At the age of 26, Lisa Loeb was an undiscovered songwriter and coffeehouse performer. One day, she handed her mixtape to a neighbor, who passed it along to a colleague.
From that moment an international music career was born. Said neighbor and friend happened to be actor Ethan Hawke, who was in the middle of working on “Reality Bites” alongside Ben Stiller and Winona Ryder. One day, Hawke let Stiller sample Loeb’s work and the rest is what 90s dreams are made of.
The film’s credits rolled and the first notes of “Stay” filled American theaters. Loeb became the first independent artist to reach No. 1 on the U.S. charts sans record label, playing over radios across the nation and eventually culminating in a Grammy nomination. It’s the sort of thing ’90s dreams are made of.
But she didn’t stop there; Loeb proceeded to turn that success into a prolific career. With five studio albums (two of which went Gold) and two children’s records, her time in music has been as varied as it has been successful. Some of her more colorful contributions include a track for the soundtrack of “Legally Blonde,” a cameo for Japanese girl-group Rin, and guest vocals on pop-punk staple New Found Glory’s cover of her hit “Stay.”
She has also launched two original reality TV series (for Food Network and E!, respectively) and has acted in both 2011’s feature film “Fright Night” as well as the “Gossip Girl” TV series. And as a woman known for her own distinctive eye wear, Loeb created the Lisa Loeb Eyewear Collection, featuring frame designs – named after her song titles – for both men and women.
In anticipation of her headlining performance at the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, Loeb spoke with The Atlanta Jewish Times about her particular fondness for the city of Atlanta, her career, her new album and just how her faith fits in to the equation.
Atlanta Jewish Times: Could you describe what it felt like, living that sort of dream scenario of going from local shows to being picked up for a major film soundtrack?
Lisa Loeb: It always felt like there was a lot of momentum, so it was really rewarding and exciting to have a song picked up for the soundtrack of a big movie.
At the time, it seemed like a really normal thing to happen, but in retrospect I realize that it’s a very unique situation – even if you’re friends with actors [as I was] – for a song to actually get chosen to be a prominent part of a movie and be played as a single on the radio is a really big deal. So it was really exciting, working for years towards that success.
AJT: And all without a label?
LL: Yes, and at the time it felt very natural to me, as an artist who makes music on my own and choosing the people that I work with, because that’s what I’d been doing for years. And again, in retrospect I was a unique situation. People weren’t always so independent.
Now it’s more commonplace for people to be more independent in the way they make their music, the way they sell their music and get it out to other people. Along the way I ended up working with people from RCA records, but I was lucky enough to make music the way I wanted to make it.
AJT: Since then you’ve been very busy! Of all your non-music related projects, do any stand out for you?
LL: Again, I’m really pleased with the way things have changed with the entertainment business. When I started out, it wasn’t really as accepted to do really more than one thing. When I started off, I played music and that was the main thing I was known for, but I had all these other interests.
Through the years, it’s been really satisfying to get to explore a lot of different things I’m interested in; maybe it’s doing a food show on the Food Network, because I love cooking and learning about food. I grew up like a lot of kids taking acting classes and dance classes and music classes – so there’s a lot of things I want to do creatively.
[And] I’m also a business person, so I like to produce things and make things. It’s nice to be in a place now, in 2013, where it’s encouraged – not only acceptable but encouraged – for musicians to not just play music. That fits me perfectly.
AJT: Speaking of the business end, what was it like designing your own line of glasses?
LL: It’s really been a learning experience for me. I love glasses. I’ve worn glasses for most of my life. I embrace people who wear glasses, who want to be able to see but also to look cute and sexy while they’re wearing them. Somebody who’s comfortable in their glasses is really cool, and I wanted for them to also feel excited about wearing glasses, especially women.
Learning about the eyewear industry has been a whole new thing for me. Our eyewear line has been growing for the past few years; it’s available online and in stores. It’s been a rich part of my life, being able to have this other project, [so] I can learn so much more about the things I love.
AJT: You’ve also branched out musically. What was it like reuniting with your former Liz and Lisa bandmate, Elizabeth Mitchell, for a kids album?
