Jill Sobule – Kissing the unfabulous sides of fame
“I’m not good at multi-tasking,” Jill Sobule insists. “I’m like, one thing at a time. I’m just not used to it! I’ve got to get my organizational skills down better, that’s what it is.”
Despite her contention, Sobule is more than a little adept at keeping numerous balls in the air, judging by her activity over the past year or so. She’s been in the off-Broadway play Prozac And Platypus (“off-off-off-off-Broadway!” she clarifies), had a starring role in the upcoming film Mind The Gap (“I play a struggling singer-songwriter — that’s a stretch! I could method act that one”), scored the new Nickelodeon kids show Unfabulous (“I had no clue how much work that would be, especially since I have no idea what I’m doing”), maintained a website, and performed “little concerts here and there,” including a spot on last year’s Tell Us The Truth Tour, which also featured Steve Earle and Billy Bragg.
Meanwhile, on the home front, a flood in her Brooklyn apartment has “kind of put a wrench in the works” right before she leaves town for Los Angeles and more work on Unfabulous.
And, oh yes, there’s a new album to promote — Underdog Victorious (released in early September on Artemis). The record is a smartly-tailored collection of songs that encompasses tongue-in-cheek pop, sobering political commentary and unabashed crooning ( “Tender Love” sounds straight out of a ’40s musical).
Underdog Victorious is Sobule’s first disc of new material in four years. “It doesn’t seem that long, but it has been,” she affirms. “I think part of it was because no one would put out my record! I probably have a couple other records in me, so I hope next time I can do one much sooner.”
Sobule first came to national attention in 1995 when the cheeky “I Kissed A Girl” garnered radio play and the expected smattering of controversy. But it didn’t lead to bigger things. “I think what happened was that the label [Lava, an Atlantic subsidiary] didn’t know what to do with me after ‘Kissed A Girl,'” she says. “‘Cause here was this novelty thing, and they didn’t know what to think of it, and they didn’t know what to put out after that. And then my next record, Happy Town, was really strange, it was a darker record. And that’s when I got dropped.”
Prior to Lava, Sobule had been with MCA; then her next label, Beyond (which released 2000’s Pink Pearl), went bankrupt. Frustrating, yes. “But I’m not special and alone in this,” Sobule acknowledges. “Everyone gets fucked over these days. So who knows; all you can do is think, well, I hope this label stays….I feel really optimistic about it, but I’ll just keep putting out records, whoever puts them out.”
There’s something of that hopefulness on her new album, with its collection of characters trying to make the best out of bad situations — such as the protagonist of “Tel Aviv”, stuck working in a brothel. More uplifting is the tale of the wannabe rocker in the title track, whose dreams explode in a rush of soaring music in the chorus. “That is the more optimistic title,” Sobule agrees. “And it’s that thing that you hope is true, that the jock and prom queen turn out to be the real losers in the end.
“But the album definitely has its dark side. Even the happier songs, even the most happy of them all, like ‘Cinnamon Park’ [a sprightly pop tune that draws heavily on Chicago’s ‘Saturday In The Park’]. At the very end of the song it’s like, wow, that was then, now this person’s in rehab, this person’s still a bum with a van….It’s contradiction always. I think I’ve always used that thing where you’ve got a really sweet melody, but something really sad underneath it.”
The opening track, “Freshman”, captures something of that pull of opposites, with a pretty tune and an underlying theme that, if not quite sad, is decidedly bittersweet. In the song, Sobule reflects on a life where economic realities still necessitate having a roommate — a situation based in her reality.
“Yes, I do have a roommate!” she says. “What happened was, I had a breakup and I ended up staying with a friend until I got my own place. And I just never did. I’m still with the roommate from the song. But I’m a pretty damn good roommate, because I’m never here. And we have the same body and the same shoe size, and she’s also a musician. So she uses all my equipment and wears my clothes. We actually get along very well; I did a video yesterday and I go, ‘Can I wear your boots?’
“But it’s true, people think if you’ve had a hit on the radio or something, you live pretty high on the hog. And that’s not so true. Syd Straw was telling me, ‘I think I have to change what my idea of success is, living in New York City…it’s having your own washer/dryer!’ And that just says it all to me.”
There’s also a possible successor to “I Kissed A Girl” in “I Saw A Cop”, an upbeat, country-flavored rocker about an ambiguous run-in with a lady of the law: “I saw a cop, and she pulled me over/And now I think I’m really over you.”
