Posted March 2020
When one hears the name, Lisa Fischer, one of a few scenarios come to mind.
The first might be her 1991 Grammy Award-winning album, So Intense, and her hit song, How Can I Ease the Pain. Sexy. Smooth. Sultry. An incredible range. The entire package. Even today, she commands attention and accolades from her legions of fans who have followed her since. More about that in a moment.
Most likely, one will think of her as the sole – and soulful – female backup singer for the likes of Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, Roberta Flack, Teddy Pendergrass, Chaka Khan, Sting, Anane Vega, and, Chris Botti.
Oh, yeah. And the Rolling Stones.
For some of you, the light bulb has now lit up in your heads.
Yes, Ms. Fischer is THAT sexy singer who commanded everyone’s attention during her vocal solo during the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”. The solo first recorded and made famous by the legendary Merry Clayton and that Lisa owned – lock, stock, and barrel – for the twenty years she toured and recorded with the bad boys of rock and roll.
All of this led to Lisa being among those featured in the award-winning documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom. This led to an even greater interest in her and her talent which has led to a tour that is underway. For that reason, I had the personal thrill and opportunity to finally get to interview Ms. Fischer by phone to talk about her tour – among other things.
I started by telling her that I had just recently stumbled upon a video of her performing the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” with Scotty Sharrard that blew me away. When I shared that I felt that they both fed off of each other’s energy, she shared:
“That was my first time working with Tony. It was wonderful. It was at the Brooklyn Bowl - I think last year. Yeah. He's awesome.”
When I think of Lisa and her work and the energy that she projects when she performs - solo and otherwise - I sense a spirit of humility, confidence, and serenity. I sense a type of spirituality that is the foundation of her talent. I asked her if I was correct in my perception.
“Yeah, I think that's true. You know, kind of like you, as a person, you feel like everything around you affects you. When I was little, both of my grandmothers were church people. On my father's side - my paternal grandmother was the mother of a church in Brooklyn. My maternal grandmother, she was ill, but she read the Bible every day so she had church in her bed. And, so, I would always try to help her read the Bible and all that kind of stuff. So, I was always aware - or made aware - I was taught the awareness of something greater than that we're all just kind of here trying to figure it out. So, you know, this to me - there's so many threads in different spiritual practices that seemed to resonate with each other. It's just different colors and different names and different things. But the essence of it, if you were a baby and couldn't speak a word, it's the same feeling to me.
“It's interesting because my niece just had a baby last summer and the baby was smiling when she was born. It was just beautiful because, in my mind, I imagine that she's just fresh out of heaven and is still smiling, still seeing angels and maybe still seeing God. And still, you have all these scenarios in your mind like, why do babies smile? Why are you so happy? Certain babies are happier than others. And others are just kind of like more thoughtful. You have to kind of work on them to get them to giggle. But this one, she's just constantly smiling. She smiles in her sleep.”
I added that Ms. Fischer exudes level-headedness but, yet, a forcefulness of power behind her voice and in her stage presence that is much different than other excellent performers. She responded:
“It's so interesting you say that. It's funny because I think it's a background thing, which is, most of my life you have to learn how to listen, learn how to feel and listen. Sometimes, people say things without saying a word. And, so, you have to listen to those silent conversations as well. I've always had to be sensitive outside of myself, not just what it is I want to do. What does this person need? What do they require of me? What's the best way I can serve them and serve the music that they want to promote, promoting the dreams and their visions. And, so, having to shift gears so often, sometimes he's the same person, call you back to do something and they totally switch their whole perspective. So, it's like I have to constantly stay really open, really sensitive to what the job is, which really isn't work to me. It's really just a beautiful service. But when I get to do lead vocals, then the music becomes the boss. The music starts to become the boss in a melodic sense and a lyrical sense. The choices that I get to make become more intuitive. It's a lot of fun just shifting and molding, you know? Looking at a particular situation and go, 'What's required here?' It's just so much fun to feel that you're in service to a purpose.”
I didn’t plan on doing it, but I made a comment about the blinding glimpse of the obvious: It took a lot of guts and a steel spine to decide to walk away from a cushy gig like singing backup for the Rolling Stones as she had for twenty years. I asked her to tell me about what led to taking such a giant step.
“I was there. I was touring with the Stones. And though it is stable from the outside looking in, there's still a lot of instabilities on a day-to-day level for me because I never assumed that they're going to call me back. I never assumed that they may change their mind or find someone that they really want to try out because it's really the artist's decision what they want to do. But luckily, you know, everything worked out and then they continued to ask me back. I just felt so grateful that I would still be useful to the tour.
“But I never had any control over when I would work. And then there'd be times and huge spaces – years, maybe - that we wouldn't work. And, so, we’d have to go back to finding other things to do, which has also been a blessing. But it's definitely not stable in a working musician's mind if you know what I mean.
