Jill Sobule had hits with I Kissed A Girl and Supermodel: what happened next?
It felt as if Jill Sobule came out of nowhere when she released the 1995 single ‘I Kissed A Girl’. Besides its title, this quirky folk-pop ditty shares nothing in common with Katy Perry’s hit released 13 years later. It’s an endearing and empowering story about two friends, fed up with their boyfriends, who share an intimate moment.
The unfussy way in which Sobule addressed the fluidity of human attraction and sexuality was ground breaking at the time. The whole song sounds as if it's delivered with a shrug more than a salacious wink. Most of all, it was – and still is – catchy as hell.
But, like most music success stories, Jill Sobule’s story stretches back much further than this considerable splash into the mainstream. She had been playing around her native Denver for years before MCA Records signed her to a recording contract in the early-90s.
The first time I ever went into the studio was with Todd Rundgren.Jill Sobule
There were clearly high hopes for Sobule, as legendary artist and producer Todd Rundgren was called on to produce her 1990 debut album, Things Here Are Different.
It did reasonably well, thanks to its single ‘Too Cool to Fall in Love’ gaining a small amount of traction, but it didn’t set the world alight.
British pop genius Joe Jackson was called in for album number two. But this one didn’t go so well; 25 years on and it is still yet to see the light of day.
“They were a little difficult,” Sobule tells Double J, speaking about the sessions for those first two records.
“The first time I ever went into the studio was with Todd. Being a big fan – and then secondly with Joe – it was tough. I lost my voice. I was intimidated.
“It was hard working with people who were some of my heroes. After the Joe Jackson one that never came out, I just worked with friends who I felt totally comfortable with.”
The new approach worked. Not straight away though. It wasn’t until 1995 that Sobule released her self-titled second album, this time on Atlantic Records. But when it came, it landed strongly.
‘I Kissed A Girl’ – one of the many songs Sobule wrote with collaborator Robin Eaton – landed in the top 20 of triple j’s Hottest 100 (number 18 in 1995) and charted well in Australia and the US. Sobule also landed a track, ‘Supermodel’, on the (incredibly good) soundtrack to the smash hit teen film Clueless.
While these songs might make us nostalgic for the 90s, they’ve also aged incredibly well. In fact, there’s not much about Sobule’s output from the 90s that dates it, a fact she’s immensely proud of.
“I didn't follow any trends,” she says. “Just whatever came out, I wanted to have that.”
But that wasn’t exactly what the major label system wanted at the time. Rather than capitalising on the success of her eponymous record with a carbon copy of those songs, Sobule delivered a richly arranged, diverse follow-up with 1997’s Happy Town.
“I just wanted to make a reaction to the last record,” she says. “I wanted to make a strange, darker record. I really love that record, but I don't think the label saw it as something that they could sell.
“But, in the long run, I listen to those records and I'm still really like ‘yeah! These do not sound dated. This sounds really fresh!’.”
Ask Sobule and she’ll tell you this is one of her greatest feats. Record sales have always been important, but never an imperative measure of an album’s success.
I didn’t have that kind of naked raw ambition, I just wanted to make good music. I just wanted to be an artist.Jill Sobule
“There was always a conflict between art and commerce for me,” she said. “And art always seemed to win.
“I didn’t have that kind of naked raw ambition, I just wanted to make good music. I just wanted to be an artist.”
Thinking back on the opportunities afforded to her thanks to her major label associations, Sobule is more grateful than she is bitter.
“I think I was lucky,” she says. “People were still buying music. We used to complain about how awful the record companies were. But with younger acts, whenever I talk about the support I had and how much the label gave me, they can't believe it.”
One thing that has improved since Sobule’s early days in the music industry is the treatment of women, though she’s mindful that there’s still a long way to go before the industry achieves total equality.
“Before I got my record deal, there were three labels interested in me,” Sobule recalls. “I remember two of them saying ‘We would love to sign you, but we already have a female artist’. That was 1990.”
And, as you’d expect, she has her share of absurd stories from the heady days of the music industry in the 90s. One of which happened during her only tour of Australia over 20 years ago.
“I was on Hey Hey!” she exclaims. “I remember the puppet and the guy with the cowboy hat.
“It was the only time I ever lip-synced, I'd never lip-synced before,” she says.
“They asked me what kind of band I wanted. I'm like, ‘what do you mean?’. They were like ‘How do you want them to look?’ None of them really played music because they didn’t have to. ‘Do you want an all girl band? Do you want a really rock looking band?’.
“They had a book of these people that I could pick. It was amazing and absurd at the same time.”
As the 90s came to an end, so did Sobule’s association with major labels. She released some music through larger indie labels at the turn of the millennium, before coming up with a unique idea to fund her seventh album, California Years, in 2009. She’d just ask her fans.
