When you look back on your past accomplishments, how do you feel? Do you have a strong sense of nostalgia—an urgent longing to bring things back to how they were? Are there things you wish you could’ve done differently? What would you celebrate, and what would you change?
For Lissie, her past—the last decade or so, to be specific—is something still very much alive and open to interpretation and rephrasing. With the approaching release of When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective, the singer is poised to show listeners that her past is hardly static, that the songs she wrote nearly 10 years ago are still fresh and vibrant, evoking feelings old and new.
In the eyes of the mid-western songstress, who in recent years made a conscientious return to her roots with the purchase of some 50 acres in northeastern Iowa, the operative metaphor at work in her career—and in the creation of the retrospective album—is something deeply entropic: gardening.
“When you garden,” she says, thoughtfully, “it’s like all of the things you eat and grow are beautiful, and as they die and decompose, that carnage becomes the food for the plants you grow next year. When you’re out in nature and there’s four seasons, you see the cycle… It spurs my creativity to see how life becomes death becomes life. It’s this beautiful, comforting thing because it’s a constant.”
And that entropic beauty shines through in her work on When I’m Alone. When you listen to the lush, atmospheric arrangements of Lissie’s best-loved, most career-defining tunes, you can almost hear the “carnage” of each past moment and remembered feeling coalescing to form this beautiful, dark tempest of emotion and memory.
It’s a thought that should give you pause—when old songs make you feel new things. And that’s exactly what happens all throughout When I’m Alone. From the title track—reworked in a lower key, Lissie’s voice moving, breathing with all the strength it had when the original version dropped in 2010, but with a new sort of power behind it—to the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s hit, “Dreams,” you get the sense that Lissie is writing a love letter to her past. And it’s not sad or nostalgic at all, but mature, grown-up, looking backward and forward simultaneously.
Stacking up the 10 original songs on When I’m Alone next to their counterparts from throughout the past decade or so, the differences are profound. The new arrangements, written for piano, are considerate, quiet, respectful of their former states. This disparity gives the listener a more complete look back on the arc of Lissie’s songwriting style and canon—the singer sounding more the chanteuse and less the folksy songbird of 10 years past. But we now know these songs are evergreen, permutable.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the idea of a piano-based retread of Lissie’s most accomplished hits, though. This record is toned down without being buttoned up. These reinterpretations still move in the way the originals do.
For Lissie, the idea behind When I’m Alone came about almost as a test of each tune’s structural integrity.
“When you take a song out of its production and strip it down to its basic elements,” she opines, “you get the heart of the song. You find out whether it can stand on its own, whether it’s a good song. When they come down to their basic bones, are these really meaningful pieces that stand on their own?”
The answer here is a resounding “yes—yes they are.” But more than that, they’re about respecting and appreciating the canon Lissie has crafted, along with the emotions and moments that went into writing each song.
“The reason I started writing songs when I was younger was this urgent, pressing need of ‘this is how I process my experiences and my emotions,’” she says. Now, I’m revisiting what the songs were about, which relationship inspired what, and what point my life was at.”
In addition to looking back and analyzing and celebrating her songwriting, though, Lissie’s found herself reasserting her agency through these rearrangements, saying “I’m seeing my romantic history over the last 10 years laid out in song, times when things were challenging, mistakes were made, my feelings were hurt, I acted badly… We can use the mistakes as a lesson in order to grow. I feel like being able to go back and revisit my songs is slightly heartbreaking, but also heartening—like, I’ve survived this past decade. I get to decide when and how and what I share.”
It’s this spirit of retrospection and reinterpretation that truly affects what When I’m Alone is as both a body of work and a test of artistry. And while we’re given this songbook-as-a-scrapbook to pore and puzzle over, Lissie just wants to get back to her farm for a little while—to breathe the open air and sow some seeds in preparation for cultivating her next big move.