Grammy winner and backup singer Lisa Fischer talks touring with the Rolling Stones and life as a solo artist

Lisa Fischer has been a recognizable voice and face in the Rolling Stones’ live band for 26 years. Now she’s pursuing her own path to stardom.
Djeneba Aduayom

Grammy award-winning singer Lisa Fischer is royalty in the recording world. An esteemed backup vocalist and solo artist, Fischer is known for her prodigious vocal prowess and ability to adapt to any performer—so much so, that she's been a sought-after support role in the industry for nearly 30 years. She’s a vocalist synonymous with musical integrity and overflowing with creative spirit.

“I love melodies. I’m in love with the sound vibration and what it does with other people,” she says with a wide grin as she discusses her physical connection to music in the documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom. “It’s familiar, but it’s so special. And you’re just so happy when you get there. And you try to stay there for as long as you can.”

In 1989, Fischer joined The Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheels tour and continued to support the band on its live performances until recently deciding to pursue her solo career. Singing the quintessential vocal on “Gimme Shelter,” and lending her pipes to hits like “Tumbling Dice,” and “Miss You,” she has become as recognizable to die-hard Stones fans as the rest of the band’s lineup.

In 2013, Twenty Feet From Stardom chronicled the lives of backup singers who’ve lent their vocals to rock ’n’ roll’s biggest chart-toppers, highlighting artists like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Fischer. The film provides a glimpse into the life of the singer, who, despite her accolades, has never let her awards or work with big-name collaborators inflate her ego. “Being with Lisa is really inspiring, because she’s a monster musician. She just doesn’t really talk about it,” Jo Lawry, backup singer for Sting, says in the film. “She’s as good as it gets.”

Prior to her solo gigs at the Smith Center (with support by Grand Baton), the Weekly spoke with Fischer by email about her successes following the film, touring with the Stones and no longer being 20 feet from stardom, but rather, in the spotlight itself.

Lisa Fischer with Grand Baton.

Lisa Fischer with Grand Baton.

I read a quote where you said, “Pressure clouds intent.” Do you feel more pressure, or more at ease, following the attention you received in Twenty Feet From Stardom? It's harder to fly with fear on your wings. It's like an oil slick weighing you down. The fear of not feeling like I am enough has always pressured me. We always want to be the best we can be, and being in any business with spoken/unspoken thoughts and expectations can bring a heavy weight. But as I live longer, I'm embracing everything I am, flaws and all. Giving in to that embrace allows me to breathe. I'm realizing that the imperfections can inhabit a beautiful space.

Why is intent important for a singer, or for someone looking to make it as a professional vocalist? Intent gives me purpose, inspiration and joy of heart. It's a gentle compass when I feel confused or off balance. We all want to feel our time here matters to someone, somehow.

You attribute much of the success in your career to the late Luther Vandross. What did working with him teach you that you still utilize today? Luther taught us the power of listening and blending, with listening being the most important of the two.

I read that you didn’t know a lot about The Rolling Stones prior to auditioning for Mick Jagger. Fast forward to your first practices with the Stones—did you realize what you were getting into? I thought I did, but with more listening to the original records and singing what I thought were mathematically the correct notes, I realized I needed to listen differently. And [backing vocalist] Bernard Fowler was there to help me make that beautiful transition.

What were those early days on tour with them like? Exciting, magical and dreamlike—so many wonderful souls with so much to share, so much wisdom and so many lessons.

To Stones fans, you’ve taken on a role of fifth Stone over the years—and you’ve usually been the only woman. What is it like, bringing that female energy onto such a male-dominated stage? I like to think of myself more as a Pebble among the Stones. It helps to keep things in clear perspective. It's been amazing bringing female energy to the Stones, because of the way they embrace it. Keith [Richards], Ronnie [Wood], Charlie [Watt] and Mick are such unique souls that have come together to bring the world so much joy. And to be able to embody the female energy from the recordings and bring them to life through their performances feels electric.

You’ve also toured with Tina Turner, Sting and Nine Inch Nails, to name a couple. Who else would you like to work with that you haven’t already—or who would you like to work with again? I've always been a follower of what is put before me, so I'll wait for the universe to give me a hint. But with that said, I would love to work with all the above again plus some.

Focusing on your solo career, what can we expect from your performance at the Smith Center? I'll be singing songs that are familiar to me in unfamiliar ways. Grand Baton, which features Aidan Carroll on bass and vocals, Thierry Arpino on drums and percussion and JC Maillard, who is our musical director, arranger and multi- instrumentalist, will be with me. I look forward to playing in the musical sandbox with them.

How did you come across Grand Baton? [My manager] Linda Goldstein met JC a while back and thought that he and I would make a good fit. I met with him and fell in love right away, and he introduced me to Thierry and Aidan whom I adore. You'll see why onstage.

You started touring with The Rolling Stones in 1989 and then won a Grammy for your single “How Can I Ease the Pain” in ’91. I read that the win was a frightening time for you, and you felt a lot of pressure afterward. What made you decide to go back on the road with the Stones rather than pursue your solo career? At that time, it wasn't considered good business to try and tour from the release of one CD. We tried working on a second CD, but making decisions about what songs to record was varied and took too long after the blessing of the Grammy win.

For me nothing felt absolutely right for the right reasons. I felt there was this invisible menacing clock that was ticking, and I didn't understand how it ticked or ... how to make the noise in my head stop. Everyone at Elektra was so kind and hard-working on my behalf ,and I felt like, What's wrong with me? Back then, being 31 was considered old, which was a head banger. I felt unsure, afraid and fragile. All in all, as heartbreaking as it was, things did not align in that direction for me. Touring felt safer to me somehow, so I continued with that ... and I was thankful for the opportunity.

I believe the Stones are out on their first tour without you since ’89. Why did you decide to pursue your solo career now, and will you return to touring with them in the future? I missed one other tour with the Stones in the past, because I had conflicting Luther Vandross dates. The future is a strange thing when the present is so vivid. I find it difficult to speak on.

I made the decision to tour with Grand Baton at this time because so many things aligned in favor of it. We've been working together for a couple of years now and it's become more difficult to organize doing both. But without the love, the kindnesses and the sacrifices of so many souls that created the documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, the choice of touring would not have been, or at least not in this way.

Is there a new record in the works? We've been experimenting in the studio and hope to have something to share in the near future.

I imagine you don’t have a lot of time to explore Las Vegas, but being that you’ve come here on countless tours, what’s your favorite thing to do here? I like the casinos and shows here. There's always something wonderful to see. But sharing the music is the thing I look forward to the most.

Lisa Fischer February 19, 7 p.m.; February 20, 6 & 9 p.m., $37-$65 (all shows sold out). Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz, 702-749-2000.

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