In 1994, Lisa Loeb soundtracked a generation with “Stay (I Missed You)." More importantly, Lisa Loeb went on to craft a steady stream of albums that detailed her nuanced, sharp-witted pop style. Lullaby Girl, her most recent effort and first covers album, is a new horizon for the singer-songwriter, encapsulating her cool, collected vibe. In Loeb's own words, it's a vibe best described as “sort of retro, a little flirty and a little sophisticated.”
Loeb recently sat down with me to discuss Lullaby Girl and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her landmark 1997 album, Firecracker. In between the conversation about her love affair with writing, recording and performing, Loeb found time to discuss her passion for enriching children’s experiences and connecting with others through fashion at length.
Quentin Harrison: Firecracker marks its 20-year milestone this month. What has made it such a singular long player in your canon?
Lisa Loeb: I like the variety of it. There are songs that are more cinematic, songs that are more pop, songs that are more acoustic. It really has a lot of range, which I really like. Also, the orchestrations are something that really stand out to me. I started that on my first record (1995’s Tails), but there were some beautiful orchestrations on “Falling in Love” and “Furious Rose” and those helped us reach sort of a darkness on the record.
QH: Describe your working relationship with Juan Patiño and how it factored into Firecracker's creation when compared to Tails?
LL: We work well together. What I like about Juan, which drives me crazy, which he knows, is his attention to detail. I'm very sort of into the details too, making sure everything sounds good, but he always takes it one step further. Juan is equally as detail-oriented and it takes us a little more time to make records because we want them to be pristine.
When we made Tails, it was my first major label record, we had a lot of expectations of ourselves. It was important to have a lot variety on that album and to show the “rock band” side of what I did, because I had been presented as almost, sort of, like a pop singer when “Stay” came out. I wanted to make sure that all the different areas of what I like to do were there and that we were able to have the freedom to follow our creative vision.
So I think Firecracker’s almost like a continuation of Tails more than anything.
QH: Let's talk about “Furious Rose,” one of the album cuts from Firecracker. It's a fan favorite that has one of your most memorable, and discussed, lyrics. Can you go into detail about the meaning of the “wild plums and agrimony” allegory?
LL: Well, the story was supposed to be about Furious Rose, a fictional person based on the people, or the women, that (Sigmund) Freud was treating and studying at the time. Although he learned a lot about the human psyche, he also labeled women as kind of “crazy.” So, when I was referring to “wild plums and agrimony,” I used an old Victorian flower dictionary (as a reference) as I thought it would be fun to put some imagery and a deeper meaning into the song.
So, “agrimony” means thankfulness and gratitude. And “wild plum” is...I'll tell you what wild plum is, I'll look it up. Wild plum is...independence and beauty. You can replace those words with those flowers. So, instead of being a victim or a crazy person, this person, Furious Rose, is sort of shouting out, “No, I'm independent, I'm beautiful!” and standing up for herself in the song.
It's a little bit abstract and a little bit poetic. I'm sure if I wrote the song now, it would be a bit more obvious? But I really love songs that are abstract, especially when I was starting out. A lot of what I listen to is abstract and emotional, less like an obvious story.
QH: “I Do” was the lead-off single for Firecracker, but were there any other songs from the project that were considered as the launching single instead?
LL: For that record, I had written a lot of songs already and I felt like I was done. But the record company said that there was no single on this record. I got really frustrated, so I wrote “I Do” and that's what the song is about really. Kind of like, if you listen to Sara Bareillis' “I Don't Want to Write You a Love Song.” I thought when I heard that song, “That song is about the record company!”
But “I Do” also applies to relationships as well. When I sing it live today, I'm not necessarily thinking about those executives. But it's about that frustration, when someone doesn't see things the way you do. It was one of the most straightforward songs I've written, in general. I have to say, people really connect with it.
QH: How did Firecracker influence the creative process for its follow-up, Cake and Pie (2002)?
LL: Every time I can, I like to use an orchestra because it beautifully arranges the music.
It gives you this other depth that you don't get from the other band instruments. But there were two things happening with Cake and Pie. One, by the time I got Cake and Pie out, I was a little bit more experienced and we didn't have to do as much overthinking. I would make (creative) decisions as I went and it made things quicker and more immediate. Second, on Cake and Pie, there was a little bit more of a “live performance” feeling. Although “How” was almost recorded live and “Truthfully” was almost recorded live (from Firecracker). I like being able to record with an acoustic guitar and sing at the same time or record with the band and use that (preceding) vocal take.
QH: Your new album Lullaby Girl is your most ambitious set yet, so why this record now?
