She has one of the most marvelous voices in pop music. An expansive and versatile instrument that can knock you out with its sheer power or soothe you with its feathery coo, it’s a voice that has elevated the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Nine Inch Nails and Luther Vandross, to name only a few.
But despite her wondrous vocal chops, Lisa Fischer does not have the ego or the ambition to be a star.
Instead, fame came uninvited, via “20 Feet From Stardom,” the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers that told Fischer’s story. “Some people will do anything to be famous,” she says in the movie. “I just want to sing.”
So, 23 years after scoring a No. 1 R&B song and winning a Grammy — over Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Vanessa Williams — Fischer, 55, is undertaking her first-ever solo tour, which brings her to Minneapolis on Thursday for two shows at the Dakota Jazz Club.
“It feels strange, very strange,” she said. “It’s almost like I’m going back in time and fast-forwarding to the future in the present moment. And that’s a really odd feeling because you’re trying to combine all these worlds and all these thoughts and all these fears and all these expectations, while also trying to be true to who you were and who you are now.
“I feel like a lump of clay, and I’m just trying to slowly mold myself without anything breaking off.”
By phone from her New Jersey apartment, Fischer sounded philosophical and grounded but a little uncertain about this solo career stuff. She definitely exudes the in-service-to-others traits of a background singer. That was clear when she phoned two minutes early for our interview. Mention that the typical star is several minutes late, and she breaks into a hearty laugh that rises and falls like a gospel singer testifying.
For her limited 11-show solo tour this month, this vocal shape-shifter has put together a repertoire of tunes from “So Intense,” her 1991 debut album, as well as songs she loves to interpret and “lacings of my history with different artists.”
That probably includes “Gimme Shelter,” which she has performed with the Stones on every trek since 1989. Here’s what goes through her head when she sings it:
“I’m feeling a lot of what Keith [Richards] is playing. He’s pouring gold all around the ground when he’s playing guitar. It rises into the audience and kind of flows over everybody like musical incense. And then Mick [Jagger] starts singing and the whole band is playing. I just feel cloaked with responsibility to be present in that moment with them. And just making sure I’m reading Mick well. He’s so free and he can switch gears, so I watch him to see where he’s emotionally and physically going.”
Although Fischer towers over him with her high heels and huge Afro wig, Jagger has been known to use her as a human jungle gym onstage.
Fischer also tries to “embody the energy” of Merry Clayton, the backup singer who recorded the original song in 1969. They finally got to meet during the filming of “20 Feet From Stardom,” Fischer said: “To be able to look into her eyes and talk to her and hug her, she made it a complete circle for me.”
‘Soul of the movie’
Called “the soul of the movie” by director Morgan Neville, Fischer feels “20 Feet” helped explain the invisible and unglamorous but essential role of backup singers. The documentary also showcases the chameleonic nature and remarkable range of Fischer, who sings everything from a Samuel Barber four-part classical piece to an airy duet with Sting.
There has been talk of a “20 Feet From Stardom” tour including Fischer, Clayton, Darlene Love and others featured in the film. “I have not heard anything about that in a while. Everybody is trying to find her way,” said Fischer, who toured last year with industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails. “I wouldn’t take it off the table. Being in the music business, it’s difficult to count on much of anything. I hear something and I go ‘Cool’ and I keep moving.”
The movie showed Fischer’s apartment in a perpetual state of unpackedness, with posters and commemorative gold and platinum records piled on the floor.
“I’m looking at my apartment right now, and things are still a mess,” she said. “I was thinking this morning: I so need to get someone in here to help me. I’m going to pull it together, hopefully in December. I have a moment to catch my breath and make some plans.”
She’s sandwiching solo shows around a Stones tour in October in Australia.
Originally a Brooklyn club singer, Fischer has had the opportunity to observe many lead singers. What do Jagger, Turner and other stars have that she doesn’t?
“I think each artist has that special light that is absolutely them,” said Fischer. “When I think of Tina’s voice, nobody sounded like her. Find that thing that most people think is odd or a little bit different, it’s probably the thing that makes them special. It’s a matter of embracing that difference within yourself and letting it flourish.”
Music aside, Fischer feels she doesn’t have the ability to be the boss.
“I don’t look at myself as the boss of the band that is kind enough to work with me. I look at it: ‘We come together, we vibrate sound together and hopefully that’s a beautiful and sacred thing,’ ” she said. “Something about the boss thing for me doesn’t feel comfortable. The music is the boss, I’ll put it that way.”
Even though she enjoyed success in her solo career, she gave it up because it became more about her relationship with the record label than with the music. She started working on a second solo album but it was never finished. It became easier to go back on tour with the Stones and Vandross and record background vocals with others including Bobby McFerrin, Chaka Khan, Dolly Parton, Teddy Pendergrass, Aretha Franklin, Sting, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys.
Fischer hasn’t ruled out another solo album.
“I’m thinking about recording music,” she said, sounding both vague and contemplative. “I’m trying so hard about keeping my mind free of what I used to think, versus how I want to think going forward. I do want to record music and make it available for people to listen to. I’m not quite sure what that’s going to look like until it’s done. But I think the music has to come first.”
Does she have backup singers of her own yet?
She laughed. “I’m just starting out. It’s just a trio, and two of the gentlemen sing a little bit. I’m hoping one day I’ll have a budget to do a full production. We’ll see how it goes.”