As her debut album, "To
Whom It May Concern," arrives in stores today, Lisa Marie Presley proves
she's inherited more than her father's famously brooding visage.
If not quite the equal of Elvis' timeless growl, Lisa Marie's voice is a
strong, bold instrument that is well deserving of a career in pop music.
Presley is getting a late start as a singer at age 35, but she explains
her longtime reluctance to appear in the spotlight by invoking the
incredible pressures and expectations that come with being her father's
daughter. Even now, the press is paying more attention to her personal life
than to her music.
In the cover story of the current Rolling Stone, Presley patiently deals
with all of the gossip: her bout with drugs (it was short, she was young and
it's over); her marriage to Michael Jackson (also short, also over and
something she now describes as a result of being manipulated by Jackson's
charming ways); her third marriage, to actor Nicolas Cage (another
failure--it was true love, but they just couldn't live together), and her
religion (Scientology is not a cult, she maintains, but something that helps
her center herself).
During a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles, I was more
interested in talking about Presley's music. (Readers can always get the
Q. You've always resisted baring your soul in public, yet you
don't hold anything back in the lyrics on this album. You had to have had
some trepidations about that.
A. Not really, only because that whole process for me was to purge
everything. It's coming from my gut, so I can't think like that--like, "I
can't say this" or "I can't do that." I don't respond to music where people
are not doing that, so I'm not going to write music where I'm not doing
Q. There's so much artifice in pop music today. Is that
something you wanted to avoid?
A. Yeah. I definitely sensed that I was not going to work with
anybody that was ever going to push me in any weird pop direction or cheese
direction or something that people were expecting. I just knew--I just
felt--who I was going to work with and who was gonna sort of go that way.
The hardest part of this whole record for me was to go radio-friendly. There
are a couple of songs that I knew needed to go on there because they would
be safe. Otherwise, I would have done a whole alternative album.
Q. Well, you've certainly got the rock 'n' roll attitude, and
you're in a position where you could have done whatever you wanted. You
could have recorded with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. You own a
recording studio; have you ever done that sort of thing on your own?
A. Right now, my thing is alternative. I'm sort of into that mode.
But I didn't write a style. All I knew is that I liked ambience in a song
and I liked a mood; that was what I would pull from to sing it. So a couple
of the songs had to be bumped up a few notches. I could go completely the
other way on the next record and just go, "Screw it." I'm not going to go
safe anymore, that's it. It's a little like I'm walking on unknown territory
when it's me trying to put out an album. I didn't really think of a style
and try to be too contrived. I kind of made an eclectic album.
Q. It's held together by your voice, and you're an impressive
singer, but it took you a long time to get started. Do you enjoy singing?
A. But I love the singing part, I love the creative part, I love
all that stuff. It just comes to me, and it's like a purging
Q. Now you have to deal with the selling part of the process,
which I gather you don't enjoy.
A. That's where I'm having some trouble! [Laughs.] It's hard for
me, and then I have to deal with all the other stuff [the gossip], which I'm
very happy you're not asking about right now. But I'm sure you will.
Q. Oh, hell no. I want to talk about music.
A. Wow, thanks! The thing is, I've been doing these interviews,
and I'm just hearing about my dad, Nic or Michael.
Q. What I'd like to know about is the process of making this
record. You're working with co-songwriters; how much of the song is you, and
how does it work when you sit down with these hired pros?
A. Usually I have an idea of what they've done before. I sit
there, I wait, they play an instrument--I don't play enough of an instrument
to be able to write; I listen and then I sort of go with it. I kind of just
go, "OK, I'm gonna do this," and then I sort of go into this weird place
where I do it. Every song on the record was written in about three hours. I
like to walk into the studio and have it done or sketched out or just about
done by the time I leave. It's kind of one of those things where I sit there
and they follow my melody and we sort of collaborate with me humming and
them playing, whatever it takes.
Q. So you'll have the lyrics and a rough melodic idea?
A. No, I usually have no lyrics; I usually go melodic first.
Melody drives me always.
Q. Then how much of the lyric actually comes from you?
A. I wrote every single word on the album except for "The Road
Between," which was a song that I had gotten from some guy that I thought
was really cool. That was the only song I collaborated on the words with.
