march 2012

Lisa Mills: ‘I’m a romantic at heart.’

Tough Skin, Tender Heart

Lisa Mills’s southern soul and blues is hard-earned and true

By David McGee

Consider the curriculum vitae on Lisa Mills: Mississippi born and raised; grew up with a dad who loved and sang Hank Williams songs, a mom who was--and still is--enthralled by Elvis (CDs stored in the windshield visor of the car for easy access while driving); sang lead for three years with Big Brother and the Holding Company; works the blues circuit here and abroad, to growing acclaim at that.

You’re thinking this is some kind of hard-boiled, wailing blues chick that surely must be in the fiery Janis Joplin mold.

Think again.

“I’m a romantic at heart. I’m not a hard-edged rock ‘n’ roller, never will be.” That’s Lisa Mills, speaking by phone one fine spring day from her home in Mobile, Alabama, explaining why, when Big Brother’s Sam Andrew was recruiting her for Big Brother (about which more later) circa 2000, she had some trepidation given whose shoes she was stepping into and who she knew herself to be as an artist.

“I wasn’t sure about doing that kind of stuff,” she says in her honeyed southern drawl. “I liked Etta James! I wanted to do stuff like that. I listened to singers like Etta James and Billie Holiday and B.B. King, Junior Wells, Bobby Blue Bland. Those are the kind of singers I’m attracted to. And black gospel. And soul music. In what I call the wasteland of pop music growing up, I remember three or four pivotal songs on the radio that really got my attention--‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ ‘Misty Blue,’ ‘Kiss and Say Goodbye.’ That’s the stuff that touched me. And I didn’t even know about blues. I lived somewhat of a sheltered life. The only knowledge I had of a black juke joint was driving past the one in Columbia, Mississippi, that was painted pink with Christmas lights on it and being told it was an evil place. I never got near that stuff. I had no idea. No idea.”

She sings pretty much whatever she wants to sing and makes you feel it, because she always comes from an honest place, as surely as she can pen a lyric bound to get under your skin, because she writes from an honest place.

Lisa Mills learned about blues soon enough. The CD that got Sam Andrew’s attention, Blues and Ballads, a live album recorded in Ms. Mills’s last year of college, was recorded at a gig in Pascagoula, Mississippi; financed by the owner of the club where it was recorded, the disc found its way to Andrew via his then-girlfriend, now-wife, whose best friend lives in Pascagoula and passed the disc along to her. When offered the lead singer spot in Big Brother, she hesitated.

“You want to know what my reaction was? I was more into blues-based music; I’m not a hard-edged rock ‘n’ roll person, and I never looked at Janis as a singer I tried to emulate or listen to. It just wasn’t to my taste, so one of the things I talked to Sam about was that I would really rather be doing different stuff. I’d like to do maybe more bluesy, this, that and the other, and he said, ‘Oh, we do that too, and we do some of our own material.’ I was so ignorant, honestly, that I didn’t absorb the impact of what it would mean to be in that band. All I knew was that wasn’t the kind of music that appealed to me. I know Janis came from a place similar to me, but her whole personal and approach is a lot different than mine. I view her as an innovator and a pioneer and being very edgy. ‘Edgy’ is not a word I would ever use to describe me.”

No, “edgy” is not the right word for describing Lisa Mills. “Soulful” would be a good place to start, “earthy” would another, “tender hearted” might be yet another of her endearing vocal qualities. A blues singer with soul, tough but vulnerable all at once, unafraid to reveal the wounds inflicted in pursuit of love. Her new album, the tellingly titled Tempered in Fire, is a chronicle of this romantic’s Keatsian struggles with her emotions, detailed with gritty, searing authority, but with nuanced feeling too.

