Despite our base on Benevolent Street in Providence, there are only a handful of artists who have made it from Brown University to heavy airplay on WBRU. Lisa Loeb may have been the first, forging a path followed by Dave Dederer of The Presidents of the...
Despite our base on Benevolent Street in Providence, there are only a handful of artists who have made it from Brown University to heavy airplay on WBRU. Lisa Loeb may have been the first, forging a path followed by Dave Dederer of The Presidents of the United States of America, Damian Kulash of OK Go, and Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern of Sofi Tukker.
Lisa Loeb has the unique distinction of being the first unsigned artist to have a number one song, with her 1994 hit “Stay (I Missed You)”. The song exploded in popularity after being used in the movie Reality Bites, which starred her friend and one-time New York City neighbor, Ethan Hawke.
WBRU’s Jeanine Kim caught up with Lisa and their wide ranging discussion touched on her latest album, A Simple Trick to Happiness, which was released just before the pandemic, her life during the pandemic, her creative process, and her time at Brown and influences growing up in Dallas. Here’s their talk.
Your latest album was released almost a year ago today. What were you doing a year ago?
A year ago, I was actually doing similar things as I am doing now, except back then I was planning on going on tour for quite a bit as well as working on a number of different projects, as I am right now. Now, I’ve been home for a year, doing a lot of live concerts, live streaming, working on two or three different big creative projects, one of which is with a bunch of people who went to Brown. I’m not gonna talk about that one yet, but that’s been taking a lot of time and a lot of connecting with different people who went to Brown. I’ve never spent this much time at home before in my life. Ever since college, I’ve been traveling a lot, playing a lot of different concerts at different places, but it’s interesting how my album, A Simple Trick to Happiness, even though it was written before the pandemic, has really resonated with people during this time. Both the music videos, which show a different side to some of the songs, as well as the lyrics and the sound of music have been really resonating with people, so I’m going to continue to share that music and release more music videos. It’s been a weirdly creative time for me; although I’m able to write and work with a lot of people when I’m in town, having this throughline has been really helpful for me. I’ve also been doing a lot of things that I usually reserve for airline lounges, such as crossword puzzles and reading. There are also some things that before I wasn’t able to do regularly; this morning, I had an outdoor distanced tap dance class with a dance teacher and a friend at a distance in my backyard. I’ve been able to pick up on a lot of my interests, cooking, baking, reading, writing, connecting with friends, walking, hiking, things that don’t always fit into the schedule when we’re able to be with others more. I’ve also been spending more time with my kids, hanging out with them, watching TV, watching movies, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, reading amazing books (I read with both of them every night) and just hanging out with them more.
It seems like a lot of what you used to find happiness is very much tied in with mindfulness and wellness. Has the meaning of those things changed for you?
No, I think the meaning has stayed the same and even gotten stronger. It’s so important for us to keep these things in mind. When I wrote the album, A Simple Trick to Happiness, I worked with a number of collaborators, and every time I sat down, I said ‘I want to write songs that stick with you for a whole day’ and I think part of that comes from being a musician who’s done this forever. I started writing music before I went to college, and I’ve been doing it for such a long time. I’ve written a lot of children’s music as well and put out many children’s albums, and when I’m making children’s albums, I think a lot more about what messages I want to share, what stories I want to tell, trying to tell stories in a different way than when I started writing when I was little and a teenager and just writing from the heart, writing about love and broken hearts. There’s a lot more variety in that and a lot more intent in the songs. When I got together with people, I wanted to write songs for my peers; I’m a mom with kids and a job, actually a lot of jobs, I’m a businessperson and entrepreneur, and I wanted songs that resonated with me, not what would be popular although it’s nice when people like the songs. Part of that meant having different messages and different lessons told through stories, and a lot of that is what you said [about mindfulness and wellness]. It’s about balance and acceptance, understanding that things don’t go the way you expect them to, and sometimes that’s a bad thing, and sometimes that’s a good thing. It’s important to focus and not have small, unimportant things throw you off, but on the other hand, it’s really important to be able to notice small things and appreciate them in your life, because those are the magic moments of your everyday life. When I was in my backyard and saw dew on the grass, looking like a sparkling emerald, I was like ‘Oh my god. That’s so beautiful’. In life, we can get caught up in the small things that revolves like a hamster wheel, and on this album, I have a song called “Another Day,” which does feel like that; things can be hard and here you go, another day, we’re trying again, but ultimately, it’s worth it to try again, because there’s something there that makes you smile. Talking about it makes it sound a lot more corny that just listening to the songs. I think in the songs you get the feeling through the production and the lyrics in a way that you can carry with you throughout the day rather than just me explaining it.
Your songs are lyrical journeys, with genuine storylines that listeners latch onto while also incorporating little details. How do you balance those two together?
