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Lisa Fischer is a backup singer because she wants to be backup singer, not because she has a burning ambition to be front and center as the star of the show. Doing a solo album? Having a hit single as a solo artist? Winning a Grammy Award? She’s been there and done that. And she’s perfectly happy with where she is — as one of the best backup singers in the business. The Rolling Stones know this, which is why she’s been working with them since 1989. And people who’ve seen the Stones in concert since Fischer has been working with the band know that her raw and soulful featured solo on “Gimme Shelter” is one of the highlights of every Stones concert.
Fischer is one of the standouts of the documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” a movie about backup singers who’ve worked with superstars. “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” directed by Morgan Neville, has been getting rave reviews ever since its world premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The movie (which opened in limited release in U.S. cinemas on June 14, 2013) also features former and current backup singers such as Darlene Love, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Gloria Jones, Claudia Lennear, Susaye Greene, Dr. Mable John, Lynn Maybry, Cindy Mizelle, the Waters Family, Rose Stone, Jo Lawry and Janice Pendarvis. Some of the stars providing commentary include Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow and Sting.
Unlike most of the singers in the movie who talk about their goals to be hit-making solo artists, Fischer says something in the movie that best sums up her attitude toward the music business: “Some people will do anything to be famous, and some people just want to sing.” She also says in the movie, “For me, singing is about sharing. It’s not a competition.” While Fischer had a day off from the Rolling Stones’ “50 and Counting” tour, I sat down with her in New York City for this exclusive interview.
“Twenty Feet From Stardom” has some great behind-the-scenes stories. For instance, Merry Clayton talked about how she was six or seven months pregnant when she got a last-minute call to record “Gimme Shelter” with the Rolling Stones. She had so little time to get ready that she ended up going over to the recording studio in her silk pajamas. Until she told this story in the movie, a lot of people didn’t know that she recorded “Gimme Shelter” while she was pregnant and in pajamas …
I didn’t know that story about Merry either!
Did you ever get any unusual last-minute requests to do any backup vocals for anyone?
Back in the day, when I was doing a lot of session work, and I wasn’t touring as much, I wasn’t doing that much road work yet, I would sometimes get a last-minute call to do a demo session. But I wasn’t really doing a lot of big stuff. That [“Gimme Shelter”] session that Merry had was unique. Usually, people would give me at least a day’s notice. It’s not like, “Oh, by the way, can you come now?” Very seldom has that happened to me.
What’s gotten easier and what’s gotten harder for you about doing backup vocals for the Rolling Stones?
What’s easier is the packing! [She laughs.] The work stays the same … but it is different. It stays the same in the sense that the songs don’t all of sudden disappear and come back as something else, but they do when you perform them. Even though you might do a song every night, it’s different every night. There’s some subtlety or something that happens. Like, maybe somebody will forget to do one thing that makes somebody so something else. All of that kind of thing. That’s the easiest: just allowing the ride to happen.
The most difficult is, at least for me, getting a little bit older. It’s definitely been a challenge that I’m working on. In the past, I used to be not really healthy about the choices I made. What I called “getting healthy,” like trying to get thin or trying to get in shape, just not good choices.
Every singer has a way of taking care of his or her voice. What are ways that you take care of your voice, especially when you’re on tour?
Warming up is key, key, key! And stress — I know this sounds really stupid — but it’s huge! Stress and rest, at least for me, are like this: Singing and being sleepy is not a good idea. It’s like going to the gym and trying to work out and you haven’t slept all night. You’re going to hurt something. So rest is key.
And hydration is really key because of all the flying. Being exhausted tends to make me dehydrated. And being in situations of extreme hot and cold, your voice starts going, “What are you doing to me?” So hydrating and warming up are really, really important. And even warming down or cooling down.
Are you the type of singer who has to rest your voice for a couple of hours after a show or can you talk in your normal way after a show?
It’s interesting that you say that because I’m learning the pace now. When I was younger, I didn’t really think about it. Now that I’m getting older, I need to be a bit more kind, and it’s OK. So that I can be at my best, I need to not yell and scream at a club after a gig, and then think the next day I’m going to go and sing anything, for that matter.
It’s a balancing act, and I think that’s the beauty of what’s happening now. Yeah, it’s more difficult, but just because it’s more difficult doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Difficult is OK. Difficult is learning. Difficult is a challenge. For me, these days, it’s a good thing to learn how to pace.
Speaking of warming up, can you describe that it’s like rehearse with the Stones? We know that there are certain songs that they do on every tour, but how do the other song choices come about?
It’s so interesting because by the time I get in there, the core band has rehearsed the songs enough to where they don’t have to think about it so hard. Some of the songs have similar chords. It’s like you know when people have piano lessons, and they say, “I’m learning something by rote?” It’s like when you close eyes and your fingers go where you’re supposed to go.
That’s the point in which you want to be musically. I don’t want to have to be thinking about the words or the second verse. I just want to be like you push a snowball at the top of the mountain and it just rolls down into this big, huge wonderful thing.
In a recent New York Times article about you, you told this great story about your first audition with the Stones and how you were caught off guard when Mick Jagger started dancing around you but you didn’t let it faze you. What else has surprised you about working with the Stones?
