Songwriter Interviews

Lisa Loeb

by Carl Wiser

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Lisa Loeb is the only artist to have a #1 single ("Stay") without being signed to a record label. A bit of good fortune is involved - Ethan Hawke championed the song and directed the video - but the song made a connection and continues to do so. Getting to know this song is a great way to get to know Lisa.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I'd like to start with your big hit, which is "Stay." I know the story about Ethan Hawke and how you got discovered, but the song itself is something I'm interested in. Is the song about you at all?

Lisa Loeb: Yeah, it's funny, I usually write songs that are more fictional, and for some reason when I sat down to write that song, I let myself write more about how I was feeling at that moment. And that's something I think about a lot as I continue to write music, that the songs that I write that are more personal and without as much editing, are the ones that people connect to more.

It was one of the songs that was the most requested songs at concerts before it was foisted upon people on the radio, so I felt like it was a song that people connected to. And at the time I was having arguments with my boyfriend, who was actually my co-producer as well - we made records together. And then I go off into some other areas: I remember somebody close to me was going through severe, severe depression.

A lot of times in my songs, I get into some phase where I describe some other situation, and there's a whole verse in there about somebody who is very, very depressed. But yeah, it was a story about a breakup I was going through, and that situation where it's gotten into your head too much. Partially because somebody else is telling you that you're only hearing what you want to, and that puts you in a little bit of a tailspin. It puts me in a little bit of a tailspin, because you can't figure out what's actually real, are you only seeing things through your own eyes? Are you actually seeing things the way that they really are, or are you making things up? And at what point do you know whether you're seeing things the way that they really are?

Songfacts: When you turn the radio on and the woman is singing your song, was that a specific song?

Lisa: No, that was when you hear somebody telling your exact story. It's funny, because it wasn't until later, after a couple of major breakups, that I realized when you're depressed and you're going through these breakups, the breakup was supposed to happen. If you're going through difficult times, it's hilarious how you turn on the radio and even the most cliché things perfectly capture how you're feeling. And then you realize why people wrote those songs.

When you're not going through some of those things, sometimes as a songwriter you think, "Oh, that's so straightforward and cliché, but you know what? That's how it feels. In a way I think I wrote that into the song because I was relating my story to the effect that everybody goes through this. I'm not so special. You know, this isn't such a special situation that I'm going through, but it still means something to me. And it might not be as depressing as my friend who's suicidal, but it's still really hard.

Hopefully, as a listener, you get a feeling like when you just can't get away from your problems. You leave your house, you're driving down the road, you're going to do something different, and all of a sudden you hear, Oh, here's my story on the radio. It's like the last thing I need to hear right now.

Songfacts: Another song that I'm not sure is about you, or a story song, is "I Do."

Lisa: "I Do" is a song that people often tell me they relate to as a relationship song, but it was written like a number of other songs I've heard have been written: about the record company asking for more music. When I felt like my record was done, they wanted to hear a single. And the song was, "You don't hear it, but I do. When I'm done with thinking, then I'm done with you." It's like, you know what? I'm fed up with you. I was fed up with the record company.

"When I'm done with crying, then I'm done with you." And I was using some really straightforward lyrics, like "When I'm done with crying," I wasn't literally crying over the record company. But it just seemed really easy to sing, and I was trying to write something that was not so wordy, and not so poetic. Something that was really straightforward that people could understand when they heard it immediately. "Everybody feels this way sometime," da da da da da, "I do. You don't hear it, but I do." Literally, the record company said they didn't hear a single. And it was so annoying, because they had already told me they did, and then here they were coming back saying that they didn't.

I guess a relationship with a record company is somewhat of a relationship, although you put up with things with a record company that you would never put up with in a relationship. That's what that song started as, but I'm sure I probably took things from real relationship issues.

Songfacts: And what about the song "Do You Sleep?"?

Lisa: That was probably around college. I think it was in the middle of a separation from a guy, or maybe after a breakup. It was this feeling where I knew we should be broken up, but it kind of runs the gamut of all the feelings that you have when you go through a breakup, even if you instigate the breakup. You're wondering if they're completely still obsessed with you, like: do you eat, sleep, and breathe me? Like when you're broken up, and still at every moment you're thinking about this other person, and it's just so upsetting and it drives you crazy. But then it goes through my own thought process, where I think back, I guess in an abstract and a little bit of a poetic way about what the relationship used to be. And then by the time you get to the chorus, "I don't know, and I don't care if I ever see you again," you go through all those feelings – at least I do.

My feelings are never completely 100% straightforward, and if they are, they go through many different phases, where I look at things from a lot of different angles.

Songfacts: You have some interesting lyrics in there. Stuff like "you smoked with the ghost in the back of my head."

