The oldest of five children, Lisenby was born in 1966 in Columbus, Georgia to very modest and hardworking parents. Her inclinations toward music were given a firm foundation at a very early age. "I don't remember how it came about, I was just lucky, but as far back as I can remember, until high school, I was always in choir." Encouraged by her father, who paid for voice lessons, she entered college, dropped out, then returned at 23 to complete a degree in Studio Arts at Auburn University.
While living in Montgomery, Alabama, she joined her first band "The Next," a 6-piece Top 40 band that met with some local success. "I stuck it out for a while but we only did covers. It wasn't creative enough so I left." With her guitarist she tried perfoming as an acoustic duo, experimenting for the first time with writing her own material. But the partnership faded and needing to make a living, she focused her efforts entirely on ceramics
"I was in Florida then and had a successful thing going. My art was being displayed, I was selling well at festivals and galleries, and I was teaching adults and children. I love working with kids. They don't limit themselves. Trees hang upside down in the sky, people have four arms. That fearlessness inspired me and my work. I tried anything I felt like trying and usually stuff just worked out."
In 1998, she moved to Arizona to complete a Masters degree in Art therapy at a prestigous private college. One fateful summer evening some friends invited her to sing with their rock band. "I sang Dracula Moon in the parking lot of this coffee shop and there were some songwriters in the audience who came up to me afterwards and said they wanted to make an album. So we started working together." In a matter of months, Lisenby released her first effort, an energetic and compelling 16-song album of original blues, rock, and gospel songs titled Not Just Another Diva.
Now that the fire has been stoked there seems to be no end to her creative energy. She has recently finished building a new ceramics studio and has even taken up making jewelry. But her artistic focus has shifted. "Now that I have a taste for writing original material, I just want to do it all the time."
That passion shines brightly on Not Just Another Diva. Comparable to Joan Osborne or Bonnie Raitt, Lisenby is, at the same time completely original. The outstanding compositions are in turn aggressive and heartfelt, while Lisenby's voice is nearly overwhelming in its subtlety, range, and emotional diversity. "I never stopped singing entirely, but I'm approaching it from a different place now and people are responding. I feel like my time away from music has given me time to mature as a person. I've finally got some real experiences to sing from."
In December, Lisenby and friends are going into the studio to produce another album. If the burgeoning energy from the first album is any indication, we have much to look forward to. "I feel like for the first time I really put myself out there musically, and now that I have a sense of where that can lead, I just want to take it further. We were at the end of the project when I realized I had only
just starting tapping into something."
It is unusual to discover an emerging artist whose quality of voice and depth of emotion are as enchanting to the modern listener as to those who cherish the time-honored roots of American blues and gospel music. Joan Osborne, Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow have all openly borrowed from the musical heroes of old and yet have also succeeded in pushing themselves into such exciting and uncharted territory that their music, in return, has inspired new artists and made an indelible contribution to the ever-growing tradition of contemporary rock 'n roll.
Denise Lisenby is that rare talent whose restless creativity and genuine love of music are at home among a broad range of musical styles. Her debut album Not Just Another Diva is a singular expression of that untamable spirit. Accompanied by vintage guitar and organ sounds, impressive drumming, tasty percussion and the occasional horn, violin, and harmonica, Denise's presence is bewitching, wildly rich and intensely expressive.
The exceptional compositions on Not Just Another Diva range from the Possum Records-esque Everybody to the complex and hard-hitting How'd You Like, a song that confronts the paradox of God with questions like "Is he a great provider or just a cosmic clown?" Pieces like the heartrending To Me or the country gospel Mercy of the Lord, are so hypnotically simple that they remain pleasantly in mind for days. Others like Practice What You Preach and Love Me Now or Love Me Later are a hybrid of familiar yet indefinable genres.
Yet, while Not Just Another Diva is unreservedly adventurous in its stylistic scope, Denise's fearless authenticity and refined eroticism create an overall effect that is positively distinct and refreshing.
Whether Lisenby is taunting her lover, Texas-blues style, in Get You Down or cherishing him in the ecstatic, moodily-textured Driftin there is always a sense that something exciting and unexpected is about to happen. She is not tricky with her voice. Instead, her subtlety and nuance confidently lead us into the witchy nighttime places of our imaginations.
We are witnessing an emerging moonrise, a mature and strong voice with depth and texture, something shadowy and mysterious; the birth of a distinct and heartfelt singer who stands apart from the wholesale pop-diva trend.
This 16-song album is an ambitious first effort that will be enjoyed by listeners who pride themselves as connoisseurs, collectors or fans of contemporary blues, rock and gospel music.
What inspires you about other singers?
I'm turned on by vocalists who use their voice as an instrument, like Tori Amos or Edie Brickel. They don't just sing the lyrics. In high school my dad paid for me to take voice lessons, which I thought were useless, because I didn't want to learn to sing with a perfect, pretty voice. I thought voices that were rough, crackly and occasionally off-time were more interesting, powerful.
What was it like making your first album?
It was wonderful, challenging, painful...We were giving birth to something good and all kinds of feelings go with that. Being my first project, I had to push through a lot of fear. You're putting yourself out there and working through your inner world in front of everyone. That's scary...but cool. I feel very satisfied with it.
You are very motivated artistically. What are you striving for in your art?
Because of the material I interact with, it's very intimate. I'm in it. There's no distance. One of the things I strive for is to quiet the mind enough to make space for something else to come through. I'm satisfied when I can reach that place of fearlessness, where
I'm willing to try anything. It's a kind of freedom - like it's okay to go there. You don't get there the same way with the voice, but it's the same thing.
Was your family into music?
My mother was not encouraged to sing at all by her parents, but she listens to music all the time: Fleetwood Mac, Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Rickie Lee Jones, Rod Stewart. So I grew up singing along to that stuff into a comb in front of the mirror. My dad owned a musical instrument store for a while and he plunked around a little on the banjo and mandolin. His father played bottleneck slide in a country band.
Are you planning another album?
We're going into the studio again in a few months. I'll be traveling around in France for a bunch of that time so most of the material will be created as we go. That should keep things really raw and energetic. I can't wait.
What do you do for fun?
I'm very lucky. This is my fun. But I also love to sail. I even raced for a while...travel...I've always wanted to own a motorcycle.
1. Get You Down
2. Never Satisfied
3. Love Me Now or Love Me Later
4. To Me
6. You Rescued Me
8. Get Me on that Train
9. The Lord is Real
11. How'd You Like
12. Mercy of the Lord
13. Why Didn't You Tell Me
14. Where Did the Dream Go
15. Trouble in Mind
16. Practice What You Preach