I think what’s most surprising to me is that after all these years, that things still really feel fresh. You get to a point where you think, “How many times can you perform a song before it gets stale? Will it ever get stale?” A lot of artists say, “Oh, I’m sick of singing this.”
I never feel that with any of the Stones — not with Ronnie, not with Charlie, not with Keith, not with Mick. They make me feel like it’s their first time. Emotionally, I know it’s not, but they make it feel new every time they do it. And that’s a gift.
On the Stones’ “50 and Counting Tour” in 2013, most of the songs in the set list are the same for every concert, but there are a few songs in the set list that are different from the previous concert. At what point do you find out the set list on the day of the show? And what goes through your mind in those few moments before you walk out on stage with the band?
Usually, when I get the set list, I’m backstage getting the finishing touches on the makeup or hair. So I’m prepping and trying to be at peace and taking inventory of what’s happening in my throat. And then someone will knock on the door and give me the set list. And when I look at it, I’m looking at how to pace myself. And then I’m thinking, “OK, I’m going to get a break here and a break here.” It’s a pacing game for me.
It’s different from when you’re in the studio where you’re focusing your energy on one song. They’ve done all these hits, right? And they’ve got years and years of these experiences that they’ve captured on record. And they’re supposed to take each song and each experience and lay it out in one show that took I don’t know how many years to develop.
So it’s an interesting mindset to perform live, compared to individual recording. And what I love is that I get to look at the set list and I learn how to pace myself. And I’m sure Mick does too, because he’s out there fighting the fight. He’s our fearless leader.
Is Ronnie Wood still the most like a lovable imp off stage? People who know him say he has a childlike quality to him — and they mean that in a good way.
None of the Stones has really changed. They’re still the essence of who they are. Ronnie is always smiling. He’s always got a twinkle in his eye. He always seems hopeful to me.
Ronnie says in interviews that he’s been clean and sober since 2010, so this would be his first Stones tour where he’s not even drinking alcohol. Plus, he got married in December 2012. How do think these changes to his life have affected his personality and how he works?
He’s glowing. He looks happy. And he’s just smiling all the time. He’s got this energy and he looks more confident than I’ve ever seen him. And I think he’s really comfortable in his skin now.
There was a report in Rolling Stone magazine in 2012 that said that the Stones delayed this tour until 2013 because Keith Richards had health issues. And there are rumors that he has arthritis. Are these reports true? And how would you describe Keith on this tour?
His energy is and has always been this deep river flowing. He’s got this look in his eye. He doesn’t have to say a lot. He just says it with his body language. He just says it with the way that he plays and the looks that he gives on stage. So that has never really changed.
He just seems more of himself, if that makes any sense. He’s just a joy. And what I’m really digging lately is that now he’ll stand and he’ll position himself where he can see everyone on the stage so he’ll know when to end the song. The way he nods his head and looks around and gives everyone the look, “We’re going to finish now.” Mick may lead the charge, but we all know when to finish when Keith comes in. It’s a beautiful dance that they both do, and we all get to be a part of this dance. It’s just amazing.
We know that Keith and Ronnie are always the most gung-ho about touring with the Stones, while Mick has expressed different feelings about touring with the Stones at different points in his life, and Charlie Watts is the most “go with the flow” about it all. What have you noticed about Charlie and how he is on this tour?
Charlie is just adorable. Charlie’s a constant. He has not changed since I started working with the Stones. He’s mischievous, he’s funny, he’s intelligent, he’s classy. He’s timeless, he’s handsome, and he always smells amazing.
And not to mention he’s a fabulous dresser. He’s one of the few rock drummers who can get away with wearing three-piece suits and still be very rock’n’roll …
[She gives a high-five.] Can we talk? And he makes it look like he’s wearing pajamas, because he’s so comfortable with what he’s wearing. When he plays, he’s free in that sort of jazz way, but he’s also stabilizing in a rock way. It’s beautiful to see the marriage between the two. He really hasn’t changed.
And then there’s Mick, the guy in the Stones you work the most closely with when you’re on stage. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from him?
I think what I’ve learned from Mick is that the emotion and energy that you bring to the performance is the most important thing. It’s not about always being in tune. It’s not about trying to be perfect. There are nights where I’m not perfect. And he’s taught me not to beat my own ass.
I’ll see something on stage that maybe was not planned to happen. If it were just me, I’m like, “Oh, that was a mistake!” Mick is like, “That was an experience,” and he’ll keep moving. A mistake is not something that should be slowing you down, like putting on metal boots and drudging through the mud. He taught me to keep it light, for the audience’s sake and for the Stones’ sake. And it’s so cool. Usually, what I enjoy most is watching them recover from something unexpected.
I love seeing Keith and Mick laughing together on stage. There’s nothing else like it …
It’s the best!
Have you heard anything about the Stones performing this year in other countries besides the U.S., Canada and the U.K.?
There are rumors, but there have been rumors since the previous tour ended. So I don’t believe the rumors and they don’t become real until I get a call from someone official who represents the Stones. The rumors can be a beautiful thing, but they’re not real to me until I get that call.
