How A Breakup And Lockdown Led To Lissie’s Best Record Yet

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There would hardly be any disagreement to say that 2020 was a very difficult year for everybody—including the indie pop singer-songwriter Elisabeth Maurus, who goes by the performance moniker of Lissie. But it wasn't just COVID's arrival that she and everyone else in the world had to contend with—in that same period, the Iowa-based Lissie also experienced an abrupt romantic breakup. That one-two gut punch of both the end of her relationship and the ensuing lockdown fueled the themes of her new record Carving Canyons, due out this Friday.

“That was a big, big shock to my system and it was pretty painful,” Lissie recalls. “But I'd say even on top of that was the political climate and isolation and being that person that I felt bad for—like, ‘Oh, can you imagine being alone during COVID?’ And then suddenly I was that person that was isolated on a farm with my dog.”

Her fifth studio album, Carving Canyons is a collection of rootsy, melodic pop songs that touch on Lissie’s challenges and self-exploration from the last two years—as reflected on such tracks as “Unravel,” “Lonesome Wine” and “I Hate This.” But amid the trials and tribulations, the record offers moments of resiliency and empowerment through songs like the soulful and danceable “Chasing the Sun” and the uplifting “Hearts on Fire.”

“I couldn't run away from my feelings,” Lissie explains. “I couldn't tour or travel or do anything. I had to sit with myself and it was painful. But ultimately, in hindsight, it was really beneficial for my overall evolution as a human being. Which I think maybe COVID was in a roundabout way for a lot of people, kind of a forced period of rest to reflect and either thrive or crumble. I think I crumbled and then I thrived.

“So it was about the breakup that inspired it. But it was also that for the first six months of that time I didn't write. I was really overwhelmed by the kind of collective pain that was going on in the world. And so I kind of used that first six months to try and take care of myself. But then by November of 2020, I was like: “Okay, I'm starting to process. I'm ready to talk about some things. I'm ready to start writing the songs.” And so with each batch of songs I wrote, it was like I was a little bit closer to looking forward and feeling hopeful again.

According to the singer, the songs for Carving Canyons were written in chunks over time rather than in one period. “The first batch was pretty angry,” she says with a laugh, “and the second batch was sad, and then the third batch was a little more existential. And then I sort of eventually moved towards optimism again.”

The folkish and gorgeous-sounding “Flowers” was the first single unveiled ahead of the album's release; Lissie sees that song as an example of her taking back the right to feel. “It was nice to be able to say like, ‘I am allowed to be angry and I'm allowed to be hurt and I'm allowed to be sad.’ So first and foremost it's sort of claiming my right to take up space and be able to feel what I feel and giving myself that validation...and being like, ‘I can grow my own flowers. I'm gonna step back into my life. Once I'm done being hurt and sad, I'm gonna grow and I'm gonna clear space and I'm gonna step back into the light and grow some things.’”

The ebullient-sounding, driving rocker “Night Moves” uncannily recalls classic Fleetwood Mac, with Lissie's vocal performance echoing Stevie Nicks. Along with its accompanying video, the song finds the narrator reminiscing about a relationship. “It's sort of reflecting on all the ways when you've parted with someone who is like a constant in your life when they're no longer there—how it so much reminds you of them on the streets you walk down, so on and so forth. It takes a while to not sort of see them and everything. And so it's on one level being reminded, through your senses, of someone.”

Another recent single off the album is the anthemic-sounding “Sad,” which Lissie co-wrote with fellow singer-songwriter Madi Diaz. “When I was in that kind of angry phase of my grieving of this abrupt breakup or this change in my life— I did feel a lot of anger,” says Lissie. “Anger is an important stepping stone on the way to sorrow and acceptance. I'm not a vengeful person, but in our weaker moments it's human nature to be like, ‘I hope you're miserable. You have put me through hell. And I hope that you have to pay.’ I'm not saying I didn't love this person or that I won't get over it, or that I won't forget them or move past it. I am really claiming my right to be like, ‘This is not fair.’ One of the things I say is such a gift is using my music to stick up for myself, because if I don't, who is going to?”

Similar to the approach of her previous records, Lissie closes out Carving Canyons with an optimistic song—the reflective “Midnight.” “I think by ending with “Midnight,” it's very open-ended,” she explains. “It's finding me in a place of peace and confidence and optimism, but there's still some moodiness there, and there's still a lot of unknown. It feels empowering. It's about being vulnerable and being open and surrendering.”

Of her five albums in a recording career that began with her 2010 debut Catching a Tiger, Lissie regards Carving Canyons as her best as well as her most mature work yet. “I feel like in a weird way this is the first album I've made where I haven't really thought or cared about whether or not people were gonna like it. I have other things going on in my life that I'm passionate about. So I can't really let my worth be determined by how people react to it. It was really freeing to be like, ‘I'm making this because I have to, because otherwise I'm gonna explode. I gotta get this stuff out of me.’”

Among the other things that Lissie has been working on aside from music has been her 45-acre farm in Iowa, where she relocated to in 2015 after spending over a decade in California. Additionally, Lissie has been involved in a homemade popcorn-making venture, Otts’ Pops Indie Pop, that she started with Diane Ott Whealy, a co-founder of the Seed Savers Exchange. “I always was a huge fangirl of hers, and we ended up becoming friends,” says the singer. “And then I was like, “Oh, I always wanted to start a popcorn company called ‘Indie Pop,’ and every flavor is gonna be inspired by a kind of pop music: ‘Cheesy Pop,’ ‘Brit Pop,’ ‘Country Pop,’ ‘Classic Pop,’ ‘Folk Pop,’ ‘Power Pop’—all the pops.’ And she had this family caramel corn recipe and she'd always wanted to start selling it as Otts’ Pops because her family name is Ott.

“So she had ‘Otts’ Pops’ and I had ‘Indie Pop.’ We realized—this is early COVID—‘What are we gonna do this summer and winter? We don't know what to do.’ So we decided, ‘Let's just do it.’ There is this commercial kitchen that let us make it. And so we handmake pop-music-inspired popcorn flavors. It's been fun. It was a good pandemic project.”

Meanwhile, Lissie will be heading back on the road in support of Carving Canyons. “I can't believe it's already September,” she says. “I felt like, ‘Oh gosh, my album's not coming out for such a long time.’ Now it's like, ‘Oh, it's out in a few weeks.’ I cannot wait for people to hear it. I hope that they take it to heart and it can heal them the way it healed me. Just to be able to get in front of people and be with my band again and travel and play shows—it feels awesome.”

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