On Wednesday, February 11, QuoinMonkey and ybonesy interviewed singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb. It was shortly after the end of her whirlwind tour of the U.S. and Japan following the June 2008 release of her second CD of Children’s Music, Camp Lisa.
The CD follows Loeb’s early 2008 reissue of The Purple Tape, an acoustic, ten-song demo she self-released as a cassette in 1992. Proceeds from “Camp Lisa” benefit a foundation Lisa created to send underprivileged children to summer camp.
The New York Times had recently announced Lisa’s January 2009 wedding at Brasserie 8 ½, a restaurant in New York, when QM and ybonesy spoke with her from her New York City home. They talked about marriage and culinary loves, Loeb’s life as a singer-songwriter, practices that sustain her, the work of writing, and tips for those who dream of making it big.
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Interview with Lisa Loeb, February 11, 2009, red Ravine
red Ravine: In our research to prepare for this interview, we couldn’t help but notice that you seem to love food. Some of your children’s songs are about food, like the “Peanut Butter & Jelly” song from Camp Lisa (which is one of our faves) plus you’ve done the Food Network. Also in the New York Times article about your marriage, we were struck by how acute your senses are when you describe food. Is food a passion of yours?
Lisa Loeb: Yes, it’s a thing that I love. Growing up, like a lot of other girls, I was concerned about my weight. I was a dancer, and I loved food. We had to eat in the cafeteria every day at school, and it was sort of a game to find out what they were serving for lunch. But by the time I was a teenager, I went to an all-girls school, and since we wore uniforms, we were especially aware of our bodies and the differences between our bodies. Uniforms are meant to make us seem more uniform, but when everyone’s wearing the same thing, you pay more attention to other bodies. You would notice that you were eating the delicious cornbread muffins or the huge pieces of pie or the doughnuts in between classes in the morning, and it was a struggle between enjoying all this food versus getting larger and larger.
Between my sophomore and junior years, I went to Spain to live there with a family. Every day a younger brother in the Spanish family would run and get me a huge pastry because he realized that I liked it. And at night, we’d eat hotdogs and go out drinking all the time and eat potato chips and all these great Spanish tapas before they were fashionable in the United States. I came home a lot heavier. And it was scary.
It was fun to eat all that stuff but it was not that fun to come home heavier. So then I tried all the different diets that everybody tries. By the time I got to college, I started getting interested in nutrition to figure out how to enjoy food but eat in a balanced way. My best nutritionists were the people who said, “Eat whatever you want when you are hungry, but stop when you’re full. And pay attention to nutrition when you can.”
red Ravine: I (QuoinMonkey) met you a few years ago in a writing workshop with author Natalie Goldberg. It was one of Natalie’s weeklong silent retreats where we sat and meditated and slow walked and did Writing Practice. What prompted you, a successful singer and songwriter, to take a writing workshop and what did you learn from the silent writing retreat?
Lisa: I’ve always been a fan of Natalie Goldberg. Her writing exercises and general attitude about writing have helped me in my process of writing. At my all-girls school, although they taught me a lot about writing — how to write correctly and how to communicate, read, and pick apart text in English and Spanish — they didn’t always emphasize our own thoughts and having our own opinions. Especially as we got older, they didn’t put as much value on personal opinion as they did on structure, format, and grammar.
With Natalie, she emphasizes just writing. You know, just writing for yourself. That’s something that I think is important as an artist because as humans, all we have different from each other is our point of view, and so it’s important as an artist to bring that out. That’s what she does.
I thought if I could take a workshop with her, that would be amazing. Also, in my life often there’s more time spent on the business side of things than on the writing side of things, and for me structure is very helpful. So to be in a place where the goal was to write for a week was something that I looked forward to.
I’d done something like that for music, where I went to music summer school a long time ago, before I was a professional musician, at Berkeley Music School. And I got to practice. Even when I was a kid, I was pretty distracted; I practiced some but I did a lot of other things in my life. And for once, I wanted to be that person who just got in the practice room and practiced, practiced, practiced.
