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Its Friday evening at the Upstage; a new Philadelphia venue built in a beautiful
old bank building that has been used as a Goth nightclub for the last several years. Lloyd
Cole, the Scottish cult-singer who turned some heads with his 80s band the Commotions, is
unpacking for a soundcheck with his newest band, the Negatives. His guitarist carries her
beat-up guitar case into the club.
She looks familiar, especially if you had MTV in the mid-1990s. It is Jill Sobule, who
has recorded four critically acclaimed albums. She even had a fluke smash hit with the
1995 tune "I Kissed A Girl." Sobule has also skirted pop radio airplay with the
funny romp "Supermodel" from the soundtrack to the film Clueless and with
the beautiful, jazzy early single "Too Cool To Fall In Love."
In ten years, Jill Sobule has released four terrific albums
on three different
labels. Hot on the heels of listening to Sobules new career anthology I Never
Learned To Swim (1990-2000) one has to sit back and think why? Why isnt Jill
Sobule huge? In a world where Puff Daddy (or P. Diddy or whatever it is this week) and
Limp Bizkit can move millions of albums, isnt there a place in the world for a
singer who is smart and insightful and funny?
Sobule looks at her stint with friend Coles band as a grounding experience. She
joined the band soon after she left Atlantic Records in the late 90s and was feeling
disillusioned with the music biz. Sobule wanted to remember the feeling of being part of
band, driving from gig to gig, where the tour bus is a van, staying in seedy hotels and
looking for the local liquor stores in a new city in case she wants a glass of wine after
the show. She also contributed to the bands 2001 release The Negatives. In
the meantime, Sobule has continued recording her own music, releasing Pink Pearl in
2000 and doing some new songs for the career retrospective. It is just like the early days
in her hometown of Denver.
In Denver, Sobule was a guitarist and songwriter who never even considered singing her
own songs. Sobule never tested her voice until she was in her 20s and travelling in Spain.
"I didnt really sing until my third year in college. I did one of those
year-abroad programs and I busked on the streets. It was the first time I ever sang my
songs, because I thought Ill never see these people again. So when I was little I
didnt think Id be doing this."
A publisher from Nashville heard of Sobule and this led to her signing with MCA Records
to record her debut album. She was hooked up with notoriously prickly perfectionist Todd
Rundgren as the record's producer. Sobule knew she was out of her element the first day
that she worked with Rundgren. He invited her to his annual Labor Day party, where a bunch
of people sat around doing drugs while watching Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy
Telethon. Sobule sat on a loveseat with Rundgrens father, the only two people not
partaking of the coke or the has-been lounge singers.
"It was my first (experience) ever in a studio, so I had a hard time," Sobule
admits now. "I think working with Todd was probably a wrong choice for my first time,
even though I can work with him now. I love Todd. But, he doesnt necessarily
You have to get to know him and I was so scared and he doesnt have the best social
graces. After a while I started enjoying it. But it took a while."
The debut album Things Here Are Different didnt make much of a splash when
it was released in 1990, although the sultry jazz ballad "Too Cool To Fall In
Love" did garner some airplay. Similar in sound to then-popular jazz-based artists
like Basia, Swing Out Sister and Sade, "Too Cool To Fall In Love" was also
pretty much unlike anything she has done since. But that comes from an immense diversity
that has Sobules music drawing from all sorts of influences like pop, rock, country,
folk, R&B and jazz. Sadly "Too Cool To Fall In Love" was the last song cut
off of I Never Learned To Swim, with Sobule explaining "it was between that
and Pilar. We werent sure. Because it really wasnt a greatest hits
Sobule recorded a second album for MCA that was produced by Joe Jackson. It was quite a
coup because the iconoclastic Jackson rarely produces other artists' work. But MCA dropped
her from the label before the follow-up was released, so that work never saw the light of
day. This led to a few years of hard times, floating from Denver to New York, taking any
job she could. "I waited tables," Sobule recalls. "Worked for a wedding
photographer. (I got back in because) I had friends who had a studio and they gave me
time, because I was dirt poor."
