issie Maurus takes the stage and the members of the standing-room crowd immediately begin to sway like old friends
they hear her raspy, bluesy voice. "I could've been a hero, I could've been a zero,"Could've been all these things."
This concert in Chicago is a homecoming of sorts for the singer-songwriter, a native of Rock Island, Illinois. Many family members are in the audience, and she's glad to see them after months on the road.
Still, though the energy that is high, the lyrics of many of her songs tell of loves lost and a career that hasn't quite turned out the way she'd expected or hoped. "I could've been nothing, I could've been something, "Could've been all these things."
Lissie, as she is known to her fans, was well on her way to making it a decade ago, when she was in her early 20s. She had a deal with Columbia Records UK and a first album that went gold in the United Kingdom and Norway. Tens of thousands of people bought that album. Critics raved. But after her second album didn't sell as well, she found herself without that record deal and at a crossroads.
What kind of artist did she want to be? Was her pursuit of fame really worth it? What would it now mean to "make it"?
She opted for uncharted territory: She left Los Angeles, bought a farm in Iowa and set herself up as an independent artist. It can be a more viable model in this time when singers can reach potential fans more easily via music streaming services and online sales. But there certainly are no guarantees for her or anyone else who takes this route.
"Underneath the table, "Hope for gold, Where it stops, nobody knows." Even as a child, the sassy towhead with freckles had some pipes - and Lissie liked the notion that her talent could lead to fame. In third grade, she landed the lead in the musical "Annie" at the dinner theater in her hometown. "My mom would say that my eyes would light up as soon as I got on the stage," she says.
The daughter of an obstetrician and an interior designer, she had plenty of opportunity, but she was rebellious, cutting off her hair, piercing her nose and becoming more of a loner. After a runin with a teacher that landed her in jail briefly, she finished high school in an alternative program.
But she never gave up on her music
She spent a couple years in college in Colorado, then ended up at a performing arts program in LA. There, she honed her skills and material on Wednesday nights at a bar with a group of performers who dubbed themselves the Beachwood Rockers' Society. And gigs started coming. It was at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, that a big break came when Mike Smith, then an executive with Columbia Records UK, happened upon Lissie.
Pouring rain had prompted him to duck for cover inside a dive bar and he heard her voice from a back room. Her talent was still raw then, he says. But he heard something her voice. He watched her stamp her foot to keep the beat, her tousled hair waving back and forth. He liked her rocker vibe and blues edge. "I was just really taken with her," he now says.
Columbia signed her in 2006, and four years later, she finally released her first album, "Catching a Tiger." It solidified her fan base in Europe and also in her native Midwest after Fat Possum Records released the album in this country. But then Smith and another of Lissie's champions left the label, before her second album came out - unfortunate timing, he now concedes. Already, the lyrics on her second album were hinting at disillusionment:
"I don't want to be famous "If I got to be shameless. "If you don't know what my name is, "So what?"
The new regime dropped her. And Lissie, who was then living in Ojai, California, outside LA, let the news sink in. "I was a little bit afraid, and I felt like I'd failed a little bit," she said. Mostly, she says she felt relieved. Yes, she'd learned at the label, with its exposure and resources. But she also was frustrated by a process - demands to write more, delays in getting a finished record out, being told her songs weren't good enough. That became "soul-destroying," she says.
Her longtime manager, Peter Leak, who's represented such artists as Dido and 10,000 Maniacs, said Lissie thought he would "freak out" when she decided to leave LA behind. "But actually, I thought it was a great idea," he says, noting that going independent suited her somewhat rebellious nature.
In mid-2015, she took her savings and bought that farm in northeastern Iowa. The farm, surrounded by fields of withered cornstalks, is slowly becoming home. Lissie has put her personal touches on the house, including funky wallpaper with birds in the kitchen. She's also started a mural with a big red heart on one of the smaller buildings, and talks about turning the barn into a recording studio. She rolls up for the interview in her pickup truck with her dog, Byron, in tow. Her companion at home, he stays with her parents when she's away. When she first arrived in Iowa last year, she had already written some new songs. So she called producer and bass player Curt Schneider, with whom she'd developed a good chemistry. Together, they wrote the title track on her latest album, "My Wild West." "I think she tried or a long time to be how the establishment wanted her to be," Schneider says. "What's not common is for someone to be brave enough to say, 'I'm done trying to satisfy other people.'"
The album came out in February, with more good reviews. (Lissie also recently released a live acoustic album, recorded at Union Chapel in North London.) Smith, the former Columbia exec, says Lissie's new work is, in many ways, "melodically, the strongest record she's put out." She's been touring in the United States and Europe much of this year, and she acknowledges the traveling can be brutal. But because her overhead is low, most of what she makes in ticket and merchandise sales is hers. Financially, she says, this could be her best year yet.
A recent show in Minneapolis, for instance, was sold out at a venue that holds about 625 people. In this case, it was just Lissie, her acoustic guitar and a microphone - not unlike those early days. Her work has been getting radio airplay there, and many members of the crowd sang along:
"Don't you give up on me" "As I dive into the dark" "Slip into the endless sea." "Don't you give up on me." Back in Iowa, she walks down to the pond at her farm and stands on an old bench to survey what is now hers. She'd love to have a couple of bigger hits to sustain her career over the long run, she says. But fame is no longer the end game; her version of success is different and she says that's fine. Here, she envisions writing some of her best work. "It's been freeing," she says. "It's been fun again." — AP