This was like that for writing, in a silent retreat especially, because I’m around a lot of people all the time, touring in every state, always communicating with people. It was a great opportunity to simplify and be silent. I do spend time alone, not talking to people, when I’m not working. But that was an opportunity to focus, of course, with the great guidance of Natalie and also in the company of people — people at all different levels of writing. I learn a lot from just starting from the beginning. Natalie calls it “Beginner’s Mind.” And sometimes when you are writing with people who are beginners, you remember to take the pressure off of writing, which adds more freedom for better writing and more writing.
red Ravine: Most of us who aspire to integrate Writing Practice into our lives struggle at different times to make it a day-to-day practice. How about you? Do you write or play music every day?
Lisa: I don’t. Not at all. I’ve gone through phases where I do write — I use things like a month-long tour or a trip to the beach for a week-and-a-half, or there’s a thing in the Jewish tradition called Counting the Omer. When structures like that come up, I’ll take advantage of them and say, “Okay, now I’m going to write every day for this period of time.” Or there’s a Toni Morrison book where it’s day-by-day, a short-chaptered book where she talks about different things in each chapter (maybe it’s called Love). So I decided I was going to do a page-long chapter each day and write something based on a word that she mentioned in her book.
Sometimes I have to create a little game to create structure for myself. Other times, when I know I need to finish, I start. It’s almost like an athlete warming up and getting ready to do a marathon. I just realize I can’t do it overnight, it’s a process.
But yeah, it’s hard. I don’t always write every day. Sometimes when I write every day it gets too easy in a way. Like I am not saying anything and I’m not focusing well. So sometimes I need to take a break from it, too.
red Ravine: Do you have other practices that ground you and sustain you?
Lisa: I do. I work out five days a week at least, walking whether it’s on a treadmill or outside, doing strength training. Some people do yoga; I do strength training. And then also when I’m in Los Angeles, I go to synagogue on Saturday ’cause I have a cool rabbi that I like.
red Ravine: And any other things you do to keep going when you’re feeling down or insecure?
Lisa: I have my friends. That’s important to me, spending time with friends. And going outside and taking a walk. Or writing. You know, writing is something I definitely rely on for that. It’s a little weird, too, because I associate writing with my professional life so sometimes I have to remember to step back and write to write, even if it means being like Jack Nicholson in the movie The Shining and writing the same thing over and over.
I do use writing as a tool. It helps that little switch in my brain which I try to avoid or at least let it pass, which is like, Oooh, I wonder if I could do a different song. Or, I wonder if I could do something else where I write. It’s the equivalent of when you’re working out or taking a walk because you want to and it feels good, then getting that little thought in the back of your head, saying, Oooh, I wonder if I’m going to lose any weight by doing this or walk off that piece of pie from last night.
I don’t like associating working out and losing weight. I like associating working out with breathing. It’s the same thing I have with writing – in order for it to actually work properly and be integrated into my life in a balanced way, it has to be what it is.
red Ravine: You came into success very early in your career as a musical artist. How did that affect your life and your creative work?
Lisa: It gave me a lot of freedom to have success early on. The financial freedom — in my family growing up, having a job was something that we valued, being able to support yourself. So that took a load off my mind. And it gave me freedom to have less worry. I worry a lot in my life. You know, the Jewish worry and guilt, a certain amount of being neurotic.
It gave me freedom, although in the end, I think other people can’t make you feel like you are successful. It comes with a certain amount of self-confidence and self-esteem. But I think that having other people acknowledge what I’m doing gave me more confidence and made me feel like I was more free to continue to make music. Which is very powerful. Because not knowing if what you’re doing is worth anything can be very frustrating.
And I know that even after being a professional musician, that feeling never goes away. That feeling’s always there. Like, Oh gosh, I wonder if this is worth anything, why am I doing this, it’s a selfish thing, I should do something where I help other people… All these things. I love hearing from somebody saying, “That thing that you wrote helped me through this period of my life.” It’s a weird balance of feeling secure within myself, but also as a performer and a writer having that respect from an audience.
Also, I want to go back to one other question you asked me [regarding] when you’re in a state of depression or insecurity. I got a lot of great tools from my rabbi in Los Angeles. He’s of a Hasidic philosophy similar to cognitive therapy, where you’re able to look at your actions and thoughts in a different light and turn things around.
