There is no one else like Jill Sobule. Seriously, how many other singer/songwriters can you think of who are outrageously funny, heartbreakingly serious and politically left, sometimes in the same song? Beginning with the commercial breakthrough of her 1995 eponymous sophomore release (containing the groundbreaking, inimitable hit single “I Kissed A Girl”) and continuing with outstanding (but unfairly overlooked) albums including Happy Town, Pink Pearl, Underdog Victorious,California Years and Dottie’s Charms, Sobule never failed to amaze us. Nostalgia Kills (Pinko), Sobule’s first album in four years is another masterpiece and one that deserves a large audience. Living up to its title, the record is a reminder that the past is always with us and it’s up to us what we do with it, as you can hear on “The Island of Lost Things”, “Forbidden Thoughts of Youth” and “Almost Great”. “I Don’t Want to Wake Up” is both familiar and new, and if you aren’t crying (and dancing with abandon) by the end of “I Put My Headphones On” you might want to check your pulse. I spoke with Jill aboutNostalgia Kills shortly before it was released.
Gregg Shapiro: Jill, to my ears, the amazing album opener “I Don’t Want To Wake Up” sounds like a cross between Tom Waits and “Border Song” by Elton John.
Jill Sobule: [Laughs] you know your music! A couple of months before writing a lot of (the songs on) Nostalgia Kills, I’d been listening to a lot of my favorite artists. Early `70s Elton and, of course, Tom Waits. You can’t help but sneak in things with which you’ve inundated yourself .
GS: I’m glad you mentioned `70s artists. “I Put My Headphones On” contains shout-outs to Joni Mitchell and Janis Ian, among others. Where do Joni and Janis fall on your list of influences?
JS: First of all, growing up, I wanted to be a little rocker girl. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison and Jeff Beck. There was absolutely no role models for me back then, none. There’s not that many today, but even less back then. There was Leather Tuscadero (on Happy Days, played by) Suzi Quatro, who was cool looking, and The Runaways were cool, but they weren’t like serious shredders. When I was a kid, I was badass and the best in my stage band. We won State because of my friggin’ solo on Deodato’s “2001”. But then all of a sudden it became uncool. It was weird. That’s not what girls do. I started thinking I didn’t just have to be a chick singer. There are these poets out there telling stories. These songwriters and storytellers. Being in junior high and the influence of hearing the (Joni Mitchell) lyric, “Thinking about the joy I’ll have/watching your hairline recede my vain darling”. Man, I really related to that in 6th grade [laughs]! And then Janis Ian, that was my musical Judy Blume.
GS: Janis’ “At Seventeen” also had an impact on gay boys, too!
JS: Oh, my God, now that I think about it there weren’t really any songs about bullying or feeling like an outsider for boys. No one really touched on that.
GS: But Janis really did. “I Put My Headphones On” is one of two songs on Nostalgia Kills that are part of your one-woman show #Fuck7thGrade. Please say a few words about the show.
JS: It’s still a work in progress and it’s interesting how it’s evolving. I realized I had a collection of songs, from “Underdog Victorious” to “Strawberry Gloss” that were already in my repertoire. I think Freud had it wrong. It’s not the first few hours, days, weeks that fuck you up, but seventh grade [laughs]. I’ve been writing more and working with another playwright and developing a one-woman show that could also be a theatrical piece with other people. It’s not just about a girl growing up in a specific time period, but also about a girl growing up with confused sexual feelings. A little queer girl. We talked about role models for guitar. But for me, who did we fucking have? Miss Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies [laughs]? The only lesbian I heard about was the gym teacher Miss Newby, who bore a striking resemblance to Pete Rose and The Penguin fromBatman. It wasn’t an attractive alternative. Another song on the record, “Forbidden Thoughts of Youth” directly talks about the crush I had on someone and the kind of horror that I felt. There was no Internet, but I remember reading in my mother’sViva Magazine that there were people in New York City who were into cool music [laughs]. Glam rock and things like that. It was before they had the word “fluidity”. It made me feel like there was a place for me somewhere other than Colorado.
GS: I’m so glad you mentioned New York, because “25 Cents” is another incredible song that perfectly captures the grittiness of that city in the 1980s. You were a longtime New York resident before you moved to Los Angeles. Where is home to you now?
JS: I’m back in New York. During the record-making process, I had a bad break-up. I decided to cut my hair and move back to New York. That catharsis really shakes you up. There was a while where I felt like I didn’t even like music anymore. It was a heartbreaking place. Sometimes you need that shake-up to bring you back. This is what saved me. As I sing in “…Headphones…”, “Music wash away my pain”. I started liking music again.
