It’s been 20 years since the release of Reality Bites, known by some to be the celluloid representation of all things Generation X. Lisa Loeb‘s song, “Stay (I Missed You)” played during the end-credit roll of the movie, and six months after its release it was a No. 1 Billboard single — but she didn’t have a record deal.
Some will only ever know Lisa for “Stay,” even though she’s had other songs and albums chart over the years and her career has been anything but dormant in the time since. You may have watched her starring in reality shows on the Food Network and E!. You’ve likely heard her voice in TV commercials for brands like Bounty paper towels and Stacy’s Pita Chips, and on animated series like Spider-Man (as Mary Jane Watson) and Jake and the Never Land Pirates. If you have kids, you may know her children’s books and records, too. And finally, after endless talk of her cat-eye glasses, she now has her own eyewear line available online and at Costco.
Lisa and I have been close friends for 25 years. During the “Stay” heyday, I got to tour the world with her as a sort of one-person support team, going with her to interviews, media appearances, fan meet-and-greets and whatever else was needed. These days, I create web content and social media campaigns for major brands, and in August, I brought my current skill set along with Lisa and her band Nine Stories for a short Japanese tour.
Lisa has an especially passionate fan base in Japan, where, coincidentally, an acoustic version of “Stay” is at the top of Japan’s iTunes chart, thanks to a character in the popular TV drama Wakamonotachi singing it as a major plot point.
Though the schedule was packed with sound checks and double performances each night, we did squeeze in time for shopping, eating and talking. During her final show in Osaka, Japan, I filmed the part where she takes requests from the audience while alone on stage. This time, she started out differently. “One of my friends is here with us in Japan, my friend Ami,” she told the crowd. “She came with me on my first trip to Japan almost 20 years ago. And on the No Fairy Tale record, I actually wrote a song called ‘Ami, I’m Sorry’ and I’m gonna sing it now.”
People have asked me what the song is about, but I don’t really know and she’s never told me. Lyrics can be mysterious — they aren’t always literally related to someone or something. When the song ended, the audience applauded and then finally she revealed what I should have known all along: “That song is about friendship and being able to lean on each other.”
It’s a musical honorarium of our friendship, the years of working together and supporting each other. That’s what we have, that’s what we do.
Lisa and I see each other all the time, but we rarely take a beat to reflect on the history we share. Long flights across an ocean were the perfect time to look back on how things were 20 years ago, compared to now.
You and I were both living in New York right after college. The short version of how we met is through Ethan Hawke.
I was working at a children’s museum in SoHo then. My coworker’s boyfriend would sometimes come by to pick her up and people would say, “Oh, that’s the actor Ethan Hawke.” I had no idea who he was and I couldn’t do a Google search because there was no Google in 1991! I mean, I saw Dead Poets Society of course, but this long-haired, shaggy-bearded guy looked nothing like the one in the movie. Eventually, he and I met and became collaborators on many projects.
I met Ethan through an actor friend I went to college with. It was strange to meet him after being such a big fan. I remember seeing Dead Poets with my brother one weekend when I visited him at his college. I liked the movie so much, I went back the next day and watched it alone.
We both had a lot of random jobs in the early ’90s. I did data entry for businesses, babysat for twin boys and answered phones at a spa on Christopher Street, where I learned that Shiatsu and reflexology are OK, but not “release.”
My main job was doing very light office temp work. I could type fast enough where I could get good executive assistant jobs. I spent a lot of time hand-delivering memos to each cubicle, because there wasn’t a way to send messages to everybody at once, as we have now with email. I had to wear Anne Taylor suits and make phone calls about things beyond my experience, but they had me do anyway.
I remember going to meet you at your temp job in Midtown with a mockup of postcards for your upcoming shows. You would run them on the company’s copy machine. It was strange seeing you dressed in your work outfit — it was like you were wearing a costume.
It was like a costume. I actually, in a way, didn’t mind temp work, because somebody told you to do a job and then you did it.
At one point, Ethan asked if I would help produce a play he was excited about, Keith Bunin’s adaptation of Pirandello’s A Joke. You and I really became friends during the run of that production. You sat on the corner of the stage playing live guitar during scene changes and act breaks and we all hung out after the show every night.
For [the next play], I learned my lesson and recorded the music.
