Mills is an incredibly gifted singer, guitarist, and songwriter. Born
and raised in Mississippi, she is well grounded in her blues based,
soulfully delivered original music.
up in and around Hattiesburg Mississippi, beginning her singing career
in the church that her grandparents actually built. Gospel was her first
musical love, and still is deeply embedded in her artistic foundation.
Her mother loved Elvis, and her father loved Hank Williams Sr. Mix that
in with a few Brenda Lee records, Lisa had quite a diverse background to
develop her early musical education.
Lisa grew up on
gospel and soul and began composing songs before she was old enough to
start school. Destined to perform, Lisa poured her heart into writing,
singing and playing guitar, gathering strength like the hurricanes that
brew in the Gulf of Mexico. Her vocal influences ranged from Etta James
to Brenda Lee. A friend who recognized Lisaís potential sent Sam Andrew
of Big Brother and the Holding Company a copy of
Blues and Ballads,
her first CD, recorded live in Pascagoula, Mississippi. It was the
connection that landed Lisa her first international gig, in Germany, and
a three-year tour as BBHCís lead singer. It was the European connection
that led her to meet Ian Jennings and then Robert Plantís sound engineer
Roy Williams, who encouraged her to take her rightful place as a solo
Lisa has been performing
summer tours in the U.K., and Europe, since 2001. While primarily
performing her own solo tour, where she played such venues as The
Glastonbury Festival, U.K., where she received a standing ovation from a
crowd of over ten thousand people, the Gloucester Blues Festival, U.K.,
with Mike Sanchez and his Rhythm Review, along with Andy Fairweather
Low, and The Ole Blues Festival, in Bergen Norway. She has also opened
for, Dr. John, Delbert McClinton, and Tony Joe White".
ďLisaís guitar playing is reassuringly functional, sometimes,
surprisingly lyrical, always true to its roots in Southern Soul, blues
and gospel. Itís the voice you come to hear, though - moving from a
whisper of vulnerability to a harshly defiant rasp, coupled to masterful
on-off-mike technique, and with a scary rangeÖ add to that real writing
skills, and Lisaís a force to be reckoned with.Ē
- Celf Cambria Arts
I first saw Lisa Mills
open the Saturday afternoon session at the 2008 Maryport Blues Festival
and was knocked out by her stunning performance. Since then I've been a
fan, seeing her several times on UK tours. I met up with Lisa again at
the 2011 Great British R&B Festival in Colne, Lancashire.
Alan: What were your
first musical memories growing up in Mississippi?
Lisa: Church, and
Elvis. Pretty good stuff huh! Oh, and my Dad of course. He played a
bit of guitar and he sounds like the real honky tonk deal when he sings
Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and the old standards like Fraulein,
Alan: Did you always
want to become a musician or singer?
Lisa: I donít know if
itís what I wanted, but itís what Iíve always done. I donít think I
ever chose it, it just sort of happened. I was singing in church and
theyíd bring me out when family members were coming over to visit, after
church weíd go to my Uncle Shelbyís house and weíd sit around the piano
and sing and Iíd sing for the other kids in the playground. It was just
always something I did, just happened.
Alan: So how did you
get started as a musician; how old were you?
Lisa: My first paid gig
was when I was in high school. I got a gig at a local Italian
restaurant playing guitar and singing and during that time I was doing a
lot of folk tunes, like Anne Murray, One Tin Soldier. I must have been
around 17, right there in Hardy Street, Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Alan: What first
attracted you to blues music?
Lisa: A couple of
things really: in college there was a band that I met and they were
heavily influenced by the Blues Brothers and they introduced me to the
movie. Growing up I heard plenty of country music because of my mum and
my dad and of course gospel but I didnít have a clue about blues music.
I grew up in south Mississippi and never even heard it. The only think
I knew is that we used to take the bus route past an intersection with a
juke joint there and it was painted pink with Christmas lights on it and
I knew was that it was a bad place, but thatís all I knew about
blues music till I saw the Blues Brothers movie and this band that I met
in college covered a lot of that kind of music. Because of the movie I
bought, strangely enough, a Chaka Khan record, but it wasnít until my
late 20s that I heard Etta James for the first time. I was driving down
the main road in Mobile and there was a local radio station that played
this song that, at the time I thought was Damn Your Hide. But you know
what, even though I say I wasnít exposed to blues music till then, I do
remember the only time that I really related to songs on popular radio
were songs like Misty Blue. That is actually a Mississippi
singer, Dorothy Moore. Misty Blue and songs like Kiss and Say
Goodbye, and Midnight Train to Georgia were the songs that I
related to even as a young person without realising what kind of music
it was. Itís that soul, gospel thing that Iíve always loved without
knowing what it was.
