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A name for herself

Times Staff Writer

Dressed casually in sweater and loose-fitting sweat pants, Lisa Marie Presley takes her place behind the microphone in a nondescript rehearsal studio in North Hollywood and looks out at the couple of dozen friends on hand to cheer her.

It’s supposed to be a moment of celebration, but the atmosphere is tense. Remarkably, this is the first time she has sung before a live audience -- and she’s petrified. All her previous singing has been in the safety of recording studios.

As her six-piece band begins playing, she takes a deep breath and starts moving slowly with the music.

You hear the voice, but it’s hard to concentrate on anything but her. When she slowly turns her face to the left, you see the pouty good looks and quick smile of her father. When she turns to the right, there are the gorgeous cheekbones and seductive eyes of her mother, actress-businesswoman Priscilla Presley.

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At 35, as she prepares to launch her first album, the question is whether the pop world will be so caught up in the Presley persona that it will never be able to see her as more than a novelty. Her story now involves far more than music. It’s a fierce struggle for identity.

Presley knows that every story written about her -- even her obituary -- will probably include the names Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. So the daughter of rock’s greatest star is out to claim a piece of that obituary for herself. After years of being intimidated by the legacy of her father, she is hoping to have a recording career -- and her goal is to prove that there is more to her than her birthright and ex-marriage partners.

“I’m not doing this to be a pop star,” says Presley, pausing to reflect the week before the performance. “I’ve had plenty of money and attention. I’m doing it for credibility.”

It’s only natural to scoff at such a lofty ambition, especially given the oddball turns in her private life (marrying Michael Jackson -- hello!) and the image many probably have of her as a pampered rich girl. But the 5-foot-2 Memphis native is serious and disarmingly open during a break at the studio.

The music on her upcoming album, too, has a stark, uncompromising tone. Her lyrics speak about disillusionment and regrets, sometimes blaming others for the failure of relationships, sometimes herself.

“I really went back through a lot of the dark corridors of my life in this record,” she says softly, far more vulnerable in person than the poised, self-assured presence of her new music video. “I wanted people to know who I am based on my music, not on what they read in the tabloids.”

The response so far has been encouraging. Her debut single -- “Lights Out,” a stark look at life with the weight of the Presley legacy -- has been embraced on pop radio, and a video of the song is a hit on VH1.

But the final test is on stage, where she must show she’s not relying on studio tricks on the album. In her intimate North Hollywood show, she proves herself easily. With music that leans more to hard-edged pop -- the sound of, say Alanis Morissette -- than the rockabilly drive of “Hound Dog,” her voice demonstrates character and conviction on the introspective tunes.

Her friends rush forward after the half-hour set to offer congratulations. She thanks them but looks pale.

She edges her way to the rear of the room, saying she was so nervous on stage she almost threw up. Then, barely finishing the sentence, she rushes out the back door, her hand over her mouth.

“Try to put yourself in her position,” Priscilla Presley says when told about her daughter’s nervousness. “Ever since she started talking about a recording career when she was 16 or 17, I warned her the doors will open because of who she is, but they will close just as fast. We’ve all seen the flashes in the pan in this town, and she knew she had to be ready because she would only have one chance to prove herself. This is it.”

Shunning the free ride

Elvis’ daughter could have taken the easy way out. She inherited her father’s fortune (now estimated at $250 million to $300 million) when she was 30, so she could just live the good life behind mansion gates.

If she only craved attention, she could have gone on the Home Shopping Network, hawking Elvis souvenirs, or made the endless rounds of TV talk shows.

Presley, however, didn’t cut corners. She backed away from a record contract a decade ago because she didn’t think she was ready as an artist. Even after finally signing with EMI Records in 1998, she spent countless hours in the studio, writing songs and getting her sound down, before green-lighting the album, titled “To Whom It May Concern,” that hits stores Tuesday.

Through the years of waiting, she kept pretty much out of sight.

Thanks to computer media searches, you can find hundreds of interviews and photographs of even the most marginal star. But there’s precious little on Lisa Marie Presley -- fewer celeb photos in a lifetime than, say, the Hilton sisters, Nicky and Paris, generate in a month.

