Back in the autumn, Popdose had the chance to introduce you to Lisa Said, the incredibly gifted and equally powerful singer-songwriter, who had just released her latest album, No Turn Left Behind. A lot of people were both intrigued and enchanted; hers is an interesting story – she translates a lot of her own experiences into meaningful song lyrics and surrounds them with perfectly aligned melodies.
We wanted to get to know Ms. Said a little better, so I had an opportunity to ask her some questions and see how she’d respond. As you will read, she’s a delight as a person and someone who can elevate a conversation so that you forget (in essence) this is an interview! Most rewarding, she was very open and honest and forthright with her answers.
Many thanks to Lisa Said, for taking the time…
When did you first realize what you wanted to do – that you wanted to make music. Tell us in detail how this evolution within came about.
Well, it has been a long road to get here. I didn’t even know I wanted to make music seriously until 2 years ago, and even then, I wasn’t convinced that anybody else would care to listen to it.
I’ve always been obsessed with music, since I was young—I just never imagined I’d do anything with it other than listen to it, buy it, and sing along. I started out in visual arts, and after getting disenchanted with the art scene, my obsession with music turned into making it just in the last 14 years, starting in my mid-20’s.
Definitely a late-bloomer to learning how to play an instrument since I never really learned how to play an instrument when I was young — it wasn’t a priority in our household. It was all about academics or whatever it took to get into a good college, and so I was a classic overachiever in an immigrant household. My parents didn’t put any emphasis on playing instruments like some of my other first-generation friends, though my sisters took piano at some point. I’d play on our piano at home, banging away making up things, but I didn’t really have the desire to take lessons. In addition to that, I grew up at a time where there wasn’t much planned afterschool activities, so after school mainly involved playing outside, watching TV and making up things. I listened to music avidly like any other kid — pop on the radio, parent’s record collection of mostly ’70s folk and early Beatles, and had three older siblings, so the music collection I had access to was broadened— The Cure, The Replacements, and The Smiths from my brother; Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon, Donovan, French and Brazilian music from my oldest sister; and then Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter from my sister closest in age to me—I took it all in and added my own artists to that.
In middle school and high school, I did end up playing sports and doing that in addition to academics. At school events, I always admired people who knew how to play guitar but didn’t think I’d ever learn — thought I was too old to learn even as a teenager. When I was about 14, I bought myself a harmonica and a book and tried to teach myself. I wasn’t a natural, and I didn’t understand keys or music composition. I went to as many local music activities in my hometown, (Chattanooga TN) as I could — there was always some kind of music festival going on, like international folk festivals, jazz in the park, etc. I didn’t see much live rock music back in those days, although some of my peers did— I just wasn’t into rock and angsty music during those those when most people my age were.
In college, I was living in an arts dorm and started to hang out with a few musicians. We’d talk, share and listen to music. Since I didn’t learn an instrument when I was young, I thought I could try Middle Eastern drumming in my early 20’s. When I was on a break from college and hung out in the East Village NYC, I’d go to Sahara East, and they played the best Arabic music! Seemed like every time I’d go they would say something like — “oh, you just missed Hakim, he was here last night from Cairo.” I don’t know if any of it was ever true when they’d say stuff like that to me, but they seemed well-connected musically. I had just gotten back from a visit in Egypt where I bought a tabla (doubek) and tried to get tabla lessons from an Egyptian guy they knew. “I’m finally going to learn an instrument,” I thought, until this guy stood me up, presumably because he wanted to meet at my apartment, and I insisted we meet in a public place. It was so disheartening to not be taken seriously just because I was a woman.
After my tabla lesson no-show, I stopped trying. I just hung out with other musicians, collected records and met people who liked the same music. Collected more records. Wrote a bunch, worked in visual art, and had music as my emotional outlet for listening.
I’ve been singing privately for a very long time, but I’m naturally shy, so I didn’t sing in front of people except a few bold times with school. I operated this way for years as an avid music consumer, until I was in Asheville, NC, (where I moved after a post-college stint in NYC), and migrated to wanting to get to a less cluttered life. I think everyone has been through that stage, right? I was really into indie music at the time, and during the anger and frustration of the Bush-Cheney administration, I really wanted to start a band with friends. And the only way I would be in a band is if I was playing an instrument, because it would terrify me to be onstage just singing.