Lisa: Yeah, the concrete image, "smoked – smoke," is probably related to the fact that the guy that I was dating at the time was kind of a stoner. And then I used it to be more metaphorical, like you're messing around with me. And the ghost in the back of my head is something that's like ephemeral. It's when somebody messes around with you mentally on a deeper level, bringing up things from your past that aren't even really existent anymore. You know, like a ghost isn't really existent. It's based on something that used to exist, but it's kind of like a figment of your imagination in a way. Although there is a presence to it, because it obviously affects you.

Songfacts: I'm seeing how these things people say really have a strong effect on you.

Lisa: Yeah.

Songfacts: What about the song "Fools Like Me"?

Lisa: That's a really straightforward song. That was one of my earlier co-writing situations. I was in a situation where my record company really wanted to hear the hits. And instead of feeling the pressure to write the hits by myself, I decided to experiment writing with people who are known for writing hit songs.

I just like to write songs; although it's fun when they become hits, I don't sit down to write hits. I'd had a couple of co-writing experiences where I wrote with people who had hit songs, and although I avoided it at first because I thought that seemed non-artistic, I realized that although those people were known for writing hits, they're still musicians and songwriters, and they're really fun to work with. And it's really great to see into how other people write music.

So I got together with John Shanks, who's a great guitar player and a great producer, and really knows how to write songs that get on the radio. And we brought Shelly Peiken in, who I actually knew way back in the New York days, when I still lived there in the early '90s. Shelly, who's a great lyricist, came on out and we just started writing. The lyrics are more inspired by the music. If you listen to the chorus that I did, that "I did, I will, I can," you know, those repetitive short phrases. It was interesting to learn how lyrics could mean something but also be in front of the music. I think as a listener you mainly focus on the melody and the rhythm of songs more than lyrics sometimes. At least I do. Because I spend way too much time writing lyrics, I don't pay as much attention to them when I'm listening to music. So it was interesting to key into how other people write lyrics based on feelings and based on rhythm and melody, but still make it sound like something. I think those songs that are most fun to sing along to.

Songfacts: How do you usually write? Do the lyrics come first, or the music?

Lisa: There's no usual. It's very strange. One of the songs I wrote most recently that I finished, I decided to try to write something really personal, and so I started with a phrase that came to my head, "There's a house on my back pushing me over." And literally, I was in a situation where I was selling my house and lots of things were going on in my life. But I thought that sounded kind of interesting and abstract, and I started with that phrase and I just sat down and started playing. And instead of editing my chord choices, I'm thinking, Oh, this isn't complicated enough, I went with a D chord to a G chord. And I ended up writing something that's really easy to sing, that is very poetic actually.

The entire song ends up being poetic, but has a general feeling specific to what I was going through. And then in the end it turns out it applies to a lot of other people, because a lot of people go through the same kind of emotion. But it all varies. Like, when I wrote "Do You Sleep," I think that came lyrics and ticking pattern at the same time, and then I tried to figure out what that was about. Usually it comes from a small idea, either a melody and a lyric together, or just a lyric, or just a melody, or a chord pattern I think is beautiful or interesting, and then I try to figure out what that seed idea is about and I write about that idea.

Songfacts: I wonder if that says something about your personality, that you don't have a specific system for writing songs, that they can come from just about anywhere.

Lisa: You could either say I'm very resourceful and organized, or you could say I have a slight touch of ADD, although I don't think I really actually have a slight touch of ADD. Or I tend to overthink things, such is the way I am. And then I have to try to figure out how to put it back into a box as a song. I overthink, and then I think, "Oh, gosh, I have to simplify this."

Songfacts: Now, talking about overthinking, there's a song called "Jake" that's got some interesting ideas. Talk about that one, please.

Lisa: "Jake" is about a relationship where you feel like you're in a hole. And I actually expressed that through metaphors, but it sounds very literal. You know, I'm going as far as I can go away from here, away from you, Jake, and the hole you sucked me into. To me that seems like a direct through line. And it almost seems like a short story, because it starts, and when it's over, it's like you turn the page and you're done. The lyrics end and you turn the page, and it's over.

Songfacts: Is there a real Jake?

Lisa: There's not a real Jake. No. "I'm going as far as I can go away from here, away from you, Jake, and the hole you sunk me into. I wish that I could belong here with you and just be, but that's not what I'm about. Life was built on accidents, like meeting me, write everything down on your grocery list. People do this." And it's funny, too, because when I think about it now, in retrospect, I think there are a number of different relationships in my life that were getting me down, but it's not about one in particular. As I sing it, it's almost like being an actor, when I sing it I end up applying it to my own present life, I often think about who's in my present life that it applies to. Or I think of other people that I'm really close to who it applies to them, and in my mind I'm singing from their point of view. Very strange.

You can see how Lisa's personality and distinctive look make her a natural for reality TV. She had a cooking show on Food Network for a while, and in 2006 was the subject of #1 Single on E!, where viewers followed her on her quest to find the man of her dreams (hint to any guy with an opportunity to date Lisa: Listen to the songs, it's all there).
Songfacts: You did the theme song for your TV show, #1 single. Tell me about that song.

