Interview with Lisa Mills: It’s just a wave of love and appreciation – Photos

Lisa Mills is an incredibly gifted singer, guitarist, and songwriter. Born and raised in Mississippi, she is well grounded in her blues based, soulfully delivered original music.

Lisa grew up in and around Hattiesburg Mississippi, beginning her singing career in the church that her grandparents actually built. Gospel was her first musical love, and still is deeply embedded in her artistic foundation. Her mother loved Elvis, and her father loved Hank Williams Sr. Mix that in with a few Brenda Lee records, Lisa had quite a diverse background to develop her early musical education.

Lisa grew up on gospel and soul and began composing songs before she was old enough to start school. Destined to perform, Lisa poured her heart into writing, singing and playing guitar, gathering strength like the hurricanes that brew in the Gulf of Mexico. Her vocal influences ranged from Etta James to Brenda Lee. A friend who recognized Lisa’s potential sent Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company a copy of Blues and Ballads, her first CD, recorded live in Pascagoula, Mississippi. It was the connection that landed Lisa her first international gig, in Germany, and a three-year tour as BBHC’s lead singer. It was the European connection that led her to meet Ian Jennings and then Robert Plant’s sound engineer Roy Williams, who encouraged her to take her rightful place as a solo artist.

Lisa has been performing summer tours in the U.K., and Europe, since 2001. While primarily performing her own solo tour, where she played such venues as The Glastonbury Festival, U.K., where she received a standing ovation from a crowd of over ten thousand people, the Gloucester Blues Festival, U.K., with Mike Sanchez and his Rhythm Review, along with Andy Fairweather Low, and The Ole Blues Festival, in Bergen Norway. She has also opened for, Dr. John, Delbert McClinton, and Tony Joe White”.

“Lisa’s guitar playing is reassuringly functional, sometimes, surprisingly lyrical, always true to its roots in Southern Soul, blues and gospel. It’s the voice you come to hear, though – moving from a whisper of vulnerability to a harshly defiant rasp, coupled to masterful on-off-mike technique, and with a scary range… add to that real writing skills, and Lisa’s a force to be reckoned with.” – Celf Cambria Arts

I first saw Lisa Mills open the Saturday afternoon session at the 2008 Maryport Blues Festival and was knocked out by her stunning performance. Since then I’ve been a fan, seeing her several times on UK tours. I met up with Lisa again at the 2011 Great British R&B Festival in Colne, Lancashire.

Laura Wulff: What were your first musical memories growing up in Mississippi?

Lisa: Church, and Elvis. Pretty good stuff huh!  Oh, and my Dad of course.  He played a bit of guitar and he sounds like the real honky tonk deal when he sings Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and the old standards like Fraulein, Fraulein.

Laura Wulff: Did you always want to become a musician or singer?

Lisa Mills: I don’t know if it’s what I wanted, but it’s what I’ve always done.  I don’t think I ever chose it, it just sort of happened.     I was singing in church and they’d bring me out when family members were coming over to visit, after church we’d go to my Uncle Shelby’s house and we’d sit around the piano and sing and I’d sing for the other kids in the playground.  It was just always something I did, just happened.

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Laura Wulff: So how did you get started as a musician; how old were you?

Lisa Mills: My first paid gig was when I was in high school.  I got a gig at a local Italian restaurant playing guitar and singing and during that time I was doing a lot of folk tunes, like Anne Murray, One Tin Soldier.  I must have been around 17, right there in Hardy Street, Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Laura Wulff: What first attracted you to blues music?

Lisa Mills: A couple of things really: in college there was a band that I met and they were heavily influenced by the Blues Brothers and they introduced me to the movie.  Growing up I heard plenty of country music because of my mum and my dad and of course gospel but I didn’t have a clue about blues music.  I grew up in south Mississippi and never even heard it.  The only think I knew is that we used to take the bus route past an intersection with a juke joint there and it was painted pink with Christmas lights on it and I knew was that it was a bad place, but that’s all I knew about blues music till I saw the Blues Brothers movie and this band that I met in college covered a lot of that kind of music.  Because of the movie I bought, strangely enough, a Chaka Khan record, but it wasn’t until my late 20s that I heard Etta James for the first time.  I was driving down the main road in Mobile and there was a local radio station that played this song that, at the time I thought was Damn Your Hide.  But you know what, even though I say I wasn’t exposed to blues music till then, I do remember the only time that I really related to songs on popular radio were songs like Misty Blue.  That is actually a Mississippi singer, Dorothy Moore.  Misty Blue and songs like Kiss and Say Goodbye, and Midnight Train to Georgia were the songs that I related to even as a young person without realising what kind of music it was.  It’s that soul, gospel thing that I’ve always loved without knowing what it was.