Presley laughs at the mention of the Hilton hotel heiresses, who seem to do little other than go to celebrity parties.

“Those two are the epitome of what my mother raised me not to be,” she says, sitting on a battered sofa in the studio. “I don’t know what they’ve done. Maybe it’s the bleach that fascinates people. When I read an article about them, I showed it to my mom and said, ‘This is exactly what you were trying so hard to make me not be and thank you.’ ”

If Presley now seems to be popping up all over the place, from the cover of Rolling Stone this week to a Diane Sawyer TV interview that ABC has been promoting ever since the Grammys, you might cut her some slack. We really haven’t heard anything from her for the past three decades.

She spent much of her time in the ‘90s being a mom and doing volunteer work for groups including the World Literacy campaign. She also served as chairwoman of the board of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which runs Graceland.

“I had no reason to do interviews before,” she says a week before the dress rehearsal. “The only thing I could talk about was my fame or my parents. Why the hell would I go out and do that?”

Though her mood is much lighter than at the public rehearsal, Presley is shy and reserved. She smiles nervously when introduced, and she tends to avoid eye contact. So it’s surprising when she eventually proves strong-willed and disarmingly open about her personal life. It’s as if she wants people to know her rather than her image, so she has to open up in her music and in interviews.

Nothing contributed more to her tabloid fodder than the 1994 marriage to Jackson, and no question is asked more than “Why?”

Even in trying to be candid, she finds it hard to settle on an answer, though in Rolling Stone, for instance, she talks enough about Jackson alone to fill a page. She felt sorry for him, especially after the child-abuse accusations came out, and was protective. And, yes, she said, they had sex. But she also points out that things got “ugly” at the end -- that he would sometimes disappear for weeks at a time.

In the rehearsal studio, it’s clear that she regards the marriage as a horrible mistake.

She says her first husband, musician Danny Keough, is still a close friend. But that’s not the case with Jackson.

What about the recent documentaries on Jackson? Does she feel sorry for all the public ridicule?

“I did see the British program, and it does look like he was set up,” she responds. “But, no, I could never feel sorry for Michael Jackson.”

Trials of love

One senses that Lisa Marie’s highly publicized romantic trials have had much to do with the weight of being a Presley.

The young mother of two was devastated by the breakup of her marriage to Keough, which she clearly does blame on the Presley pressures.

“Even if you have talent, which Danny does, you immediately becomes Mr. Presley in the world’s eyes, and it eventually tore the marriage apart,” she says.

She pauses and looks around the room at the empty stage.

“That has been a constant problem for me,” she says, pursuing the thought. “If I’m going with a musician, they become Mr. Presley and they get squashed and they get resentful and we end up going after each other. After Danny, I thought maybe I should be with someone who is famous. I married Michael.”

After that, she fell in love with another musician, John Oszajca. The singer-songwriter made a creditable album for Interscope in 2000, and one of the tracks, “Bisexual Chick,” picked up a lot of airplay on alt-rock kingpin KROQ-FM in Los Angeles.

But the Presley family ties were everywhere. In reviewing the album, Rolling Stone took only seven words before making the connection to Lisa Marie. Entertainment Weekly needed 11.

When that relationship ended, Presley again seemed to turn to someone who had a strong identity of his own -- actor Nicolas Cage. The marriage last year lasted just three months. “Given our backgrounds, I thought we would be very compatible,” she says. “It turned out we are two pirates, basically.”

Finally, she realized she had to break the cycle.

“I saw myself ricocheting back and forth,” she says. “I decided to call timeout. I figure I’ll devote all my energy to my children and my career.”

Slow to sing

Shock may be too strong a word, but there certainly was much surprise in the pop world when “Lights Out,” the first piece of music from Presley, turned out to be good.

A lot of pop offspring, from Arlo Guthrie to Jakob Dylan, overcame pop skepticism to make the charts, but perhaps none has faced such a credibility hurdle as Elvis’ daughter.

Fully aware of that pressure, Presley didn’t even tell her friends that she wanted to be a singer until she was in her 20s.

