Sometimes reality really does bite. Just ask Lisa Loeb. The famously bespectacled singer shot to instant celebrity in 1995, when “Stay”—a song she recorded for the film Reality Bites—shot up the singles chart, earning her the distinction of being the first unsigned artist to ever top the Billboard charts. The song also garnered her a Grammy nomination and a Brit Award. What followed was a decade in the unblinking public eye, with appearances on $25,000 Pyramid and The Nanny, to a small part as an anchor woman in the 1999 remake of The House on Haunted Hill, to co-hosting Dweezil & Lisa on Food TV with her long-time beau, Dweezil Zappa.
Earlier this year, the couple hit the road for a joint tour. Things seemed to be going well, but just before they were due to perform at Dallas’ Gypsy Tea Room, Zappa abruptly left the tour. On May 17, Loeb’s rep explained the couple had broken up, and the less than happy times that followed inspired what may be Loeb’s best album—The Way It Really Is [Zoe].
“Some of the songs are actually very prophetic, because they were written way before the break-up,” Loeb confides, “and a couple of them were written closer to when the relationship was ending. But, whatever the reason, it’s definitely the reflections of somebody in their 30s who has been in a very long-term relationship trying to figure out the next step. And that’s a hard place to be. Ultimately, there was a thematic thread throughout the album, and it dealt with being able to look at life and either appreciate the way things are, or decide to change them.”
Loeb’s impassioned guitar playing adds to the album’s emotional layers, and her technique is as quirky and individual as her brainy lyrics. She uses a light touch on “Window Shopping,” switches to anxious, off-kilter riffs for “Probably,” and goes for a bossa-nova-styled sheen on “Fools Like Me” that is at odds with the song’s gloomy lyrical content.
“I prefer smaller guitars, because I’m a small person,” she says. “If I play a large-body acoustic—such as a Jumbo—I find myself reaching around the guitar with my chest getting tight, and I end up pulling back on the neck. That’s not good for the guitar, and it certainly doesn’t help keep things in tune! My primary guitars are both Taylor 512-Cs—one with a standard neck, and one custom ordered with a thinner neck. I use a Fishman Blender system to mix each Taylor’s soundhole mic and bridge pickup, and I run the signal direct or into a Peavey Wiggy amp. My strings are medium-light gauge Ernie Balls with either a .011 or a .012 for the high-E string. Ultimately, I’m looking for a nice, woody sound.”
Even with a breakup as an impetus to write, Loeb occasionally needed to jumpstart her creative process. “There are so many different phases of creativity,” she offers. “There’s that inspiration where you just get some random idea, and then there’s what I call the ‘homework’ part, where you actually have to sit down and start putting those ideas together. I also love to engage some part of my brain that leaves the other part free to wander, such as running or going for a drive. Sometimes, just taking a bath will loosen things up. And you can’t ignore good advice from other songwriters. For example, I ran into Brenda Russell after a mix session, and I admitted I was trying to finish some songs and was stalled. She said, ‘The lyrics are right there. You just need to let them happen.’ I thought, ‘Oh, well, that’s just so artistic and magical, and it’s really nice that she thinks that.’ But later on, I came home, sat at the piano, and the songs just came out. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, she was totally right—I just needed to let it happen.’ That was a good lesson to learn.” •