Lisa Germano | Review and Interview

Montreal Gazette | Jordan Zivitz

Lisa Germano looks at loss and life: After confronting mortality in her latest album, L.A. singer takes to the road with Michael Brook

Lisa Germano knows her fans - and she knows she won't find them at a kegger. She's more likely to find them alone at 3 a.m., seeking solace in intensely intimate music that a lucky few stumble upon - music that finds hope in the darkness, and the darkness in hope.

"You don't put (my music) on at a party," Germano said from her Los Angeles home recently, before beginning preparations for her third tour in four months. "If something reaches you personally, sometimes you're a little embarrassed. You don't go tell your buddy, 'Hey, dude, listen to that Lisa Germano record, man. It really rocks. It made me cry, man.' (Many people) are not going to say that. They'll just pretend they didn't hear it." Those who are on Germano's wavelength, on the other hand, can't forget a voice with the power to sound fearful, playful, vengeful, sarcastic and submissive - sometimes all at once. Her pleas and warnings are half-whispered over shimmering piano and guitar melodies that often drift in and out of focus, resulting in eerie lullabies that both soothe and sting.

It ain't sunshine and lollipops, in other words, although Germano can alchemize gorgeous music from dark subject matter. Her latest album, In The Maybe World, confronts mortality while keeping morbidity at bay; songs about the deaths of Jeff Buckley (Except for the Ghosts) and Germano's cat (Golden Cities) are notably short on grief.  "(The album is) about situations of loss and looking at life differently," Germano said. "I used to think it was about death, but it's really about life."

Like its predecessor, 2003's hallucinatory Lullaby for Liquid Pig, In The Maybe World has been seen as a gift by Germano's fans, by virtue of its mere existence. After her 1998 album Slide, Germano was dropped by the prestigious indie label 4AD. Word quickly spread that she was retiring from music - a rumour given the appearance of fact by her job at an L.A. bookstore.  "I think there was one article that said that (I was retiring), and then everybody read that article and wrote about that article," Germano said, laughing. "Now everybody thinks it was this big deal. But no, it was just a matter of stop and reassess and go do something else for a while. "Right now, I could tell you that I'll never make another record. I'd like to, but I don't have any particular ideas. But I'm a little older now, and I think I know that doesn't mean I won't ever make another record. It just means I need time to make one."

Along with her seven studio albums, Germano's resume includes a staggering list of session work for everyone from Iggy Pop to Indigo Girls. She cites former Crowded House leader Neil Finn as her favourite collaborator  ("an amazing, spiritual, beautiful man"), but it's her contributions to John Mellencamp's heartland-rock glory days that most casual observers remember. (Paper in Fire's blazing violin? Her.)

"I don't know what I learned musically with John, except to always put 100 percent into it. ... He said, 'I don't care if it's the wrong note, but I want to hear it done with 100 per cent everything. None of this wimpy little I'm-afraid-to-play s--t.' " 

The haunting ambience of Germano's songs has more in common with soundtrack composer and producer Michael Brook than it does with her highest-profile commissions. Brook - whose own CV includes work with Brian Eno and U2's the Edge - worked with Germano on music for the HBO western Deadwood, and asked her to sing on a track from his richly textured 2006 album RockPaperScissors. Following her extensive headlining tours of the eastern United States and Europe in the fall, Germano is now back on the road as Brook's opening act and a member of his band.

"I talked to him last night, and I was (saying), 'Oh my God, what are we going to do?' He goes, 'I don't know! But we'll figure it out,' " Germano said, with more amusement than fear. "It is comforting, actually, because it's his show. ... He will make the decisions, and I'll do the best I can."  Lisa Germano opens for Michael Brook and performs in his band, Wednesday at 9 p.m. at La Tulipe, 4530 Papineau Ave. Tickets cost $22.50. Call 514-790-1245.

The best of Lisa Germano's albums Geek the Girl (1994). Germano's music is often described as harrowing. That's certainly the correct adjective for her best-known disc, filled with songs of spiritual and sexual confusion, and featuring allusions to her experience with a stalker.

Lullaby for Liquid Pig (2003). Awash with ghostly sounds wafting just within earshot, Germano's first album in five years was perhaps the finest example of her ability to be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Out of print, but scheduled for an expanded re-release this year.

In the Maybe World (2006). Despite being inspired by the loss of cherished souls, Germano's latest and most skeletal work is remarkably comforting.

