Lisa Germano | Interview
pennyblackmusic.com | Sarah Johnson
It is rare you find an artist that completely breaks the mould
It's so easy to type cast the female singer/song writers that come out of America. Let's face it, most follow a sure-fire mix of piano ballads, folk-rock and poppy lyrics that often owes a lot to Joni Mitchell.
Even those with an obvious style of their own, like Ani Difranco with her distinctive vocal style, or Regina Specktor's new take on the genre, still ultimately follow the grain. It is rare you find an artist that completely breaks the mould, but occasionally there is one bubbling under the surface of this well rehearsed collective.
When Lisa Germano was signed to Capitol Records back in the early 90's the label thought they were on to a winner. A multi-instrumentalist with a unique smoky voice and with a song that they managed to put through production until it came out sounding like it fitted the grain.
"Basically I was signed for one song I wrote called ŒYou Make Me Wanna Wear Dresses'. This guy at Capitol thought that it could be a pop song so he signed me, but it was really the wrong thing to do because my music just doesn't belong on major labels."
She released one album with Capitol, 'Happiness', in 1993, the follow up to her self-released debut, ŒOn the Way Down From the Moon Palace'.
ŒHappiness,' pushed forward a sunnier side of Germano's music (despite the title's irony) but it didn't sell well and in 1994 Germano moved to 4AD, home to the Pixies.
"My music is not written to sell and I don't really have that game playing desire. I don't think there is anything wrong in doing it that way, but I just can't do it. Sometimes I wish I could but it takes a certain talent and that's just not where my talent is. So I didn't last on Capitol very long, which was great because we were miserable together" she laughs.
What Germano's music does have is deep dark perception. She delves in to emotions with an honesty that is both poignant and surreal, leaving the listener feeling as though they have just walked through someone else's dream.
"I like that description, dream-like and atmospheric. Sometimes the way other people describe my music is how I can figure it out.People say to me ŒWhat's your music like?' and I just say ŒWell, it deals with a lot of things people don't like to think about,' but I try to make it very beautiful, I try to make it sound like what it's about. I tell them it's emotionally driven like super happy or super sad or super sarcastic. It's not very middle of the road but it's not really unbelievably twisted. It's not so wired that it's like whoa! What is that?!"
The latest album from Germano, ŒIn The Maybe World,' gives the themes of obscurity and darkness which flow throughout her work a new intensity. The album revolves around themes of death and untimely end but does so laced with humour and with a freshness far from cliché.
"It just kind of became what it was. I mean, I didn't plan on writing about that in particular, I just found that I had written a song when my cat died, and I wrote a song about my father when I thought he was going to pass away but he didn't, and then I had a song about my cats killing birds, because they keep bringing them down from the roof and killing them here ŒThe Maybe World' is about that because I was trying not to be so sad about all these birds dying, because the cats have a different view of the whole thing."
"I started to realise that I had these songs in which this theme was coming in, then some other songs talk about feeling dead inside so I just kind of started looking at it differently and it all started to come together. It became a kind of a concept but not on purpose. Oh, and I wrote that song about Jeff Buckley about ten years ago, about him drowning, so it just seemed like that ended up being the theme."
Jeff Buckley is only one in a long line of incredibly famous artists which Germano has known or worked with during her career, which spans two decades and nine albums (including the re-issued version of ŒHappiness' on 4AD.) Although she never had the chance to collaborate with Jeff Buckley she did share a stage supporting him on tour in Paris.
"I was on tour once and he was on tour at the same time so I didn't know him at first but we would always just kind of wave at each other at radio shows.
He would be after me or I would be after him. We would always run into each other and then I finally opened for him in Paris and he was such a gentleman. We talked for a long time. His show was amazing and the crowd was just unbelievably enwrapped with him."
Soon after this tour Buckley tragically drowned and the song ŒExcept For the Ghosts' was written for him.
"I found out shortly after that he had died so I just felt it was way too soon and I was just trying to imagine what he was thinking and just trying to make myself feel better about it really."
Despite the macabre themes, Germano does not see her work as morbid or depressing and it isn't, as long as you understand the sarcasm and can get past the lyrics to see how beautiful her music really is. She has received some concerned letters from fans, however, and even a bible or two.
"That was just one time after a record called ŒGeek The Girl' I got a couple of bibles. It was very cute. People were just like ŒIs there anything I can do to help you?' I appreciate their feelings but they didn't understand that the music isn't about feeling sorry for someone. It's about ŒHey if you feel this way to then it feels good to know other people feel this way too and they are struggling with similar problems,' but I just got a laugh out of that."
Germano explains that writing music is how she deals with her dark emotions and if she wasn't able to sing, for her it would be like holding back a physical reflex.
"I'll know when something needs to come out. It's like a physical thing, like crying or really laughing hard."
"Some people feel my music is too personal but I really don't think of it that way. If you saw the stuff I took out, the stuff I edit, that stuff is personal. Once you edit things and you go deeper and really think what is this about, then all of a sudden it becomes just something else totally.
I'll know when it's something people can relate to and then I will put it out to the world."
The new album is her first release on Young God Records, the label set up by Michael Gira to release his then band the Swans music back in the early 80's. Gira has been a fan of Germano's work for a long time, and they have crossed paths in the past working with the same musicians.
