Following an extensive summer European touring schedule, US based blues chanteuse Lisa Mills will be making an eagerly anticipated return to the Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival in Colne this summer.
Lisa’s latest album Mama’s Juke Book is her most personal project to date. The record features a collection of classic songs interpreted and reimagined by Mills in her own unique way. However, these songs have a deep and profound significance to Lisa in that she found the lyrics to these numbers in a tattered notebook belonging to her mother, years after her passing.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Lisa Mills to talk about her forthcoming Colne appearance, her introduction to the Blues and her musical heritage, the story behind her guitar “Evangeline” as well as her plans for the rest of this year.
NRR: Thank you for taking the time to have a chat with us today, we really appreciate it.
Lisa: I’m glad to be asked.
NRR: I know that you’ve been out on the road across Europe over the last few weeks and you’ve been performing all over the UK, sometimes you’ve even been doing two shows in one day. I was just wondering how have the shows been going so far?
Lisa: Overall wonderful, it’s the best ever, just really great shows this tour and wonderful responses. I’m really, really happy with the way it’s all going. Yeah, it’s wonderful.
NRR: It almost feels like the UK is becoming a bit of a home away from home for you over here. It seems like we’ve pretty much adopted you.
Lisa: (laughing) I know.
NRR: Every time I see a festival lineup, it’s like oh Lisa is on that one as well.
Lisa: Whilst eating breakfast yesterday morning with my friends here, I said can you pass me a tomato please (spoken in a British accent). My friend looked at me and said do you realise that you just said tomato, a girl from south Mississippi said tomato (laughing). Yeah, it’s definitely a home away from home and I have so many dear friends over in this part of the world, so it’s wonderful.
NRR: Do you have anything, in particular, a favourite thing about our little island that you miss when you go back home? Because I know whenever I go to the States it’s the food for me, I always miss US food – there are certain things that I like out there that I can’t get over here and it kills me.
Lisa: Yeah, like fried catfish (laughing).
NRR: I really like sausage gravy and biscuits, which I can’t get over here.
Lisa: Have you ever had biscuits with tomato gravy?
Lisa: You’ve gotta try that next time. Food wise, I miss good fish and chips, and good Indian curry with poppadoms – you know proper poppadoms with all of the stuff that goes on it. I miss on a Sunday roast – parsnips, we don’t get parsnips at home, that’s a special thing for me. The Yorkshire puddings, I love Yorkshire puddings. So those are some of the foods that I miss.
Honestly, at this point, believe it or not, sometimes I miss the weather here (laughing). Because right now back in Mobile, Alabama where I live, it’s been raining and storming all week long and it’s up in the 90s. So yesterday here in Wales was an absolutely perfectly sunny, gorgeous day with just a hint of a breeze. So yeah, oddly enough I’ve come to miss some things about the weather and the food here (laughing).
NRR: If you miss our weather then you are definitely an honorary Brit.
NRR: Being a Mississippi native, that area has got a very strong blues heritage. I was just wondering what was your first introduction to blues music?
Lisa: Most people think that since I’m from the South, especially South Mississippi that I must have grown up listening to the blues and vibing on the blues and it’s not the case with me. My musical heritage stretches back to singing at our little family church back in South Mississippi, which now that when I reflect on it, the way that we sang was very upright, very I guess Apalacian almost .. (Lisa sings) ‘And we’ll have a little talk with Jesus and we’ll tell him all about our troubles …’. You know Calvinistic even, I don’t know.
Then there was the music that my parents listened to, which was mostly country based. My dad was listening to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and The Louvin Brothers and things like that. My mom had a variety of people she listened to focussing on – she loved Charlie Rich, she absolutely loved Charlie Rich, and there was some Loretta Lynn, things like that. But I think the key for me was even though I didn’t hear the blues per se, there was Elvis. Elvis was my mom’s favourite ever, and she had all of these records, so without my realising, second-hand ways, I got exposed to Blues and Black Gospel through Elvis Presley.
It wasn’t until I was in High School or College that I saw the Blues Brothers movie and that introduced me to people like Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan. Then I was also hearing on the radio back then soul music through people like Dorothy Moore, who is from Jackson Mississippi, who had the big hit with “Misty Blue”. I immediately connected with that kind of music and of course Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia”. I liked that kind of music that was on the radio and I never really enjoyed so much the other kinds of popular music growing up.
It really wasn’t until much later when I was playing professionally that a musical friend of mine gave me a recording of Elmore James and taught me my first blues lick. Not long after that discovering Etta James through her album Seven Year Itch.
