“It’s Part of the Unknown”: An Interview with Lissie

 

On a late-August afternoon Lissie was kind enough to take time for coffee with me out on the porch of her northeast Iowa homestead. About Twin Peaks and creativity, perhaps what David Lynch calls the Art Life, she was enthusiastic, warm, amiable, and reflective. Our conversation found its own meandering flow, even pausing at one point when she had to run inside to pull the pie, made with apples from the trees growing on her place, from the oven. What follows is a selection, transcribed to maintain their spontaneously fluid style, that captures her relationship to Twin Peaks and David Lynch, her experience of shooting the Roadhouse scene, and her ruminations on the origins and powers of creativity and art. I want to thank Lissie for being so very generous and open in a personal way that offers a lot to inspire.


Andy: To get started, I’ll share that I was just at the Twin Peaks Festival, the first time I got to go and I’ve been wanting to for years.

Lissie: By Snoqualmie?

A: Yep, have you been there?

L: I have. I actually, it’s kind of part of my bizarre tale of how I ended up being in Twin Peaks. I had always heard of Twin Peaks and knew people who were really into it and I’d seen Blue Velvet in college and was aware of David Lynch being this out there genius. So, it was like 2010, 2011 when me and my band we were touring and we were on the bus and it came up–We should watch Twin Peaks. And we got so obsessed that it got to the point where we’re like, yeah, yeah, we gotta play the show, like hurry up and play the show so we can get back on the bus and find out what happens next.

And it was this kind of bizarre turn of events where we got really into Twin Peaks, my original bandmates, my guitar player, Eric [Sullivan], and Lewis [Keller], who played bass and drums at the same time, and the three of us got like really into Twin Peaks. Not long after, kind of in the same time period, David Lynch started tweeting about my live videos “In Sleep” and “When I’m Alone” — we did these live filmed versions of the songs as a trio, quite different from the big production, and somehow David Lynch saw them and started tweeting about them, talking about me and us in interviews, and he called me on the phone. It was patched in through his assistant and like “Hey, this is David. I just want you to know I think you’re great,” so enthusiastic and warm. So those connections with David Lynch were happening and we’re watching Twin Peaks and then we got an offer to play the Snoqualmie Casino so in the midst of all that we were going there to play a show.

Of course went to the diner for pie and coffee and to the hotel and saw the waterfall and it was all swirling and happening in the same period of time, and it felt Lynchian, like, whoa, this is weird. So, I was there and nerding out taking photos and loving the weird energy of the real towns there too. We felt like we were part of a sub-Lynchian tale. Was the Fest really fun?

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Andy wearing a Lissie shirt at Jack Rabbit’s Palace during the Twin Peaks Festival in July, 2018

A: Oh, incredible. It was pleasantly uncanny to be with 300 fans who love the show too plus a lot of cast members and Sabrina Sutherland. And I’m thinking of how fellow fans were asking the actors about what kind of direction they got on set; so I’m interested in that–what kind of direction you got too. But I also really want to hear about what headspace or mood you got yourself into for the shoot. It’d be great both to get insight into Lynch as director and also into you as performer. Maybe you can takes us on the journey of the shoot for you as part of a team.

L: Well, it was in 2015, I was driving and kind of being bad, checking my phone. I saw I got an email from one of David’s assistants. To back up a little, I had been in Fairfield, Iowa before, learning TM, and after he’d Tweeted about my videos and we connected I had the access to contact David if I wanted to, but I didn’t want to abuse that unless I had a really good reason to reach out to him. So when I was in Fairfield learning TM I reached out and said “I am thinking of you,” and this led to us getting together in LA, going to his home, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and having a great meal and just talking about life and nothing in particular. So, I get this email in 2015 from Dean [Hurley], and I immediately pulled over to read this so I didn’t endanger anyone else or myself.

The message was something like “David would like to know if you’re interested in being part of the new Twin Peaks. What do you think? Are you interested?”

Of course I wrote back immediately and said, “Absolutely! Any capacity! I’m in!”

And they gave me a lot of freedom, they’re like, we’re open to whatever song you want to do. So, I could think about what I know of Twin Peaks and I was just given a lot of freedom and a lot of space to show up and be myself. I chose “Wild West” off My Wild West. A song I don’t perform in shows very often by the way. The spirit of that song seemed like it’d work because it’s about stepping out on your own, living life on the edge and putting yourself out there, taking a leap, having faith that things will play out the way they’re meant to. A mix of mysteriousness and empowerment and uplift. I know Twin Peaks can be dark and spooky, but I felt that “Wild West” would work in a lot of different contexts, which was also important because I was given no information at all about the story or even the context of the scene.

I wrote a different version of the song that was more stripped back from the album version so that when we went and played it in the Roadhouse, we could convincingly show up and appear to have each part of the audio recording represented on stage without background and overdubs. So it looked real, all live bass and guitar and drums.

