Lisa Loeb Taps Into the Complexities of Life with A Simple Trick To Happiness

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 11 – Spring 2020 – SoCal Inspired

By Alison Richter

In 1994, a new and unsigned artist named Lisa Loeb appeared seemingly out of nowhere and carved her name in music history by achieving the impossible: She made it to the top of the Billboard charts with a song called “Stay (I Missed You).” The accomplishment was a first, but the “new” artist, while unfamiliar to national audiences, was, in fact, an accomplished singer, songwriter, and guitarist who had spent years honing her craft and recording independent albums. “Stay” had also been performed before audiences and received warm receptions before becoming a Platinum sensation by way of the soundtrack for the movie Reality Bites.

The song’s success led to a contract with Geffen Records, and Loeb’s career took off, beginning with her 1995 label debut, Tails. The years brought more hits, including “Do You Sleep” and “I Do,” as well as Gold and Platinum recordings, a Grammy win, Brit Award, and numerous nominations for MTV and Billboard Music Awards.

The instincts and business savvy required of an independent artist trying to break into the music industry never left her. As the industry transformed itself, so did Lisa Loeb. She recorded more albums, created music for children, produced her music, explored acting roles in television and films, wrote books, launched and designed an eyewear line, began using her time and talents to give back and make a difference, and continued performing before a very loyal and growing fan base. Of course, “Stay” never left her repertoire, and it remains the song for which she is best known — a fact she cherishes about a song she still loves to perform.

This year, she released her fifteenth album, A Simple Trick To Happiness. The eleven songs, which she wrote and produced, working with friends and colleagues, is filled with the music for which fans know her best: melodic, lovely songs filled with storylines and messages, deeply personal at times, and meant to touch its listeners.

In the midst of her very busy schedule, Lisa Loeb spent time speaking with Guitar Girl Magazine, looking back and forward, discussing her craft, the music business, and her responsibilities as an artist and citizen of the world.

When you look at your career trajectory, how has the music industry changed, for better and worse, and how do you continue to navigate it?

When I started as an independent artist — and that’s how we all start, as independent artists — it was important to have a grassroots handle on your fan base and complete creative control over the music and whatever else you were doing. Those are the basics of being a musician.

As a songwriter and as a performer, it’s always been important to me to have a great relationship with my fans, to make sure they know what I’m doing, to continue to grow my fan base, and to continue to make things that I believe in and that I can stand behind. That has completely not changed. Even when I was working with major labels, that was always important to me.

Now more than ever, especially because there are so many people who are not signed with major labels, it’s still the basics and still the same. You have to make things you really like and that you want to share with others, and figure out who those others are and how to get to them.

The way the music industry is now is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it’s amazing how you can have so much access to so many fans, and so much of an audience, and how they can have access to so much music and creativity. But, as always, the biggest issue is letting people know that what you’ve made exists. There’s always been a lot out there, but with technology making it easy for anybody to make a record at any moment in their bedroom, there’s just so much out there, and we’re aware of it all because of the fast-paced social media existence of everything.

So it’s a blessing because there’s a lot out there, and a lot of people out there, and we all know this, but it’s a curse because you have to spend a lot of time and energy marketing yourself and reaching people, and that can be very distracting. But it’s also exciting.

Another thing on the music side that’s really great is that people can now fit into any genre they want. If you were signed to a label, there was always so much pressure to fit into a genre, and that has completely unraveled. Artists now are just making things, and the trick is for other people to describe it when necessary so that people know what they’re getting if they’re going to listen to the music or go to a concert.

Another change is that to be played on the radio, other than maybe local or NPR stations, you have to be a huge, huge hit musician. It’s almost like a different business, that huge commercial music business. Sometimes people fall into it and become that huge hit, but most of the time, it’s just tons and tons of music going on all the time.

Talking about it is almost like talking about two different things — like talking about being Beyonce and being a working musician. You can make a living being a musician. I really think you can have some great regional success, or even success in a big city like Los Angeles and New York, and make a living somehow — through playing live music mostly, probably, and maybe some music placements, if you can get those. But although Beyonce is based in the same vein of being a great songwriter, a great performer, and having a vision, it’s a different machine. It’s a whole other level.

While you’ve maintained your fan base and radio stations still embrace your music, you have also diversified, which many musicians now find they must do in order to make a living. You create music for your adult fans, music for children, perform, do voiceovers, act, write books, and secure film and television placements for your songs. Your creative tree has many branches.

I think it depends on the person. For me, that kind of diversification makes sense. I have a lot of interests and a lot of things I enjoy doing. For some musicians, it’s important that they focus on the thing they do, and do that well. We’re all in this weird place where being independent has so much freedom and control, and yet there are so many elements that can be distracting. We go back to social media, how involved you are in the business of getting whatever you’re doing out there, and deciding how many things you’re going to do.

