By Mark Guarino
Lisa Marie Presley is facing many of the same problems most children of famous people have. Except at age 35, she is also fighting her own history as well.
Up to now, Presley has been a tabloid editor’s dream come true. It wasn’t enough that her father was the ultimate rock royalty and led a life with more twists and turns than a Shakespeare tragedy. On top of that, Presley’s own string of marriages (including becoming Michael Jackson’s wife) and abuse problems helped stock front-page news sections at every turn.
Presley addresses her history with both spite and love in her debut album, “To Whom It May Concern” (Capitol). The level of personal confession took years for Presley to come to grips with and, learning to play the songs live over summer tour stops, it has not become necessarily easier. She is opening dates for Chris Isaak recently (stopping at the House of Blues tonight), slowly developing chops as a singer-songwriter and counting on a career she hopes will last long after the attention surrounding her pedigree dims.
She talked last week about the whirlwind that has been her life since her album was released. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: You’ll be making your Memphis debut tomorrow. Does playing your hometown and the center of Elvis fame make you nervous?
A: I don’t have any apprehension. I think I’ll be quite comfortable. It’ll be nice to get there because I’ve been away for so long … I think Memphis has been really supportive of me … It is where I came from and I feel really connected there and they feel somewhat connected to me. I may be wrong.
Q: When you make a debut record at age 35, how do you look back at your life and decide what it is that you’re going to write about?
A: It was one of those things where I signed a contract and I went in and wrote every week and there were certain ones that stuck out. I kind of go through a purging process when I’m writing and there were certain ones that hung in there for me over the years that I never got sick of that I ended up putting on the record. But it was pretty much anything that was going on that week, that hour, that relationship (laughs) you know, whatever I was pissed off about that was on my mind.
Q: How long a period was this?
A: It was about a five-year period, with different producers and me trying to find my way. I took my time because … I wanted to develop as a writer and a singer and production-wise, so I was working with producers for a long time and it was a potpourri of a lot of people at one point. And mostly through those experiences of working with producers, I found my way.
Q: When the record came out in April, you were everywhere, on every TV show and magazine cover. Which was a surprise because up to this point, you’ve stayed relatively quiet and were sort of an enigma.
A: Each step of the way was the raising of the bar. First, it was having to be willing to talk to the media for the first time in my life, having to be willing to have to answer to your mishaps and all your craziness prior to this. You’re trying to establish yourself as an artist after being in the tabloids for 30 years. So I had to cross that mountain. And then it was having being used to talking on the radio live. Then it was talk shows, then singing live on TV, so it wasn’t like I had any kind of runway in particular. Which was the point of this tour. Every night is different and we learn things differently every night. What I needed to do was this, earlier on.
Q: You wished you got to this sooner?
A: Yeah, I wish I had done a small club tour before. But it would have been hard to do if people were not familiar with the record yet.
Q: How do you suddenly become a performer when you’ve never been onstage?
A: Somehow I ended up diving off the deep end every night, every day with whatever it was, dive. I remember the “Divas” show for VH-1 with Pat Benatar. We were about to go out onstage and I was pacing and she said, “I don’t know how you can do this now — I’ve been doing this since I was five and to start right now, I don’t know how you’re doing it.” And I said, “I don’t know either, can you tell me anything that’ll make me feel better right now before I throw up?” (laughs)
Q: What did it take for you to say to yourself that now is the time?
A: I think probably a second failed marriage and having spent a lot time with my kids and doing other things that I had on my mind. And having it being okay getting attention for the right reasons. And I knew I would have one shot so I couldn’t be flippant or flighty, I’d have to back it up and put the right amount of time and effort into it.
Q: When did it become real?
A: I think not since I signed the contract. The contract signing was to make myself do it. But prior to that, people were saying, “if you’re ready or want to do this, let me know.” I had been writing since I was 22 but I didn’t really want to be out there. I was against all that. I almost had a record deal when I was 24 or 25 and I decided to have another baby. I just wasn’t ready emotionally to take it on.
Q: Billy Corgan helped you push you as a singer and writer, right?
A: Billy and I have been good friends for about five or six years and he was listening to my writing when I started and telling me what he thought, which he has no problem doing! (laughs) And then I said, “I want to write a song with you” and we did. He was the one, basically, who said, “you have a really good voice, you don’t have anything on it, you’re not playing an instrument but you have something, you’re pulling from something, you’re finding these melodies naturally, which is something not a lot of people have and you should focus on that.” So I did and we wrote this song and then we ended up re-recording it. I came to Chicago and finished it, we recorded it, he played all the instruments and it ended up (on the Japan import version).
Q: Why didn’t it make the U.S. album?
A: I didn’t make that call. That was more (Capital president) Andy Slater who had the idea to do that. We needed a second song or two to go overseas and I didn’t have any say so. I definitely wanted it to go out somewhere, I figured it would find its way over here. I figured if people wanted it they could order it over there.
Q: A few of the songs are purely confessional and explore the relationship you had with your father. Was opening up like that part of the process of diving off the deep end and exposing yourself for better or for worse?
A: Yeah, basically. The writing is easy for me. Going out live with it every night is a whole other thing. Because I can be in a zone when I’m writing and it’s cathartic, it’s therapeutic for me, I get a kick out of it and it’s quiet, no one is listening or watching me.
Q: The first single, “Lights Out” spells it out from the get-go: you’re talking about your family being buried at Graceland.
A: The thing is, I was against releasing “Lights Out” as the first single because of that. It just happened the president of the label executive produced it and felt that it would be better to get it out of the way quicker and it was more radio friendly. That was kind of why we went there. But I definitely had a good eight month argument on my side going, “I don’t want it as the first single.” In fact they wanted “Nobody Noticed It” (another song with Elvis overtones) as the second single and I flat-out refused. I didn’t want them back to back, I felt it would have been a huge mistake.
Q: You didn’t want people to think you were capitalizing on your family legacy.
A: Yeah or I needed a song about that to get anywhere and I don’t want to be known as that.
Q: “Nobody Noticed It” is really a heartbreaking song about a daughter missing her father when she was growing up. Is that an example of your songwriting becoming a cathartic experience for you?
A: Definitely. That tested well. It tested really well and really high. But I refused (to make it a single) not because I don’t want it out there but back to back with “Lights Out” would be like, “give me a bloody break people!” and it would look like I can’t talk about anything else but that to get attention.
Q: Now you’re playing these songs live in clubs. Is it comfortable yet?
A: I’m not there just yet. It usually takes me a couple songs. I’m getting more comfortable onstage but it’s taken me this doing it every night no matter what … I’m breaking in, you know, so I don’t like it when people come after me. Because that’s the unfortunate part of it, it’s like I’m not headlining, I’m opening for someone and I’m getting my chops and I don’t want to hear, “she’s too loud she’s this, she’s that.” Go screw yourself, that’s all I can say. I don’t know. I’m trying to get my (expletive) together. So that’s the unfortunate part. I’m under the microscope even though I’m out there trying just to do it and get used to the whole idea and the only way you can that is by doing it.
Q: The entire culture around your father has gotten bigger and weirder since he died. What was your reaction to it changed as you’ve gotten older?
A: I don’t think mine’s ever changed. I don’t think I ever had an issue with it either way. It was just a reality that’s been there my whole life, you know.
Q: You never thought it was strange?
A: Yeah but not in a bad way. I had to get used to that pretty quick.