20 Feet From Stardom Star & Grammy Award Winner Vocalist, Lisa Fischer is Independently Amazing!
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
I found Lisa's interview to be both insightful and refreshing. In spite of the mist of Covid, there was this peacefulness about her as she pondered every word and spoke with such grace and sincerity that it was astonishing. Lisa is very knowledgeable about the industry and very deep. As she has performed with everyone from Sting and Luther Vandross to The Rolling Stones, Lisa has carved out her own path. She is doing so with tremendous talent, originality and grace. We discussed her career and many other topics. Here is what she said.
Okay Lisa, let's talk about your career path in the music industry. I met some friends at my high school's Music and Arts program. We regularly sang together. At that time, there was a publication called "Backstage and Showtime". This publication was released every week. The newsstands were always crowded with singers and musicians who were looking for work. My interest in singing led me to meet other singers, and we all started auditioning together. I auditioned for a doo-wop style group known as "The Crystals". They were known for a song called "Da do Ron Ron", one of the most popular songs during the girl group era of the 1960s. I sang the lead vocals for a song called He's a Rebel, while the other members of the group sang the background vocals. The "Crystals" touring was handled by Dolores "Dee Dee" Kenniebrew, who was originally a "Crystal". Dee Dee auditioned me, and that was my first time traveling outside the country.
Before getting the gig, I had someone read my cards, and they said, "You're going to cross water.". I said, “Yeah, sure” and asked for my $10 back. Nevertheless, before the year ended, Dee Dee and I were in Holland. That was my first gig. So, the rest is history.
I would love to hear about some of the most memorable moments in your career as a singer. My most memorable experience was meeting Luther Vandross and auditioning for him. In spite of the fact that I had never met him, after hearing his voice on a project called "Change", I fell in love with his voice! In those days there were no social media platforms, so I heard his voice on the radio. Once I heard "Never Too Much" on the radio, I was struck by its powerful vocals. What a voice!
The lead singer of Mtume, Tawatha Agee, had a song out called "Juicy Fruit". She was also performing with Mtume. Back then, the song was regarded as risky. When I think about all the "Rapp music" out now, it's actually a bit funny. As a result, Tawatha was working for Luther as one of his background singers, but when " Juicy Fruit" became a hit, they decided to tour. So, she went on tour with Mtume and her position became available. This is how I acquired the position.
Upon entering the audition room, I was the first person to see him. Upon entering, I noticed he was sitting behind a piano with a small container of fried chicken. Having a love for food, that was an instant attraction for me! (laughs) The first thing I said was, "Right on! I wanted to ask him for some! Not knowing the man at all, I wanted to get all up in his food. His manner was warm and personable, but he was very serious as well. The way he conducted himself was extremely focused and he did not waste time. He asked me to sing a variety of songs, including a song in the high range, a song in the low range, and a song with changing vowels within each word. I was asked to do all of these little things to see if I could do it, listen, and follow instructions.
After harmonizing with the other singers, Luther said, "If you can dance, you got this gig". I couldn't believe it! I felt in love with him. He was an excellent teacher to me.
You have performed with a variety of musicians throughout the course of your career. Can you name a few examples of that? I have toured and performed with The Crystals, The Marvelettes, Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, NIN (9-inch nails), and Sting. The remainder of my work has been one-off live shows and sessions, not tours or shows.
How would you describe your most challenging moment in your career? There were two major challenges. The first challenge was leaving Elektra Records and signing with a new record company. Although my management was able to release me from Elektra, the new label changed their mind at the last minute and did not sign me. As a result, I was released and left without a contract.
Another was deciding whether to continue to sing background vocals for The Rolling Stones or choose my path. Choosing my path was an extremely challenging and emotionally charged decision.
People become family once you have known them for a considerable period of time. I admit that making this decision was incredibly challenging and frightening. At one moment, I thought, "OK, make sure you do it right." These were some of my most challenging moments.
Do you recall ever having a moment in your career where you thought that you should give up? Yes, while working on the second record for "Elektra". That record was never completed. Basically, I just saw myself as a singer. My favorite combinations are many. I enjoy singing with choirs, groups, duets, solos, and backgrounds. It doesn't matter! As long as I am singing, I am happy. I possessed the mentality of a New Yorker, of survival, independence, and hard work. The idea of becoming a solo artist seemed scary and uncertain. In spite of everything that was happening, including the Grammy's success, there were other things going on with the sound scan, how records were being sold, and how records were being shipped. Eventually, "Elektra" merged with two other labels to become WEA, Warner, Elektra, and Atlantic. Many artists were dropped when they merged. It was a consolidation process. This was when things started to get ugly.
