Lisa Germano | Review

LA Times |Steve Hochman, Special to The Times

Don't worry, it's dark only for art's sake

April 6, 2006
Lisa Germano tackles death and life's dramas in song, but has a brighter side too.
After Lisa Germano released her 2003 album, "Lullaby for Liquid Pig," some fans were so concerned about her state of mind that they sent her Bibles and self-help materials. The album, after all, dealt with coming to terms with, but not rejecting, alcohol and addictive habits, both chemical and emotional.

You wonder what they'll send her after this summer's release of her  new album, "In the Maybe World."

The subject matter this time: Death.

Recorded over the last two years, the album includes songs that grew out of the death of her cat ("Golden Cities"), her father's successful heart surgery ("Too Much Space") and singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley's drowning a decade ago ("Except for the Ghosts").

Before anyone heads to FedEx with packages, though, the Los Angeles-based musician wants to elaborate.

"It could be a real death or a death inside or the death of a relationship or the death of an idea," she said, settling in at a West Hollywood teahouse with a cheery, engaging manner hardly seeming like someone with death on her mind. "But it is about death and not fearing it."

It was a point she reiterated to a small audience Tuesday at Spaceland, the first night of a weekly residency at the Silver Lake club through the end of this month.

"I don't think it's depressing," she said, drawing uncertain laughs from those who had braved the rain to come out.

In the teahouse interview, thinking back over her six previous albums, she acknowledged a dark thread running through her distinctive, dreamlike work ‹
often fragile, impressionistic, almost hesitant yet frank accounts of psychic puzzles at times compatible with the somber songs of the Eels, one of many acts she's played with as a talented musician on keyboards, violin and guitar. (Others include David Bowie, Neil Finn, Wendy & Lisa and fellow Indiana native John Mellencamp, with whom she first came to prominence as his violinist in the mid-'80s).

But Germano is eager to draw a line between her art and herself.

"Sometimes people think I'd be really upset a lot," she explained, in a tone anything but. "I have moments, but I write through them. It's important to be happy."

It was an artistically dark yet engaging Germano who appeared at Spaceland. She started out thanking opening band Jean-Paul Yamamoto for its electro-disco frivolity, wryly noting that she wished she could be so loose. From there it was straight into a series of "Liquid Pig" songs before a sequence previewing the upcoming album.

The new songs effectively wove together the by-nature contradictory aspects of the subject matter: tenderness and anger, sorrow and humor, endings and beginnings. Accompanied by her own piano and electric guitar with subdued backing on portable pump organ by Patrick Warren and bass by Sebastian Steinberg, her hushed, her confessional voice conveyed both adult confidence and childlike insecurity. In visual terms, the music was charcoal sketches, "Starry Night" swirls and fading, flickering home movies.

The residency provides the perfect way to introduce the new music ‹ intimate, unpredictable, in the moment. She promises each week's show will be different, if for nothing else than for the other acts on the bill.  (Next week she'll be followed by Mekons members Jon Langford and Sally Timms.)

Ultimately, there's a sense that she is working out her emotional uncertainties through her art and reaching contentment, something reflected in her attitude toward her own career. Having had a taste of pop success with Mellencamp and getting her own stabs at major-label deals in the early '90s, she's quite happy now to have her music released on the low end of the food chain. The new album is coming through Young God Records, owned by former Swans leader (and long-time Germano fan) Michael Gira and in recent years home to such offbeat upstarts as Devendra Banhart and Angels of Light.

"Liquid Pig" marked something of a transition. It was released through the Internet-anchored ArtistDirect firm just before the label went belly up. That, she says, was upsetting but hardly as devastating as it once might have been.

A job at Book Soup in West Hollywood allowed her to pay the bills while she let her music ventures evolve without even thinking in terms of record contracts and album schedules, a situation that proved creatively comfortable.

"I don't know how to explain it," she said. "I'm just not an artist in the music business anymore. I tried that. Now as a person I make the music I do and it's me."

There is no regret in her voice.

"When you're younger, it's important you have that drive or desire," she said. "I'm 47, so it's kind of permissible to not continue that."