Jill Sobule, an acclaimed singer / songwriter, is known for a school of musicianship that’s pretty rare these days: story songs about the lives of other people, factual or fictional. One such song about a suburban lesbian courtship–1995′s “I Kissed a Girl” (long before that OTHER song of the same name)–was a massive radio and MTV hit, and remains one of the very few queer anthems to reach a global audience. Since then, she’s pioneered the use of crowdfunding as a way to finance her critically acclaimed music, she maintains a rabid cult following and collaborates with legends… and she’s become a surprising fixture at the East Village’s eclectic Club Cumming. In fact, she’ll be traveling with the talent from that venue for a set in Fire Island very soon… and she’s got all the deets for us!
Thotyssey: Jill, hello and thanks so much for talking to us today! So, are you officially a New Yorker these days?
Jill Sobule: I just moved back to the NYC after 10 years in LA. I’m so very happy. I belong here.
Did you experience Pride this past weekend at all?
I not only went to Pride, but wore a blue skirt with LED lights and Pride edition Doc Martins. And, I went into the old Cubby Hole (which is now Henrietta Hudson) for the first time since 1987, when I cocktailed for a month there. I walked in and they were playing “I’m Coming Out.” Some things don’t change.
This is a crazy time for gay rights… and for the rights of women, all minorities, and all impoverished groups. In many ways it looks like we are going backwards as a country. Are weird / scary times “good” for singer-songwriters as far as inspiration goes, or is it too overwhelming and distracting?
Well, I have always been an “activist” singer-songwriter. But this shit is off the charts now: with SCOTUS, more shootings, the motherfucking Trump party, etc. Yes, sadly it is a fertile time for the creative juices to flow. That just sounded gross, by the way! But it is also a time when folks, who wouldn’t normally be penning a protest song, are waking up and using their talents for the resistance.
You wrote a great song “Our America Back” shortly after Trump’s election, where you ponder what his voter fanbase means exactly when they claim they want that. Does it surprise you that we don’t have a larger protest song movement happening now? Are we too cynical?
I think more and more music folk are waking up, like I said. Even a few brave souls in country music. Still, pop music is sadly lacking.
Although much of your songwriting is personal or political, you are best known for writing story-songs about characters, or from other people’s points of view (especially on your 2000 album Pink Pearl). We don’t see too much of that in singer / songwriters today, although certainly in the 60s and 70s that was more common. What inspired your approach to writing songs that way?
Yes, I was very much influenced by the singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s: Joni, Dylan, John Prince, etc. And the Beatles story songs, like “She’s Leaving Home” or “Eleanor Rigby.” I like stories. When I start a song–so many write with the hook or chorus first–but I start with the very first verse, like I am writing a short story.
There is a lot of smart humor in your music. I love “Lucy at the Gym,” equal parts funny and sad, where you ponder what might have happened to this woman who you used to see at the gym all the time. Do you often find yourself wondering about, and being inspired by, the possible lives of strangers?
Oh yes, my life is not always that interesting. I am a great voyeur. I sometimes play this game in my head on the subway (especially if my phone is dead and I have nothing to read) where I take a couple of riders and imagine what they do, who they are. I write a story.
Do you often get asked by people who know you–or maybe even people who don’t–if a song you’ve written was about them?
Yes, and it’s like “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.”
Another story song of yours was the huge 1995 hit “I Kissed a Girl” from your self-titled breakthrough album, which people from my generation will always respect as the REAL “I Kissed a Girl.” Were you relieved in a way when Katy Perry *ahem* coincidentally used that as the title for her own 2008 breakout hit… meaning, you didn’t have to be the ”I Kissed a Girl” girl anymore?
“I Kissed a Girl” was such a mixed blessing. I was, and am, so proud of it; that it was one of the first queer pop songs to make the charts. Yet, that was all I was known for. When Katy came out with hers, I was like all, “Hey, I’m the Kissed a Girl girl!”
“Supermodel” was another big hit from that album, which appeared on the Clueless soundtrack. You’ve since had a bunch of your songs show up on movies and TV shows… is that always cool, or does it sometimes seem like weird choices were made as far as matching your songs to scenes?
It’s always great to have your songs in TV or in a movie. Sometimes that’s the only way anyone will ever hear you.
Would you ever go the Cyndi Lauper route and create an original Broadway musical, if that opportunity presented itself? Your storytelling style would lend itself to that enormously.
Well, I have done a few musicals. A musical called Times Square was put on by NYU this last Winter. I put music to the original 1970s Broadway play, Yentl (not the Babs version, by the way). It’s had several productions. And now…I’ve been commissioned to write a one-woman show called #Fuck7thGrade.
Your 2009 album California Years was paid for entirely by crowdfunding, via contributions of fans and benefactors in exchange for perks like being credited in liner notes, attending private concerts by you or even being allowed to sing on some tracks. This was considered to be a nutty, extreme way of doing things then… but you proved it could be hugely successful, and now everybody’s doing it. Is crowdfunding in music basically here to stay at this point?
Crowdfunding is probably essential now. No one (unless you are the top .01%) makes any money on music. It’s all streaming. No one buys music anymore. So it seems that touring and crowdfunding are the only ways to survive. By the way, I’m doing a lot of house concerts. They are great for both artists and fans.
Do you think this movement to get consumers to stream all their music, as opposed to downloading it, will create further distance between music and music lovers?
I was just thinking about that as I was going over the credits on my upcoming record. I put in a lot of time listing all the lyrics, musicians and thank yous. As a kid, I poured over the credits. I knew all the session players. I knew Jim Keltner played on both Paul and John (Beatles) records. That’s why I hired him (also, hopefully, to get lots of stories). Nowadays, no one cares about how a song was written or created. Or if they do, you can’t find it.
Oh, I’ve known Daniel for a long time. We were actually in some goofy movie together (very bit parts). Lately, we’ve been hanging out. Love him and Club Cumming.
What’s it like performing in that space? It attracts so many different scenes and people. Vanessa Williams just did a pop-up performance there!
I know! It’s a total rarity. One night, there will be a guy who paints portraits with his penis, and later their will be a serious singer-songwriter. But, it’s always good.
In July, Club Cumming will be paying a week-long visit to That Other Queer Haven, Fire Island! Many of the Club’s favorite performers will be doing versions of their shows at the Cherry Grove Community Center from July 6th through the 12th.
You’ll be part of the takeover on two dates: Saturday the 7th for “The Women of Club Cumming” where you will join the likes of Club Cumming gals Ellia J. Garlands, Catherine Cohen and Daphne Always. And then the following night, you’ll be back performing a solo set. Have you ever done Fire Island before?
A couple of years ago, I played at a Daniel event. I can’t wait to come back. I’m gonna stay too, a couple of extra days. It’s a good time! I’m gonna have a good time!
Congrats on the praise in Rolling Stone of your latest single “Island of Lost Things.” And I know you’re always performing somewhere… where else can we find you in the near future?
I’m playing the Rubin Museum on Friday, July 6th.
Excellent! In closing: If you were to write a song from Melania Trump’s perspective, would it be sympathetic or not?
Thank you so much, Jill!