She can stomp and swagger with brio through her own funky soul strut “Why Do I Still Love You?” while unabashedly battling her conflicted feelings towards a guy she knows she can’t count on, in a heated, multi-textured reading worthy of Mavis Staples. Then, immediately following this, she demonstrates her mastery of the blues ballad in another original number, the ironically titled “My Happy Tune.” This grinding, tortured confession of abject romantic misery features the forlorn, fat-toned guitar of the estimable Andy Fairweather Low along with Matt Winch’s weeping flugelhorn solo enhancing the desolation and isolation Mills testifies to in a vocal display as raw as what she delivered on “Why Do I Still Love You?” but tempered and muted by her loss of equilibrium in the wake of rejection: “I’ve got let it go/it’s bringing me down/I want to be happy agai-ain,” she cries, aching for balance, trying to convince herself “there’s got to be a healing/won’t you lose this awful feeling/oh, now up is the only way to go” (rising to a falsetto cry on “go” in the song’s most vulnerable confession). And following that stirring moment, she completes a triumvirate of missives to the lovelorn with one of the most plaintive, passionate--and explicit--pleas for connection ever written, Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine.” In contrast to the great studio version Otis cut with the Stax house band (Cropper, Booker T., Al Jackson, Wayne Jackson, Duck Dunn, et al.) on his Pain In My Heart album, which was nigh on to a gospel song pleading for salvation, Mills strips it down to a stark, bare-bones rumination, practically a prayer if it’s not a blues version of a saloon song. Only her own somber (and sober) top-strings picking backs her alternately assertive and quavering vocal, which tells the whole, unsettling story of a soul adrift.

Lisa Mills finds her own way into Otis Redding’s ‘These Arms of Mine’: practically a prayer, if it’s not a blues version of a saloon song.

Only two of the 10 songs on Tempered in Fire are Mills originals, but true to the gifted interpretive singer she is, Mills imbues songs from other writers with such personal conviction as to make them her own; even Wet Willie’s beloved “Keep On Smiling,” here horn-infused and funky, gets a new coat of paint when Mills delivers it in a style as teary-eyed as it is hopeful--rather perfect for the storyline she’s advancing herein, with another tasty Fairweather Low guitar solo to recommend it. Three of the best of these are courtesy George Borowski, the famous “Guitar George” name-checked in Dire Straits’ career launching hit “Sultans of Swing.” His “Blue Guitars of Texas,” a thoughtful, low-key (with stormy choruses) consideration of a certain type of musician’s life on the road, allows Mills a moving showcase of her balladeer’s chops while also affording her an opportunity to belt it to the heavens on those choruses; in contrast, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” has some Buddy Holly herky-jerky splendor about it, whether in its toned-down verses or its full-bore rock ‘n’ roll choruses, and Mills eats it up with her on-the-money sense of when to lay back and when to crank it up; closing the album, Borowski’s “Someone Very Close” is an emotional, appropriately churning testimony of fidelity amidst rumors of infidelity spread by “someone very close.” Digging in, Mills’s earnest, tender ministrations build and then explode into the bruised, howling protestations of a woman seeing what she loves most slip away. As the song winds down, though, she repeats the title sentiments in a whisper, and it suddenly you sense she’s the one spreading the rumors she’s been warning against, and maybe this is in fact a kissoff on her part.

Tempered in Fire, which was released this past fall, follows her debut solo effort, 2005’s I’m Changing, produced, as is the new album, by the estimable Ian Jennings. The latter is an amazing introduction to Mills’s range both as a singer and as a writer “The Truth” has a taste of backwards guitar solo, along with a smidgen of country flavor via banjo and a raw, brittle blues vocal; the title track has a lonesome fiddle playing off in the distance, lending it a mountain feel, whereas “Wish I Was In Heaven (Sittin’ Down)” (the album’s only cover song) is a dark, Delta blues powered by slide guitar. In short, Tempered in Fire and I’m Changing prove, among other things, that Lisa Mills can sing pretty much whatever she wants to sing and make you feel it, because she always comes from an honest place, as surely as she can pen a lyric bound to get under your skin, because she writes from an honest place.

