Music Interview: Singer Lisa Fischer — On Moving Forward 20 Feet
Who was this stunning talent with the roof-raising voice and why in the world isn’t she a star, fans would wonder?
By Glenn Rifkin
In a sequence in the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, Sting is recording a song for his 1996 album Mercury Rising as backup singer extraordinaire Lisa Fischer begins to add vocal support on the evocative tune “The Hounds of Winter.” Sting exhorts Fischer to give him more.
“During the ‘Hounds of Winter,’ I just indicated to Lisa that she should vocalize and do something to evoke the spirit of loneliness,” Sting tells the interviewer, “and out comes this voice, an amazing, extraordinary, ghostly voice.” Indeed, Fischer layers in an hypnotic multi-octave descant which elevates the sorrowful song to an other-worldly plane.
For Fischer, a backup singer for nearly three decades for the Rolling Stones as well as Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Nine Inch Nails, and Chris Botti, the documentary placed her in an unfamiliar position: the spotlight.
With star quality talent and skill, the Brooklyn-born Fischer had flirted, long ago, with stardom — winning a 1991 Grammy for her solo R&B hit “How Can I Ease the Pain.” But that momentary brush with fame quickly faded and she stepped 20 feet back and fashioned a long and successful career as a backup singer. Her signature duet with Mick Jagger on the Stones’ iconic “Gimme Shelter” inevitably drew roars of appreciation from audiences on the many Stones tours. Who was this stunning talent with the roof-raising voice and why in the world isn’t she a star, fans would wonder? But Fischer was content to lend her substantial skills to others and remain in relative obscurity.
The popular documentary changed all that. Audiences were entranced by the likes of Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, and Tata Vega. But it was Fischer who stole the movie and her phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. She is performing at Newton North High School on April 1 as part of a benefit to support Historic Newton, which oversees the Jackson Homestead and the Durant-Kenrick House, as well as the Historic Burying Grounds Project. She is also going to perform at The Cabot Theater in Beverly, MA on April 2. She spoke to The Arts Fuse about her career and her recent emergence onto center stage.
Arts Fuse: You’ve decided to step to the mike and take center stage. What happened?
Lisa Fischer: It was because of the film, really. I had been getting calls to do different things that I hadn’t been asked to do before. You know, ‘Can you do a show here, can you do a show there?’ and it was like, ‘oh, my God, I’m so not ready for this because I was basically just singing background for the Stones, and a little bit of lead for Chris Botti, the trumpeter.’
AF: How did you prepare to go on your own?
Fischer: I called Linda Goldstein, who manages Bobby McFerrin, and I asked her to help me. We put a band together and in between the Stones tours, I began working on singing a song from beginning to end as a complete thought. When you are doing the background thing, you do a woo and a chorus and you dance around and do your thing. But to actually sing a song from beginning to end is a different kind of focus.
AF: That must be a real wakeup call.
Fischer: I did a little bit of it with Chris, thank God, but I hadn’t really done a lot of my own live shows. I opened for Luther Vandross a couple of times, but not a lot and that was back in 1992. So it’s been a really long time. And for the last tour I did with the Stones in the last year or so, I had to cancel and reschedule some things. We have a booking agent, Ted Kurland Associates from Boston, and sometimes the Stones would change the schedule according to what was going on with them. So I had to cancel my own dates and I felt really bad because these promoters were taking a chance on me. I’m new to this even though I’m older (57) and it was like WAHHHH!!! The Stones were originally scheduled to go to Latin America in the fall of last year and then it got rescheduled. I had already booked gigs for January of this year and I thought, ‘I can’t do this again for the third time; these promoters are going to kill me!’ I just felt really awful for people who had already bought tickets. So I got to the point where I had to make a decision.
AF: That must have been tough.
Fischer: It was really one of the hardest decisions I had to make, to actually not do a Stones tour. The last time I didn’t do a Stones tour it was because I was on tour with Luther Vandross. But now, I just felt it was time. It would be a waste not to do these shows. The Stones had a lot to do with why I was in the film, and it was just a culmination of so many things. It was really confusing and heartbreaking, and I cried a lot over that decision.
AF: I’ll bet. What did Mick say?
Fischer: He was very supportive. He didn’t want to stand in the way. He was just very loving and supportive. The whole band was very supportive. And, you know, they’re the Stones. They can find someone; there are so many wonderful singers out there. And the young lady who’s doing it now, her name is Sasha Allen, and she’s just lovely. A great singer, beautiful girl. She has lovely energy with Mick on stage and sounds amazing. So, it worked out.
AF: Did you leave it with them that this is it, we had a great run and it’s over, or is the door sort of cracked open if you ever change your mind?
Fischer: Well, you know, I dealt with it from the perspective of I couldn’t do the Latin American tour because that’s the only thing that I can really see, you know what I mean? I never know what the (Stones’) schedule’s going to be. It’s such a big machine that they usually keep everything under lock and key, so I never know. I don’t know after this Latin American tour what they’re going to do. I look at Mick and he’s just in such amazing shape and great voice. His work ethic is so high and the whole band just sounds amazing. It’s inspiring for people to see them doing what they love.
