Lisa Loeb On Her Grammy-Nominated Children’s Album, Meeting David Bowie, & The Origin Of “Stay (I Missed You)”
Tracking Down is a newish Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Lisa Loeb has done a lot. The 49-year-old singer-songwriter’s out-of-nowhere hit “Stay (I Missed You)” in 1994 became the first-ever song by a completely unsigned artist to hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, a feat that wasn’t matched until Macklemore and Ryan Lewis repeated it with “Thrift Shop” in 2013. (It’s even more impressive because the song doesn’t quite have a chorus. Oh, and the video was directed by Ethan Hawke.) But in addition to a healthy pop career, she’s acted in a few movies (Hot Tub Time Machine 2??), once hosted a cooking show on the Food Network with her ex Dweezil Zappa, designed her own eyewear in 2010 after her trademark cat-eye glasses, and flirted with pop-punk on 2013’s No Fairy Tale, co-produced by Chad Gilbert of New Found Glory and featuring songwriting and vocal contributions from Tegan And Sara.
But these days the mother of two has released a significant amount of media intended for children and parents, award-winning books and albums with titles like The Disappointing Pancake And Other Zany Songs. In 2015, she even co-wrote the book for an Off-Broadway family musical called Camp Kappawanna.
Stereogum caught up with Loeb at SiriusXM studios in New York to chat about her newest album, Lullaby Girl, a hushed mix of all-ages standards like “Be My Baby” and “What the World Needs Now,” and comes on the heels of yet another recent Loeb collection, Feel What U Feel, that just scored a Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album. When we sit down in a vacant radio booth, Loeb asks an unnamed employee to procure some chocolate: “There was some in the green room but I don’t know if we’re allowed in there.” The assistant returns mid-interview, throws up his hands and says, “I couldn’t get in because of Joel, sorry.” Joel Osteen is here, as is Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, with his blood-red-dyed, dreadlocked beard; SiriusXM is kind of a wacky-character factory, the perfect place to talk to Loeb about her transition to writing and arranging music for kids, and some background behind her biggest hit.
STEREOGUM: What made you want to focus on hushed lullaby sounds for these versions of these songs?
LOEB: It was actually something Amazon asked me for. I’ve made a bunch of records and kids’ records, and I made one called Nursery Rhyme Parade, which really has all the classic nursery rhymes, like over 30 of them. And it was very much like sitting in the room with a kid, guitars, percussion like [banging] on tables or guitar cases, things like that. It was a real different direction for me to go because I usually write original songs, or do more fun and silly songs from my childhood, like summer camp songs. After that, Amazon asked, “Would you do a lullaby record?” I was just about to start making a grown-up record, and I realized, “yeah, that would be really fun.” I started talking to my main collaborator and we were thinking like, “that would be cool, to make a piano-based record.” And I really wanted to do something where the band is all playing at once. I just felt there was an intimacy and a quality of performance from everybody playing together. And coincidentally, it’s faster. You just do some takes, mic everything up really well, and it just all comes together. Yeah, there are a few overdubs but it’s not the same as the real studio process of overdubbing and overdubbing.
Larry Goldings, the other collaborator, is somebody I met years and years ago, he’s a great jazz pianist and organist. He and I had done a standard recording of “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries” years and years ago as a birthday present for my dad actually, and it was so fun and so great and just felt so natural. And I thought we could combine the fact we’d been wanting to do a standards record for so long with this lullaby concept. And the first bunch of songs that were suggested for the record were more baby songs like “Rockabye Baby.” But as we got into it, we realized it would be really fun just to do a whole other take on this, and just to do songs that… we were kind of joking around that we should do “Be My Baby” or “Ooh Child.” And then we thought, that’s a really cool idea. We wanted to make sure we picked songs from different eras, different types of bands … from a Cinderella song to the Beach Boys. And it turned out to be not a kids’ record.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I wanted to ask if you consider it a kids’ record.
LOEB: It reminds me of a menu — it’s not a kid’s menu but it has things that kids will like, too. When I was a kid, grown-ups would put records or TV on, and you would just find things you like about it. As I go on and make more records, now I see why musicians who’ve been doing this forever do a Christmas record and a lullaby record or a disco record. It’s fun to have an idea or a theme.
STEREOGUM: Having rules and new challenges can be fun in itself.
LOEB: And also sometimes you fall into a certain style, but there’s a lot of other styles and things you want to do, so why not do them?
STEREOGUM: So what’s the most challenging thing about doing an all-ages album versus a grown-up album?
LOEB: I like being silly and having a sense of humor, but just, allowing it to be enough for kids. Because I don’t want it to be too much kiddie music or too much repetition. You listen to certain kids’ music and it’s like, cartoon music. I will say, though, playing live shows for kids, they love repetition, and I need to not be scared to go in that direction. We did “Head, Shoulders, Knees, And Toes” which is a really long, repetitive song, and really hilarious and really fun to sing. I sang it in camp and in school and I love it. And it is really wacky, we used different wacky, funny sounds to represent different parts of the body. But for me it reminded me more of a Monty Python thing. So for me, the biggest challenge was being scared to cross the line into kiddie music.
STEREOGUM: Were there any songs you had to cut or were afraid you would get sick of from playing them over and over if you included them or that they would drive you nuts?
LOEB: No, when we were doing Lullaby Girl, I was hesitant to do “Don’t Stop”; it’s not my favorite song of Fleetwood Mac’s, it’s not “The Chain” or “Tusk,” but I really did love the thematic nature of singing about “tomorrow.” We also did “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” as a waltz rather than a march. It did take a little convincing by my collaborators, but it actually is really nice and fills out the record in a light, whistling-down-the-street kind of way. You can’t really tell what it is until the chorus comes around, if you’re not super familiar with the lyrics. But I really fell for it because of the theme.
