She was born rock ’n’ roll royalty with all the good (money, instant fame) and bad (your entire life is under constant scrutiny, obsessive fans asking whether you can sing like your daddy).
But though she’s been famous since birth, Lisa Marie Presley is only now coming into her own as an artist at age 44 after surprising many people by starting her music career in her mid 30s with her slick debut album, To Whom It May Concern in 2003.
The album, produced by pop/rock hitmaker Glen Ballard (Alanis Morrisette, Sheryl Crow) contained salty language and an underlying surliness as Presley, who co-wrote every song, seemed to be flipping a metaphorical bird at anyone questioning her motives or talent.
To Whom It May Concern peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard charts and sold gold. She followed that two years later with Now What, toured some and then seemingly disappeared from the music scene for the rest of the decade.
Now Presley has returned to recording with her new album, the Americana-tinged, musically stripped down Storm & Grace released in May and is hitting the road including a stop at the Kent Stage on Wednesday. But the singer/songwriter/mother of four didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to make music again. The album follows an intense time in her life.
“It was more of an awakening period and deconstruction of a lot of stuff going on around me that I needed to get rid of,” the singer said during a telephone interview from the home outside of London she shares with her husband, guitarist and musical director Michael Lockwood, and their 4-year-old twin daughters Harper Vivienne Ann and Finley Aaron Love.
“Then it was the process of elimination. [We] sold the house, got rid of everything and everyone. … I just really wanted a completely different setting and life and to see if I could be inspired again.”
Part of that big life change was a trip to London where Presley hooked up with a cadre of very English songwriters including Richard Hawley of Pulp, singer/songwriter Ed Harcourt, songwriter Sacha Skarbek and Fran Healy of Travis. What was supposed to be a short trip across the pond to write and get away from the people and problems she was jettisoning turned into a full move to a home in suburban London.
“In the past when everyone was going to Nashville and writing this and that, I could never do something contrived like that or preconceived,” she said.
However, Presley found that working outside her comfort zone with the “very, very, very English” songwriters worked.
“Richard Hawley is kind a little bit the Johnny Cash/Leonard Cohen of England and Ed Harcourt is kind of like the Jeff Buckley/Tom Waits kind of guy. So they were all kind of oddly alternative,” she said noting that she also wrote with electronic artists and rock artists.
While she was writing and recording demos, Presley’s new music was given to Oscar- and Grammy-winning producer T-Bone Burnett, who was impressed enough to helm the production, bringing with him his stable of talented musicians to give the album an authentic singer/songwriter vibe and a rootsy, mostly acoustic sound.
The result is Storm & Grace — what Presley calls the truest representation of her as a singer/songwriter. And the album has received the best reviews of her career.
“People think it’s easier for me, but to get critical acclaim and great reviews, that’s what I need. It lets me know that it’s going beyond [being Elvis Presley’s daughter],”she said.
“The recognition as a singer/songwriter for me is the most important thing. I know there’s a lot of other stuff attached to my life but for me I’m working and I’m doing something … and [that] means everything to me.”
With Burnett at the helm, Presley — whose smoky alto singing voice doesn’t have much range but has quite a bit of personality — sounds more confident and comfortable on toe-tapping tracks such as the bouncy opener Over Me and the lightly soulful You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.
Presley admits that her first two albums were a bit defensive lyrically and musically constructed to fit into the slick, overproduced pop/rock sounds of the day. Despite her pedigree, Presley said she also allowed the music industry to put her through the pop star-making machine, picking out clothes and advising her to play up the sexy in photo shoots rather than establish her as an artist.
But she also admits that at the time she purposely worked against following in her father’s massive footprint.
“The first two records kind of blew through [Elvis fans/critics’ expectations] because they were so NOT what a typical Elvis fan might have been expecting of me, which was a little bit on purpose, just to make sure I had my own footing,” she said.
“I didn’t want to sign with [Elvis’ longtime label] RCA, I didn’t want to do a song with him, I didn’t want to ride on any coattails so I did the complete opposite and that was good and bad because it alienated some people and it made me a little bit misunderstood and conflicted, which is not unusual.”
But she is more comfortable in her own skin now, and her video I Love You Because that premiered Oct. 18 on CMT is a duet with her father and features him and her four children.
Now Presley is hitting the road in short runs, which she says is the best way right now to balance her strong love of touring and being a good mother to her twins (she also has two grown children daughter Riley Keogh, currently filming Mad Max: Fury Road and son Benjamin.
Presley said there won’t be another seven-year wait before her next album and tour and though her life has been reconfigured and she is in a much happier place, she knows life is a journey not a race.
“It’s in progress. It’s a mid-life crisis in progress,” she said laughing.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at email@example.com. He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram.