I’m changing. You’re still the same. Your anger brings me so much pain. Each and every time you slam that door. It makes me cry and I’ve been here before.
“I’m Changing” by Lisa Mills
Lisa Mills is haunted by her first studio album, I’m Changing, because it didn’t turn out the way she planned. Recorded in 2005, the album is now out of print but she can’t leave it in the past. “I had vocal problems while I recorded I’m Changing and it was incomplete and unfinished,” says Mills, a singer/songwriter from Mobile, Alabama. “It could be a damn good album and I can’t let it go and move on until it sounds the way I envisioned. I had to go back into the studio to make it better and put it out again.”
Re-releasing I’m Changing is more than a step backward to move forward. Her voice is again where it should be, but the project has also been a time of healing as she recovers from the death of her mother and biggest supporter who died of cancer in May 2012. Her loss and grief were deep and she privately struggled with her music and the work of being a musician but the album project provided a way out and a new direction. “Giving this album a second chance is part of reclaiming myself,” says Mills.
Before she opens her mouth, Mills attracts attention with her wavy-red hair tinged with gold, autumn-colored vintage clothes, and blue eyes that flash her feelings. She sings with raw, emotional power tinged with a quiet ache that reveals life is not always calm beneath the sparkling surface. The strong, bold voice breaks into pieces when her man walks out the door.
“I am off the charts intuitive and emotional,” says Mills. “From the heart is the only way I know how to write and my songs show what I am feeling. I want music to be real, full, textured, and resonant. It has to be believable.”
Mills calls herself an outgoing introvert and she started singing at a young age to help make sense of her life. Music still provides the communication, attention and approval that she missed in her childhood. “I started singing because I felt like people weren’t listening and they weren’t hearing me,” says Mills. “My life was chaotic from 2nd grade through 7th grade because my dad left and we moved around a lot and often changed schools. My mom worked all of the time to support my two brothers and me. Singing was a chance for me to fit in somewhere and do something I was meant to do.”
Mills was seven years old when she sang “Jesus Loves Me” in the tiny church in Cottage Springs, Mississippi that was built by her grandmother and great uncles. Years later, her music is still shaped by church and family. “The thread in my musical journey is gospel music,” says Mills. “Whether it was from my little church or the gospel singers that I admire like Gladys Night, Etta James, Bobby Blue Bland and Aretha Franklin, gospel music has always felt right and comfortable for me. After my mom died, I found a notebook with the lyrics of her favorite songs and I sing some of those same songs. This is where I come from.”
The music that started in church evolved into southern roots music. “My music is a melting pot of blues, soul, gospel, folk and country—all of the things that are truly southern,” says Mills. Her first paying gig was at a local restaurant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi when she was in high school and later she sang lead for Janis Joplin’s former band Big Brother and The Holding Company. Her music has taken her across the U.S. and Europe. Regular trips to visit friends and play clubs around New York City and New Jersey are building a new audience in the Northeast.
“I fell in love with Lisa the first time she played at our restaurant,” says Ruth Perretti a Senior Vice President of the Women’s Division at Ralph Lauren. Her husband owns Ruthie’s BBQ in Montclair, NJ. “Lisa stands there by herself with her guitar and blows us away. There is an authenticity that she is bringing from her world through her stories and songs of the South. She should be on bigger stages and whenever she is around, I have to share her. I want everyone to experience the joy I feel when I hear her sing.”
Mills has a voice and presence that rivals Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi, but she is still searching for her place. “Before I made the album I’m Changing I played music to make people happy,” says Mills. “Something shifted along the way and I felt the pressure to be an artist and supply a product. That gets intimidating. I look at my peers and see that they are doing well and I sometimes feel far behind. I question where I fit in.”
Insecurities and dark times give the emotional push and pull of her songs. “I make myself vulnerable and I feel my feelings and out of those feelings I create, but it’s not a pretty process,” says Mills “I can also source my feelings and bring it out in songs. Every song has a story and you never forget the original feeling of writing a song. It is like remembering the birth of your child.”
One of those songs came after a broken night of searching for answers and prayer. The a cappella “Tell Me” was in her head when she woke up the next morning.
We all have a journey we must be on
Sometimes so lonely but it won’t be long
I feel your presence and your spirit it calls
Save me, don’t let me fall
Tell me what I am supposed to do
Dear God you made me and to myself I must be true
Save me from a life without you
Tell me what am I to do.
“Lisa has the ability to let a song like ‘Tell Me’ live and be in the moment,” says photographer Darina Neyret who has taken publicity shots of Mills and helped her build and audience in Austin, Texas. “There are moods and life in her songs and she flows where the song wants to go that day.”
“Tell Me” is one of the nine original songs on I’m Changing. Finishing the album correctly meant bringing back the original musicians, including bass player Ian Jennings from England, into the original studio, hiring Grammy-winning engineer Trina Shoemaker to mix it together, and launching a Kickstarter campaign to help raise $30,000 to pay for production and promotion of the album.
The I’m Changing project not only reconnected Mills to her music, it also revived an artistic side that she put away when she became a full-time musician. Three of the Kickstarter prizes are sculptures Mills made when she majored in fine arts at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, MS.
“I recently bought a new angle grinder to add to one of those sculptures,” says Mills. “It felt so good to have it in my hands and breathe in the little bits of bronze and get my hands dirty. I had forgotten that playing with clay objects and space brings order and peace and makes me feel grounded. Holding that angle grinder is the same feeling I used to get from holding my guitar. I am ready to have that feeling again and be connected to my creativity in a healthy, open way.”
Mills is learning that stability only comes from the inside, not the outside. “I have had to fight for my sense of security and serenity,” says Mills “I know what it is like to be in dark places and struggle to breathe and function, but I also know the joy of music and creating and I’m Changing gave that back to me. The best advice my mother ever gave me was the last thing she said—enjoy your life. I am still learning how to do that.”
I’m Changing includes the nine songs that were on the first album plus three new songs, “I Don’t Want to Be Happy,” “Eyes So Blue,” and “Rain in the Summertime.”