Whether they’re from Northbrook or Downers Grove, bands usually give the more recognizable city of Chicago as their hometown. Not Lissie, born Elisabeth Maurus. The 28-year-old folk-rocker, who returns in August to play Lollapalooza, proudly counts her small town of Rock Island as one of the key influences on her musical career.
“Growing up in Rock Island somehow worked in my favor since there weren’t a whole lot of things for me to do,” says Lissie, of the Quad Cities town located on the Mississippi River.
“It gave me a really determined and independent spirit. When I was seven, I would walk to the park by myself with my tape recorder, and I’d sit on the slide and write songs. I had a lot of freedom and space that allowed me to wonder and see the world in my own way.”
At nine, she auditioned for and landed the lead role in a local dinner theatre production of Annie. After 80 consecutive performances and a few years of intensive vocal training, Lissie was primed for high-school choir. It was here, though, that her once-girlish wonder took a sharp turn as conflicts with an educator spurred the singer to commit an offense she no longer cares to elaborate on (she told London’s Daily Mail that she spit at a teacher). The act was followed by a suspension from school and eventual separation from the Midwest as she moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, for college and later to Los Angeles.
In California and Nashville, she recorded her debut album, last year’s dramatic effort Catching a Tiger. The album title could pay homage to the wild side she forged many years ago in her Midwestern backyard, but Lissie admits the true inspiration is a long-winded “bad romance”—fitting, considering her wildly popular acoustic cover of the Lady Gaga tune became a YouTube sensation in early 2010. Since then, Lissie, one of VH1’s latest You Oughta Know artists, has recorded other unusual covers (Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness”) and introduced audiences to her original material.
When she’s not touring, Lissie returns to her current home: tiny Ojai, California, population 8,000. “Here I am more tied to my roots,” she says. “There’s space and a backyard to play in. I go to the farmers’ market and cook. I have friends over and sit and look at the stars and drink wine. And for me, I don’t really need a lot more in life than that.”
GO Lissie plays Lollapalooza in Grant Park on August 7 at 3:30 p.m.; for info, lollapalooza.com.
Photograph: Valerie Phillips