The Gazette's Jordan Zivitz recently spoke with critically acclaimed singer songwriter Lisa Germano, who's currently on tour as the support act for Michael Brook. She plays at Montreal's La Tulipe on Wednesday, Jan. 31.

Here's a transcript of the interview.

The Gazette: What made you decide to go out on tour with Michael Brook now?
I thought you'd be exhausted after two solid months of touring on your own.

Lisa Germano: Yeah, I was - really exhausted. I've just taken some time off. I cancelled the second leg of my U.S. tour, so I had time in December to rejuvenate. And Michael had asked me to do this months ago, so I knew this was coming up. And it's very short - 10 or 12 dates or whatever - and I played on his record, so it's just really nice to do something different. They're going to let me open up for a half-hour or so.

Gazette: How did you end up working with Michael?

Germano: Well, I met him through a friend of both of ours named Tchad Blake, who's a really good mixer and producer - he made my record Slide. And he's known Michael, because they're both producers, and Michael always has these really cool dinners where he invites all sorts of people. And one time me and Tchad went to one of his dinners, and he just started invited me to these dinners, so I knew him for a couple of years before we actually worked together. We were doing some music for Deadwood - he called me to see if I could play some violin on that - so we enjoyed working together, and he was saying that he wanted to make a record and was trying to get guest people to sing, and maybe write some lyrics, and this and that. We never said for me to do it(laughs), all of a sudden he's going, "Why don't YOU try something?" So then I took all these CDs of instrumentals home, and it was kind of like, "There's no way I can figure this out. There's so much music." But if you just listen to it, then all of a sudden the songs go through your head, and finally I started to have my own ideas on them, so I wrote the one (Want) and he ended up using it, so that was really cool.

Gazette: You haven't done that type of thing very often, have you?

Germano: I don't do it very often, no. People do ask me, but I'm just not very good at it. I mean, once it's done, then I feel good about it, but ... I don't know. It seems too big, do you know what I mean?

Gazette: Well, it must be tough making your ideas fit with somebody else's ideas.

Germano: Yeah. Well, we sat down and he said, "These are some things I'd like to try to talk about." But he goes, "I don't write lyrics - I have no idea how to do that." One of the things he mentioned that he wanted to talk about was, how do you tell somebody that you don't love them anymore when you still love them very much? When is it a good time? Do you tell them when they're really happy so you really bum them out? Or when they're really down, do you just sock 'em and go, "Take this, too?" When is there a good time? So that was running through my mind a lot. It wasn't just my idea- he put the ideas out there.

Gazette: You're playing violin with him as well, right?

Germano: Just on that song on the album. But live, I'm going to play a little bit of violin. His wife is a violinist - she's a virtuoso. So she's learned all the violin parts off the record, and wrote them all out. I'm mostly going to play keyboards and sing and play some guitar.

Gazette: So the band is you, his wife, him ...

Germano: That's it right now. We did a show at Joe's Pub (in New York City) in July, and he also had my friend Butch (Norton) from the Eels, who plays drums, and this guy Richard Evans from Bristol - he had all this stuff programmed, and he also played some bass. So it was really way more like the record. Right now we've stripped it down, and we start tomorrow (Jan. 13) with rehearsals, so I really don't know what it's going to sound like.

Gazette: I can't even picture what it would sound like, having heard the album and how layered it is.

Germano: Well, he also really knows a lot about playing tapes on stage. He'll have a lot of things programmed, so lots of things probably will sound like the record more than you think they would. But with the additions of some live sounds. It'll be interesting. He's really cool, because he's not like, "Oh my God, what are we going to do?" (Laughs) I talked to him last night, and I was like that - "Oh my God, what are we going to do?" He goes, "I don't know! But we'll figure it out." (Laughs)

Gazette: That must be comforting ...

Germano: No, it is comforting, actually, because it's his show - you know what I mean? I can't be so worried about it. He will make the decisions, and I'll do the best I can.

Gazette: Do you prefer playing on someone else's tour in some ways, because of the decreased pressure and more companionship?

Germano: No, I wouldn't say I prefer it, it's just different. I like them both. After doing my own thing, it's really nice to do something else.

Gazette: Out of everyone you've worked with on their music, as opposed to yours, do you have any favourites? I remember you speaking very highly of Neil Finn.

Germano: Yeah, well, Neil would definitely be my favourite.

Gazette: What is it about him?

