Lisa Marie Presley: Singer, songwriter, rock and roll princess

By Mike Greenblatt

The phone rings. Lisa Marie Presley says a rather disinterested hello. She’s been burned by the press so many times. Yet, here she is again, talking to folks like me, this time about her new T-Bone Burnett-produced album, “Storm And Grace.” After two previous tries — 2003’s “To Whom It May Concern” and 2005’s “Now What” — the new album finally captures her inner swamp rock, her soulful, sexy, insinuating voice singing her own songs, which she co-wrote with a variety of British musicians upon being barricaded in a house 30 miles north of London for a few months. It worked.

Whether it was T-Bone’s magic touch or the fact that her life is currently happy, secure and stable, Presley’s “Storm And Grace” transcends who she is and puts forth a sultry statement of independence. It’s an intoxicating Southern Gothic brew, an Americana masterpiece. By the end of the conversation, she lightens up, her girlishness is palpable, her sense of humor is intact, her tendency for dramatic innuendo is pronounced and her guard is down — as you’ll see.

GM: Why seven years between albums No. 2 and No. 3?
Lisa Marie Presley: It took me a long time to recover from the previous two records (laughs). I’m just kidding. Actually, it was the circumstances surrounding the previous two records: the people, the process. It was a little bit of a nightmare because of the label I was on (Capitol Records). It wasn’t a pleasant experience. It took me a while to get out of that situation; then, I went through a lot of shedding of skin, people and toxicity. And then I was just kind of tapped out creatively. I needed time. And I also had two children in there somewhere. So it was sorta de-constructing and reconstructing my life.

Lisa Marie Presley photo by Kevin Hees

A lot of singer-songwriters “kiss and tell” when it comes to whom their songs are about, but don’t expect Lisa Marie Presley to be among them. She prefers to keep an air of mystery and let listeners interpret the songs on their own. Kevin Hees photo.

GM: But once you got on a roll, you wrote 30 songs in eight months.
LMP: Yeah, and that was at a leisurely pace. I told [manager] Simon [Fuller], who I’ve been with for five years, ‘I need to get out of Los Angeles and go very far away to restart everything.’ He set it up for me to go to England and write. He owns a management office over there, as well, and he wound up putting me with everybody. It was great. There was no agenda. I lived there for a long time and wound up writing tons of songs with every type of co-writer: electronica writers, pop writers, rock writers, singer-songwriters and just regular writers, whatever. It ended up being so natural and instinctive. Simon laid it all out for me to just do anything and go anywhere with my music. The plan was to have no plan. I got close to about four or five of those writers, and we kept going back and forth. No matter who I wrote with, this sound was coming out regardless.

GM: Two of the writers were Richard Hawley from Pulp and Francis Healy from Travis, two very respected bands.
LMP: Yes, and neither of those two had ever written with anyone outside their respective bands before, so it became an interesting collaboration. All of the collaborations, in fact, were incredible for me as a writer. It wasn’t like, “Oh, get with this hit writer here.” It was more, “Let’s see what comes of this collision.”

GM: Do you find that your creative juices are moved more by co-writing?
LMP: Yeah, they are. Very much. They have to be. It’s definitely the process for me, and it’s the same with whomever I write with. We decide on the format, the basic melody, and then they leave me for anywhere from three to seven hours to sort of torture and labor over lyric sequences and how I’m going to say things. I usually bring a bag of food and sit for hours. And then they come back and wonder what the hell is going to come out of my mouth.

GM: You wrote the lyrics to all 11 songs and co-wrote all the music. Some of these lyrics sound intimately personal. How many are autobiographical?
LMP:  I always write based on things I’ve felt or experienced. But I don’t have to be literal. I try to take my own life and be universal.

GM: But your own life is hardly universal. You’ve lived the kind of life most people only dream of. How can you instill any normal sense of universality in your lyrics?
LMP:  I still feel and go through the same things other people feel and go through.

Lisa Marie Presley Storm and GraceGM: In “Weary,” you sing, “I will always love you/you can move on, dear.” Who is that about?
LMP:  I won’t, I won’t. I mean, I understand, but I’m just not going to answer that. I’m one of those old-fashioned people who would rather have folks think about it and interpret the songs for themselves. Most of the time, I’ve found when the songwriter answers that kind of question, they’re either sensationalizing the song or they’re ruining it for me as  a listener when they say exactly who it’s supposed to be about. I won’t do that.

