Lissie cuts to the core of her catalog on new piano arrangements

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It’s rare that free Shake Shack or an open bar don’t rate as the best thing about an event. Tuesday night, both were a distant second and third to watching singer-songwriter Lissie perform a handful of songs from her latest album, When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective, which dropped in April.

Twenty-plus stories high, with the beautiful Hollywood skyline as a backdrop, Lissie‘s powerhouse vocals were accompanied by nothing but the keyboard (and occasional backup vocals) of Jo Dudderidge for this special UTA x Sonos showcase called U Should Hear This. This showcase took place just a few blocks from where I first saw Lissie at the Fonda Theatre in December 2013, and days before she’ll play Largo at the Coronet (tickets are still available to the Wednesday, May 1 show).

A crowd packed into the gorgeous penthouse and remained silent the duration of Lissie’s brief set, which saw her pick from her deep catalog of tunes. It’s rare that you see an open bar with no line, but Lissie’s performance held all the attention.

She kicked things off with “Don’t You Give Up On Me” from 2015’s My Wild West, an album that saw Lissie revisit living in southern California in Hollywood, Beachwood Canyon, and Ojai. She’s spent the last four years back in the Midwest living in Ohio. It’s something she’s always foreseen for herself dating back to her earliest days as a musician.

“I feel like in 2007, 2008 when I started to actually make a little bit of money and was getting a record deal and getting ready to make my first album, I had a real estate agent in Iowa back then to send me listings,” Lissie told me in a phone interview last week.

“There was always this sort of thing, ‘Someday I’m gonna have a farm in Iowa and I’m gonna buy a house. I thought maybe that would be more when I was old. But I always knew that’s what I wanted to eventually do. I love California, there was nothing wrong with it. It’s just I think my heart has kind of always known I want this farm in Iowa.”

Lissie recounted memories playing the Hotel Cafe and the friendships she made there, and a stint every Wednesday night with friends at Crane’s Hollywood Tavern (which closed and has since turned into Good Times at Davey Wayne’s) playing free shows.

“It was always free, nobody got paid and beers were like 25 cent PBRs,” Lissie laughed. “It was always packed. There was no pretension, everybody was super duper nice. And really friendly, easy to go there if you didn’t know anybody you could just walk in and meet people without any pretense.”

Lissie’s tunes were almost always rocking in their previous iterations. She felt that revisiting the songs with just a piano would allow her voice to occupy more attention and give more weight to the words. Seeing them performed Tuesday night made it clear she wasn’t wrong. And yet, the hooks still hit just as hard if not moreso as when accompanied by a sexy guitar riff. The already emotional “Everywhere I Go” hit even harder. The bartenders at the event told me they got goosebumps during that last chorus where Lissie really stretches her voice. For me, it was hard to not belt out “When I’m Alone”, but it forced me to feel the weight of it that much more.

Lissie has made a name for herself reimagining other people’s songs. From Kid Cudi to Fleetwood Mac, she’s one of the best cover artists. So it only made sense that reimagining her own work would come off so well.

“I think what I’ve kind of experimented in covering other people’s music, usually people’s music quite different from my own, is how you can take a song and sort of strip it down to its basic parts and see if it’s still enjoyable,” Lissie said.

“It’s like reimagining these songs that allowed me to come at it from these different emotional angles. Even with ‘When I’m Alone,’ it can’t rely on the guitar riff. It becomes a thing where it has to stand alone with my voice and the melody in these new arrangements the piano player did. So it is like covering myself.”

Two songs from Lissie’s last album Castles — which dropped last year — were performed. On “Blood & Muscle”, the original version is primarily piano-based. In fact, it doesn’t get reimagined on the new record because it’s already 90 percent there. But you can hear when Lissie started going in that direction with Castles. “Best Days” was a more traditional rock song with a prominent drum beat. The piano version allows more weight and emotion, particularly when she sang “Got a pick-up truck, I want a diamond ring, oh-oh,” before the second chorus.

“I think these kind of heartstring pulling piano arrangements kind of got more to the emotional core of the song,” Lissie explained. “These arrangements kind of more accurately deliver the emotional tone of what the song is about. Which in most cases with some of these songs is a heavy time in my life where I had some kind of painful feeling that made me want to create these songs as a form of getting them off my chest.”

The melancholy yet hopefulness of these songs translate so well, it’s no surprise that a song like “Don’t You Give Up On Me” found additional life in the dance world when remixed by former collaborator Morgan Page.

Lissie will be taking her songs to the Largo at the Coronet on Wednesday, May 1 and Friday, May 3. The Friday show is sold out but tickets are still available for Wednesday. It’ll be Lissie and a piano, so get ready to feel all of the feels.

“I eventually will go back to the kind of more rock version of what I do,” Lissie said. “But for now ,it’s kind of the difference between going to church and going to a party. You go there to sit and listen and think about your feelings and stuff.”

There are few better ways to think about your feelings than surrounded by Lissie’s robust vocal ability. In this setting, they’re more Karen Carpenter than her usual Janis Joplin kind of vibe. But make no mistake, Lissie evokes nostalgia for that era in a way most modern performers can’t.

Words by Mark Ortega
Photos by Tim Aarons