Lisa Germano | InterviewLisa Germano is trying to open our eyes to the realms of possibility, mapping out the line that separates self-absorption from self-mocking September '06
Ask anyone who has listened to a Lisa Germano album in full what they thought of it and one word is likely to crop up more often than any other, and that word is "intense". It's an appropriate adjective, of that there is no doubt, but one that's often misconstrued and given a negative spin. Intense doesn't have to mean depressing; we're just so used to being bombarded by music with all the levity of a helium balloon and lyrics that rarely dip beneath face value ‹ it's so familiar and safe.
With her new album In The Maybe World, Lisa Germano is trying to open our eyes to the realms of possibility, mapping out the line that separates self-absorption from self-mocking and gleefully hopping from side to side. It's not a new concept ‹ she's been doing it to a lesser degree for the best part of fifteen years ‹ but this time she's aided by weightier things. Much of In The Maybe World revolves around a core topic of death (and, as a consequence, also life), and it's this external inevitability that gives even her most indecipherable moments a bit more gravitas, allowing her to be intensely funny, intensely charming, intensely sad, intensely hopeful and even intensely intense in moderation.
Whether or not people will notice the subtler, more playful touches is a matter of debate; most will probably take a cursory listen and dismiss the album as too impenetrable, too depressing, too much effort. Others will fall in love. Alan Pedder is profoundly afflicted with the latter opinion and was thrilled to get the chance to call up Lisa at her home in California for a chat.
You're often painted darkly and a lot of people don't seem to pick up on the sweetly humorous side to your music. Does being so misunderstood like that concern you?
Well, people should always come to their own conclusions. I don't wanna stop anybody from feeling what they feel, but it is unfortunate for me because I really do have a sense of humour about it all. I don't know, I guess sometimes it's like a soap opera where things are so tragic that they're actually funny. And that can help you distance stuff, but you have to feel them first before you can go ahead and laugh at them. I guess people will think what they think.
I suppose you might have gotten used to it after fifteen years.
Yeah, well actually it gets worse, I sometimes feel that people think I'm just getting darker and darker.
Oh dear, really? Well, this record might change things.
I hope so.
Even though so many of the songs are preoccupied with death, I find it more comforting than bleak...
That's good because I realised that I do write songs to comfort myself, and when I feel that they're doing that, then they might comfort someone else. I just put them out there and see what happens.
So you're feeling like you're in a pretty good place right now, huh?
Sure! I'm lucky to be alive and healthy when people are having a hard time in the world with the war in Iraq and everything. I have nothing to complain about.
Your last album came out just before the war kicked off and I remember reading that you were really worrying about it at that time how do you feel three years down the line?
It's horrible, evil; there's a lot of evil goings on with all people, not just in America or Iraq. It's just so unnecessary. Sometimes when I write music, even if I may be having a hard time personally, I think that there's a comfort that everybody needs in the air. This week my car got stolen, it's ok, it's not evil like the war, but it's still someone coming into my place, and that's how these people must feel in the war zone. If you never know whether you're gonna be bombed, how can you move forward at all? You try to find beauty in every day but it's hard not to feel guilty when you're happy. Of course, then you read Zen books and realise that you have to feel this way, because people need the strength of people who are happy to really feel things and to define happiness on a sad day.
So by allowing yourself to be happy, you're unconsciously helping the world?
Yeah, I really do believe that. You just have to keep on trying.
I love how the last words on the new album are "when you wake up, it'll be ok"...was that intentional, to leave things off on a reassuring footing?
It wasn't at first, but then at one point we were thinking of changing the sequence and I kinda noticed that. Then it was like, "oh no, this is how I wanna end this record, absolutely!" When you wake up, you're more aware of things in the moment. Like, you can get down if things aren't going your own way, but there's a kind of unconscious Zen thing that says you'll be ok when you're finally enlightened. It doesn't mean you're not going to be sad, you're just not gonna be so narcissistic or self-loathing.
Along the lines of endings and beginnings, it's curious that the album opens with what sounds like a closing note, an ending before a brief interlude of silence. Does that have a special significance?
It was actually a mistake. I don't usually do anything intentionally and call it arty, it happens and then you make the decision to use it. It wasn't like I said, "I want the beginning of this to do that", more like "whoa, there you go, that's the start of the record". I thought of changing the opening and putting Except For The Ghosts first. Anyway, it wasn't that deliberate.
Speaking of Except For The Ghosts, what moved you to write a song in honour of Jeff Buckley?
I wrote it about him around ten years ago. My first version of it was too funereal, really dark, but I liked the end ‹ the "except for the ghosts" part ‹ so when I was sending Michael Gira some stuff, I just sent him the little snippet at the end. He's really cool and very insightful, and he said to me, "I know this is part of a song because I can just tell, it's just part of a song and I'd really like to hear the rest, Lisa". And I was like, "no, you really don't wanna hear the song". Anyway, he insisted on hearing it and then in the process he said, "as you're sending it to me, why don't you try and write it over". So I did, because basically I did still like the words, I just didn't like my version of it. Now I really like it ‹ it's not just about Jeff any more. I did just write it literally about my imagination of what he might have been feeling as he was dying. He was so sweet and I liked him very much and, y'know, some people thought he committed suicide, some people thought otherwise, and we don't really know, we have no idea. I was thinking that maybe when you're drowning in yourself ‹ or drowning in whatever ‹ maybe if you can wave and accept it then you can look at a better side of something. When I sing this song, I see Jeff waving to me. It's kind of weird, but at least now I don't think that it's such a sad song.
Back to what you were just saying about Michae, how are you finding your new label home? It must be nice to know that he has so much faith in you.
Yeah, I don't know if I would have put this record out otherwise. He was a really big impetus and helped me to think. There was a point when I had the music but I was kinda confused about why anybody would want to listen to it. I don't understand the moment sometimes so it really helped me. He felt the songs were valid and emotional and that they should be out in the world. That helped me to see them differently and finish the album.
The album seems to be in the same sonic territory as the last one, Lullaby For Liquid Pig, though the songs are clearly coming at things from a different perspective. Was that simply because they were both recorded under similar conditions?
Yeah, they were both recorded in exactly the same way because I don't have any money and I can't afford to go into a studio and do it. I would just finish work at the bookstore, come home and work on my songs; it's like you have paint and you have paper and there isn't much variety. I've got what I've got, although I do agree with you that this record is a bit more uplifting. But it's the lyrics and the music, not the sound. The sound is the same, really. I didn't have as much time for opening things up. On Lullaby For Liquid Pig, we spent more time in ProTools to open it up. Things like adding, say, a bassline on something or a drum part ‹ all of a sudden it would open the whole song up and it would sound so much bigger. Some of the new songs that we tried to open up, for me, didn't work as well. It took away some of the charm that was working. That really discouraged me and I thought I would just have to record this stuff all over again and I had no more money. Then I realised that the songs kinda existed in their own little world, separate from Lullaby's, so we didn't need to do that much to them.
Tell me more about the artwork. Francesca Sundsten's paintings are just incredible, really beautiful on first glance and then you realise that there's something more sinister about them. How were you introduced to her painting?
I think it's perfect; it's exactly what the record is about. It's really sad but not/really creepy but not. In The Maybe World is all about possibilities and dealing with them, stuff that might sting but could also be beautiful. Did you think those birds might actually be trying to help that bunny? I don't know, but it doesn't look scared to me. What if that bunny knows he is dying and he's offering himself, or what if he's not dead and they're just gonna eat him alive ‹ you don't know! My cats used to bring me dead birds all the time from the roof and sometimes they'd bring them down into the apartment; I'd be playing piano and all of a sudden a bird would come back from the dead, like they'd only stunned it, then jump up and fly around. There would be this big drama and then the cats would kill it and it would upset me so much, but they really thought they were doing something good for me, bringing me this offering. So I started looking at it that way, that maybe because it's an offering I can't see it like a death. They were just trying to remind me to appreciate my life by bringing me a dead bird. I didn't wanna have a sad cover for the album. That's another way in which Young God is just so amazing because I wasn't coming up with any ideas. Then Michael sent me Francesca's artwork and it was just so perfect. I don't know her at all but she's a good friend of Michael's so she was amazing to let us use it.