So those are all of the pieces that come together you know, the Gospel, the Soul, the Americana and then, of course, I couldn’t help but be influenced by Southern Rock too in a way. I very much remember how much “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Keep On Smiling” and things like that, Wet Willie, things like that were happening around that time too. I’ve had a different musical journey in that way, so the roots of everything I guess go back to Elvis and Country Folk music early on.
There was one record in my mom’s collection that I listened to over and over again as a singer and listening to the way this person sang and oddly enough it was Brenda Lee, I think the album was called Johnny One Time, that made a huge impression on me as a young girl growing up in South Mississippi. Oh and let’s not forget, Jeannie C. Reilly and Harper Valley P.T.A … (Lisa bursts into song).
Don’t forget CCR, my cousins from Mississippi, who were in High School at the time were huge fans of Creedence Clearwater.
It’s almost like the idea of gumbo, just throw it all in the pot, or even just the idea of being American and having so many different things all coming together in your background. I guess I like to call what I do American Southern Roots Music, it’s just a little bit of all of those things.
NRR: That’s a perfect description for it.
Lisa: I was not influenced by classical (laughing).
NRR: I know your mom was your biggest fan, and I read that she said in the beginning that she thought that you had a little bit of something in your voice that sounded like Elvis. Have you always known that being a musician was your chosen path?
Lisa: You know for the longest time I’ve always thought that I didn’t choose music it chose me. I feel like that I just sort of fell into it, like I couldn’t help but do what I do. Along with music for most of my life, I’ve had equal love for art. I got my degree in fine art sculpture years ago, and so that’s always been pretty much on the same path, art and music.
But it wasn’t until a few years ago after running into one of my High School best friends, her brother ended up being a musical director or something in High School and he’s in Mobile. So we ran into each other and he told me the story of how he recalls in High School that I came up to him and I played him part of a song and I told him hey, this is all I know right now but one day I’m going to do this for a living. So apparently, I had ambition and I didn’t even remember (laughing).
But, then you’ve got to go way back to early, early days and I was playing with my Barbie dolls and my brother was playing with his Tonka toys. I would always be the singer, the rock star with my Barbie dolls (laughing). I would be brought out to sing for the family and visitors and singing for other kids in school, I guess I just couldn’t help it, I just had to do it.
NRR: On your latest album Mama’s Juke Book, you’ve revisited and reworked tracks which are precious to yourself and your mother. I was just wondering have you ever thought that you would like to hear one of your songs interpreted and performed by another artist?
Lisa: Yeah, the answer to that and I will tell you right away immediately what came to mind is, an American artist who was touring over here a while back Kyshona Armstrong; she’s an amazing singer/songwriter. She sent me a clip of a video on a text from the tour because she saw this fella in the West Midlands playing one of my songs on stage. Not only was he playing one of my songs on stage, he made an announcement from the stage telling people that he was planning to record it soon. So somewhere out in the universe, there is an artist who is now recording one of my songs for his album, I think it’s “The Truth” that he was doing.
Also, the second thing that came to mind is years ago when I first did my album I’m Changing, the original version, there was an artist in the area who was inside this club when I walked in and she was playing “I’m Changing” on the piano. So that’s cool.
Then there’s a friend of mine in Wolverhampton, whose son is a rap artist and he wanted to use “Shake It” for one of his songs.
Then when I wrote “I Don’t Want To Be Happy I Just Want To Be With You” I remember thinking, I would love to hear Lucinda Williams do this, I think it sounds like Lucinda, I would love to hear her do my song. So I hope that answers your question (laughing).
NRR: Obviously, you’ve been performing at some festivals and you’ve got the Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival coming up in Colne at the end of the month. You are going to be performing at the festival and you are also going to be MCing one of the shows.
Lisa: That’s a first for me.
NRR: I think the show you are doing features Kaz Hawkins and Jo Harman, and Janiva Magness. There are obviously hundreds of artists performing over that weekend, will you go out and see some of the bands play yourself or is there anyone in particular that you would like to see perform?
Lisa: Oh gosh, I’ve been so immersed in the touring that I haven’t really thought much about that, except that I was thrilled to know that I could see Kaz Hawkins again. I met her on the last tour when we both played at the London Bluesfest on the BB King stage. She’s just a lovely, lovely person and I think she’s got a lot of courage and a lot of talent. So in particular, because we met recently and everything I thought wow it would be great to see Kaz again.
