20 Feet From Stardom Breakout Star Lisa Fischer Set For Saint John Debut On Friday

Photo by Djeneba Aduayom
Photo by Djeneba Aduayom

While some artists are unapologetically born to live in the spotlight, Lisa Fischer is not one of them. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t become a star in her own right, however.

As the breakout star of the 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, a film that offers a closer look at what many artists consider to be the unsung heroes of music – the background vocalist – Fischer has earned herself a rather impressive career while standing in those shadows, so to speak.

For more than 25 years, Fischer was an integral part of the Rolling Stones’ live show, mesmerizing audiences with her powerful vocals on the group’s hit “Gimme Shelter.” She has also sung with the likes of Sting, Chaka Khan, Tina Turner and the late Luther Vandross.

Performing at Saint John’s Imperial Theatre on Friday evening, her only show in the province and one of just two in the Maritimes, Fischer says that she never really had grand aspirations of becoming a big star.

“I was definitely one of those kids that was a bedroom pop star,” Fischer says, with a laugh. “I was always singing along to 7-inch singles I had. I could spend hours by the speakers, just listening to the vocal parts, figuring out who was singing what. It was like a puzzle that kept me occupied; I loved every moment of it.”

Once she exited the relatively comfortable confines of her bedroom, Fischer found herself gravitating towards the church choir. Even back then, her expectations was modest.

“I just wanted to find something that I could be a part of. The choir was intriguing to me; I felt instantly comfortable being in the background, just being one of the voices in the pool of sound that we created together. It is where my heart told me I should be, and so I listened.”

Fischer’s career began gaining steam in the 80’s when she was hired by R&B legend Luther Vandross. Seeing the talent she possessed, Vandross began to mentor Fischer, eventually helping her secure management representation as well as a solo album deal.

While remaining grateful for the opportunities that had come her way, Fischer recalls feeling as if she was being pulled in a number of contrasting directions during the making of her 1991 album How Can I Ease The Pain. 

“The making of that album stretched over a long period of time because, in my head, I was a dedicated background singer. It was my way of being responsible to myself, but the record company began intervening, letting me know they didn’t feel it was feasible for me to be trying to make an album while still juggling the responsibilities of performing with others.”

Understandably, Fischer began feeling overwhelmed at the pressure of being exerted on her. Helping give Fischer direction was acclaimed producer Narada Michael Walden (Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin) whom she credits as having helped push her forward in a positive manner.

“Narada helped me focus, define my sound and gave me a platform to sing on and to write with him. Most importantly, however, is that he gave me stability. Working with him on How Can I Ease The Pain was a delight.”

For all of Fischer’s doubts about venturing into the realm of a solo career, she was handsomely rewarded in the end: The album ended up winning a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance.

Yet for all the success and adulation that had come her way, efforts to capitalize on her monumental Grammy win were stalled when she decided she was actually happier not being in the spotlight.

“I ended up getting started on a second record, but just felt very unsure about whether or not that was what I should be doing with my life,” Fischer says. “I was grateful for the success, but knew, deep in my heart, that I was happier singing background vocals. It’s not the decision that everybody would have made, but I just needed to do what was best for me.”

The remainder of the 90’s and the first dozen years of this century were good to Fischer. In addition to continuing to work with the Rolling Stones and Tina Turner, while also landing significant new gigs, including one with Nine Inch Nails and Police frontman Sting.

Although she couldn’t have known it at the time she agreed to participate in the making of 20 Feet From Stardom, the Academy Award-winning documentary has inadvertently given Fischer’s solo career a second lease on life.

In 2014, Fischer and her backing band, Grand Baton, famously set out on tour with no product to sell or to help promote shows. Not surprisingly, Fischer’s reputation preceded her, playing a significant role in helping her and her band landing prestigious shows at the Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals as well as others.

With Grand Baton, Fischer spreads her artistic wings across a variety of genres, using her vocal prowess to not only belt out original material, but to also help reinvent select covers by groups including the Rolling Stones.

Asked if she is yet comfortable being the main attraction, the affable Fischer says she has grown accustomed to the notion that people want to hear her sing.

“Thanks to the documentary, I’ve gained a whole new perspective on my career. My comfort level is leaps and bounds different now as I near age 60 than I was the first time around, almost 30 years ago. When I was younger, I was always worried about how I sounded, but with age comes wisdom. At this point in my career, I feel like I’ve been given a beautiful gift and am excited to be in a position to share that with others,” Fischer says.

Fischer is slated to attend a screening of 20 Feet From Stardom at the New Brunswick Museum’s Mary Oland Theatre on Thursday Nov. 10 starting at 6:45 p.m. She will also take part in a Q&A session following the presentation.

What: Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton
When: Friday Nov. 11, 8 p.m.
Where: Imperial Theatre, 12 King Square South
Tickets start at $46.50. Advance tickets are available at the Imperial Theatre Box Office, by phone (506) 674-4100 and online at imperialtheatre.nb.ca.