On the Beat

July 24, 2014

Lisa Fischer is a star among backup singers

Lisa Fischer, who has sung with legends including the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin, gets some center-stage shine of her own with “20 Feet From Stardom.” Fischer performs before a screening of the film in Raleigh on Saturday.

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably heard a lot of Lisa Fischer over the past few decades. She has released one album of her own, 1991’s modest-selling (albeit Grammy-winning) “So Intense.” But where you’ve heard her is backing up a who’s-who from the pop pantheon – everyone from Aretha Franklin to Nine Inch Nails, not to mention Luther Vandross, Sting, every Rolling Stones tour since 1989 and many others.

Fischer is getting some rare time in the out-front spotlight thanks to “20 Feet From Stardom,” the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary. In advance of her performance and a “20 Feet” screening in Raleigh Saturday, we caught up with Fischer by phone from her home in Los Angeles.

Q: How has your latest tour with the Rolling Stones gone?

A: Just wonderful, very cool. Every time I step onstage with them is a highlight. Just playing on their playground, and it makes me so happy. Brazil with a million people on the beach was pretty memorable.

Q: Since you’re playing Raleigh on your own, what will you do here?

A: It’s gonna be songs I like, interpretations of music, expressions of where I am right now and the journey that I’m on. It’s my exploration of things. I’m thankful to be able to get out there and sing, interpret music, play in the sandbox with other musicians. They are lovely souls and giving musicians, and I love them to pieces.

Q: But nothing from your own record?

A: Nothing from my own record. I am thankful for it and proud of the work done on that record, but I feel like I’m a different person now and I kind of want to honor that, express this transformation I’m going through and not feel like I’m stopping that growth to reach back to who I used to be.

Q: Do you think you’ll ever do another record?

A: I do, at some point. It’s a very different time now and seems wide open to make a record where I don’t have to worry about pleasing a record company. I think a record company would look at me now and say, “You want to do what? Heal people, make them feel good? We don’t understand that, you’re out of your mind.” I don’t want to have to think about pleasing anybody but the music and the people it’s meant for. We’ll see what happens after that.

Q: One of the big revelations of “20 Feet From Stardom” was realizing just how omnipresent you, Merry Clayton, Darlene Love and other backup singers have been over the years – part of some of the biggest hits ever.

A: It is interesting. You look at Merry Clayton and Darlene Love and the whole rich history of music they’ve worked on and shared with the world, and it’s such a fabric of who a lot of people are. It’s like hearing your mother singing a lullaby or telling a story. You hear the sound of something like that and it becomes part of your DNA. Especially Merry on “Gimme Shelter.” I’ve studied that song a lot. I don’t feel as lonely when I think about singing that song in that way, where it’s become a part of me on some listening level. I don’t know how to explain it.

Q: How on earth did you wind up singing with Nine Inch Nails on their last tour?

A: That was pretty amazing. Trent (Reznor) reached out because of the film, so I have to thank him for having the vision and desire to want backgrounds and make me part of it. I didn’t know anything about the material or the music but I knew the name. So I went to listen and thought, “Wow, this is so edgy, I love this.” It was so different from anything I’d been involved in before. Trent is such a sweet spirit and he taught me that angst is a part of relief. It was beautiful to watch him go through this process of marrying his voice with the angst and emotions of the past, in a way that still sounds current. And it was beautiful to see the audience let go and enjoy what he offered. Every show seemed to have a slightly different theme or focus. That might be the oddest thing I’ve ever done.

Q: Do you sing every day?

A: To me, there’s a difference between singing every day and practicing every day. I do find myself singing every day, I just don’t realize it half the time. Like sitting at the dinner table and going, “Ooooooh, this is good.” That’s a different kind of singing, more from the heart as opposed to “I need to warm up today, so I’ll do some vocalese.” I don’t practice every day because my voice needs rest from all the flying and up and down and back and forth. Still, I practice twice a week when I’m not working.

Q: I have to ask: Got any Keith Richards stories?

A: Last tour, Ronnie (Wood)’s wife Sally (Humphreys) started a backgammon tournament, where everyone was representing a country in the World Cup. Keith and I wound up playing. I grew up with two brothers, so I came in saying, “I’m gonna kick your butt, beat you so bad you won’t know what hit you!” And because he is such a gentleman, he just gave that knowing little smile – like a pirate who is about to cut your throat but you won’t even feel it. And he proceeded to whip my ass with a smile. Just so lovely, they make the simplest things so beautiful. I don’t know if Keith plays a lot of backgammon, but he’s like liquid gold. Pour him in wherever and he’ll fill it up perfectly. He’s a quick study, highly intelligent, very free spirit and he reads a lot. He just rides the wave that comes, whatever it is. Just an amazing human being. Still, an ass-whooping is an ass-whooping. Since then, I’ve been playing every day on the computer to get better because I don’t wanna be a wimp. I’m gonna get better!

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David Menconi
News & Observer music critic David Menconi's random (and we do mean random) musings about all things related to music and culture of the popular variety.

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