About that time, I was working at a small shop for a couple, Joel & Julie, who were huge fans of Guided By Voices, and since I was into indie music and GBV too, we used to talk music all the time. Eventually, Joel, who is fantastic guitar player, gave me bass lessons and basic music theory. And then I started a band with my friend Jacob, who played guitar and knew music theory but hadn’t been in a band before, either. At 26, part of me thought I was too old to be playing music, but I tried to block that voice in my head, and let it be taken over by “Middle of the Road”: “I’m not the kind I used to be, I’ve got a kid, I’m 33”, which I took to mean I had a few more years to rock out. Because I needed to learn something new and get creative energy out— I really didn’t have many other outlets and just started playing obsessively. We were passionate, angry, and frustrated artists, trying a new medium. Our sound was based on The Who, Beatles, Kinks, Os Mutantes… The Pretenders with an old-school protest edge. So you could say, we were a little all over the place, but in a great way.
Jacob taught me basic songwriting, and I began composing lyrics and co-writing songs with him, but I couldn’t really write melodies easily with a bass. Eventually, Jacob recognized this and taught me chords on the guitar so I could write melodies easier and that’s when everything started to click into place — it was much easier for me to write songs with a guitar. I started learning a bunch of Beatles, Bowie, and Rolling Stones songs from tabs online— starting mostly with the melancholy songs, like “A Day in the Life”, “5 Years”, and “As Tears Go By”. I was also obsessed with The Who and The Kinks’ energy and cheekiness at that point. I was also broke and depressed, so the sad, angst-y, and sometimes aggressive songs were a natural outlet for me. During this time, I also realized I had a natural tendency to play country folk style; either with the spirit of being in Appalachia, or because of my childhood Tennessee listening to folk. I would mess around and start singing songs by current artists and make them sound like someone playing on a porch with Alan Lomax there recording… my favorite past times.
I eventually recorded a full album as The Telepromptors, a garage and art-rock band, with Jacob and the help of our sound wiz friend David who joined our band and played keys. We set up a home studio in this warehouse we were renting. I ended up living in this not-safe-for-living space where I probably got asbestos poisoning, we’ve all been there right? We enlisted a bunch of drummers for the project, recorded over the course of a year and a half, while learning our instruments better, and got to almost final mix status before I left Asheville for DC in 2006. There wasn’t easy distribution at that time beyond Myspace, and we became ambitiously deflated to put it out there. Now, 11 year later, the songs are sitting on some hard drive somewhere, almost finished, but not quite there yet. This was a trend in my artist life which had been riddled with unfinished projects, and this was just another one to add to the list.
At the same time I was recording with the band, I began to write some songs on my own out of desperation to get some sadness out. In 2005, I just started recording on my own when my bandmates went out of town. I wrote most of “All Eyes on Tomorrow” with a guitar at the computer, recording it in basically one sitting. I’d try to record covers at home, trying to understand how to record and produce on my own— it was fun but sloppy, and I didn’t finish most of them (some are on Soundcloud).
Then a few months later, at the same time I was playing with my guy friends, I started an all-girl trio called Touchless Automatic with my girl friends where I played guitar and where we were new to our instruments. We did covers of songs like Prince’s “When You Were Mine”, VU’s “Sister Ray”, Gang of Four’s “Damaged Goods”. I get an easy kick out of re-contextualizing dude songs, like how The Ramones and New York Dolls took from girl groups; I just thought of it as taking it back or changing the meaning around.
So, by fall of 2006, too broke and tired of myself and all my creations to stay in Asheville, I moved to DC for job opportunities, and I brought my bass with me. On Craigslist, I found one band that listed similar music — Gang of Four, Echo and the Bunnymen, etc— and I went out to meet them. It was funny because we were all left handed players — guitar, drums, and me on bass. Later, a singer joined because I couldn’t sing and play bass very well at the same time. I played bass with them for about a year and then quit, thinking I’d do more solo music but bailed on that to focus on work and being in a relationship.
