and the release from many angles. I feel fortunate at this stage of my career that I have great friends and longtime collaborators. Come November of 2020, when I was starting to need to write about these things, I felt fortunate. I was able to go to Nashville and work mostly with people who I’d worked with before. That was almost like therapy, because I was able to go in and say, “This is the story I want to tell.”

Together, collaboratively, you get into this feeling together, and a lot of times, the co-writer will bring their own story to the table, so it’s their story, too. That sounding board for me is so great, because left to my own devices, I get distracted and won’t finish stuff. I’ll clean my house or fold my t-shirts. It’s good for me to write with people because it holds me accountable. Also, a co-writer might say, “You could say this line more clearly”, or “What about this?” Collaboration was really healing because I could realize I wasn’t alone, that everyone has been through this in some way, shape, or form. That was another level of healing.

HMS: We’ve got a wide range of sound directions on the album. Was that impacted by collaboration or was it more about how you felt about the song?

Lissie: I feel like that always ends up happening to me to some degree. I don’t really know what my genre is, but through team work with other musicians and my Producers, each song kind of spells out for you what it wants. “Flowers” in demo form is just an acoustic guitar and a vocal. You could go any direction with it. But there’s a strumming pattern even in the demo that I took to my Producer, and right off the bat, that pattern and the way I was singing it, which had a twang to it, was apparent. We tracked everything live together before doing overdubs and it was clear that the song wanted to take an Americana route.

Whereas, with “Night Moves”, when I had that song in my head, I did a voice memo, and even then it always seemed like it would be somewhat shiny and sexy, and kind of mysterious and evocative. I would go into the studio with guitar and vocal demos, but I’d say to the musicians, “This song feels like a summer night, and you’re feeling this person in the air. It’s kind of sweaty and bittersweet, and also kind of sexy.” Luckily, I work with the greatest studio musicians, and they just start playing cool shit, and then we kind of run with it. It would just have that energy.

HMS: There’s a lot of energy in that song. Something that I liked about it is the combination of dealing with something that’s gone/over/not there, it has powerful energy to it, rather than a sadness to it.

Lissie: There’s also something in that song that’s hard to explain. Sometimes when I’ve had something not work out with people who I felt immediately connected to, I’ve felt like it was meant to be even though it didn’t work out. The spooky side of me feels a peace in things not working out. As cheesy as it might sound, sometimes you meet someone and feel like you know them. Do we have past life connections? Part of me knows that in some multi-verse, this has played out in an infinite number of scenarios. So the song has a nod to that idea, as if “I’ve lived this scenario with you many times over.” It’s like a higher version of myself looking down on the mortal video of myself.

HMS: That’s something that’s suggested by the different versions of you in the video, I think. That’s really a interesting thing to think about. I think also that we can be glad that we didn’t walk away from relationships that didn’t work out, we gave them a chance at least. Sure, you could have avoided being burned, but you wouldn’t have had the other experiences from it.

Lissie: The album being called Carving Canyons relates to that. That was a title that came from Sarah Buxton, who’s an amazing human, singer, and artist in their own right. She had this idea of “Carving Canyons”, and she, and Kate York and I wrote this title track for the album together around a fire. I think it speaks to this. If you were to avoid pain, it’s like that line in “Carving Canyons,” which goes, “If I hadn’t broken open, there’d be nothing to see.” Pain is a part of life, and when you get that bird’s eye view of your life someday, if you get that impressions of valleys, depressions, and edges, they may have seemed not-so-pleasant then, but in hindsight, they are beautiful. I think that’s the human experience.

Do you want it to be just a long, flat line? That might be a lot easier. But I think some of the highs in life are punctuated by the lows. It’s not that you should seek out the lows, like you need drama to feel alive. I’m past that part of my life. But the thing that even motivated us to be talking about these issues was that my co-writer’s father was sick. This was real life. We realized we were getting older. It was so painful, but almost in an effort to comfort ourselves, we discussed the human experience and the painful parts of it.

HMS: I feel like we have to answer these questions to ourselves, to our own satisfaction, in order to shape our lives in any way. I love the images in “Carving Canyons.” A lot of natural elements come in elegantly in a simple way and reminds people of our own connections to the elements.

Lissie: I do live on this farm, but I was living there for more than four years before Covid, and it was only when I had to be there all the time that this imagery came up. I think it pops up all across the album. Nature is beautiful, but there’s also a season for everything. I was drawing on all these metaphors, like things in winter waiting until the time to burst forth. Also, nature is brutal. I garden a lot and I plant all these seeds, but when there are six radishes are growing on top of each other, five of them have to go for one to thrive. It’s a zero sum game! I couldn’t decide which radish gets to live. [Laughs]

Life can be brutal too, but it’s also beautiful, and it’s very humbling if you can to return to that, even in these chaotic times. You begin to realize that you are just one piece of history. If you can reduce yourself down to being part of nature, it somehow does help to navigate life.

Photo credit to Lili Peper

North American Tour Dates 

9/10: Memphis, TN @ Overton Park Shell
10/14: Boulder, CO @ Fox Theatre
10/15: Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
10/17: Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile 
10/18: Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
10/20: San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
10/21: Los Angeles, CA @ Teragram Ballroom
10/22: Pioneertown, CA @ Pappy & Harriet’s
10/29: Hartford, CT @ Infinity Hall
10/30: Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
11/2: Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
11/3: Philadelphia, PA @ World Cafe Live
11/5: Woodstock, NY @ Bearsville Theatre
11/6: Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
12/1: Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
12/2: Iowa City, IA @ Wildwood
12/3: Davenport, IA @ Racoon Motel
12/8: Madison, WI @ Majestic Theatre
12/9: Milwaukee, WI @ Colectivo
12/10: Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue

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