GS: The title track contains the chorus “We have to keep moving, we have to keep moving, we have to keep moving or die”, which is a reminder that we have to let go of the past, and yet the past contains vast riches suited to mining for songs, poems and stories, as you know. Do you think it’s possible to make peace with the past?
JS: Yes, I do. That song is that fine line. At the very end when I sing about watching an old show and listening to an old song, but let’s do a little moving on afterwards [laughs]. For me, that was the perfect thing at that time of my life. Knowing that I have this history, these journal books of songs and memories to hang on to, but sometimes they can be put into storage for a bit.
GS: You have a reputation for writing some of the wittiest lyrics in pop music, from the original and far superior “I Kissed A Girl” to “Cinnamon Park” and “Where Is Bobbie Gentry” to mention a few. What comes first in the process, words or music?
JS: The more I think about it, for the most part I think of myself as a storyteller, not a pop songwriter. There are a lot of writers who start with a groove, which is pretty great. Or they start with a song title. Sometimes I just begin with the start of a story. It feels like the music then becomes the soundtrack to the story, to the lyric. I would say most of the songs on this record have come from that.
GS: Nostalgia Kills features a phenomenal assortment of collaborators including Richard Barone, John Doe, Petra Haden and Ben Lee, among others.
JS: If I would have done this in New York (and not Los Angeles), it might have been a different gang of people on the record. Somehow, I have friends who are talented as well as sometimes being my mentors and heroes, from Wayne Kramer to John Doe. Or someone like Petra who I totally admire. What a voice and how creative! I happened to be friends with people who are really talented and good people. I get to recruit them.
GS: You are also someone who makes the most of utilizing social media.
JS: I think that, for an artist, there are pluses and minuses. One of the minuses is that as a DIY artist, I’m spending a lot time (on social media) when I could be writing songs and creating, pimping and promoting myself. At the same time, I’ve always been someone who likes to engage with people, the fans and potential fans. If you are going to do it, you might as well have fun with it. I have so much fun with my Instagram. I do these bad Dada photoshop things [laughs]. It takes a lot time, but you might as well be creative. I’m looking at my Instagram right now. I put my cat on (Brett) Kavanaugh’s face [laughs]. I’ve got Bob Mueller wearing my t-shirt. Some of it’s completely Dada-esque. Like, why is Richard Marx promoting my record? I have no idea [laughs].
GS: You perform a breathtaking cover of The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child”, which, at the time it was first was released in 1970, was the kind of song that offered hope that things were going to “get easier” at a time of social and political strife. Did your decision to cover it (as well as refer to it in “I Put My Headphones On”) have anything to do with the similarly contentious time in which we’re living?
JS: Yes, absolutely! I remember it as being one of the handful of songs that gave me hope and comfort. For some reason, I was always a little political girl. I remember coming home after school, not wanting to play with friends – I didn’t have any friends – but all I wanted to was watch (the) Watergate (hearings on TV) [laughs]. These kinds of songs, like “What’s Goin’ On?”, were important to me on a personal level, being the miserable 7th grader, feeling like someone’s telling me that things will get better. It was kind of a last-minute addition to the record, after I did “…Headphones…” I thought, “You know what, I love that song so much, let’s do it.” It’s a heartbreaking version of it.
GS: Have you ever heard Valerie Carter’s cover of “Ooh Child”?
JS: You know, it plays over the end credits of the movie 1979 movie Over The Edge. That was also a version of the song that affected me.
GS: The other cover you perform on Nostalgia Kills is Warren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”. You toured with Warren near the end of his life. Do you have a Warren story you’d like to share?
JS: I’ve got so many Warren stories! Talk about a mentor. We did this one tour where it was on this big “rock bus” and it was just the driver, the road manager and me. He’d come out and sing “I Kissed A Girl” with me (on stage). He loved the line, “They can have our diamonds/we’ll have our pearls”, and he’d go, “Jill, I know what you’re talking about when you say pearls” [laughs]. Him singing “I Kissed A Girl” made absolutely no sense, but I didn’t care. It was fantastic! I remember being so intimidated by him because you’re intimidated by your songwriting heroes. I also heard that he could be an asshole and really tough, so I stayed away from him the first few days. I remember him knocking on my dressing room door and he goes, “What do I have rabies or something?” [laughs]. After that, we were fast friends. He was so protective and such a gentleman to me. He was never flirty. It was always benign. When he was dying, towards the end, he would send me emails that were a little salty. They were funny. Not pornographic, but almost. I was like, “What do I do? Here’s a dying man.” I thought, “I’m going to write him a filthy, funny letter back.” I have about 10 correspondences with him of these semi-comic, dirty emails to each other [laughs].
To hear Jill’s new album, visit https://www.jillsobule.com
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Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008).
He has work forthcoming in the anthology Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos (Anhinga Press, 2018). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.