A few years later, I got married, was working a steady job and continued writing songs alone and feeling like I wanted to get back to playing music with people again, so I went looking for a drummer, and would post some things on Facebook and message boards. I eventually met this great drummer Dave, who was younger and incidentally answered my ad on a message board right after Lou Reed died. It was like “Lou Reed died, it’s time to wake up and play music again.” We found a practice space and started playing together weekly, covering Johnny Thunders and David Bowie and writing a few original tunes. A few months into it, he basically quit to focus on work and a relationship—I completely understood, though I was still heartbroken and had music resurgence, since I was writing songs again and got my guitar calluses back. After Dave, I decided to finally record my own songs that I’d been storing away and not rely on forming a band anymore, longest lesson to learn on this musical journey. I had written a lot of songs since leaving Asheville and thought maybe it was time to just record them.
So that’s how I started recording— no band, no cry. I was just putting one foot in front of the other, just doing one step at a time, finding a studio, finding a drummer, and the rest is just the unfolding.
What were/are your main musical influences – do you think any of it is detectable in the music you make? Non-musical influences that go into the songs?
I’m quite obsessed with music from the late ’60s and ’70s —folk-rock, garage, psychedelic, prog-rock, glam and art rock. Girl groups, Motown, Stax, Muscle Shoals, Brazilian, Arabic pop and folk, West African folk, plus a lot of Alan Lomax recordings and classic country in between. I love the production, the emotion, of it all. I love great lyrics and melody— that was the first thing I listened for growing up, because it was the thing most accessible to me not knowing how to play an instrument.
Whimsy, desperation, cheekiness are a few of my favorite things. I adore Syd Barrett and Kevin Ayers, how they both mix the playful and the dark. Dylan and his lyrics got me through a lot of years and long nights staying up thinking about him in the Chelsea Hotel with all the other music and art heroes lingering in the same spaces. The Who is probably my favorite 60’s band; Brian Eno, Bowie and Bolan simply amaze me. I love Nick Lowe and his affiliations, and probably the artists who have taken residence inside my head and ears the longest are Elvis Costello and Paul Simon— since I was a teenager.
As far as production and sound, for this first album, I was going for a vintage sound of Brits doing country like Faces, Rolling Stones, Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, John Cale’s Vintage Violence.
As to my influences being detectable, I don’t really know, maybe it depends on if people are latching onto my voice, the production, or the songwriting.
I used to think my songwriting influences were quite obvious in my songs, but since everything is such a jumbled amalgamation, it’s probably harder for people to pick out. So, sometimes Dylan’s influence comes out in songs, other times the Glimmer Twins comes out. I never commit myself to one style, I just let it happen.
It hasn’t been terribly important to me to make anything original because I know I can’t with all these other voices in my head. I just don’t want to make anything intentionally derivative, because that’s been done before. (*wink wink*)
As far as non-musical influences, I love the surrealists in art. In writing, writers like Flannery O’Connor and JD Salinger. Other influences: I love road trips and traveling by train or plane, and I often write songs when I’m feeling stuck and need to unleash something out of my head— whether it’s related to relationships, work, things happening in the world, or just general yearning.
Some of the later songs for this album were in direct relation to what I was going through at the onset of a separation, but not as many songs as people might think. I just tend to write more songs when I’m lost, or working out something emotionally. Since I left my friends and making art in Asheville for D.C.—where I didn’t really know anybody, I’ve been in emotional conflicts for quite a while. As a relatively private person, I don’t like feeling vulnerable and exposed with my music, it really just got to a point that I had to do it—to take these songs out of storage and do something with them.
This incredible debut seems to have the underlying theme of leave/departure/travel/motion. Was that conscious or unconscious? Are your surroundings an influence, being that you’re well traveled.
