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Of No Concern

Remember when Lisa Marie Presley kissed Michael Jackson on TV that time? Yeah, still pretty gross.
Mario Testino

If Lisa Marie Presley had the last name of, say, Jones, would the Dallas Observer be speaking to the singer who put out the album To Whom It May Concern? Given the music on her now gold record, maybe, maybe not.

Then again, Presley hardly needs to strive for any further media attention; she's been news and tabloid fodder since soon after her conception. Yet she was more than willing to find time to speak to us prior to her State Fair show this weekend. "It's the same thing for me as anybody else," she bluntly offers. "It's the right thing, and I'm coming there, and it's part of the deal. I don't mind." Nor does it seem that she minds that people want to talk to her because her name is Presley.

On the other hand, wouldn't it in some ways be far easier as a new artist to not bear her father's surname of Presley--a source of massively daunting expectations--and simply be taken on her own terms? "There's good and bad connected with it. It still all ends up being on me, regardless of the name letting me through a door possibly or getting me attention. It still all ends up on my plate, whatever ends up ultimately happening," says the 35-year-old woman whose plate had already been piled miles high long before she went into her father's profession.

"I don't wish I was someone else," Presley says. "But I did think of not using my last name on the album and trying to go for a band name or something like that." Not that she could have escaped who she happens to be. Besides, "the record company didn't like that idea very much."

Welcome to the newly hatched musical career of Lisa Marie Presley. As with every artist, and especially with debut acts, she has to deal with her record company's wishes and whims. And she has to deal with the fact that her father was the true American rock and pop singing idol, as well as her well-publicized teen years on drugs, marriages and all the other events that have made her a tabloid headline favorite.

Despite the fact that Presley has lived a life that has made her the punch line for more than a few late-night TV monologue jokes, To Whom It May Concern has forced at least part of the world to seriously consider her as a singer and songwriter. It has gotten generally positive reviews in many marquee publications, as it should. It's a solid work of modern pop-rock, with a couple of genuinely hooky numbers alongside some more somber tracks. Its lyrical bent and concerns are not all that far removed from Alanis Morissette, Meredith Brooks or even Liz Phair--contemporary female anguish. And Presley sings rather well in a husky and feminine baritone sax of a voice that at times reminds of Cher (and, we are told, was not digitally pitch corrected).

So if she were Lisa Marie Smith or Jones, To Whom It May Concern likely would have gotten some positive attention, though hardly anywhere near as much as it has. After all, she's Lisa Marie Presley. She's as rich as a Saudi sheik, and all she has to do is something out of the ordinary to land on the cover of The National Enquirer. So, then, it's rather ballsy of her to put out a record and hit the road. She doesn't need the money or the public attention. And launching a singing career could have just painted yet another target on her chest. But Lisa Marie Presley wants to be taken seriously as a musical artist and maybe earn what is certainly in her case some hard-won credibility.

As Presley tells it, singing is what she has always felt fated to do. As a child, she would spend hours in her room with her record player being a mirror star, microphone in hand. It's something many kids do, but when your bedroom is in Graceland, suddenly that innocent act becomes invested with a huge psychic weight.

What would she listen to? "When I was real, real little, it was the Sweet Inspirations--they had their own record out at one point. I knew all the lyrics," she recalls. "I was really into the Partridge Family as a kid. And my dad's records as a kid when I was tiny. And then later on, at about 7, I got really into Elton John and went on from there."

During her first marriage in her early 20s to musician Danny Keough, Presley took her first tentative steps as a singer. "He was someone that I was really comfortable with and could sing in front of," she explains of the father of her two children, who remains a close friend. "I had been doing vocal scales with this woman and still really hadn't tried to sing. Just exercising, and I don't know what that purpose was." But one day, "I pulled [Keough] in the car, and I said, I want you to listen to this. And I sang a song. And he went, wow. And then I said, I want to go in, and I want to record something. But if it doesn't sound good, we're going to walk out and act like nothing ever happened. And I don't want anybody to know about it."  

