Here to Stay
These days, Lisa Loeb is having her cake and eating it, too. Literally. Besides a new album in the spring and a nationwide tour with beau Dweezil Zappa, Loeb is also co-host of a funky television show on the Food Network, Dweezil and Lisa. When I interviewed the pair over a meal at their Boston hotel, however, Loeb's attitude was a bit, er, anti-dessert: Skipping the Boston cream pie she had sampled the night before, Loeb instead nibbled on a sky-high triple-decker lobster sandwich, a mountain of french fries and a spinach salad. She likes a full plate--at Sunday brunch and in her career, whose scope now extends well beyond the acoustic honesty and cat-eye specs that first brought her fame in the early 1990s. The petite poetess has played a television reporter in the 1999 horror film House on Haunted Hill, supplied the voice of Mary Jane for MTV's animated Spider-Man series and recently recorded a children's album, Catch the Moon, with her college friend and songwriting partnerElizabeth Mitchell, singer/guitarist for the New York City band Ida. And now Loeb has Dweezil and Lisa, part culinary school and part vacation slide show. Zappa and Loeb travel around the world visiting restaurants and hobnobbing with friends while professionals teach them (and the viewers) how to cook dishes from fried pickled jalapenos to chicken tikka masala.
"I had a record called Cake and Pie, and to promote the record we invited a chef to do a pie-making demo, like a serious food demo onstage," Loeb explains, casually dressed in a gray-and-white striped shirt and jeans, with a pink-and-white scarf around her neck.
"We did it sort of as a joke," says the bright-orange-clad Zappa. But, he adds, "People ended up enjoying it and asking questions more than we thought they would."
They approached the Food Network--home to cult chef babe Rachael Ray and "Bam!" populist Emeril Lagasse--about continuing the chords 'n' cooking trend on an existing show. The network bettered their proposal, asking them to create their own program.
"A lot of people who watch Food Network are like us," Loeb says. "We travel a lot, we eat at a lot of restaurants, we cook a lot at home." The program, in the end, became something "that emphasized how we were similar to everybody else--as well as how we're different, the fact that we are musicians and we get to travel and tour around and hang out with interesting friends."
The series' sense of normalcy permeates the "Comfort Food" episode, airing March 19. It draws heavily on Dallas for its inspiration, covering Neiman Marcus popovers and El Fenix Tex-Mex, along with the cookie recipes of Loeb's mom and the chess pie at Loeb's alma mater, Hockaday.
"It's weird and cool at the same time to be able to go into these kitchens at restaurants you've eaten at, or the school cafeteria where I ate for 11 years, and actually make the food with the people who have been making the food there," Loeb says. Sometimes, she adds, "like at the school cafeteria, you don't get to be friends with the people who work there, but you see them every day. It's weird how there's boundaries set up between people.
"But we learned with the show you can just ask anybody a question. You can usually go into anyone's kitchen--even places that we hadn't planned on going into. We were able to just ask, and for the most part they would just invite us back and we could learn things."
The duo similarly pushes their own musical boundaries with their current tour. Loeb's intricate compositions get additional oomph with backing by Zappa and a three-piece band. At their recent Boston show, extra squiggles of riffage fleshed out "Do You Sleep?" And an encore version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" built outward, one musician at a time, from Loeb on acoustic guitar into a full-band freak-out.
In between Loeb's selections, Zappa shows off some impressive technical fireworks of his own, courtesy of a blazing instrumental medley of his dad's songs, random snippets of covers--"My Sharona" and "Beat It" appeared this night--and his own work.
"I worked out things on guitar that were never meant to be played on guitar," he says. "Steve Vai, who was in my dad's band, played some of these same parts on records, and Frank credited him as playing stunt guitar, or impossible guitar parts, as they were written for horns and keyboards that have different interval leaps that are easier to accomplish--still not much easier, but on guitar it's definitely a challenge."
"Your father's music doesn't get played out, because it's so complicated, it's hard to play," Loeb says, turning to Zappa. "So for a band to be able to play it is really cool, and then for the son of Frank Zappa to be playing it, that's really cool. It's not an easy thing to do.
"This show is different than any of the shows that we've played together before, because we put a band together," Zappa says. "[But] we've done a lot of things as a duo, so it's not strange for us to mix our two styles of rock. She adds a lot of rock music in anyway, but people never think of her as that for some reason."
Perhaps that's because of the first impression many MTV viewers had of Loeb--her impassioned walk in an empty apartment for the video to the glittering acoustic gem "Stay (I Missed You)," which hit No. 1 in 1994 and helped land her a major-label record deal. Still, subsequent radio airplay for plugged-in songs "Taffy," "I Do" and "Sleep?" cemented an audience that remains fiercely fanatical today; her freshman-year yearbook from Hockaday recently fetched $66 on eBay.
But more important, these tunes preserved her underrated ability to match harder rock and stripped-back folk with literate lyrics, a talent perpetuated by her upcoming full-length, which Loeb reveals is "half acoustic, and half very produced with a band."
"I wanted to try to keep some of it as simple as possible, because that's how I play a lot of shows, just with an acoustic guitar," she explains. "I wanted the record to represent those two sides."
Indeed, Loeb is perfectly at peace with the woman who penned "Stay" ("It still feels current; it still fits in," she says) and with her modern self, with an appetite for both musical creativity and culinary expertise.
"The point isn't for us to show off how much we know about cooking," says Loeb, going back to Dweezil and Lisa. "It's to help ask questions so the viewer can learn things--sometimes, in some cases, that we already knew, but we're still asking questions. We want to make sure people might learn something from the show."
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