Alan: For three years
you were lead singer with Big Brother and the Holding Company and, to
quote, ďmaking those blues classics made famous by Janis Joplin her
ownĒ. How did that come about?
Lisa: Well, I wouldnít
say that! But for several years I was playing in a duo out of that
Mobile area and we split up personally and professionally and all of a
sudden I had to play solo. I was scared to death and people were always
asking me, ďWhere is he, where is heĒ and I was having to say, ďItís
just meĒ. So one of the very first gigs I had as a solo artist where I
started feeling accepted and appreciated on my own was this little blues
club in Pascagoula, Mississippi called Spices. The first time I booked
there I walked in the door and everybodyís applauding. It was a real
magical place. The owner of that club was a huge fan of mine and it was
his idea to record me live there and to manufacture the CD called Blues
& Ballads. That CD got in the hands of this girl in the local area who
is best friends with Sam Andrewís wife. So that girl got the CD to Sam
Andrew and he started emailing me and getting in touch. At the time I
was divorced, two kids and getting my Bachelor of Fine Arts Sculpture
degree. I was hesitant for those reasons and I didnít see myself as a
Janis Joplin but he kept saying, ďYouíll sing a lot of your own stuff,
weíll do the bluesĒ so eventually I said, okay, okay. That's how I ended
up playing with Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Alan: How did you
first meet up with your long-term performing partner Ian Jennings?
Lisa: I met Ian for the
first time in London at Sweet Georgia Brownís studios when our mutual
friend arranged for me to come over and record on his album. Before I
got here I hadnít even heard two of the songs that he had me sing and
they were in somebodyís elseís key but thatís where I first met Ian.
Then I came back to London several months later to record a demo we met
up again and started doing gigs together and became friends.
Alan: Iíve got
another quote here, ďMills and Jennings, a musical force to be
reckoned withĒ. How would you describe the musical chemistry youíve
got, as you play so well together?
Lisa: As far as
personalities go, itís a case of opposites attract. Heís very steady
and even tempered and always there with his feet on the ground. Thatís
a really good quality for a bass player to have. On the other hand, Iím
all up in the air in every way possible, not just musically but
personally. I feel like he grounds me and makes me feel safe so I can
fly about and do my thing. And for him, itís fun for him to help me to
fly around so we work together that way. Heís taught me to be a bit
more disciplined in some respects and Iíve helped him be a bit more
spontaneous and adventurous. As a bass player in normal situations heíd
just play these parts but with us thereís a whole lot of room and heís
learned how to use his bass in a more melodic way. When you play solo
or duo you take on many roles so itís very rich what happens for the
both of us.
influenced you the most in your music writing, playing and singing?
Lisa: On a conscious
level the person that most influenced me that I deliberately listened to
and still admire and respect is Etta James, coming from that black
gospel background in the blues and the song. Deeper than that is the
early records of Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee that my Mom had. In
between there somebody gave me my first Bonnie Raitt album and sheís a
role model for me because she spanned all these different kinds of
music, blues, pop, rock and she was a red headed white girl who could
sing the blues, with freckles!
Alan: Did you ever
meet Dick Waterman [Bonnie Raitt's long time friend and promoter]?
Lisa: Oh yes, speaking
of Bonnie Raitt and the connections, boy, is he a legend! I saw him
recently in Portland at the Waterfront Blues Festival. When I was
preparing to master my first studio album 'I'm Changing' Dick and
I were in contact via email and I asked him for suggestions about
mastering and he recommended a place in Oxford, Mississippi, so I ended
up staying up there with him to get that done. It was a real honour
and, boy, heís a walking encyclopaedia.
Alan: Looking back at
your career so far, what are your fondest memories?
Lisa: Thatís like
asking which of my kids is the favourite Ė that is so hard and there are
so many of them. Perhaps the time I met Ian, that was a special moment,
but there are so many of them.
Alan: What about
particular songs, are there any that have special meaning to you?
