The Popdose Interview: Lisa Loeb
With the renewed popularity of female-fronted alternative rock, New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert saw a window of opportunity to bring ‘90s alt-rocker Lisa Loeb, a noted influence for many of those same artists, back around to file a new chapter in her own discography of work.
Gilbert, a longtime fan of Loeb’s music, knew exactly the kind of album that fellow fans would want to hear from Lisa and he also knew that fans had been waiting for quite a while. Loeb had been wrapped up in a variety of projects which had carried her away from making the “adult” music that brought her name recognition, starting in 1994 with “Stay,” the #1 Grammy-nominated hit which served as her musical moment of introduction to the outside world.
Having developed a healthy career of his own outside of New Found Glory as a producer, Gilbert had the right resume and experience to tackle the job and he was bold in his approach. He emailed Loeb to say “I know you do these kids books, but when are you going to let me produce a full-on modern indie pop/rock record for you? You haven’t done one in a while.”
Loeb’s new album No Fairy Tale (in stores as of January 29th via 429 Records) is the result of those conversations and fans will be pleased with their combined efforts, which bring together a healthy batch of Loeb originals with additional collaborations, including recordings of two songs penned by Gilbert’s former New Found Glory tour mates Tegan and Sara.
Gilbert and Loeb also wrote two tracks together for the album, including ‘Walls,’ a track which is classic Lisa, both musically and lyrically, with words that hang and hook in a way that has long been a signature of Loeb’s music.
Co-producing the sessions together, Loeb and Gilbert proved with the new album that they’re quite a winning pair. We were happy to get the chance to discuss the science of how it all came together during a recent interview with Lisa.
This new album finds you working with Chad Gilbert of New Found Glory. We live in an interesting time where it seems like now more than ever, if you’re a musician, you have an even greater opportunity to work with your influences and people that you’re a fan of. Did working on this new album with Chad feel like a different experience in comparison to some of your past albums and the way that you were used to doing an album?
Yeah, it’s funny, Chad kind of reminds me of what I’ve heard about Prince. He really has everything thought out. He’s really a great producer. He knows exactly what he wants to hear and he has great ideas for guitar lines, vocal parts, drum sounds – you name it – he’s really a producer. It’s funny, it’s almost like being a guitar player in his band is his first career. I think his second career or continuing career, as it is, will continue to include a lot of producing. He has a really good ear for it.
I’ve worked with a lot of people who have a good ear for producing, but we did definitely record in more of what seems to be like the punk/pop/rock style – we spent less days in the studio and we did everything quicker. I think that worked partially because I have more experience being in the studio and I was able to get vocals more quickly and guitar parts more quickly and I understand [things] a little bit better now than I did when I started out, you know, when we can get something better and when something is the way it really needs to be.
So I think between the two of us and my experience and also, I’ve produced a lot of records too — it was different — it was quicker, it was faster, I was able to take more vocal direction from him than I have in the past. We were really able to stay focused and get the record done more quickly than any record I’ve made before.
Was there a song which really helped to put down the stamp directionally as far as the style and feel of the record and where it went?
You know, it wasn’t one song as much as it was literally the entire album and all of the songs. We sat down and talked about what kind of record he wanted to make with me and I agreed that that would be a different direction for me and something that I hadn’t done quite like that before. From the minute we started writing songs together for the record [we had a plan and] we also checked out some of my old songs that I hadn’t put on records yet, that I had been working on over the last couple of years and then a couple that he brought with Tegan Quin from Tegan and Sara.
We just wanted to pick songs that fit and that would be able to be produced in this vein. There were a couple of extras that we tried that weren’t working for the record, so it was really an over-arching goal of [achieving] a certain sound and how everything would sound within that sound and usually there was variety within that sound.
It’s very cohesive. I know that you and Chad wrote two songs together for this album. Did you write more songs together beyond that?
We tried. You know, it’s hard to remember now what we did exactly. I think we probably tried maybe one more, but we had plenty of songs. Again, it’s one of those things that I really like about Chad is that he’s so driven and motivated to get a project done quickly. It’s really an important thing that I learned from him. It’s something that often a lot of us who are detail-oriented, we get kind of stuck in the studio.
