Now that it’s almost December, there can be only one thing on the minds of kids around Japan: Um, summer camp?
OK, so the timing’s not great. But Lisa Loeb — she of the cat-eye tortoise-shell glasses and introspective, intricate songs about the mundanities of love and life — is in Japan to support her two releases of 2008: January’s “The Purple Tape,” a CD reissue of her prefame demo tape, and May’s marshmallow-toasting kids’ album “Camp Lisa.”
“It’s something I had always planned to do at some point,” she says, explaining her departure from downbeat tales of wintry woe into the world of children’s songs. “There are some records I grew up listening to, like a Carole King record called “Really Rosie” and a record that Marlo Thomas made called “Free To Be . . . You And Me.” And around the same time I was listening to those records as a kid, we were also watching Monty Python and Steve Martin and “Sesame Street,” and there was this very fine line between grown-up and kids’ entertainment.”
While Loeb is best known to a certain generation for “Stay (I Miss You),” her 1994 smash single that became the first-ever U.S. No. 1 by an unsigned artist, she entered the kiddie consciousness with 2003′s nursery-rhyme collection “Catch the Moon.” “Camp Lisa,” however, aims a few years higher, and Loeb is so passionate about its central theme that she has even started her own Camp Lisa Foundation, an NPO aimed at sending underprivileged American children to camp.
“Although I did well in school, summer camp is where I learned about growing up,” she reflects. “During camp, the kind of music we listened to ranged from serious to silly to traditional songs to original songs, and I wanted to do that.”
The concept’s freewheeling nature led Loeb to call in various friends, such as one-time Veruca Salt member Nina Gordon and Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley. But perhaps the biggest name is the aforementioned comedian Steve Martin, whose banjo skills were implemented on “The Disappointing Pancake.”
“I got his number through a friend; I’d met him at some different things and so I just called him up,” explains Loeb. “He’s such a great storyteller. He takes things that are really mundane and twists them around and makes them really hilarious. It’s crazy to get a message on my phone saying, ‘Hey Lisa, it’s Steve Martin.’ It was like, ‘Oh. My. God.’ ”
While summer camp is not a common concept in Japan, Loeb is a keen ambassador. “In Japan, people love themes and concepts, and I feel like if there’s a summer-camp outfit and look and drawings and setting, people would really like it in Japan too,” she says. “I think people could really benefit from it.”
Loeb collaborated with Rin’, a Tokyo three-piece who perform pop music with traditional Japanese instruments, on “Anti Hero” from their 2006 album, “Inland Sea.” But perhaps Loeb’s biggest connection with Japan is through the cuddly mascot Hello Kitty. A lifelong Kittymaniac, Loeb has collected merchandise featuring the feline since 1976.
“Well, I always wear my Hello Kitty watch,” she says, trying to think of her most treasured item. “Also, I really love my Hello Kitty rice steamer. The greatest thing I have, though, is a drawing that’s autographed by a woman who (designs) Hello Kitty, Yuko Yamaguchi. I have a close relationship now with the people at Sanrio. I attended the MTV Music Awards with Hello Kitty once and (Sanrio and I) worked together on album artwork for an album I had called ‘Hello Lisa,’ and Hello Kitty wore my glasses on the album cover. It’s crazy, right?”
Loeb has fronted two U.S. reality-TV shows and is working on projects including books and TV shows for children, “grownup music” and her own eyewear line for a spring launch.
As for her imminent Japan tour, Loeb promises that she and her band will play plenty of her radio hits, along with camping songs, acoustic sections and requests from the audience. Some of the members of her band speak Japanese, including Japanese-American Daru Oda, on loan from Norah Jones’ band, which she hopes will add to the atmosphere. And since Loeb is already working on her next release (“some songs are very dark, some songs are a little bit more upbeat,” she says), Loebotomized fans can expect to hear something special.
“We’re gonna play some brand-new songs, some that haven’t been recorded yet,” she says. “If we can get some cool recordings there, maybe those will be my next album. You never know! Remember Cheap Trick, ‘Live at Budokan’ . . .”
Lisa Loeb plays Nov. 29 at Billboard Live in Fukuoka (5:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m.; ¥10,000;  715-6666); Dec. 1 at Billboard Live in Osaka (6:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m.; ¥7,000-8,500;  6342-7722); and Dec. 3-4 at Billboard Live in Roppongi, Tokyo (7 p.m., 9:30 p.m.; ¥6,500-8,500;  3405-1133).