Lisa Marie Presley carries with her the most famous last name in pop music history. She has been world famous since the day she was born. And though one might assume that with her personal history and her DNA she’d have all the makings of an extrovert, that’s not really the case when discussing her life. With some topics, she remains guarded, while with others, she speaks freely. Her latest critically-acclaimed album, “Storm & Grace,” falls into the category of the latter. And it’s worth talking about.
In a recent interview with The Weekender, Presley talked about “Storm & Grace,” its accompanying tour, and some of her other recent musical endeavors in her native hometown of Memphis, where she not only recorded at the legendary Sun Studios, but also performed live on the same stage where a young and upcoming artist named Elvis Presley performed in 1954. She also recently did a home recording, so to speak. But in her case, “home” just happened to be the Jungle Room in a place called Graceland.
Presley’s debut album, “To Whom It May Concern,” was released in 2003 and was followed by 2005’s “Now What.” Seven years passed before she reemerged with “Storm & Grace,” but with it, she presented some of her most inspired work. She says the songs began to take shape in 2010, not long after relocating to England. Her muse was her own life.
“It always just comes from what’s going on in my life,” says Presley, 45. “Every one of my records is the same – whatever’s happening. It’s just a way for me to sort of purge whatever experience I’ve gone through.”
For the songs on “Storm and Grace,” Presley says quite a bit of purging was necessary. And though she offers no specifics when it comes to discussing their inspiration, she is very open about the fact that it was a frustrating time in her life.
“When I did this record, I was just writing to get myself through a certain period,” she says. “I didn’t have a deal, or a label, or anything in mind. I was just writing for myself as I was processing a lot of things. I had to completely get rid of everything I once knew in my life – it was like an awakening. I was realizing that things around me weren’t as they seemed and people around me weren’t what I thought.”
Because, from the outside, it appeared everything was stable in her personal life; some speculated some of Presley’s “awakening” may have been reflective of changes in her religious views. Like many artists, however, she prefers to leave her music open to interpretation.
“Things were kind of falling apart, and I wasn’t sure what was going on, and it started a whole domino effect,” she says. “I sort of deconstructed everything and went from ground zero. I got rid of everyone and everything that I knew and started over again. I left the country.”
The songs Presley penned caught the attention of T-Bone Burnett, the accomplished Grammy-winning and Academy Award-winning producer whose work includes projects with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, John Mellencamp, Counting Crows, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Natalie Merchant, The Wallflowers, and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. Burnett loved the material and easily agreed to produce the songs.
“It meant everything to me at the time,” says Presley. “After going through what I went through, I didn’t come out with a whole lot of confidence about anything. Everything that I had known, or felt was true or good – aside from my children and your normal stuff – wasn’t. I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence at that time. I didn’t have any kind of fire. My furnace was very dimly lit. So when he believed in me and wanted to do the project, it really breathed some life into me and gave me some confidence that I desperately needed at the time. It was welcomed.”
The result is widely regarded as her best work. Rolling Stone called it “the album she was born to make – a raw, powerful country, folk, and blues collection that finds her embracing her Southern roots and family name.” Spinner.com wrote that “Presley has made the strongest album of her career. It’s a moody masterpiece, exploring the demons and angels of her life to the tune of country-spiced downbeat pop.” Presley says she was greatly flattered by the praise, but adds that if it didn’t happen, it wouldn’t have mattered.
“It’s not that I’m not appreciative – everyone likes acknowledgment,” she says. “But it was so raw and so honest and so real that I didn’t honestly care, because it was so much from my soul. There’s no bells. There’s no whistles. There’s no smoke screens. It’s all very authentic. The people that I care about, I knew it would reach. It was more of a labor of love, and if somebody didn’t like it, I was too raw to even care. It was coming right from my soul.”
Though Presley’s writing is inspired by her own life, she says one of the reasons she chooses to channel her emotions into music is so that listeners may also see themselves in the songs.
“I try to formulate songs for myself, but also for other people, so that they can relate, and it can help other people,” she says. “I try to transform whatever I’ve gone through into a song so that it can help others. That’s what I care about. If it reaches other people and helps somebody else get through something – even if it’s dark, even if it’s not always lollipops – that’s what I care about.”
