Elvis' child comes home to debut her new album
LOS ANGELES -- Sinking her petite frame into a large, white, leather couch, Lisa Marie Presley peers out through familiar eyes, the sleepy half-slits of her famous father, and ponders the weight of her name.
"You know, there's no manual, no book written on how to deal with all this," says the only child of Elvis Presley.
Presley has come here, to her manager's penthouse offices high above the Sunset Strip, ostensibly to talk about the release of her latest album, and first in seven years, Storm & Grace. But the 44-year-old seems preoccupied with the past, intent on clearing up the lingering misconceptions about her earlier musical forays, and explaining her long absence from the studio.
"There was nonstop turmoil in my life; there was a lot of anger," says Presley. "I was always fighting and not thinking: What are you about? What are you actually trying to do in making this music?"
Presley says her first two records were, in essence, reactive affairs. "Thing is, I knew what was expected of me, and that was scary. So I made music that was really loud and not what anybody expected at all. I was trying to rebel and in the end always shooting myself in the foot."
Storm & Grace is less a rebellion than a homecoming: a sumptuous album of country-soul, blues, and roots oriented songs that confirm her Southern lineage.
As if to underscore that point, this week Presley returns to Memphis to launch the LP. Today, she will enter Sun Studio, the scene of her father's first triumphs, to tape a TV performance for "Good Morning America"; Monday, she will return to Sun for a public CD release event, where she will sign copies of her new album.
Though she'd been pushed and prodded to take up her father's mantle ever since she was a teenager, Presley steadfastly resisted for 20 years. It wasn't until 2003, and the age of 35, that she released the first of two solo albums, To Whom It May Concern and Now What.
Though they were regarded partly as cultural curiosities, critics and fans responded favorably to what were solid, if heavily labored over, mainstream pop-rock platters. Both albums eventually sold a million copies each worldwide and earned Presley notice for something beyond her early-'90s tabloid marriage to Michael Jackson and her long relationship with the Church of Scientology.
But, behind the scenes, things were not too positive. "I had such a horrible experience on the first two records, because of the people surrounding me personally and the people surrounding me in the last situation I was label-wise," says Presley, who endured a fraught relationship with her record company Capitol, as well as a brief marriage to actor Nicolas Cage, during the period.
"For one thing, I was never a pop artist; that was always wrong," she says. "I mean, I love those songs, I wrote them -- but I was hiding behind a lot of production, because it was safe and I was scared."
Her solo albums did have one positive result: She married her touring band leader Michael Lockwood in 2006. Presley and Lockwood welcomed twin daughters Harper and Finley in 2008 (she also has two grown children from her first marriage, actress/model Riley Keough and musician Benjamin Keough).
Despite her domestic bliss, by 2009 Presley was done musically. "I was tapped out. I felt uninspired," she says. "I felt I still had it in me. I am a singer, I am a songwriter, and I still love music. But I needed to start everything from ground zero; people, music, life, everything. It was a huge whitewash."
Signing on with British music manager/impresario Simon Fuller -- the creator of the "Pop Idol"/"American Idol" franchise, whose company bought a majority interest in Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2005 -- Presley decamped to England, where she began collaborating with a wide range of songwriters, including critically acclaimed tunesmiths like Richard Hawley and Ed Harcourt.
The pivotal moment came with the creation of the song "Weary." Co-written with roots maven Hawley, the track signaled a newly spare and soulful direction for Presley's music. "I felt like it was a breakthrough moment," says Presley, who ended up co-writing 30 songs in eight months while in the U.K.
In order to bring a record to fruition, however, Presley would need help; she found it in the lanky figure of T Bone Burnett. The 12-time Grammy- and Academy Award-winning producer was given a copy of Presley's songwriting demos. "And the songs were very down and soulful. That caught me by surprise," says Burnett.
What drew Burnett's interest most though was Presley's voice. "There was an honesty to her singing," says Burnett. "These days, very often you hear people doing lots of licks and melisma and trying to be 'singers,' but singing is really about storytelling; all art is storytelling, really. And she was telling a story like crazy."
Working with Burnett and his crack unit of Los Angeles-based musicians, Presley and the band settled into The Village Recorder studios last January and cut 16 songs in 12 days. "It was all built on the (studio) floor," says Presley of the album. "All done live, with no bells or whistles."
For Burnett, already experienced in working with second generation artists -- he helped Bob Dylan's son Jakob achieve multi-platinum success with his group The Wallflowers -- the weight of expectations, of living up to the Presley name, was of little concern. "I just chose to ignore that part of it completely and stay with the reality that was happening right in the room," he says.
The resulting Storm & Grace presents a new vision of Presley as an artist. Gone are the hard rock pretensions and faux punk attitude; in its place is a poetic lyrical economy and a moody, almost gothic brand of Southern roots music.
"Well, I am from the South. And when I was allowed to be left alone to create, this is what came right out of my soul," says Presley. "There was nothing planned about it. It's just ironic that these songs happened in England with all English people."
In a way, stripping the artifice from her sound and gaining associations with credible collaborators like Hawley and Burnett should help Presley be taken more seriously as an artist rather than a rock legacy novelty, though she believes that it will be hard for her music to ever be judged fairly.
"In my situation, people are either gunning for you or rooting for you, really dramatically. They think, 'Oh, you've got a silver spoon, you're born into this, and it's all because of your father,'" says Presley. "But if you get a door opened, it's up to you to walk through it, and through to the next door and the next door."
Today, as she stands in her father's proverbial footsteps at Sun, there seems to be a deeper connection between daughter and father. For Presley, Elvis isn't some abstract figure, the commercialized icon that Memphians see daily, but a real person with frailties, a man who loved her deeply and left too soon.
"When I first went out publicly as an artist I was very guarded about my father," she says. "I really didn't want people thinking because I have a record out that I'm going to sell out my family -- talk about him or talk about other people. I was being protective.
"Also, I didn't want to be compared, didn't want to seem like I'm riding his coattails. That was a struggle. I had to figure all that out in front of everybody, which I don't think I handled very well. At this point, there's no question that I'm incredibly proud of his music, as well as my own music. So I'm much more comfortable with all that."
Finally at peace with her life, art and musical legacy, Presley is content to do the one thing she was never really sure of; carry on the family business.
"I would love to keep making records. I don't want to stop," she says. "I'm glad I'm doing it again, because I feel like this is the right time and this is the right music. And, in the end, this is who I am."