After Hollywood broke Lissie's heart, the Midwestern native and folk-rock star returned to her roots, trading the glitz of Tinseltown for the Iowa farmlands and reclaiming her voice by leaving a major label for an indie. Her fourth studio album, My Wild West, documents this journey, the process of redefining her dreams, and her concept of success. Through the quiet chords and resilience of "Sun Keeps Risin'" and the heartwarming urgency of "Don't Give Up on Me" and "Hollywood," the melodies of Lissie's ballads capture with heart and depth what it is to dream, fight, and persevere. My Wild West offers listeners a new definition of the American Dream, one rooted in uncertainty, vulnerability, and a willingness to find hope even in the darkest of days, assuring us that we have time to make things right if we are to stay true to who we really are.
I spoke with Lissie over the phone in the middle of a sun-drenched afternoon about her past, the importance of redefining your dreams, how a happy accident led to the video for "Hollywood," and why she alone is the master of her own destiny.
Dianca Potts: You released two albums this year, My Wild West and Live at Union Chapel. Looking back, what did working on both of those projects teach you?
Lissie: I had the benefit of [being on] a major label and [having] a lot of help, and I couldn't have gotten to where I am now without it, so I'm grateful for those years, but everything always seemed so much more complicated than it needed to be. Since I became more independent, I found out that it's really not that complicated, and that's been really heartening because I felt like all the lies I'd been told about how hard it has to be [on my own] were bullshit. I've learned that if you just try to do your best and believe in yourself, people might not give a shit about what you're doing, but you'll [at least] have fun while you do it. Just do what makes you happy and don't worry about the outcome.
DP: You've been in the spotlight since you were a child. Do you feel like there's a sense of responsibility that goes hand in hand with being in the spotlight or being famous?
L: When I was young, I wanted to be Janet Jackson. I wanted to be Madonna. I wanted to be famous. The idea of being famous was so cool. But now, as I've gotten older, I've come to a realization that I'm not sure if anyone should want fame, because it's not, for me anyway, a comfortable notion. I think that if you do have a platform for people to listen to what you have to say, [you should be able] to champion causes and share your opinion. You can catch more flies with honey, you know? My aunt Laura passed away from ALS, and every year I have an ALS fund-raiser for patients in the area where I grew up. I think that being able to get people to show up and learn more about something that could help others is a responsibility that anyone who has a platform should do.
D: "Hollywood" feels like such a timely meditation on fame and the importance of pursuing your dreams. What inspired you to write this song?
L: I wrote this song with Martin Craft. He's an awesome artist in his own right, and we've written a lot of songs together in the past. He wrote a lot of "Hollywood" and brought it to me. [He said] it reminded him of me because I lived in Hollywood for five years. I moved there when I was 21, and I didn't know anybody there, and for a minute I got dazzled by what it could offer me. I had some dark experiences before I figured out who I was and what made me happy and decided to surround myself with that energy. This song and this album are about leaving the industry and leaving Southern California to move back to Iowa and getting back to my Midwest roots. It's a vulnerable song about how Hollywood will break your heart just because it can, how it's like a fickle lover, how it can make your dreams come true or completely destroy you. It can be soul-crushing, if you let it be. Hollywood broke my heart, but it also gave me a lot of experience and lessons that I'm forever grateful for. This song is a way of making peace and getting closure with that chapter of my life.
DP: I love how personal the video for "Hollywood" feels. What inspired you to include home-movie footage from your past?
L: It was a happy accident. I didn't know there was even going to be a video, but my friend Talain [Blanchon] lost a hard drive of mine and felt so bad about it that he took all of the home-movie footage that I had given him and made a video for me as an apology. It was really sweet of him and so nice to see little me singing and dancing for the camera. A week later he ended up finding the hard drive, so I was cracking up, but it turned into this really special video that was perfect for "Hollywood," because it captured that joyful innocence and creative desire to perform and express myself that I wanted so much to get back to.
DP: "Hollywood" and much of My Wild West captures the experience of having a dream and the grit and endurance necessary to keep pursuing your goals even when you're disappointed or experience setbacks. It's a theme that feels so relevant to me as we all cope with the aftermath of the election and the redefinition of the American Dream.
L: I definitely see a correlation between us being disappointed and disillusioned about the American Dream, this election, and expecting our government to take care of us, and how I thought that I had to exist within the [traditional] music industry to have my voice heard before I realized that I've been most successful when I [did it] myself.
This [election] was a wake-up call. Now our misogyny and racism [as a nation] is out of the woodwork and exposed. Now we know the depths of the problem that's always been there. Now we have to get together and figure out our differences and not wait for the politicians, for our country, or for the media to do it for us. It's up to us to make the world that we want to see. We have to wake up and get together and figure this out because we can't just sit back and work our jobs and watch TV and drink our beers and hope that it will all just sort itself out.
DP: Was there ever a time in your life where you felt like your dreams might not come true?
L: I can be a really self-pitying person, but I've also always had this sense that even when things were going really badly for stretches of time that I was never not going to do this in some capacity. And I think that readjusting what my idea of success is, and what it means for my dream to come true, I've definitely gotten down and worried in the past, but I've always felt like my destiny is not in anyone else's hands, and even if I'm dirt poor and can only get ten people to come to my show, I'm still going to be able to sing, so I'm still winning. That's kept me going.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.