Despite a life that has included two celebrity marriages (Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage) and being the only child of the King of Rock and Roll, Presley has done a remarkable job of forging her own identity as an artist. She rarely treads into the world of Elvis in her songs, and her music is distinct from that of her father. And perhaps that’s why, over the past 18 months, she seems to have become more comfortable in walking in some of his footsteps. In May of 2012, she and her band – which includes her husband, guitarist Michael Lockwood – recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis in the same room where her father, in 1954, recorded a little number called “That’s All Right” that helped launch a musical revolution. The performance was later aired on PBS television.
“I loved it,” says Presley. “It was very exciting for all of us. We spent the whole day there at a CD signing and a recording. Everybody had a big smile on their face. It was great.”
Another historical moment came just two months ago, when Presley performed at the Levitt Shell in Memphis. The outdoor pavilion, formerly known as the Overton Park Bandshell, is the same place where a young Elvis Presley – while building a regional following but still two years away from national fame – performed in 1954.
“That was emotional,” she says. “I was really nervous. It was a free concert, and we had no idea what was going to happen, and it ended up that 6,500 people came. It felt like a homecoming for me. My family was there. My kids were there. My mom flew in. It was a big deal. It was pressure, but fun. I had to really kind of focus on what I was doing. It was very emotional and very intense, but I had to focus on the technicalities of what I normally think about when I’m doing a show. Otherwise, it would just be overwhelming.”
The very next day, she performed several songs at Graceland in the famous Jungle Room. In 1976, her father recorded there and much of the material was featured on his final two albums: “From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee” and “Moody Blue.” Presley recalls watching those sessions as a child. For her sessions, she says she found herself in two roles: recording artist and concerned housekeeper.
“It was very strange, because I’m very protective of it,” says Presley. “All of these people ended up being there that day. It was closed session, and we waited until the tours stopped, and all of a sudden everybody had invited their entire families to come. I was like, ‘It was supposed to be really low key. Where are all of these people coming from?’ And then furniture was getting moved and things were getting moved around, and I was getting upset and sort of antsy. I am very protective of it, so on that front, it was kind of stressful for me. Otherwise, I was very comfortable. It was my home. That’s where I grew up. I was more worried about the carpet.”
Presley’s sessions recorded in the Jungle Room will be shown on Yahoo Music’s “Ram Country” on Nov. 13.
Prior to such recent musical projects, Presley’s most notable work, which had such a direct link to her father, came from several duets on his songs, which through the magic of audio production, were done à la Natlie Cole/Nat King Cole. In 1997, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his passing, she recorded “Don’t Cry Daddy,” and in 2007, to note the 30th anniversary, she recorded “In the Ghetto.” In 2012, for the 35th anniversary, she recorded “I Love You Because.” She says the duets are mostly done as a gesture of appreciation to his fans and that when it comes to picking the songs, she simply goes with what feels right.
“It’s whatever seems appropriate at the time,” she says. “‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ seemed appropriate for the first one. I loved ‘In the Ghetto,’ which raised money for housing projects, so that seemed appropriate. And T-Bone actually picked ‘I Love You Because,’ but I loved it and thought it was appropriate. Each one kind of has a different vibe and a different energy.”
A different vibe and a different energy is also how Presley describes the nightly stops on her current “Storm & Grace” tour. And that is something she enjoys. Touring, she says, comes naturally to her.
“I love being on the road,” she says. “It’s my favorite thing in the world. We’re in the middle of a 46-show tour and we have 19 left, and I’m getting sad that we have only have 19 left. I just love it. I love the energy of it. It’s different every day. The audience is different every night. We were in Chicago, and the people were so enthusiastic they were on their chairs. Every night is different. I don’t know what I’m going to walk into. I don’t know how they’re going to be. I don’t know how I’m going to be. There are no tracks running here. There’s no bells or whistles. There’s not a big production. It’s just the record. It’s a very intimate record, so it’s a very intimate show. And I love doing it. It’s my favorite part of all of this.”