A New Life, Album for Lisa Marie Presley
The mantle—and burden—of her father's legendary legacy has never rested lightly on Lisa Marie Presley. But now, after decades of personal turmoil, has she finally found her place in the world? Her new life and her new album say yes!
By the time you pass through the three sets of high wrought-iron gates on the long entrance road that leads to Lisa Marie Presley's English estate about an hour outside London, it's apparent that you've entered a very private world indeed.
The pebbles crackle smartly on a circular drive flanked by perfectly manicured shrubbery; the fresh smell of lavender wafts through the brisk air. There is, of course, a tennis court, a quaint guest cottage, and the requisite luxury vehicles parked out front—but this is a celebrity spread of an entirely unusual magnitude. Fifty rolling green acres that, according to local lore, once encompassed a medieval village are now dotted with sheep and goats and the spooky silhouettes of bare-branched trees right out of Wuthering Heights—a picturesque backdrop for the Tudor manse itself, which dates back to the fourteenth century. Today, the chatter and children's laughter of a full and happy home emanate from it. It's hard to imagine that Presley and family will soon sally forth from here to embark on a rollicking roots-rock concert tour across America to support her new album, Storm and Grace.
Sitting at a vanity in a cozy room decorated with white fuzzy rugs and pillows, comfy couches, and glass vases overflowing with lilies, roses, and peonies, Presley looks every inch the lady of the manor—perfectly coiffed with a '50s-style flip, in a Burberry frock and Chanel drop-diamond earrings, all charmingly offset by her mud-splattered Wellingtons. She's playing the role of English rose, so the Celtic eternity knot tattoo atop her right foot and the occasional sturdy Anglo-Saxon oath are the only real hints of Presley's rock 'n' roll soul. Well, aside from that face: The hooded bedroom eyes, high cheekbones, and pretty pout make for a resemblance to Elvis so striking that it's impossible to forget that she's very much her father's daughter—although, at 5'3", she's tiny in person.
Her husband, musician Michael Lockwood, announces that he's putting their three-year-old twin daughters, Harper and Finley, down for a midday nap. "Give them a kiss for me," Presley hollers after him, then turns to me and says, "I don't want them to see this part of my life. They won't understand it."
This is essentially why Presley has moved to England—to escape the world of celebritydom she spent the majority of her life entrenched in while living in Los Angeles. She says she wants her young girls to enjoy a childhood in which they won't "focus on really unimportant things like 'Who Wore It Best.' "
It's not hard to understand why Presley has sought sanctuary far from the media's glare: After more than a few false starts, she seems to have hit her stride and at 44 has entered a phase of life as idyllic as her new surroundings. But it took her quite some time to arrive here.
Being the child of a superstar can be hard for anyone to bear, but when you're heir to the King, American royalty is a birthright, whether or not you want all that comes with it. During a coming-of-age comparable in media hype perhaps only to those of Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr., being Presley meant that every move she made was of absorbing interest to a nation that worshipped her deceased father as much as she did—that nine-year-old who ran crying around Graceland when Elvis died, knowing that her greatest fear had come true.
Presley, who had regularly visited her father, lived in L.A. with her mother, Priscilla, whose acting career took off in the '80s with her turn as Bobby Ewing's childhood sweetheart on Dallas and then the Naked Gun movies. Presley was a rebellious teen, bucking the American-princess image bestowed on her from the get-go—smoking cigarettes, drugging, dropping out of high school, joining the Church of Scientology—seemingly cranky all the while, often opting for a scowl over a smile.
"I think people think I'm harder and more arrogant and cocky than I am because I know how to put on a front, but it's nothing like who I am inside," Presley says of her flinty image. "I think people reveal themselves in their opposites. To be honest, I'm really overly, scarily sensitive, and I feel way too much, so I have to have something to hide under."
It was in the late '80s, when Presley's first marriage and pregnancy—with fellow Scientologist Danny Keough (the father of her two older children)—were besieged by hovering helicopters and long-lens cameras, that the then 20-year-old had her first "Jesus, I had no idea" moment about the extreme degree of her celebrity, she recalls.
