The Rumpus Interview with Jill Sobule

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jill_sobuleJill Sobule’s music is at once deeply personal and socially conscious, funny and  tragic. With five albums and a decade of recording, the  songwriter/guitarist/singer has tackled such topics as the death penalty, anorexia, shoplifting, reproduction, the French resistance movement, adolescence, and the Christian right.

Her songs are unique. They tell stories about human beings, real and imagined, which allow us to step back from the issue, be it personal or social, and relate to it as we would a friend. Sometimes her music comes off as folk, other times alt rock, more often undefinable. But what you always know when listening to Sobule is that you are listening to an artist and the music is real, forged inside her soul, honest, and open. It’s the only way she knows how to create.

Jill talks to The Rumpus about her process, belief in art, and why Katy Perry is a title thieving little slut. – SE

20090326-JillSobule-01-bigThe Rumpus: How often are you interviewed? What are people usually most interested in knowing about?

Jill Sobule: Much of the publicity and interviews over the last year or two have focused on how I financed my latest record. Instead of the traditional method (going with a label, who advances you the money, then ends up doing a shitty job, and no one ever hears it, and you still remain broke) I thought I would ask my fans to  help me put it out. I didn’t want to just have them give me money, so I set up a website with different levels of donations for various “gifts and services.” For example, for $50, you get an advance CD and a thank you in the liner notes. That’s not as good, however, as the $500 level where I mention your name in the last song, or the “weapons-grade plutonium level” where I fly you out to Hollywood  to sing with me. Within 2 months, much to my surprise,  I reached my goal. Now, I am considered a pioneer in fan- financed music endeavors. Even though artists have been doing this for years -as well as online publications like Rumpus -I like being thought of as a pioneer.

The other thing people inevitably ask about is “I Kissed a Girl.”

For those that don’t know or are very young, I had a song in 1995 called, “I Kissed a Girl.” When Katy Perry’s version came out I  started getting tons of inquiries  about what I thought. Some folks (and protective friends) were angry, and wondered why she took my title and made it into this kind of  ”girls gone wild” thing.  Others, including my mother, were excited because they thought I would  somehow make some money out of it. Unfortunately you can’t copyright a title… bummer.

As a musician I  have always  refrained from criticizing another artist. I was, “well, good for her.” It did bug me a little bit, however, when she said she came up with the idea for the title in a dream. In truth, she wrote it with a team of professional writers and was signed by the very same guy that signed me in 1995. I  have not  mentioned that in interviews as I don’t  want to sound bitter or petty… cause, that’s not me.

Okay, maybe, if I  really think about it, there were a few jealous and pissed off moments. So here goes, for the first time in an interview: Fuck you Katy Perry, you fucking stupid, maybe “not good for the gays,” title thieving, haven’t heard much else, so not quite sure if you’re talented, fucking little slut.

God that felt good.

Rumpus: Nice! The Rumpus will never feature Katy Perry. We’re 100% on team Sobule. Tell me about your musical roots. When did you start playing? And for why? What role did music play in your life when you were younger.

Sobule: My older brother was the guitar player in the neighborhood band. My parents were the cool ones that had the basement for rehearsal. Rather than hang with my peers after school, I wanted to just listen to the band. More than that, I wanted to play.

sobule2My first instrument was the drums. Not quite sure why I quit and changed to guitar, but I’m sure my parents might have convinced me that the guitar was way better.

Can you imagine a 6 year old banging all day on a drum kit. I do have photos of me in my sort of princess girly bedroom with a bad-ass sparkle set. There was this guitar teacher named Mr. Cowen. He was this old black guy who lived in another part of town and had this really nice girlfriend who my mom said looked like a floozy. Anyway,I loved him. He didn’t make me read, nor did I have to learn stupid songs. He taught me a Hendrix song, and the blues and funky stuff. He was inspiring.

Music teachers can either inspire or make you resent your instrument and parents in those early years. After a couple of months of lessons, he died. Supposedly, it was a heroin overdose.

Anyway, a few later, I became the ace guitar player at Hill Jr. High. I borrowed my brother’s big Marshall amp, had a Gibson SG special, and a friggin Wah Wah pedal. You would have thought that I was the baddest kid in school, but quite the contrary. It wasn’t cool yet… for a girl. There were really not many role models -maybe Suzie Quatro and the Runaways? This was pre Go-Gos. My rocking out didn’t make me particularly popular with the boys or girls. It wasn’t cute or feminine. I was more of a…weirdo. So, then I started playing the acoustic guitar for more singer-songwriter type stuff. I bet if I would have gotten more approval for my “rock playing”, I might be a world class shredder today. However, it did make me think about lyrics. As a bit of loner, prone to melancholy, with a questionable sexuality, I found great solace in the words of-Dylan, Joni, John Prine and Leonard Cohen. The darker the better.