STEREOGUM: Do you remember the moment you decided to start making children’s music in general?
LOEB: I sort of fell into it; again there was an opportunity to make a record for Barnes and Noble that was different from my regular records. When I was a kid I loved listening to Sgt. Pepper, Queen’s A Night At The Opera, Elton John, disco, and a lot of stuff that was on the radio, “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing,” The Muppet Show, Sonny And Cher, a lot of variety shows. I just wanted to capture that time in my life, and it ended up being kids’ music. It was more just capturing nostalgia from my childhood. Is it really music for kids, or is it just music I like that kids might like? When I play concerts for kids, I start playing certain songs that might not be my favorites, but I love seeing kids get really into them.
STEREOGUM: Has it done the reverse, and affected how you write songs for adults?
LOEB: Totally. On the I Feel What You Feel record, which is the one that’s before this one, there’s a song called “Let’s Keep The Band Together,” and that was really a song I’d written for grown-ups. And I put it on the kids’ record because it helped push that record into the family-friendly area rather than “Three Blind Mice.” But again it’s like a Queen record. You’ve got these old-timey songs, these layered songs, a straightforward song, an acoustic song, It makes me want to stretch the boundaries of records I make moving forward. I just go with what I explore, sometimes it’s “important” and sometimes it’s just making what I feel like making. It’s been interesting to see what resonates with audiences, and to play around with that a little bit. Not to just totally disregard my audience and be “I’m an artist, I’m just gonna make whatever I want.” There’s a real satisfaction to filling a need or understanding what people like. If you know what someone likes for dinner then maybe you can make them the best peanut butter and jelly, or the coolest popcorn they’ve ever had.
STEREOGUM: How did you end up working with Tegan And Sara a few years ago?
LOEB: Chad [Gilbert of New Found Glory] had done such shows with them, and he was friends with them. I’m a huge fan of theirs; one of my inspirations to get me in the mood for writing that record was listening to their records. Tegan sang on the record and she was a fan of mine so it was this interesting situation where we’d inspired each other. I never do other people’s songs and I completely did two songs that were not mine at all. When you learn someone else’s song, it opens your mind, it’s like literally putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
STEREOGUM: And it’s crazy have someone you’re a fan of just, like, give you a song, as a gift.
LOEB: It’s totally awesome. It’s crazy when you think about it. I don’t think about it often enough. I listen to you all the time. I saw you in concert. You wrote me a song.
STEREOGUM: With respect to “Stay (I Missed You),” I wanted to ask you what your own favorite pop songs that don’t have a chorus are?
LOEB: I’m trying to think… the first song that came to mind is “Bad Girls” but it totally does, it starts with a chorus. There aren’t a lot of songs that don’t have choruses! I mean there’s ambient, Brian Eno, Music For Airports, but that doesn’t count. There’s unusual songs like Paul McCartney and Wings but like, everything’s the chorus. Everything’s the catchy part. Or Queen. [starts singing “Bohemian Rhapsody”] It’s more like chapters.
STEREOGUM: Do you think of your song in that context?
LOEB: I never thought of it in that context! It would be cool if it were true.
STEREOGUM: What’s your own favorite song called “Stay?” There are so many.
LOEB: Oh, I know. I like the Rihanna one! [sings “I want you to stay…”] That was one of the first songs that started that real piano and sad vocal, alone by myself singing the saddest song ever thing…
STEREOGUM: You wrote your own “Stay” with Hall And Oates in mind?
LOEB: Yes, with Daryl Hall in mind. He needed a solo song, so I started writing a “Sara Smile”-style song, this R&B groove I would sing over. And then about halfway through, it turned out that opportunity wasn’t actually an opportunity. Maybe we found out about him needing songs on the late side of his project.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever get to hear feedback from Daryl about it?
LOEB: Yes, I met him a couple times and the first time I met him I told him, “I thought I was writing that song to pitch you [to sing]” and he was like, “Ah, I wish I knew about it!”
STEREOGUM: What idols of yours have you gotten to meet or collaborate with?
LOEB: I got to collaborate with Burt Bacharach in Cuba! And that was amazing. David Bowie I got to meet in the studio. I got to hang out with all the members of the Police, my favorite band growing up. Elvis Costello, Olivia Newton-John. I think I almost met Robert Plant. I got to play with Heart, they were really amazing.
STEREOGUM: What was Bowie like in the studio?
LOEB: I met George Martin at the Brit Awards, and he said we could come visit his studio the next day. And I said, “Well, who’s working there?” And he said, “I’m not supposed to tell you, but it’s David Bowie.” And I was like, oh my God. I’m such a huge fan and we were in England. The next day we got there and I was shaking, Steve Lillywhite was at the board. We waited around and ate lunch in the cafeteria in this beautiful studio and then we saw Bowie walk in.
He had a suit and he was very dapper, it would’ve been the mid-’90s, I think he was working on the album where he’s in the Union Jack suit [Earthling]. We were allowed to go in and he just sat the whole time, was just sort of a cordial conversation. I wanted to ask him all these questions but I didn’t, instead it was like, “well, what are you here for, what are you working on, etc.” I felt like I needed to ease into it if I was gonna ask him questions, but it was nice that I got to meet him somewhere serious like a studio instead of a party. There’s different Bowies. He’s always him, but just because I’m obsessed with Hunky Dory, that’s not him sitting in the room. That’s not Ziggy Stardust sitting in the room. It would still be fun to ask him about that era, but I didn’t want to bother him.