All of which is a product of her coming from an honest place in her development as a musical artist. Country, early rock ‘n’ roll, gospel--all these factored into the musical sensibility she developed whole growing up in her birthplace of Hattiesburg, Mississippi and as she went through school, matriculating from Oak Grove High School to the University of Southern Mississippi to graduation from William Carey University. Her guitar playing father inspired her to learn the instrument “and he sang old Hank Williams songs, old folk songs and stuff.” Her mother “sang in a church a little bit,” her great-grandmother played piano in church. She says she never gave thought to pursuing music professionally in her childhood years, but rather grew into it in the normal course of growing up.

Lisa Mills, ‘I’m Changing,’ the title song of her first solo album. Live at the Bluegill in Mobile, AL, with Corky Hughes. Posted at YouTube by mmystic98

“It started out with my dad playing, my mom singing in church, they would trot me out for the family when we would have visitors and I would sing in front of the family, sing for the kids on the playground, sing in church,” she says. “I got my first guitar when I was 14, taught myself to play, got my first paying gig when I was in high school. In the meantime every chance I got to do a beauty pageant, a talent show or anything like that, I did those things just so I could get onstage and perform. That was how it all happened. It wasn’t like I sat down and said, ‘I think I’m gonna be a singer.’”

To a comment that she didn’t seem reticent about performing for others, from a young age, she laughs. “If anybody asks you, tell them I’m an outgoing introvert. That is the truth. That is the honest to God truth. Sometimes I’m up there thinking, Who do you think you are? Are you crazy? You’re one girl with a guitar. This is nuts! But somehow you make it through. It’s the love of music and expressing your innermost self—music is an interaction. It doesn’t exist in some kind of vacuum. You give something and you get something back. It’s an exchange and it’s the energy that keeps moving and keeps things going. It’s just magic.”

As to the music that spoke most profoundly to her, and may have inspired her need to express her “innermost self,” she points to “going through my mom’s record collection and listening to Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley over and over again. The one Brenda Lee album that she had was Johnny One Time [released: 1969]. And one of the first songs I ever wrote is called ‘Johnny.’ So it’s Brenda Lee and Elvis, aside from my dad singing all those Hank Williams songs. Looking back, I would say what spoke to me in their songs is the black gospel influence in their singing, in their voices. The black gospel element is what really spoke to me, and maybe a blues-based thing. It’s hard to describe.”

In high school she began playing solo gigs, singing “Anne Murray, ‘One Tin Soldier,’ Peter, Paul and Mary” at a local Italian restaurant. “I think I even did a version of ‘In the Ghetto,’ ‘Blues Eye Crying in the Rain.’ In fact, the first time I ever stepped on stage that was the song I sang—‘Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain.’ The band at the restaurant-bar where my mom was the manager allowed me to sit in with them; that’s the song I did and I wore my Aunt Sara’s powder blue, polyester knit western leisure suit.”

Lisa Mills, the title song of her second solo album, Tempered in Fire, live at Rivershack, January 15, 2012. Posted at YouTube by mmystic98.

Her first tenure with a full-fledged band came in her early 20s, when she joined what she calls a “lounge band” called Fox, from Atlanta, and went on the road, playing Holiday Inns and such. Fox members wrote their own material but she also admits to singing Madonna songs as part of the gig. Her first pregnancy spelled the end of the Fox era, as she moved to California and left music entirely, even had a second child. During that time she answered a newspaper ad from someone seeking a singer to record a song he had written. Next thing she knew, she heard the song she had demo’d in a garage on the radio--as sung by Taylor Dane.

When her second child was three months old, Mills and her husband moved back south, to Biloxi, Mississippi, her hubby’s hometown. During their first year in Biloxi a duo appearing regularly at a local restaurant asked Mills to sit in with them and then to join them in a trio. The duo was based out of Mobile, marking the beginning of Mills’s connection to the southern Alabama music scene. She eventually split from the trio, did a duo thing with a male partner, and eventually returned to Mississippi to play as a solo act in Pascagoula. By then she was in the midst of a divorce, had custody of her children, and had returned to school to get her degree in fine arts. It was the owner of the Pascagoula club that financed the Blues and Ballads CD and got it on the path that led to Sam Andrew and Big Brother. (Mills also recorded another album, By Invitation Only, featuring 12 of her original songs, never officially released but for a time was available at her gigs--“I wasn’t committed to finishing it,” she says. “It wasn’t where I wanted to go.”)