Laura Wulff: For three years you were lead singer with Big Brother and the Holding Company and, to quote, “making those blues classics made famous by Janis Joplin her own”.  How did that come about?

Lisa Mills: Well, I wouldn’t say that!  But for several years I was playing in a duo out of that Mobile area and we split up personally and professionally and all of a sudden I had to play solo.  I was scared to death and people were always asking me, “Where is he, where is he” and I was having to say, “It’s just me”.  So one of the very first gigs I had as a solo artist where I started feeling accepted and appreciated on my own was this little blues club in Pascagoula, Mississippi called Spices.  The first time I booked there I walked in the door and everybody’s applauding.  It was a real magical place.  The owner of that club was a huge fan of mine and it was his idea to record me live there and to manufacture the CD called Blues & Ballads.  That CD got in the hands of this girl in the local area who is best friends with Sam Andrew’s wife.  So that girl got the CD to Sam Andrew and he started emailing me and getting in touch.  At the time I was divorced, two kids and getting my Bachelor of Fine Arts Sculpture degree.  I was hesitant for those reasons and I didn’t see myself as a Janis Joplin but he kept saying, “You’ll sing a lot of your own stuff, we’ll do the blues” so eventually I said, okay, okay. That’s how I ended up playing with Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Laura Wulff: How did you first meet up with your long-term performing partner Ian Jennings?

Lisa Mills: I met Ian for the first time in London at Sweet Georgia Brown’s studios when our mutual friend arranged for me to come over and record on his album.  Before I got here I hadn’t even heard two of the songs that he had me sing and they were in somebody’s else’s key but that’s where I first met Ian.  Then I came back to London several months later to record a demo we met up again and started doing gigs together and became friends.

Laura Wulff: I’ve got another quote here, “Mills and Jennings, a musical force to be reckoned with”.  How would you describe the musical chemistry you’ve got, as you play so well together?

Lisa Mills: As far as personalities go, it’s a case of opposites attract.  He’s very steady and even tempered and always there with his feet on the ground.  That’s a really good quality for a bass player to have.  On the other hand, I’m all up in the air in every way possible, not just musically but personally.   I feel like he grounds me and makes me feel safe so I can fly about and do my thing.  And for him, it’s fun for him to help me to fly around so we work together that way.  He’s taught me to be a bit more disciplined in some respects and I’ve helped him be a bit more spontaneous and adventurous.  As a bass player in normal situations he’d just play these parts but with us there’s a whole lot of room and he’s learned how to use his bass in a more melodic way.  When you play solo or duo you take on many roles so it’s very rich what happens for the both of us.

Laura Wulff: Who’s influenced you the most in your music writing, playing and singing?

Lisa Mills: On a conscious level the person that most influenced me that I deliberately listened to and still admire and respect is Etta James, coming from that black gospel background in the blues and the song.  Deeper than that is the early records of Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee that my Mom had.  In between there somebody gave me my first Bonnie Raitt album and she’s a role model for me because she spanned all these different kinds of music, blues, pop, rock and she was a red headed white girl who could sing the blues, with freckles!

Laura Wulff: Did you ever meet Dick Waterman [Bonnie Raitt’s long time friend and promoter]?

Lisa Mills: Oh yes, speaking of Bonnie Raitt and the connections, boy, is he a legend!  I saw him recently in Portland at the Waterfront Blues Festival.  When I was preparing to master my first studio album ‘I’m Changing’ Dick and I were in contact via email and I asked him for suggestions about mastering and he recommended a place in Oxford, Mississippi, so I ended up staying up there with him to get that done.  It was a real honour and, boy, he’s a walking encyclopaedia.

Laura Wulff: Looking back at your career so far, what are your fondest memories?

Lisa Mills: That’s like asking which of my kids is the favourite – that is so hard and there are so many of them.  Perhaps the time I met Ian, that was a special moment, but there are so many of them.

