Lisa Germano | Interview
the red alert |Adam McKibbin
Featured InterviewAugust 2006
Lisa Germano is the rare songwriter - though she doesn't think of herself as a songwriter (more on that later) - who occupies her own unique sphere. Her newest album, In the Maybe World, keeps building on the framework established by her albums on Capitol and 4AD in the '90s. Her stories are told through a carnivalesque filter, wrapping up lyrical wounds in a dreamlike gauze. Past records have chronicled isolation, addiction, fear of rejection, and even her own experience with a stalker. In the Maybe World, to put it in the most general of terms, is the death album; as Germano puts it, the result of "trying to write my way out of feeling bad about death." While it wasn't a given - hers is not a discography of happy endings - the album winds up being as much about deliverance and release.
When you're out on the road as part of another artist's touring band, does that feel like time off, in a way, or is it more stressful to be on someone else's dime?
It does feel like time off, actually. It's really good because it helps me to rejuvenate. My stuff can be a bit overwhelming at times. So it's a really nice break, and you get to hang out with people‹I'm pretty alone here. I miss it. I haven't been out on the road with somebody else for a while.
You mean in a few years?
Well, actually, just recently I've been playing with Michael Brook. But that's the first time since three years ago when I played with Neil Finn.
And Michael Brook has a new album out, right? I haven't heard it yet.
Yeah, it's really nice.
In the Maybe World, to me, is less of a happy-sounding album than Lullaby
for Liquid Pig, which had 'Candy' and 'It's Party Time,' in particular. But it seems to actually be a more optimistic album at root, if that makes sense. Or am I off base?
No, I think nobody is ever off base. However you react is how you react.
Other people tell me that it's way more positive-sounding and positive-feeling than any record I've ever done. Then other people say it's too slow for them to listen to.
We did an e-mail interview around the time of Liquid Pig [for a different site] and you mentioned in it that you felt the album was best experienced individually.
I still think that. I think my music works best that way. I don't really know why. It's something that I'm learning.
But I also assume that your music does very well through word-of-mouth. These aren't radio records, per se.
Yeah. Well, but not like 'Heyyy! Did you hear that?' It's not this cool thing. (laughs) It's more, 'I don't know if I should play this for you or not.' I'm starting to finally see it better, for some reason, with some of the things that people write about. All of a sudden I understand the fairy tale thing; people have always said that my music reminds them of fairy tales. I always thought it was because I used mandolins and twinkly sounds. But now I understand that fairy tales are coded messages for something going on underneath‹they put it in a story so that you can
understand it and not be socked in the stomach by it. I guess that's what a lot of this stuff is, and that¹s why people react differently‹it's all about unconscious things.
Does that make you hesitant to discuss the actual motivation behind the songs, knowing that people have arrived at their own conclusions?
Oh, no, because I can tell you what a song is about to me. Someone else can still get something else out of it.
You've also said in the past that you don't consider yourself to be a songwriter. Has that changed with time, as the albums have stacked up?
I don't feel like a songwriter. I think I'm a storyteller. There's a craft to writing songs that I really don't know how to do. Some people go, 'I am going to write a song today.' For me, it has to be something that needs tocome out. I can write songs with other people‹that's songwriting‹but even the song that I wrote on Michael's record, I had to be going through the thing that I was writing about in order to do it. He gave me like five songs and they didn't work at all, because that was me trying to writesongs.
Some people really do believe in that discipline, that you need to set aside the same few hours every day and write. Im more on the 'you can't force it' side.
Yeah, and I think both sides work. I get a little frustrated when the people who are on the side that say 'You have to do it every day' don't get it for those of us who have to do other things, like play the piano or practice the violin. You might get one line and have that line for a year. I've had that with a bunch of songs, actually.
Yeah, really it can be just as productive in the long run to go out into the world for those scheduled 'writing' hours.
Absolutely. You have to feel things. I'm with you. (laughs)
How do you decide when a song has transcended being merely personal‹I know you've shelved songs in the past for being too personal‹and has become something that other people will relate to? Do you need someone from the outside to step in?
Sometimes I need people from the outside, to be honest. I don't like that. I wish that I had more confidence. But I wrote 'Moon in Hell when I was writing the Liquid Pig songs, and I thought it was too personal. I thought, 'This is just my way of trying to work out of the rut that I'm in; I don't think anybody can relate to this song.' But I was playing it for a friend one day, and he had been living with these people who were having a hard time with drugs. To me, the song was about other things, but he goes, 'Oh my god, that¹s exactly the world that I'm living in right now.' That touched him in such a way that I thought, 'Wow, maybe it's not about
me. Maybe it's about anybody.'
Similar to how Geek the Girl struck a chord with some gay listeners.
Yeah‹which I like, but I don't really know why.
That's perfect, in a way, because it's not exploitative. There's no manipulative heart-tugging.
Right, that¹' the fairy tale thing. You have this piece of work, but it's what underneath it that people are getting. I think that's why it's so hard to sell. So, yeah, it seems like I have a harder time right now knowing whether something is too personal.
