First, there’s rain. A pulse of piano follows, as though someone watching it through a window is putting music to the quiet storm. Then—listen closely—a barely audible whisper: teach me, I am listening. This mysterious intro to World Away, the lead track of pop-rocker Lissie’s new album, Castles, opens into a haunting meditation on resistance to loss: you’re just a world / only a world away…I’m not ready to let go / It’s too painful. Buoyed by Lissie’s persuasive vocals, the song creates a paradoxically inviting space, one filled with intriguing sounds and samples, juxtaposed with warm strings and true emotion. Just the first room in the powerhouse of songs Lissie has built on Castles, World Away holds clues for what’s to come as she guides us through the regions of her heart and imagination.
Two years ago, Lissie felt the need to break free from an increasingly stultifying Californian existence. With a deep breath, and her own destiny in hand, she made the decision to leave that world, and buy a massive farm in Northeastern Iowa where she’s been learning how to keep bees, grows vegetables, and is hoping to build a self-sustaining conservation space and retreat. Before taking this leap of faith, whilst still in California, the oddest thing happened. She found herself back in a songwriting spurt, she made a record she thought nobody would hear (2016’s My Wild West) and then released it independently. That record became her most successful yet, charting at Number 16 in the UK. Her newfound independence came hand-in-hand with a desire to tear up the rulebook and promote her record how she wanted. It’s from there that she made Castles; a fitting title for a new record that focuses on identifying what you want to build a life with, not what you don’t want.
Castles reflects a new openness in Lissie’s approach to songwriting and recording. Having moved out of the orbit of the music industry machine and back to her native Midwest, the groundedness she found living and working on a farm ushered in a period of exploration. The seed of Castles was planted when New York based electronic artist Nick Tesoriero introduced Lissie to beat-making. This experimentation offered an immediate, and boundless sense of freedom to Lissie:
“When I wrote on a guitar I felt limited. It was so much more spontaneous and natural to sit down with someone who would give me a beat and a chord progression on a synthesizer. I started having all these new ideas. I wasn’t stuck behind my guitar or waiting for people to show up.”
This collaboration with Tesoriero helped Lissie reimagine the sound of the title track—a paean to hope, in the ancient language of fairy tale and the contemporary cadence of electronica—he kicked off an openness to working and recording in that fashion. (I’d live and die for love alone/I’d pull the sword out of the stone…Wouldn’t it be good/If we could rule together/Love the way we should/Castles.) The limitations she’d felt writing exclusively on guitar gave way to spontaneity and the spark of fresh ideas. In the process of discovering new ways to ply her craft, personal struggle transmuted into universal experience: the castles she’s singing about are her hope for us all.
The creative tension at the heart of this record—seeming contradictions inhabiting the same space—give rise to its wide palette of sound, style and emotion. These songs—many written in collaboration—wrestle with angels and demons in equal measure, often at the same time. Despair and hope, self-sufficiency and longing, past and future, electronica on the farm: it’s the mash-up that fuels the passion in this project. Beats and atmospheres converse with keyboards, guitars, and of course, her voice: at once ethereal and full-blooded, it both embodies and reconciles the contradictions. Whilst there’s darkness in this album, there is also a propulsive, and playful sense of fun, not to mention a guiding wisdom to this collection of heartbroken yet indestructible songs that comes with time, and distance.
Castles is undeniably the most ambitiously pop Lissie has ever sounded. The likes of World Away and Blood & Muscle could almost be mistaken for the opening piano chords of Harry Styles’ epic Sign Of The Times; Crazy Girl could be a bedfellow to the crystalline ’70s rock of HAIM; the sultry Boyfriend takes a lyrical, almost country approach, reiterated in the the sun-drenched Miley Cyrus sounds of album highlight – and upcoming single – Best Days.
It’s ironic that after breaking free from the shackles of weighty expectations, Lissie has naturally arrived at such a crossover sound. “Yeah, it’s almost the record that people always wanted me to make,” she laughs over the phone from the farm. “I couldn’t really make it until I got to be in charge. Before I was trying to please too many people. It stopped being fun. But eventually you get to the stage where you accept yourself for who you are. I’m not trying to keep up with anyone else. If I can make a living doing something I’m passionate about, that’s a good life.”
Lissie has become accustomed to the experience of making music remotely in a piecemeal fashion, across continents, over email with no pre-conceptions. “It surprised me, I was always such a purist, loved rock’n’roll and felt like I’d never do anything like that. But if it felt good, why not?” Giving in to that “why not?” optimism, Lissie wound up producing a cohesive body of work with themes of determination and clarity running throughout.
The posse of co-creatives joining Lissie on Castles include old friends like Bill Reynolds (Band of Horses) and Martin Craft, Jim Irvin, Julian Emery and Curt Schenider (who worked in a large capacity on My Wild West), as well as new collaborators like producers AG and Liam Howe. London-based Howe (Sneaker Pimps) taught Lissie that in letting go of preconceived notions, she could create a cohesive project over time and distance. She credits the arrival of AG as a turning point, the first woman who has produced for her and in addition co-wrote songs like the stripped down cri de coeur Blood and Muscle:
I want a love that’s made of blood and muscle
I want a love that’s brave, can take my tears.
I wanna laugh at the dark like I’m not scared of nothin’…
That fearless confrontation of suffering may be an engine of Lissie’s self-expression, but on Castles it cohabits with a radical hope. The sunny guitar pop and optimism of a song like “Best Days” (the best days of my life are coming for me/waiting to be realized…) is as central to Castles as the facing of demons. Therein lies the most compelling juxtaposition in Castles; this balance between self-sufficiency and a need to be completed by a love that’s yet to arrive. There’s regret, there’s existential fear, but there’s also a light that Lissie strives towards. Lissie has turned to the dark and hidden places where we fear to tread, and found whole other worlds there. Her resistance to letting go in the first track softens, ultimately, into the embrace of the unknown in Castle’s final anthem, Meet Me In The Mystery: Meet me in the mystery/meet me in the hollow/teach me I am listening/lead and I will follow.
Here, then, is the revelation of that whisper in the first song. Turns out, the seed of transformation was there all along, and as for the rain that set Castles in motion? Every farm girl knows that seeds grow when the rain falls.