Lisa Loeb first ascended to national prominence in 1994, when her single “Stay (I Missed You)” (from the soundtrack to the grunge-era comedy Reality Bites) made Loeb the first (and to date, only) unsigned artist to score that top slot on the chart.
Since that breakthrough, Loeb has released a steady stream of top-shelf singer-songwriter jams that have evolved along with her but still maintain a certain amount of that classic pre-millennial angst.
Her latest album, No Fairy Tale (out today), is her first grown-up album since 2004’s excellent The Way It Really Is. (In the interim, she released two albums’ worth of songs aimed at kids.) It’s perhaps her punchiest album, buoyed by the lively, brisk production at the hand of New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert.
Entertainment Weekly: The title of the album No Fairy Tale sounds kind of dark. Is it meant to be?
Lisa Loeb: It’s not the intention at all. I wrote the song called “No Fairy Tale” with Maia Sharp, and I think the whole point of the song is that life with all its ups and downs is better than this perfect life that a lot of us are raised to think we’re supposed to try to attain—a storybook life, which, who knows what that even means anymore? It doesn’t really mean anything in the end. What really gives you a rich life is living the ups and downs of a normal, real life. So it’s more about the boldness of how much better real life is than a safe fairy tale life. And you have to be sort of adventurous to live life that way. I like to make the album titles somewhat philosophical even if I’m the only one who gets it. Like my album Cake and Pie, with “and” underlined. Yes it’s cute that I get to put cake and pie in a title and it’s delicious sounding, but also it’s the idea that you can have everything. You shouldn’t have to have one or the other.
This is your first proper album since 2004. Since then, you’ve produced a reality show, did a bunch of voice work, put out two kids’ albums, got married, started an eyewear line, and had two kids of your own. What got you back into a place to make this kind of album?
I had never really stopped making these songs.
Along the way, I was always collaborating or writing songs on my own. I had started making a more intimate acoustic record that I started but I didn’t finish. I kept getting sidetracked with kids projects and voice work, and my life. And all of a sudden out of the blue Chad Gilbert texted me and said, “Let’s make a record.” And I said cool, because I really like him, he’s energetic and creative and driven. But when I got on the phone with him to talk about the project, he meant literally let’s start next week, not talk about it or plan it out. I was in the middle of making a jazz standards record and an acoustic record and some kids projects, and here was somebody who just wanted to go in the studio immediately and make a record. So I think that shocked me out of the zone I was living in, and I realized I actually really did want to make a record. And it was great to be working with somebody who was really enthusiastic about making the kind of record I was really interested in making. It was great to have a partner who could shake me up and really get it done. But I couldn’t believe so much time passed either. When I break it down, I can see that I put out this one record, then had a reality show, then I met my husband, then I started a record, and time goes on and on. But when I look at the dates, I can’t believe it.
You ended up working with Tegan & Sara on this album. How did that come up?
Chad is friendly with Tegan & Sara from touring with them. I mostly worked with Tegan. When Chad was trying to convince me that I should jump right in and not over plan the album, one of the references he used as a type of record he thought we should do was Tegan & Sara. And it was a great coincidence because I’m also a huge fan of Tegan & Sara, and they’re one of the few current bands I listen to a lot. I would literally put on their music before I would write, because it would inspire me. That kind of storytelling that’s abstract but energetic, they paint a picture without being too literal. So I connected with them through Chad, and it was fun meeting Tegan and having her come in and sing in the studio also. It turned out she was a big fan of me too, which was not something I knew going into it. After the fact, I found out how excited both Tegan and Chad were to work on the project. And I hadn’t even thought about it in that way—I was only thinking about how excited I was to work with them.
What do you feel like you took away from the experience of working with them?
They’re more singer-songwriter-like than I expected them to be—the way they talk between songs on stage and their general attitude. But I was excited to have Tegan & Sara on the record because they pushed me in a direction that I normally wouldn’t go. Unless it was like an old jazz standard, I wouldn’t normally sing someone else’s song. So it took me out of my ego a lot. It’s enough to collaborate with other people, but I always end up coming up with things I wouldn’t normally come up with when I collaborate. Singing someone else’s song completely was also a different kind of a challenge. But as I said, I was already a fan, so it totally made sense. Also, the types of songs we chose of the ones Tegan had offered for the record were songs I would never have written myself. So it was interesting to take a look at someone else’s point of view. I totally get that point of view, but I would not have written those songs like that.