He was really able to be a great producer and a great executive and together, we just helped to keep pushing along and moving forward and if something’s not working, we’d do something else. It was not about over-thinking, it was about doing it right and moving forward. Which I loved, because as a mom, I don’t have tons and tons of time to spend in the studio and also, I think we spend too much time in the studio as people and as musicians and then we get stuck on one album and then it takes too long to put out another album.
Granted, there are a lot of different variables in play in life and work and now, you tour a lot of different places and a lot of different things can make it take time between one project and the next. But I like that Chad really influenced me and made me remember that this is sort of the direction that we want to go. When you have something creative that you want to do, you do the best version of it that you can. You put the songs together, you put them on the record and you put them out and now I’m excited to put together another record and do that [again].
You’ve done plenty of collaborative songwriting across the albums that you’ve made. But this album finds you going further outside of that, recording two songs written by Tegan and Sara. How naturally did those become recordings that felt like Lisa Loeb songs?
Honestly, [I’m generally not interested in] the idea of doing someone else’s songs, unless it’s a real standard or a real [good] song. Like I have a friend I went to college with that I’m a huge fan of his writing and every once in a while, I’ll do his songs. In general, I won’t take a song from another songwriter, unless it’s a project that calls for doing other people’s music.
For this project, Tegan was one of the people that Chad mentioned when we first started working. He said, when he was trying to define the type of record he was talking about, one of the bands he mentioned other than his own band and a couple of others, was Tegan and Sara. I was really enthusiastic about that, because I’m a huge fan of Tegan and Sara.
I listen to music, but not a whole lot of music all of the time. I like silence and I like NPR and I like listening to other kinds of things that are not music. But Tegan and Sara was a band that I’d listened to quite a bit and I’d actually specifically put their music on before I would sit down and write music, because I just thought their style was so great. I love the way that they really paint a picture through the sound of the lyrics and in the past I’d tried really hard to tell stories really literally so that people could understand what I was saying, like, I used to write really abstract songs, sort of like [some of the] David Bowie music I listen to.
But little by little, because I play acoustic guitar, I end up playing a lot of shows with singer/songwriters and a few of them really showed me that wow, there is something really brave and bold about writing a song that you can actually understand. Lyle Lovett is one that comes to mind a lot, because he just sings really great songs that you know what he’s talking about.
So that had been kind of cool, but to get back to when I was writing more songs to express myself, the Tegan and Sara type of band, them in particular, especially their first couple of records, I just liked the way they told stories and you understood what they were saying and I love listening to their music. So I was very open to having Tegan’s music and Tegan and Sara’s music on my record and singing it as if it were my own, not just because it’s [something like] “I’m doing a standards record, I’m going to do a bunch of other people’s songs.”
I was happy to make it part of this record of my songs, which again in the past, I don’t know if it’s an ego thing, like, ever since I was a kid, I played piano or guitar and I wrote my own songs and I wrote my own lyrics and it was a big deal for me to sing someone else’s songs years ago. I just want to play my own guitars in the studio and produce my own records and do everything, so to go and do someone else’s songs or even a couple of songs, I’m still getting used to it, but I’m excited that it’s her songs. And it was funny too, because I’m a big fan of theirs and I found out more after the fact that they’re a fan of mine as well, so it’s kind of a funny interesting situation.
Hearing you mention the abstract elements in your songs, I think you’ve always told stories, but you make an effort to really do it in an interesting way and their material fits really well into that same zone.
And surprisingly, when I went to go see them live, I was surprised by how they actually have a very singer/songwriter kind of stage performance. They talk quite a bit and they just remind me a lot of other great singer/songwriters that I like. And that makes me happy too, because I used to not want to be part of the singer/songwriter genre per say, because I didn’t feel like a folk singer.
Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s to me, “singer/songwriter” meant “folk singer” and I was not a folk singer, I was a singer/songwriter of the band, which there are plenty of guys who get to do that, from Elvis Costello to David Bowie to tons and tons of bands, but when I first started coming up in the early ‘90s until probably Sheryl Crow came along, a lot of us, if we played acoustic guitar but had a band, people might still consider us as folk musicians.
Which no one truly cares what you’re called, but it kind of does make a difference, [because] sometimes you do have to define yourself, whether it’s to approach different radio stations or different clubs that you might want to play, festivals or whatever it is, it makes a difference sometimes, so it’s nice that the genre has kind of broken open and you don’t think twice if there are women who are singer/songwriters and have their band. They just sound like a band – they’re a band, you know?
