Despite having won a Grammy for her single "How Can I Ease the Pain," Lisa Fischer has, until recently, been best known for her role as a backup singer. This might seem like a concession at first, but when you consider the indelible mark she's left on popular music through those iconic backing vocals, it's evident that there's more.
She has toured and recorded with some of the most successful musicians of our time—The Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Nine Inch Nails—and her role hasn't been an incidental one. Without her, those groups' live performances and recordings would be missing something only her unique vocal standpoint could portray. In fact, her popularity with fans has spawned duets with Mick Jagger and led to a commanding YouTube presence.
Although her solo career had an abrupt end after her Grammy victory in 1991—she reportedly preferred the role of backup singer to soloist at the time—it's back in full force now. Part of that change can be credited to the film Twenty Feet from Stardom. The film, released in 2013, places the spotlight on the all-too-often-overlooked backup singers whose vocal talent helped build the careers of many musicians.
"I never took the time to really look at myself, so the film afforded me the opportunity to see, not only myself, but the parallels with everyone in the film," Fischer says.
The result of this self-reflection has been a step into the foreground, and though the change is a notable one, it doesn't seem to have shaken Fischer's priorities.
Fischer's attitude would befit any great artist and performer, no matter where they're standing. Her point of pride is her voice. Her point of inspiration comes from within, and whether she's buried in stage right or prominently standing front and center, she would put equal effort into her performance. That effort, it has been said time and time again, will make the hairs of the back of your neck stand up.
Her live shows tend to feature a lot of covers, but it would be a mistake to dismiss her act as a cover band. She makes each song she performs her own, taking bits and pieces from her many points of inspiration.
"I love all styles of music, but I think my favorite aspects [of performing] are the melodies and harmonies that form the pieces," she says. "[The possibilities] are endless, and there's always a lesson in it somewhere for me."
After decades of performing, she's still able to find those lessons in every song. It's that growth that makes her as relevant now as she's ever been.
While Fischer has backed up superstars, these days she has her own worthy backing band called Grand Baton. The session musician supergroup is led by JC Maillard, a French multi-instrumentalist from Pointe-à-Pître, Guadeloupe who functions as the group's arranger, director and backup vocalist. Maillard has collaborated with other Grammy winners, as well, and his list of accolades rivals Fischer's. Thierry Arpino and Aidan Carroll (Sister Sparrow, The Dirty Birds) round out the band on drums and bass, respectively.
In addition to her vocal prowess, the caliber of musicians eager to support Fischer speaks to her ability as a front woman and bandleader. She says that her years playing a supporting role made her more of a collaborator as a solo artist.
"Touring with Luther Vandross was my greatest lesson," she says. "His wisdom, harmonies and blending were a gift to all who sang for and with him."
It's clear that Fischer bestows similar gifts of her own.