Lisa Fischer on life in the shadows of the Stones and Tina Turner: 'I got used to keeping quiet'

Rolling Stones Money Machine Still

As anyone who has been to a Rolling Stones concert in the past 26 years will tell you, there is a moment where Mick Jagger, for all his grandiose stage swagger, is briefly, but undeniably, upstaged.

As the opening chords of Gimme Shelter begin, Lisa Fischer steps out from behind the backing microphones and roars, in vocals that can fill any stadium, some of the most famous lyrics in pop music: “Rape, muuuurder / It’s just a shot away / It’s just a shot away.” Hers is a voice so big and so spine-tinglingly beautiful that on a nightly basis it does the near impossible: it steals the show from the Rolling Stones. As Jagger himself once said, that duet is “always the high point of the show for me”.

Fischer’s name might not be familiar but if you listen closely, her voice is everywhere. From records by Luther Vandross, Billy Ocean, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys, to live shows from Tina Turner, Chaka Khan and Dolly Parton, Fischer has provided the vocal backdrop and harmonies to some of best-known songs of the past four decades.

Yet the music industry remains one defined by ego, and the giant, complex personalities of those at the front of the stage are the ones who history remembers. The talented – mostly female – voices that rose up behind them have mostly melted into musical oblivion.

Film-maker Morgan Neville changed all that. In 2013, he decided to seek out these seminal but maligned singers and tell their stories, filled more with disappointment and heartache than wealth and glory. The resulting documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, went on to win an Oscar, and elevated Fischer – along with three other generations of backing singers, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Judith Hill – to a level of fame that none had ever achieved.

On the back of that film’s success, Fischer embarked on her first solo world tour at the age of 57, with dates in Australia beginning this week before she returns to the United States. Performing with backing band the Grand Baton, her set is made up of covers from Led Zeppelin to Tina Turner.

It is easy to position this tour as Fischer’s long-awaited moment to finally step out of the shadow of the musical giants she has spent her life serving. But even now the singer visibly shuffles uncomfortably when described as a frontwoman.

“This would be scary if I felt like the real focus were on me per say, but in my head, in order to deal with it, it’s the music that’s really being presented; it is about the music flying. Not so much me,” she says.

There is very little of the rockstar musician in Fischer. Dressed in a floaty black outfit, sandals on her feet, her neck draped in beads, and a small stud in her nose, she speaks in hushed, soothing tones more reminiscent of a meditation instructor than someone with lungs that are a match for Aretha Franklin.

Even when pressed for stories of wild times on tour and in the studio with the Stones, Luther Vandross and Tina Turner, Fischer instead only recounts intimate moments: being jokingly reprimanded by Jagger for eating raw garlic before singing with him on stage; Vandross buying her a specially made fur coat; children’s birthday parties on the Rolling Stones tours. She recalls these memories with her eyes closed and a small contemplative smile plays across her face.

Fischer may appear at peace with the world, but, as she later adds, “it’s taken me almost 50 years to get there”.

“I’m accustomed to being in the background doing my thing and being really content with that,” she says. “But I also wasn’t aware that I was sacrificing myself. My younger self was just really happy when anyone asked me to do anything to do with singing, it was just that simple.”

Indeed, unlike others featured in 20 Feet from Stardom, Fischer never harboured a great desire to forge a solo career (“I was never the girl who was sat in the basement doing my demos or hunting for a record deal”). How Can I Ease The Pain, from her one solo venture, So Intense, beat off Aretha Franklin to win a Grammy in 1992, but the singer struggled with the pressures of a follow-up album and slipped easily back into background singing with a “sense of relief”.

Growing in Brooklyn to a mother who gave birth to her at 15, and an alcoholic father who left when Lisa was 14, hers was not an easy childhood, but it was filled with music. She won a scholarship to study opera at Queens College, but dropped out as she struggled to balance her studies with late-night gigs in New York clubs to pay the bills.

Then, in her early 20s, as she was becoming a new fixture of the local backing singer circuit, she was invited to an audition. Walking in to a New York ballet studio in a leather mini-skirt and blue rayon blouse (“it was the nicest things I had, which wasn’t a lot”), she found herself in front of a man standing behind a piano, smiling and eating a large bucket of chicken. It was Luther Vandross, and this audition would mark the beginning of a long working relationship, with Fischer providing the backup vocals on every Vandross tour and album until he died in 2005. It was also Vandross who pushed her into her brief and successful foray as a solo artist in 1991.

But he meeting with Vandross would also mark the beginning of a life where she relinquished control over her own singing voice – and a large part of herself by extension.

“I guess I didn’t have a sense of self, I was never really thinking much beyond the studio,” Fischer says. “I knew I could sing but as far as content, I didn’t know what I wanted to sing or who I was at all really. But singing background that didn’t matter; speaking your mind has nothing to do with the job requirement. So I got used to keeping quiet.”

Though Fischer professes to love both singing and performing, the spotlight has always been an uncomfortable place for her – and the pressure of being a woman in the music industry eventually grew into an eating disorder that she battled for years.

“Yeah, for me that’s how it manifested,” she says, her voice growing almost imperceptibly soft. “It was always this war between not being in touch with what I needed, either emotionally or just physically ... and my weight would represent whether or not I had a job.”

Did this lack of self-worth contribute to her reluctance to fully pursue the spotlight for herself, even after a No 1 single and a Grammy?

A lengthy silence follows.

“Yes, maybe that’s why I felt like I just wasn’t ready,” Fischer says slowly, her eyes closed again. “Not making the second album was disappointing at first but then after that it was a sense of peace, because back then I couldn’t deal with the expectations that came with even that teeny bit of fame. There was so much to sort out that I hadn’t sorted out – how could I connect with me when I spent all of my time serving everyone else?”

The pressures, Fischer admits, have never really gone away; she says Neville’s film came along at a fortuitous time, as the perils of being an older woman in the music industry had begun to kick in.

She smiles sadly as she recounts a recent session singing with Alicia Keys. “After I was done singing the part she said, ‘Yeah, that old-school sound’. Old school? Right then I knew it was happening.”

She adds: “I realised as I get older, visually the demand for someone who looks like me, at my age, is not as strong and I could see the beginnings of the work slowing down. I started to worry about what I would do, because I still wanted to sing.”

Fischer throws her head back in good-natured laughter, then gets up to leave. She has to board an airplane for the millionth time. That same night she steps to the front of the stage in Oslo, dressed all in black with no shoes and no makeup, able, for the first time in her musical career, to “actually make some decisions of my own, musically and personally”. And as she begins to sing, one thing is clear: stardom is finally right beneath her bare feet.

• Lisa Fischer & Grand Baton’s Australia/New Zealand tour kicks off at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane on 10 June before she returns to the United States for more shows

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Hannah Ellis-Petersen, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 7th June 2016 23.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010