I don’t think we expected there to be a next play, but Ethan and I sent out a bunch of letters, trying to raise money for his theater company, Malaparte. [The name referred to a type of binding that allowed the reader to rearrange the pages and no matter what, a good story could be told.] One of the first checks came from Robin Williams with such a kind and supportive note. That allowed me to quit my quiver of jobs and just run the company for a chunk of time. We were in a group of creative and talented people who have sustained enviable careers since then.
It’s an interesting place of magical mirrors when you meet somebody you’re a big fan of, but they’re also a peer. Being in a group with other people who are trying to do things and even if you don’t like exactly what they’re doing, you like the spirit of them doing it so wholeheartedly.
How did you start booking shows early on?
It’s strange to remember trying to get gigs. I had a little bit of a leg up because my friend Liz and I had been playing all through college, so I kind of knew the process. We would connect with other musicians to see if they would let us play with them and eventually we started getting our own shows at places like Bitter End, the Lone Star Roadhouse. But yeah, it was a hustle. I was also really tired. The temp-work days, when you wake up at a time that’s so much earlier than you could ever imagine after being up so late playing a show.
In the early ’90s, we would sit on the living room floor of your West Village apartment, labeling and stamping postcards with upcoming show dates, while we watched TV and ate delivery from Benny’s Burritos. There was no other way to get the information out there. It was all paper, paste, post office. And here I am now, uploading videos and photos to your thousands of followers with a few taps of my smartphone. How does it feel to have that kind of access to your fans?
The immediate interaction is great in that I can share something new, like an appearance on TV or tour dates, with my fans — and even my friends and family — right away. But sometimes I’m so busy actually doing the thing I should tweet about, I don’t actually take photos and tweet.
There was a real buzz among our group of actor friends when Ben Stiller and Winona Ryder came to town to meet actors for Reality Bites. I remember reading sides with a friend before her audition for the role Janeane Garofalo played. I don’t think Ethan had to audition, but I believe he did have to “take a meeting” with both of them.
He asked me if I would put “Stay” on a tape for him to submit to Ben.
And as the story goes, he and the producer Stacy Sher were supposed to go to Ireland to meet U2, but they got stuck in NYC and went to see your show at Wetlands. I actually mailed the cassette, which was a mix of our friends’ music, but they chose “Stay.” If I remember correctly, the record label for the soundtrack, RCA, [wanted to use] Juilana Hatfield’s song “Spin the Bottle” as the single. Her video was directed by Ben Stiller and included the cast from the film. But thanks to a radio station in Houston, “Stay” spread like wildfire to stations across the country.
And then I got to make a video. I remember Ethan showing me how he wanted it to work at his apartment — he kind of walked through the blocking for a one-take video.
I was the cat wrangler for the video — she was Ethan’s cat, Mardot, named after a character in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. It was a real challenge for me because even though it looks like you were walking around this huge, empty loft, there was a large crew of people smooshed against the wall. I had to pick up Mardot and carry her across the loft to a window. I didn’t know anything about equipment or lighting — I kept making a shadow as I passed and then they’d have to start over again.
They also shot a version of the video with the band as a backup, but Ethan really, really wanted the one take, even though there was some push back. MTV had never aired a one-take video.
RCA eventually put out a single of your song.
Ron Fair, who was at RCA then, suggested that the parenthetical “(I Missed You)” be added to the title because there was another song called “Stay” out there.
The single had a P.O. box address listed for fan mail and it said something about sending a picture of themselves or their cat, but the way it read, we kept joking that actual cats would be sent. And then one day I went to pick up the mail and there was a kind of mummified dead cat in a box. All the postal workers at the King Street station came to look at it. There was no return address, so it remained a creepy and gross mystery. You never saw it, it was just me and the postal workers freaking out.
Oh god, thankfully no one has done anything that awful ever again.
But yes, part of my job at that point was to check the fan mailbox. It was fun to chat with the postal workers who started to recognize your name and were like, “Yeah! We love that song.” I know you interact with your fans on social media, but do you still receive fan mail by P.O. box?
Yes! I still have a P.O. box address and get snail mail and lots of autograph requests, which are, of course, easier when there’s a [self-addressed stamped envelope] included. I also get to hear from my fans through the different outlets on the web too.
