When you hear the name Lisa Loeb, your mind may conjure up the image of a pretty young woman in striking cat-eye glasses and a quintessential ‘90s black minidress singing a wistful pop ballad. The video that accompanied her number-one smash “Stay (I Missed You)” cemented her place among the Gen-X cultural icons alongside Friends, grunge, My So-Called Life, baby doll dresses and Reality Bites, though her meteoric rise was no happy accident. Loeb had spent years woodshedding as a songwriter and performing artist, building upon a lifelong love of acting and performing. She quickly gained a cult following with her Brown University classmate Elizabeth Mitchell as half of the duo Liz and Lisa before going solo.
The “slacker generation” is all grown up now, but Loeb has done everything but slack off. Loeb deftly shifts between roles as a songstress, producer, author, actress, philanthropist, wife, mother, and eyeglass designer (her Lisa Loeb Eyewear line is available nationwide at Costco and select optical boutiques). Lisa calls NYC home base, but we caught up with her — where else? — on the move between gigs in Colorado, where she’s doing a run of dates before a two-week stint at the legendary Carlyle Hotel in New York.
What was it like to hit the music scene with one of the most iconic songs of the ‘90s?
I was already in the music scene for a long time before “Stay” came out. I’d been a musician since I was a kid, and I played music in college. I had a really great following with my friend Liz Mitchell —we had a group called Liz and Lisa — and we’d been at it for a long time.
I had gone solo right after college, and it was exciting to have the song “Stay” get really popular on the radio. It was very exciting; I had been working years and years to get a record deal, and I continued to build my following in a grassroots way. It was just a huge step ahead.
Speaking of grassroots, you were the first musician to have a number one single without being signed to a recording contract.
Yeah, you know, it was really amazing to have that independent background. Like I was saying, I was working really hard to build a grassroots following. It was such a wonderful time because there was a lot of different kinds of music going on, but I felt like I was part of the breakthrough of acoustic singer-songwriters. My video was exciting because it was a one-take video and it also mirrored what I was trying to do musically: to tell a story and connect with people on a level that didn’t include over-the-top production. It was just classic, clean production and trying to tell a story through the songs.
How were you able to find your path with “Stay” and establish your voice as an independent in the world of majors at that time?
I wasn’t on an independent label, it wasn’t like that. It was all about building a fanbase — especially in New York City — and playing concerts, marketing myself and my band, connecting with people that I knew, and finding new people. It was a little different than it is now because we didn’t have the Internet; we were literally making fliers and handwriting postcards and making phone calls to people to remind them about shows. Actually, it’s come back to that now with the Internet and social media — it’s sort of like that on a huge scale. Even today, it’s hard, you can’t do what a major label can do. You can’t put a million dollars into promoting a single. But you can make music the best that you can and get it out there to a bunch of people.
Also, BMI was instrumental in helping me be a part of the music community. They invited me to be a part of songwriter showcases, songwriters in the round and different music festivals. It was a great professional touchstone to be a member of BMI; I was among a lot of other professionals and artists — whether it was the New Music Seminar or SXSW — it was a great way to be a part of that professional community. BMI was, and still is, one of those key organizations that helps you keep your head screwed on straight and helps you feel like you really are part of a professional community of people who are writing songs and performing.
You talked a little bit about how things have come full circle when it comes to artists promoting themselves and using the Internet. Do you think independent artists who are starting out in their careers have it a little easier today because of all those resources?
I think the resources do make things a little easier, especially when you think about the fact that we actually used to go to the post office to buy stamps (laughs). It wasn’t easy to do just a basic thing to connect with other people. But, that being said, even today — even though there’s a lot at our fingertips in terms of marketing and promoting ourselves — you still have to do the work.
It does take a lot of creative energy and business marketing energy; I enjoy that personally, but I would prefer to be able to spend more time on my creative work and less time on the marketing and being on top of all the social media all the time. But you do have so much at your fingertips, and that can make it more maddening when you can’t be on top of everything all the time.
It’s a lot to balance nowadays, and it’s a lot to ask of an artist when their fans can communicate directly with them.
Yeah, it’s a world that I’m still exploring. I’m always talking to up-and-coming musicians who seem to have a great fan base through YouTube and Spotify to try to understand what they’re doing, as well as continuing to do what I know works. Which is to go out, play concerts, meet fans, make music, make songs, record songs, play more concerts…
Speaking of using different forms of media to get your music out there, you’ve been working with Amazon a lot, including your voiceover work for the hit kids’ book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. How is that different than working with a record label, and how did that relationship start?
Working with record labels exists on a lot of different levels, and I’ve experienced a lot of different levels with them, where they’re more and less involved in the creative process or investing in the project financially. I’m still trying to feel out what it’s like to be exclusive with Amazon. If you come to my shows, you can buy my CDs, but for these projects you have to go to Amazon. You can stream them with Amazon Prime for free. So far they’ve been really great to work with — they’re great to collaborate with, they’re open to ideas about marketing, and they’re helpful with distribution because they have access to a lot of eyes and ears. They’re very respectful of the musician, at least from my experience. I think the biggest question everybody has is, how can you get your music in front of a lot of people? To me, it seemed like a no-brainer to work with Amazon. They’re their own universe — people go there constantly throughout the day.
I would imagine writing children’s music is a little different than writing other kinds of music.
