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SINGING CAREER IS HELPING PRESLEY DEVELOP HER OWN VOICE

With its nearby horse trails and lovely, secluded grounds, Lisa Marie Presley's five-acre spread on the western edge of the San Fernando Valley is so relaxing it invites the imagination to run free. It's easy to picture Elvis himself strolling the property with his two grandchildren.

Rock's greatest star would have turned 70 this year and, no matter how much he loved the concert stage, he surely would have settled into seclusion by now -- preferring the company of his daughter and her family to singing "Hound Dog" one more time to the AARP crowd.

Lisa Marie, always the apple of his eye, was only 9 when Elvis died at age 42, just five years older than she is now. But she feels a strong connection. There are candid photos on the piano of her father, alongside shots of her 12-year-old son, Benjamin; 15-year-old daughter, Riley; and her current beau, guitarist and record producer Michael Lockwood.

"I think about my dad all the time," says the 5-foot-3 singer, who also is close to her mother, Priscilla Presley.

She's sitting on the porch of her rustic, five-bedroom house.

"I know there are things I've done that would puzzle him, but I think he would understand me. He was not this saint or this tidy pop star. He was one of the biggest rebels we've had in this country, yet some people want to put me on a pedestal. . . . But I'm not perfect. I'm not always socially acceptable or politically correct. All I'm trying to do is be true to myself, and making music is part of that."

Presley's guard is down -- unlike two years ago when she resisted discussing her father in interviews to promote her debut album, even though the CD's most memorable track ("Lights Out") employed the image of her future gravesite at Graceland to describe how strongly she is tied to the Presley legacy.

One reason she wanted to make an album, she explained at the time, was so she wouldn't be known only for her birthright and her famous ex-husbands. The CD was a good start, impressing many critics and selling enough to earn her a gold album that she initially displayed on her living-room wall.

"I can't say I accomplished everything I set out to do with that album," she says, stirring a cup of tea. "I don't think I'll ever get past the point where lots of people will see me, first, as the daughter of Elvis Presley and, then, for the marriages. But I think I made progress. I've got at least a small thumbprint out there."

No matter how much friends and advisers prepared her for the media curiosity she would encounter in the 2003 interviews, Presley wasn't prepared for the relentless questioning about her father and the short-lived marriages to Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage.

"There were times when I really felt lost and wondered if I had the strength to keep making records," she says softly. "Even after I started opening for Chris Isaak, I didn't feel a connection with the audience, because most people were coming to see him and were just curious about me for obvious reasons."

The breakthrough came during a break on the Isaak tour when she headlined a show at the Stone Pony, the Asbury Park, N.J., club that Bruce Springsteen made famous. To her delight, fans knew her songs and even sang along.

Her confidence greatly boosted, Presley returned to the studio at the end of the tour to begin work on her second album. The CD, titled "Now What," was released Tuesday by Capitol Records, and it's a stronger work than the debut, "To Whom It Might Concern." But it doesn't have a track as immediately appealing as "Lights Out," which means Presley may find it difficult getting much radio airplay. She's prepared for that.

"The funny thing is most people dream of being a pop star, but I have no illusions," she continues. "I don't think my music fits into the radio formats of today, so I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't get any airplay on the new album. But that isn't going to stop me. I didn't do this for the money or the fame, because I've always had that."

The first single from the album is a fairly faithful remake of "Dirty Laundry," a 1982 swipe Don Henley and songwriting partner Danny Kortchmar took at media excesses and voyeurism, something Presley feels is even more relevant today.

"When you look at what's going on today, you have to take what happened in the '80s and multiply it," she says. "It's not about me. It's about what we all see. I don't think our entertainment should be based on someone else's demise and humiliation. Even 'American Idol.' I hate to see people humiliated."

But the heart of the album revolves around her own songs. Though she shows able command as a singer, Presley's main interest is songwriting, and there are growth pains that show it's the work of someone still learning her craft.

For now, she'll do a few interviews to promote the album, but she's not going to repeat the marathon interview run of 2003. She's also going to keep a tight lip when it comes to Jackson and Cage.

Mostly, Presley is anxious to get back on stage. After a local warm-up date last Sunday, her formal tour will begin April 26 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Presley's interest in music rather than the glamour of pop is underscored when she steps back inside the house after the interview. There's no evidence of her gold record in the living room.

Oh, she says matter of factly, she took it down to put up a painting given to her by a friend, musician Marilyn Manson.

And where is the plaque now?

"I've no idea," she says.

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