People who have been following your music for years will know about your cat Miamo-Tutti, and in the sleevenotes for the new album you write that Golden Cities was actually written by him as he was dying of cancer. Sounds like there's kind of a sweet story there, care to elaborate?
It really was kind of sweet. That's what I mean about how I don't find the idea of death so sad on this record. When Miamo-Tutti died, my neighbour actually called the management of my building and said "when is she gonna quit fucking crying" ‹ I thought that was the rudest thing I had ever heard!
Wow, what a dick!
Yeah, it was very sad, but really magical too. When he was dying, I would go see him in the hospital every day and hold him, and these words, these songs just came to me,so I know that he was giving them to me and trying to make me feel less worried. Cats do that anyway. Cats are like saviours of your psyche. But anyway, I came home and wrote the song and it became more than just a sad song.
So it was like he channelled the words?
Definitely. He brought me the melodies or whatever, because he was going through what he was going through. It's a joke that he wrote it, of course. I believe this stuff only a little bit. I would like to believe this stuff, this magic stuff, but I don't know that I really do.
Let's talk about some of the other songs on the new album. Red Thread deals with confrontation in quite a refreshing way, opening doors and making life interesting. You once said that you're fairly quick to anger, have you mellowed out at all?
No, unfortunately! I kinda thought I had in the writing of the lyrics on this record ‹ not the actual making of it because it took fucking years ‹ but no, my anger is bad; it's a bad thing. I get therapy and I know something's going on but I don't know what it is. All you can do is keep working with it. It's like I can be fine one moment and then in a second it goes kinda weird, but I know it's telling me something. Anger is just as much a vehicle for communication as anything. That song is about total anger towards a person and his anger towards me, but trying to make it sweet because it's so scary! I love the ending of the song; it's such a familiar scenario, wanting to tell someone you love them but being blocked by anger. Well, it was a real conversation. We were fighting a lot and he just went "go to hell" and I went "fuck you" and hung up, then I thought, oh my god, that is a song right there. It's a drag that I can't have it on the radio here ‹ they like it but you can't say the "f" word.
How about In The Land Of Fairies, can you tell me more about that?
I wrote that a long time ago, actually. But when this record started coming together and I realised there was some sort of a theme ‹ about feeling dead or dying, things ending or being accepted ‹ I went back and looked at that song. I wasn't even gonna put it on the record, but I sent it to Michael and he really liked it. What it says to me now is that when you're so narcissistic and focused on yourself, that's why you feel dead, because you're not going out into the world. I remember at the time I was really depressed and kinda wondering why, why I was feeling really kinda pathetic. So I was trying to mock myself because wondering gets you nowhere. I was trying to be real positive at the time and I was writing songs about angels and fairies, being around positive energies. Then with this song it was like, "fairies? I don't even like them" ‹ all these things we try to make us feel better are actually making us feel dead, it's ridiculous. It's mocking that feeling instead of saying "oh poor you" and sympathising with it. It's like what you said when you started the interview about how I wish people understood my music because it isn't really about feeling sorry for me, it's about mocking how we feel. When people don't get that, then they don't really understand the music, so I guess it does bug me sometimes.
Wire is a beautiful song too, though I find the meaning a bit oblique. Can you shed some light on what it's about for me?
It's about not wanting to be dead! Sometimes when people are communicating ‹ if you wanna take it literally, through the wires, through TV, through email, through whatever ‹ they're not really communicating. It seems like the times when I really do communicate is when I'm feeling some of the scary stuff, or when people are really trying in their feeling or they are crying about it. It's just so sweet that that's when I feel connected to them. Just the fact that they're trying is so endearing. That's also what Red Thread is about. It's about feeling compassion for the vulnerable things like fire and passion and death and blood. I wanna feel stuff, I don't wanna not be alive!