“I was among the first to do that,” Soubule says. “This is pre-Kickstarter. In fact, the guys from Kickstarter met with me to ask what worked and what didn't. I got a lot of attention, I was on CNN. It was pretty exciting.”
Sobule felt no fear in asking fans to fund her record, because she knew she they would get their money’s worth.
“The idea was not to ask for money but to give something in return,” she says. “So, a lot of that year was playing house concerts, writing people personal theme songs… that was one of my favourite things to do.
“It was a pretty exciting time, because I was dealing with my fans. And I like to hang out with my fans. They’re really smart and good people. I never had a problem. I love dealing with people personally.”
Which brings us to her most recent activity. Taking her music out of traditional venues and into the homes of her fans.
“Over the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of house concerts,” she says. “They’re beautiful. They’re really, really great. I've always been that kind of an artist from early on. I just want to be two feet away from someone. I want all the chairs close to me.
“I never have a regular show. None of them are the same. I feed off the audience. It's a really give or take experience, and when I'm playing a concert hall or a club, I like to have that same feeling. As if I’m in someone’s living room. It’s fulfilling.”
She concedes that things can get a little weird, but says they never go bad.
“I've never had a bad experience,” she says. “I've had a couple strange ones, but they were fantastic because they were experiences.”
While she hasn’t made a typical solo album in a number of years, Sobule has kept busy writing for different projects. She composed the soundtrack for the Nickelodeon TV show Unfabulous and has worked on a number of musical theatre projects.
“I love musicals because you know what you're going to write about,” she says. “Like ‘I need to write about how her heart is broken by that guy’.”
One of the stranger gigs was for the 2008 production Prozak and the Platypus. The project, like much of her soundtrack work, required her to learn about new cultures and pushed her to write about subject matter she probably wouldn't otherwise.
“It’s about a scientist studying the sleeping patterns of the platypus,” she says. “I read songlines and listened to a lot of Aboriginal music.
“That's the great thing about those projects, you study and you learn from them. Like that one, I was studying sleep patterns and the science of sleep. I have one now where that takes place in the late 1800s in Poland.”
She also put some parameters on herself for 2014’s Dottie’s Charms, a record for which she wrote the music and had her favourite writers – such as James Marcus, Vandela Vida, David Hajdu and Mary Jo Salter – come up with the lyrics, all based on a piece of jewellery.
“That was kind of an odd concept,” she concedes. “Someone gave me this charm bracelet and I wanted to know who this woman was. It was from the 40s or 50s.
I’ve been procrastinating so much. I’ve had that fear of finishing things.Jill Sobule
“My idea was to give it to one of my favourite authors to read a lyric to. That almost feels like it could be a musical. There's a continuity between each song. She's always getting dumped and heartbroken.”
But Sobule is determined to get back to what made her so beloved in the first place in 2017. She has the material for her first solo record in eight years all ready to go.
“I’m excited, I have enough songs right now so I’m about to record a new record. Not a concept record, just some of my songs. That makes me nervous.
“I’ve been procrastinating so much. I’ve had that fear of finishing things. Over the last few years I have so many songs and I’m not sure how I want it to sound.
“In the old days, you'd have a label telling you ‘You're done, you've gotta put out a record,’ and that was great! I think I'm going to have my friends say, ‘No, this has to be done and recorded by August’.”
Given the time between records, the nerves are understandable. But Sobule is also positive that the songs she’s written will resonate.
“I kinda feel confident,” she says. “I don't want to jinx it, but I feel confident on these songs. I think it’s a different record for me, I think it's got a sense of wistful, a little bit of nostalgia. It feels like a memoir. It’s a really honest record.”
Sobule is also a proud activist and uses her voice to get behind the issues she believes in. Recently, that included taking a role in the campaign for Bernie Sanders prior to the 2016 US election. Now, she wants everyone to experience the power that music can have for change with her latest project.
“I’ve been putting together a project called My Song Is My Weapon, which is a record of protest songs from people like Tom Morello and Jackson Browne and some younger artists,” she explains.
“We're going to be asking people to send in songs of protest, songs of resistance. It can be something small from their community. From the local to the international.”
Sobule has her own experience in using music as a kind of weapon. She knows firsthand that song can disarm the nastiest of foes.
“There was a song of mine called ‘When They Say We Want Our America Back, What The Fuck Do They Mean?’ It was like a history of immigration in the United States. It's really, ‘we are a nation of immigrants, it’s what makes America beautiful’. It’s a funny little song.
“I started getting, for the first time in my life, a lot of haters and a lot of trolls.”
So, she fought back with music.
“I have a song called ‘It’s Just As Easy To Be Nice As It Is To Be An Asshole’. I wrote it for one of my trolls, the meanest and the nastiest. I sent it to him and he wrote back with four thumbs up and never bothered me again.
“We can use music for protest, but we can also use it for civil discourse.”