In the past, as a songwriter, I thought that details were the thing, but it really is the balance. I spent a lot of time overwriting songs, writing too much, too many lyrics, lots of complicated things and realizing that what I enjoyed listening to a lot of times, especially with my kids, was more straightforward than I usually listened to, but I ended up enjoying a lot more, just the melody and some kind of general message or chorus or repetitive line that’s a lot simpler than overthought lyrics that really connect with me. I did spend a lot of time during these writing sessions just walking around the room, trying to throw off the lyrics and feel if they were easy to sing or not. There are some songs that are more singer-songwriter-y with lyrics like these that I wrote with my friend Maya Sharpe, who is a well-known singer-songwriter, and we just tend to write in a classic singer-songwriter sort of way, but I’ve also been writing with artists who are a little more modern as well. I’m just trying not to be so minute and so over thought about the lyrics. It’s been quite an experience just figuring out which lyrics sound good and feel good to sing. How can you say the most with the least amount of words. Each song, everything is chosen as this repetitive chord progression, but what instruments are in there? Is it a chord progression that goes somewhere else? Is it a simple lyric? Is it a complicated lyric? Is it a lyric that tells a story? All those things are decisions that have to be made throughout the process of writing these songs.
I personally love the singer-songwriter aspects of your lyrics. I love the stream-of-consciousness that I see sometimes, especially in songs like “This Is My Life.” I think that’s so beautiful, and something you don’t see in a lot of lyrics these days.
It is a balance. Sometimes I listen to popular artists and think ‘Oh I can’t believe they’re getting away with that simple lyric,’ but then I hear it some more and I get hooked on it and really like it, so I’ve started seeing the positive nature in that. But I am myself and I work with a variety of different people I like working with so we end up with specific details that abstractly, or in our minds not so abstractly, fit together. That’s what I grew up listening to. A lot of David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, The Police, The Cure. I listened to more of the soft rock of the 70s than the classic singer-songwriters. I didn’t start listening to them until I was older, and I still haven’t really gotten into a lot of the famous singer-songwriters yet. I’m more of a Queen and Prince type of person; they tell stories through things that are a little more abstract, but they get to the point somehow in their music.
You were talking about finding those aspects of poetry and having a personal narrative in your lyrics. Does that come from your background in literature?
I wish I could say it came from going to Brown and studying comp lit and Spanish literature, but I have to say a lot of it came from my poetry teachers, my Spanish teachers, and my literature teachers from high school and middle school in Dallas where I grew up. We thoroughly learned how to take poems apart and dissect sentences and learned about art and music. Most of that came from high school and earlier in Dallas. In college, I was a comp lit major, but I was more focused on making music with my friend Liz Mitchell. We had a band called Liz and Lisa, we lived in Emory-Woolley, Room 222, and we started a band the week before school. And it all came from having such an amazing support system at Brown. The first gig we ever played at the Underground was packed; everyone came to see us and were so excited to support us, and they enjoyed it, so they continued to come, and every single one of our shows was packed. When we moved to New York City or when we played in different cities, we had great support from people who had gone to Brown and other friends and family. Also, at Brown, even though I didn’t study music as my major, I took a lot of music classes, as well as musical theatre courses and was in a lot of plays. There’s such a great music community at Brown, especially in this recording class where we recorded our own pop music. We had to live up to a certain standard; I really loved and respected the music that my classmates were making, and I wanted to write my best music as well. It was this great combination of talent, where you wanted to challenge yourself to do your absolute best, as well as this great support system. You have to have great persistence and work really hard yourself, but it’s also amazing to have this community where you want to live up to something great, and you have this support system that is really excited to hear how you’re doing. It was the best of all worlds at Brown.
What was your favorite class at Brown?
My favorite class was this philosophy class, and one of the reasons I liked it was because you had to write papers, but the papers were due later that day. Anything like that, things that encouraged and required thinking and opinions but didn’t give you time to procrastinate or overthink, was the best. I also loved freshman acting class. I also liked my Japanese class, and it always sticks with me. I took it senior year, and I liked Japanese poetry okay but what I really took away from it was after I graduated, I went in to get my final paper, and instead of just giving it to me, she told me to sit down and said ‘Let’s talk about it’. I was like ‘I’m done,’ but she was like ‘Let’s talk about your paper,’ and I realized that that moment was like life. It’s not like you take a class and you’re done; this is supposed to be something more engaging than that and means more than that, and it’s not about grades and checking off the little things you’re supposed to do. It’s about the meaning behind that. It’s not about checking things off a list or making good grades; it’s what’s behind that. I was burnt out after high school, so when I got to Brown, the people, the community just made me feel like I finally found my people. I came from a small community in Dallas in the 1980s, which was very conservative, so I always felt like an outsider for being artsy, and when I got to Brown, it was very average and normal [to be artistic]. It was amazing to be with people who had so many different types of interests and who, on one hand, were very committed and intense and, on the other hand, were very laid back about everything, and that really helped me as a human.
Brown’s really a space that fosters creativity in all forms.
And action. I know a lot of creative people who don’t know how to put it into action, and at Brown, I met so many people who just do it. And if they’re not doing it as a profession, they’re doing things on the side. They’re not afraid to do a bunch of different things.
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring musicians and creatives on campus?
Take advantage. Work with others. If you can learn to use the studio, do that. If you can meet people who are making films or doing other things where they might want to use your music in different projects, do that. Take the time to explore, and take time to explore academically as well. Ask around and ask multiple people for guidance. And, if it works out with you or your parents, sometimes it’s good to take some time off to refocus. College is a really precious time, and you don’t want to waste it.