Then I was off and touring in Europe promoting my new album. My actual shooting date was I believe in early March 2016 and the communications about it all were very cloak and dagger. I couldn’t tell anyone I was a part of it until the cast list was released and even then I couldn’t tell anyone if I was acting or singing or what. So I got the call to shoot, cancelled the last show of my Europe tour, hopped on a plane back to California, to LA from Germany. Got back, my bandmates living in Ojai all came down. At that point, we had amicably dissolved because I had moved to Iowa, but I called Eric and Lewis because we were the trio that David had originally fallen in love with. It was important to me that they be part of this; they were super stoked.

We showed up, it was in like an old house or hall that was re-created to look like the inside of the Roadhouse and everyone was walking around. Lucy the secretary at the Sheriff’s station was there and Eddie Vedder because he was shooting his part right after us. So there’s a lot of Twin Peaks cast members and musicians just hanging around, and I feel like Laura Dern was by too and James, the motorcycle guy.

And this is a swerve, but I’ll admit that I haven’t watched the whole new season, The Return. I live here [gestures with eyes to the green landscape of her farmstead] by myself and I kept thinking that I really wanted to watch it all, but I need someone here with me to watch it. I watched the first two episodes and got really spooked. I feel kinda bad, like, how dare you be a part of the new Twin Peaks and not watch all of The Return. But I need some backup.

Okay, I digressed. We got there and it was all simple and quick. David is so warm and super-encouraging, he’s the ultimate cheerleader. When he finds something he likes and appreciates, he becomes this ultimate champion. And I hear interviews like one on NPR where people seem perplexed and ask him: how can you be this light person who does Transcendental Meditation and in your everyday life you’re so centered, but then you make this really dark art? And I think maybe the art exorcises some of the darkness as part of how he or anyone can live a daily life as a person in light. So, he was there with his megaphone, “You’re gonna be great, just get up there and I know you’ll be great, I’m so honored you’re here” — all in his big voice just like his Gordon Cole character.

We got up on stage and were introduced by the MC. And he kept saying my name wrong, which is kind of hilarious. He’s like “Lessie!” And people were like, “It’s Lissie.” So, we had to be introduced a few times before he got it right.

A: Which strikes me as especially funny because I feel like you got one of the most emphatic “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Roadhouse is proud to welcome LISSIE!” intros of all the Roadhouse shows.

L: Yeah, it was pretty funny. And then my tour manager and some other people were on the set too and the production folks were like, do you want to be extras? And they’re like, YES, and it was buzzing because my friends, coworkers got to be in the scene too.

But it felt like it happened so fast. We got up there and did our thing. I was encouraged to really dig into the song, to the lyrics, live it like a full live performance. The spirit of putting all my guts and heart into it. So, we got into that emotive, passionate zone, and we only did two takes. And then we were done. We spent way more time sitting around the snack table totally amazed watching everyone around us and being like, I can’t believe we’re here and part of this.

And then we felt just buzzing while we stayed around to watch Eddie Vedder.

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The Roadhouse – image and image editing courtesy of Andy Hageman

For as big of a deal as the shoot was and as secretive as it was, it felt like a real community, people flowing inside and outside, conversations, friendly and open. It’s something I took away from working with David. His work is so mysterious and layered and abstract and to see how it comes out of this environment that is communal and casual is fascinating. There he is, making this new work that is highly anticipated and going to be really deeply scrutinized, but he’s so relaxed and takes time with all of us, making me feel like I’m the only person in his attention when he thanked us after the performance, saying, “I’m so proud of you.”

[Lissie’s phone alarm goes off]

I have to take my pie out of the oven real quick; sorry. Yeah it’s appropriate I’m making a pie while you’re here.

[Lissie returns from her kitchen, the apple pie is cooling]

A: Two things I hear in your experience are the way some people see David Lynch as this incommensurate pairing of things or forces: That question of how can you be into TM and be such an uplifting positive person and make such dark material? It seems to me there is such a cultural momentum to see this as a paradox, when I think it’s actually a clear and honest way of being. And, second, then you’re describing the set as this major production with so much on the line for him and for everyone in the show, so a lot of potential for stress and pressure and the negative intensities that can arise from those, yet David Lynch somehow generated a mellow community atmosphere. Can you say something more about this magic that can be seen as paradoxical but actually isn’t and shouldn’t be.

L: I think that’s part of the uniqueness of Lynch. In the entertainment industry, journalists and publicists want people to be a single thing, easy to write about and consistent. As a musician who’s worked with publicists at times, it’s like everyone’s trying to make you into this one thing, this one package — you can’t be a light person making dark things — you can’t be goofy and own your stage like a diva. There’s a lot of pressure for you as a creative person and what you create to all come together and make perfect sense when in reality these don’t make perfect sense.