He mentioned a time where he was giving a lecture in front of people — he gives a lot of lectures and teaches classes — and he thought, Everyone is so bored, they don’t want to listen to me, I’m doing a terrible job. I think someone might have yawned in the front row. And then he thought through it again using the cognitive therapy and Hasidic philosophy and said, Well, people like coming to my classes so I must be doing something right. The classes I give, even when they’re bad are usually pretty good, and so I guess I’m doing a pretty good job. That’s a simplification, but he’s saying that [we all have access to] those kind of tools.
I want to feel good with when I just sit at the subway station for two minutes waiting for the train and write something there. It doesn’t have to be a magical place, but I have to sit down and write. It can be anywhere. It can be on a napkin in a restaurant. It doesn’t have to lead to a great song. That’s not the best example, but thinking through things in a realistic way helps ground me as well.
red Ravine: It sounds like a practical tool for dealing with Monkey Mind.
Lisa: Oh, it is. It really is. It’s that Natalie Goldberg thing I learned, we all learned, that you just sit down and write. Things don’t happen overnight. Sometimes they do, but you can’t rely on that. You can rely on just sitting and writing as part of a bunch of small steps that take you some place — maybe, maybe not.
red Ravine: We were talking about your success that came early on and we’re curious, too, how your goals have changed. Have your goals as an artist changed as you’ve gotten older?
Lisa: I think my goals continue to be pretty much the same since I was younger – which is to continue to try to write better. And also to try to enjoy the process more.
I’ve written songs since I was a kid but especially when I started writing lyrics when I was 13, 14, it’s become more complicated. And it’s always been a hard process. I continue to become more forgiving of myself and more accepting of the process. What it is for me doesn’t have to be what it is for other people.
I want to be a better songwriter. I guess I might have had more business-oriented goals when I was starting out, to get a record contract, to get paid to do things, and I guess I still have those goals. It’s great if you can get paid for your work, which is rarer these days, especially with people trading music.
Also there are meta-goals. One of them is to continue to keep my eyes open for other things I want to do that aren’t writing, that aren’t making songs. And that’s okay to do other things well.
But as a writer, you need to be comfortable with the process. And just keep doing it. It’s hard. I told Natalie…I ate lunch with her one day on the way through New Mexico and I was telling her, “There are these projects I want to develop, and maybe I want to be a psychologist or a nutritionist, and maybe I should teach, but I have these songs I’m supposed to write but I don’t want to, so I think I’m just going to hang out.”
And she said, “You just need to sit that…I don’t know how better to say it…you just need to sit that motherfucker down and write.” (laughter from all). She’s like, “People say that all the time, ‘I never want to write, I don’t want to do it…’.” And I was like, Ahhhh…go do your homework! I hate doing my homework, I don’t want to do it. And the thing is, if you do it little by little, it’ll get done.
red Ravine: You were in Albuquerque last year and my (ybonesy’s) date to your concert was my nine-year-old daughter, which turned out to be great. Afterwards we bought the CD Catch the Moon and my daughter listens to it all the time; in fact, it’s sitting on the kitchen table for her to load on to her iPod along with your hits. You’ve gotten into children’s music and you found a generous way to pay it forward with the proceeds from Camp Lisa and sending kids to camp through your Camp Lisa Foundation. What inspired you to write and sing music for children?
Lisa: It was something I wanted to do ever since I was a kid. I listened to music for children. In my day it was Free To Be You and Me; it was Really Rosy, which was a Carole King record. A lot of music they had on Sesame Street and The Electric Company, created by real musicians of the time — the early 70’s — sounded like real music.
I had an opportunity to do a record that was different from my regular grown-up records and I chose to do a kids’ record. My friend Liz Mitchell produced it. Since she’d made a lot of kids’ records, it sounded in the vein I wanted. Actually, she was the one who gave me my first Natalie Goldberg book. She was my singing partner in my band for years and years.
When it came time for me to do another kids’ record, I was going through a moment where I was like, What am I doing? I was trying to write a regular grown-up album and I was writing dark things and spending a lot of time by myself writing. It wasn’t fun. And I remembered that it had been really fun writing songs with friends of mine in Los Angeles, and I thought, Why does it have to be a treacherous horrible experience? I should take a break and do something that reminds me that it’s fun and easy to write songs and express ourselves.
