By Oliver Arditi
Singer-songwriter Lisa Germano has had the kind of career many musicians in the underground aspire to, which is to say that she’s been able to keep releasing records of her own material at regular intervals for over two decades. Doubtless her parallel career as a session violinist for the likes of John Mellencamp, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Simple Minds and others has helped her to keep head above water during that time, and although her time on major labels probably looks now like a distant interlude of her early career, she has been consistently reaching an audience with her music, which is really all anyone could ask for (the twisted priorities of the mainstream industry notwithstanding). That sense of connection, the act of communication through music, has always been a central creative priority for Germano, and with its quiet, sparse arrangements, her forthcoming release No Elephants reinforces the sense of intimate proximity fostered by her trademark breathy, sibilant vocals. She has always been an oblique songwriter, although never an obscure one, and a direct performer, a combination which enables her to get at meanings that aren’t susceptible to a frontal assault; it’s never hard to tell what she’s talking about, but by avoiding the obvious she’s able to express the subjects of her songs in ways that illuminate their less obvious facets and truths. Any artist that can either show me something new, or show me a new way of seeing something old, is doing their job right in my book; I was glad of a chance to ask Germano how she goes about it.
With your tenth full length release you have a considerable body of work under your belt. Does No Elephants come from a position of comfort, or is your creative process an ongoing struggle?
My creative process is always difficult at first, to find ideas worth writing about to share. I don’t seem to be able to write songs unless something is happening that moves me to a point where I have to write about it. When I find it then writing becomes a puzzle to figure out… as it goes forth then it becomes fun to put the puzzle together, to make a record that makes sense as a whole, and that I feel can connect and is worth sharing.
No Elephants has quite an austere sound in comparison to Magic Neighbor; is the contrast deliberate or is that just where you are creatively right now?
No Elephants is sparse for sure, but nothing I do is deliberate at first, I just start and see what feels right for the songs. So on this one sparse felt right. I don’t think it’s very different than any other of my records in the sense that they all come from the same intention…to go where the music and subject take me.
A recurring concern on the album seems to be animal welfare. Is that something that’s an important concern to you generally? To what extent do things that are ‘out there’ in the world (politics, environmentalism, social issues) animate your work, and to what extent is it your inner life?
No Elephants is a story about consciousness. Being aware of yourself and your surroundings and then to see how this consciousness goes out into the world concerning the earth and all its beings. We’re all connected, and I feel with all the iPhones, internet… people plugged into these things, tuned out of the world around them… the connection gets lost. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being preachy… just wanted to share some thoughts about what I’ve been seeing and learning about myself and people around me in regard to this. I am very concerned with the earth and animals, so I give money to many organizations including Peta, PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) which campaigns against animal testing, and the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
Do you feel that your career as an artist has arrived at a good place, or do you have major unfulfilled ambitions?
I feel my career is in the place it should be, and I’m very lucky to have connected at all in this big world. If I have any ambitions I have yet to fill it is to connect to more people.
Aspects of your creative practice, most notably your vocal technique and the way your voice is recorded – not to mention the painfully confessional character of some of your lyrics – seem to collapse the distance between performer and audience. Is this intended to bypass the mediations of recording, or do you always strive to get as close as possible in a live setting as well?
Jamie Candiloro [producer and engineer of No Elephants] just has a grip on my voice and intention to connect. I am so honored to work with him, as he gets what I want to do and sees me through when I feel unsure. Like when we started I had a song ‘Ruminants’ and he said to come over and record it. I thought it was the stupidest song, but every time I heard his recording… I felt there was something there I couldn’t define… helped me all along to keep going on this kind of weird record. He knows I want to be as close to people as I can, and makes sure we accomplish this. Did I say how AMAZING he is?!
That sounds like a very fruitful working relationship; had you worked with Jamie before Magic Neighbor? Have all of your albums involved such a close creative collaboration with the producer?
Well, the past many years I have been the producer, so I like to have the control of my music; and even on this one Jamie listens to my thoughts and this is so important. Long ago I worked with Tchad Blake on Slide and we got on great… he was a good friend anyway… also worked with Paul Mahern on Excerpts From A Love Circus, really fun together. He set up the whole basic tracks in my house and it worked out well… I have to be close to anyone working on my music or it would sound wrong: it wouldn’t work.
How do you relate your studio practice to your live performance practice? Your albums have some foregrounded elements of studio artifice to them: do you reproduce any of that live, or is it just you and a guitar?
When I play live I don’t ever try to re-do the songs with tapes etc… I play alone and the focus is still the same, but in a different situation… to connect with emotion, with a sense of humor in all the tragedy, and to focus on the song. I’m not a fan of people bringing tape loops etc… fine for them, but for me there’s too much distance between the artist’s original being connecting to the audience. Sometimes people find my music self-indulgent, and I understand, yet I find tape looping… all these tracks of themselves playing way self-indulgent… although interesting for sure.
To what extent is your compositional approach related to issues around recording and performance? Are aspects of their arrangement and delivery integral to your songs, or do you vary the way you perform them?
I just go where things alive and happening are taking me. It’s all about what’s connecting to me, musically, lyrically and sound-wise… what I feel can then connect to others.
When I play live these days, I like to just play the song and try different tempos… if I mess up a chord, I go that way and it gives the song a different light. I don’t want it to be perfect (dumb word anyway); it’s available to feel new every time. I change songs around… see what people ask for… Right now I’m gonna do the whole set on piano, more of a concert vibe than club show. Certain melodies are essential, but as I say I like to mess ‘em up a bit if it comes natural; if I do it on purpose it sounds contrived.
Could you describe your songwriting process? Do you set yourself a brief to write to (‘here’s an idea, let’s write a song about it’), or do they bubble up more organically? Do ideas gestate for a long time?
Are the electronic elements you’ve employed in No Elephants a deliberate commentary of some sort, or are they there simply because you were interested by the texture of the sound?
My songwriting process is just putting together pieces that have moved me. Sometimes they are around a long time before they make sense. I had ‘no elephants’ as a thought years ago, wanting to write a record that had no elephant in the room, no lies… Then this record started and ‘no elephants’ became a metaphor for not connecting because of all the digital world coming between actual communication. So the digital world became the elephant in the room. As the record came into being I wanted to then use digital sounds, computers, cell phones dancing with real things to make us and them connected. We are all of this world and I feel we need to see both sides… the new technology and the world around us.
This album is ready for release nearly four years after your previous; that’s the longest interval between two Lisa Germano records since you released On The Way Down From The Moon Palace. Are you slowing down? Can we expect a more relaxed release cycle from now on?
Thank God I’m not in a place where I have to make a record! I do what needs to be done, when I feel I have something to communicate, that I feel other people may feel too.
What does the immediate and medium term future hold for you creatively? Will you be touring in support of this album? Will you be continuing to develop new material? Do you have any other creative projects on the go?
I hope to be honest about who I am and what I can give to the world through my music. When I can…
I’m going to tour in the Midwest with Kaiser Cartel in April and would like to tour more when I can. It’s a pretty difficult thing to do these days with gas prices and low offers, but I love to play, so…
I’ve been working on a couple films and an animation project; none will be out for a long time though. And I try to continue giving to animal rights organizations, trying to do benefits… putting the word out that I’d like to at least.
Lisa Germano: http://www.lisagermano.com