Lissie Uprooted and Blossomed Through ‘Carving Canyons’

Following her fourth album Castles in 2018, a piano-led retrospective of her song covers on 2019 release When I’m Alone, and an inescapable lockdown around the pandemic, Lissie retreated to her farm in Iowa. Settling back into a newer semblance of life during an uncertain time in the world while coping with an upending breakup, she began processing the darker and lighter aspects of her life. These moments eventually made their way onto her fifth album, Carving Canyons.

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Carving Canyons unraveled around personal heartache. “It was such a heavy time, not just for me but for the world, and I needed love, support, and connection,” Lissie tells American Songwriter. “Because there was so much isolation, it was an important period of time for me to explore some of my dark places and process it all.”

Produced by longtime collaborator Curt Schneider (Patty Smyth, Lucero), Carving Canyons also was written with a collective of Nashville friends and writers. Lissie enlisted the help of co-writers Sarah Buxton, Morgan Nagler, Madi Diaz, Bre Kennedy, Natalie Hemby, Kate York, and Henry Brill.

“I was still processing all the collective pain, and my own personal pain,” shares Lissie. “I had some ideas I had been kicking around prior to November 2020, then drove down Nashville and just started writing about what I was feeling. I needed time to process the world’s events, and get enough distance from my own personal pain and grief to start to put the pieces back together.”

Carving Canyons uprooted everything Lissie was willing to face. The realities of anger and sadness at the end of her long-distance relationship open on the more solemn “Unravel”—the last time we spoke…I was still wearing all of your clothes—and “Sad.” Some glimmer of light appears on “Chasing The Sun,” which was inspired by watching the winter sunsets in Iowa. “Lonesome Wine” is an ode to the temporary comforts of alcohol, while the more spellbound “Night Moves” spirals into Stevie Nicks‘ terrain.

Reflecting on the surrounding nature on the farm, “Flowers,” co-written with Brill and Kennedy, explores the varied cycles of grief. It’s something Lissie witnessed while observing how some of the most beautiful vegetation blossomed from waste. “Carving Canyons” cracks emotional crevices into the more uptempo release of “Unlock The Chains” and an expectancy of  better days with the tender roosts of “Yellow Roses” and closing “Midnight.”

For Lissie, who co-owns the music-centered popcorn company Otts Pops Indie Pop and has also starred on the revised Twin Peaks and the comedy-drama Loudermilk, Carving Canyons is another installment of her life in songs.

Lissie recently chatted with American Songwriter about how the cycle of nature transferred into songs, and how writing helped her carve a way out of a darker days.

American Songwriter: How did Carving Canyons start piecing together once you returned to Iowa in 2020?

Lissie: I wasn’t really writing or thinking about making a new album, but I knew that one was on the horizon. I wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t seeing anyone. I wasn’t performing, and I was suddenly single after two years of being with someone and having that anchor in my life. I spiraled with the breakup, the pandemic, and everything politically with George Floyd dying, and the collected temperature, and all the pain and awareness of how much cruelty was in the world. I spent the summer of 2020 trying to figure out how I can do some self care—don’t drink, go for swims, go for walks, take the dog for a walk, meditate, eat well—and just get my center strong so I could figure out how to contribute, in some way, toward making the world less shitty. 

AS: When you went to Nashville to flesh things out in a session, what was different from previous albums when it came to writing Carving Canyons?

L: I made my first album down in Nashville in 2009, and while I’ve never technically lived there, I feel like Nashville is a creative home for me. I have old friends, and new, with all kinds of degrees of separation. I was still pretty raw about the breakup, but what was so interesting about making this record is, in records past, I feel like I wrote all the songs in one headspace and then recorded, whereas this time around, I had a handful of songs to work around over time.

When I went to L.A. to work with Curt Schneider [in February 2021], he assembled a great collection of musicians to come in and just talk about the songs and track them live, so I was able to write and record right through early 2022. It was a year in the making from the beginning to the end, and I was in such a different place with my breakup, and with my personal strengths.

AS: Though many of the songs came out of a darker time for you, did any of them shift in meaning or feeling for you over time?

L: I need to get it out to process my real-time emotions, and it’s so healing and it’s so powerful. It feels so incredible. I feel fortunate to have this ability to take really intense emotions and put them into a song. Then I’m ready to just set it free—and because so much of what I’m dealing with is universal. It’s my song. It’s about my life, but we’re also connected and have the universal experiences of heartache and grief and joy. Once I’ve made the song and recorded it and live with it for a little bit, I need to get it out there.

AS: You have to let songs go at some point. Otherwise you don’t move on to other things. Then other times, they may linger around.

L: As a human being and someone who’s putting your experiences and observations to words, if you’re crafting something that’s from your imagination, then maybe in that case I’d hold on to something and perfect it. But for me, I’m such a literal, real-time writer. This is all true. It’s just me saying, “My boyfriend left me for someone else, and I’m gonna be really sad for a while.” Having that arc of time, you get to go through those stages of grief, of being really angry or really sad. There are songs on the album that are pointed toward surrender and forgiveness, and perspective. Anger is just a front for sorrow, so now I have to feel my feelings, and I have to feel my sorrow until it starts to give way.

When you feel your feelings, you go through them. You go around them or under or over them, then you get to the other side, and a new thing starts. Hopefully, it shows [in the songs] how you can go from the anger and sorrow and grief into more acceptance and hope.

AS: On “I Hate This” you sing, hard times show you who really are. It’s true. Falling apart can help you come back together.

L: Yes! Anytime I listened to “I Hate This,” I would get choked up and shed a tear. It showed me who I really was, and I think, in terms of this partner, and in a time of utter chaos in the world, he kind of showed me his true colors in a way that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

AS: How did you land on the title Carving Crayons?

L: Carving Canyons was actually a title that Sarah Buxton came up with. It’s this idea of carving canyons of light. If you had a bird’s eye view of your life and were observing the richness of your human experience. Unfortunately or fortunately, the painful stuff is really where most of the beauty eventually comes from. It’s this idea of carving your canyons through all of the things that you experience in your life to when you do get that bird’s eye view, and you step back, and you see this rich landscape of colors and smells and curves and edges. If you just went through life with nothing ever happening, there would be nothing to see.

AS: How does living, and farming, in Iowa impact you as a writer? 

L: In the context of the pandemic and being here alone and not being able to really see or hug anyone, it was just me and my dog. I wasn’t necessarily writing but just going for walks, noticing every day that something would bloom. There were all these birds nests outside my window, and I could see the babies, and when they started to venture out of the nest and finally flew away. Witnessing those cycles in nature was really comforting in terms of being able to get to where I was.

I also have a bucket of rabbit shit that I put on my vegetables and my flowers. Shit literally makes the most beautiful things, and that’s the metaphor of this album that I repeat time after time. 

AS: Thinking back to your debut Catching a Tiger (2010), do you feel like songs still come together for you in the same way now?

L: I don’t know that I’m ever consciously aware that I have songs that I want to write, but I’m back into this percolating period of gathering bits. I might move away from the autobiographical, relationship stuff that I’ve done for most of my career. I feel like something bigger than myself might be brewing… but I can’t say for sure.

Photo: Lili Peper / Courtesy Girlie Action Media

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