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The Big Story: In the life of Lissie

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Around the world, strangers listen to Lissie’s songs while driving or making dinner or trying to survive a breakup.

They know her lyrics about not wanting to go to work or not wanting to be famous or, most recently, not wanting a boyfriend. They sing along with thousands of other people at her concerts in Norway or Minneapolis or London or New York.

And near the end of Lissie’s shows, her most dedicated fans count on hearing one song — one she didn’t write — and they keep cheering until she plays it. It’s about what she wants. It’s about what everyone wants.

In a way, the song she first covered in 2010 by the rapper Kid Cudi explains what this folk musician is after: Even if she falls, and even if she fails, she’s going to do things her own way. That’s why the Rock Island native moved to California and, 12 years later, bought a farm in northeast Iowa.

She’s not in the pursuit of fame or money. She is, as the song title goes, in the pursuit of happiness.

***

“If I fall if I die, know I lived it to the fullest. If I fall if I die, know I lived and missed some bullets. I'm on the pursuit of happiness and I know. Everything that shines ain't always gonna be gold. I'll be fine once I get it, get it in, I'll be good.”

— “Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi, one of Lissie's most-viewed covers on YouTube

***

Sitting in a booth at a Rock Island cafe earlier this month, Lissie sipped black coffee and easily slipped into talking about an earlier, unhappier, time in her life.

It was here, at Theo’s Java Club, where Elisabeth Maurus worked one of her first jobs and played her first open-mic nights. In her hometown, where she didn’t fit in, this was her refuge.

“I resented the Midwest and Rock Island, because I was different than everyone else here,” said Maurus, 34, who is known as Lissie in the music industry and by her family and close friends. “There were times I felt stifled or not heard. It felt like everyone was trying to squash my spirit.”

During her teenage years, this celebrated musician — who, no matter where she goes in the world, says, “I’m from Rock Island, Illinois” — didn’t know where she belonged. But she knew it was time to get out of here.

Lissie had been dancing and singing since she could walk and talk. When, in third grade, she starred in an 80-performance run of “Annie” at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, her mother remembers thinking, “She’s noticeable.”

“Lissie was just a force to be reckoned with,” her older sister and best friend, Annika O’Melia, said. “She just knew what she wanted, what she wanted to do and how she wanted to be. She didn’t conform to anything really, and that made things challenging for her.”

Her parents and siblings supported her dream. But at Rock Island High School, Lissie — who was outspoken, expressive and sometimes rebellious — didn’t find the same support.

She heard of teachers and classmates calling her “dizzie Lissie” and gossiping about why she quit the cheerleading squad, why she dyed her hair red and why she stopped getting good grades.

“I legitimately felt in high school that there was always one or at least two authority figures a year who had made it their personal mission to extinguish my light and put me in my place,” she said. “It was hard being in this very traditional town where if you don’t find your group, you’re going to struggle a little bit.”

O’Melia, 37, and her two older brothers, on the other hand, didn’t seem to struggle as much, because, she said, “We all conformed.”

“I tried to fit in, and she never did. I was more like, ‘Just change who you are so everyone likes you. Be nice and be kind and don’t make a big fluff of things,’” O’Melia said. “I’ve spent years unlearning what she knew when she was born.”

***

“I could've been a hero. I could've been a zero. Could've been all these things. I could've been nothing. I could've been bluffing. Could've been all these things. And if I am unable, tell him that I'll try. But underneath the table. I will spin the wheel and hope for gold.”

—“Hero,” released in 2016 on “My Wild West”

***

On a Friday night in February 2001, 18-year-old Lissie and a dozen of her family members arrived early to the basketball game at Rock Island High School, where she was a senior. She told the band director, Steve Sherer, she was supposed to sing the national anthem before the game. Lissie had cleared it with the choir director and athletic director, but the message wasn’t passed along.

Sherer told Lissie she couldn’t sing that night.

“No one had ever sang the national anthem before games, so it would’ve been unique,” said Sherer, who now is the band director at Geneseo High School. “She wasn’t a student of mine. I didn’t know who she was. So, I wondered if she was doing this as a prank or if her friends had dared her.”

She thought of her family in the stands, who had come to hear her sing. She asked Sherer again. He told her no. He told her to go away.

“It was this perfect moment of this is how I had felt for four years, ‘Just go away, you don’t fit in, people don’t like you,’” Lissie said. “I just felt so voiceless and powerless that I snapped.”

She threw up her middle finger and spit in Sherer’s face.

It got worse.

Lissie was escorted into a nearby office with school officials, including the school's liaison police officer, who was not in uniform. When her father, Jeff Maurus, carrying a 4-year-old niece on his shoulders, arrived and saw Lissie crying, he suggested they all come back on Monday to resolve the issue.

Her parents were initially told, the Mauruses said, by the assistant principal that Lissie would be suspended for 10 days. 

At some point, the officer and a school official grabbed Jeff Maurus, hurting his shoulder, who was 53 at the time. The physician and father of four fought back, injuring the officer’s hand. He didn't know the man was a cop. 