Lisa: Yes, always, and
there are many of them. But I thought you were going to ask which of my
special songs do I never ever get tired of singing so Iíll give you my
honest first thoughts and the first one is Warm and Tender Love
by Percy Sledge. Itís such an intimate expression of love and feeling
and it is the kind of melody and song that gives a singer a lot of room
to express themselves.
Alan: Between songs
you tell tales of southern life and, to quote, 'pistol-packin'
grannies, trailers and all', a born entertainer'. Do you
think artists generally need to be more communicative with their
Lisa: Okay, I think
there are two ways to look at this, and I'll give you an example.
Thereís a venue in Mobile that Iíve played before and the owner of the
venue was dating one of my good friends. From his perspective he
doesnít like to hear a lot of talking in between the songs. From her
perspective, thatís the best part of the show. So I guess it depends on
the audience member if they like that or appreciate it. For me, itís
another way of connecting with the audience and sharing something of
yourself. I personally think it's important. I like to be elegant but
I could never be glamorous and I could never be that slick musically
where itís all, bam, bam, you know one song after another; I like the
organic quality. For me, live performance is about being in that
moment, with those people with that energy in that time and space where
you are. The most beautiful thing that can ever happen is when they all
come together and it works. Then itís magic, just magic but you canít
force it on the moment you have to accept it and go with it. Sometimes
when you are with an audience thatís not giving you a lot back, you just
got to go with it. I always tell people, ďIf you werenít here I could
just stay home and sing in the shower and thatís not very much funĒ.
Itís like life, itís different every time even though itís the same and
thatís the beauty and magic of being fully alive.
Alan: I read in a
review that one of your songs was written in Kidderminster with Ian,
close to the residence of a Mr Robert Plant. Are we likely to see a
collaboration in the Krauss/Plant vein?
Lisa: I think youíd
better ask him that. Iím not cheeky enough to ask him but if he ever
asked me then yes, Iíd do it. I have a lot of respect for him. An
Alan: How healthy do
you think the music scene is in the UK and Europe compared to the US?
Lisa: I wouldnít dream
of presuming to be able to say! But I have noticed in the last year or
so that I have seen a lot of festivals close down, music stores closing
and it seems to be a little tougher for musicians to get gigs and for
audience members to be able to play to go to the gigs. Based on those
anecdotal evidences it looks like thereís something going on here in
relation to the economy as a whole. For me personally, playing local
gigs in my area Iím doing really well and Iím staying really busy. So,
back home Iím doing good but over here my friends are telling me that
things are kind of tough.
Alan: Tell me about
the making of your latest album, Tempered in Fire co-produced
with Ian Jennings.
Lisa: It was a good
thing the title was Tempered in Fire because we were covered in snow
from the moment we arrived in Kent. In fact Andy Fairweather Low had to
drive up from Cardiff and he barely made it. We rented an oast house
close to the studio and the engineer had to meet us in a four wheel
drive to get us there. Earlier you asked me about memories and I have
to tell you that being with those guys and making that album was one
real big happy memory. We were all eating and living together for 10
days and I was doing home-cooked meals every day. Everybody was together
like ďthe bandĒ. Andy Fairweather Low is one of very favourite guitar
players, ever, and it was a dream come true to have him play on the
album. He is just as much a gentleman as he is a fantastic player. It
was a great experience.
Alan: How do you see
the future of blues music?
Lisa: Oh God Ė you know
Iím not qualified to answer that question! I think I did an interview
with the Telegraph and they asked a similar question so Iíve had time to
think about it. The way I see it, if you look at architecture and art
and music as the things that last and people still treasure and will
continue to treasure for ever, blues is one of those forms of music that
I think people will always treasure and admire. It seems to me it goes
in cycles and then it gets rediscovered. Itís in an endless cycle of
rediscovery and thereís always going to be a segment of society that
holds true to it and nourishes it and itíll upswing again. When itís
good, itís good. I donít think itís ever gone anywhere and I don't
think its ever going away and itís just a wave of love and
appreciation. Itís timeless, it's about human emotion, itís the good
stuff man, the good stuff!
Alan: Thank you very much
Lisa, I really appreciate your time.
Lisa: Thank you, Alan
Europe Management: Phil Beaumont
Tel: +44 (0) 1691 658550
Check out Lisa Mills at the Great British R&B
Festival, Colne 2011
Check out Lisa Mills at the Maryport Blues Festival
Check out the Interview with Ian Jennings
Blues Interviews List
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