That's all right now, daughter


April 8, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS  Pop Music Critic

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 dirt elsewhere.)

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 that.

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 thing--therapeutic.

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 Monday night.

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 opener, "S.O.B."

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 exactly that.