The aforementioned duo project with the gent in Mobile coincided with the Eureka! Moment in her early career, when she discovered Etta James’s music (James’s 1989 Seven Year Itch album made an especially deep impact--not only does Mills still perform some of the tunes off the album but cites it as having an influence on her own writing. “Without that album I couldn’t have written ‘My Happy Tune’ [on Tempered in Fire]. That song is very much in the vein of the material on Seven Year Itch--soul blues ballad in a minor key.”)

Apart from getting the inside story on the band’s history, Mills’s tenure with Big Brother not only laid the foundation for friendships with the band members that continue strong to this day but also introduced her to European audiences. It’s made all the difference in her solo career. Having built a loyal following on the Continent, she can tour abroad and make a living. Equally important to her career to date has been the fruitful collaboration she has struck with Ian Jennings, one of the invaluable contacts she made while touring Europe. Jennings has steered both I’m Changing and Tempered in Fire, serving, in effect, as Mills’s musical alter ego. They thrive on their differences in temperament and musical roots.

Lisa Mills, ‘Why Do I Still Love You,’ from her album Tempered in Fire. live at Rivershack, January 15, 2012. Posted at YouTube by mmystic98.

“For one thing, Ian is almost the exact opposite of me,” Mills explains. “He’s very modulated, calm, he’s one of the most noble human beings you’ll ever meet. If you don’t like Ian, there’s something wrong with you. He’s just an amazing person and so supportive. I couldn’t ask for a better friend and musical collaborator. He keeps my feet on the ground; he encourages me and keeps me from giving up. He doesn’t try to twist me into something I’m not. He just lets me be me and makes little subtle suggestions, and that’s Ian. He’s so modest. He’s done all these high profile gigs--he was on the Martin Scorsese series about the blues, he’s recorded albums with Jeff Beck, with Van Morrison, Tom Jones, he’s performed with Robert and Jimmy Page. Robert Plant, Jeff Beck, Jools Holland and Andy Fairweather Low all guested on his last album, including me. That speaks volumes for this guy’s cred--a real musician’s musician. He just understands my nature as a performer and a singer. He doesn’t try to change it, he supports it. When we did I’m Changing, all that ambient sound you hear on most of the tracks, and the way the drums sound, with that sizzle and stuff, that’s all Ian. He’s so plugged into that era when music was very organic. That’s why he put the little chain around the cymbal, and when we recorded it he had the track played back into the room through an ambient mic and then recorded it again. He’s also very organic-based and likes the real stuff; he doesn’t like over-processed music. That’s where we definitely connected. Only he comes at it from this rockabilly-vintage rock ‘n’ roll place, and I come at it with this variety of southern influences, with a focus on the black gospel and soul aspect of the blues.”

Still, Lisa Mills is an independent artist, a tough road to hoe in dollars and cents terms. Sometimes these artists need, as the song says, a little help from their friends. Those “friends” are the hidden angels enabling Tempered in Fire.

“It became a project that was partially supported by my fans, and it initially started out solely as a loan from my best friend,” Mills says in relating the album’s backstory. “I was broken-hearted yet again. And she said, ‘You need to get outta here. Go to England and record an album.’ She put five thousand dollars on her credit card and gave it to me. That’s how it all got started. Then along the way my brother contributed money when I got stuck in the studio and needed more funds, another friend contributed, another friend that works for an airlines got me some tickets, this, that and the other. And then it came down to the wire and I just didn’t have enough to get it completely finished and mastered and produced, I put out a letter to my fans and they came through. I got something like 51 sponsors, who contributed each between $100 and $250 each to get the money to finish the album. So it is really a grassroots production kind of thing. It takes a village to raise a musician! It’s so encouraging when your fans support you in that way.”