GM: Your voice has a new resonance. It’s more up front in the mix: soulful, deep, swampy, sexy. And the music fits it like a glove. Your first two records were harder, more rock-oriented. Was it T-Bone who brought out that side of you, or did these new songs just liken themselves to that kind of treatment?
LMP:  I honestly feel that in the first two records, I was hiding behind the loud guitars, literally hiding! I specifically directed the production of the songs to drown me out, because I was scared to death. So I just wanted to turn everything up, get loud with the guitars, louder electric guitar solos, louder drums, louder bass. This time, through the process of it, like I said, I went through a pretty good deconstruction and reconstructive process in my life and was writing throughout that period, and I think when I wrote “Weary” with Richard [Hawley], it was the first time I was pretty naked. It was simple. That proved to be the beginning, the birth. Or should I say the rebirth.

GM: Your first album didn’t come out for so long. There was so much conjecture because the world knew you were a singer yet you purposely didn’t record an album until you were in your 30s. Why?
LMP:  I wasn’t ready yet. I did it when I was ready. Or thought I was.

GM: Did you feel you had too much to live up to being the daughter of Elvis Presley?
LMP:  Yeah, I guess. I mean [pause] that is obviously…incredibly…intimidating. I was trying to do everything that wouldn’t be what he would do. That’s another reason behind the harder rock sound. I was so intent on not even coming close to be or to sound anything like him so I wouldn’t be compared.
GM: The press is going to do that anyway. Do you think your road of being a celebrity offspring is made easier by your gender?
LMP: Y’know, it’s like my husband said the other day. He said, “You might get in the door because of who you are, or get that one step forward handed to you, but then you’re going to have to take 17 shots to the head until you break through it. You’re gonna have to prove yourself even worse. You can step in the door. Fine. But then after that, it’s up to you.” And that’s so true, but I’m not going to whine about it.
You do tend to go up against a lot more than someone else who is not in this position. There’s a whole lot more going against you, as much as there is for you. It’s more taxing.

GM: You’ve managed to maintain such an aura of grace and class in this 24/7 news cycle compared to other celebrities. I mean, you didn’t ask for this; you were born into it. How do you deal with it?
LMP: I don’t know how to answer that, because I wouldn’t know any different. I don’t think I’ve always handled it so well. I don’t think I’ve done the worst I could do, either. It’s kind of in between. How can I even know how to deal with that kind of stuff? No one ever wrote a book on it that I could read. There’s no guidelines for someone in my position.

GM: I think you’ve handled it real well, because I never see the kind of negative stuff about you that I see about others. At some point, you must have just laid down the law. Is it that press knows not to mess with you? You’ve always been tough. You’ve always been a rebel. That’s been your public persona. And it’s served you well.
LMP: To some degree what you’re saying is true, I guess. But I do feel like I do get it; I get it all the time from all sorts of newspapers and websites. I get it real bad, too, from the National Enquirer, who seems to run a story on me every month, and they don’t even fact check. They just make stuff up. And now that people know the record’s coming, they, and others like them, will do it even more so … I mean, it’s definitely happening, whether you see it or not. It’s a continuous bee in my bonnet.

GM: Do you want to tour behind this record?
LMP: Absolutely. That’s my favorite part. Always has been. The creation of it and then the touring have been my favorite parts. That’s when I can get the instant gratification and the interaction from people who like the record.

GM: Who do you consider your vocal and musical influences?
LMP: Gosh, there’s so many. Those who sing and go right into your gut and resonate with your soul, voices like that. Mostly beautiful sadness-type singers. My favorites are always singer-songwriters:  Glen Campbell, Gordon Lightfoot. I love Linda Ronstadt, Pat Benatar, Patsy Cline, Aretha Franklin, Heart. I’ve been listening to a lot of Neil Young’s “Harvest” lately. I know everyone else has liked him forever, but I had to discover him on my own.

GM: You may not be there yet, but you must have a tribute album to your dad in you at some point, no?
LMP: I’ve already recorded two “duets” with my father, songs for specific events: “In The Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy.”

GM: For the new album, you wrote 30, included 11. Will we hear the other 19?
LMP: There’s going to be a deluxe edition of the album out as well with 15 songs. We recorded all 15 in 12 days.