So I got back together with my friends Dan [Petty] and Michelle Lewis, who lived down the street basically, and we started making a summer camp record and it was really fun! And it felt like, wow, I’m a working songwriter, I go to work with them each day and we write songs. And we make up melodies and it’s very exciting and fun; it doesn’t have to be a painful experience to be artistic.
Through that process, I was questioning, Why am I doing music at all? I want to try to do something else to help other people. Then I realized, Oh, wait a minute, maybe I can use what we’re doing to help other people. And I realized that summer camp, of course, [we] could actually send kids to summer camp and also to be able to meet the kids. It all came together — a goal for having a kids’ record; a goal to be more responsible in the community; and a songwriter wanting to engage in a more fun way that would inform my regular, grown-up songwriting.
Also, writing kids’ songs, you have more of a story where you’re trying to say something that people can understand easily, and I think that’s a good tool for me to bring to my grown-up writing. Also when I play kids’ concerts, I realize that some of the more simple songs where I’m writing a tra-la-la-la-la or a chant or repetitive part is a fun thing to play in front of people. Grown ups and kids enjoy it and it makes me realize that sometimes in songwriting it’s not how many words can you put in there, how clever you can be, it’s really just going from your heart, the melodies and the words that just come out. Which is hard to trust. You feel you need to write the most complicated music, but that’s not what songwriting is about.
red Ravine: Who are your favorite songwriters today? What songs do you like to hear?
Lisa: I have a lot of songs I love; they don’t even focus on the lyrics that much, just the feelings of the songs. I love Led Zeppelin, especially Led Zeppelin IV and the Over the Hills and Far Away album. I love David Bowie music and often I don’t know what he’s talking about but (laughter) there’s just a certain attitude and coolness in his songs. Songwriters? More recently I’ve enjoyed Death Cab for Cutie. Oh gosh there’s so much music that I love. Lyle Lovett is great. Prince.
A lot of things are abstract and it’s just the way it feels, the music and the lyrics and the feeling of it altogether hits me. It’s funny because it’s not how I feel when I’m writing music. It reminds me that it’s okay to play around with words and feelings and if it means something to me that’s fine; it doesn’t have to be so direct. It’s a constant balance, like I said with the kids’ music, where you’re trying to say something more directly, and the kind of music which I enjoy listening to, which often is more abstract and about the feeling and the production of the songs.
red Ravine: When you were in Albuquerque you mentioned that you were attending a Goldberg writing retreat with your mother. What was it like to do Writing Practice with your mom?
Lisa: We didn’t actually do a lot of practice together. It was a little frustrating.
What I loved was that my mother hasn’t done a lot of things where she goes away and meets other people. She loves people and talking to people and meeting people, and I thought that social aspect would be interesting for her. Because on my first writing weekend with Natalie, it was a speaking retreat where you got to actually sit at breakfast and talk to people.
And I thought secretly she would get to do some writing. She also went to the same high school I went to and grew up in a time when grammar was much more important than the fact that maybe saying something that’s not grammatically correct might allow you to express yourself better. So I wanted her to experience it for herself. I think that was the first time she was encouraged in that way. It was cool to see her go through that and go home and tell her friends about it.
But we actually didn’t do as much Writing Practice together as I expected. And that was actually a lesson to me, too. If I’m not working, if I’m not writing, I always feel like I’m never writing enough. No matter what it is, it’s just not enough. And I sort of beat myself up over it. I was trying to let myself not have to be a person who has to be writing all the time. And let that be okay. And that was really hard, but that was an interesting turn the other direction.
red Ravine: We noticed you studied comparative literature at Brown and we’re curious, how did (does) that play into your songwriting?
Lisa: It doesn’t very much at all. When I went to Brown, I picked something that was close to what I thought I liked when I was in high school. One of my favorite classes was Spanish because not only did we get to learn a whole different language and communicate with a whole new group of people, but in Spanish class, we also got to study visual art, film, poetry, geography, food, social customs. You name it, we studied it, but in Spanish.
