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Last night, Lisa Loeb stepped out of a cab in front of Highline Ballroom with an orange guitar case slung across her shoulder, her hair pulled into a low ponytail, and her eyes hidden behind her iconic black-framed glasses. She is petite with a somewhat soft voice, and speaks thoughtfully and intelligently, like the smart, quiet girl in your college literature seminar. In 1994, Loeb was the first artist to have a number one single in the United States while not signed to a recording contract. Almost 20 years later, she is still plugging away and making music, and in January she released a new record, No Fairy Tale. We walked to Chelsea Market before her show at Highline, and caught up over coffee about what it means to be ’90s female pop icon, eyewear, children’s music, and having to play “Stay (I Missed You)” over and over, and over.
How did you go from playing in co-ed frats at Brown and underground music venues in Providence to having a platinum-selling Number 1 hit song?
During my time at Brown I was already playing in gigs in New York City with my friend Liz (we had the band Liz and Lisa). Our sort-of manager had contacts with record companies, so we just moved right to New York City. It made sense to continue playing at places where we were already playing, like The Bitter End and CB’s Gallery, because these were the places where singer-songwriters and bands played. There was a loosely knit group of us that would all hang out together in NYC: Playwrights, like Jon Mark Sherman, actors, like Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton, other musicians, like Jesse Harris. It was a very short two years of doing what musicians do: making flyers, playing concerts, touring a little, playing with my band, writing songs, recording, temping. Record companies started becoming interested, and then three years after I graduated, my song “Stay” was in the Reality Bites soundtrack.
How would you describe being a singer-songwriter in the ’90s?
It was a little frustrating at first, because I didn’t want to say I was a singer-songwriter, even though I was a woman who played guitar and sang, and that’s what singer-songwriters do. I listened to rock bands a lot (David Bowie, The Cure, Elton John, Queen), so I felt like I didn’t identify as much with the singer-songwriters. I felt more like a songwriter with a band, like Elvis Costello. I didn’t want people to assume I was folky. Nowadays I don’t care if people call me a singer-songwriter or whatever, as long as they want to listen to the music.
And how was it being a female singer-songwriter during those years?
I think women in general always feel the vestiges of pre-feminist living. You worry about if you look cute or if your skirt is short enough to get attention, or if it’s too short. You worry about things that shouldn’t be important and shouldn’t matter, but you want more executives to pay attention to you and to what you’re saying, and when they aren’t paying attention to what you’re saying, you want them to pay attention to how you look. So there was a certain amount of having to prove myself as a woman, which I don’t really like. There is still a little bit of a separation in being a woman, and I think that was something I was aware of as a musician. On the other hand, if there could be three hands, I’m from Dallas and all that superficial stuff is important. We were raised to wear lipstick and make sure your hair looks nice and your clothes look nice.
It was an exciting time, as well. There were so many female musicians, and Sarah McLaughlin brought us all together with Lilith Fair. It’s rare that that many female musicians are brought together, and it felt good to be able to share stories with other people about what it’s like to be a musician, period: Female or not.
Your career in the past several years has taken a different route since you started making children’s music. No Fairy Tale is your first non-children’s album in eight years. How did you get into making music for kids?
I had been making grown-up records for a while, and then about ten years ago Barnes and Noble approached me. They had just started doing their own projects and they wanted to see if I was interested in doing a record that was different from my normal records. I always wanted to make kids records even before I had children. Growing up, there were a couple of records that made a big impact on me — Really Rosie by Carole King, and Free to Be You and Me by Marlo Thomas. One of them is more like a variety show and the other is more like a singer-songwriter album (my exposure to singer-songwriters was that kids record!). Liz, my singing partner from Brown, was already making music for kids, so we did my first kids record, Catch the Moon, as partners and she produced it. I just had to look into my heart and realize what kind of music I really loved, and one of my big connections with kids music wasn’t necessarily “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” — though, having kids now, it is. It was with summer camp music. So I went from there and did a lot of sing-alongs and summer camp music, and I made the record Camp Lisa.
You’ve done so much since 1994, but you are still so often associated with that first smash hit. It was on the soundtrack to Reality Bites, but it also sort of a soundtrack to that period in the mid-90s itself. Does that get old?
I think when I was younger I would have thought that it would be weird to keep performing a song I made such a long time ago, but it’s actually awesome. Every time I play it, I am reminded of how I have been able to travel the world because of it, how I’ve met so many interesting people — whether on an airplane or musicians I’ve always admired, like Elton John or David Bowie, or producers or photographers or artists or chefs. It all stemmed from the success of that song.
As a music listener who has been an audience of other musicians, I want them to play the songs that I know. For some musicians it might be one or two or three songs; and with others it might be entire albums. I know I’ve done other things, but to have made one song that communicated with people like that and sort of set the background of their lives at one point, it’s cool.
Have you always worn the same style of glasses?
To me, my glasses have changed a lot over the years. To other people, I think people just see them as black plastic cat-eyed glasses. I actually normally wear tortoiseshell and they have a lift to them, but they aren’t actually cat-eyed. But any woman who has heavy glasses that are even the most slightly cat-eyed, everyone comes up to me and tells me that their friends call them Lisa Loeb, and that they look just like me. They say we look like sisters.