Oh yeah. And this record really calls for some band shows. I see the Nine Stories show that you have booked in Boston. Is that indicative of a full band tour?
Yes, there is and we’re actually going to Japan in January for six shows and then we’ll come to the United States. We have like a week of shows booked in March and we’re going to go from there. If I weren’t the mom of a six month old and a three year old, we’d be doing t-shirt tours — I call them t-shirt tours, with months of shows and you see all of the tour dates lined up on the back of a t-shirt.
But because I’m a mom and I need to be at home with my kids a lot and I don’t think it’s great to take them out on the road at this age very much. I’m experimenting with how much I can be out and feel comfortable with it for myself and them, so I’m going to try a week. I have done some touring over the last couple of years and sometimes when I do a bunch of different weekends, it’s a little bit weird because weekends are a big time for the family. So I’m experimenting with figuring out how to get to a lot of places in a succinct amount of time! [Laughs]
How long has it been since you’ve done band shows like this?
It’s been a long time. You know, in San Francisco, whenever I go up there, my bass player Joe Quigley and my drummer Ronny Crawford, coincidentally live up in San Francisco, both of them. So it’s funny, when I go up there, the last two shows I played in San Francisco, I call them up and I’m like “yeah, I’m going to play” and they say “oh yeah” and I say “ do you want to come play some songs with me” and we always say “yeah, we’ll do a couple” and they come to soundcheck and we go over half the set or more and we end up playing the entire set together without much rehearsal, just maybe a quick runthrough, if that.
So we’ve played a little bit together, but we really haven’t done a lot of band shows lately. Part of it I think is because I’ve realized over the years that when people come to see the shows, often the more grown-uppy the audience is, the more they’re fine seeing me with [just] my guitar. I like to talk a lot and tell stories, so for some of the audience, I think they’re fine either way.
It’s much more cost-effective to tour with just me and also when I’m playing solo, I know most of my songs so I can choose from all of my songs when people requests. I like doing last minute requests. On the other hand, creatively, I love playing with the band. It’s fun to play the songs the way they’re meant to be played and we will have a bunch of songs [rehearsed for the setlist] on the road as well. It will be fun to go out on the road with them again.
A lot of material on this album really sounds like it will be fun to play live. One of my favorites is “Walls,” can you talk a bit about how you and Chad worked together on that one?
Chad actually came to me, because we were trying to figure out what kind of songs we needed and we were in the middle of the process of choosing songs and he said “I had a piece of a song that’s kind of like this” he played something with the “oooh oooh” on it and the first few lines of the song and then we developed the song from there. And as we wrote it and recorded it, we realized that it was going to be that kind of open sounding emotional song and through the production it did definitely, I think it took a little bit of a 1980s turn, which is sort of perfect, because the lyrics are very angst ridden and it actually was feelings that I felt I think a lot, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I was learning to be a person.
You know, learning how to express myself, it’s really hard. And I know there were a lot of movies like that, that I related to in the ‘80s, Molly Ringwald’s movies and also books and things where you just have these feelings inside and it’s almost like there’s this weird invisible shield that you can’t speak and you can’t say what you really want to feel. You can’t say what you really feel and you feel like your whole life is counting on it, like you might miss out on a great opportunity, especially when it comes to relationships.
I think everybody’s felt that, probably more as a teenager, but I think a lot of us [also] feel like [that] through college and after. You don’t want to embarrass yourself and say what you feel. It doesn’t feel like just embarrassment though, it feels almost stronger than that, the inability to say what you feel, so it’s kind of a song where I’m pleading to myself, that I think also that if somebody else listens to it, hopefully they’ll be encouraged to say what they feel. Or at least they’ll get to relate to somebody else who feels the same way, which might give them strength to say what they need to say.
As an artist, when did you feel like you’d really found that ability to express yourself properly in the way that you were hearing it in your head?
Ever since I was a little kid, actually, it’s always been something that is a way of expressing myself. When I was little, I started writing music on piano and by the time I was probably 14, I was writing lyrics and then I started playing guitar. I think part of it was, like I said, in the early early days, I thought I was being really abstract.