LL: A couple of different things inspired me. One is that I've been making kids records, specifically with Amazon as my record label. So, they asked me if I'd do a lullaby record and I said yes. And they, in their mind, probably assumed I'd do a carbon copy of my nursery rhymes album. But when I talked with my co-producer (Rich Jacks) about the album, I said it would be cool if it were based in piano versus guitar. Also, I've been wanting to work with Larry Goldings, who is an amazing pianist who is known in the jazz world and has accompanied James Taylor and, recently, John Mayer on their tours as their keyboardist and organ player.
Larry and I, years ago, had recorded an old standard together, “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” I asked him to help me on that. And it just felt right, like I should be doing stuff like that. So, I thought we should talk to Larry and see if he'd be interested in doing this record. Maybe we can include some of those great standards and record them with a jazz quartet. So, once we got together with Larry, we started playing around with songs and actually didn't end up with a typical children's lullaby record, but rather reapproaching a bunch of songs that are some of my favorites, some of Larry's favorites and Rich's favorites.
The songs thematically apply, lyrically, to the idea of nighttime and dreaming. Really, it's a covers record within the context of lullabies, which means its calm and soothing; and the arrangements are warm and haunting on some of them. It was really fun to make.
QH: Doing a covers record suggests than an artist has reached a certain level in their career, what are your thoughts on that?
LL: As an artist, I think artists end up doing cover records because they love a lot of records. There's other styles we want to work in too. I also realized that I'm not just a singer-songwriter with a guitar, I'm kind of an entertainer who sings. It's okay to just be a singer too, sometimes, and be inspired by classic songs and arrangements you love. It's important not to limit yourself. As a musician, you don't always have to be an extension of what everybody thinks is “you.” You can explore, that's key.
QH: Can you talk about the differences with your pop canon and your children's music canon?
LL: It's similar, in regards to the production value. We don't cut corners, which is important to me, so it all has intent. Everything has real musicians, top quality musicians. I think the kids’ stuff gets a little more silly and direct and I have the intention of putting good values in it. About respecting others, taking every day in your life seriously, there's a lot in there that's important to me.
Those messages are in my “grownup” records, but again, those messages are more straightforward in my children’s records. And as I move on to my next grownup record that is not a covers or standards project, it will be interesting to see what of that writing will come over to my adult writing. I'd like to bring some of that imagery into my adult music too.
QH: The Way It Really Is, your album from 2004, is one of your strongest efforts. However, it tends to get overlooked, what are your thoughts as to why that may be?
LL: It totally gets overlooked, I don't know why!
I think it may have been because I was going from one small, boutique record label to another and they just didn't promote it very well. It wasn't on Spotify for awhile either. I was really excited about the songs that were on it. I even sang with Emily Saliers, from the Indigo Girls, she was on one of the tracks on that record. And I sing a lot of these songs on the road too.
QH: Switching subjects a bit, can you talk about your Camp Lisa Foundation?
LL: I started the Camp Lisa Foundation to send kids to summer camp, so just deciding to do something to help other people is great. Our lives get full of our own details, which makes it so important to help other people. I'd like to do more. We donate money to send kids to summer camp, especially on the East Coast. I loved summer camp as a kid so much, it helped me to be a real person. I believe it helps kids learn how to be strong leaders, to be active in their communities, to respect others. It's a wonderful thing to share with others and I continue to try to do that.
QH: With your eyewear line, you dipped your toe into the fashion world. What brought that about?
LL: At first, I did not want to. When I started out, people always commented on my glasses. I felt like it was taking away from my music, my songs and my guitar playing due to people talking about what my face looked like. Then I started realizing, “Hey, wait a minute!,” some of my favorite musicians are people who are well known for what they look like, David Bowie and Elton John.
But the thing that really gets me is when people stop me, all the time, and say, “You made me feel empowered to wear glasses as a teen, because you wore your glasses” or “Before I saw you with your glasses, I was embarrassed to wear my glasses.” People need glasses. It's like, if you need them, you really need them. It's sad to think that you'd be embarrassed to wear something you need to wear.
I like that people felt empowered seeing me with my glasses and so that inspired me to create glasses that people like. Glasses that make people feel smart, cute, cool, stylish and beautiful. I just sort of follow my own aesthetic, so it's sort of retro, a little flirty, a little sophisticated and I try to share that with others.
QH: What are your five favorite albums of all time?
LL: David Bowie's Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, The Police’s Reggatta de Blanc, Queen’s A Night at the Opera and Rickie Lee Jones' eponymous debut.