Jill Sobule: "There was a time I had this gig opening up for Don Henley"

Jill Sobule on Joni Mitchell, getting past singer-songwriter niches and that time opening for the Eagles frontman

Published June 28, 2014 8:30PM (EDT)

Jill Sobule (jillsobule.com)
Jill Sobule (jillsobule.com)

Jill Sobule’s new album, "Dottie’s Charms" (Pinko Records, and see the special Harper’s magazine launch here), is a song cycle based on an antique charm bracelet given to the singer by a friend some years ago.

Sobule, who is now into the third decade of her career, which has been noted for its pop success (“Supermodel,” etc.) and its exceedingly clever, beautiful, lasting and memorable songcraft (everything she’s done in the last 10 years, especially), is very recently an adept at process-oriented or conceptual projects, in which the struggle is the material. In this case, the charms on the charm bracelet are the subject of the album, with the words being realized by a number of prose writers (myself included), each of whom selected a charm and created the themes and stories for Sobule’s settings.

For an artist noted for wistful and funny words, this is an odd concept, a playing against type, but as you can tell, when you meet the artist, Sobule loves a challenge, and is most interested, perhaps, when she’s a bit off-balance. Thus Dottie, the protagonist, a woman who ostensibly made the charm bracelet, before it arrived in Sobule’s possession, and a life story told in discrete and free-standing chapters. The result is an album of truly adult music, subtle, big-hearted, funny, which ranges across styles, and which is more about mood than style: the mood of bittersweet discovery. You would have to head for Van Dyke Parks or Randy Newman to find another album quite as ambitious in such a sophisticated, ecstatic way.

This interview was conducted in Washington Square Park on the day of Sobule’s record release party (April 28) at Housing Works on Crosby Street, and like the show that followed, it was noteworthy for Sobule’s down-to-earth qualities, and complete lack of pretension. She’s a consummately engaged musician, but you wouldn’t know it, because she’s so unprepossessing (I had to cut the portions of the interview where she insisted on asking me questions instead of answering the ones put to her), and a great and warm performer.

The music business selects for the instant phenomena, and is especially unforgiving of women in their second or third decades of productivity; Sobule knows this, but is no complainer. On the contrary, she is upbeat, funny, excitable and always on the lookout for the next idea. This is the artist who made "Dottie’s Charms" what it is, a sly tragicomedy that is one of the most accomplished suites of songwriting so far this year.

Who is Dottie to you now?

Dottie. There’s something really kind of sad sack about Dottie. She was always getting dumped. I think of her as someone who was always collecting these charms. She started as a teen. Maybe she was a smart girl, not brilliant, nice looking, maybe not the prettiest. Dottie had a lot of heart. That’s how I think of Dottie.

Has a composite view of her come into view? Now that you’ve been playing these songs?

City Winery, last week, was the first time I actually played these songs. But I’ve been living with them, and, like I said, from the song I wrote about Dottie, I feel close to her but my picture of her is no different from anyone else’s.

Can you explain why when you’re a very gifted lyricist, it felt important to sort of let go of that piece and undertake instead the concept?

I’d say a fourth of it was complete slackerdom, you know, I’m going to have someone else write these. But if I’m going to do it, I’m going to give people who can write. I want to know what their story is, what they would do with it. So part of it was slackerdom, part of it was curiosity, part of it was being bored with myself and my own writing.

When you say you’re tired of yourself is it like, “I want to let go of the singer-songwriter thing”?

I think I’m different from a lot of singer-songwriters because some of my favorite singer-songwriters told stories. Like John Prine.  “Sam Stone”? Know that one? “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm/where all the money goes.” I always did go against the singer-songwriter form. I think I’ve always had a lot of storytelling songs. Lately I’ve been into character studies. I’ve been writing on a couple musicals. Even though you put yourself into the lyrics, there was the other thing of wanting to focus on the music. When I write songs, I like to write lyrics first and I think that’s different from a lot of singer-songwriters. But I heard Sammy Cahn was asked what comes first, the lyrics or the music, and he said, “the paycheck.” (Laughter) He was a curmudgeon. If you got a musical riff, that’s cool, but what do I write about? Sometimes songwriting is like a puzzle. And this one was even more of a challenge because it wasn’t my lyrics. There was tricky meter, there wasn’t a chorus in some of them. So it was a challenge.