A lot of performers who come off a big tour say that they have a hard time adjusting to life when they’re not on tour. What’s it like for you when you’re not on tour? How do you cope with not feeling that adrenaline rush of performing to big crowds every week?
When I’m on tour, usually they slip a little piece of paper underneath the door to let me know I’m doing that day and where I am, so I’m used to looking on the floor every morning. It’s almost like being a Pavlov dog.
Have you ever been at home after a tour and picked up a phone while you were half-asleep, and you think you’re in a hotel, so you start dialing like you’re calling room service or the front desk?
I have done that! [She laughs.] I pick up the phone and I dial “9” and I go, “Oh wait. I’m not in a hotel.” I don’t do that as much now that I’m so used to using my cell phone. But when I first get home from a tour, I will still look under my door for the list of what I’m doing later that day. It then takes a minute to sink in.
You get back home, and you have all these new experiences, but nothing in your home has changed. It’s almost like being in a time capsule. And it takes a minute, especially for someone single who doesn’t have anybody else living in the home, to come back to remembering what you meant to do when you got home.
But what’s also good about that is that I can start fresh. It’s a cleansing as well. It’s the first thing I want to do when I get back to my apartment: get rid of this, redo this. That kind of thing.
In “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” almost all the people who were interviewed were interviewed in places like recording studios or rehearsals studios or offices. But you were probably the most accessible because you did interviews in your home and in your car. And not only that, you weren’t afraid to show that your apartment was kind of cluttered and you still hadn’t unpacked some things. A lot of people would want their place to look as perfect as possible if they knew a film crew was coming over to their place. In other words, you kept it real. Was it easy or hard for you to let the cameras film you in such intimate settings?
I have a confession about the camera crew coming to my apartment. I knew that they were coming to my apartment building and that we were going to do some B-roll around the neighborhood, but in my mind, I didn’t get that they were going to start the cameras rolling right away. So when I opened the door, and they had the cameras rolling, I was like, “Oh! OK, cool!” I’m actually thankful for it.
If you could pick a song that didn’t have background vocals that you wish you could’ve sung background vocals on, which song would that be? It doesn’t have to be a Rolling Stones song, but any song at all.
Interesting question. There’s a group called the Civil Wars that has a song called “I’ve Got This Friend.” And it’s sort of like a duet. And I like songs that don’t have a whole lot of background, but you can weave yourself into it. I love that!
The “50 and Counting” tour is guitarist Mick Taylor’s first tour with the Stones since the “Goats Head Soup” tour in 1973. Of course, it’s a very different experience for him now because instead of being a member of the band, he’s now a guest on the tour who usually plays on just two or three songs per concert. What has he been like backstage?
He’s so sweet. He’s sweetly uncomfortable, but he’s probably more comfortable as the tour has gone on. And what I may view as discomfort is him just trying to figure out, “What am I going to do back here until it’s time for me to go on?”
I think he feels more comfortable now than when we first started. He’s got a flow now. So now I’ll pass by his dressing room, and he’ll be resting. He looks now like he’s at home. He’s got his slippers on like he’s at home.
It must be overwhelming for him to be a part of this group, and then for them to have continued after he left, and then he has to figure out where he belongs with them now. It must be a really interesting perspective that I have not discussed with him. But as I watch him, I see a strong guy. I see someone who is clear about his gifts. And he’s enjoying the ride.
And I hope he’s enjoying the love he’s getting from people. I adore him. The audience loves him. The fans love him. It’s the perfect zing on this tour.
As you know, the Rolling Stones recorded the songs “Doom and Gloom” and “One More Shot” in Paris in 2012. Have you heard anything about the Stones recording a new album? Did they record anything else at those sessions?
I sang background on [the Rolling Stones’ 2005 album “A Bigger Bang”], but not on the Paris sessions. I missed all that. But Darryl Jones was there and maybe Bernard Fowler. I wasn’t there, but I know at that time, they were still trying to decide how they wanted to configure the tour.
Besides the Rolling Stones, you’ve also worked with many other big stars, including Tina Turner, Sting, Chaka Khan and Luther Vandross. Would you want to write a memoir?
No, I don’t see a book in my future. The things I’ve experienced with different groups is something that I need to take with me because it’s just so personal. It’s just so beautiful and probably more interesting to me than to anyone else.
Did you ever read Keith Richards’ memoir “Life”?
I’ve read excerpts of the book. Keith can write songs and he can also write a book. He’s amazing. I’m not a huge reader. I’m more about watching TV and movies, and I don’t even do a lot of that.
But I want to finish his book before the tour is over! [She laughs.] It’s so funny because people keep telling me about portions of the book. It’s almost like they’re reading the book to me, which I love.
Keith said in his book that he and Paul McCartney started to write a song together when they were on vacation in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2006. I asked Keith at the New York premiere of “Crossfire Hurricane” what happened to that song, and it sounded like he wanted to finish the song with Paul. There are so many people, including myself, who would love to know what that song is about and what it sounds like. Did you hear about that song?
You’ve got me curious about it. I can ask Keith about it, but I don’t know if he’ll tell me. They probably haven’t had a chance to sit down together and finish it.