Germano: He's just an amazing, spiritual, beautiful man, who's so talented and writes melodies that make me cry. And he's so open - he lets people in his life. And he's just not an a--hole (laughs), in any way, shape or form. And I'm not saying other people are; I just love him, and I love playing with him. And I was such a fan before that, that it was so cool to sing on his music and sing harmonies with him.

Gazette: Was there anything you learned from being in John Mellencamp's band that's stayed with you or informed your own music?

Germano: Yeah. Well, the things I learned in John's band were way more about how to just be in the real world. I mean, I kind of live in my own little world, and playing in a band of that calibre, you have to learn a lot of political things - way beyond the music. I don't know what I learned musically with John, except to always put 100 per cent into it - I definitely did learn that. He said, "I don't care if it's the wrong note, but I want to hear it done with 100 per cent everything. None of this wimpy little 'I'm afraid to play' s--t." And I've always taken that with me.  And then also just the lessons I learned about playing in a band, and about how there are times to speak, there are times not to speak. It's just a political thing. It makes me understand politics better, and lawyers, and just the world - all of that corporate stuff.

Gazette: It doesn't sound terribly fun.

Germano: No, it wasn't fun, but the shows were fun. And it was sure fun to play for 20,000 people and have everyone having a good time.

Gazette: I remember seeing you play with him in '91 or '92, and it still stands out for me as a band that was really together.

Germano: Yeah, it was a great band. It really was. I can't say it's too bad that we don't still play, but I think it would be cool to do something together some day. But I doubt that will ever happen.

Gazette: For your own album - the new one (In the Maybe World) - did you know you were making a record while you were making it, if that makes sense?

Germano: It's always at a certain point that I know. And then once I go and put it all on ProTools and work with my friend Jamie (Candiloro), THEN I'm making a record. When I'm just here writing, I don't even know if I'll ever play it for anybody. And then all of a sudden, it might make some sense and I'll go, "OK, I think I've got a record here." So I'll go over to Jamie's and we'll just load it all into ProTools and see what we've got. And then you take turns and make changes ... it's pretty cool. Michael Gira (head of Young God Records), also - I sent it to him before I played it to anyone, and he definitely said, "Of course you've got a record here, and of course I want to put it out, so let's move forward." I really needed that, because I wasn't sure at all.

Gazette: Wasn't there some talk about him releasing (Germano's 2003 album)Lullaby for Liquid Pig?

Germano: Yeah, he was going to, and then I went with ArtistDirect. But the cool thing is, ArtistDirect gave me that record back and Michael's going to re-release it. Sometime this year, Young God is going to re-release it, and we'll have a CD with it of some demos of those songs - because I don't like to mess up the record - and then maybe a DVD of (California radio station) KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, that live podcast thing. So then if people do already have the record, if they want the extra things, then they've got something. But I really think it's cheesy if people put on two new hidden tracks, so that people who are your fans, who have spent money on you, have to go buy the same record again. I think that's horrible.

Gazette: Before you and Jamie started working on the new album, was it a case of you just coming home and intermittently making music, and eventually the album discovered you?

Germano: Yeah, kind of. I just wrote when I would come home, and I would have ideas, and go on the ADAT and just experiment. Things just kind of become something.

Gazette: Was there any point when you realized there was something developing?

Germano: Yeah, I think definitely after (Germano's cat) Miamo-Tutti died and I wrote the song Golden Cities. Then I had the song Too Much Space - they were about situations of loss and looking at life differently, trying to find life in stuff. All of a sudden I realized, "I think I've got a record that deals with that." Because I already had Maybe World, and then I got some stuff from the past, and then I wrote Into Oblivion and After Monday and I was like, "OK, you've got a record now."

Gazette: I can't think of that many other albums about death that are so ...not sad.

Germano: Good! Because, you know, it's not really about death anymore. I used to think it was about death, but it's really about life. Not to sound all ... whatever, but at first I really did talk a lot about death, and it was like, "Wait a second. It really isn't about that!"

Gazette: Well, it uses death to talk about life - not wallowing in death, but trying to find hope.

Germano: Yeah, absolutely, because it is such a horribly sad thing. But it makes you look at the good things. You know what a good record about death is? The Eels' Electro-Shock Blues. To me, that's the best one. I love that record.

Gazette: Yeah, that's a really wrenching record.

Germano: Yeah. People sometimes find my records wrenching, but I didn't think this one was. I thought it was uplifting.

