Lisa Fischer on Being 20 Feet from Stardom and Next to Jagger

Kimberly Ashton
February 25, 2014
Lisa Fischer sings at a Berklee master class.
Photo by Kelly Davidson

Though not a household name, Lisa Fischer has made a career sharing the stage with artists so famous they need only to be referred to by first name. Artists like Mick, Bruce, and Tina.

Since 1989, she's been the singer belting out “rape, murder—it’s just a shot away,” as Jagger struts on stage during “Gimme Shelter,” and one who picks up Turner’s refrain in “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” as the star dashes offstage for an outfit change.

Fischer is among the many background singers who have helped power the most memorable anthems in rock ‘n’ roll history. Now, she is sharing the spotlight with other backup vocalists—including Berklee’s Janice Pendarvis—in the movie 20 Feet From Stardom, an Academy Award-nominated documentary that looks at the lives of those off center stage.

Recently, she took time before her upcoming tour with the Rolling Stones to visit Berklee, meet with students, and be part of a panel discussion after a screening of the film.

“What I loved about background singing, and still do, is vibrating sound with people,” Fischer, one of the most in-demand background singers in the world, said. “I love it for the supporting role that it gives the artist. I love knowing that even though they may not see me, if they just turn their head they know that I’m watching them and I’ll be there if they need me for anything. That makes me feel great.”

It’s this reward that also motivates other background singers, including Berklee alumnus Marlon Saunders '87, who has worked with Sting, Billy Joel, Bobby McFerrin, and many others. “The backgrounds are so important in terms of enhancing the song … it’s an amazing art in itself of how to sing with other people but then also, in contemporary music, to be able to sing with various nuances.”

And each employer has a different sound they’d like backup vocalists to create. Jagger and Keith Richards, for example, care greatly about the emotion vocalists bring to their songs, while delivering a technically perfect vocal performance might be less important, Fischer says. “They don’t think about it, they feel about it,” she says.

Others, like Turner and Luther Vandross, know exactly what they want, she said.

“You have the freedom to be who they need you to be. So it’s a balance of freedom versus necessity,” Fischer said.

The ability to sense the needs of the situation, whether in a recording studio or on an arena stage, is one of the most important skills a background singer can develop, she said. It was a lesson she learned when she truly learned to listen.

But listening also extends beyond hearing the voices of those singing with you. It’s listening to what is being sung in dozens of genres and styles. “Listen for what touches you—the vibe. Try to be in their bodies and imagine what was in their heads,” Fischer says.  

“If you’re getting into background singing, then you should certainly listen to as much music as you possibly can. Don’t just limit yourself to only the music that you like, or the music you enjoy singing,” Saunders advises.

“And have fun making mistakes,” Fischer says, adding that she doesn’t like the word “mistakes” all that much because she sees these moments as gifts and wonderful learning opportunities.

With luck, such mistakes could redirect other talented singers onto a path that lands them next to Mick Jagger and maybe in an Oscar-worthy film. 


Read a blog post about Fischer's visit by Berklee professor Bill Banfield.