I think that writing kids’ music has opened my eyes and reminded me that a lot of the music that I liked growing up came from that era of the ‘60s and ‘70s where you sometimes didn’t know if it was for grownups or kids — it was really for everybody. Like, “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing,” or “Sing a Song,” “Rainbow Connection,” “Rock the Boat.” There was a lot of silliness and storytelling. I noticed when I play these songs live, for the grownups it’s a breath of fresh air for them to hear something that’s different from what they might normally hear at a singer-songwriter’s concert. And it’s been really fun for me to remember that through my kids’ music.
As I’m working on my new grownup record — which will be out next year — I think that bringing that open-mindedness to the lyrics and melodies and styles of the songs I’m writing. It really adds a lot of variety. And it’s enjoyable especially when you move away from the concept of trying to get a hit song on the radio, which, after I did have a hit song on the radio, there’s that little voice in the back of your head that wonders, “how could I write a hit song for the radio?” It’s always a fun assignment to do, and to collaborate with other people to try to do that.
There’s also this living, breathing, creative space where — as a songwriter — it’s just fun to write music to play for people who enjoy listening to it. Making kids’ music has really brought me back to that feeling. Otherwise it’s totally the same as writing grownup music. I like being part of the trend of musicians who are making family-friendly music like I listened to as a kid.
And that music still sounds timely today.
It really is, especially where we are politically. I feel like, I was never a great folk musician. I didn’t write a lot of songs about what’s going on in the world, or political views and things like that. But I do feel like, through some of this music, I’m able to imbue some of the stories with values that are important to pass along. I have a song called “Say Hello,” which is about the basic respect of other people. But it also just sounds like a song you might want to sing along to.
Changing gears here, you’ve been acting professionally since the late ‘90s. Does years of playing music in front of crowds prepare you for acting or is that something that you did before?
I studied acting since I was a little kid. Like a lot of people, I was in musicals and plays, and I did some acting in independent film when I was in high school. It was something I loved and continued to study through college. And then my music career was the most present and demanding the most time, so that was what I mainly focused on. But here and there I keep returning to acting. I hope I get to do more of it in the future.
You’re also very philanthropically active. Tell us a little bit about the Camp Lisa Foundation.
I’m really excited about the Camp Lisa Foundation. I was trying to figure out a cause of my own, something that meant a lot to me. I’m really lucky as a musician to get to help other people out with a lot of different fundraising activities and organizations. I realized that one of the things that made my life the best was my summer camp experience. I loved being in a place where I felt really independent, yet really connected with other people. I made new friends, and — just like the song says — I kept the old. It was just a regular summer camp, a sleep away camp, but there was a lot of music, and it brought me a lot of joy. And of course, music helps us develop our emotions, and summer camp music meant so much to me that I wanted to make a summer camp record. So I made one called Camp Lisa so I could share my summer camp songs inspired by summer camp.
That lead to the realization that I should actually send kids to summer camp, so I started the Camp Lisa Foundation to send kids to summer camp who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to go. It helps them even when they go back to school, having been engaged in something so rich during the summer. When they go back to school they usually do better and they’re more engaged in school as well.
You mentioned your former Brown University bandmate Liz Mitchell earlier, who you also collaborated with on your first children’s project back in 2003 with Catch the Moon.
Yes, she produced that record. I asked Liz if she would produce it because she was already making beautiful children’s records that fit what I was looking for — where real people were playing real instruments, singing real harmonies, just like you would on a grownup record, but geared towards kids. She had so much experience doing this, I asked if she would make the record with me. It was the first time we had worked together since we had our group — we had broken up about 10 years earlier.
How was it different, collaborating for the first time since college?
I think it was different because we were doing different types of music than we were in the past. Our goals were different. In the past, I had written a lot of the music, and I sang more of the harmonies, and she sang more of the lead singing. In this one we were more like partners, and she was more in charge of the production. Her husband was very involved, playing a lot of the instruments. It’s like I was stepping into her world.
Speaking of Brown University, you had been studying comparative literature there, right?
Yes, that was my major, although I spent most of my time in the theater department and the music department, much more than in the Comp Lit building (laughs).
So if you hadn’t forged a successful career in music and acting, what do you think you’d be doing today?
I don’t know, I’m so deep into it right now. I went back to school for psychology. I’m always interested in the way the brain works as well as how people communicate with each other and how to make that better.
You wear a lot of different hats with your multiple careers, your philanthropy, and you’re also a mother of two. How do you find the creative energy to fuel all of these projects and find balance?
I just have to be able to change gears really quickly. One minute I get to play with clay and paint in the kitchen with my son, and when we’re done, I go in another room and have a meeting to talk about marketing for a new project. It never stops; I just always have another idea. I have notebooks and files on my computer full of all different kinds of ideas. Some of them are creative ideas, some of them are not.
I have a good team between my husband and some great babysitters, and my parents and in-laws. The family is always prioritized over everything. I try to work creative stuff in. Structure often helps creativity, and you have to have a lot of structure when you have a family, and so that really helps my creativity.
Are your children showing signs of inheriting your love for music or acting?
My kids love music, they are so well-versed—they know about so many different musicians and artists. Hopefully, they’ll continue to grow into people who play music, but for now they just really love music.
You talked a little bit about how BMI has been helpful throughout your career through the beginning. What else have they done to continue to foster your career?
BMI has continued to foster my career by connecting me with talented songwriters and musicians, and with high-level professional people in the music business. It’s great to have a community, and BMI really fosters a music community. It’s wonderful to be able to speak to other people who do what I do.
And they’re like a family; everybody is so kind and welcoming. I can always bend their ear and ask questions. One of their main jobs is collecting performance royalties, and they do a great job with that as well. But they’ve always been a great connector for me — they connect me to professionals and they connect me to musicians. I also love celebrating with them every year at the awards — they put on a good party!