Singer-songwriters are the half-breeds of pop music. Evolved from Bob Dylan’s navel-gazing spawn, they lead hyphenated existences because each half of their calling is considered insupportable without the other. Though many are accomplished vocalists, what distinguishes them as singers doesn’t always transfer successfully to other people’s material, as proved by the wince-inducing performances of Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow in the recent Cole Porter biopic “De-Lovely.” And while a few do well on the publishing side — the late Warren Zevon probably made more money off of Linda Ronstadt than he ever made from his own records — the majority only write songs for themselves, which may explain why so many tribute albums are instantly disposable.
Unlike a pure instrumentalist or a pure singer, as a performer a singer-songwriter is locked into an image that can be a crutch and a curse. The impact of one important song can bind a group of fans to the singer-songwriter for life — think Tracy Chapman and “Fast Car.” On the one hand this guarantees a living (up to a point), but on the other it can make it almost impossible to grow as an artist.
Lisa Loeb’s important song was important in more ways than one. “Stay,” released in 1994 on the “Reality Bites” soundtrack album, became the first song by an unsigned artist ever to go to number one on the U.S. singles chart. A sensitive, verbose, and mostly low-key study of modern relationships, the song’s success was doubly surprising since there was nothing in the Top 40 to compare it with at the time. It set up the classic singer-songwriter dilemma: How to expand rather than merely cash in on the image, which in Loeb’s case was compounded by a fashion flourish that was, like it or not, even more distinctive — those glasses.
The singer says she didn’t feel any pressure. “It was more like ‘I have a real job,’ ” she recalls over the phone from Los Angeles, where she lives. “Now I could prove to myself, to my parents, to people around me that this is the real thing. I’m always driven and I’m always looking for new and different ways to make my life better. It was important because I made the song in a way that I believed in — there was no record company involved.”
In the decade since “Stay,” Loeb has maintained an enviably robust career, releasing five albums, the most recent, “The Way It Really Is,” on Rounder (“a great label for singer-songwriters”). She has also branched out into acting and TV — Loeb and fellow musician Dweezil Zappa hosted a food-travel-music show on the Food Network last year.
“Because of the success of the music part, I’ve had the opportunity to do all the other things I’ve wanted to do,” she says. “When I got out of college I started playing, almost full-time. And while I was trying to make that happen, I was picking up not only the practical elements of being a musician, like touring and getting a band together, but also the creative ones.”
“Stay,” in other words, wasn’t the goal, but part of the process. “When you have a hit song,” she says, “you have so much more freedom.”
This sort of calculation flies in the face of the romantic image of the singer-songwriter, which is one part troubadour, two parts confessional artist, but as Loeb says — she’s driven. She grew up in suburban Dallas and later attended Brown University in Rhode Island, where she majored in comparative literature while playing in a local folk-pop duo with roommate Elizabeth Mitchell, now a member of the influential indie band Ida.
“I used my studies, which were analyzing literature, taking things apart, when I was writing music,” she says. “Exploring every angle, trying to figure out if what I’m saying is exactly what I mean. I look at that as if I were looking at other people’s writing and seeing what works for me.” She never entertained career options other than music or acting, she adds. “It just worked out that music is what took up most of my time. I was always playing and I had a great following established in college. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
And while her songs are written in the first person singular and cover all the well-known species of heartbreak, she is quick to point out that they aren’t confessional.
“It’s a mistaken concept that singer-songwriters write about themselves. The singer-songwriters that I know draw on their lives simply because that’s the information in their brains. But most people make things up. It’s more like a play, but not only are you the playwright, you’re the actor, too. And you don’t get tired of performing a play. Each time you perform it as an actor, you’re looking at it in a different way, trying to figure out how to sing it live in concert at a given time, and that goes for ‘Stay’ or any of my songs.”
Whether or not calculation has been the key to her success, intangibles always have to be considered, especially in the careers of singer-songwriters who are by definition self-invented. Though Loeb tends to be identified with indie audiences and her songs are played regularly on college radio, her image is far from that of the rebellious iconoclast. She’s more like the bookish suburban girl who wears nice clothes and surrounds herself with cute things, an image that may have more resonance in Japan than it does stateside. She was even credited with helping spur the Hello Kitty boom in the U.S. by including the cartoon cat on the cover of her album “Hello Lisa.” Last year, Sanrio, which owns the character, returned the favor by arranging for Loeb to meet the creator, Yuko Yamaguchi, when she was in Tokyo for a concert.