Ten or twenty years ago, I wasn't thinking about the future. My focus as a woman in her 30s was solely on tomorrow or the current year in which I was living. Because of this, I did not have the foresight to realize how different the record business has become from when I began making records. Therefore, I do not wish to call it disappointing, but it served as a valuable lesson. As I realized that making a second recording would be a challenge, the record company was incredibly helpful in guiding me through the process. Basically, I was trying to maintain my financial independence and not rely solely on the record company for income. I simply did not feel comfortable with this arrangement. It was not natural for me.
I was hurt, so I didn't search for another opportunity. It actually frustrated me more than it hurt me because I didn't understand why? The situation was so painful that I blocked out the company's name. I don't remember them at all. If I were to call my old manager, he would tell me about this, but I am not interested in finding out. I have been able to block it out entirely. I was astounded. I asked myself if I was too old or if it was something else. I felt that way because most of the artists I saw were very young. It was a mystery to me. My heart was so broken that I said, "I think I'll just go back to singing backgrounds." It's what I could rely on. It sustained me. The less drama I have to deal with, the better. As a result, I returned to singing backgrounds. It's still my thing.
After the release of "20 Feet From Stardom," I was able to look back at my life and say, "Hmmm, let's take a closer look at this." It gave me an opportunity to evaluate my life from a new perspective, now that the world has changed so much. The pressure is off now, I told myself. The label no longer represents you. It isn't up to anyone to tell you what to sing or how to sing. Just follow your heart and surround yourself with like-minded people and see what happens.
In my opinion, every person has to choose their own path to follow. After all, freedom of choice is what makes it so beautiful, right? In other words, I think you learn more from choosing the path you're going to take. The weight of the decision is different. It is always possible to find someone to blame when you are told what to do. You could say, "but you promised!" But it's different when you say, "I'm just going to follow my instincts, my spirit, and the whispers inside.". You have to decide for yourself what that means for you, and see what life offers you. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. With a lottery win, I wouldn't have to buy XY&Z or worry about XY&Z, and I could live my life like XY&Z. Whether you give to the world, or what you give out to the world, I think being able to recognize it and to be free enough to allow yourself to do it, is a gift.
Have you ever had the experience of gigging locally before moving to the next level in your career? Yes, I did. The majority of them were at various bars in areas like the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Harlem. The locations varied greatly. Your local friends and band play the top 20 songs for around $20 for about three hours. It was so much fun being with other free musicians trying to find their way, even if you only made $5 the whole night. There were lessons in every song. While performing in that type of environment, you learn the audience, how to deal with drunken people, and how to conduct yourself. In this course, I learned the importance of social maneuvering and how to work well with others. In addition, you will learn how to share your gift in a meaningful manner. When I was a child, I sang in the choir at church. It was an enjoyable experience for me. The different vocal parts were fascinating to me, they were just so muc h fun! Actually, it wasn't just fun, but it was also nourishing.
In that period, I also did some minor studio work. Often, after playing a few gigs, someone would announce, "I have a home studio!". Would you consider working on a demo in my basement studio? If so, I'll pay you $50 or $100. These situations helped give me a frame of reference for moving forward. Most of the time they would just hire me if they wanted three voices. Or, they might ask "can you do the next part?" When they couldn't afford to have more than one singer, they would pay me to sing all the parts. For me, performing different parts was like a musical math project. In my opinion, I was not very proficient at singing lead, but I knew I had something when I got the chance to do so. Although I wasn't quite sure what that something was, there was a yearning within me. It was necessary for me to let go so I could find my voice and express myself. Performing demos was my way to finding my voice.
Could you please share your experience as a woman in the music business from your point of view? Firstly, we are human beings. Then, we were divided into sexes based on the sexes' distinctive characteristics. In terms of maneuvering through life, we do what we can to maneuver in a way that's comfortable for us in order to be halfway sane. I guess I belong to a generation of baby boomers. As a child of the late 1950s, I was a visible child who was not heard. I was raised by a very shy mother. Back then, women were seen as different from men.
The attention you received during that period would generally be related to your appearance. A man's attention and or affection was something to be desired, coveted, or appreciated depending on who he was.
When you're doing business, a lot of that behavior can get very murky and fuzzy. Even when you try to sell yourself as an artist, it gets a little fuzzy because you want to be loved and appreciated for your work. It is always nice to be complimented on your appearance, but there is a point at which it gets uncomfortable. That's when you start to find out who you are as a person and how every previous experience has shaped you into who you are now. Unless you identify your weaknesses and where you need to build your strengths, you will keep hitting the same wall over and over again.
