The celebrated vocalist Lisa Fischer isn't sure just what she'll sing when she steps onto the outdoor stage at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Her rare performance will precede a showing of 20 Feet from Stardom, the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary that lent a needed spotlight to backup singers, like Fischer, who added heavenly harmonies to hundreds of rock, pop and R&B hits but were shunned by a rapacious music business and harsh gender and race politics.
After years of performing according to the specifications of others, Fischer cherishes her current status as someone who can get up and sing what she likes.
"I'm just trying my best," she says, "to not try to reach to be who I was, but be who I am now. For me, it is a really interesting journey."
Fischer's singing career has been one of continual evolution, from celebrated backup singer to Grammy-winning solo artist to sought-after collaborator with high-caliber artists, including Luther Vandross, Sting and the Rolling Stones. Her most recent trip to Raleigh came just last year, when she added her voice to the reconvened Nine Inch Nails. Thanks in part to the success of 20 Feet, the extraordinary gifts of Fischer have become public knowledge—about time, too.
INDY: You've said that you knew you loved to sing early in life. Do you think musical talent can be nurtured in those who don't necessarily show a gift?
LISA FISCHER: It can come at any time. In the beginning stages, it was just a love within me, but I had no idea if I was any good. To be honest, I was awful. I was a kid, so the only thing I can go by is what was mirrored back at me. People would say you sound like a stray cat or you're making too much noise. I hear the voice that's inside of my head, but it's hard for me to judge it.
In your daily life, are you always singing a song, even in your head?
I am. I don't even think about it, but people will call me on it when I'm at dinner. If I'm out with friends and the food comes and it's so absolutely delicious, I'll hum a little ditty. Sometimes I'll hear little melodies in my head, and instead of just wanting to hear it in my head, I'll want to hear what it sounds like. It's almost like looking at a pair of shoes and saying, "Hey, those are cute. Can I try those on?"
For you, how important are lyrics?
Did you ever listen to kids when they're singing songs and sometimes they just make them up and it makes no sense at all? It's just enjoyment. What always spoke to me was the way someone weaves their magic when they sang a melody—that's what spoke to me the loudest, not necessarily the lyrics. I would hear bits and pieces of the lyrics, but it was the energy. The vocal melody tells me the emotion. The words are just a vehicle. It's not necessarily the smoothness or the roughness of the ride.
You had solo success, but you opted not to stay in the spotlight. Why?
I never felt like I was an artist. I always felt like I'm just a singer. I'm not a classic artist in terms of what I see most artists showcasing. They have an idea of what it is they want to do. I really had a blank palette. You have to be a little bit blank, so they can pour the paint on you. You enhance their vision. I wasn't sure of myself.
You toured with Nine Inch Nails last year, which seems like a major about-face for you, stylistically. How do you find the beauty in music that is often caustic and abrasive?
The first thing I heard from Trent Reznor was his speaking voice, because I spoke to him on the phone. I didn't know Trent Reznor's name, really, and I hadn't heard any of the music, so the voice that spoke to me was just so pure—masculine and calm and inquisitive and intelligent and open. He was kind, and he was patient. He explained what he wanted, what he envisioned. And I explained to him that I didn't even know the music, and he said that's probably a good thing. We laughed.
When I listened, I felt like I was taken to another universe. I heard the angst. I heard the wonderment. I heard the sheer emotion, the experimentation. All of that really intrigued me. And I thought to myself, "I can't wait to see what I can bring to him now." It was beautiful for me to just add to the energy he's already put out. There's something beautiful about releasing that; it's beautiful to watch. The Fourth of July is one of my favorite days because the energy it takes to make that beauty is something very intense. For me, that's what his energy is about: It's like releasing the yin and the yang of everything that a person is. What's beautiful about him is watching the audience release this energy. I realized what he does is a healing art.
Was that a different feeling than a Stones show?
It's a different head. Each artist, each person has a different energy. Almost like the difference between cayenne pepper and jalapeño: It's all hot.
Merry Clayton's solo in "Gimme Shelter" embodies 20 Feet from Stardom, in how she was summoned in her curlers in the middle of the night to do her solo. There was so little forethought. Is that a special moment for you when you know you're going to do "Gimme Shelter" with the Stones?
I get chills every time I sing it. I'm really sensitive to energy—the color of the music when Keith is playing, the vibration and the harmonies, all the mass. It resonates a certain kind of feeling, a tingling through my body, and people don't realize what it is. It's amazing to be able to share that with so many people in one space. I always carry the memory of what Merry has brought to that every time I sing it. I never, ever feel fit to hold a candle to her.
Music is less a depiction of the natural world than its own world. For many people it's a religion. How much of a spiritual element is there to what you do?
Music, for me, is this eternal river. It is a spiritual thing. It is the past, present and future. It is a healer. It is the thread that binds us. It can be the knife that divides us. It's the air. It's everything, in my mind. When I think of the word spirit, I think of the life force, of the energy, of everything that we have made on this planet, the good and the bad. It is all energy to me. It is to me the complete H2O—you can look at each element as a separate thing, but together it is complete. I know that sounds insane! [laughs] It transforms you, it makes you move, it makes you flow, it makes you know you're alive, one way or the other.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The high notes."