In the ’90s, when I started out, you were seen as a dilettante and as someone who wasn’t really focused if you did a variety of different things, including doing commercials or connecting with products. You were seen as selling out. Now you’re seen as professional. You’re an entrepreneur, a renaissance person. Lucky for me, as I’ve gone along and have much more experience doing all my jobs and interests, it still takes a lot of energy and effort, but now it’s acceptable to do all those things, and it doesn’t take away from your art. But I do compartmentalize. I do the music I want to make, and then I try to figure out how I can get it to the people who might like it. The art comes first, and the business comes second.

Fifteen albums: When you look at that timeline, what do you see?

I’ve always been a big music fan, and one of my goals has always been to write music that people can feel at first listen. I play a lot of concerts, and when I play songs that people don’t know, I love when I can feel their reactions. I can feel that they’re in it with me in a song. I talk with them after the show, and I learn that they connected with songs they didn’t know.

Because of writing music for kids, I’ve learned how to better write songs for grown-ups, because when I write music for children, I often collaborate, and that process involves getting together with other people and focusing on something in particular to write about. That has tremendously focused my writing for grown-ups as well. I’m able to be abstract when I want to be, but at the same time, be more focused, which has always been my goal. It became my goal more and more after my first handful of major label records and my records that I did when I was in college, which are not included in those fifteen records.

The music you make for children is not condescending or “dumbed down.” You make intelligent music for children the way you make it for adults.

Yes, definitely. I think it’s important for everybody making music to do it the best that they can, no matter what genre they’re in. They should have the best productions, the best playing, the best performances, the best songwriting. There should not be any difference. A number of us in the children’s music field feel that same way and are able to follow through on what we want to do. We know how to work in the studio and write music.

Making kids’ music, for me, started more from nostalgia than from knowing about children. I loved a lot of the music that I listened to as a child, which was stuff that was on the radio, like soft pop in the ’70s, but I also had some kids’ records, like Free to Be … You and Me [Marlo Thomas & Friends, 1972], which was a big one for a lot of us, and Really Rosie by Carole King [1975]. It was real music, and it was really cool.

When I was a kid, there was a lot of entertainment like that, where you didn’t really know if it was for kids or for grown-ups. They told stories, and part of the trick was having grown-up production and performances in the middle of something that was supposed to be for kids. Or you’d have a grown-up show, like Steve Martin or Carol Burnett, and there was a sense of humor that all people would get. There was a sense of storytelling that appealed to all ages. That’s something that I’m always trying to do.

Of course, I learned more about making kids’ music once I had my own kids, which has influenced some of what I write. Also, some songs work better when you’re listening to them in the car, or at home, and others work better live. That’s an interesting process as well. I think connecting with my nostalgia and wanting to create a listening experience like I had when I was little opened me up to writing about things that I wouldn’t normally write about and having more fun. When I was doing my grown-up record, it helped me lock in on what do I have to say, what am I feeling, and what am I going through, which made it a very personal record for me.

Why now for this album? What inspired you to return to an “adult-focused” album?

I never meant to not make one for a while. I just kept getting distracted with all these different ideas and projects I had that were more geared toward kids or family-friendly records. A lot of fans were asking, “When are you going to write another grown-up record?” I realized I needed to set aside time and plan it and do it.

When did you begin working on the material? Did you write with intent in terms of direction and message, or did the theme develop as you were creating new songs?

Ever since college, I would write songs, and when I got to twelve or fifteen songs, I would say, “It’s time to make a record.” But with this one, for the first time, I did one song called “Sing Out,” which was written for a specific event. Everything else was written within six months of recording it. What was important to me, and to the collaborators I worked with was that we were all able to tap in and write songs that aren’t just romantic love songs. They’re songs about friends, about life, and a number of songs serve a purpose.

There are certain songs I hear, and things that I see on social media, that stay with me all day. A needlepoint person I follow on Instagram needlepointed something that said, “You can do it, it’s not that hard,” and that was x’d out, and underneath it was needlepointed, “You can do hard things.” That really stuck with me. It’s not meant to be trite. You get everything from a phrase to a photograph to an entire song that sticks with you, and I thought, I want to make some of those, because there are so many important things to me, and I want people to feel like I do, like, things can be tough, but you can get through it, and it’s worth it. I wanted that to come through in the songs.

Photo by Juan Patino
Interestingly enough, once again, there’s a song about missing someone.

That’s a theme — missing people, people going away, people staying. We used the word “stay” in one or two songs, and it was funny to see the other songwriters look at me like, “Are we all right to use that word?” because it’s such a key word in the song “Stay.”