In what way—lyrically? Structurally?
Narratively, mostly. But even structurally, rhythmically, it’s just a different voice.
What about the other side of that equation? A lot of songwriters who came up in the ’90s are now working as popsmiths for hire, like Dan Wilson of Semisonic. Have you been approached to write for other people at all?
I have a little bit, but I’ve usually been working on my own projects, so the songs I work on end up being for me. I’d love in the future to write songs for other people or have people cover my songs, but my primary goal is usually to finish up the record and finish the songs to get the record out. I’ve been working that way since college—as soon as I have enough songs together, I make a record. That’s always been the goal, and I don’t usually have tons of extra songs. But that’s something I’d like to keep in mind for the future.
How much has your songwriting process changed since you first started?
It’s exactly the same. I’m in the same working space as I was when I was eight years old writing songs. When I was really young, I used to collect interesting items and put them in interesting boxes around the house. Like, my grandmother might have an old large perfume box, and I would put items in there and arrange them in the box. That’s kind of how songwriting is. You get ideas and you develop stories from those ideas, whether they’re melodic or lyrical ideas. They arrange from being very literal to very abstract. Some are based on personal experiences, some are imaginary. It’s like collage. Not so disjointed, but it’s this crafted process, and it’s been the same ever since I was a kid. I think I’m more free about what I want to write about now. When I was in high school I think I was being really secretive with my lyrics, which is how I really wanted to write. I would get my emotions out without anyone knowing what I was talking about. In retrospect, I think a lot of those songs are more literal than I knew, but now I find that even though I used to look down on people who wrote about their experience, now I understand that’s a real craft and something that I’m constantly using as a goal to be able to express my own experiences. There’s all different kinds of songs to write, and I’m more open to writing those. I’m less judgmental about my own process. My process has been the same for thirty-odd years, and I’m finally coming to terms with that.
The song that people will be drawn to on this album, based on the title alone, is “The ’90s.” How did that come together?
Chad literally said, “We should write a song about the ’90s,” and I thought “Ugh.” Yes, I was popular in the ’90s, but what am I going to write about the ’90s? I don’t want it to be some cutesy song about the ‘90s, but then I thought I wasn’t sure if my resistance was because I was scared, or what it was. So I tried to write it, and I decided to write it about the specific incident of making the video for “Stay.” About the dress I wore, about my shoes that I wore, and a couple of things I hadn’t been able to express before.
When I first started out, I remember reading press and people would call me a waif, and I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously as a musician. That felt so strange to me, because that’s what I had done my whole life: Play guitar, write music, play music. I wasn’t this pop singer that appeared out of nowhere, I had been working at this forever. Then when it came to making the video for “Stay,” I had to make the decision: Did I want to go with Ethan Hawke’s idea about a one-take video that would not include my band, or did I want to prove to everybody that I had a rock band and I had been doing this forever? I chose Ethan’s idea of doing it in one take, which I thought was so strong and unique and interesting and told a great story. But now here I am with the song “The ’90s” where I can explain the situation in my specific way that I had a short dress and Betsey Johnson worked with me, and these are the shoes I was wearing, and I didn’t get to go with my band, and I’m not a folkie. I had to keep telling people I wasn’t a folk singer even though I played acoustic guitar. It’s important for me to talk about this time period, which I love, but again as I say exactly in the chorus, I loved it then but I don’t want to go back. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about it and reminiscing, but I also love moving forward.
It’s a very pragmatic song—it says nostalgia is fine, but you can’t just be nostalgic.
I’m a nostaltic person in general, I collect my parents old clothes and my grandparents coats, and I like thinking about different time periods by what I was eating. But when I think about the ‘90s and the clothes I was wearing and the hair products I was using, it makes me laugh because I realize, “Oh right, it was a long time ago.” Even though it still doesn’t seem that long ago to me.