Singer Dumps LA For Iowa Farm To Do It Her Way

Lissie Maurus – 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 record 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.

Photo: Martha Irvine/AP
Sitting on her front porch at her Iowa farm.

What kind of artist did she want to be? Was her pursuit of fame really worth it? What would it 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.

“This is what I have to do,” she told those who questioned her decision. “I have a gut feeling about this.”

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, Rock Island, Illinois.

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 run-in 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.

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, happening upon Lissie.

Photo: Martha Irvine/AP
Performing an acoustic show at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.

Pouring rain had prompted him to duck for cover inside a dive bar and he heard her voice from a back room set. 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, which 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 – and the new regime dropped her.

Lissie, who was living in Ojai, California, outside LA, then, 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.

In mid-2015, she took her savings and bought that farm in Iowa. 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 for 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 acknowledges that the traveling can be brutal. But overhead is low, and much of what she makes in ticket and merchandise sales is hers. She now distributes her albums on Lionboy Records, an untraditional label founded by and for music artists, and markets her music with the help of Thirty Tigers, a Nashville entertainment company for independent artists.

Photo: Martha Irvine/AP
Introducing her dog Byron to fans at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, Minn.

A recent show in Minneapolis 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.

“It’s been freeing,” she says. “It’s been fun again.”