A year and a half ago, local singer-songwriter Lissie was on a flight back to Los Angeles from Nashville, where she'd been working on her debut album with Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King. Things in L.A. had taken a turn for the worse since Lissie — a native of Rock Island, Ill., born Elisabeth Maurus — first moved here in 2004 to pursue music: A casual artists' community she'd helped establish in Beachwood Canyon had been infiltrated by "snotty Hollywood people," she says, and the dissolution of a long romantic relationship had estranged her from many of her ex's pals.
"I'd be in my apartment with nothing to do, and I couldn't even fold my laundry," she recalls. "I just felt so purposeless and depressed."
So when the couple sitting next to her on the plane to LAX told her they lived in Ojai, Lissie, 28, figured the artsy Ventura County burg sounded like as good a place as any to reconnect with her small-town roots.
"I called a lady from Craigslist and said, 'Look, I've never been to Ojai, but I just have a gut instinct that I need to live in your property.' "
Today that rented home has become something of a sanctuary for Lissie, not so much from the bad personal vibes that drove her out of Hollywood but from an increasingly demanding professional life. She spent much of 2010 in Europe supporting "Catching a Tiger," her smart, soulful folk-rock disc; the promotional run included a two-month stretch in which she sometimes played two shows a night and rarely clocked more than four hours of sleep.
"It was crazy," she said last week over a late lunch at the Roosevelt Hotel, shortly before taping a live session for Internet gossip Perez Hilton. "I don't know how I got through it."
This year Lissie plans to concentrate on building her North American fan base, beginning with a tour that launches Saturday night at L.A.'s Music Box. She's already won over some high-profile tastemakers: In addition to Hilton, pop star Katy Perry and filmmaker David Lynch have praised Lissie, and rapper Kid Cudi posted her cover of his song "Pursuit of Happiness" on his Facebook page. (The singer's stripped-down renditions of other tunes by Lady Gaga and Metallica have racked up hundreds of thousands of YouTube views.)
"I think she's super-talented," says KCRW-FM music director Jason Bentley, who invited Lissie to perform on the Santa Monica public-radio station's influential "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program in 2009. "But she's also really down-to-earth, and she comes across that way. She's not trying too hard with the overproduced music and the caked-on makeup. She's just this freckle-faced girl from Ojai in a flannel shirt. It feels real."
Lissie's route to realness has been somewhat less than direct. After being expelled from high school for a crime she declines to describe, she enrolled at Colorado State University, where she dabbled in the jam-band scene; she and a friend, DJ Harry, eventually recorded a moody electro track called "All My Life" that has been repeatedly licensed for use on such TV shows as "House, M.D." and "Veronica Mars."
A semester abroad in Paris convinced Lissie that college wasn't for her, which led her to L.A. (and to a job at the Urban Outfitters store on Melrose Avenue). In 2004 she signed to Madonna's Maverick Records and did some work with pop-rock hit maker Glen Ballard, but the label dropped the singer before issuing anything by her. Lissie's manager, Peter Leak, took her to England in 2007 and oversaw a new deal with Sony Music's Columbia imprint; in the United States she's signed to Fat Possum Records, which released a 2009 EP produced by Bill Reynolds of the popular indie-rock group Band of Horses.
According to Lissie, all of that experience has helped her zero in on what exactly she wants to do with her music. "There are so many female artists where their image and their look is really over the top and theatrical," she says. "And that's captivating. As a spectator, I find Lady Gaga to be incredible. But there's a lot of that stuff out there right now. I think what I'm doing is hopefully a little bit more timeless."
"She's definitely a product of her environment, of being from the Midwest," says King. "Her love is folk music, and she comes from this really amazing, instinctual place of singing." The producer remembers Lissie's buying a mandolin during their sessions together and learning a handful of traditional American folk songs. "That's what comes naturally to her."
Even so, there's a polished sensuality to the best songs on "Catching a Tiger" — catchy, stylishly sung tunes like "In Sleep" and "When I'm Alone," the latter of which shares as much with John Mayer as with Joan Baez — that sets Lissie apart from some of her more sober-minded roots-music peers. You hear the Ojai in her, but you hear the Hollywood too.
Though Fat Possum owner Matthew Johnson insists he's only begun to work "Catching a Tiger" in the United States, Reynolds says he and Lissie have already written material for the album's follow-up. The sound so far? "Sort of wild and spiritual and haunting," he replies. When told that description summons images of vintage Stevie Nicks, Reynolds seems pleased.
So does Lissie when it's suggested that, despite an extensive music-industry background, her current ascent has something of an underground tang to it.
"I'll read Perez's site sometimes and find myself being like, 'Why is so-and-so doing better than me?' " she admits. "I'll get a little jealous. But then I remind myself: 'Your path is your path — have faith in it.' Life isn't a competition."