Lisa Marie Presley breaks free with 'Storm & Grace'
BURBANK, Calif. – Lisa Marie Presley cocks her head to the right, closes her eyes and whispers the last lines of a lullaby called Soften the Blows.
The sound of one person clapping shatters the silence in the rehearsal space.
"Thank you," says Presley, her looks so reminiscent of her father's that if she added "very much," you'd swear the ghost of Elvis had entered the building. "No one's heard this music live yet, other than a couple of 3-year-olds."
Actually, the argument could be made that no one has truly heard the King of Rock 'n' Roll's daughter before. Until now.
Presley punched out two pop albums in 2003 and 2005, but Storm & Grace, out Tuesday, marks the singer's first genuine musical statement, with its mix of rootsy riffs and confessional lyrics.
"In the past, I was terrified. I'd be nervous and worried about comparisons" to her pioneering father, says Presley, 44, a petite woman who is almost swallowed up by a midsize gray leather couch.
"On this record, I was starting from zero," she says. "But I soon realized I was going to be OK. I found a proper bed for my voice and songwriting to lie in."
The man who helped her assemble that sonic furniture was producer T Bone Burnett, who has been on a tear helping storied artists such as Robert Plant and Gregg Allman reinvent themselves. Burnett insists that the demos he received from Presley's new manager, American Idol creator Simon Fuller, had the goods.
"I heard her telling the truth, not jiving," Burnett says. "Regardless of what crazy roads she's been down, who she is is right there in those songs."
Those roads got particularly rutted in the past four years.
Beyond the shocking death of ex-husband Michael Jackson— whom she won't comment on, other than to say, "I talked to Oprah about all that" — Presley says she was emotionally and fiscally robbed by her closest confidants.
"I was slowly starting to self-destruct, and I didn't know where that was coming from," Presley says without a trace of self-pity. "I started to uncover the main person who was really close to me for years, and then it was a domino effect. I was devastated."
She won't name names but suggests that the damage was both personal and professional. "I got bad advice. I was insulated with no grip on reality," she says. "They were taking my soul, my money, my everything."
The singer credits her husband (and musical director) Michael Lockwood, as well as her twin girls, Harper and Finley, 3½, with keeping her sane. "They got me through it," she says. "I don't mention this to whine, but just to explain where this music came from."
That family 'groove'
In one particularly haunting and catchy track, Un-break, she sings: "I got run over by my own parade, I've suffocated in the beds I've made ... still trying to find a way." In So Long, the message is even more direct: "Farewell, fair-weather friends, can't say that I miss you in the end. So long, seems that I was so wrong."
Presley's newfound voice aside, the importance of Burnett signing on to the project — he was given Presley's demos by Fuller, unbeknownst to the singer — can't be understated, says Will Hermes, Rolling Stone senior critic.
"T Bone helps people escape their legacies, and in this case, he seems to be helping Lisa Marie explore musical forms that are closer to her father's," he says. "Working in the shadow of (Elvis) has to be incredibly hard. It's clear in this album that she's looking past his pop fame and more to his roots."
Burnett says Elvis' progeny benefited from a few key strands of musical DNA.
"Of course you see the family resemblance, but she's got his groove, I will tell you that," he says, laughing. "She has that sense of being in the pocket. That's a family trait. Her dad basically invented that pocket."
The producer's favorite song is Un-break, as much for its music as its message. "It's so tough," he says. "She's saying don't jack me around, don't tread on me."
If Storm & Grace is one big cathartic release, then an important catalyst was Presley's move to England shortly after the twins were born in 2008.
Presley's crew, who enjoy frequent visits from her adult children (Riley, 22, and Benjamin, 19) with first husband Danny Keough, started out in a home west of London before decamping for a sprawling mansion in Kent. She finds it ironic but telling that a move overseas has resulted in an album with unmistakably American roots.
"It's funny, yeah, but the one thing the British really appreciate is our roots music," she says. "People like Amy Winehouse and Adele, they know where our music comes from. So in a way, it makes sense that I found my way back from there."
Presley says she pointedly resisted past suggestions that she record in Nashville ("I'm from Memphis, I don't need to prove I'm Southern," she says with a raised eyebrow) and is convinced her father would approve of her latest effort.
"I'm guessing he'd be proud," she says softly. "I don't know how he'd feel about the other albums, but maybe he'd understand that I needed to go through that before getting to this. But this one, it's more me."
What wasn't her was a decidedly vixenish phase a decade back, which today makes Presley cringe.
"I was pushed to dress really, really super-sexy to try and get young boys going crazy," she says. "I was always fighting it. They were trying to push me to be some sexpot, and I loathed it. It didn't have anything to do with my music. So whenever I got the chance, I'd purposefully wear chains and big giant boots to make it not about being sexy."
Back to Graceland
Manager Fuller was intent on letting his charge dictate terms. "It's important for an artist with Lisa Marie's history and stature to believe in what they do and follow their heart and intuition," he says in an e-mail. "Sometimes it's important to ignore the seductive allure of chasing commercial success, and make an album that you are simply proud of."
Even the album's cover signals a new direction for Presley. The images accompanying 2003's To Whom It May Concern and 2005's Now What both highlighted the singer's sultry looks. By contrast, Storm & Grace shows Presley in tall boots and a loose wrap, strolling through some of Graceland's less well-tended grounds.
She smiles at the memory of the photo shoot.
"I love Graceland. My heart will always be there," she says of the music shrine that was her childhood home until her mother, Priscilla, split with Elvis in 1973, when Lisa Marie was 5. She and her mother work closely on ensuring that the estate remains vibrant, and in February, Lisa Marie helped organize a new exhibit, Elvis ... Through His Daughter's Eyes.
"I would live there, not that that's possible at the moment," she says. "I love everything about it."
Attracted to the bold type
Speaking of deep passion, the album's title track provides a little unsolved mystery. Presley says it's about a specific person, but "it's not about a romantic relationship. It's someone really close to me. Because I love this person so much, it was truly, truly painful to write. I cried while singing the demo."
Presley won't talk about her past relationships, which included a short-lived marriage to actor Nicolas Cage. But she offers an insight into the kinds of people she finds irresistible.
"I was never particularly attracted to mediocrity. I feel suffocated and caged by it," she says. "So I tend to admire artists who push the envelope, who are different, who are changing things, who are interesting.
"That's what my father did. He started the whole thing, he defied all mediocrity at the time. People were either shocked or they loved him, but he was stepping out there. So I related to that really early, and those are the people who attract my attention," she says.
Presley pauses, as if realizing something.
"I like to push boundaries, but to be honest, this new album is just me not fighting with anyone," she says. "I'm finding I do really well when given the freedom to just be who I am."