I think for David, he’s just done whatever the fuck he wants. It’s why he pulled back in the original Twin Peaks to avoid compromising and sacrificing himself. In an industry where it’s extremely hard to be yourself, where people are always compromising themselves in order to have “success,” whether it’s critical or financial, I view David as someone who’s 100% himself. And that’s confusing to a lot of people. I’ve even heard interviewers get really sassy with him when asking for example about how he can reconcile the violence against women in his work with the lighthearted spiritual persona he claims to have–that’s their sort of wording. I almost felt like these interviewers are being a jerk to him. Because a person can be a gentle person yet be drawn to horror movies or things that are scary or violent; those things are part of human nature whether we like that or not. He has his art as a place for that darkness that I think we all collectively as a species in the universe have. I think his art is a place to engage or explore that without having to live the darkness on the real surface in daily life.

I’m a pretty light-hearted person but I have my own weird internal thoughts that I don’t share with anyone. I just try to be myself and do what I’m inspired by — I actually think this is how or why David and I connected and something we share. I’m not trying to do things I’m told I’m supposed to want. Like moving back to the Midwest. A lot of people are like, you’re in the music industry, why would you move there? And just look at David. He doesn’t accept any need to make stories that resolve. We get to be part of the process of making sense of the art.

A: Yeah, that’s something I love about Twin Peaks and all of David Lynch’s works, from his cinema to his painting and music. What engages me is what a movie or a part in The Return makes happen, the energies and intensities and emotions and connections it sparks. I’m not so engaged by the fan sites online or conversations that attempt to formulate the answer to what it means. Twin Peaks for me isn’t about what it means; it’s about what it does, what it catalyzes.

As I tell students in my film classes, if you want to watch a film that dials you into how we live life as lots of swerves and turns and love and weirdness that human beings shape into narratives as we experience them, go for David Lynch. The surreal, the simultaneous out-loud laugh and tears moments are what being alive is. And if a film is going to go deep into cultures of misogyny, it can unsettle us and really get us feeling and thinking if it hangs out with the darkest parts of it, which is a risk, rather than operating from an oversimplified moral position. This is what David Lynch’s works offer, and maybe they can help move us out of bad timelines.

L: Right, and the song “Wild West” is about having faith. And you might not think that that’s super Twin Peaks-y, but part of having faith is believing what you believe — what it is and what it means — all without ever getting to know for sure.

And you can argue with other people about the drawer handle and Josie and what that means for you, but you never get to know.

A: Since you mentioned the song again, I do want to ask since you said you haven’t watched all of The Return yet if you have watched your part, 14?

L: Yeah, so I got Showtime specifically to watch it. My manager was like, it’s airing tonight, and I went to my part and I got chills up and down, and I was so proud, especially because now that I’ve moved to Iowa who knows what direction things will take for me. But I got to be part of this legendary, iconic thing. I got goosebumps seeing myself as a part of this thing that means so much to so many people.

And of course then immediately I had to put this on Instagram, because those are the times we live in, everyone has to see this and know.

And then last summer I was in London working on my new album and the London Times wanted to do a piece on me in Twin Peaks, but it hadn’t aired yet, so I couldn’t do it. All I could tell them was what a delight to work with David Lynch and to be friends with him too. And that’s really what I took away from the experience — not like juicy details of the behind the scenes — but what it feels like to have someone like him recognize your work, especially in such a soul-destroying industry. For him to believe in me is such a boost to my confidence, and even the conversations we’ve had after I learned TM have been soulful connections.

People are just drawn to him, in part because his work is otherworldly, and I know this might sound kind of hokey to some people, but for myself, I don’t know where my songs come from, the lyrics and melodies. Sure, I wish I could say it came from me and my brain. But really creativity seems to come from something out there, maybe a collective something, and it’s like when you dream, maybe your soul goes on a journey, and for David maybe when he wakes up he just somehow becomes a channel of all the crazy shit from those journeys. Maybe he’s a complicated vessel for contrasts that exist, like what BOB embodies. This is hard for me to put into words.

A: What it sounds to me like you describe in yourself and David Lynch is a real way to attune yourself to something, to an ether or wavelength. Like attunement is part of creating.

L: I like that idea of tuning or attunement, but I don’t think I’m as grounded as he is. I’m a kind of planner, controlly kind of person, but I still embrace the flow, the creating of a space to let what happens happen. Creating seems to me like creating a space to allow something much bigger than us, something almost otherworldly, out there, and beyond our abilities to explain it, to just pass through him or me or the people assembled to tell the story.

Like I wonder about some of the acting performances too. I do wonder about Naomi Watts’s performance in the series compared to what else you see her in, or the actor who plays Jade. I feel like their acting is just a bit to the side or something, unusual, atypical, so that instead of total realism they draw you in and make you wonder what is happening? Why is the performing odd or maybe intentionally visible? Is this about acting and being?