Singer-songwriter Keough says they had been married more than two years before Presley declared she wanted to be a singer.

He converted their dining room into a practice studio and they started writing together around 1990. “I’d play chords and Lisa would come up with melodies, and after a few weeks she started writing down a lot of lyrics,” Keough says now. “From the start, her voice carried that quality that makes you feel better. It was very real. No posturing.”

She was so excited with the results that she turned to Jerry Schilling, an old family friend who managed the Beach Boys for years, and asked him in the early ‘90s to see if he could get her a record deal.

“Actually, she first asked me to look into some acting jobs for her,” says the former Memphis native, who drove Elvis and Priscilla to the hospital the day Lisa Marie was born. “She thought that might be the easiest path. I mentioned music, and she didn’t want to hear about it. That’s how afraid she was of it at the time.

“So, I was surprised when she called one day and said, ‘I think I can sing.’ ”

Schilling talked to Tommy Mottola, then head of Sony Music, and Sony’s Epic division soon offered Presley a contract. But she backed out when she learned she was pregnant with her second child, Benjamin. (The couple’s daughter, Danielle, was born in 1989.)

“I don’t think I was ready,” Presley says now. “I think I was freaking out. Once I got pregnant, there was no way.”

Her career didn’t really get back on track until she agreed to sing a song at a Graceland-sponsored tribute to her father in 1997. Rather than perform live, she came up with the idea of making a video in which she would sing along with her father’s recording of “Don’t Cry Daddy.”

She had already resumed writing, largely inspired by Alanis Morissette’s deeply introspective album “Jagged Little Pill,” which dealt with many of the issues of relationships and self-evaluation that interested her.

She contacted Glen Ballard, the record producer and songwriter who worked with Morissette on the album, and feeling a rapport with him, signed with his EMI-affiliated Java Records label in the summer of 1998.

Together, they wrote “Lights Out,” the song about the weight of the Presley legacy. In the key line, she speaks about seeing the family gravesite at Graceland and noticing a spot left for her.

That’s where my family’s buried and gone

Last time I was there I noticed a space left

Next to them there in Memphis

In the damn back lawn.

About their time together at Java, Ballard says, “When she played me a couple of things she had written, they were extremely dark, not what I expected at all. But I told her that if she was going to achieve her goal of being a good writer she was going to have to work at it every day -- that there were no shortcuts. And she understood that.”

It’s this seriousness that also impressed manager Scooter Weintraub. “A lot of people are interested in everything that goes along with music -- being on MTV or having a hit single. But Lisa Marie wanted something more.”

Yet the album recording didn’t go easily. Presley worked with various producers on the project, but it still wasn’t finished in 2000 when Andy Slater took over as president of EMI-owned Capitol Records and inherited the project.

“I was impressed when I read the lyrics,” says Slater, who made a reputation in the industry as manager of the Wallflowers, Fiona Apple and Macy Gray. “I felt this was someone who was facing the real issues of her life, but I couldn’t find the soul of the artist in the record.”

He met with Presley, who shared some of her concerns about the sound of some of the tracks. “I saw in her the person I heard in these songs,” he said. “I told her I wanted her to stay on Capitol, but I wanted to make the album all over.”

Slater then put her together with Eric Rosse, who had produced two albums for Tori Amos. Except for “Lights Out,” which Slater ended up producing, Rosse produced the rest of the album.

Keough is delighted with the result.

“With every step of this product, Lisa has become more and more confident, more the person she was meant to be. It is amazing to watch,” he says.

‘I never really fit’

No one is more thrilled with Presley’s musical breakthrough than her mother, who spent many anxious years wondering if her daughter would ever tame her rebellious streak.

Priscilla had tried to give Lisa Marie stability, but it was often a struggle because the young girl was so devoted to her dad. After her parents’ divorce in 1973, she spent time with Elvis at Graceland when he wasn’t on tour, the rest of the time with her mom in Los Angeles.

Elvis spoiled Lisa Marie in every way, leaving Priscilla as the one to bring some reality and discipline into her life. Lisa Marie was 9 when her father died, and when she began acting out and experimenting with drugs, Priscilla sent her to a series of private schools, including a boarding school in Ojai.

