Lisa Fischer is not a household name. But there are people who know that Fischer has sung with the Rolling Stones in concert since 1989, famously dueting with Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter” and doing a bump-‘n’-grind with him during “Miss You.” She also might be known for spending two decades singing backup for the late soul great Luther Vandross.
“One time I was shopping at the mall,” says Fischer, “and I pulled out my credit card and [the clerk] said, ‘You have the same name as the singer!” I said, ‘Really?’
Did Fischer ask the clerk if she thought the singer was … any good?
“It was so tempting, but I just couldn’t do it,” says Fischer, with a high-pitched laugh. “She was so young.”
Fischer, who returns to the Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro Sunday Aug. 24 with her backing trio, has a lot of credits, including touring stints with Sting, Chris Botti and last year with Nine Inch Nails. But Fischer is not the first to sing her own praises.
“I never felt comfortable with what my voice was doing,” Fischer says, on the phone from her New York home. “I was 10, 11, and my voice hadn’t really developed and I didn’t know what I was doing. I could sort of hear where I was going to be ten or 20 years down the line, but at that moment I found it awful.”
And even at 55, Fischer says, “It’s a hard energy for me to shake.”
So, let’s let Warren Zanes step up to the plate. Zanes, former Del Fuegos guitarist and a double Ph.D-holding professor, was a consulting producer on the Oscar-winning documentary, “20 Feet from Stardom.” Fischer was one of the four key singers featured in the film, about the largely unheralded world of backup singers.
“’20 Feet’ looked at some of the great voices of the second half of the twentieth century and after,” says Zanes in an e-mail. “Lisa nonetheless emerged as a singular talent. I don’t think any other singer in the film demonstrated her kind of range of musical possibility. She really showed the outer limits of what the voice can be as an instrument. When she goes breathy and light, there’s a stunning richness of tone and control. When she goes for power, she can match any singer who has spent their time blowing down church walls.”
The movie raised Fischer’s profile. After seeing the movie, Trent Reznor, leader of the hard-edged industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails, tracked her down to get her to sing on last year’s tour. No, she’d never heard of them.
“He was so peaceful,” she says, recalling him asking “’Why don’t you listen to the music and see how it feels to you?’ I go to my manager’s office and listen and go ‘Oh, Oh! Ow!,’” sounding like a shocked Marge Simpson. “I love the energy of angst, it’s so freeing. Just vocally I loved where he was coming from, so open and out there. There were no rules. He taught me so much, trying to find the right timbre and put it against what was already there.”
But when Fischer talks about “20 Feet,” she mostly recalls how she felt watching the movie. “I was intrigued by the way Morgan Neville, the director, sewed our lives together,” she says. “A lot of times we [backup singers are] working and in our own atmospheres, doing our thing, and if the planets align we get to sing together. It’s always something that’s cherished for me, like a family reunion, this unspoken language we speak when we’re actually singing together, a kind of joyousness.”
Fischer won a Grammy in 1992 for the single, “How Can I Ease the Pain” from her debut album “So Intense.” But Fischer didn’t choose to pursue a solo career.
“My deepest comfort zone was with Luther Vandross,” she says. “That was my first big tour and he taught me so much about how to sing, what to sing, how to deliver from a background singers point of view. Just witnessing him as an artist was a beautiful sight because he was able to be a background singer and a lead vocalist – he understood both worlds. I was in awe at his capacity for patience and knowledge, just how giving he was.”
It’s “Gimme Shelter,” though, which has become, in a way, her signature song. She takes the wailing vocal role originally sung by Merry Claytoncq – also in “20 Feet” – and goes toe to toe, face to face, with Jagger night after night.
“It’s like being in nature with all the elements,” says Fischer, “with all the possibilities of danger and bliss. That energy comes from Mick because he’s such a naturalist. It’s like he’s shooting an arrow, constantly pulling back the bow and going for this honest emotion in that moment. He makes it real every time, so that’s something of what I’m trying to do, ride his wave and be there with him.”
Fischer says she’s only trying to fill Clayton’s shoes the best she can. “I try to match Merry’s energy in the sense of urgency. Just to be in the position to be able to have the audience relive the sounds of the record on some level. To be able to look in Mick’s eyes every night – and Keith’s eyes, that riff that he does – it’s almost like you feel the combustion.”
Although Fischer says her set list is not certain for tonight’s concert, it’s a pretty good bet a revamped “Gimme Shelter” will be there. “I enjoy that. Just a slightly different arrangement of it to suit me more. The energy of the guys [Stones] is not there so it has to be tailored a bit more for me.”
Fischer did a few shows last year, but she’s still in the early phase of this reborn part of her career. What else might be expected tonight?
“I love ballads,” she says. “I could do a whole concert of ballads, but people would be sleeping and falling on the floor. Zzzzz. I have a focus as to where it’s going to go, but I take the attitude of it’s an exploration. The approach is to use what I know as a background singer and from the one CD I did and from working on records where you have a featured step-out vocal.
“It’s like I’ve been doing little relay races rather than a long run. So the flow is going to be different. The thread that I need that’s going to help me is to embody all that, to be inclusive of everything I am as a person and what I’m like musically. The style and taste will probably be a big stew of different things – rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, a little bit of world and classical. I don’t pin myself down. It’s sort of all new, even though I’m old. I’m coming out of my lead singer shell. Let’s see what happens!”