'Toxicity' inspires her work, and work soothes her, Presley says
- Lisa Marie Presley, who will talk about music, but not certain parts of the past.
By Steve Knopper
Special to the Tribune
October 24, 2013
The first time Lisa Marie Presley recorded a song, Aretha Franklin's "Baby I Love You," she needed a six-pack of beer and four takes. She was 20.
"I wouldn't change anything on that song. I think I did pretty OK for the first time (recording) ever," she says. "But I do not, thankfully, need to drink anymore. People who are drinking think they sound good, but they really sound awful."
She pauses, then adds: "I've been around that enough to know."
And that's as close as Presley gets in discussing the particulars of her unique past — growing up at Graceland, watching as people tried to bring Elvis back to life, that terrible day in the bathroom in 1977, enduring her own drug-and-alcohol phase as a young woman, marrying Michael Jackson briefly, then marrying actor Nicolas Cage even more briefly. Then becoming a Scientologist and building a peaceful life with her husband, guitarist Michael Lockwood, and their twin daughters in the English countryside.
In response to one gentle question about Jackson during a 15-minute phone interview, Presley sharply establishes the ground rules: "I'm not going to go anywhere near this. Sorry. I'm just not. This is one of those things that usually are told beforehand. I just don't talk about this kind of stuff. I just kind of try and focus on the music."
On to the music, then. Some 15 years after she recorded "Baby I Love You," Presley put out her debut, 2003's "To Whom It May Concern," a bleak, emotional purge of a singer-songwriter rock album that Playboy likened to "a pissed-off Sheryl Crow." Her third album, last year's "Storm & Grace," keeps the bleakness intact: Her lyrics are full of people without eyes, wheels running off the road, digging a hole and not coming out, screaming and kicking. Presley and producer T Bone Burnett, however, find a sparsely arranged, dark-but-not-too-dark, folk-and-rock production that resembles the Grammy-winning Robert Plant-Alison Krauss album "Raising Sand" and works for Presley's voice.
Presley has a deep and distinctive singing voice, similar to Martha Davis from the hit '80s band Motels, only Presley uses it to reflect, not overpower. The rockabilly-style "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" is the album's most lively song, one of the few with something like optimism: "Am I a disruption/ to your corruption? / You ain't seen nothin' yet."
"Life throws tidal waves at you, and it throws good things as well. You just survive things. This particular record is just more stripped-down — as I was, as a human, when I wrote it," she says, by phone from New York, en route to a show in Connecticut. "There was a lot of toxicity around me, and I got rid of it. As I was processing all of that, I wrote the record."
Presley has used the word "toxic" several times in interviews to illustrate the experiences and feelings that led to her first album in seven years. Toxic, how?
"I don't really know," she says. "I was more feisty, more angry, with the first two (albums). Life had a tendency to knock you on your (expletive) now and then. This came from that. Even when you think you've got it fully together, it can surprise you."
One man in her life that Presley is happy to equivocate about is Burnett, the veteran guitarist and singer-songwriter who produced the Plant-Krauss album in addition to the "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack and breakthroughs by Counting Crows and Los Lobos. After moving to England about four years ago with her family, Presley came out of a "tapped-out" phase by writing 30 songs for eight straight months.
"I was writing them for me, to get through stuff," she says. "I had no plan."
One of Presley's people sent the new songs to Burnett, who loved them and agreed to work with her.
"I had taken forever to get off the last record. I wasn't anxious to get on a new one. I wasn't anxious to do anything, pop-wise," she says. "At that time it was truly vital that someone like (Burnett) came along and believed in me. It really lifted me up."
Presley has given interviews over the years, to Oprah Winfrey and Playboy, among others, in which she has discussed her relationships with Jackson and her father at length. In newspaper interviews previewing her live performances, she will only touch on certain details about her childhood. (Presley, the sole heir to Elvis' estate, remains the owner of Graceland, although she sold a controlling stake to the lucrative Elvis Presley Enterprises nine years ago to entertainment giant SFX for $100 million.)
She becomes excited about one question involving her past: the rock music she used as personal rebellion at age 13. That would have been Pink Floyd's "The Wall."
"It was on heavy, heavy rotation, 24-7, for about five years. ... I felt they were writing for me," she says. "All the holy hell that happens right around then, hormonally and spiritually and psychologically — that's when I realized how important the music is, even if it's dark.
"It's not always good, fabulous rainbows," she continues. "There's beauty in sadness."
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St.
Tickets: $35-45; 312-733-9463 or citywinery.com
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