Following the MusicAfter Getting a Science Degree, Lissy Rosemont Heeded a Different Calling
By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008
Why would an Atlanta singer with a Southern accent and a bluegrass-music-loving dad end up in Washington, D.C.?
To get a master's degree in physiology and biophysics from Georgetown, of course.
Lissy Rosemont, 27, frontwoman of Junior League Band, which plays Saturday at the Black Cat, received her master's in 2005.
Her life has been shaped, it seems, by contrasting worlds: a broke, sexist, bipolar father (think Walter in "The Big Lebowksi," only mix in the South and some bluegrass, Rosemont says) and a hymn-singing, angelic, peaceful mother from an influential Southern family. That, perhaps, gives you an idea of the type of person who would pursue a career as a doctor, only to turn it aside for the life of a struggling musician.
"It was more shocking to my siblings and boyfriend, who was a musician and wanted to be a lawyer," Rosemont says, recalling her decision. She quit her job at the National Institutes of Health, where she was doing breast cancer research, and turned down two medical schools. All to follow the music.
Music was a big part of her childhood, but she never liked singing in front of people. "I was kind of embarrassed because I didn't know if it sounded good," she says. That didn't stop her father, however, from waking her and her sister late at night to make them sing Hank Williams's "Your Cheating Heart" for his friends.
When Rosemont was in high school, she learned her father was bipolar, and, finally, some of that late-night "craziness" made sense to her. It was then that she started to realize that if she wanted to relate to her father, she would have to do it through music. "Once I caught on to that, it was a way to talk to Dad," she says.
Perhaps as a way to rebel against her father and the instability of his life, she pursued science over music. Her mother sent her to a private high school where Rosemont "got into the privilege stuff and social justice stuff," she says.
As a grad student at Georgetown, she started to shift goals. A good friend persuaded her to find musicians to jam with.
"It did kind of light the fire," Rosemont says, recalling her former group, the Rosemont Family Reunion, which was "more rock than folky. . . . It was really fun. It was my entry to playing music with young people for the first time." That's also when she started using Lissy Rosemont as her stage name. (Her real name is Elisabeth Beaver.) Ultimately the band broke up. But Rosemont's new path in life was born. She picked up the banjo and started writing songs.
The music on Junior League Band's third album, "Mitchell Williams Fo Govena," features fiddle, a banjo and a dobro. But it's not bluegrass. It's more down-home folk, the kind of music you picture friends playing on someone's back porch in Faulkner's South. And it's Rosemont, with her thin, simple and sweet but cutting voice, who really makes the sound.
"I like to analyze a lot of things, anyway, whether it be people-watching or song structure," she says. Her approach to writing music seems methodical, if not downright scientific. She keeps a folder of words and phrases she likes. She looks at elements in other songs that work. She organizes her ideas and pieces them together. She has even studied one of her main influences, Pearl Jam, by watching them and reading interviews with them.
She says she doesn't regret the life as a doctor that she could have had, although she does miss the benefits of a stable job. But Junior League Band has been too busy to allow her any time to look back. Her life journey has lead her to a unique spot for a woman: leader of a band. "That, in terms of social activism, is a newer form of feminism," she says.
She's really not trying to make any statement or be some sort of role model through her story or her music. That would be too pompous, she says. "I'm just trying to express myself."
Nothing scientific about that.