When I was young, I had no idea how to protect myself against people who had sinister intentions. You learn that way by getting bruised. I never want to be bruised again. I do not want to feel less than or like I'm a piece of meat. I don't want to feel garbage and I don't want to feel the way I did before. The moment that you feel it, you'll know it immediately. And you will say, "Oh no, that's not something I would like to do again.
Being sensual and fun without getting burned was a challenge for me. Men, however, can be themselves. We can accept them or not. Women, however, should be free to be themselves at all times and in any situation. No means no. When you're in the midst of being this hot sexy thing, it's much harder to maneuver when the heat is on. Luckily, the heat has cooled as I have approached my late 40s and late 50s, and now I'm in my 60s. Consequently, I feel more beautiful now that I am more expanded mentally and spiritually. It is as if I have gained more knowledge. There are so few things in life you can count on and be truly secure about. However, I can personally say that I am much more confident in myself as a person at this point in my life. I think it is okay to love and defend myself, because I am worth that.
Who are your greatest musical influences? Wow, I guess when I was coming up, Motown. I used to listen to the Atlantic Records and Motown artists. Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, The Supremes, Luther, The Sweet Inspirations with Cissy Houston, Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, Phyllis Hymen, Minnie Ripperton, Johnny Mathis, Nina Simone, Morgana King, Michael Kiwanuka, Laura Mvula, Sampha, and there’s another young woman named “Maro”, an artist I recently discovered which I think is amazing, Becca Stevens, and lately, I've been listening to “Burna Boy, really love his music and rhythms and just how he looks at music, Beyoncé, I love her, absolutely love Luther Vandross forever! Also, Leontyne Price, Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack, classical and world music. I just love it all! I just love good music!
Who would you like to perform with, dead or alive?
Ella Fitzgerald! Yeah, just the color of her voice I just would be curious to hear the vibration sound between us.
Shrimp scampi and brown rice
I am King (Beyoncé film)
Last Songs listened too?
Maro (if I leave) & Rema (Iron Man)
Favorite vacation spot?
Palm Desert, CA
Favorite Covid-19 Chill out outfit?
T-Shirts & oversized pants
Favorite Covid-19 Snack?
Susan’s sugar-free almond cookies
How has COVID Affected your career plans?
It not only affected my career, but it shook me to the core. During shut down in New York, when we truly had to be inside, I was literally afraid to cross my threshold. I was afraid to get the mail, go to the doctor, and do the laundry. The air was my possible enemy. Because I was so freaked out, I stayed in and did a lot of thinking. During that time, I began to understand why people decide to leave this world. You get to a point where you say what’s the point, what is the purpose of my life, and who am I? What am I if I'm not singing? You kind of go through all of that along with mourning not being able to be with new people, and the people that you know. So, I experienced a lot of emotions all at once. Lots of fear and mourning. It truly has impacted how we move forward. Nevertheless, once you reach the bottom of that emotion and it scares you, you have to decide whether you're going to survive it. In other words, once you decide you're going to survive the storm, you then have to brush yourself off and say, "OK, I know I still want to be here.". After all, I love life, and I know I'm going to find a way to make this work. The gift that it gives you is time to think.
photo by: Alex Logaiski http://alexlogaiski.com/
When I began to look at everything that was going on through a new perspective, I began to think there were a lot of things I wasn't able to do before COVID, so let me take a look at those. My goal is to learn how to use an audio workstation. I'm figuring out what kind of microphones are going to work best in my small apartment. I thought to myself, let me learn how to use 'Logic Pro'. Alternatively, I can listen to other melodies from around the world that are beautiful and exotic that will make me feel connected. In addition, I thought about what tools I could use to help me write new music? What is the best way to grow? In the end, how can I be a lotus in the mud and come out of this with my pedals blooming? What can I do? In this sense, COVID has been a gift, if there is such a thing.
I feel like it replaces the death and the morning of what was and gives me hope for what can be. I also make time to connect with my other single friends. We talk about how we can grow to love ourselves through this. Being able to zoom in with other singers and creative people at this time is beautiful.
Additionally, it's a good time to take inventory and see what it means to be adrift. But overall, it's been good. There are things that I still can't see clearly, and I don't know what's goanna happen a year or two from now. Who knows, I could be living in my car, I don't know. But if that is the case, then so be it. I just want to be like water, fluid. I will not let the confines of what I think to be or what I used to think drive me crazy. I must be open to this new existence because there are so many ways to exist. The only thing that needs to change is my mind.
