Lisa Germano | Review

Playback Magazine | Kevin Renick

Definitely Back In the Maybe World

Saturday, 01 July 2006

"You have to be so self-focused and keep working in this business. I sometimes think I'm just being very selfish, not doing anything for the world, you know?"

Some singer/songwriters do it by the book. They release albums filled with ear-friendly melodies, sing-along choruses, and immaculately produced tunes suitable for car commercials or the latest teen movie soundtracks. But there's another kind of singer/songwriter, the kind that creates deeply personal, emotionally raw music intended for a more select group of listeners-the ones who seek cathartic release from their music and still play albums from start to finish. For such listeners, it's gonna be a good summer: Lisa Germano is back. The enigmatic Californian was last heard from on 2002's brilliant but scarily intense "Lullaby for Liquid Pig", a record containing some of the most nakedly vulnerable moments ever committed to tape. There was undeniable therapeutic power in that disc, but many wondered if Germano was planning to call it a day after laying her demons so bare. Was there any danger Liquid Pig could have been the artist's swansong? 'I never know," said Germano, reached by phone during a round of press for her new album In The Maybe World. "Music comes to me when I need it. I don't go, "I need to make an album,' or 'I'm gonna sit down and write a song.' It's more like, 'Oh God, something is gonna come out.' It's very stomachachy. My stomach says, 'You're gonna write something right now.' It's a very emotional thing to actually be able to express that, whatever that feeling is. That's one of the things I've learned. To just always have a tape player available or a pad of paper. Because when it comes, it's a gift and you need to write it down, cause it'll leave. So after Lullaby, I did hit kind of a downer. It was yet another record that took so much to finish and to realize." 

Career momentum would prove elusive. Born in Indiana in 1958, the artist got her first regular job as a musician playing violin for John Mellencamp on his 1987 release "Lonesome Jubilee". It became a seven-year gig, enabling the launch of her solo career with 1991's "On the Way Down From the Moon Palace". The self-released disc hardly made her a household name; neither did the Capitol Records offering "Happiness" two years later. She fared better with a lengthy residency on 4AD, a label that initially seemed a good fit. Several of those releases-Inconsiderate Bitch, Geek the Girl (praised as one of the best albums of the '90s by Spin magazine), and Excerpts From a Love Circus-helped garner plenty of attention for the compelling singer and established her as a distinctive cult artist. But low sales eventually led to 4AD dropping her from their roster, and the subsequent Lullaby for Liquid Pig had the misfortune of being released on a short-lived internet label called Ineffable. So Germano has gotten used to rickety career wheels. "It's always, a record company goes out of business or something. Or a manager leaves. It's always something that I didn't do. I mean, I'm ready to tour, I show up." She laughs when asked if she feels cursed sometimes. "No, I feel like, for some reason, these are things I'm supposed to learn. 

So after that record, I did have some material I had been writing. And it seemed like it was gonna be a bit about death. I wasn't planning to write a record about death, I just knew I had some work that was going on. I have to make a living, so I worked at the bookstore and really didn't know if I would put this music out. But I would kind of work on it, like painting a picture." In the Maybe World, Germano's brand-new release on Young God Records, features her patented breathy, sharp-edged vocals, atmospheric keyboards (slightly distorted to provide a nostalgic or dreamlike effect) and stirring, evocative lyrics. The beautiful "Too Much Space" features a Sondheim-esque musicality, tugging at your heartstrings as Germano paints a portrait of aching loneliness and self-doubt. "Moon in Hell" is vintage Germano, with sparse guitar and trickles of background keyboard underscoring the somber lyrics: "Continuing the falter/continuing the rot/use your favorite weapons/to stay who you are not/if you even want to/change before you die/change the way you're losing/change the way you hide." 

Germano's unique gift is conveying a powerful intimacy-making the listener feel she completely understands your worst moments and has the precise brand of empathy you need during times of loneliness, despair, or self-doubt. It's hard to name another artist who does this in such a raw, musically uncompromising manner. "I think the songs I put on a record, they aren't just about me," she said. "When I write a song or it finally comes out, one way I know it should be in the world is that I just start crying. It's like, 'Oh, other people feel like this; how sad.' And I can distance myself from it. I don't even think it's about me. I think that's one of the reasons it doesn't sell a lot. Because when it reaches people, it reaches them personally. They don't listen to it and go, 'Oh, that poor girl.' Mostly the listeners are taking it in and they're identifying with whatever emotion is going on, so it's personal for them." 

One would assume such introspective music earns Germano a fair share of impassioned responses. "Yeah, it's pretty cool. I've had people after shows maybe cry, or tell me that it helps them to know that somebody else is out there saying this. When I get letters, I get very few that go, 'Hey baby, rock on!'" She laughs. "My letters are usually something like, 'I can't thank you enough for...whatever.' It's just so wonderful. You really need that." She tells of a letter from a woman in Sweden who felt Germano's music had somehow saved her from an unnamed but likely terrible fate. And certainly Liquid Pig helped this writer battle some unsettling health problems and medical testing for a lengthy spell in 2002. It may sound morbid, but Germano appreciates that kind of impact from her music. "You have to be so self-focused in this business and keep working on it. I go through in my mind so often that I'm being very selfish, and not doing anything for the world, you know? I often think of quitting, not because of bitterness but because I wanna do something. And then it'll just take one person to tell me something like what you said, and I'll go, 'All right! It's good!'" 