I’m a big fan of Jo’s, we just crossed paths the other day, her dressing room was right next to mine at The Sage. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay and we were both playing the Devizes Festival and unfortunately, I had to leave right away and didn’t get to see her. We have a lot of connections both personal and professional.
Janiva I’ve only met once and I’m her really excited about seeing her again. So I guess it’s all about girl power right now (laughing). Joanne Shaw Taylor, I’ve been hearing about forever, I would love to see her.
When you are a performing artist one of the challenges and the rare treat is actually being in a place at the same time with other musicians and artists that you can actually interact, that’s a real treat and have a night off. Because when I played the Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival the first time, which was many many years ago, I had a night off, I think the night before and oh my god I got to see Mavis Staples for the first time, that was life altering and I got to see one of my favourites James Hunter, I love James Hunter.
NRR: You mentioned BB King there and obviously a lot of great blues artists including both BB King and Albert King they have named their guitars, you’ve got “Lucille” and “Lucy”. I know that you’ve named your guitar “Evangeline”.
Lisa: That’s great that you remember.
NRR: I just wondered what’s the story behind the guitar, how long have you had it and can you tell us a little bit about it?
Lisa: OK, I think the first time I named a guitar just to go back a little bit, was the one I bought for myself early in 1982 in Harrisburg in a little music store, that I still have – it’s a Takamine Acoustic, I called her Betsy. I’m pretty sure I named her Betsy because my mom always named her cars Betsy. When they wouldn’t start she would be banging on it, going come on Betsy, come on. So that was the first guitar I ever named.
Several years ago I was gifted a 1947 Epiphone and that’s when I started naming guitars again and I named her Josephine. I think I must have named her Josephine because when I took Spanish in High School for three years, my Spanish name was Josephina (laughing). So I guess it all kind of came together, so her name was Josephine.
So when I got this guitar from a friend as a gift, because his idea was he knew how fragile Josephine was being a vintage instrument, he wanted to make sure she was protected. So God bless him, he bought me this more modern version of Josephine and a Luthier friend back in the Mobile area put some kind of vintage Gibson pick ups in her, I gave her the name Evangeline. Because Evangeline and Josephine kind of go together.
In the mean time, stretching back to the London Bluesfest with Kaz Hawkins, the whole thing, BB King! There was a man in the audience at that show who at the stage afterwards wanted to buy a CD. He was just really, really loving the music and everything – I thought that was wonderful. When I got back home to the States, I got an e-mail from him by way of Movinmusic, saying he was looking for me and how much he loved the show, lots of praise blah blah blah, we’ve been pen pals ever since. He and his wife were supposed to come to the London show, unfortunately, his mom had passed away and he couldn’t make it.
In the meantime, this man made me a cover plate for Evangeline, that he made that has her name on it and he sent it to the gig by the way of his friend who came to the show. Today Adam, here in Wales when my friend was repairing the pickguard on Evangeline with some thousand-year-old special yew tree wood we put the new Evangeline plate on my guitar. So I think it’s wonderful that you asked me that question (laughing).
This man, his name is Chas and his wife Chris are coming to my show at the 100 Club on August 29th and so I will be able to thank him in person. Isn’t that wonderful how music connects people? As it turns out he’s a musician himself, and his son owns a studio in London and does sessions with all kinds of really cool people.
NRR: You’ve got a really great voice, and you’ve got such a powerful range. I was just wondering how do you go about keeping your voice in shape?
Lisa: That’s easy, most of it is prevention. The key elements for any kind of healthy singing is to make sure you get plenty of water ahead of time. The water you drink now doesn’t help you until three hours from now, so you’ve got to think ahead – water, got to have lots of water.
Just staying healthy overall, supplements, exercise, sleep. Oh, I forget, sleep and water are the two things. You’ve got to have sleep and water, that’s what I would say.
Of course, if you really want to go there, you should do vocal exercises and stretches and things to get going. But yeah, hard learned lessons right there.
NRR: I was just wondering do you have a particular favourite song to perform live and if so which song and why? I noticed the other day, I caught a glimpse of your set list before you started playing and I noticed it wasn’t in any particular order …
Lisa: I would say there are a collection of favourite songs that are timeless to me that I never get tired of singing and there’s always something new to discover. There are those songs in my repertoire, and you are right as a rule playing solo I don’t usually have things in such order. I like to be able to respond to the moment and to the people and to the energy in the audience. I think it’s exciting to not to know too much about what you are going to perform.