“I was kind of a loner, a melancholy and strange child,” Lisa Marie says. “I had a real self-destructive mode for a while. I never really fit into school. I didn’t really have any direction.”

She credits Scientology with helping her break from drugs and start building some self-esteem. Though many celebrities seem reluctant to talk about the organization, Presley shows no anxiety when asked what she has gotten out of Scientology.

“It is a form of self-help, self-discovery,” she says. “It’s not so much a God thing. It’s nondenominational. It offered answers to questions I had about life. In the most basic way, it’s like Humpty Dumpty. When I fell off the wall, they helped put me back together.”

She met Keough through Scientology and married him after learning she was pregnant in 1988.

From the dark tone of her album, it’s easy to suspect a lot of relationships in Presley’s life were either mistakes or ended in heartbreak. In one song on “To Whom It May Concern,” she says: “How many roads between your world and mine? How many broken doors and how many fights?” But it’s wrong, she says, to think her life has been as consistently downbeat as the album.

“I am inspired to write when I am going through a difficult period,” she says, explaining how she draws in her songs from her own experience. “Writing is almost therapeutic for me. I wasn’t born into a normal situation, and my life hasn’t been textbook normal. But that doesn’t mean my life has been 90% darkness just because the songs are.”

One piece of light in her life is her children. She even devotes a song (“So Lovely”) to them on the album.

“Through everything, they hold me together,” she says. “I can understand when people say they love their children so much it’s almost painful. There’s the fear of loss. It probably started with me when I was a kid. There was so much experience with death and loss

Today, says Presley, who lives in a gated community in Calabasas, “I’m basically a homebody.” She’s not a big movie or TV fan but does enjoy reading (“I’m riveted by ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ ”). “My favorite thing is to sit around with friends, maybe some wine. It’s probably something I inherited from my father. He loved being on stage, but he didn’t need attention all the time.

“There was something really humble about him. He enjoyed being at Graceland with the people close to him. I loved being around Graceland. I hated leaving. I haven’t read the bios about him because I knew him. I don’t need to know what other people thought he was like.

“There’s still a lot of sadness when I think of Graceland. That’s partly what ‘Lights Out’ is about. There were so many deaths. Once he died, my grandmother died, then my grandfather, my aunt, my uncle. My God. It was like the house had lost its life.”

Into the spotlight

Two days after the dress rehearsal in North Hollywood, Presley flew to Orlando, Fla., where she performed some songs from the album before 1,500 retailers at a music business convention.

On the phone the day after the show, she was upbeat -- looking forward to beginning her first U.S. tour this summer.

“I felt a lot more comfortable on stage,” she says. “I think the reason I was so nervous at the rehearsal was because my friends were there. I knew everybody in the room, and they all knew how important this is to me. I suddenly realized that all the dreaming is over.

“I’m on stage,” she says, “and I’m singing my songs.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Personal favorites

Lisa Marie Presley loves rock ‘n’ roll -- and, of course, the music of her dad.

Favorite Album Ever: Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”

“I think it’s brilliant, the music, the lyrics. I identified at a very young age with the way the album dealt with the struggle with authority, the pressures you go through while growing up, including school.”

Favorite Recent Album: Beck’s “Sea Change”

“It’s so soulful and honest. You believe every word in the album.”

Best Live Act: Marilyn Manson

“I was expecting a freak show type of thing when I went to see him, but the show was so brilliant visually that my jaw dropped. He’s a true performance artist. I think the man is a genius.”

Best Singer: Jeff Buckley

“I think he was some kind of angel. His voice sure made him sound like one.”

Favorite Elvis Records: The later ones

“I like so many of them, but more the stuff from the late ‘60s and ‘70s than the ‘50s stuff. I’ve been listening a lot to the ‘70s box set that is out now. There is a song called ‘Mary in the Morning’ that I love. But also love ‘In the Ghetto’ and ‘Suspicious Minds’ because I used to see him do those all the time. There’s also a live version of ‘How Great Thou Art?’ that is just amazing.”

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Robert Hilburn is The Times’ pop music critic. He can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.


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