This week, songwriter/instrumentalist Lisa Germano releases No Elephants, her eleventh album. Lisa's fans will delight in this quirky, original song-cycle that focuses on the subjects that have always held interest for her: connections romantic and spiritual, our interdependence on nature and the environment, apathy versus social justice, et al. And despite a cameo by bassist Sebastian Steinberg and sound collages by producer Jamie Candiloro, No Elephants is one of Germano's most intimate and intensely personal albums ever - which given her proclivity for such introspective, honest music, speaks volumes.
I had a chance to sit down with Lisa and discuss the making of No Elephants, her affiliations with Michael Gira, Neil Finn and Radiohead's Philip Selway, as well as the bittersweet lessons learned during her tenure with rock legend John Mellencamp:
DG: Some would argue that your watershed moment as an artist occurred when you appeared on The Lonesome Jubilee, the seminal 1987 release by John Mellencamp...
LG: I'm not sure if I would agree with that, as it relates to me as an artist. Yes, it was around that time I was playing violin in people's bands, but the folks who are into my songs aren't John Mellencamp fans. I play dual roles, as it were: some folks know me from my work with Mellencamp, Indigo Girls, Simple Minds and the like. But the people who know me and like the music I write are not necessarily part of that pop demographic - they tend to gravitate toward artists like Kate Bush and Radiohead. Playing with John was an amazing experience, I grant you that.
DG: And playing in John's band certainly opened up a wider audience for your music, right?
LG: At that point, it was my only audience - I didn't begin writing my own music until later. I was writing music on the piano and exploring songwriting, but hadn't yet found a vision for what I wanted to say, it was a dream in it's infancy. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of folks like Rickie Lee Jones or Kate Bush - to deliver the kind of emotional impact that their songs had on me. Being a part of John's band got me out of my head, so to speak, and into the real world.
DG: Do you have any particular memories about the recording of Lonesome Jubilee?
LG: It was an interesting process: John would come in with a song idea, and the band would create what the beat should sound like against it, how the bass line should go, and so on. I myself came up with about seven hook lines on that record. To be honest, I should've been paid for those contributions. I recall saying to John after one of the sessions: "Hey, this is exciting - I'm really enjoying this, and I'm writing parts that we're using........am I going to be able to share any writing credits here?" and John getting really upset by that. His response was, "You are so lucky to be here.....if you wanna leave right now, go ahead!" That was what is was like dealing with John, and while I love the guy, fact is had I been paid for what I wrote on "Cherry Bomb", "Check It Out" and others, I wouldn't be a broke woman now. I think it would be awesome if at some point, John was humble enough to finally acknowledge that, and give credit where it's (over)due. But that's life in the big rock world, and in many ways, I am so happy not to be part of that anymore.
DG: As far as I'm concerned, those songs you mentioned (from Jubilee) are among the strongest tunes John ever recorded, due in large part to your instrumental (and apparently compositional) contributions to them, so I can only imagine how frustrating that must be for you.....
LG: I think it's kinda funny now, actually. I work part-time at a Whole Foods market, and the other day during my shift the overhead muzak was playing "Cherry Bomb" - the thought occurred to me that none of my colleagues realize I wrote that hook, much less that it's me playing on it! I gotta chuckle at that............I mean, what a weird world this is!
DG: As a veteran independent artist, I'd love to get your take on the music business today. Any unique challenges or frustrations in terms of audience exposure and promotion? Looking back at your resume, I see you've had stints on a number of labels, from 4AD to Capitol to Thirsty Ear to Young God (home to founder/Swans frontman Michael Gira)....
LG: Certainly the music business has evolved since the days of 4AD in the 90's, and yes I've been on a number of labels in my career. My take on it is: all the labels I've been on have done their best to promote what I do, but my music is definitely an "unusual cup of tea." It takes effort to appreciate my work - it's like delving into a book. Recently, I was watching Pina (Wim Wenders' tribute to modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch) and found myself going back and forth from the movie to the football game that was on - I mean, I was in awe of the absolute beauty of this film, but it took effort to immerse myself fully in it, so I was switching back to the game periodically. And I'm sure that's what it must be like listening to my music - it requires an effort on the part of the listener. What's frustrating these days is getting a recording vehicle together, as it were - now that we have the Internet, it's harder to coordinate all the elements that traditionally went into the selling of your music: single, album, tour, videos, what have you. Right now, there doesn't seem to be a logical progression in terms of that - you can have your album come out online, and even your fan base might not know about it's release date, because the whole music industry machinery is in a state of transition and flux these days. And that goes for all artists, indie and major.
DG: No Elephants is scheduled to come out this Tuesday - give us a little insight into the inspiration and recording of the album.
LG: It takes a considerable amount of time for me to get a record out - the seeds of musical ideas come to me, but I'm not sure what they'll germinate into. I came up with the album title "No Elephants", because I wanted this album to be completely honest - like, there's no elephant in the room, me saying exactly what I wanted to say, whatever that may be. Working at Whole Foods, I find myself tuned-in to issues involving animals and food and our environment - for example, I didn't know until recently what a ruminant was: I didn't realize these animals have four stomachs, that they throw up what they digest, then go on to the next stomach, and I thought to myself "gee....I wish I had four stomachs", because this life is so hard to deal with. So even though the song "Ruminants" is dealing with a serious subject, it's kind of a twisted, funny song in my mind.
