Sure, it’s great to read the latest tidbits about Madonna and Mariah and Beyonce. But oftentimes, the biggest inspirations come from reading about upcoming, about-to-bust-out Divas fiercely battling the world, hustling to harness their dreams. Of course long journeys begin with a first step, but how many more of us will take it having heard from a brave, on-the-front-lines artist as fabulous as Lisa Gatewood?
That’s why Tango Diva is proud to introduce you to this Wisconsin woman—a phenomenal singer whom TD Editor Stephanie Block first met up in Door County, that gorgeous peninsula (a Midwest Hamptons!) outside Green Bay. Just last year, Lisa came out with her first album: “I’ve Read Salinger”. Viva Debuting Divas!
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1. How does it feel to have a debut album under your belt?
A lot different than I thought it would. The whole time I was working on it I kept saying to Tony Scholl (my producer) that this was probably going to be the only album I ever make, so I wanted it to be perfect. But as soon as it was done I immediately started thinking about the next one. Now it feels like a really important stepping stone.
You can’t make twenty-five albums if you don’t make the first one. I feel really lucky and accomplished because one album is further than most people get, but I know I still have a long way to go in this journey.
2. How would you classify your music, and what great musical inspirations have led you to this point?
I tell people I play “folk music.” Today there are so many genres and sub-genres that it’s hard to categorize anything. I grew up listening to a lot of blues at my dad’s house and a lot of musicals at my mom’s house. I find that my storytelling seems to be inspired by those genres.
In high school my friend Lindsay played me Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco for the first time and I think that began to develop my sound and mood. Currently I take a lot of influence from folk-ish songwriters like Damien Rice, Rufus & Martha Wainwright, Leonard Cohen and of course Bob Dylan.
I’m also really lucky to live in a city with some of the most phenomenal singer/songwriters I’ve ever heard. Heidi Spencer, another local with two albums to her name, is one of my favorite singers of all time. I am always inspired by her whether we share a stage or a cup of coffee.
3. What is your creative process?
I keep a notebook with lines, phrases and rhymes that I like. I can tell it’s time to sit down and write the song when a line or a story begins nagging me, tugging on a place in my chest that makes me feel heavy between my lungs (like a child begging to be looked at).
My actual writing process is down to a science: I get my guitar (a beautiful acoustic Gretsch), a notebook & my dictaphone and I retire to my room. I write best in bed, especially late at night and early in the morning. I turn on my dictaphone and start playing and singing–if something pops out at me I play it back and write it down.
It’s a lot of trial and error, which is why I write alone. Not everything that comes out is pretty–maybe about 30%. You can’t be afraid of sounding bad or you’d never start. Sometimes I write a little and let it go for a day or two–sometimes I finish a whole song in 10 minutes. It all depends.
4. Did you like the Salinger you’ve read?
I’ve read the four Salinger novels that are currently available and loved every word of them. There is a lot that hasn’t been published, but hopefully will be someday. J.D. Salinger is still alive, allegedly still writing, but completely reclusive and not publishing anything.
For me, Salinger represents so much. He is this amazingly powerful entity that appears, changes everything and then fades away—disappears—much like the person for whom I wrote “I’ve Read Salinger”. I also find his stories entirely moving and sad and artistically inspiring.
I think his character of Seymour Glass was my biggest literary crush (followed closely by Aslan, the lion in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles). To this day when I read Seymour’s story, “Perfect Day for Bananafish”, in Nine Stories, I am overwhelmed with emotion. (Incidentally Nine Stories is my top recommendation for a book to read while you travel.)
5. California, Carolina, Arizona…you sound like a travelin’ Diva. How have your travels come through on this album?
Growing up as one of three kids to a single mother you wind up spending a lot of your vacations in the back seat of an old Buick, camping your way through the countryside. I probably couldn’t tell you much about state facts or history, but I can tell you about the lay of the land—how each region makes me feel.
To me, evoking a state name is concrete enough to help the listener relate, but there is also something very visual and emotional about each one. I know what Carolina means to me, it’ll mean something different to everyone who listens to it, but it’s a common ground for us all to start from. It gives the song a context. The listener might not know how far away I am from California, but they can sense how far it feels.