“With that said, the decision to kind of focus on myself came because I was trying to balance both worlds. I was trying to balance the Stones tour and then the aftermath of '20 Feet from Stardom' and the success of that. I had no idea what was going to happen. I just kind of did it as a labor of love and there was no money involved. I just kind of did it, you know, because it felt good to do. Gil Friesen, who - it was his brainchild and he sort of brought the whole thing to life - was such a beautiful man and it's such a beautiful purpose. I was just like, 'Wow, what a cool idea!' You know? Ask about background singers because he came to a show and he was, 'Oh, yeah, it's so great to see what you guys do and think about doing a movie about it.'
“So, fast-forward: The film wins an Oscar and I was getting offers to do shows on my own. It was so different from me. So, I said, 'Well, let me get a manager or someone to help me.' And I did. I have found Linda Goldstein who manages Bobby McFerrin. I've known her for a while and done some work with her. We had a really good rapport. Still do. And we worked it out to where I'd find out the Stones tour schedule, which was top secret even to me. Ha! Ha! I like it because it shifts and changes and it's their worlds, you know? You sort of ask, like, 'Hey, when are you guys working?' It's kind of like not such a comfortable conversation; not such a professional conversation. So, they were kind enough to give me the information that they knew. And then I would try to - not I - but my team would work on booking shows around the Stones tour. Fast forward. The Stones - some of those Stones tours got canceled for various reasons and they would have to reschedule. So, then I would have to reschedule.
“So, I'm thinking. 'I'm a new artist, even though I'm old, right? But I'm a new artist to these promoters and I don't want them to think I'm a flake. I call and I go, ‘Gee, well, you know, I know he kind of said I was going to do 30 shows, but I can't because the Stones are doing blah, blah, blah blah blah.’ It got to the point where I just felt like it's not fair, one, to the audience. It's not fair to the promoters. It's not fair to me as far as building my reputation in the business if I really want to do this.
Posted March 2020
“So, I had to make a very difficult decision. It's like I don't think I'm in the position anymore to try to work it out - with this scheduling - because life is a mystery and we never know why things have to change. But, you know, I have no control over that and, sometimes, neither do they. So, I had to kind of say, ‘Okay, it might be time.’ I thought that was one reason - just to sort of promote my own life and my own choices. And then also, too, I felt like, you know, I'm in my 50s now. I'm older and heavier now.”
To which I interjected: Aren't we all? Lisa laughed and continued:
“Yeah, well, everyone but the Stones. For some reason, they're just locked in time. Oh, my lord. And that's the truth. It's amazing. I think that's one of the reasons why I just get such a kick out of them. They give me hope, you know? So, it is humanly possible! I just haven't figured it out yet for myself! Ha! Ha! It's humanly possible, you know what I mean? I always look at them with this wonderment and joy and appreciation. And it's so difficult to walk away from such a nurturing situation. It's like family. I watched the kids grow up. I've seen grandkids. It's just so much beauty and love and respect and joy. All the guys are just amazing and even all the side musicians - just love them. And, so, it was really emotionally difficult.
“I was doing a show in Canada and I had to call the promoter and I cried after I hung up the phone. It took me a while to pull myself together to do the show because I just like - it felt like a death. It felt like someone had died. Then the fear sets and it's like, ‘Did I make the right decision? Should I have, say, invested in my own path?’ It's a scary thing.
“It's been - I don't know - three years, four years now, maybe more. And so luckily for me, taking the chance was worth it. But I still miss them to pieces. I keep threatening to come and visit at a show, I just want to see them from a perspective that I've never got to see them. I've never gone to see a live Stones show. I've been in the shows. Yeah. It's like I keep threatening - before they decide to never tour again - to go and see them. I want to do that. So funny.”
I mentioned Mick Jagger’s health scare last year and that showed us that we’re all mere mortals. Lisa replied:
“Indeed. But, you know, you know, he does all the right things. And he's such a health-conscious human being. I think his dad was like a gymnast, a gym teacher. So, yeah, you know, health was really important - everything that he did and does. So that fragility that you're talking about – yeah, it's a crazy thing. And I know it's inevitable that we all happen to pass this way. You know, for some reason, I just feel like people live forever and ever - forever on certain planes. I look at Mick and Keith and Ronnie and Charlie and they're just so alive. They're alive beyond their living. I mean they live within us all as fans. People who love them. They live on different plains.”
While on the subject of the Rolling Stones, I asked Ms. Fischer if she was friends with her replacement, Sasha Allen, and if she had anything to do with her getting the gig.