I like getting away from a singer-songwriter thing, but also getting away from the idea of I’m going to put a record out, I’ll have a video play on what used to be VH1. There was a certain freedom in using other people’s songs but also a freedom in a concept album? There’s a certain freedom in this that it wasn’t my lyric. But I also wasn’t going after a certain sound or trying to make the album marketable to a certain audience. Does that make sense?

Everyone that I’ve interviewed this year, I keep asking about the 40th anniversary of "Court and Spark." Was that a singer-songwriter album for you?

Was it huge for you?

I was 13 when it came out. I was also listening to like, "Dark Side of the Moon" and "Made in Japan" by Deep Purple, but then to hear “Help me, I think I’m falling in love with you …” and not being able to figure out where it came from, and how weird the slippery modal melodies are, and how crazy the arrangements are, how incredibly virtuosic the playing is. I had nothing to judge it against —

But you did have “My Woman From Tokyo.”

But "Court and Spark" is maybe the end of a certain idea about what a woman singer-songwriter is supposed to sound like. Like, once Joni Mitchell can do that, there isn’t such a thing as shrinking-violet woman singer-songwriter ... She was in charge of her destiny and so totally ambitious and self-created, and the genres fell away from her.

When anyone tries to be like her, it always ends up vanilla and lame, don’t you think? When there’s that --

Except for John Kelly, the guy who used to do drag impersonations of her.

I’ve never covered a song by her, I would refuse to. It’s like doing a Beatles song. But John Doe he does a version of “A Case of You” that will make you get on your knees and weep. But "Court and Spark"? I was with her on all these adult feelings.

Maybe the larger point is that the singer-songwriter thing can’t be done in the way it was done in 1972. You can’t be Jackson Browne now, you can’t be Joni Mitchell. So I see "Dottie’s Charms" in that context: as a decision to retreat from some kind of confessional Jill Sobule album.  

In the last couple of years, I’m not as interested. I’d rather go to a movie or do something else.

When you have all these different lyricists on "Dottie’s Charms," does it stand to reason that you’re going to have a great variety of musical idioms on the album?

Yes and no. For instance, with Sam Lipsyte’s lyric, he was probably thinking in that country and cestern way, and I was kind of thinking of a Marty Robbins or something. But I was going to put it into cowboy mode. I mean what was hard about your lyric (“Lonely Eighty-Eight”), the piano lyric, I was thinking, musically, do I want it to not have piano? And then I decided, yeah, I’m going to have piano. And I don’t play piano so I’ll get a world-famous piano player to play it. Let me see ... Well, Vendela Vida’s lyric had a lot of words. And there wasn’t much meter. So I thought I wanted it to be active, so no matter who did it I wanted it to be active, you know?  Her particular thing came out so wordy. But I felt like I didn’t want to chop it up or figure out how to get it in a correct meter, so I thought, I’m just going to have to talk the verses. Each one was fun, this was really fun to do. There were times when I was frustrated, when I was like: I’m going to have my friends help me on this.

Did you sit with the guitar in your hand? How do you write music these days?

Sometimes if you’re on the piano, and you’re going to write a song it’s like, ugh. I’m bored with myself. I’m going for the same chords, the same rhythm, the same shit.

This is why, sometimes, I try to sing the song instead of playing it.

That’s a really good idea. Or, you say you’re not a really good guitar player. I bought an upright bass about two years ago. It’s mostly still furniture. But my idea was that I was going to take lessons. (I haven’t yet, but I’m going to.) I like to play the open strings. So, for instance, Sara Marcus’ song, “O Canada,” the Canadian penny charm, I’m going to just take my iPhone recorder, and I’m just going to play something on the bass, which is an instrument I’m completely incompetent on. I haven’t learned anything new on guitar since high school. And I think it’s time to learn something. When you first started playing, you played cover tunes?