Andy: The performances in Twin Peaks have always been so unique, so key to the aesthetic for me. And last year on Twin Peaks Day in February I had a coffee and pie viewing party at my house, trying to introduce some friends to the series, and the acting was one of the things that was a litmus. Like some of them didn’t like it, saw it as plastic, melodramatic and artificial, but others saw the actors as delivering a weird and unsettling sort of being that is, maybe counterintuitively, more realistic than what we usually think of as realism. Like we’re always all partly wrapped in the plastic of ideas of ourselves, especially when we’re with other people.

L: This makes me think of Gilmore Girls. For a lot of people it’s a silly show, but I see some things that resonate with Twin Peaks, and the actors who play Shelly and Audrey were on it. It’s a really kind of bizarre show, a goofy, wholesome show, but then Audrey is a main character in the 6th and 7th seasons, and I think that rings with the surreal quality the show takes on. The show actually has a lot of layers, I think, though I know people might disagree. And it takes some seasons to get to the layers or to see them. You can let me know what you think. [Smiles]

A: Maybe we can finish our conversation on your current and upcoming work. I ask especially because as communities of Twin Peaks fans have been doing re-watches of The Return based on when the original parts dropped, Part 14 was the focus just a week or two ago. Lots of people on social media groups doing live-blog rewatches remarked that “Wild West” is one of their favorite Roadhouse songs and performances and that they’re really curious about you and what you’re up to now and next.

L: Wow, yeah, what am I up to? Well, My Wild West was my album about stepping out on a limb and breaking tradition, breaking from the world I created for myself in California with my band and this trajectory I was on. But I considered what I wanted out of life and decided I wanted to leave California and buy a farm in Iowa, which I know everyone thought was so weird. Like, with my music career going so well why wasn’t I trying to get another major label deal? So that album was reflecting on my California chapter as I brought it to a close.

Then I got derailed on what was next by a relationship that was really messy and painful. I decided, just let me make an album [Castles] about this real quick. I use my songwriting as a way to process emotions and let go of things. Inside this relationship I really needed to make a body of work about moving through and letting go. The first song “World Away” is about it being too painful to imagine letting go and then the last song is “Meet Me in the Mystery” and it’s about being ready for the darkness, ready to let go. For that album I went into the really dark parts and depths of how I had been in that relationship in order, paradoxically, to get back to the light. Even the cover image: is it bubbles under water or stars in the sky? Above/below, dark/light; that’s what I was going through and the image gets at it. Now people can experience Castles for themselves. It served what I needed from it, a transition and processing record.

Now, I can announce this — I’m going through my albums from the last 8 years and making a piano/vocal album of selected songs from my back catalog. That’ll come out early next year and then I will probably go for sporadic shows. I’m not gearing up for a major studio album.

And this connects again to creativity for me. I wrote a lot of the songs on Castles while I was planting trees, digging, moving sand. I’d be shoveling tons of sand out of my truck and I came up with a song called “Sand” [singing] “I’ve been carrying sand / it slips out of my hand” which was literally a metaphor — I’m shoveling and thinking about a relationship I was trying to hold on to but losing.

I have 40 acres that I’m working to get certified organic in a few years and I’m moving toward a homesteading vibe. So I’m trying to figure out how to continue being an artist as my first and foremost part of life but combine it with homesteading. I’ve found that when I’m learning to knit, or gardening, or sweeping out my garage, those are more creatively helpful activities than sitting with my guitar trying to come up with a song, with lyrics.

So I’ve got passions for conservation, better living, farming, and how those will mesh with my music remains to be seen.

It’s part of the unknown.

I’ll also say that this spring a lot of people I met who came out to shows said, I came because of Twin Peaks. I think the addition to the spookiness of Twin Peaks of my aggressive hopefulness in this song of faith were strangely compatible. And I’m excited to hear what the song means to people. I can say what it means to me, but, remember, I don’t take full credit for making the song — it’s not even all mine to begin with and what people make of it on Twin Peaks is also true and real.

Oh, and you know this is making me think of how weird it is that some of the songs I’ve written were actually predictive even though I didn’t know it at all at the time. Like I wrote the song “Little Lovin” with corn and a line “Io-way hey day”, Iowa, but changed to rhyme, and the song “Record Collector” with lyrics about a choir of bees, and here we are surrounded by bees and corn and I had no idea in 2008 when I wrote those that I was headed eventually for Iowa. It’s like I started writing “Wild West” before I knew I was coming to Iowa.

I knew something was coming, something had to change and it was like writing that song was a guiding force. I wonder if I knew ten years ago when I wrote the song if some part of me knew I’d be moving to Iowa, like folds in time or connections across worlds?

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Lissie and her home-baked apple pie!

Concert images courtesy of Andy Hageman.
Featured Image courtesy Showtime/iMDB


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