Gira has said of Germano's music that Œthe intensity of feeling in her singing is a little frightening sometimes - it's like she's singing very close to your ear, leading you through her ultra emotional world.'
The admiration is reciprocated and Germano has said she is honoured to be releasing with Young God and working closely with Gira and has him to thank for the unique album art work.
"Michael and I had some initial ideas but I just wasn't liking any of my thoughts and then he said 'I have this friend and I think you might like her paintings', so he sent me a bunch of her paintings and I liked them very much but none of them said cover to me. Then he said 'Well, there's one I haven't sent you'. I said 'Well why ?' and he said 'I don't know. I just wasn't sure if you would like it. It's these crows eating a bunny.' He was laughing, but I said 'No, send it' and as soon as I saw it I knew that was the cover absolutely."
"He has a really good aesthetic. He turned me on to her stuff and it was so nice of her to let us use it. To me, it's just like the record, not necessarily sad or bleak but it is a little questioning. Is that bunny dead?
What are the possibilities of looking at this differently? That's how I think of death, looking at it differently. I just thought the painting was perfect for the album."
"That's when things are fun. It's not as much fun to plan something and do it properly. The fun is in the magic when all of a sudden it all works or there's one word in a song that makes the whole song work. To me that's just so much fun."
Something else that stands out with Germano's work is her musical talent.
Originally classically trained as a violinist, she also plays guitar, piano and just about any other instrument she can get her hands on. The music on the album is almost completely played by her, with a few guest appearances here and there including some guitar work from the Smiths' Johnny Marr.
"There are a couple of songs that my friend Johnny Marr played guitar on and a couple that another friend of mine, Sebastian Steinberg, played bass on and then Joey, my friend, played bass on a couple of things. But besides that it's just me playing around."
"I always wrote songs on the piano, so I can play the things that I write or learn but I'm not a good piano player. All the other instruments I just picked up in the same way. I mean I can't really play them. They are just for colour. So if I want something twinkly I pick up an instrument that's twinkly, or I try different sounds on the keyboard until I find something that works for me. It's all about emotion and sounds. It's not really that big a deal that I play all this stuff."
You would expect the process of piecing together an album on your own, writing the songs, playing the instruments and even producing it, to be a difficult one, but Germano is quite content working alone and feels she doesn't have much of an option anyway.
"I wouldn't call it difficult or easy. It is what it is. I love to do it.
"It's like painting. I'll have this piece of music that I'm working on and I just kind of paint it. It can be difficult to make decisions about what's working or not working when you're by yourself but in general it's good fun."
"I don't have any money and I'm not part of this big machine anymore so I just started recording at home. I didn't even know if I would make this record. I didn't know if I would make my last record. I work on it because it's what I do. It's just what I do to try and get through life then when my music starts making sense to me and I think it can relate to other people I make it in to records. The last two I just produced myself because I did them here at home. But my friends that helped me make them sound so much better."
The album took around a year to put together once Gira was involved but in total it is around two or three years of work, and some songs are around ten years old. Working alone is a big leap from the session work Germano used to do when she was playing in bands. She has worked with some pretty big legends including David Bowie, Neil Finn (Crowded House), John Mellencamp, Simple Minds, Iggy Pop, Eels and Sheryl Crow.
Germano described working with Bowie as one of the best experiences of her career.
"He was really cool. That was probably one of the most amazing experiences I've had because he's so famous and he's such a legend. He was so genuine, not full of shit and really creative. A lot of people, when they get a certain type of fame, get a little bit afraid to experiment. They know what their fans like and they are just afraid to go out on the edge. He was just so excited about being creative and we talked a lot. He would come up with lines and I would come up with lines. It was very very cool."
She also highlights her work with Neil Finn as being some of her best. "I'm proud of all my records. I feel they are all very genuine and I feel like there isn't anything on them that I feel embarrassed of.
"I get letters and I feel like I've reached some people, but I think my proudest moment was working with Neil Finn. He is just such an amazing person and I met some great people through him. I wish that I could just play with him all the time."
A few years back Germano even got to work with a band she has been a huge fan of for some time. She did an album called 'OP8' with Giant Sand which as well as front man Howe Gelb also at that time featured in its line-up Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino.
"Calexico were just starting out when we made the record. I just love them.
I'm a fan even though they are my friends. Joey Burns at the time didn't even know if he could sing and he has just turned into this amazing singer and performer."
As for other bands and artists Germano is a fan of she finds it hard to be put on the spot and to be expected to reel of her favourite music.
"It's weird because people often ask what music I'm in to and I can never think of it, so I decided I'm never going to answer that again (laughs) because that's too personal, and I also think lots of people lie. They always answer with something that's really cool."
"I just like so many things, I'm very eclectic I like world music, I love country music. There isn't any type of music I particularly dislike, apart from maybe Christian music or really super middle of the road. Although there can be really some really fun songs even there."
From a young age Germano has been involved in music. Both her parents were musicians and her and her five siblings were all expected to play an instrument.
"We had six kids in our family and my parents had all of us pick an instrument when we were like 7 and then we had to play that instrument until we were 18. I think they just wanted us to have self discipline but at the same time I played the piano and wrote songs> There was just music all the time."
"As for deciding to go into it professionally I just fell into that. It was a dream but it was amazing that the doors opened that did and I just keep walking through them and seeing what happens."