“It was a total surprise,” she says. “Yuko is somebody I really admire. She created this design icon — very cute, but at the same time there’s a sophistication about it that makes it even more cute. For Americans, Hello Kitty was one of the first characters that was thought of in that way. In Japan, that sort of thing is more commonplace.”
Loeb’s local fan base seems pretty secure because they feel comfortable with the image she projects. On the other hand, Rachael Yamagata, another American singer-songwriter, doesn’t provide an easy handle. Though her family name guarantees a certain amount of attention here (her father is third-generation Japanese-American), her music is another matter. A promoter who helped set up a solo showcase for the singer in Tokyo last year told me he was totally unprepared for what he heard. Apparently, Yamagata did not fit his image of the 20-something female American singer-songwriter.
“That’s true in America, too,” Yamagata says over the phone from a friend’s apartment in New York City. “People think, ‘girl at piano, long hair,’ and they assume it’ll be Norah Jones.”
Actually, Yamagata’s smokey alto does have some of the same qualities as Jones’, but she uses it to a completely different effect. The best songs on her 2004 debut, “Happenstance,” borrow extensively from soul music, and Yamagata delivers them with the kind of lost-in-inner-space passion that the late Jeff Buckley brought back to the singer-songwriter tradition.
The drama that infuses Yamagata’s work can partly be explained by her training as an actor, or maybe it’s more of a byproduct of that training. She never entertained the idea of a career in pop. Playing was something she did more or less for herself.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t listen to a lot of music when I was growing up,” she says. “I remember while my brother was into buying records, I was just into plays and softball. I mean, I loved music. It completely moved me, but for some reason I was content with playing my songs on the piano in some school auditorium all by myself. Those are my musical memories.”
If anything, the career emerged from confusion rather than calculation. Yamagata admits, with some embarrassment, that during her university days she transferred a lot. “I was restless, so I thought if I kept changing schools I’d eventually find something I’d like.” After winding up at Northwestern in Chicago, she and a friend went to a concert by the funk band Bumpus and were “completely mesmerized.” Soon thereafter, she started hanging out with the band, “attending rehearsals, getting coffee and doughnuts, that kind of thing. And then one day I just started singing harmony.”
Yamagata had taken lessons, “but my voice improved dramatically when I started touring with Bumpus. You had to really compete with the instruments just to be heard.” She was with the band for five years and, during that time, started paying closer attention to songs she had been writing since she was 12.
Unlike Loeb, Yamagata says that everything she writes is about herself, though she chalks this up to inexperience. “I’m not the kind of writer who picks up stories from observation,” she explains. “A really good songwriter can do that. I was just working with Ryan Adams, and he’s good at making stories that are believable and resonate on an emotional level, even though they’re completely fiction. I’m still at that exclusively personal stage.” This aspect has its drawbacks. “A lot of times people misinterpret the meaning, like they think it’s a love song when actually it has nothing to do with romantic relationships. But it’s still personal.”
It’s also therapeutic. “I’m not a maniac,” she says when asked if the intensity of her songs is mirrored in her everyday life. “I tend to compensate through songwriting. Once I get it out there then it’s like I can breathe again.” Drama is something she’s drawn to, and while she doesn’t cop to Loeb’s playwriting analogy, she does look upon her craft as a process slightly removed from herself. Melodies are fleeting thoughts, and capturing them is more or less a matter of luck. “They’re like dreams — as soon as they come into your mind, you should write them down. Otherwise, they’re gone.”
This may explain why her songs sound fresh, but it also might have something to do with her earlier inattention to pop. She’s fairly uncontaminated. “Now, I’m having a field day,” she says, “because there is so much out there to discover” — like Joni Mitchell, whose 1971 album, “Blue,” seems the temperamental model for many of the ballads on “Happenstance.” Her label released her version of Mitchell’s bleak Christmas song “River” in December for the holidays. “I was trying to do a real Christmas song,” she explains. “I think it was ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ but however I did it, I guess it sounded like somebody who wanted to kill herself.” She laughs. Now there’s an image you can get a handle on.
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