DG: I find the folks who work at Whole Foods have to have that environmentally-conscious mindset, which is what makes them desirable as employees.
LG: Well at Whole Foods, we're supposed to be recycling, and I find that I'm the only one actively doing this - no kidding. Here I am, running upstairs to get the stickers so we can put the proper label on the right recycling bin, training the team members who work under me how to sort the recyclable items, and nobody cares. "Apathy and the Devil" was inspired by that - part of you wants to say "F--- it! Nobody cares, why should I bother?" because sometimes it's hard to stand up and go it alone. What I'm saying in that song is that even one person's apathy brings us all down in the end. I began thinking about apathy over recycling, but soon my thoughts turned to "there's no way we're ever gonna change this government, why even try?" I see apathy and the Devil as these two cool dudes, walking down the street saying to people "Man, you're so boring - you care so much.....that's so stupid! Just go along, and do what we do." I wanted to combat apathy in a way that didn't come off as preachy, 'cos nobody pays attention when you take that route.
DG: And on the recording end of things?
LG: Producer Jamie Candiloro (who worked on my last three albums) engineered No Elephants, and he's just awesome. When I work with him, I find myself unafraid to try different things. Usually, when I first begin writing something, my immediate response is, "oh, this is stupid!" My fear is that, if I share these songs with someone to record, they're just gonna laugh at it, or worse, will oblige me and then, after I've left the studio will roll their eyes and say "Jesus Christ, what was that?!" I remember saying to Jamie, "I really want to start on this thing, but I don't know what to do" and his response was, "Just come over (to my studio) and let's try something - what's the harm?" So when we got going with it, things just started to gel - song ideas that I was initially unsure of, Jamie would just add the perfect tape loop or sound effect to, and I found myself liking what we were coming up with. It was a long process of me writing the songs, saving up the money to do the recording, and Jamie putting his touches on it. After several months I had six tracks, and I said "We need to come up with some instrumental pieces to tie the songs together - what should we do?" So we took fragments of guitar, piano and percussion, added found noises and effects, and together built instrumental snippets just worked with the new tunes, which took another year to coalesce. The whole process took about two years to complete before we were satisfied with the results - I'm excited and relieved at the same time.
DG: How did Sebastian Steinberg (late of Soul Coughing) wind up playing on the album?
LG: Sebastian worked on my last three albums as well - I originally connected with him back in 2000, through Neil Finn's 7 Worlds Collide project, which included Johnny Marr (The Smiths), Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, and members of Radiohead. All of us became super friends after working on 7 Worlds Collide - in fact, Johnny and Neil have played on some of my albums. But Sebastian it turns out, is now my downstairs neighbor - he's always been interested in working with me, but up until now I've been like "Ya know - I really don't think I need bass." I gave Sebastian a copy of the album, and it took three weeks for him to get around to it. Three weeks - and he digs what I do! It all goes back to my stuff requiring patient listening. He said to me, "Lisa, I gotta be in the right frame of mind, because your music demands my attention." He ended up adding bass to three tracks. After I recorded "And So On" (the last song I finished writing,) Sebastian stopped by, and heard the playback. The bass part you hear was him just playing along with me, having no preconceived idea of what he or I were going to do. It turned out to be a marvelous improvisation, and the best bass playing I've ever heard him do. It's that kind of freshness and spontaneity that I love, and I am thrilled that Sebastian is a part of No Elephants.
DG: A highlight on the new album is the tune "Diamonds." The first time I heard it, I was awestruck...it's such a haunting, beautiful song; it moved me in a way I haven't felt since listening to Kate Bush or Rickie Lee Jones, curiously enough...
LG: I'm glad you like it - that's such a cool thing to say.
DG: What the heck was going through your mind when you sat down at the piano, and began the process of writing it?
LG: That song probably took the longest to write - there are a number of interesting twists and turns going on, musically-speaking. The inspiration came from a book I read about diamond mining on Africa's Ivory Coast. The competition between rival mining operations is nothing short of appalling - I saw a video where the company owners were rounding up men who were planning to mine for the competition, and literally cutting off their hands as if to say "You wont mine for us? Well, you wont be mining any diamonds, period!" The lyric "Sorrow all around/Put your hands down" was borne of that observation, and that's what the song was about in the beginning. But then I realized it was about much more than that - it comes back to social justice versus apathy...don't just sit there, do something about it! It comes down to appreciating beauty and nature for it's own sake, not just as a "thing" to be exploited to make money. Whether it's turning a cow into meat for hamburgers, or taking the alchemistic creation of a diamond - exploiting workers and raping the land for greed, we gotta be more conscious about what we're doing to this planet. I'm honored that you say "Diamonds" is a beautiful song, that's what I was going for - I didn't want it to be this pity piece about all that's wrong with the world....I really don't view it in that light.
DG: That doesn't detract from the fact there is a social commentary running through it, though.
LG: Seems to me the only thing we really have control of is our consciousness, and it's what we do with that which matters. If I've made a record that is at once socially-conscious and is seen as beautiful and personally meaningful to others listening, then that is something I can truly be proud of.
No Elephants will be released commercially on February 12th. Pre-orders are available through iTunes - click on any of the album's song titles to be redirected to their page. Look forward to my review in the coming week.