That’s the other thing — not being afraid to write about things that might have been written about before. I had a song a long time ago called “Sandalwood,” and it says, “She can’t tell me that all the love songs have been written, because she’s never been in love with you before.” Even though we go through a lot of things that we connect on, everybody’s experience is unique, and it’s worth singing about and talking about and telling your friends about. So instead of worrying about it being the most original thing in the entire world, I feel like if you can put yourself into it, it does make it original, and it does make it unique, but it also is an amazing way to connect with others.

Tell us about your guitars: what you have, how long you’ve had them, and why you prefer those particular models.

Live, I always play a Taylor 512c, but I did not play as much guitar on this record as I normally do. When you’re starting out, you want to prove yourself, and I spent a lot of time taking guitar lessons, playing guitar, learning everything I could about guitar, learning different styles, and playing onstage.

After “Stay” became a hit song and I wasn’t playing guitar in the video, I spent lots and lots of interviews for years explaining that I do play guitar, and people are surprised sometimes when they see me play and see me playing complex things while singing. But on this record, I wasn’t married to playing guitar all the time. As a producer, I was fine with Scott Effman, one of my co-writers [“Skeleton,” “Shine”], playing guitar, and Rich Jacques, my co-producer and co-writer, had a variety of nice guitars, like a Gibson J-45 and a Gibson J-200. Adam Levy, who’s a great guitar player, came in and played electric guitar on “Most Of All.” He’s played on a handful of my records, and we’ve played live together.

What was the songwriting process like for you this time?

It was very natural. For “Doesn’t It Feel Good,” while we were writing, we put together a rhythm track, an electronic track, and muted guitar parts, and that helped to integrate the music and lyrics together, and the sound and the space, and we would add and subtract to that. That happened a couple of times as we were writing — having the texture behind us worked well. There aren’t any crazy chord changes. We played around with cyclical chord progressions and recording some of the music while we were writing helped a lot.

When I wrote “Sing Out” with Eric Lumiere, it was more upbeat and bright and sunny, but as we recorded it, I felt like the positivity came through more with a less sunny outlook. It was stripped down to acoustic guitar, kick drum, and bass. I’ve talked about maybe recording it again sometime with a more positive-sounding outlook for a kids’ record, because it’s a song about being yourself, and that’s a message for all ages.

“I Wanna Go First,” when we first started writing it, sounded like a coffeehouse singer-songwriter thumpy-strummy acoustic guitar with a lot of rhythm. As we were arranging in the studio and adding and subtracting things, we realized if we made it more in half-time, had a piano playing the chords, and less straightforward voicings, it really opened up the song. Even though the lyrics had been written on top of a more rhythmic feel, making the rhythm more open made the song more emotional and gave it the darkness it needed to tell the story better.

In other cases, we recorded with drums and bass as the basis of things, and we would add on top of that, which is one of my favorite ways to record because it’s a faster way of recording, things glue together much faster, but there were a couple of things we had to experiment with.

In some cases, things I might have stuck with a more straightforward way to do it, we would go home and listen, and often Rich would say, “No, that’s not exactly it. We need to make it more modern by looking at it in a different way, like maybe taking the acoustic guitar that sounds too singer-songwriter-y and opening it up so you can actually hear the lyrics.” And that’s maturity — when you’re more about trying to improve the arrangements so that they tell the story of the song, rather than being concerned with “Am I playing all the instruments?” and “Am I coming up with all the ideas?” It’s about working together and hearing things in different ways to bounce ideas off of each other.

How long have you played your Taylor?

I’ve played that guitar since 1989 or 1990. I have so many guitars, maybe 50 guitars. My husband also plays, so we have lots of guitars. But I keep going back to the 512c.

When I was in college, my friend Liz and I had a band called Liz and Lisa, and we were able to do a demo, a five-song EP, with John Gordon, who had been a guitar player with Suzanne Vega. He had a studio in New York City, and Liz and I went to his studio and recorded a handful of songs. John had a 512c that he’d gotten from Matt Umanov Guitars. [Note: The Greenwich Village guitar shop closed in 2017, after 48 years in business.]

At that time, I was playing an Ovation thin body that you plug right in and play, which was a godsend when you’re in high school and you want to make it easy to play in coffeehouses and at assemblies. I’m a petite person, so a thin-body guitar fits me well. That guitar got stolen out of a car in Dallas, and briefly, I played a Seagull guitar that I bought in Dallas, but when it was time to really replace the guitar that had been stolen, I went to Matt Umanov and got a 512c because it’s so easy to play. The action is low, but it never buzzed, it’s a custom guitar, so the neck is a little bit thinner, it plays really well, and it especially sounds good in the studio when you can set up a microphone and really bring out the bass in it.

