Musical Love Triangle
By Kevin Wierzbicki
Photography courtesy of Fred Mollin (CD cover), Gianfranco Manai (with microphone, Todd V. Wolfson
(Smile headshot, Courtesy of Lisa Mills (with guitar)
Singer Lisa Mills reimagines the sounds of the South in her new album “The Triangle.”
It’s not something you’re likely to think about when you’re bopping along to a favorite song, but chances are that what you’re listening to has its roots in the South.
Country, rock, blues, jazz, soul, and gospel are just some of the genres that were born in the South, a fact that is especially celebrated within the Americana Music Triangle, the geographic area bounded by Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans. For her new album “The Triangle,” singer Lisa Mills shortened up the Americana Music Triangle a bit to honor the music of Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Jackson, Miss.
Mills was born in Hattiesburg, Miss., and is currently a resident of Mobile, Ala., where she relocated after Hurricane Katrina. A lifetime fan of Southern music, Mills got the idea to re-cut seminal songs in the places of their birth from her producer Fred Mollin.
“My previous album, ‘Mama’s Juke Book,’ was a tribute to my late mother Jan Powell,” Mills says. “Fred thought the next album should be even more of a concept album. I was touring in Europe right up until a few days before we went on this musical road trip, which meant my voice was well warmed-up. At Fred’s suggestion I had been listening to only the tracks we were to record for weeks up until we started.”
With a soulful voice that falls somewhere between Dusty Springfield and Mavis Staples, with hints of Janis Joplin rasp thrown in for good measure, Mills put her own spin on every song on “The Triangle,” even though certain songs brought her a bit of trepidation.
“I was hesitant to cover ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ because Etta James owned that song, and so many others have recorded it,” Mills says. “What helped me make it my own was hearing the original male version that Etta listened to, and Fred putting that modulation in the arrangement.”
“I’d Rather Go Blind” was one of the songs Mills recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals as was another of the album’s standouts, a take on the Little Richard chestnut “Greenwood, Mississippi.” The recording was completed before Little Richard’s recent passing, but as far as Mills knows the legendary rock shouter never heard her version.
“That would have been wonderful but I haven’t heard of it happening,” Mills says.
She did make a sort-of connection with Little Richard as Clayton Ivey, the song’s original keyboard player, also played on Mills’s version.
“There was incredible energy in the studio with Clayton Ivey and the entire band,” Mills says. “I didn’t realize until we met that Clayton had recorded ‘Greenwood, Mississippi’ with Little Richard. I didn’t have much time to get nervous as we were doing several songs in that session, and I believe the energy I got from listening to Little Richard’s recording of this song over and over carried through to the live session. This was literally a ‘one-take’ track on the album.”
For her stop in Memphis, Mills recorded both at Royal Studios and the vaunted Sun Studios where she cut “Just Walking in the Rain,” the album’s bonus track.
“The feeling of being in the same studio where Elvis got his start, hearing the slapback as we recorded ‘Just Walking in the Rain,’ seeing the photos on the wall of many of my musical heroes, and knowing that this was the spot where the Prisonaires laid down the original version of the song all gave me goosebumps,” Mills enthuses. “And at Royal Studios I got to use Al Green’s microphone!”
Slapback is a kind of doubling echo with a relatively long delay between repetitions of the sound.
“The Triangle” was completed with a session at the famed Malaco Studios in Jackson, where Mills revisited songs like the horn-enhanced R&B of “Someone Else is Steppin’ In,” the slow ballad “I’ll Always Love You,” the funky gospel of “Travel On” and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s song of heartbreak, “Members Only.”
While feeding her musical soul in Jackson, Mills also fueled up on some tasty local cuisine. “We had so many wonderful meals along the way, and I love The Mayflower in Jackson!” Mills also cites soul food restaurant The Four Way in Memphis as one of her favorite haunts during her time there.
If Mills wants to continue releasing concept albums, she won’t have to look far for inspiration on the next one; she’s about to get married as soon as the pandemic will allow the event to take place. In the meantime, her love and dedication to the music of the South shines like a diamond on “The Triangle.”