GM: What do you feel T-Bone brought to the party?
LMP: Gosh, he really, y’know, his brilliance and his orbit of musicians. He’s so great; I can’t even explain it. It wasn’t like he came in, dominated and did his own thing. He really did take his time to process and digest me and what I was doing, selecting the exact right musicians who he thought would be a perfect combination. Plus, he played on a lot of the tracks, as well. He brought so much, everything, really. He brought it all. He was so good, I can’t begin to tell you. He accentuated it in all the right spots. Just brilliant.

GM: So he brought out the artistry within you that your first two records failed to bring out?
LMP: Only because I was finally willing to have it be brought out. I wasn’t willing to step up on those earlier records. T-Bone doesn’t do that, anyway. He doesn’t do the over-productions, the big rock things; that’s not him, even his Counting Crows production (1993’s “August And Everything After”). It’s all organic with him. And that’s something that I headed toward doing. It was the sound of each demo. He brings in his own elements, as well, and it raises the standards, because you record live with him, which I never did. And the musicians are obviously outstanding. And his direction is outstanding. So it brought everything up into this whole ’nother stratosphere.

GM: He called you a “Southern American folk music artist.” After hearing “Storm And Grace,” I could see why. This is a career record for you. You’ve never sounded better. You must have high hopes for it.
LMP: Why, thank you! I’m too close to it. I’m also so hyper-critical. I’ve seen too much in my life. You just never know. But I’m very proud of it. I worked very hard on it. I will say that.

GM: Are you going to be revving up what Joni Mitchell once called “the starmaker machinery” and hitting all the talk shows? You’ve already gone on record as saying you were not comfortable with that the first two times around. Are you ready now to do that dance?
LMP: I’m prepared, because I’m in a lot better situation than I was before. In the past, I was pushed into everything. I had no time. I mean, my very first appearance was “Good Morning America.” My second one was Wango Tango, of all things (the annual day-long KIIS-FM Los Angeles concert), in front of 4,000 people. There was no runway. It was like, “OK, now that you conquered that, we’re going to throw you in with this person and that interview.” I feel like, to some degree, I’ve already paid my dues a little bit because of those things. And half of it wasn’t for the right reasons, anyway. This time, I have an incredible team around me. The label’s been incredible (Universal Republic/XIX Recordings). They’re not going to throw me into some sensationalistic situations. They’re not going to put me in bad situations like I was before. I was put in an arena I didn’t belong, be it pop or Top 40. I’m not in that category. I’m a singer-songwriter. I was kind of being pushed into an area where I didn’t really belong and never did.

GM: You say, and I quote, that you were “considerably disheartened and uninspired creatively.” What led to that kind of problem?
LMP: The previous bad situation. Not in the right place. Not around the right people.

GM: Butting your head against the previous label?
LMP: That, and also my own personal people around me. There was just a lot of toxicity around me. I needed to — had to — get rid of a lot of people around me … which, I guess you have to do every now and then in life.

GM: So I take it that now you’re in a great place business-wise, creative-wise and personal-wise?
LMP: Yes. Shedding skin is a good thing. It didn’t seem like it at the time when it was all happening, but everything landed right, so it’s great. I don’t have any of that around me anymore. It’s all good now.

GM: How old were you when you realized your daddy was not just your daddy but belonged to the whole world?
LMP: Let me think about that. Y’know, I think I’m going to have to say something morbid. To be honest, not until he died. I mean, even though I would be with him and watch him, I just figured it was his job. I didn’t feel necessarily that he was everyone else’s until he died, and I was in my own obvious state of shock. Then I was watching people dropping and fainting and coming into the house in storms. I realized I didn’t have my own grief at the time, which is a strange answer, but when you see everyone else grieving, when you see all of this mass grief going on all over the world and on TV in front of you in the house, it took me a while. I couldn’t actually grieve for a little while, because everyone else was doing it.

GM: You were nine!
LMP: I remember it so clearly. Did I answer you OK? I didn’t mean to go into a dark place, but it’s the truth. It’s difficult for someone to understand at that age. It’s when I first saw how massive he was to so many people, how everyone felt. It wasn’t just me.

GM: Dark is good. You answered it beautifully.
LMP: OK, good, I have to watch that. I do have a dark side and tend to go there all too often.

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