Maurus was accused of resisting arrest and battering a police officer. Lissie was charged with a felony count of aggravated battery of a school official. After pleading guilty to lesser charges, both were sentenced to a year of court supervision and community service.

“In that moment, I needed to stick up for myself and find my space as a person who has a voice,” Lissie said. “It was like I was made a real stern example of.”

To this day, Lissie’s sister and mother, who witnessed the whole scuffle, get emotional when they talk about that night and the events that followed.

“It escalated into this whole thing when it really didn’t need to,” O’Melia said. “I wish there would’ve been cellphone videos of it, so people could see what really happened.

“My dad has so much integrity, and he’s so gentle, and he got painted as this guy who flipped out. It traumatized our parents. And it changed our lives.”

Classmates sent Lissie hate mail, saying she was a loser, a slut and worse, and her parents were the target of angry, often bizarre, anonymous phone calls, telling them "not to mess with the police." 

She was expelled from Rock Island High School, so she took classes at an alternative school. She wasn’t allowed to walk at her graduation or go to senior prom.

“I left here feeling not only do I not feel understood or appreciated, I feel actually unsafe,” she said. “I feel like people are gunning for me, and I need to get out of here.”

***

‘And, sorry, you didn’t break me’

***

Lissie doesn’t regret sticking up for herself. She regrets how she did it and that it hurt her family.

“It was devastating, especially for my mother, to sit back and watch,” she said. “It was a real slap in the face to have everyone saying what they wanted about us.”

Jo Ellen Maurus has thought about writing a book about the incident and its fallout. Healing has been slow to come.

“Almost every day, I think we should’ve fought for ourselves and done it differently,” she said. “I think we should’ve spoken out about the incident and set the record straight. But we were afraid.”

At the time, Jeff Maurus had an OB/GYN practice. If they went to trial, as they considered and prepared to do for months, he risked losing his medical license.

“The true story was never told,” Jo Ellen Maurus said. “We were never allowed to tell it, because there was too much at stake.”

The Mauruses, who have been married for 48 years, said they’re mostly disappointed in how extreme the punishment was, saying it “should’ve been a school issue, not a police issue.”

“It was a very difficult time,” Jeff Maurus said. “But if that’s the worst thing that ever happens to me and my family, that’s OK.”

For Sherer, closure came in 2008, when he saw Lissie after she performed at River Roots Live.

Sherer passed by Lissie after her set and said, “I don’t know if you remember who I am.”

Lissie said she knew exactly who he was. She apologized again to Sherer, who had replayed that “bizarre” incident over and over in his mind.

“It was all very sincere. She told me about the bad time she had in high school with teachers, and she said, ‘You were a teacher, and that was the last straw,’” Sherer said. “I was the one who got the sum of her anger. I never took it personally; I felt she was lashing out at the situation.”

Lissie got through it.

“At the end of the day, I turned out OK, and my dad stuck by me and my family stuck by me. Sometimes, when you’re trying to be your authentic self and stick by the people you love, the world around you is going to try to break it,” she said. “And, sorry, you didn’t break me. And I'm back. And I’m not bitter, but, I'm also like, I remember.”

She especially remembers that Friday night. After being handcuffed in front of what seemed like the whole school, she went to jail for a few hours.

At that time in her life, Lissie didn’t know what was ahead.

But she went on to study at Colorado State University and, at 21, moved to Los Angeles and landed a record deal. She toured around the world, won the iTunes U.K. “Song of the Year” award, performed live on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Conan” and opened for Lenny Kravitz and Tom Petty, with her family in the audience. She is frequently compared, vocally, to Stevie Nicks. Her songs have been streamed millions of times on YouTube and Spotify.

Her spirit, in other words, has survived.

It remained intact all along. What most people don't know is that Lisse, locked in a jail cell, sang the national anthem that night after all.

***

“I think I'll go for a walk, cause it's a nice day for it. Tune out the talk. Take a breath and start again. And where I'll go, oh, I don't know. The path will show”

— “Go for a Walk,” released on “My Wild West”

***

During her 12 years in California, including seven in LA and five in Ojai, Lissie found what she had been looking for: success and belonging.

“She went away and found groups of people that understood her,” her sister said. “She was freed from the mold of what it looks like to be a Midwestern girl — that you have to be cute and bubbly and fit in.”

She had left the Midwest, because she felt like it didn’t have anything to offer. But then, she missed the changing seasons, her friends and her family.

“I sort of realized that I could live anywhere,” she said. “A part of my soul always gravitated toward and felt compelled to venture back.”

In June 2015, Lissie decided on a whim to buy a small, rundown house with a lot of land in northeast Iowa. She moved in about a year later.

To her mother, the move home was inevitable.

“She’s a Midwestern person,” Jo Ellen Maurus said. “She’s a real, honest person. She belongs here.”

***

“I fell in love with California. Fell in love with a dream. No matter how they try and warn you. You fall apart at the seams. Still, a dream's all you need”

— “Hollywood,” released in 2016 on “My Wild West”

***

On Lissie’s 50-acre farm a few hours away from Rock Island, she can live without the baggage that collected in high school. She also escapes the buzz of Hollywood.