We learned to take apart poems, and there was great Spanish-language literature, which is some of the best literature in the world. High school, middle, and elementary school education actually played more into my writing than my college experience.
Really college was just what I studied on paper, and in retrospect, I would go back and do something else. But it gave me the freedom to spend most of my time in the recording studio, in the music department and the theater department doing plays, writing music, playing shows. It gave me this kind of thing I could tell my parents I was doing that sounded reasonable while I was actually spending most of my time doing these other things.
It was also like a long lesson in learning that I really need to go with my heart and not do what I’m supposed to be doing. In retrospect, I should have been studying theater or art or music or psychology or just something else. I mean, I don’t think reading Ulysses three times really did anything (which was a painful experience). Experimental things can be boring or they can be interesting. It didn’t take me any further into literature; it was more about theory, but it didn’t inform my writing.
red Ravine: What are some of your favorite authors and books?
Lisa: I love Isabel Allende, pretty much all her books. I love magical realism. You know where she tells a story that feels like it’s actually happening but within it, just like Gabriel García Márquez, they use these great images and things happening that are magical and you get the feeling that those things could actually be someone’s real experience, even though it might include flying or crazy dreams or people floating through rooms or water pouring out of walls, or whatever it is.
I love the short stories of Roald Dahl. The collection I love the most is Kiss Kiss. And that’s kind of Twilight Zoney using tales that are very bizarre but you can imagine them actually happening. I love J. D. Salinger all the way around. Again, I love his short stories. He takes things that are very mundane and very deep and there’s this beauty and melancholy in the books that I love. Those are some of my favorite authors.
red Ravine: What projects are you working on now?
Lisa: None writing wise. I’m working on developing an eyewear line that will be out later this year. I’m very involved in the design, involved in the marketing, that side of the company, so that will be out later in the year. I’m also working on a collection of more kids songs for a couple of kids books that should be out in 2010, which will be more like lyrics for singalong songs, some crafts and some recipes. It will be fun for kids.
And I’m trying to finish up some songs for a grown-up record. After my wedding, I returned to listening to some of the songs I was in the process of finishing and I’m actually realizing that I’m closer to finishing an album than I thought I was. Little by little, you know.
red Ravine: Wow, eyewear? Because every time we see a photo of you we always just think your glasses are fabulous. How did that come about?
Lisa: Thank you. Well, I’ve always worn glasses and ever since I was in high school people would recognize me for my glasses. And I love glasses, especially ones that have a little bit of a lift on the corners — some people say cat-eyes, but they’re not quite cat-eye glasses. Anyway, I love them and I was looking for a perfect pair and people have always asked where they could get my glasses. Finally, we were able to connect with a company that wants to manufacture them and work with us to put them out. Selfishly, I’ll pick up a couple of pair of glasses that I really like!
No matter where I am, I always look for glasses, and it’s hard to find them. You know when you wear them on your face every day? So I wanted selfishly to have my own but I also wanted to share my glasses with other people who are always asking about them.
red Ravine: I (ybonesy) will look for them because I always want a lift at the corner, too. Some faces just need that. Do you have any plans to take any other kinds of workshops or attend another Natalie Goldberg retreat?
Lisa: I would love to do that. I meant to do it for my 40th birthday but we couldn’t quite get it together and Natalie’s mother passed away kind of close to it. I was thinking, in lieu of a bachelorette party for my wedding, it would be great to put together a workshop of my friends, a writing workshop with people I get together and write with anyway.
Right now my schedule’s a little tight because I’m moving back to Los Angeles and there are non-business priorities that [make it] hard to take even three or four days and go write. For me, and I know for a lot of other people, that structure makes all the difference in the world. And sometimes it takes going away to a seminar to remember that. Even though you can just sit and put your timer on for 10 minutes on your cell phone and write, sometimes it takes a weekend trip to remember that.