Tell me about your current/ future projects? Is there anything you're about to give birth too? I feel like I'm about four months pregnant. I think it's still incubating. You know, the creator is just amazing! I say creator because everyone has a different view about what that is called but or if it even exists at all for some. For me it does and I'm sitting here thinking that I feel so insecure about writing because I never took a formal course. I was going through Instagram, and I see one of my favorite artists (singers) named “Victory Boyd." She's an amazing singer-songwriter from Detroit. I think she's about 25 rights now but when I first heard her music, she was about 22 or 23 years old. She has a song called “The Broken Instrument” and this song brought me to my knees. The story of the three-song cycle is there was an instrument, that had broken and was discarded and thrown in the garbage can. I don't want to say any more about it but once you hear The Three Songs Cycle it just makes sense. Just a beautiful piece of work. The entire album is great!
This particular piece felt like a movie for my ears and my soul. I just played it over and over again because of how she treated the track, painted the music, and told her story. It's all about the message in the story and her message was just beautiful. A couple of years ago when I heard this song, I was going through Instagram trying to hang on for dear life and noticed that she was giving a songwriting course. I thought to myself, this is the answer to my prayer! This is what I needed but didn't realize I needed it! So long story short, I'm taking a course from her now. It's a virtual course called “The heart of expression”. It's nourishing on so many levels. I've learned that there are so many ways to write. She comes from a sacred place in her knowledge and experience and the way that she shares it is truly a blessing.
With this course, I hope to be able to write the record that I have been wanting to write all my life, so we'll see what happens. That’s why I say I'm four months pregnant. I pray that I will continue well after the course is over and that I will practice every single day. It's such a beautiful thing that it doesn't feel like practice, it feels like playing with your soul. It feels like you're bouncing on a balloon and you're just letting out the air and you're just flying. Kind of like you're holding on and you're just trying to remember it all. It's such a beautiful experience. I'm hoping after all that, I'll be able to record something from my home, release that to the world, and see what happens.
Now Lisa, you just did an amazing event online. Tell me about that? Yes, I just completed something for “The National Endowment for the arts. It was a Virtual tribute concert Honoring 4 wonderful jazz musicians. The honorees were Dorthaan Kirk hosted by SFJAZZ Founder & Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline. The NEA Jazz Master event was hosted by Dee Dee Bridgewater and the musical director was, “Terri Lyne Carrington”, who is an amazing drummer, musician, producer, and artist. So, I was able to be involved from home in this beautiful honoring of these people. The whole process was beautiful! I guess it was the closest thing to doing the show. You can see the “The NEA Jazz Master Virtual tribute concert” on Youtube.
Do you have any habits before preparation for performances? Pre-work, no cheese or dairy. I drink plenty of water the night before. Absolutely no drinking alcohol or peppermint tea, it dries my throat out. I also stay away from green tea and anything with caffeine in it, including decaffeinated. That stuff dries me up! I can’t have it. I make sure I get lots of sleep the night before any performance and for shows, I need to be quiet. I like to have at least two hours of quiet before any show.
I don’t want any questions, interruptions, or any of that, I just want to be alone so that I can find my groove, listen to music and figure out what it is I'm going to do. I also like to take that time to do my vocal warmups and get my face in hair going. I don't wear that much makeup anymore, I just kind of like the look of my own skin. Also, I drink lots of water I make sure I eat an hour or two before I sing. Prior to performing, I just focus on remaining calm and unaffected. I keep my phone at a minimum and try not to let in certain energies in that will upset My groove. That's about it.
What advice would you give for up-and-coming artists? Don't be afraid to Defend the child within you because you're emotionally vulnerable and you have to stay vulnerable to touch the hearts of the people who come to listen. The little Angel that's in all of us needs to be protected. And it's ok to fiercely protect that energy that's within you and speak up even if you're not accustomed to screaming you can still speak on it. There's a way to say things so that people will know you mean what you say, and you say what you mean and, that's OK. It’s actually what people need so that they know how to treat you.
The second one is to be compensated for what you do. A lot of times, though it is a gift, It is also a service, and it is our livelihood. Therefore, I think that it’s all right to be compensated for that. You need to be able to pay your bills and not worry. This way, you can continue to be worry-free enough so that you can create. Also, be open. I think that all those things need to work in concert with each other.
Last, to be kind to people even when they're not being kind to you. Remember, you can always step away from the table when you don't like was being served. If you focus on negative energy, It lingers and becomes a burden too heavy to carry. So, I think lightness and kindness is a beautiful thing to have.
photo by: Alex Logaiski http://alexlogaiski.com/