I really like the songs you wrote with Tegan Quin on No Fairy Tale. What are some songs you’ve written you wish were heard by a larger audience?
I’m definitely thankful that people know even one song, but a part of me would love people to know the songs from other albums. I love the album Cake and Pie — “Drops Me Down” is one of my favorites from that. Dweezil Zappa played these sad and beautiful guitar solos all over that album. I really like the two songs I wrote with Randy Scruggs, “Everyday” and “What Am I Supposed to Say.” I love “Hurricane”; the orchestral arrangements on “Falling in Love” and “Furious Rose” are really beautiful and the harmonies and guitar parts on “Snow Day.”
Would you have auditioned for shows like The Voice or American Idol if they had existed then?
If I were in high school at the time, I probably would’ve auditioned. At one point early on, I thought about doing Dancing with the Stars. Deep in my heart, I’m competitive and I love to dance. Plus, it would be really cool to have a second wave of that kind of commercial success, to get my new music out to more people.
You did do the show Number One Single for E! in 2006.
At first I fought the idea of doing it — reality TV was not as pervasive then as it is today. I didn’t want to be naked in a hot tub unless I chose to be naked in a hot tub. But to be someone in their 30s who is a working person, who wants to find somebody special in my life and eventually get married and have kids — I thought this was an interesting story to tell in a way that was different from, say, Sex and the City. I’m a real person, a person with family and friends. I thought I had a lot in common with a lot of people out there. I realized through this opportunity I could fulfill part of what my purpose was in life, which is to share my stories with people.
How has your career changed since “Stay” was released?
I signed my first record deal with Geffen literally while I had a No. 1 single on the Billboard chart. The album I made under that label, Tails, did well. But then Geffen was purchased by Interscope. The thing I had seen all of these other bands go through, I was going through in a big way. Interscope really just wanted hit songs, hit records — which makes sense for a record label, but doesn’t make sense for an artist.
The single from that album, “I Do,” came out of that pushing, though. Right?
I very frustratedly wrote “I Do” and that did become a Top 20 single. It’s just this constant struggle coming up with the next creative idea. Everything is a lot of work and part of the job is to make it look easy.
What are the challenges you face today getting your music out?
Overcoming expectations. Back in the ’90s I could sell hundreds of thousands of records. Of course I would love to sell millions of records, hang out at home and write songs while my kids are napping, but the standard of how many records I can sell is just a lot lower now. In a way it’s really frustrating, but on the other hand I can basically do whatever I want creatively, which is a dream for a musician.
What’s going on with your music now?
I’m not in a touring cycle, but I will tour when it’s a great offer and when it makes sense for my family. I’m playing with the idea of putting out a few songs about every four to six weeks because creatively I’m in a space where I have a lot of different songs that don’t necessarily fit on one album.
Craig Robinson’s spoof of “Stay” in the upcoming movie Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is hilarious, but you’ve had other songs in many movies over the years. Tell the Danny Elfman story.
I was at Sundance in the audience of a panel Stewart Copeland was on about making music for TV and film. I’m such a big fan of his. One of the other people on the panel was Danny Elfman from Oingo Boingo. He was talking about how he hated that some movies have songs clearly chosen for reasons that had nothing to do with what was going on with the story. He pulled this example from out of the sky, this song he heard in the movie Twister. He was referring to a scene where Helen Hunt’s character was taking a shower and there was obviously a random pop song going on in the background. I was sitting there, kind of shaking. I stood up and said, “Actually that was my song ‘How.’ I very carefully wrote, crafted and produced it for the movie. They gave me the script, they gave me the scene where they wanted the song to play, we talked about whose point of view it was from, you could say it was scored for that exact place in the movie.”
It’s so funny, I think of you as someone who would’ve sat quietly and then maybe confronted him privately afterward.
I know, but I had to say something. I agree with him — it bothers me when I’m watching a movie and a song comes up that takes me out of the moment instead of it being more organic. He’s still very apologetic every time I see him. He can’t believe how much that was not a great example of what he was talking about.
What was a song that took you a long time to crack?