Listening to In the Maybe World, which Germano co-produced with Jamie Candiloro, there's the slightest sense of, if not optimism, something approaching greater clarity or understanding. With just a couple of exceptions, these 12 songs aren't as filled with darkness and disturbing portent as her previous release. "Lullaby for Liquid Pig" is all about questions," she said, "like, 'Is this my problem? Or is this somebody else's problem that they're putting on me? Am I sick or am I weird?' It was a whole record of questions. On this one, there are a few questions, for sure, but it's more just looking at life and looking at death and going, wow, maybe there are different ways to think. Sometimes it was forced on me. On the song 'In the Maybe World,' my cats would bring me these birds all the time, from the roof. They'd either be dead, or just flying around scared out of their minds. But these cats are going, 'Hey, look what we've brought you!' So I thought, OK, well, that bird is going to die. But I don't know what to think about it... And then I had a cat that died, so I wrote a song about that. It just seemed like they were things I needed to think about." 

And what of the evocative song titles, like "Except for the Ghosts," "Too Much Space," and "Moon in Hell"? "Into Oblivion" certainly seems to be a recurring destination for either Germano or the characters who inhabit her songs. "I'm trying to figure out why a person wants to keep going into oblivion. On that song, it took me a long time to actually figure out what it was about. I was with somebody who kept giving me all this space. And there was something I didn't trust about this person. It was like 'Believe me, trust me,' but he was trying to tell me who I was instead of listening to my view of who I was. That's this whole concept of, You're the only storyteller of your life, you know? And when you don't tell your own story, and you have other people telling you who you are... It's almost funny." 

Some big names have responded to Germano's work over the years, people who've either hired her for sessions or asked her to do shows, including venerable artists like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Neil Finn, Simple Minds, and Sheryl Crow. She also collaborated on an interesting side project called OP8 with Giant Sand and Calexico. What sort of inspiration does she draw from working with such artists? "It's all about energy. You learn a lot about that from working with other people. Probably the highest thing for me was working with Neil [Finn]. This thing we did in New Zealand was great, 'cause I met Johnny Marr, who's like the most vibrant spirit in the world." Indeed, the legendary Smiths guitarist played on Germano's previous album and appears on two songs on her new record, as well. "It's all about spirit," said Germano. "The more you work with really great people, the less ego is involved. You learn a lot about yourself, and your life. Then you take that to the music." 

Summing up Germano's singular style isn't easy. She sings every line as though she's telling you a painful secret, shifting the emphasis at will from bitterness to sarcasm and humor to shiver-inducing poignancy. The arrangements underscore the themes with eerie aptness, as Germano has the ability to create a "flickering" effect, where the minimal guitars or fuzzy-dream keyboards can induce either a sense of nostalgia for something that's irrevocably lost, or an emotional borderland between the seductive dream state and the clammy grasp of reality. The resulting sound conveys both a childlike fragility and the darkest night of a depressive's soul. It's not that Germano's music isn't achingly lovely; it's that it sustains a consistent level of emotional reality that's uncomfortable for some. And her ability to pull each instrument into this aesthetic is stunning. "I like piano to be very dark, and I take a lot of the treble off," she said. "I do it on purpose, because I really hate that proper piano sound. So it makes me feel comforted. I have an amp that's 20 years old that's a gorgeous, gorgeous dark-sounding Fender twin. It's on most of these records. After I got that sound and we put it on ProTools, we added just a little bit of acoustic piano. You wouldn't believe how much it opens up the space. You're hearing the natural reverb from a real piano. 

That was one suggestion Michael Gira made when we were first working together. He said, you do whatever you want, but it might be fun to experiment, and not do so much of the dark, wobbly piano. It was a really good suggestion, because the songs opened up. The acoustic keyboard really helped." The new signing with Young God seems to be the best development for Germano since her 4AD days. "Absolutely," she said. "Already, I am getting some new opportunities. It's almost like, until you put the record out and put yourself in the world, nobody knows you're around anymore. That might be where MySpace and such things could help. But right now, Michael has been a complete inspiration, with all these little things he has suggested for me to do." 

So, can her fans finally stop worrying that each new album might be the last? "It's OK if it is," said Germano. "But I hope I write another one. The hardest thing is just trying to make a living, trying to keep doing it. I want to, but the way things have changed in the business, I literally can't make a living at it. I have no ideas right now. It's the first time I've put a record out without having another one I'm at least thinking about." Hopefully, the future will take care of itself for Ms. Germano. Right now, In The Maybe World is a definite plus for fans of the visionary songwriter-another dose of raw, real music therapy, for those days when all you have are questions... In The Maybe World will be released on Young God Records on July 18.