Lonesome no more
By DAVID BRINN
04/30/2012One of America’s most unorthodox singer-songwriters and the veteran of 10 albums, Lisa Germano talks to ‘Post’ about her period of self-examination and unexpected musical awakening.
She’s played the world’s biggest stages accompanying John Mellencamp on violin, but Lisa Germano’s musical heart belongs on a smaller platform, far from rousing choruses and heartland rock.
The 53-year-old multi-instrumentalist is perhaps best known for providing the distinctive violin and fiddle flourishes which characterized Mellencamp’s Lonesome Jubilee Americana era in the 1980s and ‘90s.
However, since her seven-year stint in the Mellencamp fold, she’s become an established presence on the indie rock landscape with her quirky, low-fi sound and raw, emotive approach.
“I have very fond memories from working with Mellencamp, and also many horrible ones, as I learned more about a world I never knew existed,” said Germano last week in an email to The Jerusalem Post.
Germano said she didn’t learn much about the real world growing up in Mishawaka, Indiana, with a large family in which everyone, including her parents, played instruments.
“It was a very colorful childhood, with lots of music, practicing, dancing around, fighting and passion, and great Italian food. There was always lots of kids around to entertain and educate, but we were rather sheltered,” she said.
Skilled in piano as well as violin by the time she was 18, Germano was introduced in her 20s to Mellencamp via a mutual friend, Mellencamp’s drummer Kenny Aronoff. Mellencamp, also an Indiana native who had hit it big under the name John Cougar, was in the midst of reverting to his given name and losing his pop star luster for an earthier sound, and he asked Germano to join the band ahead of his 1987 album Lonesome Jubilee.
“I was never a fan until I started working in the band,” said Germano. “Through the years, I contributed music, hook lines, opinions... they’d get me going and then put tape over my mouth as a joke to say ‘that’s enough.’” In the downtime, Germano recorded and toured with other artists like Simple Minds and the Indigo Girls. By the early 1990s, she had developed her own persona and released an unassuming album in 1991, On the Way Down from the Moon Palace, followed by Happiness two years later. The process gave her the confidence to leave Mellencamp for a full-time solo career.
She signed with indie favorite 4AD and released Geek the Girl in 1994, a provocative and personal album of sexual conflicts which created a buzz in the college radio world. But according to Germano, her level of fame was nothing like the arena-rock trappings she had left behind.
“I’ve never been, to my knowledge, any kind of star or even particularly popular. I just keep trying to be expressive and true in any song I‘m writing,” she said.
Subsequent releases in the ‘90s saw diminished returns and by the decade’s end, she had been dropped by 4AD and temporarily stopped making music, moving to Los Angeles and working in a book shop.
“I’ve often stopped and chosen another career, which I’ll do for a while. But as I write something, I feel that I should share it with people and music becomes my focus again, and then I’m off to another record,” said Germano, adding that she wasn’t bitter about being dropped by the record company.
“I understand the business of music. It doesn’t really go together, music and business – music being magical and healing, and business being practical and calculated. The bottom line is that you have to sell records and make money, so I already know that I’m a bit of a product when working with a company.
But I’ve been very lucky to have worked with creative people at those companies. It’s frustrating when it comes to an end, but no more than anything else in life. It’s about keeping going.”
And that’s what Germano did, writing songs for other artists and joining heavyweights like David Bowie. In 2002, she returned with her own album, Lullaby for Liquid Pig, followed in 2006 with Maybe World and 2009 with Magic Neighbor, both on the Young God label. They didn’t hit the Top 40, but they did reestablish Germano as a gifted, dedicated singer/songwriter and solidified a support base among both fans and artists.
When Crowded House founder Neil Finn gathered artists in 2001 to make a benefit album and tour – 7 Worlds Collide – to raise money for Oxfam, he invited Germano to join him, his brother Tim and illustrious contemporaries like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Radiohead’s Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien, and Johnny Marr of the Smiths.
In 2009, Finn convened many of the same crowd (as well as members of Wilco and KT Tunstall) to record an equally successful followup – The Sun Came Out – as well as a new film called The Sun Came Out: The Making of the Album 7 Worlds Collide.
“I have been so honored to have worked with some of the best musicians and artists there are,” she said.
“And I often wonder ‘why me with them?’ But with 7 Worlds Collide, I became a part of this amazing family and I often remember their faith in my music when I falter. It keeps me going. I wish we could do more projects together, but everyone is so busy... honestly it’s unbelievable we ever all got together for the two projects we did.”
Germano’s business includes a steady focus on her own career and regular touring, including two shows this week in Tel Aviv – on Wednesday and Thursday (May 2 and 3) at the Ozenbar.
It will be Germano’s first visit to Israel, a location she’s been told she has a following in, something she is uncertain of.
“I don’t know about my popularity in Israel, but I have received a few emails to please not cancel,” she said. “I have heard that Israelis love music and eat it up... so that’s why I’m coming. My show is just me, and I hope to create a mood and atmosphere where you can really take the songs to yourself and have your own experience with it.”
It sounds like Lisa Germano has discovered her own jubilee, which isn’t lonesome at all. http://www.jpost.com/ArtsAndCulture/Music/Article.aspx?id=268121