With its gospel piano progression and downcast lyrics about turbulent waters, it's easy to mistake "Oh Mississippi," the last track on Lissie Maurus' debut LP, Catching a Tiger (Fat Possum), for a Delta missive. It's not until the last verse — "The factories closing/ Kids have grown so fast" — that the song gives a clue as to which stretch she's singing about.
"I grew up in Rock Island, Ill., which is right across the river from Iowa," says Maurus, 28, who records under her first name. "Whenever we'd cross the river to go to Iowa, my dad would say, 'Oh, it's the mighty Mississippi!' There were always these stories about people who had drowned in it. ... It was a big part of my life growing up. I used to go water skiing with my friends, and it was so dirty. It was kind of like, 'Why are we swimming in this water?'"
The song, co-written with U.K. artist Ed Harcourt, first appeared on Why You Runnin', the 2009 record that was, for many, an introduction to the singer/songwriter — a five-song, 20-minute hat-tip to the frayed Americana and country noir of Neko Case and Jesse Sykes, produced by her friend, Band of Horses bassist Bill Reynolds, and anchored by a booming, bootstrapping Midwestern voice. It was also an accident, Maurus says.
"The EP wasn't going to be anything at first," she says. "We did (second track) 'Wedding Bells' and that turned out cool. I ended up going out to [Asheville, N.C.'s Echo Mountain Studios] and did a couple more songs, and then he came out to Ojai, Calif., which is where I live now, and we did a few more songs."
The platter reached Matthew Johnson, head of the Oxford, Miss. imprint Fat Possum, which released it in November 2009 and commissioned a 2010 follow-up. Captured in Nashville, Catching a Tiger isn't the sweeping country statement fans might've expected — Maurus left the coasts and traveled back to America's heartland to find her inner pop star.
The album comprises five songs produced by Reynolds (including three from Runnin') and seven newer tracks recorded with audio engineer Jacquire King (Modest Mouse, Norah Jones). It often sounds like a makeover for Lissie, who at times sheathed her huge voice in country tropes of reverb and remorse. But restless eclecticism has long been part of her and Reynolds' arsenal. Highlight cut "Stranger" prances to a climbing, ringing Omnichord jingle from Reynolds' back catalog, and slinking single "When I'm Alone" alludes to "All My Life" and "The Longest Road," two early collaborations (with DJ Harry and DJ Morgan Page, respectively) that became unexpected dance hits.
"I went honky-tonking a little bit in Nashville, but I was so busy," Maurus says. "We were isolated in [King's] house, out in this neighborhood. I was able to get in my thoughts and spend time on my own without the distractions I would've had if I'd stayed in L.A. ... There's a lot of diversity on this first album, and I think that's good, because it's introducing me to people. None of it was super-intentional. Some people can really start with a vision. I always do everything completely unconsciously, and at the end I can see how it fit together. I think if I set out to do something specific, I end up psyching myself out."
Lissie with Dylan LeBlanc
9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 8
The Parish at House of Blues, 229 Decatur St., 310-4999; www.hob.com
Tickets $10.50 advance purchase, $12.50 day of show