“And that’s how we leave it!” says Sobule. “That’s it! Maybe next album I’ll do ‘I Saw A Cop 2′. I can’t believe that actually made the record, ’cause I wrote it that day we were in the studio, just off the top of my head. I wasn’t even writing down lyrics, I’m making up this stupid thing, and my producers are going, ‘That’s great! Let’s record it now!’ ‘No! It’s not a song!’ ‘Yes! Do it!’
“So we did it and we were laughing the entire time, it was so much fun. It was just an excuse to namedrop Angie Dickinson [“She looked like Angie Dickinson/Except her hair was black and in a braid”] and the aviator glasses she was wearing — kind of like the female CHiPs! Wouldn’t it make a great video? But we need to get someone famous to play the cop. Let me think about that one. Teresa Heinz Kerry! That’d be awesome! There’s something kind of old-time sexy about her; she’s got that Marlene thing going.”
Of a more serious nature is “Under The Disco Ball” (“Country tempoed and not discoed at all,” she points out). It’s a short, sharp, minute-and-a-half attack on “the crazy Christian right wing who feel the gay agenda is destroying America,” she explains.
In a year when entertainers have been increasingly criticized for expressing their opinions, Sobule has no hesitation in taking a stand. “Before an election, if people feel strongly about something, they should be able to say it,” she says. “I’ve been a political artist for a while, so people that come to see me know that’s what they’re going to get. I put out my political songs, and I talk, and I do it a humorous way.
“But then last month, I did some shows opening up for Don Henley and I didn’t transition my show. And so I got Dixie Chicked, I got booed! Maybe ’cause the T-shirt I had on said, ‘My Bush Would Make A Better President’ — and it was in Florida, what was I thinking? It’s interesting because when you live on the coast, when you live in the ‘Blue States,’ you forget that other people don’t necessarily think like you. I was taken aback that people were offended, ’cause I thought, ‘Well, of course, they think like us!’
“But it depends. You don’t want someone in Cats to get up and talk about their political views, but if you’re a songwriter, an artist, of course you have every right to. And people have every right to clap or get pissed off too.”
A number of songs from Underdog also appear in Mind The Gap; Sobule’s apartment was even used during the shoot. “The best thing about the movie was when they said, ‘We’ve got to get a location for where you live as the struggling singer-songwriter,'” she jokes. “And I’m like, ‘Come on, use my place!’ So they spent three days here. I got $500 a day! Forget the acting, I’m just going to have them use this place for location shooting!”
Her work scoring Unfabulous and writing the music for Prozac And Platypus gave Sobule other opportunities to “expand my horizons,” as she puts it. “When they said ‘scoring,’ I was like, ‘Scoring sounds fun!’ Like scoring pot or something!” she says. “Now it feels like going to school, I’m just learning all this stuff. But Unfabulous is cool, because they want to try to make it the anti-Lizzie McGuire. So I pretend I’m writing, like, junior high school girls doing the Ramones, And there’s some scenes where there’s incidental music, in a bar, and I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to write a song that sounds like really bad Creed,’ and it’s so much fun! It’s something I would never write seriously.”
Prozac And Platypus sounds equally intriguing. “That is one wrist-slicing play!” she laughs. “It was about a daughter, and her father’s a scientist, they go to Australia, he studies the patterns of the platypus….It’s just about her relationship with her dad, and the mom that committed suicide, and she talks to this platypus, and it’s pretty trippy.
“And the music, again, it was from an angry teenage girl, but I got to do some beautiful music too. I liked it, because I could just do whatever I wanted ’cause it’s a weird play. It might have a life again. And it was really fun to just be in the audience and see other people performing the music. I was a mini-Stephen Sondheim! I was going to say Andrew Lloyd Webber, but that’s gross.”
Between all these ventures, “I don’t really make a very good living, but I’m not waiting tables,” Sobule concludes cheerfully. “I was talking to a friend of a friend, he was in A&R in the ’70s in England, and he was saying that back then, you would keep working a band after three or four records until you broke them. That would be unheard of today. Today on the majors, selling 200,000 copies of an album, that’s a failure. It’s really terrible. But hopefully I can continue to put out records without the pressure of having to have a Top 40 hit.
“I mean, I look at the careers of people who are my heroes, like Rickie Lee Jones, she’ll just put out records; if she wants to do an electronica record, she’ll put that out, then she’ll go and do a solo record. Or Tom Waits. So I’m not banking on Top 40 radio playing me. I just feel fortunate that if you’ve got a fan base, even a small fan base like mine, with each album it continues to grow.”