When I wrote the songs, I wasn’t that conscious of the themes, but when I started assembling the songs for the album, all the driving, moving, travel themes seemed almost uncanny (or corny— not sure which). Traveling, driving, and moving motivates me into writing and contemplating. I also come from a family that sometimes travels compulsively, and other times likes to stay home. I like to joke that since my mom is always traveling, her side of the family must have descended from Bedouins—I think I got some of that in me. I’m half-nomad, half home-body. I don’t like to feel stuck, so when I’m not traveling or moving, I suppose I use my guitar and my songs to try to get unstuck.
How do you approach songwriting and the crafting of a track? For a debut, this is a highly “veteran” style of album, with very fine-tooth comb detailing and nuances. Is that from your vision of the end result or an overall group effort?
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” which is how I feel about my own songwriting these days. Things come out, I assemble the pieces and then realize later it’s basically how I was feeling, the song can encapsulate a conflict or a feeling at a moment in time.
When I first started playing music, I used to write very specific lyrics on paper and try to fit them into something, or else try to fit music around the lyrics. They were more political songs, aiming at something. It sometimes worked, though the melodies and lyrics were too forgettable. As a person with a bad memory, I would forget most of those songs with lyrics written first. So I stopped writing songs that way. Even now, I try not to change too much of the original lyrics to songs that I just write on my guitar. If I change them too much, they might feel more contrived, and I might forget the lyrics if I do.
These days, I write a song in different phases: first is the rough draft phase which I play at home spontaneously and record into some device and then try to write down the lyrics as soon as possible before I forget them. I circle back to the songs that stick in my head and keep working on those. I’m quite sporadic, I don’t force anything, a lot of them just unfold and I do my best to capture it when the inspiration strikes, especially since I have a terrible memory.
For this album, I wrote all of these songs solo, over the course of years, with the exception of “Travelling Minus Zero”, which I wrote after Andrew Toy played the main drum pattern as an example of changing the rhythm up. Some of these musical tidbits I’ve left untouched for years until I wanted to put this album together, so I dug back in and tried to craft them better. In some instances, I tried to take suggestions for songs structure, lyrics, etc, but it didn’t feel right so I kept the songs as they were. I didn’t want to regret going against my instincts in this phase, mostly because I have before and it didn’t feel good after the fact.
Before I got into to the studio for these tracks, I worked with Andrew to hash out the structure and the beats per minute for each track. We’d capture the drums first with my scratch guitar and vocals, and then layer on the rest with overdubs. There’ve been a few instances where I reworked some of the lyrics and other details after getting into the studio, but it’s rare that I change much of the core song structure after the initial recording.
In production, all of it was a group effort — I love collaborating with other artists, it’s usually the best part of making music and art. I couldn’t make an album sound like this without working with the high caliber musicians that I did work with. I didn’t need to give much direction at all to any of the musicians— my art direction and decision-making was mostly about who to get to play on the album, which instruments, and I’d give ballpark styles for each song— the other musicians added more than I could ever imagine. I love listening to the flourishes and elegance that Jon Carroll added with piano and organ or the expressive interchanges Andrew Toy put down on drums. Al Sevilla had the vision to add the hillbilly Tennessee-style part on mandolin for Hard to Brake which I thought added to it tremendously. And Seth Kauffman playing on it was just a dream — I’d see him play with his band right before I left Asheville, and he added so much vintage-vibeyness and hooks that I feel so lucky overall. I mean, I really had a “pinch me” moment when the songs started coming together with all these musicians that I admire.
Working with Don Zientara at the studio and then working with Jason Kingsland and Bill Reynolds with mixing made it all very streamlined and easy. They’ve collectively made so many great albums. So they worked with me and my obsessiveness with my first album and knew how to put me at ease while arriving at a destination that I was comfortable with.
Though on the flipside, the full album was a solo vision in that I made a lot of the final decisions and saw the production from beginning to end. I’ve worked with so many collaborative projects before that left me feeling compromised, I didn’t want my instincts to get steamrolled in this one. Even though I lacked experience, I basically ended up making executive decisions. Creative decisions by committee is definitely not my favorite thing. Since feeling fulfilled getting my vision across with this first album, I would like to work more collaboratively in the future. Help make less decisions and get through the process faster.
