Back in May, when the Austin City Limits music festival announced its 2018 lineup, Paul McCartney and Metallica were at the top of the bill. Dallas native Lisa Loeb’s name appeared in small print toward the very bottom. Almost immediately, a fan popped up a Facebook event titled “Give Lisa Loeb The Crowd She Deserves.” The invite read: “Lisa Loeb is a national treasure. Stay (I Missed You) is one of, if not the most iconic song of the 90’s…WHAT DID LISA DO TO DESERVE THIS! Oh, was she too legendary? Too iconic?”
In truth, there wasn’t a conspiracy. Performers on the festival’s kids’ stage—Austin Kiddie Limits—are always listed last on the lineup, and Loeb’s ACL appearance was indeed for the children. In January, she won her first Grammy for her latest children’s album, Feel What U Feel. For Loeb, kids’ music is is a supplemental offshoot that, not unlike her acting and voiceover work, serves as another way to sustain a career in a very different music business than the one she started in.
With 1994’s “Stay (I Missed You),” Loeb became the first pop musician to have a Billboard No. 1 single while not signed to a recording contract. For almost a quarter century since, she’s been instantly recognizable (the glasses!) and busy; along with her regular recording and touring career, there have been five children’s albums and two illustrated children’s books with music. Inspired by her time as a child at Camp Champions in Marble Falls, she started The Camp Lisa Foundation, which sends underserved kids to summer camp.
Our sprawling conversation with Lisa Loeb—covering everything from eyewear to hope in divided times—was recorded Monday morning in our Austin studio, a day after her ACL appearance and the day of a proper show for adults at Austin’s Scoot Inn.
On Her Approach to Children’s Music: I don’t try to have a lot of humor in my grown-up records. I try to stay away from it. But I’ve learned from making kids’ records that it’s all about storytelling and doing things in a way that people can understand what you’re saying. And as I’ve gone along, and have kids myself also, I realized that sometimes it’s good to focus on what types of songs, what kind of messages, you want to bring to the kids. Not in a hit-you-over-the-head kind of way. But when I read a good kid story, there’s some kind of message or moral I get from it, and I want to try to do that with some of the kids’ music as well … there’s a lot of storytelling, and I hope it will inspire kids and parents to treat each other with respect and to treat people in their community with respect, especially nowadays with what’s going on in the world.
On Winning a Grammy: When you win a Grammy, people are more aware of what you’re doing. It’s really nice for people to know there’s this music being made out there that you can hear and you might enjoy, and some of it is mine. That’s really exciting for me to be recognized by my peers. You know, a lot of us are out there. I’ve been doing this for so many years, and you can kind of get this glazed-over look sometimes. People will ask, “What are you working on?” And you tell them. And sometimes I feel like those people are just hearing, “blah blah blah.” It’s almost like it doesn’t exist unless they really see it out there on TV or in a magazine. But a Grammy is the kind of thing that says, “Yes, you actually made a record.”
On Having a Huge Hit When the Music Industry Was More Streamlined and Powerful: “Stay” was a big hit, and I had a couple of other hits that were lesser but still very present in the world. [“Stay”] is a gateway song, it’s part of people, they couldn’t help it. It was always on the radio. It was a little strange to be in the same world as artists I wouldn’t consider myself peers with at the time, like Mariah Carey and R. Kelly, but little by little, peers of mine were on the radio, too, like Duncan Sheik and Shawn Colvin—singer-songwriters who had pop songs. But I really appreciate having a song like that. I personally know and have seen other musicians who have had hits that kind of are angry at those hits because those are the songs that people really know … It’s funny, sometimes I go out and play concerts and people tell me they’re the hugest fan and then say, “So what have you been doing over the last twenty years?” And I say, “I’ve been putting out a record almost every other year, among other things.” So that can be frustrating. But luckily, by watching Behind the Music or hearing stories from other popular musicians, I’ve definitely been able to look at the positive side of having such a big hit. It’s pretty amazing. And these are all really nice humans coming up to me to tell me their story or to come to my show. Even just to hear that one song. I understand that, because I have that relationship with other musicians [who have just] one song that might’ve meant a lot to me.
On Growing Up in Dallas: Dallas was a great place in the eighties to be alternative because Dallas was very conservative—and it still is pretty conservative. But it was the Reagan era. So my friends and I thought we were really alternative. We dressed alternatively when we weren’t wearing our school uniforms, we listened to alternative music. We went to go see art films. There was something to fight against and we had alternative thinking and beliefs. We cared about the people. So I think that was a great thing, to have something to fight against. As an artist that’s always very inspirational. And because it was Dallas, there were [only] certain stores you could go to to buy alternative clothes and records and go see bands. You found your like-minded people and it was sort of a niche group.
On the Glasses: Talking about glasses used to make me so crazy. I’m thinking, “Why aren’t we talking about my chord changes and the music?” But there are things that you kind of hook onto and even musicians that I love, like Elton John, Billy Gibbons, or Elvis Costello—glasses, clothes, hair, costumes, whatever. I still love what they do, but it’s fun to recognize them and say, “Oh, there’s Billy Gibbons. He’s the guy with the beard and the beanie.” And so I appreciate it more now and I don’t take offense. I get it.
What She Learned Starring in the 2006 E! reality show #1 Single: The thing with reality and celebrity is there could be people completely unqualified for whatever job they’re doing, and through TV and the magic of film and other people possibly writing what you’re saying and editing together what you’re saying or doing, people can seem any way they want. People can seem smart. People can seem in charge. People could seem like they’re great singers when it’s completely manufactured in a studio. It’s scary how that can go to the top ranks of our country.