Interview: 'I didn’t want to be pushed into the obvious’
How did Elvis's only daughter end up working in a Sussex chip van? Lisa Marie Presley explains all to Neil McCormick.
According to a story that surfaced this month, Lisa Marie Presley is currently employed by a Mr Chippy fast food van in Sussex. Or, to paraphrase Kirsty MacColl: "There's a girl works down the chip shop swears she's Elvis's daughter."
When I ask her to verify the rumours, Presley sighs. "My friend asked if she could give a photograph to charity, The Sun got hold of it, and it went viral." So let's straighten this out. As sole heir to the Elvis estate, Presley has no pressing need of a side job in catering. She does, however, live in a stately home in Sussex, where she drinks in the village pub and spent two hours in 2010 helping out friends in their chip van. "It was fun serving the villagers. But my friend didn't ask me back. She said I wasn't cut out for deep fat frying."
Presley's chosen line of work is music, and she is just about to release an album that fulfils some of her latent promise as a singer-songwriter.
Storm & Grace is a slice of authentic Americana, a beautifully performed, delicately understated selection of moody, intimate songs of struggle and escape. From the rockabilly strut of Over Me to the country lament of Soften the Blows and slinky blues groove of You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, this sounds like the album Presley has been waiting to make all her life.
"I don't know why it took me so long to get here," says the 44 year-old, whose previous albums have swamped the low tremble of her voice in slick, commercial pop rock. "I grew up in the South, with my father; blues and country, that's always been my core. But I had it in me not to do what was expected. I wanted to find my own footing."
Something has changed in the seven years since her last album, Now What. "I was in a very different place in my life, a lot more broken down, a lot more raw," she says. "There was no agenda. This felt genuine and natural."
Written over the course of 18 months in England with such acclaimed British songwriters as Richard Hawley and Ed Harcourt and produced in Los Angeles by roots connoisseur T-Bone Burnett, the album has the feel of a confessional, a vulnerable yet tough account of betrayal and disillusionment with American celebrity life.
"When I write, it's purging for me," says Presley, who writes all her own lyrics. "It's a therapeutic process. I take a situation, analyse it, break it down, put it in the form I want it to be in, and then I toss it away. Let somebody else go deal with it."
There is an inescapable fascination to Presley. She carries DNA of the most famous figure in rock and roll history. It's not hard to spot the resemblance, she has Elvis's eyes and heavy jaw, and a slight curl to the top lip, although she has just as much of her mother Priscilla's more angular beauty. She speaks warily; her body language is stiff and cautious. When I ask if she is a suspicious person, she responds: "I should be more suspicious. I was born into this, I saw things way too young. Something happens to people around fame and power and money, it can bring out the worst and best in people, it's a monster you have to tame."
Lisa Marie Presley has led a colourful life. An only child, she grew up at Graceland, which she still owns. She was nine when her father died in 1977, and at 25 became the sole executor of his estate, subsequently selling 85 per cent of the rights to exploit his name and music for $100 million in 2004. She did not launch her own musical career until she was 34, in 2003, with the album To Whom it May Concern. "It was something I always thought I'd do but I waited 'til I felt ready," she says. "I didn't want to be pushed into the obvious."
She has been married four times, including short-lived unions with Michael Jackson and Nicholas Cage. She has four children, the youngest being the four-year-old twins she has with current husband, guitarist Michael Lockwood, who she married in 2006. Like her mother, Priscilla, she joined the Church of Scientology, although several songs on her new album suggest disenchantment with "religion so corrupt and running lives".
Presley won't talk about her marriages or disillusionment with Scientology, except in the vaguest terms, but it's not hard to read between the lines. "To be honest, you know, I wove a web around myself," she says. "It's a ridiculous, clichéd thing; celebrities tend to get people around who'll make or break them. I thought I knew a lot, but I didn't know enough."
She left America in 2010 and moved with her young family to the English countryside. "I kind of got rid of everyone and everything and started from ground zero. I didn't give up on America. What I gave up was drowning in this concentrated fishbowl of celebrity in LA. There was a lot of anger, a lot of sadness too, it's all in the songs. But I'm done with it."
The English lifestyle suits her, she says. "People here have a conscience, they know right from wrong. When I first moved in a paparazzo was outside my house, and this farmer rammed his truck into the guy and said 'Get out of here.' The people in my village have my back, I was just not used to that at all."
Presley is relaxed discussing her father, saying she finds his ongoing ubiquity "comforting" rather than overwhelming. "I knew that he was special but we had our own relationship. He would set himself up in my room with a chair and table and TV; it was like a retreat for him to come in and sit there. So I could wake up in the middle of the night and he'd be there and we would talk."
Music has always been her obsession. "I was around it from a very young age," she says. "I went on tour with my father. I loved to listen to the Sweet Inspirations, his background singers. I loved music. I had this little turquoise record player sitting in the middle of the room and I'd just play 45s all day and night. I asked for an Elton John record for Christmas when I was six or seven. My father wanted to know who this son of a b---- was his daughter was listening to. It was funny actually, he went and got a couple of his albums."
She started writing songs aged 20, although it took a long time for her to gain the confidence to pursue music as a career. "It would be a lot easier if I were a nurse," she says. "But music is what makes me happy." Her entry into the music business proved rather fraught. "The first live performance was Good Morning America. The second one was to, like, 65,000 people. It was too much. David Bowie came to a show in New York and saw that I was like a deer caught in the headlights.
He told me, 'You need to find your stage legs. Pull the reins in and don't let it break your heart.' So I did a small club tour and had a hell of a time; it was something I could navigate."
She says she has always seen herself as a singer-songwriter. "I know there's all this other stuff around me, but that's how I deal with it," she says. "I need to know that I'm contributing something to the world." Then she laughs. "We'd better wrap this up. I have to get back to my chip van."