How does it feel having this first album done, out and garnering such good responses? Have you begun looking at your next album yet? What’s your game plan for touring? Any major opening spots? Are you enjoying connecting with your newly-grown audience?
It’s been wonderful finishing a big project and putting it out there. I’m a very expulsive person so just getting it out is satisfaction guaranteed. Also, I finally broke a curse of unfinished personal projects so it’s been redeeming. It’s like I’m finally finding my music community, virtually and locally.
Playing music has forced me to get out of my shell and get outside and put myself out there. For me, the best part is meeting people in my local music community who share the same vision and appreciate similar sensibilities, especially since I’ve felt like an outsider on the fringes for so long.
The good responses to the music have done wonders for my confidence and urge to follow my instincts — I’m just trying to harness the energy and direct it towards making more music and putting it out there faster. When I was in the middle of making a decision last year for the album of whether I should compromise something that I instinctually felt, I saw that Robert Christgau gave a good mention for my EP—that gave me a jolt to follow my instincts in the moment.
Since it’s been quite a tumultuous last two years for me, I’d been writing a lot of new songs — it’s like the more personal chaos, the more songs I write. At first, I was going to take my time to recording since releasing No Turn Left Behind, and then since the election happened, I decided to bite the bullet and start recording five new songs at Inner Ear less than two weeks after the election. I’m really excited about how everything is shaping up. This next batch is different, production-wise from the first, more raw and punchy. I think they are just as much me, if not more-so this time around. After I put out the next new songs, I hope to play as much as possible and maybe tour in 2017.
The biggest surprise to me is that I’m learning a lot more about myself. After my separation, I was so distracted with making the first album I didn’t realize some things about myself until afterwards. Everything has been unfolding underneath me, and I finally feel like I’m arriving at a view where I could see a lot more clearly. Some things I learned just thinking about my family and personal history. Other things by just slowing down and trying to break through some personal obstacles— like being an artist in a corporate world and coming from an immigrant family and all the old world expectations in this new world. It’s something I’ve been casually hiding from myself over the last 10 years. It’s a real struggle and is constantly re-surfacing. I don’t want to be in denial nor do I want to just do things based on certain scripts. I’ve been living by other people’s scripts for too long at least since moving to D.C. Now even with the political strain around us, I’m excited to just see where this next road takes me.
I found it striking that you chose to record the album at Inner Ear, which is known predominantly as a D.C. punk/hardcore based studio and the mainstay for almost all Dischord acts. How did you find your way there?
It happened simply because when I went asking around about where I should record, most people from my DC music network suggested I work with Don Zientara. At first, before I met him, it didn’t make sense to me since that wasn’t the sound I was going for, although I did play in punk and garage bands before. I’m DIY as a framework, not necessarily as a sound aesthetic, but decided to give it a try, especially since I had no clue.
I shared some demos with Don over email, and eventually met him at his studio, and I could see our sensibilities aligned really well with some classic folk and rock. He showed me his record collection which was incredible and filled with the sound I was going for. I learned that he recorded drums analog to tape which was important to me and getting a more warm, vintage sound. Much more than anything, it was his demeanor that got me to stay; here’s a DC punk legend who is giving me, a virtual nobody, the time of day. It was all endearing, and I didn’t actually start recording there until 6 months after our initial meeting. Then when I started going there, I knew it was a great personality match. He’s simply a fantastic person, a pleasure to work with.
Don has a way of letting things unfold, very zenlike. It’s like visiting a master who tells koans and has a great sense of humor, or the uncle you want to hang out with. My favorite is when I do a vocal take and he’ll say something like, “that wasn’t very good at all.” It just makes me laugh, mostly because he’s right and doesn’t waste anybody’s time, yet since he’s coming from a good place, it’s doesn’t come across as harsh.
After working with him, I can completely understand exactly why he is a DC legend, he allows music to happen, to unfold, naturally without pushing it anywhere it doesn’t want to go. And he’s an absolute master of his craft. Bonus he has a great sense of humor and can deal with me as an artist.
No Turn Left Behind is available now