“Life takes a lifetime,” sings Lisa Donnelly in “Naturally,” one of 10 radiant songs on her solo debut, We Had a Thing. With Zen simplicity, this phrase neatly introduces a superlative singer/songwriter who embraces existence and inspiration with equal fervor. Her songs capture fortuitous moments as she marvels at an 83-year old clairvoyant who reads her future at a dinner party on “Laugh,” backpacks through the cobblestone streets of Spain with the guitar-toting troubadour, “Julian,” and sizes up an interest of lust on “Little Devil.” Electronic and organic textures illuminate her irrepressible artistry with prevailing grooves and vibrant instrumentation.
Born in Lawrence, outside of Kansas City, Donnelly’s kinetic childhood energies were channeled into a whirlwind of pursuits at which she excelled: dance, tennis, acting and academia. “All my life I couldn’t figure out what my biggest passion was,” she remembers. “It never occurred to me to sing in bands until I was a freshman in college in San Diego. When I look back I realize: I’m a writer who sings.”
Returning to study at Kansas University, Lisa, waiting tables in a local club, would sit in with the resident bands. Lisa recalls her invitation into this proverbial circle of musicians as “a handful of 45 year-old dudes wanting me to sing with them so I started going around to semi--leery bars in Kansas City, Lawrence & Topeka. I was not even legal, but I was making money singing covers and learning about the blues.” Blues, Donnelly says, draws her into its core. “I like the rawness. Lyrically, it never apologizes for itself. The blues takes my blues away.”
Returning from a study trip to Spain, she decided to channel her energies into singing. “Putting all logic aside, my brain and heart were more invested in the theater, but my soul - the part of me I felt came to life when I was in Spain --was completely enamored with music. I knew I had to explore it.” She made plans to convene in Los Angeles with a Boston band from Berklee, but the project faltered. Instead, she fronted the L.A. band A.M. Pacific and was subsequently indoctrinated into the Hollywood club scene of The Roxy, The Viper Room, and The Derby. She appreciates the camaraderie of being in a band. “I do not sit in a dark room by myself and write songs 12 hours a day. I like collaborating. I never wanted to be a solo artist.”
Although recording a solo CD might seem a contradiction, collaboration is a huge part of Lisa’s creative process as her alliance with co-writer/producer/multi-instrumentalist Rob Giles on We Had a Thing confirms. She recalls their initial meeting. “He asked, ‘I need to know what your 10 favorite records are and why. And I need to know if you had five minutes to talk to the world what would you say and how would you say it?’ I almost started crying -- in all of my time in L.A. no one had ever asked me the right questions. It was deep and real: he wanted to know who I was and what I wanted to say and then from there we could figure out how to say it together.” Another key player on the songs is co-writer Rich Jacques, whom Donnelly invited to participate as a co-writer and co-producer with Giles, and songwriter Kevin Hunter who co-wrote “Better,” and “Let Go That Weight.”
Asked to describe herself in three words, Donnelly laughs, “Oh! My! God!” before she avows, “I am comfortable with myself, sometimes to a fault, I’m really outgoing, and I’m a little scattered.” In her “making of” video for We Had a Thing she relates that she feels like she’s “standing at the bottom of a huge mountain.” She notes, “I don’t know how things are going to turn out for me but I’m willing to make any sacrifice. Every night before I go to sleep I think of three things I’m grateful for. You can’t write music from the heart and not love from the heart.”