In her kitchen, she opens a bottle of red wine, which is so much her drink of choice that she often brings her own bottles to her shows, just in case the venue doesn’t serve it. After years of back-to-back nights of performing on stage, where “you’re basically at a party in your honor,” she’s burnt out on cheap beer and mixed drinks. She’s thinking about cutting out alcohol altogether. She’s thinking about starting to rollerblade for exercise.

She thinks a lot here, while smoking cigarettes on her front porch or looking after her garden or canning vegetables. A part of her wants to make it to the next level. She would love to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live and sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

“There are times I think that the next two years, I’m going to hit it hard and leave no stone unturned,” she said. “I’m going to tour and just make anything and everything that can happen for me happen."

Another part of her isn’t so sure. She would like to get married and have kids. She would like to turn her acreage into a conservancy and maybe put a recording studio in her barn.

In the meantime, she has a new album due out next year.

Veggie ❤️🍓🍅🍆🥒🌱🍎🌶

A post shared by Elisabeth Maurus (@lissiemusic) on

“I do want to share my music with the world,” Lissie said. “I’d almost rather have a long career that grows slowly than one big explosion of fame and success. I’d love to be one of those musicians who at 65 or 70 can still show up with an acoustic guitar and sing my songs to people who want to hear them.”

Before Lissie moved in, she brought her sister to look at the farm.

O’Melia said if someone would pay Lissie to grow wildflowers and raise her bees and make music without a deadline, she would be in heaven.

“I remember looking at it, and she put her hands on her chest and said, ‘This is home, I’m home here,’” O’Melia said. “Being on that land is her sense of God.”

***

“I miss the seasons. I miss the land, I miss them for reasons I don't understand. I took it all for granted. I bloomed where I was planted.”

— “Ojai,” released in 2016 on “My Wild West”

***

When Lissie returns to the Quad-Cities to play a show or see her family, she doesn’t focus on the “bad chunks of memories,” she said.

“There’s a spirit to the Quad-Cities; there’s almost this underdog spirit that I relate to,” she said. “Wherever I go in the world, I say I’m from Rock Island, Illinois. And I say that proudly. I wouldn’t want to be from anywhere else. It’s a really special place to grow up. It gave me values that I wouldn't have had if I had grown up in a city or on the coast. I can go around the world, and people say I’m nice and open. And I’m honest. I try to do the right thing, and I try to help people out. I don’t take myself too seriously.”

Those values have helped her stay true to herself as her career has taken off.

“That’s the story of her life,” O’Melia said. “She doesn’t want to look how anyone else wants her to look or sound like anyone says she should sound.”

Lissie, who is single, still stands out among her siblings, who have families of their own.

Dang oslo! Tonight was crazy & amazing & fun!!! ❤️ thank you!

A post shared by Elisabeth Maurus (@lissiemusic) on

O’Melia, a therapist, opened her own practice in September, called Quad-City Women’s Therapy, in Bettendorf. Their oldest brother, Zach, went to Stanford University and is an investment banker, and their other brother, Peter, is a doctor.

“We are very much nerds,” O’Melia said. “She’s the cool one.”

For O’Melia, it’s one thing to describe Lissie’s cool factor — her force. It’s another thing to see it.

When O’Melia watches her sister perform, she doesn’t see a grown-up rock star. She remembers a 4-year-old girl wearing funny outfits, weighed down by costume jewelry, singing and dancing in front of a video camera. She sees a girl with a light that no one could put out.

“It’s like I finally can see it,” O’Melia said. "There was a lot in there that needed to get out of her.”

***

“Living in my heartland. Bird calling, water falling, dreams in the sunshine. Drinking red wine in the summertime. Sun tan and Steely Dan and sounds on the radio. And it's all mine.”

— “Boyfriend,” released in June 2017 from her upcoming album

***

As she renovated her home and farm, Lissie painted the outside of the barn and shed with cartoon-like images of the sun and flowers and rainbows.

“Can you tell it’s girly farm?” she jokingly asks neighbors when they bring her eggs or meat. “I just kind of make it my own here.”

Back in her kitchen, she turns on the stove to fry some chicken and sautee zucchini and squash from her garden. She goes outside to the porch to smoke another cigarette. It’s chilly out, so she might build a bonfire and invite friends over to watch the sunset, or she may start packing for her trip to California, watch a couple episodes of “The Office” and go to bed early. She texts a friend about going square dancing when she gets back to Iowa.

@humanswin

A post shared by Elisabeth Maurus (@lissiemusic) on

Singing a made-up tune to her dog, Byron, she goes to the sink and looks out the window at the rolling land that is all hers. It’s what she has dreamed about and written songs about for so long, having that space of her own.

Above her sink hangs a needlepoint canvas, a gift from a fan, stitched with the words, “Never give up on your stupid, stupid dreams.”

And she hasn’t — not as a teenager with a reputation for making trouble, nor as a singer, making a name for herself. Having traveled the world, Lissie is finding what she was looking for. It was close to home, all along.

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).