In fact, it’s funny, that song “Walls” is almost similar content-wise to a song I wrote when I was in high school, which I thought was really abstract and when I listen back to it now, it’s not very abstract, it’s pretty obvious. But it was an early way to express myself. And music is interesting, because it’s multi-dimensional, you know — it has melody, it’s got rhythm, it’s got lyrics, it’s got a sort of tone and sometimes it’s not even meant to express to other people, it’s just a way to express yourself. That’s the strange about art, is that it’s not always about communicating to other people. Sometimes it’s just about processing your own feelings. It’s kind of like tasting food or something, when you’re eating.
Your songwriting has always seemed fairly personal. Since you’ve become a mother, have you seen that process change as far as source material and how you frame things up?
I definitely am less embarrassed about expressing specific feelings. Like I said, I come back to the song “Walls.” There’s something about when you’re writing music, you don’t want to be too cool for school. You know, you’re too cool for school and you’re too cool to express certain things that might be too obvious.
But sometimes those obvious things need to be expressed, because weirdly, after doing TV shows — I did a Food Network TV show and then I did a reality show about dating and during both of those things, things that I thought were really obvious that people like to talk about, whether it’s information about food, health and nutrition and cooking, or dating and personal life and how insecure you might feel. For some reason, insecurity plays a really big part in people dating and people’s willingness to be themselves. Forever, people try to be somebody else when they’re trying to meet somebody new, which is really a mistake.
But things that I think are really obvious, when I did these reality shows, people felt like they knew me, even more than they did when I was just a musician and they tell me about their life, whether I’m on the road or on an airplane or whatever, people tell me a lot about their life and they share things with me about their life and I tell them about my life and I realized that some things that I always think are really not even worth writing songs about, because they’re too obvious, they’re actually really things that people relate to and they’re really important things.
I think that when other people hear that you’re going through the same thing or at least there’s a song about that same thing that other people might be going through, whether I’m going through it or not, that’s really important. And so as a mom, I realized there are certain things that aren’t too obvious to write about. It’s okay to write about some of those things, even if they’ve been written about before. It’s alright.
And also as a mom who’s a professional musician, I think it’s really important to show my daughter and my son that music and art and all of these different ways you can express yourself. They’re important parts of just being a human being, whether you’re a professional or not. Even if you are a professional, because some of us who are professional musicians, don’t always have the time to make music for fun throughout the day on a daily basis.
But I think that is a really important tool and a really important activity for humans. So the more I can write songs that are about anything and everything, I think that’s better and again, as a mom, it’s almost like a responsibility I feel to do that. And then process-wise, I try to write more quickly now. You have to be really focused when a lot of your time is gone all of the sudden and your day is broken up into different feeding schedules and naps. [Laughs]
You mentioned the TV shows and I want to ask, you’ve been blessed with having such a marketable personality, whether it’s the signature line of eyewear or your television work. For you, balancing all of that stuff, has that ever been a hindrance in your desire to just be an artist?
Well, it just is what it is. There’s a part of me that wants to be a 14 year old boy sitting my room with my rock posters up, sitting next to my record player and just playing guitar for eight hours straight. But I’ve never been that person, I’ve always been somebody who does a lot of different things. When I was a kid, I did a lot of acting and dancing and a lot of school work was important to me. I’ve always done a billion different things, so as a grown-up, it makes more sense to me doing a billion different things and having a list on my computer of a billion other things I want to do too.
Some of which include, “I should just stop doing all of this and just sit in a room and write music and have a candle burning.” You know, I go to some people’s songwriting sessions and certain songwriters, that’s really what they do — they’re songwriters. You go to their house and it’s their space and there’s something really uncluttered about that and I think it’s a really great way to be a songwriter, because you have more space to do your thing.
And at some point, hopefully I’ll be organized enough to really compartmentalize different things and when I’m songwriting, I’ll be in that space and when I’m doing entrepreneurial business things, I’ll be in that space, like in my little office. That’s the goal, but it’s just the natural way things are I think, to do a lot of different things, for me. Again, I know other songwriters who they’re just songwriters — that’s natural for them.
In this new world as a mom, are you somebody who still writes when you don’t have to, or are you only writing when you need to?