Oh yeah.

But as an adult, later on, you don’t learn covers. I’m wanting to learn. Every other day I want to learn a new song. Go on YouTube. I think there’s something to it. I really think there’s something to it.

Do you remember that song from the '70s, “Rock On” by David Essex?

Of course!

It was well into my time of playing music before I realized that that song is rhythmically fucked up. Like if you listen to the shift from the verses to the chorus, there’s like an extra measure … "And where do we go from here …” so there’s an extra measure there. And I didn’t even really know until I tried to play it at one point how slippery that song is. And it turns out that he was a walk-around, singing, whistling-to-himself songwriter. So he wasn’t think about whether he had an additional measure. He was just singing.

Now that is a really good thing. Walking around whistling, banging on your desk. Getting a new instrument, even playing someone else’s guitar or a nylon string. Do you play with other tunings?

Yes, sometimes. That’s the thing I’ve been trying to learn from Joni Mitchell.

Did you ever see her live?


You know when you put your top three shows together? I’m from Denver. The Shadows and Light tour at Red Rocks. Every song a guy would come out with different tuning guitars. So what tunings?

I’ve tried, as they say, DADGAD.

Is that the Stones tuning too?

Well, he likes that top string tuned down, right? Definitely drop D is great. We’re like on such a guitar geek moment right now.

I got a guitar recently to just be in different tunings. Otherwise I’m too lazy to have to be retuning it. Or I forget what tuning it is. It gets frustrating. But a couple months ago there was an Elliott Smith tribute at Largo and they asked me if I’d play a song. So which one did I do, the song called “Clementine,” and I listened to it and I thought I don’t know what the fuck this tuning is. I can’t even know where to begin so I went online. I have a lot of music geek friends on Facebook so I asked people and there were fights.

About the tuning?

Yes. It was total geek war. No, it was this tuning! And then there was one we all agreed was it. And then I think I had a friend, I’m embarrassed to say this because even though I got the tuning, I had a friend, we Skyped, he said, OK Jill, let me show you. I’ve got it written down but it is beautiful.

How did you think about trying to get "Dottie’s Charms" to sound like it’s a record rather than just this conceptual group of songs?

What was hard was because I had no money. So it was a lot of friends’ studios and friends helping me out.

Did you do it all in L.A.?

I did do it all in Los Angeles but at different friends’ places. A guy named Mike Viola, very talented. My friend Dave Way’s studio, we have our side band with him called PJORK. We just do 20-second dirty songs. We’ve never had a gig. It’s our goofy band. Anyway, it was mixed in different places and then I took it to this one guy Husky (?) and that’s where it felt like a whole record. Your song is the only one that was done in New York. Because Fred Hersch was here. We did it live. We didn’t even splice anything in, and boom, there it is. There’s a joy. There’s a real joy in that.

No click track?

I would say all of these songs ... no click. Maybe one.

I have this theory that the reason why I can’t listen to most contemporary music is that I am so bored by the sound of the click track, the leaden predictability of those rhythms. I always feel like I can hear the click track.

When I get down my records, like "Court and Spark" on vinyl, you listen to these things and the differences are all there. Stevie Wonder before drum machines. He’s the drummer. It’s not on a grid. I agree with you. I feel like the same thing with Autotune. I was listening to “Bad” by Michael Jackson. Remember that song? I mean, there was a little tiny flatness in there and you’re like, Oh my god. Unless it’s dance music, which you understand.

I get that all the club music is supposed to be four on the floor and everything, but I still find it boring somehow.

There was a time I had this gig opening up for Don Henley. And whether you like Don Henley or not, “The Boys of Summer,” that’s a fantastic song.

I love “The Boys of Summer.”