The low point was when she was working as a waitress in New York. "At one bar
Sandra Bernhard and Madonna came in and did not tip me. I wasnt a good waitress, but
Thats always bothered me." Sobule also worked at the famous
department store Barneys. All the while she was stockpiling songs. Finally she was
signed to Atlantic Records and her second released album Jill Sobule came out in
So, perhaps it is kind of funny, at the very least ironic, that when Sobule finally got
her big hit
her "K-Tel moment of glory" as she puts it
it was a bit
of a joke. "I Kissed A Girl" is an extremely funny story song about a pair of
suburban women experimenting with bisexuality. Between the witty lyrics, a kitschy music
video (featuring Fabio!) and a bouncy folkish tune (which was rather similar to Sheryl
Crows debut single "Leaving Las Vegas," which was released at the same
time), "I Kissed A Girl" became a left-field smash in 1995.
"I Kissed A Girl" was sometimes written off as a bit of a fluke novelty tune,
just a precursor of "lesbian chic." Sobule never bought into that, she was just
writing a song. She doesnt even like the lesbian artist designation. Sobule will
only say that she has had relations with both men and women. Any more is none of our
business. Still, she admits she was amazed the song took off as it did. "In fact,
that would probably be the last song that I wrote
that Id think would be a
hit," Sobule laughs.
That song was followed quickly by the quirky single "Supermodel" which came
from the soundtrack to the popular Alicia Silverstone comedy Clueless. But
after that sales for Sobules album slowed down. Its too bad; Jill Sobule
was a brilliant album. It also featured "Karen By Night," a story song about a
conservative woman who has a double-life where she goes to leather bars after work. It was
loosely based on her boss from Barneys. "Oh yeah, everyone likes
Karen," Sobule agrees. "A lot of people feel it was a mistake for
the label not to put that out as a single. I think each album sort of represents the year
before the record
Sobule then went into the studio and recorded what quite possibly was her best album, Happy
Town. But the writing was already on the wall for Sobule at Atlantic Records. They did
release the album, but gave it little or no support. By the time it was coming out, Sobule
knew it was probably her last for the label.
Strangely, the first single could have been huge. "Bitter" was sort of a
dance music diatribe about the music business. In it, Sobule wondered why she was a
struggling while there are other singers who "made it because her breasts were really
big." But the tone of the song was a bit bemused with good-hearted resignation, as
shown in the chorus, "I dont want to get bitter, I dont want to turn
cruel, I dont want to turn old before I have to. I dont want to get jaded,
petrified and weighted, I dont want to get bitter like you."
That song came from Sobules realization that there was nothing she can do about
how the world works. She can only do the best work she can and not worry about whether
people who may not have as much to say are doing better on the Billboard charts.
"I think I did (feel resentful). Not so much anymore. Yeah, you can go, oh,
that person stunk so much. But its wasting a lot of energy. It does no
After she was cut loose by Atlantic, Sobule hooked up old friend Cole. She needed a
break from the music business treadmill and decided to take a gig on his latest band. But
the call of the music was too strong; she was soon signed up again by Beyond Records. In
2000 she released her fourth solo album Pink Pearl. Still, she kept her job with
the Negatives, enjoying the freedom both positions gave her. Also, while she was touring
with the Negatives, Sobule could play her own music as the opening act.
This led to the 2001 anthology I Never Learned To Swim. This release included
some new songs, including a remake of the Fifth Dimensions "Stoned Soul
Picnic" (which had actually been recorded as part of a Laura Nyro tribute album).
"Talk about tunes," Sobule says enthusiastically. "(When I was young) I
while I was supposed to be listening to the Clash and the Sex Pistols like
my friends, I had my mothers Laura Nyro and Fifth Dimension records."
Another great new tune from the album is the story song "Big Shoes," an
amazing pop tune that sprung from the personal hurt about being teased in school. But the
shimmering tune has a way of soothing the insecurity of the lyrics.
"I think its probably indicative of the way I deal with my life,"
Sobule laughs. "You take a depressing issue, and the only way you can deal with
you can slice your wrists or you can kind of laugh at the tragedy of it. So it
becomes a little more theater of the absurd. I cant be too maudlin. Sometimes I
think its more effective to deal with an issue where youre not pounding
someone over the head with a depressing minor chord melody. Sometimes I like to switch
them around. It makes it a little sicker."
Sobule stands up to go. It is time for the Negatives to do their soundcheck. Its
all part of the job of being a traveling musician. As she steps up on the stage, you have
to think that she may not be as big as Britney, but thank goodness there are artists like
Jill Sobule out there. Jill Sobule has nothing to be bitter about.