“Swept Away” took me forever. Part of it is vaguely autobiographical, about the ups and downs of my career, but I wanted it to feel more dramatic than my own life. At some point, I watched the Joan Rivers documentary [A Piece of Work] and I tried using her as an external inspiration. Here’s somebody you think is so successful, but she was still pounding the pavement. Sometimes it’s easier to go deep inside yourself and sometimes it’s easier if you get it from the outside.
What are some crazy things that have happened over the years?
I got to play with Kool and the Gang in the biggest tiki bar in the world. But really, for me as a professional musician, crazy things are like getting to meet the people who are my idols. Like Betsey Johnson personally hemming my dress for the “Stay” video; meeting the Police, my favorite band ever.
At Jane Marple’s boutique in Japan and that Japanese restaurant in L.A. we went to quite a bit, they play only your music the entire time we’re there. I think it’s a sweet courtesy that seems to be unique to their culture, but is it weird for you?
Yes, I always feel self-conscious about it. I want to tell them that they don’t have to play my music as a soundtrack to my shopping or my eating, but I think it’s out of respect, so I take it as being something flattering and I appreciate it, even though it’s unusual to hear entire albums of my own music while I’m doing something in public.
“Stay” has been in a few TV shows over the years. On Gossip Girl you played yourself performing it for the characters.
That was more like Davy Jones on the Brady Bunch.
Lena Dunham used it in a scene in HBO’s Girls, a show we both really like. But more recently, the song figured into a scene in Orange is the New Black.
I’m a huge fan of Orange is the New Black, so to see the characters sitting around singing my song? It was awesome. I know it might sound strange, but I think it was the first time since the song came out that I felt like a third person in the situation. I’m humbled when people I’m fans of want to use my music. I try to allow myself a pat on the back and say, “Wow I actually made that.”
What do you mean?
You were telling the story about the time you brought a guy you were dating over, but you didn’t say anything other than “your friend, Lisa” and after you left he was like, “Why didn’t you tell me your friend was LISA LOEB?!”
When I tell a guy I’m dating that you’re my friend, they always say, “Oh I had such a crush on her!” — something totally unacceptable to say to me if he was talking about any other friend.
Part of me feels like I’m a working entertainer and sometimes I feel like this anecdote. I’ve always had a streak of negativity. I get the thought going, “Oh, I shouldn’t be doing this, you don’t deserve to have that, nobody cares what you’re doing, why are you doing this?”
But I’ve seen fans lined up down the block, even now, to meet you. You’re always so patient and they love you.
I wouldn’t be here without my fans. I love meeting them and talking with them. At one point in the late ’90s/early 2000s when things were changing so much with my record label and the music industry as a whole, I asked myself if there was some other job I should be doing — something that felt like more of a meaningful contribution. I realized [because of my fans] I could look at my work in another way and see that I was already contributing, that I could really connect with people through my music.
I can’t imagine you not making music — it’s always been there from when we first met.
Here’s the thing: I spend time putting on makeup to look nice on stage because when I don’t put on makeup, I look at pictures of myself and I think, “Those pictures are horrible.” I try to be natural about it, but I’m from Dallas and that doesn’t work for me. So much of the job has nothing to do with writing music or playing music. I love the entrepreneurial, business side of things, but there’s a lot of nonsense and a lot of vanity. At some point I had to sit down [and] find out if I wanted to do something else. It can feel like toil. It’s really hard to write songs when they’re not coming naturally.
Why do you think “Stay” still resonates?
It has a stream-of-consciousness type of writing that takes you through a thread or a journey people connect with. It goes through the motions that people really do go through in relationships, positive and negative. I think about the songs I was listening to when I was a kid and my relationship to them now. I respect people’s connection with “Stay,” even though it might be sentimental. We all have experiences tied to certain songs.
How do you relate to the song now?
It’s funny in a way, for me to be singing a song that’s more than 20 years old. It keeps me pulled to the past, but it feels so current when I play it live. I’m proud of the song; it still gives me lots of opportunities. I’m sure every artist goes through phases where they think, “Why can’t they know me for my new music?” I sometimes have to go through psychological gymnastics about it, but I understand, that’s just how music works. Having a handful of successful songs doesn’t take away from what I’m doing now.
You have such a healthy ego about it.
I have a song that enables me to travel around the world, so I appreciate it. Again, I’d love to have 20 hit songs to play for people, but I do the best with what I have.
Photos courtesy of Ami Armstrong