For the last 12 years, I’ve always written towards albums — that’s just a good structure for me. Even when I was in college, once 10, 12 or 15 songs were written, it was time to make a record. Right now, I have a couple of different types of records in my head that I’m working towards, but even in that process, I think it’s just natural as a writer that…you know, one of the best tools that you can have is to be able to capture ideas whenever. So if I’m driving and I come up with a little idea, I write it down. I definitely write more when I am in the writing process trying to finish up a record.
I’m working on a musical with a friend in New York. I also have a couple of different kids projects going on that involve songwriting. Every once in awhile, I get an opportunity to pitch a song to a movie or whatever, so when I’m in those creative periods where I’m kind of doing that songwriting homework, I’m more apt to write down little ideas here and there, because I’m with my guitar more or an instrument more. But I don’t sit down and write everyday.
But again, some of the best inspiration is just literally picking up the guitar for two minutes and taking a walk outside. It’s not always about writing everyday. Although in a perfect world, I would write everyday! [Laughs] Actually, maybe talking to you today, maybe it will instigate my new songwriting discipline. Because literally 10 minutes a day, you probably know this as a writer….or anybody, humans know this — if you spend 10 minutes doing something everyday, it’s a lot more than doing nothing.
Hearing you talk about writing things down, I hear a lyric on this new album like “I’ve got a shark on my ankles/hung by a tightrope” and I can picture Lisa Loeb thinking of that and going “I’ve got to write that down, that could be part of something” and where it goes from there, it’s either going to wind up on this “Weak Day” song on this new record, or that could go in a completely different direction and be on a kids record.
I think for me, again, part of the craft of songwriting is being able to take ideas and images, like I have a song from a long time ago called “Falling in Love” and I had that phrase that for some reason, it just came to me, “the time between meeting/ and finally leaving/ is sometimes called falling in love,” like that whole phrase came at the same time. It took me a few years to put that song together, because I wanted to tell a story that matched up with that chorus. And then I have other songs, like another old song called “Hurricane,” I was walking around the block once in Dallas and there were dry leaves blowing towards me and I started thinking “the leaves sped top-speed towards me,” because I was trying to think of words that sounded like what I was experiencing.
You know, sometimes there’ll be a phrase and like you said, it’s sitting in a book somewhere and if it’s really cool, you either bring it to a songwriting session or you review it every once in awhile to see if that fits into a larger emotional feeling. In that particular case, I feel like that was more like something that came out almost more complete as a song and then I had to go back through and edit out the parts that weren’t expressing what I wanted to say and then rework part of it to make it fit with the music that I thought worked with most of the words. But that’s just sort of this weird songwriting craft. Sometimes it’s like chipping away at a block to create something and sometimes it’s like assembling a bunch of popsicle sticks. it just depends on how much of the song and the lyric and the melody comes out at what time.
“Falling In Love” is one of those songs that every time I hear that lyric, I go “oh, that’s a good one.”
Well thank you! That’s one of the ones that I was like “I’ve gotta write a song like Lyle Lovett. I’ve got to figure out how to write a song when I go to Newport Folk Festival. I’ve got to figure out how to do that.”
I know you’ve got a kids album that’s also coming out in April. What else is beyond that?
There’s a lot!
There’s a lot. My eyewear line is always continuing and that’s a constant process, working with designers and coming up with new frames multiple times a year. I also have another career as a voiceover artist, I do a lot of voiceover auditions as well as jobs and that takes up a nice chunk of time. But that is a good question too, you’re going to get a star on your forehead for reminding me of all of the stuff I have to sit down and do.
Because again, I have a huge list of projects that I’d like to do, including taking a vacation and going to Hawaii, but I need to sit down and plot what’s happening. I know we’re trying to finish up this kids musical that my collaborators, Michelle Lewis, Dan Petty and I, we do a lot of kids music together and we wrote the new songs for Camp Lisa and the Camp Lisa record and that was turned into a musical by a theater company in Miami and performed for a couple of summers.
In the process of writing music for theater, you do a lot of performance and then you re-write it and then you have it performed again and then you re-write it. So we’re in the process of having that show rewritten by some other book writers that I actually went to college with. We’re trying to finish up that musical so that we can develop it and put it on tour. So that’s a project that we’re trying to finish throughout the spring. That’s one of the big projects, is to get that musical going. But there’s lots of things on the horizon. [Laughs]