Through horn-rimmed glasses

Lisa Loeb struggles with the expectations of success

One year ago, Lisa Loeb became the first musician ever to land a song at the top of the pop charts without a record deal or a manager. She was a freak occurrence in the music business, able to achieve in a split second what most musicians grasp for in vain their entire careers--instant fame throughout the world, a sort of popularity that transcends reality.

With one modest love song ("Stay (I Missed You)") from one mediocre film (Reality Bites), the Dallas-born Loeb became the sudden, inexplicable, and ubiquitous phenomenon of the summer of 1994. The song and its equally precocious video, directed by Loeb's pal and sulky Gen X poster boy Ethan Hawke, were virtually inescapable, lurking around every radio station or music-video channel like a lunatic stalker. By the time the song faded from the airwaves, even those who loved "Stay" were ready for it to go and Loeb along with it.

A year later, reflecting upon that immediate success and the heavy expectations it has placed upon her upcoming debut album Tails, Lisa Loeb now says she almost regrets the way "Stay" transported her from happy anonymity to happier stardom. She recalls how she actually became distressed with hearing her song so often, the way in which radio transformed her meaningful little song into a "commercial" and a commodity.

"When you have a successful song, sometimes it starts getting annoying because you don't have any control over how many times it gets played on the radio," Loeb says, almost as though apologizing. "And it's frightening, too, because you can't call them up and say, 'Please stop playing the record so much.' You want to tell them it's a real song, to treat it like a real thing, but if you did, they would take it as disrespecting the people who are trying to help you out."

Three long years before, Loeb was just another struggling, ambitious singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, hustling up gigs where she could get them in big cities and small college towns. But suddenly it had reached the point last year where "Stay" transcended its status as a pop song and elevated Loeb to pop-culture icon--this image built upon smart-girl glasses, a video, a sweet and harmless love song stuck at the last minute on the soundtrack. She was regarded in the media as a one-hit wonder (even finding her video in a year-end VH1 special of the same name), as something less than a songwriter. She was treated as though she had appeared from nowhere, with little attention given to her earlier work (an indie cassette released in New York City); she was treated as the fluke she appeared to be, a woman with no past or future but merely a present that would last as long as it took to turn off VH1.

"Stay" attained a sort of success even the best musicians never come near; it was a fluke, an accident, a success story rarely told and seldom believed. Her fame occurred backwards, as though someone were looking through the wrong end of a telescope: She was thrust into the public eye before she had time to mature on album and on stage, to be judged by an audience she was not prepared to face. Next week, when her full-length album finally makes it into stores after many delays and so much expectation, she will have to take the final exam that she has not even studied for.

"I was warned of this a long time ago," Loeb says. "People said hypothetically you don't want to have a big hit, that you want to build gradually like R.E.M. or U2. You want to put out albums that get popular over many years so that when you get to a certain level, you have a large support system. And it all happened backwards, which is luckier and better than things not happening at all definitely--it's a great thing--but on the other hand, it is bizarre having to work backwards and supposedly try to prove that I actually do play music, that it wasn't just one song.

"It is a bizarre feeling to find people writing things about me or saying things about me. Like people who talk about my glasses. They'll say things like, 'I can't believe she's still wearing glasses.' Or, 'Why does she have this calculated image?' And it's like, wow, I didn't know when I went into that store on Houston Street to find a pair of glasses I liked, I was calculating my image. I just thought I was going out to buy a pair of glasses to replace the ones that were broken."

Lisa Loeb's pre-"Stay" story is not a particularly special one, no different from the tales told by thousands of other musicians who picked up an acoustic guitar when they were kids and started setting their poetry to music. Her life might be a bit more upscale (schooling at Hockaday and Brown University) and feature a cameo by Ethan Hawke, but it's a rather typical one that just happened to wind up better than most--for now.

Loeb has been writing and performing since her days at Hockaday in the mid-'80s, and when she went off to college, she'd come home for the holidays and book a gig at Chumley's and call to hustle up a mention in the paper to promote the show. Usually, the now-defunct club would be half-filled with old friends from high school, and the occasional passing stranger.

She would also become a regular fixture at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, seen each year walking down the street with her guitar case in hand on her way to the Chicago House, where the other acoustic folkies played. Those who would label her success of the "overnight" variety do not know that Loeb was dogged about achieving at least moderate fame long before "Stay" was released, long before hearing it on the radio conjured images of Lawrence Olivier asking, "Is it safe?"

The success of "Stay" set off the sort of record-label bidding war the industry hadn't experienced in a few years, since the unexpected popularity of Nirvana's Nevermind sent artist-and-repertoire people scurrying for the next grunge-rock poster band. Such labels as RCA, Interscope, EastWest, Atlantic, Columbia, and Madonna's Maverick imprint for Warner Bros. were among those bidding for her services, but by July of 1994, Loeb decided to go with Geffen (which was, incidentally, Nirvana's label).

The album was originally due in April, then rescheduled for July, then pushed back till September 29. Rumors circulated throughout the industry that Geffen had sent it back to Loeb and producer-boyfriend Juan Pati–o for reworking, unhappy with the album's lack of focus and cumbersome mixes; in fact, a story in the tiny but influential New York Observer (no relation to the Dallas Observer) blamed the delays on Pati–o, whom the writer portrayed as a control freak-Svengali with a tight grip over Loeb's work. The story subsequently was rehashed in various entertainment magazines, though Loeb scoffs at the article and refers to it as out of context, "freaky and mean."

She says the reasons for the delays were purely artistic, caused by the difficulties in laying down complex string arrangements or harmony parts. "If it didn't feel right, or if the songs weren't leaning in the right direction," Loeb says, "we'd do what we had to do to make them right."

Tails is neither an unexpected departure from "Stay" nor a carbon copy of her so-called "Purple Tape," an all-acoustic cassette she and Pati–o recorded in the spring of 1992 featuring four songs that reappear on Tails. The new album is somewhere in the middle: once simple and stripped-down songs re-recorded with lush, subtly gigantic arrangements; awkward poetry ("Do you take plight on my tongue like lead?/Do you fall gracefully into bed anymore?") meant to communicate complex adult emotion; soulful singing by a young woman whose voice sounds forever frozen as a little girl's. Even when the songs rock, when the acoustic guitar gives way to the electric on a song like "Garden of Delights," Loeb still sounds...pleasant.

Loeb does not deny the label has certain expectations for Tails; then, how could it not? The video for "It's Over" is already receiving airplay on MTV and VH1 though the album is not in stores yet--something granted only to established artists. Should it fail to produce several Number One songs, should the album fail to ascend the Billboard charts, Geffen most surely will consider Tails, and Loeb, a failure. After all, you don't sign a number-one draft pick and invest thousands upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in that person to watch them fail in public.

"It's a weird pressure, though," Loeb says. "I had pressure while I was recording the album, but it was all internal. It came from me, it came from Juan. That's just the way we are with anything, whether it's with a record deal or anything. That's just the way we've always worked. We've done other projects together, and we have our own expectations of ourselves.

"I never felt any pressure from the record company or even from having a success with 'Stay' because that's not something I can do. I can't make a hit, I can't make a successful record. I can only make a record I did my best on...If the record doesn't sell, that wouldn't be nice, but I can't look at it and say, 'I wish I would have done it differently' because I don't know how I would have done it differently.

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