Music was everything. Between my brother and me, we had every album. And, I saw every show that came to town. One of my friend’s dad was head usher at the arena where the big shows came-we got in free. Sometimes I wish that I could still feel the total wonder and excitement of those shows. I had no idea how that fog magically arose onstage.

Rumpus: Unrelated. Not thinking about fan based funding, which you pioneered, but more in general, you seem constitutionally incapable of making money off your music. I’m the same way with my writing. Why is that? You’re one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever seen, you should be rich. And then, I look at your website, and it’s full of communist imagery (I think). And I think I have socialist leanings, too. I don’t know what I’m getting at here. Can you talk about the intersection of art and commerce. Is there one?

Sobule: Yep, I’ve never been good at the money thing. I have had a couple of really nice but inept managers, and a business accountant that ripped me off. But I cannot totally blame my money making lameness on them. When I was on the big labels, I never calculated what would make me sell more records. I just did what I did -no different than when I wrote songs for myself in high-school. Maybe, I’m too lazy. A few weeks ago I meet up with a publisher and we talked how to get my stuff on TV or ads. She said, I have too many words. And, I could be more up-tempo. She quoted a song lyric as an example: “It’s a brand new day”. Maybe you should take out the nipple bloodletting and replace it with some De Vinci Code action? By the way, I am so moved by your story telling. Maybe, we should write the musical: Happy Baby! Who would play you?

I don’t know about you, but I still have this unrealistic faith, that one day, my ship will come in. More people will discover, understand and buy my stuff. It’s like having an imaginary trust fund. But maybe that’s what keeps my work honest. And, in a way, I’m not at all jaded, and still enjoy so much what I do. It’s a good trick.

Rumpus: Communist?

Sobule: Yes, I’m a bit of a lefty. I like the idea of art and music collectives. My original idea- and I still want to do it -for Pinko Records, would be to create a platform for other artists to do the same thing I did. They could create their own levels of donation and final goal. Again, I have no idea how I would make any money on that -but I don’t think like that.

All and all, I’m down with the whole patron thing. Bring back the Medicis. Maybe, I’m not just a lefty, but a royalist.

Rumpus: You mention your ship coming in, but the thing is you’re already famous, you’re just not rich. It seems to me that everybody’s heard of you, or a lot of people have, but you haven’t monetized it.

Sobule: Well, true. But i’m working on it. In the meantime,tell your friends and readers to buy my records, plus I have really fun t-shirts with a jetpack in the back.

Rumpus: Where were you raised? Were your parents hippies? Do you have a good relationship with them?

Sobule: I was raised in Denver -3rd generation. No, my parents were the older generation. In fact my dad was in -WW2. You know what his job was? He was the French translators for the doctors who went into all the Whore houses to check and treat VD. Isn’t VD a more fun acronym than STD? He ended up a veterinarian.

My first job was working at the pet hospital sterilizing syringes and cleaning up the mess from nervous dogs. Even though he was an older guy, he was pretty hip. He took me to my first rock concert and liked listening to music that I would buy. He was a bit of a dreamer and absent minded professor. He died in 1984. My mom wore the pants in the family, for sure. I always say, that I spent my childhood trying to get the love and attention of my mom, and now I can’t get rid of it. I don’t think she had an affinity for babies and young children. She always says, “aren’t puppies so much cuter?” I think I might have inherited that somewhat. So now we are very close. We talk like everyday -more than once.

Rumpus: How does it feel to own this position of sub-culture hero, to be taken on by all these different groups, particularly sexual identity cohorts, as kind of a standard bearer? Does that ever put pressure on you?

Sobule: I don’t feel pressure, as I never think of myself that way. But if I am, then that makes me happy.

Rumpus: I don’t think you should ever make art that isn’t what you want to do. The idea that you would write a song that you didn’t want to write, in the vain hope that you can sell it to some marketing executive, is just terrible. I think if you ever do that it’s very hard to walk back from that line.

Sobule: Well, I tried to, a couple of times, write pop songs for other artists. I’m terrible at it. That takes a whole other craft and talent. So, I am doomed or fortunate to stick to what I do best.

I don’t know about you, but I still have this unrealistic faith, that one day, my ship will come in. More people will discover, understand and buy my stuff. It’s like having an imaginary trust fund. But maybe that’s what keeps my work honest. And, in a way, I’m not at all jaded, and still enjoy so much what I do. It’s a good trick.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. His second movie, based on his novel Happy Baby, is forthcoming. More from this author →