Also, something I forget –you’re supposed to read this stuff to other people. You don’t have to write all day for this to work. Natalie always says you need to write less. You need to sit down and write, but you don’t need to write five hours a day, that’s too much, you can’t do it. So I think it’s a great environment for me and I know it impacts a lot of other people as well.
red Ravine: You just got married a few weeks ago, so we wanted to know how is married life treating you, and what is a fluffernutter? (laughs)
Lisa: (laughs) A fluffernutter is marshmallow crème and I think we got it on white bread. Often we all go back to wheat bread, but for purposes of the fluffernutter sandwich, it was this homemade white bread with peanut butter and with marshmallow fluff. I can’t believe how good it is; it’s a crazy thing. And the texture when you bite into the sandwich, you know it creates that seam when you bite into that white bread sandwich. And it’s just like a pillow of joy (all laugh). It’s sweet and salty and fluffy packed in between these two cottony sheets. It’s delicious!
And married life is good, it’s really great. We’re at the beginning of this adventure. I love my husband and I look forward to continuing to get to know him and we just have a really good time together, no matter what. We’re a good support system for each other. We both have the same values. He’s not a musician professionally, but he likes to play music in the house, and again that reminds me that creatively, it doesn’t have to be for work.
Sometimes when you just do things for fun, it might lead to something you can use for work. For me, that’s an important reminder not to always be geared toward work. We have a good time and music is part of his work so we both have a lot of opportunities to do music and talk about it and do fun things and meet interesting people. And it’s good to have a team; though you were a team before, it’s a different team when you’re married. So yeah, it’s all good.
red Ravine: I’m going to try to get both these questions in, one has to do with the fact that you were recently on stage with Sarah Silverman who strikes us as someone who takes so many risks with her art. And you’ve ventured into many different creative areas with songwriting, TV, and voiceover work. What was it like to work with Sarah and how important is risk-taking in creative work?
Lisa: It was great to work with her. I think she’s clever and fun and she’s really nice. And I feel like risk-taking is important but again, that’s relative. For some people it might mean writing a song from the first person instead of third person. Or it might mean setting a guitar on fire on stage. Or not writing might be risk-taking. Like I said, it was scary for me to be in a writing seminar and not be writing a whole lot. But to not be following the rules is a huge risk for me; I always follow the rules.
red Ravine: Our last question: What advice do you have for our readers who dream of making it big with their writing and becoming well-known?
Lisa: Two things. One is continue to write and to do your own thing. Don’t try to copy other people; the main thing you have to offer that is different from other people is yourself and your own point of view. But, at the same time, to make it you need to be a business person or find a person who can help you with the business side of things. That might mean doing it yourself, getting copies of your book out there, reading it live, being a musician live, or doing something on YouTube. Because part of it is doing the work, and then part of it is getting it out there with an audience.
But first, decide what your goals are. If it’s to be famous, hire a publicist and do some whacky things and get famous. If it’s to be read by a lot of people, start somewhere. Do it yourself. But don’t wait around for someone to do it for you. It’s not going to happen miraculously.
red Ravine: Thank you Lisa, really wonderful interview. We appreciate your time, and we’ll be watching for those eyeglasses!
Lisa: Thank you. I appreciate the questions.
About Lisa Loeb: Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb started her career with the platinum selling No. 1 hit song “Stay (I Missed You)” from the film Reality Bites. To this day, she is still the only artist to have a No. 1 single while not signed to a recording contract. Loeb parlayed that early success into a multi-dimensional career encompassing music, film, television, voice-over work, and children’s recordings.
Her six acclaimed studio CDs include the Gold-selling Tails and its follow-up, the Grammy-nominated, Gold-selling Firecracker. Her complete catalogue includes The Very Best of Lisa Loeb (2006), and two children’s CDs, the award-winning Catch the Moon (2006) and Camp Lisa (2008) with guests Jill Sobule, Lee Sklar, Maia Sharp and funnyman/banjo player Steve Martin. In conjunction with the release of the Camp Lisa CD, Loeb launched the Camp Lisa Foundation, a non-profit organization that raises funds to help send underprivileged kids to summer camp through its partnership with S.C.O.P.E. (Summer Camp Opportunities Provide an Edge, Inc.).
In addition to her music, Lisa has also starred in two television series, Dweezil and Lisa, a weekly culinary adventure for the Food Network, and #1 Single, a dating show on E! Network. Look for the Lisa Loeb eyewear line to hit the stores in 2009.