It’s a great song. And when I watched that band it was just amazing. He’s such a perfectionist. Even on “Desperado,” the drummer would have in-ear monitors listening to a click to play a ballad, “Desperado.” It made it so sterile.

It’s great that you did it the old-fashioned way.

I did it on my last record, too. Another thing I think the kids miss today is liner notes. Did you pore over them?

There’s some I had committed to memory. I remember "History of Eric Clapton." I had that committed to memory at one point.

So my last record we did it all live. I wanted to get recorded in the old A&M studio, like the old days, and when I found out I could get Jim Keltner to play drums with me! Partly it was because, first of all, all the liner notes that I pored over. He played on the Beatles records. But he does not like playing with the click track.

He doesn’t need it, he’s perfect.

He’s friggin' Jim Keltner. So that’s why in my last projects I haven’t used ... I just go with that give and take.

So what are you doing now? Are you going to go play a lot of shows now?

Well, the interesting thing is I played a lot the last two years and I’m not doing that many shows right now. I’ve got to work on a couple musicals.

What are the ideas of your musicals?

Well, of course everyone knows "Yentl," the Barbra Streisand movie, but there is also the story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. In the '70s, it was a play on Broadway, and it ran for a few months. A couple years ago. some theater asked if I would want to put songs to the original play. So I did. You can’t call it "Yentl: The Musical," because of Barbra. So there’s this Theater J that wants to put it on in July and I want to revamp it. It’s kind of klezmery, funky punk, really just like a guitar player, violin player, upright bass player. And it’s not “musical,” it’s folky. And then there was another one. Do you remember a movie called "Times Square" that was really, like a really good bad cult movie. It was a Robert Stigwood movie. It was after "Saturday Night Fever."

I don’t think I saw it.

Did you ever see the "Dracula" with Harry Nilsson and Ringo? I don’t think cocaine was that great. What was I saying? Oh yes, so "Times Square." So I’m working on an adaptation. You know that whole Amtrak thing like with the writers?

Oh yeah, the writers-on-Amtrak grant thing.

What if I just went for a month on trains and wrote music, and at each stop I’d have friends come on and we could record in stops or just use the rhythm of the train … there’s a drum machine!  Did you know I did Kickstarter before Kickstarter? I did this thing called Jill’s Next Record.com in 2007 and I got a lot of press for it because really it was just for my fans. And then my friend said, Oh there’s these two guys who you should meet who are thinking of something, and they ended up doing Kickstarter. And I’m like, I’m a shmo!

Where’s your profit participation?

Anyway, I just want to have fun. I still think I’m a trust fund kid. I keep saying to my mom: When am I getting that nest egg? When you’re 40, when you’re 50.

And L.A. is the locus of operations for now?

I come here a lot. And if I wasn’t in a relationship, I would so be here all the time. But we rent a really teeny little apartment so I can come here. I love it here.


I mean, most of my friends are here. And I do things. L.A. does have some pretty amazing things. The thing is it’s all about the industry. You have to drive everywhere. In L.A., people tend not to go out. People just sit and watch cable and Netflix. People don’t go out. Because it’s like, I’m home, do I want to get in the car? You have to push yourself. My friend and I are doing this twice-a-week L.A. adventure. For example, I learned two weeks ago that there’s a zoo, an abandoned zoo in Griffith Park from 1965, and you walk around and there’s these empty caves, you know, a zoo! And it’s got graffiti, but they haven’t razed it, and there are all these cages. There’s all these weird little pockets and things. And it’s like this all the time.Was it Moby who said New York is over for artists? Artists are moving out to L.A. or Nashville? I don’t buy it. I think he was saying how expensive everything is.

Well, not too many people of the artistic persuasion live in Manhattan.

Where do you live? In Brooklyn?

Park Slope.

I used to live in Park Slope. I used to live on 2nd between 5th and 6th. But that was in the late '80s.


Prostitutes. Crack vials on the street.

By Rick Moody

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, two memoirs, and a volume of essays on music.

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