You know Ian Jennings, my buddy who used to play with me for a long, long time – he told me the story of recording with Van Morrison, he’s done two albums with him. He said the way that Van does it is he assembles the musicians and doesn’t give them the songs until they are in the studio because he wants it fresh. He only goes it maybe two or three times, he doesn’t want to overwork it. But I think in that way, I like to keep it fresh.
But if you want to know particular songs, even though I haven’t done it in a while, I’ve always enjoyed doing “Warm And Tender Love” by Percy Sledge and “Long As I Can See The Light” by CCR is very special to me. Mostly doing my own material is that way too, even if it’s songs I’ve been doing for years and years and years.
It’s always thrilling to do a new song and most recently since the last tour a song that’s become very precious to me is “Sending Me Angels” and it was Marcia Ball who suggested I learn it and I know it by way of Delbert McClinton – that song has just really touched me and I never get tired of singing it.
I think songs that have simplicity and have lots of room for emotion and making it your own, those are the songs that stay with you. I particularly like songs that you can sing without the music.
I have a theory, that’s why I think a song like “Amazing Grace” has lasted hundreds and hundreds of years and transcends cultures and time and space because it’s just so true and so simple.
NRR: In terms of your own taste in music, and your own record collection, do you have one album that you couldn’t live without?
Lisa: Well, first of all, I don’t listen to records per se, I don’t have a record player and most recently I’ve discovered that I haven’t really played CDs much anymore. What I’ve fallen in love with in the last several months is Spotify – it’s like a little treasure chest of hidden gems. I’ll put in one song that I like and then the next thing there’s a whole bunch of these artists that I’ve never heard of before. For instance, I’ve got a playlist that I created in Spotify that I called Soul Singer, and I created another one called Blues Singer and another one called Jazz Singer. What I learnt most about myself was that most of the songs that I love are in the Soul Singer category.
Soloman Burke, even though I don’t do any Soloman Burke songs, I have so many of his songs in my playlist that I go wow. So I’m all of a sudden discovering new music that way, which is old music really because it seems I prefer old music.
So one album I couldn’t live without, I don’t think I could say an album per se, I don’t think I could live without Black Gospel and Soul. That’s what touches me and before I got Spotify and I was listening actively to CDs, Bobby Blue Bland and Freddie King and Etta James, I couldn’t live without them (laughing). Of course, if I sat here I would start thinking of more, but yeah.
NRR: What else have you got in store for the rest of this year?
Lisa: I’ve got to make it through the rest of this tour. I’m literally going to be gone through till the middle of September and then I get back home and start working right away. For the first time ever I’m playing up in Michigan at an arts centre and a private house concert there, which I’m really excited about.
There’s a possibility I may come back to Europe for a brief jaunt in October and I know that I’m doing bunches of dates in Europe during January/February with some band shows.
So I think what’s happening right now is I’ve got some management help over in Europe and what we are focussing on is the many facets of what I do. That’s why most recently I had this amazing opportunity to sing Gershwin in front of a full symphony orchestra – which is a brand new side of my musical self. But it makes sense because my favourite movies and things are from that era and that music and I love Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and things like that, and the classic American songbook. There are things in the works right now to see if I can sing for the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, that would be a long term goal next year.
I’ve got some musicians over in Europe that I’m working with – stripped down with just a piano and there’s a rhythm section out of Berlin, there’s a full band out of Switzerland. Moving forward to do more of a variety of what I do musically, exploring not only genres but all the way up to a full band with horns and things, that’s sort of where it’s all headed.
I’m also in talks with a fantastic Nashville producer about my next album which will focus on my American Southern roots, so there are lots of things going on (laughing).
NRR: It sounds like you are fully booked until some time next year.
Lisa: Yeah, Movinmusic has already put together dates for me in July/August/September of next year and so moving on man, moving on.
NRR: That all sounds great, and thank you once again for taking the time to speak to us we really appreciate it.
Lisa: It’s a real pleasure.
Lisa Mills will be performing at the Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival in Colne at The Muni on Sunday 27th August, as well as MCing the evening show on Saturday 26th featuring Jo Harman, Kaz Hawkins and the seven times Blues Music Award winning headliner Janiva Magness.
Over the course of three days, in excess of 100 acts will perform across the twelve official venues at this year’s Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival in Colne. Tickets are proving HUGELY popular, so make sure you don’t miss out and get your tickets in advance via the official Blues Festival website.
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