Lisa: Actually, it was really fun. It was fun because I worked with Jimmy Harry, who is another professional songwriter, who I love working with because we have a lot of the same taste in music. We both love old David Bowie, and he actually loves a lot of rock. You can't always hear it in some of the co-writes that he does for pop singers. But we like working together, it's almost like we're in a band together when we work together.

I think that's the same as when I'm working with Dave Bassett, or my friend Chad Fisher. It's like we're in a band together for that co-writing session. It's not like professional songwriters trying to come up with a hit.

Songfacts: Was this song in the can already when you did the show?

Lisa: No, no, no, I was shooting the show and I left New York to come back to L.A. to write and record the song with Jimmy. We tried to set it up so it was fun. That's another way that I write songs sometimes. When I have to write for a TV show or a movie, or even if there's something like a theme or something I want to write about, it's like a little homework assignment.

The key in that song was to write a song that sounded like it could be a TV show theme song, but also an actual song-song. A song that had the words "single me out" or something about being single. And something about feeling about dating and relationships, set in New York City. And those were some of the themes and issues that we had to hit when we were writing the song. And I think that's what we did pretty well. We actually did it.

Songfacts: Yeah, it's a really good song.

Lisa: And it's something I just sang live, and it was fun to record and make it really rock.

Songfacts: You mentioned in "Stay" part of the inspiration was a friend of yours. And there's a song called "She's Falling Apart."

Lisa: Oh, yeah.

Songfacts: Tell me about that one.

Lisa: That was one that I wrote in Miles Copeland's castle in France with two other writers. And the idea in that case was instigated by one of the men, who's a writer from Nashville. He had somebody in his life who had anorexia, and he wanted to write a song about that. I thought that was a great topic, food disorders and eating issues, and depressed teenagers are a near and dear topic to me. And I thought that it would be really interesting to write a song like that.

Songfacts: Sounds like she's even a cutter.

Lisa: She's not, but her arms are too thin. That's anorexia.

Songfacts: Gotcha.

Lisa: Yeah, people hear it and they think, Oh she must be on drugs or something. But you still get the right feeling from the song, because those are all issues that are secret and hidden and difficult for families to deal with. They don't know what to do and when to take care of them.

Lisa's early work can be found on The Purple Tape, which was a cassette (kids, ask your parents) that she sold at her shows. Some of these songs made it to her first two albums, but until now The Purple Tape, which now is a CD, was not available. The new release contains all the original songs, plus a bonus disc where you can hear much more from Lisa.
Songfacts: So The Purple Tape has been around for a long time, and now it's coming back. It's got to be interesting for you to be able to see these songs now that they're 15 years on or so. Why don't you pick a track from that and tell me about it.

Lisa: Oh, like songs that are still pertinent? I don't know, it's really strange. Some of the songs I listen to, and I think, "Oh my Lord, this is really old." And other times I think, "That was a really well-written song." And in some cases, there's elements where I feel like I've grown in my recording performance style. I feel more comfortable recording, which is weird, because I've been recording since I was in high school. At that point I had already been recording for almost 10 years.

So I think I had gotten into a phase where I was focusing too much on singing properly and not enough on just singing. But the two songs that are not on other albums that I made later, which I like the best, are the song "Days Were Different." I really like the music on that song. It's a song that's about writer's block. I remember hearing Suzanne Vega talking about having writer's block. And I thought, Oh, I want to ward off writer's block, that sounds terrible. You know, I'm never gonna have it, and I never want it. And that's what that song was inspired by. There's some awkward moments in the lyrics, but I try to give myself the benefit of writing that way, because I think - and I know that there are other songwriters who do – that when you get into the place where you want everything to be perfect all the time, sometimes you never finish a song. So you have to allow yourself awkward moments of lyrics.

Songfacts: What's the other track that never appeared?

Lisa: "Airplanes." I like the song "Airplanes." It's very simple. Again, it feels like the kind of song like "Jake" is, like a short story. Like a little glimpse into a life. And it was literally inspired by being in a songwriting class at The New School. I decided to take a songwriting class, because I thought that would be an interesting thing to learn more about.

I was trying to get some more points of view on writing and how theory plays into chord progressions, and also just have a structure, to be challenged to write different kinds of songs than I normally would write. And the teacher told us to write a specific kind of song, which I ended up not doing, but it inspired me to do that. And my mother at the time was literally scared to fly, and literally we were told not to throw rocks in canyons, because we lived in San Diego when I was really little, and my brother, he says he didn't do it, but I think he used to throw rocks in the backyard down the canyon.

Songfacts: Where was this class?

Lisa: The New School in New York City. And it was a guitar teacher named Steve. He and his wife both teach.

Songfacts: Well, I think I've used up all my time.

Lisa: Okay. I hope that was helpful in some way.

Songfacts: That was extremely helpful.

Lisa: It's kind of weird talking about a process that I look at and don't even really understand how it all comes together sometimes.

August 16, 2007.
Get more at lisaloeb.com.
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