For countless twenty- and thirtysomethings who came of age in the early ’90s, Lisa Loeb was, like, totally it. Her song, “Stay (I Missed You),” ruled the radio charts and video airwaves, and her glasses inspired many romantic thoughts. Almost 20 years later, Loeb is still touring with a passion (and stopping at Musikfest Friday), but has other side projects—like her family, her politics, and her very own line of eyewear. The A.V. Club caught Loeb on the phone to talk about glasses, Fleet Foxes, and what a difference 20 years makes.
The A.V. Club: At this point, “Stay” came out almost 20 years ago, and yet whenever you’re mentioned, people still say ““Stay’ singer Lisa Loeb,” no matter what else you’ve done. Is that a blessing or a curse?
Lisa Loeb: It’s a blessing. I think that after all this time, to be almost 20 years away from when the song came out, and still so many people are connected to it, that’s a great thing nowadays, and probably always. In the music business, anything like that is a big success.
When the song came out, though, I had been playing music since I was a little kid and I’d had gigs since high school, and I’d been making recordings for almost 10 years at that point. I didn’t realize what an impact having a No. 1 single would have. It connects me with people of different ages, and I get to travel all over the world. And it still lures people to come see me play sometimes. If they’re not already fans, it might lure them in to be more interested in my other projects as well.
I feel proud of myself, because I wrote that song by myself in a period of time when I’d just graduated from college. I’d been in New York City a few years and it represented the kind of songs I was writing at the time, which was rare. Sometimes hit songs are something a record company made an artist write, but this was an indie-feeling project that I recorded in his apartment. He was in my band, and I’d been playing with him for years. I got on a soundtrack when I didn’t have a label, and my attorney kept me off a label so I’d have more freedom in case something happened. Something did happen, and all these labels who were interested became even more interested. I had choices about publishing companies and record labels, which was unique and enabled me to do things independently.
AVC: Your brothers and sisters are all fairly musical too, right? But your parents aren’t? How did that happen?
LL: I have three siblings. My sister makes music. My older brother is a classical conductor, and my younger brother is a mixing engineer.
I think we were raised in a nice Texas Jewish family where education was the most important thing, and close behind that was the arts. It was emphasized and expected that we’d play piano. The girls took dance lessons. Creative hobbies were encouraged. To my parents’ dismay, though, we all chose music over being doctors and lawyers. That’s what happens when you have the freedom and luxury of taking other classes than school. We did have a great art department at my school, though, and we studied everything from opera to art, poetry, different cultures. I think exposure to that much art and taking a bunch of lessons sparked that interest.
Also, I think my folks, they love going to see concerts and listening to music. My dad plays piano, so there was always music and art around us. Although my dad was a doctor, we weren’t necessarily a super-artsy family. We were just a classic, traditional family who got to take a lot of piano lessons and became a bunch of musicians.
AVC: You’ve made a record, Camp Lisa, about summer camp, and you’ve talked a lot about how much you liked going when you were younger. Is that another place you got to be musical?
LL: One of the main reasons I liked camp was because school was so intense, and camp was a great release. It was a place that, instead of being graded and having success based on making good grades and doing what you’re told—I mean, there were definitely rules to keep us safe, but I think the reward in camp was making friends and being yourself. Part of that for me was playing music. My counselor had a guitar, and my friend showed me some things on it, and I started taking lessons when I came home to Dallas.
Again, in real life as a professional musician, success is often defined by how many records or tickets you sell. At summer camp, though, success is the feeling of hanging out with your friends playing music and singing. Sometimes we forget that when we’re grown-ups. You want to have a career and an income to support your life, but you have to remember that it’s fun to sit around and play, and make up songs, and sing songs that everyone knows so you can sing together.
In New York City, after some concerts some of us would just hang out and play songs and pass around a guitar. You’d play a new song you’d written, and it was a great feeling of connecting with other people. That had some of those summer camp elements of camaraderie and friendship.
AVC: And, of course, summer camp is fun because kids have a sense of autonomy.
LL: You have the freedom to do what you want, and you’re away from your family. At summer camp you’re in a cabin, or maybe you even get to go to a hotel. You pack a suitcase, and you see the same people again. You stay up too late, even if you’re doing something kind of serious.
AVC: When did you first get glasses?
LL: I got glasses when I was a teenager. It wasn’t a big deal. I could read better, and I could see faraway better. I was maybe 14.
AVC: Have you ever worn contacts?
LL: I have. I wore them a little in high school, but I had a reaction in my eyelids where I get blisters, so I can’t really wear them for long periods of time. There are newer ones that hold onto water a little more, so I’ve been trying those here and there, like when I go to a 3-D movie or I don’t want to look like myself at an audition. I wear them maybe once every one to two months.