Gazette: I can understand why people say that about your music, but I think it reveals more about whoever's listening to it than about the music.  To me, it's intense, but "wrenching" to me sounds uncomfortable.

Germano: Yeah.

Gazette: And I don't find it uncomfortable to listen to your music. Maybe A Psychopath (from Germano's 1994 album Geek the Girl).

Germano: Yeah. Right. That's really cool, and I think you're right, because you get such different reactions.

Gazette: But does that ever get frustrating for you, that your music is seen so often as negative or pessimistic?

Germano: It's not really frustrating anymore, because there's just nothing I can do about it. It's the way it is.

Gazette: Was there ever a point when it did wear on you?

Germano: I don't know. I suppose so, just because I would like to have been able to sell more records and to reach more people, and I think that sometimes reviews and the things people would write about me, I probably wouldn't go out and buy that record. They sometimes would try to write a theatrical, dramatic piece to try to explain my music, and it might be interesting, but it would never make you want to go and buy the record.  So I suppose that's frustrating. It's like, "Wow, this is actually a really cool review, but you said the one line: 'Avoid this record' " - that one little line. Or starting a review of my record with "Lisa played fiddle with John Mellencamp, but now writes really different music," and then it goes on to talk about my music, but you started it with something that has nothing whatsoever to do with my music. I wouldn't go buy that record.

Gazette: Yeah, the Mellencamp thing gives the wrong impression to people.

Germano: That's what I mean. I'm proud of what I did with John, but it makes people not want to buy my music.

Gazette: I think the one plus of that is that it might lure people in who would be curious. That's how I found your music: I spiralled off from knowing you played with John, and I was a fan of his, so I just started exploring.

Germano: And there are other people out there as well who were fans of John who do like it, but just in general, it's not the best way to start a review. But, you know, it's unusual stuff, and I'd rather be an unusual person than a popular person anyway.

Gazette: Do you think the intimacy of your music is one reason why it's not more popular than it is?

Germano: Yeah, because it relates to one person listening to it. You don't put it on at a party. And if something reaches you personally, sometimes you're a little embarrassed. You don't go tell your buddy, (jock voice) "Hey, dude, listen to that Lisa Germano record, man. It really rocks. It made me cry, man." (Laughs) They are not going to say that. They'll just pretend they didn't hear it.

Gazette: Except, the people who do cry when listening to your music know other people who would like that type of thing, usually.

Germano: Yeah, but I'm just talking your normal ... that's why it's a very specific, wonderful audience. And I love my audience. The tour in Europe ... we just didn't have a good turnout in America, and that's one of the reasons I cancelled it in December. But Europe was amazing.

Gazette: Yeah, I saw reviews saying there were 300, 400 people at some of the shows.

Germano: Yeah! A lot. I mean, I f--ked up the first show, but after that it was just amazing. So yeah, somehow in Europe they just get it more, and I felt more appreciated. (Pauses) It's hard to explain. ... It's just so hard when you've been driving all day and there's 20 people.

Gazette: When you stepped away from music for a while after Slide, did it have more to do with the business side of things, or did you just not feel like you had anything left to say?

Germano: Kind of both. I mean, I didn't have any vehicle that was working - no manager, no record company. I had a big sense of failure - even though I liked the records I made, I just felt, "What am I supposed to do?" I have people say they like my music and they really need it and I should keep doing it, and I get fan letters from people saying, "Don't do this (quit music)," so what do you do? It just took me a long time to figure out how to do it without any label. Whatever happened after Slide is just ... I mean, it's kind of devastating to lose record deals for anybody, and it's funny - sometimes people go, "Why did you quit?" I didn't really quit - THEY quit. I just had to figure out how to do it without any money or any label.

Gazette: But did you really think at the time that you'd never release another album? From reading the press at the time, it really did sound like you were retiring.

Germano: Well, the honest truth is, I think there was one article that said that, and then everybody read that article and wrote about that article. (Laughs) I mean, I heard so much about how I'm never playing music again after Slide. And I didn't really tell lots of people that. I probably talked to one person and went, "Yeah, I don't want to play music anymore anyway," (laughs) and now everybody thinks it was this big deal. But no, it was just a matter of stop and reassess and go do something else for a while. Like, right now I could tell you that I'll never make another record. I'd like to, but I don't have any particular ideas. But I'm a little older now, and I think I know that doesn't mean I won't ever make another record. It just means I need time to make one.