The media's obsessive attention was only redoubled following Presley's second marriage, to King of Pop Michael Jackson, in 1994, just weeks after her Dominican divorce from Keough and in the midst of Jackson's fighting off child-molestation accusations, followed by their memorable onstage kiss at the MTV Video Music Awards that year. Was Jackson using Presley to deflect the legal allegations against him? Was Presley suffering from daddy issues, falling under the spell of her generation's equivalent of her father? It does appear that Presley was trying to save Jackson from a bubblelike existence all too similar to Elvis', mired in prescription drug abuse and plagued by hangers-on. (The parallel became all the more eerie with Jackson's untimely drug-related death in 2009.) Presley has maintained that, for her at least, the marriage was real and that after the couple's divorce, in 1996, they continued their on-and-off relationship for four more years.
By 2001, Presley had entered into another high-profile romance, with Nicolas Cage, that provided plenty more tabloid fodder: He was branded as a longtime Elvis idolator who'd landed the ultimate collector's item. The tempestuous couple had a series of blowout fights (one ending with Presley's $65,000 engagement ring being flung into the sea from Cage's yacht) and breakups before they married in 2002—and filed for divorce 108 days later.
Just when it seemed that Presley might never find her happily-ever-after, she met "the One" in fourth husband Lockwood, 50, whose nickname is, appropriately, Lucky. He was the musical director of the touring band for her first album in 2004, and though both of them were involved with other people at the time, after a year on the road fate eventually had its way.
"I had to have gone through a lot of other things before I could appreciate him," Presley says of her husband of six years, whom she refers to as her best friend and describes as "sane, patient, smart, and able." "I don't think you can be happy without knowing unhappiness as well, or else you don't appreciate happiness."
When Presley and I sit down to talk in her dining room, at a grand round candlelit table beneath an elaborate crystal chandelier, Lockwood passes in the hallway with the twins, now revived by their naps and full of energy, as well as fed up with their mother's ongoing workday that's keeping her from them. "Mommy!" one sings out, followed by "Hiii, Mommy!" from the other, as two adorable ponytailed blonds peek around the big wooden doors.
Now dressed down in black Babakul skinny jeans and a fitted gray sweater, the ends of her brunette mane streaked a honey hue and her fingernails painted a deep chocolate, Presley looks more like a 22-year-old than the mother of a daughter that age. (Riley is a model turned actress, and son Benjamin, 19, is an aspiring bass player who may join his mom on tour later this year.)
A second round of motherhood has softened Presley's rough edges, diluted her anger, and lightened her mood. She says she enjoys the experience more than she could when she was practically still a kid herself. She and Lockwood tell me that each of the twins resembles one parent in appearance and personality: Harper has Lockwood's calm disposition, while Finley has more of Presley's feisty spirit. "She will out-temper me, out-fuss me, out-yell me," Presley says with feigned exasperation. Perhaps it's payback for what Presley put her own mom through as a headstrong child herself? "I think so," she laughs, "I know so."
Presley seems to look to music to work out the demons in her past, a creative dynamic that was apparent on her first two albums—To Whom It May Concern in 2003 and Now What in 2005—and is even more evident on Storm and Grace, released this month.
Listening to her new songs, one gets the impression that for the most part Presley is as dismal and gray as this rainy January day in England—there's little sign of the contentment she has evidently found across the Atlantic. Her lyrics seem to be drawn from a bottomless well of despair, detailing the knocks and bruises of a troubled life filled with regret, betrayal, love lost—and, despite it all, a resilient spirit.
"I've been through so much in my life. I've seen so much. I know how fast things can change. I know someone can be here one minute and gone the next," Presley says. "I know how fast life can shift direction and take the ground out from underneath you. I've seen it happen, and I've been a part of it too much, so I'm always kind of on guard because I've been blindsided a lot, like, 'Whoa, wasn't ready for that.' "
Yet, on her new album Presley doesn't have her dukes up quite so much; no longer "pissed off and bitter," as she puts it, she's exposing a vulnerability we've never seen before, laying her soul bare with a "this is me, take it or leave it" attitude.
