With a little help from T Bone Burnett, Lisa Marie Presley gets back to bluesy-country basics in 'Storm & Grace' and breaks free from outside expectations.
Lisa Marie Presley doesn't seem to mind that everyone in the penthouse office of Simon Fuller's XIX Entertainment in West Hollywood can see her when she extends both of her middle fingers in the direction of a reporter.
She used the gesture to exemplify how she felt about being asked to promote a "sexier image" at one point in her career. But for a woman whose life has been defined by public scrutiny, the move spoke volumes. Presley, 44, is done trying to live up to expectations that aren't her own.
More proof? Her first album in seven years, "Storm & Grace" (out this week) finds Presley singing, "She got no talent of her own, it's just her name," on deluxe-edition track "Sticks and Stones," her voice a painful wail while slide guitars whisk around her like unseen demons. In "Un-Break," Presley wonders whether she was once a "backstabbing liar" and is only getting what she deserves against the sound of shuffling western-gothic grooves.
The album, her first for Universal Republic, may serve as a career reboot, but it also brings her back to her family roots, pairing her dusty, robust vocals with moody country and blues accents made famous by the Sun Studio recording house that captured the voice of her father. The stripped-down affair is produced by T Bone Burnett, an artist with a reputation for possessing a reverential, encyclopedic view of the American songbook.
It's a far cry from Presley's last album — a polished affair marked by glossy, Top 40 guitars and studio-enhanced vocals. "Yeah, I know," Presley interrupts talk about the slick nature of her last release. "I was behind that. I tried to smooth it over, to hide behind it. I wanted louder guitars. I wanted the vocals tripled. All that."
"I was insulated," Presley says of that time, adding that she surrounded herself with a team of friends and employees who told her only what she wanted to hear.
"There was a scene woven around me that I had helped weave," she says. "It was a personal scene -- employees, friends. It was an entourage. That's all a big mistake. It's all the stuff that happens to a typical L.A., high-profile..."
Presley trails off and waves her hand, palm up, as if to say, "You know, that scene." But no one really does. After all, Elvis, the King of Rock 'n' Roll, had but one daughter, and it's not many who see their childhood home in Memphis, Tenn., become an internationally renown tourist attraction. That says nothing of Presley's penchant for dominating the tabloids in her late 20s and early 30s, largely due to her short-lived marriage to Michael Jackson.
After releasing and promoting "Now What," Presley embarked on a research project: herself. While certainly not ignorant of what was said and written about her -- specifically the outside expectations of how she was or wasn't living up to her last name -- Presley says she was shielded from much of it.
"I went through a period where I was so upset at how obscured I had been from all of that," she says. "I intentionally sought out everything bad that was written about me. If you're looking for it, you're going to get it."
"Storm & Grace" gives it right back. First single "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" is a casual statement of defiance, a tough little saunter of a song in which a spiteful Presley talks about bucking the system. Later, the brushed rhythms and echoing chimes of "So Long" seem to emerge from a cemetery fog, with Presley, just above a whisper, telling off "fair-weather friends" and churches that "don't have a soul."
Ask Presley, who once spoke openly and favorably of the Church of Scientology, for more details on her lyrics, and she'll keep things vague. The songs, and particularly the first single, she says, are "about finding out what your mother or your parents or your counselor or your therapist or your teacher or your priest really think about you, and finding out they [don't think highly] of you, actually." Her words, however, were a bit more colorful.
When Burnett heard the track "Un-Break," he agreed to produce the album. "I was struck by how real she was in some of the songs," he says. "It was sung in an incredibly unaffected way. I love when a singer sings like Sinatra, when it's conversational. That's the greatest challenge in singing, and she did that."
The album was brought to Burnett by Fuller, Presley's manager who is best-known for creating the "American Idol" franchise but also works with a host of more idiosyncratic artists, including Annie Lennox and local independent R&B singer Aloe Blacc. It was Fuller who encouraged Presley to retreat to England, where she now lives, and suggested she collaborate on songwriting with Pulp guitarist Richard Hawley and singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt.
Presley says it was a conscious effort to avoid her earlier tendency to "jack up" the production. Though she likes the songs on her first two albums, she was uncomfortable with everything that came along with selling them, and now regrets having been placed "in some category with other pop/rock stars."
"If I'm pushed somewhere," Presley says, "I'll go the other way. So when someone came backstage and told me to dress sexy, I went out and wore giant combat boots and safety pins and did whatever I could to not be sexy."
If the line between Burnett and her father isn't direct, it does exist. Burnett worked with Elvis contemporary Roy Orbison, and recorded with Elvis' TCB Band on records he produced with Elvis Costello.
"I have to say, I very much wanted to make a record her dad would have dug," Burnett says. "That was important to me. I wanted to make a record everybody would dig, but especially him, for some reason. He's such an inspirational figure. She's part of our royal family."
There's no irony, Burnett says, in Presley retreating to England to reconnect with a sound that draws from her roots. He clarifies that she had to "disconnect with those other American roots," the ones that encouraged her to chase pop stardom. Presley phrases it as a search for something she's never really known: normalcy.
"When I moved to England I would hang out at the local pub, and they were such good people there," Presley says. "They knew right from wrong. If someone came in and was drunk and acting like a jerk, they'd get thrown out. There was common sense. I needed to be around people with common sense."