AF: I saw you with the Stones in the late ’90s and when you did the solo on “Gimme Shelter,” the place went completely bonkers. It was certainly the most memorable moment in the show.
Fischer: It’s such a great song. I mean, the song has its own power and its own energy. Their song writing is just so amazing. And the song is an iconic one for me, and I think Merry Clayton, who did the original vocal on it. It’s one of those moments in time that you can never repeat.
AF: Your current band, Grand Baton, did you start that band or join forces with them?
Fischer: We joined forces because JC Maillard (singer/songwriter, guitarist and pianist) is actually the creator of Grand Baton. That’s his concept. I met him through Linda, my manager, and when I met with him I just fell in love with him because he’s got a really open mind about music and sound, and his energy is very Zen and very peaceful. He’s a gentle soul. But then when he gets on the guitar or if he’s working on music, he’s like a whole other animal!
AF: How do you characterize their music?
Fischer: I call it eclectic. It’s a combination of rhythms and sounds. It has the flavors of Flamenco and African beats and Caribbean beats and soul and rock and a little bit of jazz, but not a lot. Jazz in the sense of the freedom. It’s like the songs that we do, we try not to close our minds to the possibility of doing things a little differently. We like to call it ‘deranging’ it!
AF: That’s great!
Fischer: We have a really great time! I love them and it’s just so beautiful the way that they listen to each other. I love the way they play and listen.
AF: It felt to me, watching 20 Feet From Stardom, that you ended up as the star of the film in some ways. It was your sense of peace with yourself as a backup singer. You weren’t the frustrated wannabe who couldn’t get to the front of the stage. You were comfortable in your own skin and it resonated with people. What is the origin of that sensibility?
Fischer: Yes, it’s interesting, I’ve always been really thankful because I know that every day you get up is a gift. It really is. I’ve seen so many people pass through this life and be frustrated at just what they don’t have versus what they do have. I am really sensitive about what I have in the moment. And every opportunity to sing is a gift. It’s not about the money. It’s really about the experience, it’s about the music, and it’s about what the power of music can do for people. It’s a gift for everyone, hopefully, and that whole thought process just really grounds me and gives me peace.
AF: What do you attribute that feeling to?
Fischer: I think the church choir mentality. It really is about supporting the message, supporting the music. About using the music as a way to heal, to really heal, or to celebrate, or to get more in touch with what you’re feeling. Because sometimes we feel stuff and we don’t have the words for it. So, I think the music sometimes is almost like an emotional bible for a lot of people. It’s an escape and it’s a safe haven. And so just the idea of that, I’m good. I’m good just to have that in my life. Everything else is just maneuvering through.
AF: Did you grow up in a musical household?
Fischer: Yes, my mom and dad sang. My dad was part of a group called The Cupids. There was a song called Your Dog Likes My Dog, (Laughter!) and my dad sang background on the record, so I would listen to them rehearsing in the house, and my mom would sing a little bit. And my grandparents got us a piano, so there was always music in the house. And they loved playing music, and the 45s from the Motown era, all that stuff. They loved music and I think it was such a part of their lives that it sort of transferred into our lives, as well.
AF: Who would you describe as your most important musical influence?
Fischer: Luther Vandross, for sure. When I met him I was still doing background and just starting out. I was singing background for the Crystals and then the Marvelettes. The choreographer for the Marvelettes was a friend of Luther’s and he asked me to audition when Tawatha Agee had a record out called Juicy Fruit. She was singing background for Luther, and at that point her record was doing well, and he needed to find a replacement. I went and auditioned for Luther, and that was how I actually got in — it was because of her success, really.
AF: And he had been a backup singer himself.
Fischer: Exactly. And he talked so much about how to listen, how to blend, the subtleties of the music, how to blend with other background singers, how to find different voices within yourself, the weight of the voice. To have a listen. Really have a listen. I know, sometimes singers will – well, I’ll speak for myself. I would have a bad habit of just wanting to sing without really knowing the part really well, just making a bunch of mistakes. He was like, ‘No, no, no. Just wait, and listen and make sure you have it. Make sure you have it first before you go all out.’ So, it was a lesson in patience.
AF: You have such an incredible rapport, especially the male performers you’ve worked with like Mick Jagger or Sting. What is the magic that happens there when you get up there?
Fischer: You know, I honestly feel like I’m just a mirror of their flame. They are the flame. Their passion for what they do and the focus about what they want to present is so strong and it just wells up inside of them and spills over into the audience. And so they tend to really want people who are likeminded in the sense of really wanting to serve the music and nothing else. I try really hard to look into their heart, into the heart of the music, into the heart of their message, and to the sound vibration of what they do and be a mirror to what they do.
AF: Some people just exude the joy of music. What is your personal philosophy about life and music?
Fischer: There are so many pages in our lives that get flipped, and every time you read through a paragraph of your life, it could be another challenge. And a lot of times the heaviness of those challenges can make you feel like you’re drowning. For me, the music always makes me feel there’s a way out, that it’s not the end of life. Something about the music gives me a key to figure things out in a rhythmic way. I don’t know how I would live without it. I really don’t. It’s such a great teacher.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.