I’m hoping my next album will have some foreign territories added to the song titles, like “Living in Rome” or “Love in the Louvre”. I’ll write it off as research.
6. How do you feel when you sing?
I really love singing, but I won’t lie to you, sometimes it feels like a lot of work. Just like with any job, no matter how much you love it, there are days when you just don’t feel like working. But the voice is a muscle and the more you use it, the easier it gets. Singing at a show is also a lot different than when I sing at home. There are songs that when I sing them at home I just cry the whole way through. It is such a cathartic release.
7. Was it tough to get a record deal?
I actually don’t have a record deal yet. That’s the next step. I financed this album myself, which was stressful but also really empowering. Since it was my money I wasn’t afraid to call the shots and to speak up when I wanted something.
8. What is one of the best gigs you ever played?
My CD release party last year. It was at a local venue here in Milwaukee called Linneman’s Riverwest Inn. My friend Keith Pulvermacher opened the show, then Heidi Spencer & The Rare Birds played a set.
At about 11:30pm I took the stage with my band and said into the microphone, “Thanks for sticking around” (which I generally say, because you’re just so thankful that people stayed to hear you.) And my guitarist, Matt Hendricks said, “They came to see you!” and I thought, “Oh my goodness, they DID!”
It was so humbling to release this album out into the world surrounded by my friends and family and other musicians who had worked so hard on it with me. Everything felt good that night. I’m sure I’ll have bigger audiences and better performances in the future, but I don’t think I’ll ever have a show that feels as good as that one did.
9. Where do you go from here?
It’s all about getting noticed. I feel like I’ve built a good base in Milwaukee, but now it’s about reaching other regions, getting signed to a label and most importantly getting this album heard by anyone who will listen.
I’m currently submitting the album to record labels, trying to get a manager and possibly a booking agent. Being an unsigned artist means you are a one-woman office. My apartment is cluttered with CD’s and mailing envelopes and photo copies of articles and publicity photos.
I’m hoping to put together a small tour for this coming summer. It’s a lot of work, but it feels so good to be actively pursuing what I love. For a long time I sat around waiting to be noticed; now it’s time to try something else. The album really helps with that—it’s a very expensive calling card that says, “Here’s what I can do.” And I think it’s pretty good.
10. Please tell us more about yourself and your debut album—secrets, stories, and more behind the music and the artist! What else do we HAVE to know about you and your music?
–It’s sometimes surprising to me how honest I can be when I write my songs. When I wrote “The Black Coat Song” I remember thinking, “I can never play this in public!” It was so blunt. It felt like laying my heart on display for everyone to see. I especially worried that the person I wrote it about would hear it and know it was about him.
Before that song my work was a safe thing to hide behind. It was not exactly cryptic, but I could always claim it was about someone else: I was “playing a part” on stage. Singing “The Black Coat Song” felt like being naked in public. It was terrifying to be that vulnerable. After I finally began performing it, I found that more people connected to that song than any other. What felt so personal to me was something that so many other people could relate to.
Now I attempt to reach that level of vulnerability in all my songs. I have always loved music. When I look back at any important moment in my life, there is a song attached to the memory. I love the idea that I’m writing songs now that will be attached to other people’s memories.
–I learned a trick from my very talented friend, Madison, Wisconsin actress Jodi Cohen: I kept a photo of myself as a little girl in the binder I took to the studio every day while recording “I’ve Read Salinger”. Whenever I would start telling myself that I was terrible or untalented or ugly or boring… or whatever else I could think to call myself (I’ve said them all), I would take out that picture and I would ask myself, “Would I ever tell that little girl that she was untalented? Would I tell her that she should quit? Would I tell her that no one cares what she has to say?”
The answer is NO. And I think it’s a good reminder to ourselves that we all have places inside where we are very fragile. We need to be kind to ourselves. I am so thankful to Jodi for that piece of advice. It got me through a lot of really sticky spots.
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To Purchase I’ve Read Salinger
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