“We've become friends. I've met her and she's just - I shouldn't say, like friends in the sense of, like, we go out to dinner. We are friendly and I really adore her. I think she's amazing. I didn't know her until after she was hired. I was trying to help them with names of different people to audition. You know, people that they hadn't seen before because they'd seen so many people some years back; to see who would be available and who would be a good fit. Only the Stones know what works for them. So, you put the name in the hat and you pray for the best for each person. I'm not sure how Sasha's name came into play, but it did. It wasn't through me, but it was a beautiful fit and they seem to love her. So, yeah, she's been doing a great job. She's got an awesome voice, a beautiful personality, a gorgeous girl, and the fans seem to really love her. So, it seems like a wonderful match.”
Lisa Fischer is embarking on a tour so I asked her to tell me about it and what fans can expect.
“This is a vocal piano duet show. It's a very personal show in the sense that it's very intimate. It gives me the chance to pick beautiful songs that have passed through me in my life. Some Stones tunes. Some Luther Vandross tunes. A couple of my songs and just songs that I like. Everything is really based on the message of the lyric for me because, as I'm walking through this path and realizing I can't really sing a lie, you know what I mean? It's kind of like I really want to sing stuff that at least makes sense to me in my head and my heart - mostly in my heart - and that has some kind of lingering energy and lingering message. So, it's a show of just intimacy between myself and Taylor Eigsti, who is an amazing and sensitive player. And we get to really dig our heels into the song - the craft of the song, not how it's made, but how it tastes, you know, what it smells like, what it feels like, what it breathes like. And, so, that's basically what the tour is about.”
All this begged the question: Can we expect a long-overdue solo album from her in the near future?
“Yeah, we've been talking about it. So, we hope to record this joining. It’s really beautiful to me. It's just something about the
way Taylor plays. He plays like a singer with as many voices as he has fingers and it's just so colorful. His choices are so tasty. And, so, I get to glide upon these beautiful choices and it makes me react differently to the melodies that are already set. It starts to become this other thing; not what you think you know; a little bit of what you know, but not completely what you know. It's almost like a new breath, a new kiss, a new experience when we're going through the music.”
As for what is on Lisa’s radar for the next year or two, she shared:
“I'm really interested in doing a Christmas record. I haven't done one ever and I've always wanted to do one. And, so, I’m in the process of collecting songs that I find really interesting. Some classic things. I also want to do some funny things, too, because I have a kind of sick sense of humor. Ha! Ha!
“I grew up with two boys. I'm the only girl so, a lot of times, they're giggling and teasing and doing all kinds of things. What would be funny to a boy sometimes isn't funny to a girl. But a lot of the stuff that my brothers did was hilarious to me. My sense of humor is a bit more boyish. So, yeah, I want to do a couple of things that are just kind of mischievous and other things that are a bit more classic. So, I'm looking forward to that.
“I'm also looking forward to just doing different joinings, different joinings with different people, different musicians; doing house concerts and different things like that where it's just personal. I just love the personal touch, even though I really enjoyed doing stadium work, because it's almost as though the whole stadium is one person. It's like all these people come together, all the different human beings come together in one space at a particular time to have and share an experience. So, in that sense, they are one body. I do love the sense of just the madness and the excitement of a stadium. And luckily for me, I've enjoyed so many different realms as far as concert halls or clubs or arenas or stadiums or just different places, you know, in someone's home. To me, it's music. It's all connection. It's all this conversation. It's all personal.
“I'm looking forward to just having different experiences and I never know what's going to happen, which is kind of exciting, too. You know, you may get a call to do X, Y or Z. Like, last year I got to sing with a woman named Ledisi, who's freakin awesome! She's an amazing artist and she was with Jules Buckley, the conductor and the Metropole Orkest and it was just so much fun. We did a Nina Simone tribute. It was on the BBC and it was really great. So, situations like that where I get to do art for art's sake. It's just so fun for me.
“And, then, my pet project in my mind, even though it's hard to find time, but I really do need to find time - is that I sort of believe that melodies and the vibration of sound can heal people on a - not only on a spiritual level but a medical level.
“Let's say, for example, sound breaking glass. I feel that certain illnesses could be healed in the same way, the same thought. We destroy cancer; you destroy mental illness; we destroy diabetes. I know it sounds crazy, but I'm sure there's been - there's been a lot of work, I think, that on it and I just need to read up and see what has been done. I can see where I can be useful in that realm because I have memories of pitches of songs and keys from years ago. I think I can remember the sound of the color of a note. It doesn't matter how long ago I heard it. So, I'm hoping that I can use that gift in order to help heal people in that realm. So, that's something I'm looking forward to exploring, as well.
Wrapping up our chat, I asked Lisa Fischer how she hoped to be remembered and what she hopes her legacy is.
“Actually, I haven't really thought about a legacy. I would hope that people feel a sense of feeling when they think of me singing something or any recording, perhaps. It's all about the healing, for me.”
Join us in keeping up with Lisa Fischer by visiting her website, LisaFischerMusic.com. While you’re there, check out her tour itinerary to see if she’ll be appearing near you. It will be a show that you won’t want to miss!