The voice of Grammy award–winning singer Lisa Fischer is an encyclopedia of sensations. During a phone call from her home on the East Coast, where she was preparing for a four-day tour stop with her band, Grand Baton, at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., a question stirs a schoolgirl-age memory. After claiming her “child-mind from the ‘60s” might cause her to stumble on the lyrics and noting the chromatic difficulty of “The Impossible Dream,” a song she says wasn’t easy for adolescents to learn, Fischer sang. Her voice, at first soft-edged and raggedy, soon swooped into high, crystal clarity and poured like thickest fog in her lower register. The melody was laced with musty nostalgia and lyrics half- or full-throated rose like balloons of different colors and shapes from her mouth. Left behind when she ceased was a tingly, kinetic, sparkly silence.
“It was such a positive song. I think it was the marriage of lyrics and melody. We had to memorize the words, but I didn’t feel the weight of the words; I felt the weight of the melody and a few of the words. As you get older, you start to feel the weight of the message.”
The weight — and soaring, octave-spanning uplift — of Fischer’s voice will be experienced Nov. 14 at the Masonic when she and other guest artists join to celebrate community at GLIDE’s Annual Holiday Jam: Dare to Love. The evening features Fischer, Grammy award-nominated vocalist Ledisi, the GLIDE Ensemble with the Change Band, and others. The annual performance raises funds for GLIDE’s community services that include the “Mo’s Kitchen” program, serving 750,000 free meals each year to in-need families and individuals in San Francisco.
Fischer spoke about the performance, her voice, music as a gateway, and the trajectory of a career that has taken Fischer from decades singing background for the Rolling Stones, Sting, Tina Turner, Nine Inch Nails and others to widespread recognition in the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. Last year, the journey she began as a solo artist had her collaborating with the Seattle Symphony on a fully orchestrated program, “The Classic Lisa Fischer.” Other collaborative projects illustrate Fischer’s wide-ranging interests: Yo Yo Ma’s Sing Me Home, Lang Lang’s New York Rhapsody, Billy Childs’s Map to the Treasure, The Propelled Heart with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and Anna Deavere Smith’s HBO special, Notes from the Field.
Music, she says, “is the gateway bringing us to our common denominator: a shared sadness that I then hope is ignited and pain lifted for a while.”
What is your setlist for the Glide event?
It’s all uplifting spiritually and holiday-based. I have about nine songs prepared, and they include “Up Above My Head (There’s Music in the Air),” “Wade in the Water,” “Down by the Riverside,” and “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Feelin’ Good,” with Ledisi, at the end of the show.
Glide’s mission and programs address a host of heavy issues: homelessness, hunger, drug use disorders, mental health crises, violence, xenophobia, and bigotry happening nationwide. Which issues are most important to you?
To me, you look at someone, look into their eyes, well their mouths may say “I’m doing ok,” but in their energy you can sense heaviness, pain. It’s such a personal thing for each soul that I try to touch as many people as possible. I never get a chance to discuss their concerns, but I can feel their hearts. I can see in someone’s eyes someone dealing with a drug addiction, a fear, a mental issue. I tread lightly because I won’t enter a conversation unless invited by that person into a part of their lives. You know, their triumphs over something bad is always a beautiful thing when they can share that. With sadness, there’s accomplishment and joy.
What are the first songs you fell in love with during your childhood? What kind of music played in your family’s home?
My parents were young parents so there was a lot of party music in my house. Motown mostly. Bobby Lewis’s “Tossin’ and Turnin’” is a funny, up-tempo song that will always make me think of my parents. On the spiritual side, it was church music and “Amazing Grace” that felt beautiful to me and makes me think of my grandparents. “Silent Night” always signals slowing down, the weekend, cooking, church services.
What discoveries about your voice and its development have come recently?
There’s a richness I didn’t have when I was younger. An acceptance of what is, and a peace with not longing for what was. When something is lost, something comes in its place. I was thinking, “Oh, my God, I can’t bend down the way I used to!” As you get older, I realize a lot comes in a shift, a change. It’s a natural thing. It’s only hard when you think about what is natural versus what is business. Someone captures an image of me years ago and people hold onto that. Then they see you and say, “Oh my, that person has changed.” Well yeah, but for me, what counts is to have grace about it and be grateful for all of it. I used to have high, stiletto heels and tight-fitting shoes, clothes that are extremely uncomfortable but you look really, really great in them. Now, I can be in my body. I’m not working for an image. I’m looking for myself, focused on what is. I’m more rooted. Sure, that comes out in my voice too.