After two albums that mostly failed to implant Presley in pop music's collective consciousness, with Storm and Grace she has unmistakably found her voice, so to speak. She collaborated for eight months with renowned English songwriters Richard Hawley, Sacha Skarbek, and Ed Harcourt on about 30 tracks before signing a multi-album major-label deal. With music execs no longer bending her creative vision toward conventional pop genre formulations, her songwriting flourished and went in a more rootsy direction. The huskiness of Presley's vocals lends itself to the dark groove of the music, which in turn underscores the authenticity of the words.
Grammy- and Oscar-winning producer T Bone Burnett was so impressed with Presley's demos that he instantly signed on to put his trademark ghostly-bells-and-whistles style and stamp of credibility on the album. "She sings without artifice," Burnett says. "Her songwriting is brave and real. She's saying something. I think it helps Lisa Marie to have that genetic makeup, because there wasn't a better singer in the last century than Elvis Presley, or a more visionary artist either, for that matter. Her dad had extraordinary taste, and I think she got that from him."
Burnett's goal was to make an album that Elvis would be proud of, and he's confident they achieved that. (When I relay this takeaway back to Presley, she seems flattered and says, "I concur.") "I think that because Lisa Marie has gotten swept up in the celebrity world, she hasn't gotten her full due," Burnett says. "So though human nature would be that people might be gunning for her a little bit, not pulling for her, if they listen, they'll be blown away, because she's really good in her own right."
Presley has always had a target on her back, and even now, from the safe seclusion of the English countryside, she can see the haters. "I'm horrible like that, I want to see it, and then I'm just devastated because they're so mean on the Internet," she says in a whisper, as though doing so will lessen the sting.
Yet, as stratospheric celebrities go, I find Presley as genuine and forthright as they come, and I'm amazed at how she answers any question I throw her way as best she can. Does she have any recurring dreams, I ask? "Yes, I do—usually conversations with people who are no longer around." Is it strange to consider how she's now outlived her father by two years? "Yes, it freaked me out when I hit 42. It was my grandmother as well [who died at] the same age, and I was like, 'What are my odds here?' " Does she ever feel robbed that her dad never got to meet his grandkids? "I do," she says, glancing up after a moment. "I think about it, especially with the little ones now, and I get emotional."
Lockwood tells me that his wife's honesty first drew him to her and is what he holds in highest regard. "I've never met anyone more honest in my entire life," he says. "And the beauty of it is that I realized we would always be able to work through anything because we can talk about it, and she's always truthful with me. She has all these traits that are amazing for a relationship."
Having created a simpler existence in England, the family has no live-in staff, and they enjoy the little things in their day-to-day life, including the change of seasons they never saw in sunny L.A. They go on long walks, cook, and keep a garden, where they all get their hands dirty tending radishes, potatoes, pumpkins, and roses. It's an enviable corner of the world.
A few weeks later, Presley is in Memphis, where she has just unveiled a new exhibition at Graceland of her childhood mementos, including a red tricycle and a little white fur coat from her dad. She celebrated her birthday there for the first time ever with her father's side of the family.
"It's really familiar and feels very much like home," Presley tells me. "Anytime I was in Memphis with my dad and at the house, I was happy. That was, like, a given. It was what I lived for. And I still feel the same excitement and warmth."
She says she and Lockwood are taking the girls on an overnight jaunt on a tour bus as a test run for their Partridge Family–style tour for her new album. "We'll just see how it goes," she says. "I have a feeling they'll like the little bunks."
As we're winding things up, Presley reminds me of something we'd discussed in England: the contrast of the mood on her album with where she is now in her life. "You had asked if I was happy, and I had to think about it after," she says. "It's hard for me to be happy because I'm always worried about something going awry, or what could happen to screw it up. It's hard for me to sit and look around, going, 'Ah, I'm really happy.' I'm not that kind of person. But you asked me—and I am," she says as if fully realizing it for the first time herself. "The truth is that I am."