Was death a unifying theme from conception? Did that thread emerge later?
It just seemed to be something that was happened. After the Pig record was out, you know, my dad had this surgery‹he was fine‹but I wrote this song imagining him dying. My cat died, which was huge for me, just awful‹but also magical and amazing. I started looking at death. My cats were bringing me these dead birds that they would kill on the roof, and they really, really thought they were doing
something good. I thought what they were doing is making me remind myself that life is great. You have to see death first, so I guess they were giving me offerings. The song isn't about the cats killing birds, but it's about wanting to love life. I was trying to write my way out of feeling bad about death. I wrote one about Jeff Buckley, and it's not really about Jeff Buckley anymore. I wrote it to
him, and about him and imagining him, and I thought that song was too personal ‹it's like a ten-year-old song. But Michael Gira really liked it, and now it's just about letting go, period.
I think death can be more terrifying, too‹or more heartbreaking---depending on your thoughts about an afterlife. It's harder to let go, maybe, if you don't think you're going anywhere.
Yeah, that does matter. I always get more scared about how you feel right before you let go. If you feel sad or if you feel alone‹and you are alone, when that happens‹those are the things that freak me out. I don't want it to be horrible. I don't want it to be sad.
Yeah. Or protracted.
Yeah. (pause, laughs) Cheery subject.
(laughs) Um, since you were producing the album, also, do you arrive at points where you just burn out on the music?
Well, yeah, I do get really sick of them. I think, 'I have to record everything over.' That's why I went to Jamie; we put everything on ProTools and then Jamie and Joey listened to it and said, 'These recordings work.' Then we try to make them sound a little better since I don't really know how to record. There will be complete and utter hiss on a track, but they can take a little top end off, or say, 'No, I really like that hiss. Let's leave it.' It goes through a lot of changes.
Is it harder to access the older songs when you're touring?
No, I feel like they're all still pretty alive. They aren't really about 'This happened yesterday afternoon when I was watching a certain TV show.' I suppose some of Geek the Girl, like the song about the stalker, would be dated. But there are stalkers here, too. (laughs) The only time I have trouble, to be honest, is when I drink too much. Then I really, really feel the songs too much. It's kind of pathetic. I'm very careful not to do that, but I did do that on one show last tour, and I'm still horrified. (laughs) It was in Minneapolis. So this time when I play there, I'm going to say, 'Please forgive me. I do have a sense of humor!'
Do you also look for an outside perspective when it comes time to put the track sequencing together?
No, I really don't like bouncing that off people. I think that's the whole vision of the record, how it flows. Michael Gira had some suggestions, and I was like, 'Oh, gosh, I hope we don't fight about this, because I'm really stubborn with sequences.' But I have so much respect for him, and he didn't do it in a pushy way. He would just give me some suggestions and I actually agreed with him. I like the sequence now even better than the one I had originally. It's the first time I've even been open to changing it, because it's the story.
That's a neglected art in and of itself.
People don't care anymore. Since I don't sell records and I don't get radio play very much, I don't have to play that game. I like that I don't have to play that game, but I understand why people do. People have such short attention spans these days. You've gotta get them with the songs that they'll like right off the bat.
You've been around with a number of labels, and I'm sure that it affects you on a personal and business level, but has it ever affected the music? It seems like you've been afforded quite a bit of freedom to pursue your vision.
Yeah, I've been very lucky. The only hard record was the one on the Capitol, because they really did only like one of my songs. We thought we were doing something different and interesting, but they didn't like anything we were doing. We fought and fought and fought about sequence. It was killing me. 'You're going to make me put a song third when I don't think you're ready for that song yet?' I hated that. But it's never really affected my writing.
We live in a city that's famous for making it easy for its residents to set themselves adrift. Has L.A. been a contributing factor to some of the themes that we've heard chronicled on your album?
Hmm. I don't really know that L.A. does have anything to do with my music. I know it's affected me a little bit in putting this last record out. I've lived here for ten years, but all of a sudden, during the last few years, I keep feeling that I'm a failure and that I don't rate and that I'm not young anymore. I didn't use to care about those things, but I think, living in L.A., I was feeling that I¹m not part of the club. I don't like feeling that way‹I think it's stupid‹but until I played this stuff for Michael, I thought that it was whiny and not cool. I think that's L.A.
That's hard to avoid.
Does it bother you?
Oh, sure. And I do also think that it's a city that facilitates loneliness.
Yeah, I'm very lonely here. There are so many people, but you never see them.
Yeah, and I have friends who live in, say, Orange County and I see them as often as I see friends from Wisconsin.
The one place where I notice people sizing me up is at the grocery store. They do. People really do look at you like 'Who are you? Are you anyone?' Sometimes people write me and say 'I'm working on this little film and I'd really like to use this song.' Well, you can, as far as I'm concerned, but Universal owns it. Then I call them and I leave a message‹and they never call me back. I don't rate a call. But if something went well, then it's 'Oh, I always loved your music!' (laughs)
'I was your one champion here all along.'
'Yeah, I've always been your fan!'