Although I keep experimenting and want to get into something that sounds a little bit more woody, I keep going back to this guitar. It always sounds good live, it has a lot of definition, the action is always great, and when I get it set up, it doesn’t need much work at all, unless I’ve been in unusual climates. I have Gibsons and Fenders and Gretsches, and some great different companies have given me guitars that are really nice, but I always go back to the Taylor. It has everything I need.

There are obvious plusses to having a “career song” like “Stay,” which you still enjoy performing. At the same time, have you ever thought, I’m more than this song? Why does everyone always want to talk about it?

I definitely have felt a push and pull with the song since I wrote it and it became so popular because I had a life with it before it was popular. I played it at concerts and saw people on their own, without the help of pop radio, enjoying the song and wanting to hear it.

When Ethan Hawke [Loeb’s friend and neighbor at the time] passed it along to Ben Stiller [director ofReality Bites’], it was because Ethan really liked that song and he wanted Ben to hear it. It wasn’t, “Oh, this is going to be a pop hit.” There was no idea of what it was going to become. It was just a song that people enjoyed. It was one of the more unusual songs that I would write — I was singing over a guitar lick and the song didn’t have a chorus. It was a little bit more personal than some of my songs, which has become a good reminder to me to always try to tap into something that’s more personal, instead of trying to be so crafty and make things up all the time.

Luckily, it is a song that I am proud of. It meant a lot to me when I wrote it, and I’ve also seen the growth of what it means to other people. As a music fan myself, I get really sad when I hear musicians say, “Oh, that song didn’t mean anything to me.” I don’t want to hear that from a musician. If it meant something to the audience, it’s an important song. So I quickly am empathetic with people to whom “Stay” means a lot. And as a businessperson, I truly appreciate that I have identifiable songs.

All of those positive things aside, yes, I would love it if people knew all fifteen of my records and didn’t ask me questions like, “Are you still making music?” But I have perspective, and I don’t take it personally. I know that sometimes people connect with a song, and they don’t follow every single person’s career and every move. So I try to look at that kindly and tell myself that it’s cool that they know that song, and now I can tell them that I’ve got a new record coming out. Or they might be standing with their children and I can say, “I’ve got music videos and kids’ records that you and your children might enjoy.”

I’ve had a number of friends who were musicians before I was, and who had a lot of success before I ever did, and they’ve had their ups and downs, so I’ve seen how different musicians deal with it in different ways. Some of them have a very negative attitude, put all of their successes in the past, and just like to focus on why people aren’t up to date on their current careers. Others appreciate their past successes and bring them to the future in a way that makes sense to them. They use those songs as the gateway to the rest of everything they’re doing and as a way to connect with others. They appreciate people’s positive connections with those songs and all of the memories they have with those songs.

Outside of music, there are causes you support. Let’s start with the Camp Lisa Foundation.

Studies show that when you’re engaged in something like summer camp, you can do better in school, meaning you’re engaged throughout the summer, and that can affect how you are through the year. I also think it’s important to do anything you can to make kids feel independent, and the sleep-away camps where we donate money are accredited places that are safe for kids. Grown-ups are in charge, but the kids feel independent.

Camp teaches them to be members of the community and how to be themselves. It’s not a place where they’re graded. They often try things and activities and even foods that they’ve never tried before. They meet different people. Maybe it’s their first time in nature. All of those things make a huge impact on people’s lives. Growing up, I spent a lot of time trying to learn and do well in school, but the life lessons and things you learn when you’re in this place where you’re safe and independent can make even more of an impact.

Summer camps can be very, very expensive because of insurance reasons and facilities and things like that, so whenever possible, we need to make these experiences open to people who can’t afford them. Everybody needs these experiences.

You also perform at Pride events. Why are those important to you?

When I was in college, I had a song called “Going Somewhere” that said, “Don’t be afraid to be yourself.” But that can be difficult for some. I think everyone should be encouraged to be themselves, and it’s important for us to create a safe atmosphere and make it just the average thing that people would feel safe to be themselves and to explore being themselves.

We all have friends who have gone through different things, and I have a lot of fans who go through a lot. For them to have the support of musicians and people who have a voice makes this more mainstream and more common. The more we talk about it and learn how to use our words to have conversations with each other, the better.

“Sing Out” was specifically written for a Gay Pride parade in Nashville. I play a lot of functions where I don’t really have the right songs for the events. I play “Stay” and other songs that people know, but I wanted to have songs that resonate in certain situations, and so Eric Lumiere and I wrote that song with the event in mind, and it really has resonated with people at different Pride parades and Pride events.

Hopefully, by making it more mainstream to be whoever you are and whoever you’re figuring out that you are, which is an important message, it makes us all stronger as a community.

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