Lisa Marie Presley figured it out. It wasn’t easy. It involved a lot of learning and growth. It encompassed personal turmoil and deep loss. But in the end it boiled down to a key epiphany that ultimately provides the answer posed in the title question of her confidently compelling new album Now What.
The moment came while she was touring behind her brash 2003 gold debut, To Whom It May Concern. It had been a whirlwind experience, flying hither and thither on a hectic promotional schedule, putting a band together, making her public performance debuts in front of millions on national television outlets and, of course, fielding intensely personal questions having little to do with her actual music pursuits from media both tabloid and mainstream.
But one day, she found herself on stage at the famed Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, her first real headline show after a run as an opening act. "I didn’t know that I had fans, to be honest," she says, looking back on that breakthrough night. "And this was a sold-out night, which shocked the holy hell out of me. And then it was, 'Jesus, they’re singing my songs!' They knew all of them and when I screwed up the lyrics they knew them! I felt that energy for the first time, moving people somehow. I’d kind of got lost in the whooped-di-do or interviews and explosion after explosion." Soon she found the experience repeated night after night as she continued her tour.
"I got re-inspired," she says. "I realized this is what this is for – not me talking everywhere and being all over the place. It’s what I was originally doing, being a music lover and putting out music and hoping people would hear it and it would help someone somewhere."
That inspiration and dedication is infused throughout Now What, from the resolute statement of purpose in the opening "I’ll Figure It Out" through the triumph of optimism and hope over cynicism and loss in the closing title song. This is a personal and powerful collection of songs. Some are born from making new bonds of friendship (Linda Perry, co-writer of five of the album’s dozen songs and Pink, Presley's duet partner on the soaring "Shine"). Others stem from loss -- punk icon Johnny Ramone, one of her closest friends, passed away as the album was being made. “When You Go” is in part dedicated to Johnny, and he is honored by the “bonus” cover of the Ramones’ “Here Today." It’s an album touched by joy and love ("Thanx," inspired by her close-knit circle of friends, and "Raven," a moving tribute to her mother, Priscilla Presley) and naked anger on matters both cultural (a super-charged version of Don Henley’s "Dirty Laundry") and personal (the spitfire rocker "Idiot", featuring Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, who also stood in for Ramone on "Here Today").
At the core of the album is the experience gained from making the debut. For this follow-up, Presley once again teamed with Eric Rosse, who had produced most of the last album, to oversee the bulk of the new recordings. Also joining the mix was guitarist Michael Lockwood, who would anchor the recording band and co-write three songs. "I was definitely much more focused," Presley says of the process. "I already found the team I liked working with. Eric was set."
The wild card came when there was discussion of Presley working with some established songwriters. Anyone who knows her can guess how that went down. "They wanted me to get together with someone who writes for radio, known to do that," she says. "I balked right at that right off the bat. I definitely had an aversion to that – would not get together with a 'song doctor' and I would rather not get played on the radio than do that."
So when she got a message that Linda Perry – the former Four Non-Blondes frontwoman who as a writer and producer has been behind huge hits for Christina Aguilera, Pink and Gwen Stefani -- wanted to work with her, she was leary. But she did agree to meet with Perry at a Christmas party.
"I was reluctant, but I went there," she says. "And we immediately hit it off. Really liked her. We hung out and I just happened to like the woman. I played her what I’d already written, about four songs. And we went into the studio and started writing. Was quick and painless and fun. She might have been surprised that I was so adamant about writing all my own lyrics. She was stunned that I would take them away like a mouse with cheese in the corner, laboring over my lyrics. She’d be, 'Wait! What are you doing?' And I'd go, 'Leave me alone!'"
The collaborations yielded statements both tuneful and forceful, including "I'll Figure It Out," the pointedly sentimental "Thanx" ("What's the matter with you?" she jokes. "You’re writing something uplifting here!") and the sharply contrasting "Idiot" ("It's not about anybody you think, I can guarantee that," she says. "There's beauty in writing metaphorically and poetically, but sometimes its fun to shoot at a 'gross point blank' between the eyes as on 'Idiot' and 'Turbulence'").
Pink's participation came about just as organically. Though close friends with Perry, Pink doesn’t generally go to the studio when Perry is working with another female artist. But Presley and Perry coerced her to come hang out one day. Presley was working on writing a new song and every time she hummed a particular line, Pink hummed along a harmony part.
“The next day the lyrics came and I called her and said, ‘I can’t hear it without hearing your voice there," she says. "It’s an appropriate song for the two of us. I consider her a co-pirate. I completely relate to her. It kind of turned out to be inadvertently our theme song in life, but I didn’t know that when I wrote it. It applies to us individually which makes that experience prophetic."
Some of the strongest presences on the album, though, come from people who don’t actually appear on it. "Here Today" had been hand-picked by Johnny Ramone for her to sing on a Ramones tribute album several years ago, but the recording didn't happen at the time. But she got to work on it while the guitarist was in the last stages of his fight against cancer in 2004.
"I spent a lot of time with him near the end," she says. "When he picked that song for me he scared me by saying Ramones songs sound like anyone can sing them, but it’s not so easy. I said, "I want to do it. You picked it for me and it's important to do it now. I’m not going to make a Ramones song some slick cheesy shit.' "
There had been hopes to have Johnny play on the song, but his condition weakened and he passed away on the very day Presley started recording the song. Later, with Jones having filled in for his friend on guitar, Presley played it for Ramones' wife." "She’s really hard-core honest," she says. "And she gave me the thumbs up. And I went, "Phew!" This was before I decided to put it on the album. If I was embarrassing Johnny she’d tell me."
The decision to record "Dirty Laundry" was also a tough one, but the song was just the perfect expression of something Presley felt needed to be said even more than when Don Henley wrote it. "I meant the message to be taken more generally, not about me," she says. "Yes, it does apply to me, but it applies to the general state of affairs, more so now than ever. Reality shows, it's all so mind-blowingly sensationalistic. The fact is that our entertainment nowis watching the demise of others. Our entertainment is provided by watchingthe darkest hours of others. I thought there was nothing more appropriate than this song."
The most moving moment, though, may be in "Raven." The track ends with a child’s voice. "That’s me at three," Presley says. "I'm with my mother. She wanted me to sing into a tape recorder to my dad. I started singing, 'I Think I Love You,' the Partridge Family. And she was upset with me. She said, ‘Sing it right!’ I wrote 'Raven' for my mom, not even to put on the record. I played it for her in the car and she started crying and I ended up thinking it was emotive enough to put out there. And I didn’t say anything about her on the last record."
What Presley knows this time is that people will respond to what she has to say. "I do have a good fan base and that’s what I’m trying to concentrate on, and not whatever image or celebrity thing," she says. "I got these fans through my music! Have I climbed the mountain entirely? No. But it’s possible to have fans of the music and that speaks larger than anything. Music will override anything else if someone's listening."
on, and not whatever image or celebrity thing," she says. "I got these fans through my music! Have I climbed the mountain entirely? No. But it’s possible to have fans of the music and that speaks larger than anything. Music will override anything else if someone's listening."