Laura Wulff: What about particular songs, are there any that have special meaning to you?

Lisa Mills: Yes, always, and there are many of them.  But I thought you were going to ask which of my special songs do I never ever get tired of singing so I’ll give you my honest first thoughts and the first one is Warm and Tender Love by Percy Sledge.  It’s such an intimate expression of love and feeling and it is the kind of melody and song that gives a singer a lot of room to express themselves.

Laura Wulff: Between songs you tell tales of southern life and, to quote, ‘pistol-packin’ grannies, trailers and all’, a born entertainer’.  Do you think artists generally need to be more communicative with their audience?

Lisa Mills: Okay, I think there are two ways to look at this, and I’ll give you an example.  There’s a venue in Mobile that I’ve played before and the owner of the venue was dating one of my good friends.  From his perspective he doesn’t like to hear a lot of talking in between the songs.  From her perspective, that’s the best part of the show.  So I guess it depends on the audience member if they like that or appreciate it.  For me, it’s another way of connecting with the audience and sharing something of yourself.  I personally think it’s important.  I like to be elegant but I could never be glamorous and I could never be that slick musically where it’s all, bam, bam, you know one song after another; I like the organic quality.  For me, live performance is about being in that moment, with those people with that energy in that time and space where you are.  The most beautiful thing that can ever happen is when they all come together and it works.  Then it’s magic, just magic but you can’t force it on the moment you have to accept it and go with it.  Sometimes when you are with an audience that’s not giving you a lot back, you just got to go with it.  I always tell people, “If you weren’t here I could just stay home and sing in the shower and that’s not very much fun”.   It’s like life, it’s different every time even though it’s the same and that’s the beauty and magic of being fully alive.

Lisa Mills | Spotify

Laura Wulff: I read in a review that one of your songs was written in Kidderminster with Ian, close to the residence of a Mr Robert Plant.  Are we likely to see a collaboration in the Krauss/Plant vein?

Lisa Mills: I think you’d better ask him that.  I’m not cheeky enough to ask him but if he ever asked me then yes, I’d do it.  I have a lot of respect for him.  An amazing artist.

Laura Wulff: How healthy do you think the music scene is in the UK and Europe compared to the US?

Lisa Mills: I wouldn’t dream of presuming to be able to say!  But I have noticed in the last year or so that I have seen a lot of festivals close down, music stores closing and it seems to be a little tougher for musicians to get gigs and for audience members to be able to play to go to the gigs.  Based on those anecdotal evidences it looks like there’s something going on here in relation to the economy as a whole.  For me personally, playing local gigs in my area I’m doing really well and I’m staying really busy.  So, back home I’m doing good but over here my friends are telling me that things are kind of tough.

Laura Wulff: Tell me about the making of your latest album, Tempered in Fire co-produced with Ian Jennings.

Lisa Mills: It was a good thing the title was Tempered in Fire because we were covered in snow from the moment we arrived in Kent.  In fact Andy Fairweather Low had to drive up from Cardiff and he barely made it.  We rented an oast house close to the studio and the engineer had to meet us in a four wheel drive to get us there.  Earlier you asked me about memories and I have to tell you that being with those guys and making that album was one real big happy memory.  We were all eating and living together for 10 days and I was doing home-cooked meals every day. Everybody was together like “the band”.  Andy Fairweather Low is one of very favourite guitar players, ever, and it was a dream come true to have him play on the album.  He is just as much a gentleman as he is a fantastic player. It was a great experience.

Laura Wulff: How do you see the future of blues music?

Lisa Mills: Oh God – you know I’m not qualified to answer that question!  I think I did an interview with the Telegraph and they asked a similar question so I’ve had time to think about it.  The way I see it, if you look at architecture and art and music as the things that last and people still treasure and will continue to treasure for ever, blues is one of those forms of music that I think people will always treasure and admire.  It seems to me it goes in cycles and then it gets rediscovered.  It’s in an endless cycle of rediscovery and there’s always going to be a segment of society that holds true to it and nourishes it and it’ll upswing again.  When it’s good, it’s good.  I don’t think it’s ever gone anywhere and I don’t think its ever going away and it’s just a wave of love and appreciation.  It’s timeless, it’s about human emotion, it’s the good stuff man, the good stuff!

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