Funny you should mention that! I was gonna ask - I read that after the last album, your fans were so worried about your state of mind that they sent you all manner of self-help books and Bibles?
Oh, I know the guy that wrote that. He said that about Lullaby, but they actually sent me Bibles and stuff years ago after Geek The Girl, and I think that was because I have a song that says that if you don't believe in a god then you have to believe in yourself. People misunderstood that to feel sorry for me so, yeah, in general, people don't send me stuff like that. People will say something like "I'm worried about you" and I wish they wouldn't. These records aren't just about me, they aren't about you feeling sorry for me. If I was just putting records out about "poor me", oh, what a pathetic person! I would feel sorry for that person too and send them self-help books. But that's not what I'm doing at all. I don't relate to it at all that they feel sorry for me. But it's ok to not; it's just fine. There's a lot of stuff out there to relate to.
You said you intended Lullaby For Liquid Pig to be an album that people should listen to alone...would you say the same about the new record?
I think this is a little more open than that one, but still.
It's not exactly dinner party music?
Yeah, or even to play at a store! It is atmospheric, but I think that it really speaks to one person, that you're listening to it within your own experience. I think that's one reason why my music doesn't sell a lot, because it doesn't speak to a lot of people at the same time. I don't mind, y'know; the letters I get from people when it does affect them are really touching. But I still think it would be fun to write something more poppy. I'm not against doing that, it's just not what comes out!
You wouldn't be worried about a Liz Phair-style backlash?
No, I think you should just do what you want to do, and you should only put records out when you know that they're done and they're realised. People will either like them or dislike them. I mean, one of the funniest reviews I got for Lullaby For Liquid Pig was from a guy who hated it so much that he wrote, "whatever you do, do not buy this record". I thought that was so funny, that it must have touched him in some way for him to feel such anger about it. If Liz Phair felt comfortable to put her album out then I'm sure she knew that some people weren't gonna like it.
Do you think you'll always make music?
I don't know. I really wanna give something to the world and I think when I finally get a record done I do feel that I'm giving something. But you have to be so self-focused all the time to do this and there's a side of me that would like to teach or work at a volunteer place for abused people. I don't know. I mean, if I could make a living doing this and feel that I am actually offering something, then of course I would wanna keep doing it. It's kinda weird.
Do you think that perhaps we're living in too much of a "yes" world?
A "yes" world? Why would you think that? I think there's a lot of "no" going on.
Yeah, but don't you think that people are becoming way too desperate to be famous, to be liked, that they're saying 'yes' to everything?
[laughs] It's really weird when people are obviously doing things to be liked, but I think, deep down, if they were getting therapy ‹ and I don't mean they should ‹ but if they were really stripping away what was going on, they'd find that they were saying "no" to themselves. Things like "no, you're not cool", "you're not good enough", "you better do stuff other people do so that you can be a part of this world", and that's saying "no", that's not saying "yes". It's about stripping it away to find out what is really going on here. Nothing that's going on really meets the eye, I don't think, and that drives some people crazy!
Here's a final thought then it's been fifteen years since you released your first album ‹ what's the overriding thought when you look back at what you've achieved?
To be honest, I don't find it a conceited thing, but I really feel that my records are worthy of being there, I really do. I am not surprised in any way, shape or form that I'm not popular, y'know, but I do think that I sincerely really wanted to reach people who might be going through stuff, things I could help them to go through if they listen to these records. I think there is a place for them, and they are all different ‹ they all deal with different things. I really wish that more people could hear them if it could help them, that I could reach a bigger audience ‹ not a huge audience, but a bigger one. There are millions of people in therapy, y'know, in AA or all sorts of things. I just think there's a place for them. I'll keep my fingers crossed.