AVC: When you’re designing glasses, is that like you sitting with a pen and a piece of paper sketching out frames?
LL: It’s a combination. I come up with ideas myself, like other fashion designers. I go through magazines and through reference books, and I go on the Internet. I look at old glasses I have. Sometimes I try to represent feelings visually, and sometimes an idea I have has nothing to do with a pair of glasses, and we’ll discuss how to turn that idea into frames. I’ll take something from one frame that I like and one thing I hate from another, like there’s a bridge on a pair of glasses I got a year ago that this eyewear store in L.A. filed down to fit me a certain way.
The company I work with is in San Diego, and they’ll help me with very practical things like the lines of the glasses, dimensions, size. We go through ideas and things we’ve seen, and we sort of Frankenstein together what different frames might look like. It’s a collaboration, so no I don’t just sit with a pad, though every so often I sketch out a frame that looks interesting.
It’s a lot of different things, really. They make prototypes, and I try them on and have other people try them on. They have swatches and find out what’s available and what we can do within limits of manufacturing. Sometimes they have suggestions for colors that I don’t quite understand but they feel strongly about.
Really, we’re just starting out, though. We have our first set out now, but we’re working on another set for the fall. Then we’re working on some for next spring, and some for that following fall. It’s a long process to get a pair of glasses out there. Doing trunk shows is really helpful to me because there are faces I can try glasses on, and I get to see way more people. I design the glasses for women, but some of them look cute on men, too. We’re doing men’s glasses in the future.
AVC: What do you think of the whole “hip” trend of wearing glasses when you don’t need them that’s going on right now?
LL: At first I thought it was annoying and dorky. Like, why would you wear glasses if you didn’t have to? But I’m glad I have an option, and I can wear what I think are cute. Glasses can add a layer to your face. I try to give people a lift with mine, like make the temples higher than the bridges. If you make sort of masculine feminine glasses, heavy frames like that can make a face look more feminine. It’s like guys’ shoes or trousers. Glasses are a lot easier to fit in than boy jeans, too, and it’s an easy thing to do.
Also, some people who wear glasses, it makes them look super trendy. If you see a picture of Susan Sarandon with huge glasses, you think she’s in the know. They have a sense of humor, and sometimes glasses make you look smarter. It’s the sexy librarian trick. For some people, glasses really do that. For some women, especially, it implies there are layers of personality under there that you’ll find out later, like, “Oh, they’re shy, but they have a sense of humor.”
AVC: You were and are a sex symbol for a lot of people who love glasses-wearing girls. What do you think of that?
LL: It’s definitely—glasses make people think that you’re more approachable. I don’t know why. I think that it implies that you read a lot and are quiet. I am kind of quiet depending on who I’m hanging out with, and I do read a lot, but I think it’s just one of those fashion things that maybe it just looks approachable? With some new glasses, though, they aren’t that approachable. Like, it’s this American Apparel world where you can wear ugly clothes and everything’s okay, like you’re not trying hard to look good. I guess people think that you’re approachable if you have glasses, and for me, they’re what they were with other people, where they’re adding on to my face and they’re an extension of my personality. It’s like Lady Gaga wears crazy stuff, but that’s who she is. Even when she’s not wearing that stuff, her personality’s like that. Certain people’s clothes speak for them, or their glasses, jewelry, and accessories speak for them, and that’s true in her case, and in a less extreme way, for me.
AVC: How many pairs of glasses do you have?
LL: In the past, I’d get a new pair every three to five years. It’s hard to find the exact right glasses, just like jeans. It’s so disappointing when they look cute on a mannequin and then you put something on your face and it doesn’t quite work. Now I have about four different pairs, though. One is a pair of sunglasses, so that’s five pairs. Now, with the line, I get to have a lot more frames that automatically fit me well. I need to get a couple more of those set up with lenses.
I don’t travel like Elton John with a thousand pairs of glasses, though. I pack light, though I do try to have a pair and a backup, just in case something happens on a water slide.
LL: If you see it on Conan, I’ve been listening to it. [Loeb’s husband is the music coordinator for Conan. —ed.] My husband listens to more music. With me, it’s more silence or NPR. Music is another person in the room talking. As far as current stuff, though, Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, Radiohead. I’m working on a new record with Chad Gilbert of New Found Glory; Tegan [Quin] from Tegan And Sara wrote a couple of songs on the record. I love The Black Keys.
We listen to a lot of actual records, like albums. My daughter likes to listen. She’s 18 months old and she picks out records to listen to, so that can be anything from Fall Out Boy to Ryan Bingham to Death Cab For Cutie, or Sharon Jones, Kings Of Leon, and Jenny Lewis.