Is there music that intrigues you, something you’ve not yet conquered or you’re just beginning to consider?
I wanted in college to be an opera singer, but you know, Juilliard was sort of out of my reach. And then I encountered Robert White at Queens College, and he gave me the foundation and how to preserve my voice in a healthy way. He’s now at Juilliard, having come full circle.
Lately I’m interested in lullabies in different languages and cultures. I was listening to my mother’s sister, my aunt, who is starting to lose her memory a bit. I take her out now and then and recently, I played the radio, thinking she might remember songs. A couple weeks later, she breaks out into a song I’ve never heard before. It went back to probably the ’30s or ’40s, I found out once I researched the song. I asked her where she learned it and she said, “Oh, mama used to sing it to me.”
What songs do people share with their children, with babies? What do they remember? I hope it’s not a lost tradition. Whatever touches your ear. It makes me think as people start to lose their memories, music can tie them to remembering.
As a songwriter, what are the primary directions you pursue?
I don’t consider myself a classic songwriter. Burt Bacharach is an example of a classic songwriter who just so happens to sing a bit. I did have an assignment from a music publishing company that sent us to Bali to write a song inspired by Bali and then perform it. They placed me with classic songwriters because they knew I was an artist first. It was cool. I learned there is no wrong way to write. Most of them wrote every day: it was something they couldn’t even help doing, it was natural to them. Me? I jot things down but I don’t complete a song every day. It’s a collection of thoughts, then I look at it like a stew and see what works.
You’ve worked with rock and R&B stars, orchestras, classical musicians, choreographers, and more: Are there collaborations that you’ve not yet explored?
I love the orchestra. I worked this summer with Metropole Orkest on a project with youth musicians from age 14 to about 23. (The project, Mississippi Goddam: An Homage to Nina Simone, also featured Ledisi and conductor Jules Buckley and was heard at the BBC Proms.) They were so in love with the process. They loved being with their instruments. To see that spark, to see them process and learn our music, have fun with it, not feel the pressure of having to be absolutely perfect, getting past the imperfection — relearning the way it works is part of the journey. They have scales, bowing, and things they have to go through for years and years, but with us, they could break out and see what the good training did for them.
Every instrument is like a voice. It vibrates and hits your heart differently. When you choose an instrument, get past your student instrument and choose the voice that will last, when you share and breathe in a whole room of people of learning an instrument, it’s just sacred.
Even to see how people react when they hear an orchestra tune up, I get a feeling of anticipation. It’s almost like a prayer. We’re being in tune with each other. That is magical.
Listening and responding is a huge part of singing backup: How has this enhanced your solo/band leader performance?
It helps and sometimes it can hurt. It helps in the way that before, when I was singing with other people to support someone, you listen for the spaces — what isn’t there. You try to prepare for what isn’t there, because you want balance so different flavors come in. Becoming one with the group sound is so important. You have to listen to what’s around you: the colors and chord changes, the weight of the voices on a particular day, if they have a cold, how soft, how loud to be, the mics you are using.
Now, rather than the artist being the main focus, I can focus on the song. I’m in a place where I can let the song be as many things as a song wants to be. It opens up a whole world for me. There is the song’s original version, the lyrics, melody, the imagery. What’s not helpful is that as a backup singer, you’re so used to blending in that you can disappear. I allow the music to show me how to avoid that. As long as I keep the purpose of what the song is, the less I disappear.
Leadership as a female musician?
I’m at a point where I’m not necessarily leading. I have a great team around me. They allow me to play. I’ve never been a leader, I’ve usually been led. It’s difficult to shift that energy, and luckily, they allow me to speak on my heart and what I’m being led to do. That hasn’t steered me wrong, although It may sometimes put me in places I hadn’t expected. But eventually I realize I wouldn’t have gotten to that if I hadn’t gotten to this. It’s like laying on my back on a huge body of water and trusting I’m not going to sink.
Dancing: What is the role and relevance of movement for you as a singer?
I love this question! Dancing has allowed me to draw in the air what I want to sing. It’s my partner in the melodic structure of what comes out in a split second. Rehearsing to be in concert with everyone else — which you have to do or it’s mass insanity — and knowing exactly where your heads going to be, where you’ll stand, how to move out of someone’s way ... I considered myself a very awkward person. It took a long time to learn control, my angles, and where to be. It took a lot of work, but it’s become comfortable. When I’m in a place where my body’s not learning choreography, a place where melodies move, my body feels like I’m floating. I’m not aware of my body, the angles, or how it looks. I just breathe into the movement and sing.