It has been more than a year since the world last heard from Lisa Loeb, the young woman who gave cat-eyed glasses a good name. And on this April evening, you start to understand where she's been.
''We're looking for the first oohs,'' says Juan Patiño, Loeb's bearded coproducer. The setting is Patino's midtown Manhattan studio, which also doubles as a narrow railroad apartment. On the other side of the wall, in what would normally be the living room, sits Loeb, wearing a yellow flowered print dress and her trademark specs. Tonight's task is recording a few background harmonies for one of her new songs. The nearby bathroom door sports a chart, its grid filled in with a color once a song, or part of one, is finished.
The scenario has the feel of a virtual home office that would make hip ad agencies drool. In fact, it's a much more pressure-cooked situation than it seems. For the past six months, often six days a week and 12 hours a day, Loeb and Patino have been painstakingly shaping Tails, the debut album by a singer-songwriter who emerged from nowhere last year to score a No. 1 single, ''Stay,'' and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Depending on whom you ask, the album should have already been released to capitalize on the hit or has been perfectly timed to distance Loeb from a song even Patiño, who produced it, calls ''overexposed.'' Either way, to rely on clichés like ''eagerly awaited'' to describe Tails is to underestimate the matter.
Loeb begins singing snippets of oohs and aahs and lyric phrases. Finally, after nearly two hours, Patiño (who, with his fur hat, looks like a young Russian immigrant) announces, ''Last time here we go.'' The near-finished song booms out of the speakers, the harmonies sounding full and bright. They also last maybe five seconds in a four-minute song, part of an album that's a little less than an hour long and, some say, a year overdue.
''We have an audience for a song,'' Loeb says. ''I hope they want to hear a whole album.'' Adds Patiño, ''We're bracing ourselves for the backlash: 'She got too successful too fast.'''
As a chocolate-macaroon break is called, Loeb walks over to an unopened box sitting nearby. She tears it open, and inside is her award for sales of more than 200,000 copies of ''Stay'' in England. There's only one problem: The glass is cracked.
''That, my dear,'' jokes Patiño, ''is an omen.'' Reality never seems to have bitten for Lisa Loeb. At Brown University, the Dallas-born liberal-arts major teamed up with a classmate to form a duo; they recorded and sold homemade tapes at the university bookstore and by the end of their senior year had the interest of at least one major label. The deal fell through, yet after graduation, Loeb continued writing and playing club gigs in New York while working day jobs (everything from coat-check girl to studio singer on jingles for diet Coke and Burger King) and trying, unsuccessfully, to land a record deal.
''I've always been focused,'' she says. ''I've always worked on a certain kind of music and songwriting and tried to learn about the business side so that it didn't get in the way of my music.'' In a shrewd arrangement, Loeb actually owns the master tape of ''Stay'' and has leased it to both RCA (which released the Reality Bites soundtrack) and her current label, Geffen meaning Geffen has to pay her an additional fee to use the song on her own album. ''In this business, you rarely encounter people who know what they are when they start,'' says Geffen A&R exec Jim Barber, who signed Loeb. ''I would love to have five or six of her in that way.''
By now, the kickoff of Loeb's career is as established as her frames: how friend and Village neighbor Ethan Hawke admired her music and suggested using one of Loeb's songs in his movie Reality Bites. How that tune, ''Stay,'' a song on her demo tape, found itself sharing space on an album with U2 and '''My Sharona.'' And how the crisply produced confessional ballad (and its eye-catching video, directed by Hawke) climbed to the top of the charts in the summer of 1994. '''No artist in the history of the record business has had a No. 1 record and no deal,'' says her then manager, Rob Gordon. ''Puts you in a good leverage position.''
An understatement for sure, since Loeb found herself with six major labels bidding for her services. In an incident Loeb dryly recalls as ''almost funny,'' a slew of RCA executives went to see her perform at a New York club shortly before ''Stay'' became a hit, and many of them, including label group chairman Joe Galante, were so underwhelmed that the deal was called off. ''Sometimes a performer reaches out and grabs you, and this was not one of those nights,'' Galante remembers. Later, after the ''Stay'' phenomenon, RCA found itself backtracking; one executive was told to buy Loeb ''anything she wants'' with a corporate credit card to woo her back. It didn't work: Says Gordon, ''She remembered that [slight] forever.''
Eventually, Loeb opted for Geffen, then the industry's hottest alternative-music label, for an undisclosed advance. The task of recording the album began in September 1994, with a constantly changing roster of release dates: first February 1995, then May, and finally Sept. 26. ''Indie bands make an album in a weekend with a case of beer,'' says Patino. ''We don't work that way. We were making a movie.''