From Tempered in Fire, Lisa Mills performs ‘Guitar George’ Borowski’s ‘Blue Guitars of Texas.’ Posted at YouTube by RelentlessBlues

Though nearly six years separate I’m Changing and Tempered in Fire, the former feels mature, as if Mills were supremely confident of whom she was, had found her sound and her voice. Songs such as “I Need a Little Sunshine” and “I’m Changing” have the intensity of personal statements, both in the writing and in the artist’s performances. As per the latter, the most remarkable fact about Mills’s captivating singing is that she could sing at all. Back problems had created throat problems, and her neck was so swollen that she was able to sing only after being given steroid shots. During the sessions, she communicated with her band via written notes, in order to save her voice. “So what you’re hearing on there is my voice at only, honestly, forty or fifty percent capacity because I couldn’t use it all. When we did our CD launch party for that album I had to get a steroid shot that day so I could sing that night. It was round after round of steroid shots, antibiotics, different things. Ultimately I went to see a naturopath and got some nutritional advice, which helped with some things, and I also got rid of the car in which the seat hurt my back. My voice is now stronger than it’s ever been.”

What the two albums have in common, however, is a theme of romantic upheaval. Is she drawn to the subject from personal experience or because it’s a timeless topic not only in blues but also of the human condition?

“I think the answer to that question is both of the above,” she says with a soft laugh. “I have a history of relationships that didn’t really work out; making not-so-good choices for myself. Then on the other hand, I’m drawn to the human condition and the inner landscape. Even thought these songs talk about upheaval and problems between two people in a relationship, in reality the important relationship you’ll ever have is the one with yourself, which I’m now learning. You can take any and all of these songs and apply them to yourself and say--because the reality is you only have these things happen because you let them happen, because you haven’t made peace with yourself. I truly believe when you figure out what’s going on with you, then you are able to have a more healthy relationship with someone else, a partner, a romantic, whatever. At least that’s what I’m thinking. Time will tell.”

Lisa Mills, ‘I Need a Little Sunshine,’ from her first solo album, I’m Changing. Live at Guy’s Gumbo Shop, Fairhope, AL, March 21, 2008. Posted at YouTube by Bob Emes01

Talk of which sends her into a bit of a reverie, contemplating her own journey in the context of what’s going on in the larger world beyond hers. It’s an artist’s soliloquy for our times, but stands as a fitting final statement of the indie artist’s challenge, generally, as it pertains to all, and specifically as it relates to this artist who has so much to say, and is only getting started. To wit:

“I was just thinking the other day, in our world of fast food and prefabricated everything, it’s rare to find anything home grown, for lack of a better term. There are so many shortcuts and so many ways processes are speeded up, but, in all honesty, to get the best flavor out fruits and vegetables you have to pick ‘em mature. You can’t just pick ‘em green, blast ‘em with gas and send ‘em off. If you wait for that tomato to ripen, pick it right when it’s ready, then it’s gonna be the best tasting tomato. Same thing is true for music. And so much of the music is driven by the business of music now that it doesn’t seem to be happening as much in our communities naturally as it has historically, as a fabric of our society and real experiences.

“And I’m thinking to myself, Here I am, doing what I do, and I’m not just showing up occasionally to do a big festival, I’m out here working. I’m doing it. I’m doing it. And every gig I play is an opportunity to use my instrument, to season it, to keep it in good working order, to be at the top of my game, and to learn from being in front of live audiences how to interact, and how different that is from a lot of so-called pop artists who are trotted out to do their big thing and then trotted back. They’re missing that major developmental aspect, which is not easily won; it’s hard; it’s really hard work. I’m at the point myself now where I’m having to balance making a living with having a career. And this is really basically all I’ve ever done, and I’m doing both--I’m making a living and working towards having a real career.”

With that she mentions a project she is now developing: a gospel CD. What more to say but “Amen, sister!”

Lisa Mills’s Tempered in Fire is available at; her first album, I’m Changing, is available for download at her website.

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