Q. So this is definitely you talking about your life. I think
listeners see names like Glen Ballard [Alanis Morrissette's producer] and
Eric Rosse [Tori Amos] and they assume, "Those guys did the heavy lifting,
and you just came in and sang."
A. Yeah, exactly, and that upsets me. But this was a total
collaboration, and only with the [instrumental] tracks mostly, because I
can't play an instrument. That's where the real collaboration happened.
Q. When do you know you've written a good song?
A. That's usually when I watch other people. Most people around me
know what I'm writing about because something in my life is happening and
I'll go in and formulate it and come out with a song. So I watch the
reactions. I know I like it, but then I kind of play it for people I trust,
people around me, and if it affects them, I go, "Good."
Q. I want to ask you one "dad" question, but not a cliched
one. You and I are roughly the same age; one challenge for us Genera-tion
X'ers and the Y's who followed is to be able to discover what was really
cool about Elvis, and that's difficult when he's always there in commercial
soundtracks, on elevator Muzak and the covers of the scandal sheets. We've
been robbed of discovering the music on our own terms.
A. That's like any song right now on pop radio. If you like the
song, it's turned into a commodity and blown out of proportion and played 2
million times until you can't appreciate it anymore. That's the trouble with
everything, and it's kind of the world we live in.
Q. You grew up surrounded by Elvis' music; you must have taken
it for granted. Was there a moment, a musical epiphany, when you said, "Now
I get it!"
A. You know, I like that [later] sad stuff, like "In the Ghetto."
But it was just like I was being inspired over a long period of time. It
wasn't like I heard one thing and said, "Ah, I'm gonna do that!" I don't
really take it for granted. It's just the way this civilization is: If
something's good, it gets blown up and then taken down and then blown up and
taken down again until you can't appreciate it anymore. Everything becomes a
commodity; it's just sort of the way American culture is, I guess.
Q. There's talk of you doing a mid-sized theater tour. Where do
you stand on the idea of getting up onstage and singing these songs?
A. When I start getting out there and people are coming to see me
because they like the record or they like me and it's for real, then I'll
probably be a lot happier and have a lot more fun. But right now I feel
either the nervousness or the skepticism. I've only done two big shows, and
the second was "Good Morning America" on national television. I'm not having
a runway; that's the big problem! I'd like to warm up first.
Q. You could go play some L.A. dive like the Viper Room on a
A. That's what I wanted! The record company had other ideas.
They're doing a pretty good job with me, I just think that the one thing
they forgot was to let me go out and get my feet wet first. But it was like,
"This is the release date," and BAM!, everything just went full-throttle.
But it's OK, I haven't been thrown in the fire too much.
There's no cause for 'Concern' about making a mockery
of family name
To her credit, Elvis' daughter has spent much of her life fending off the
forces that would turn her into a pop commodity. Now, entering the music
world at age 35, she tries to maintain a measure of the strong will and
complex, contrary personality that we've glimpsed behind the gossipy
headlines. But she only succeeds to a point.
While somewhat limited in range, Presley has a powerful voice: smoky,
sexy and sultry, the aural equivalent of Dad's brooding pout and curled-lip
sneer. She can't match the heartbreaking romantic appeal of the sweet Elvis,
but she's certainly nailed the black-leather King: No one besides Courtney
Love could have as much fun spitting out the cuss words on the rollicking
Presley doesn't hold much back in her lyrics, railing against men who
can't hold their own in a relationship with a strong woman (several tunes
seem to be directed at ex-husbands Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage) and the
way that a prying media can trivialize genuine emotion. (The first single,
"Lights Out," is a poignant evocation of her father's ghost, inspired by her
recollections of the mood at Graceland the day he died.)
Unfortunately, the gilded, overblown production (by Capitol president
Andy Slater, Eric Rosse and Glenn Ballard) tends to distance Presley from
the soul of the tunes, especially on the requisite power ballads. The goal
was clearly to position her in Sheryl Crow sunshine-pop territory, with a
bit more of a country lilt. But her personality and her vocal instrument are
much better suited to darker, bluesier terrain.
As with Wynona Judd, you find yourself longing to hear Lisa Marie in a
sparer, grittier juke-joint/biker-bar setting, belting out her songs of
angst and love lost between shots of tequila while fronting a small, tight
combo of sweating rockers. Here's hoping that on the next album she'll do