Keough put down a track of an Aretha Franklin song. "Then I went into the studio, and I did it in about five takes, considering that I never sang before...ever. That's kind of how it started," Presley recalls. "Then we started writing very quickly after that and set up a studio in the house. And we would always write and then always get in a fight afterwards, because we would hate the song. Then later we'd listen and go, hey, that wasn't bad actually.

"He just always was there when I was going through stuff. And I'd say, I need to write; I need to get this out. There's tons of that and tracks from over the years that exist. I don't think he ever knew if I was actually ever going to do anything with it because he knew that I was terribly frightened to really go out there for a long time."

Even after getting a deal with Capitol Records, it took her a number of years and tries before she had an album she was satisfied with. Presley says she is now over the fright and her trepidation about going onstage, though a painful case of stomach reflux continues to be aggravated by the act of singing.

She sees her musical emergence as akin to scaling many mountains. "I just knew that I put an honest record out and I'm just going to be who I am," she asserts. "I'm not going to be some PR-imaged personality that contradicts the nature of the record. It was one of those things that I am who I am. And you're just going to have to bare your ass and hope people can deal with that. I wasn't going to put up some façade. That was mountain number one. And it kind of went from there. Now go sing live. Now go on TV. Now go start talking to the press, which I've never done."

And the Lisa Marie Presley who has emerged in the media is a woman with a rather appealing and refreshing bluntness and honesty who remains unapologetic about who she is--rare traits, perhaps, for someone raised rich and in the center of the public eye. How did she turn out that way? "I really have no idea. Probably doing a lot of work on myself for a good part of my life. I don't even know if it's a good thing, to be honest," she says.

Well, there are some of us who appreciate a woman who can't help but speak her mind. "It can go both ways. It can also be an absolute nightmare," notes Presley. "I just don't personally like people who aren't straight shooters. I don't have anything in common with that type of personality. So I kind of go to the extreme the other way."

One surprise found on To Whom It May Concern is the dark, edgy and conflicted tone to many of Presley's lyrics, an extreme some didn't expect from her. Where does the darkness come from? "Well, life," she says as if it's simply a matter of fact. "Who doesn't have it? It doesn't symbolize my normal state of mind, you know. But I do pull from that. And I know that that's the kind of music I respond to from others. And I respond to that type of music myself because I think, oh wow, that person has been through whatever or they captured that perfectly and I know what that feels like, or something like that. It's definitely out there. I'm not any different from anybody else in terms of what life has been like. Life is life."

And one key to understanding Presley's life and music might be that she's quite a passionate person, right? "Yeah..." she tentatively answers. Mixed feelings, perhaps? "I just came to terms with that not long ago--that I'm just a renegade. That's just who I am. I can't get too worried about it. I keep a straight line as far as ethics and integrity. I don't want to break laws and be crazy. But as a spirit, I'm a renegade. And I just recently came to terms with that instead of beating myself up because I'm not normal."  

And her greatest passions are music and using it to express herself. "I was looking in the mirror with a microphone at 2 or 3 years old, so it was something that was there from the beginning." And when asked if there's anything else she'd be pursuing if not music, Presley asserts, "No...honestly.

"I did it because it was just instinctive to do for me. I'm just a huge music lover. The more I'm out there and the more the fans are there and the more they tell me their stories and I see that I've touched people, that's why I do it. That's what feeds me at the end of a show--if I meet people and they tell me, you know, your record got me through cancer or this or it changed that or this lyric did that. Then I am going, OK, this is why I am doing this, not for any other reason."

In the one song on the album that references her father, "Lights Out," Presley sings about the space left among her relatives buried at Graceland "there in Memphis in the damn back lawn." When she finally ends up there, does Lisa Marie Presley have any wish for how her epitaph might read? "Oh, God. Uh...I don't even know. I couldn't answer you on that one. And it's much too depressing to think about." But maybe, just maybe, given her start on a musical career, it might even say more truthfully than for her father--I did it my way.


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