LL: So when Barnes & Noble offered me the opportunity to make a record that was different than the ones I’d made in the past, I really wanted to make a kids’ record. [Liz and Lisa] was our band in college, and we hadn’t worked together since then. I realized Liz has made some really great kid’s music; she really knows how to produce a record that sounds like real people are playing real music, which is also what I wanted, so we reunited to produce the “Catch the Moon” record, which also comes with a book. We made a couple videos for it, and I moved on from there to make “Camp Lisa” [her second children’s album].
AJT: And I understand that record grew into something more?
LL: I started the Camp Lisa Foundation. I wanted to share my love of summer camp with other people through music, because that was one of the places where music became really important to me as something to do socially and for entertainment. We’d make up songs with the other campers.
I went to Jewish day camp when I was little, but my favorite camp was a sleep-away camp called Camp Champions outside of Austin, Texas. I went for about six years. I loved it so much; we ran around in bathing suits all day, ate a lot of chimichangas, and we sang all the time.
It was a regular camp with a lot of sports, which weren’t really my thing, but we’d [sing] standing on the benches in the cafeteria; out in an inner tube in the middle of a lake; marching to and from breakfast. Those are some of my favorite things.
AJT: Now, back to your adult records, you had some pretty cool collaborations on this newest release. Who all was involved?
LL: Chad Gilbert [of New Found Glory] co-produced the record. He’s the one who came to me about making a record that was so punky and rock ’n roll and poppy-sounding.
And one of my favorite bands in that genre is Tegan and Sara, who incidentally he brought into the project. They wrote two of the songs on the record.
I also did collaborations with old songwriting friends of mine, like Maia Sharp, Morgan Taylor and Marvin Etzion. And when I met with Chad, he helped me go through some of the songs I had written over the last couple years to figure out what would work for the album.
[Chad and I] also wrote songs together, like a song called “The 90s.” It’s about the making of “Stay,” that period and how much I love it and am very nostalgic for it, but at the same time I like moving forward.
AJT: The album comes off as almost retro, in that it’s got such a clean and simple sound. Was that a conscious decision?
LL: I think that’s something that’s part of my style. That being said, for me this record is a lot more poppy-punky rock than any record I’ve made in the past.
I think the way my voice is and the way I like the final mixes to be, there’s always a clarity that’s really important to me. Part of that is also that I value the songwriting, so the song always needs to be done before we go into the studio. You can even have the song and strip everything away to just the guitar and vocals, and the song will work.
AJT: What was it that brought you to Atlanta Jewish Music Festival?
LL: You know, I love playing in Atlanta. I’m looking forward to playing with my band [Nine Stories], and it gave me a great opportunity. Also, my Judaism is very important to me, so I thought it would be fun to take part in another Jewish community and in a different city.
AJT: How has your faith factored into your lifestyle?
LL: I have a great rabbi in Los Angeles named Rabbi Mordecai Finley. Through his classes and teaching sessions, he’s really helped me think a lot about bringing Judaism into your daily life. I don’t keep kosher, but it’s like what they say about Buddhism – it [Judaism] is a way of life and looking at things.
Of course, there’s some overlap with Judaism and other religions, and even people who aren’t religious at all. But through my studies of Judaism – things like counting the omer and observing holidays – it really takes me through the year in the way that I’m constantly evaluating my life and how I live.
I’m looking at things in a Jewish way, which I think is about looking at things from a lot of different angles, trying to do what’s right, trying to respect other people. I don’t get to synagogue as often as I’d like to and as much as I did before I had my two kiddos, but that’s something that I’m trying to make a priority this year.
AJT: Is there anything else you’d like to say to your fans?
LL: I want to make sure people know to follow me on Twitter, “Like” me on Facebook and check out my website. I don’t know if people know, but the way music industry is these days, it’s really important for all these great fans who write me letters and emails to really engage with musicians [in these new ways].
I love it when people check out my new video on YouTube or watch me on television, but it also means a lot when they check out the music and actually buy it! So I look forward to sharing my music with other people who support me and other musicians by purchasing music.