California Years

One day about a year ago, singer and songwriter Jill Sobule found herself at a crossroads. She had written a batch of songs that she really liked, but had no idea what to do with them. Over the course of her long music career, Sobule had already been dropped by two major labels, then found herself languishing on two indies that both went bankrupt. “Needless to say, I was hesitant to go down the label road again,” she says.

Sobule became obsessed with thinking about how to release the songs, which now make up her charming new album California Years. Should she give it one last go with the majors? Release the music digitally? Or should she just finance the album herself, and if so, where would she get the money? “How do I pay the rent?” she asked readers of her blog on allthingsd.com. “How do I support my gambling and morphine habits?”

In November 2007, Sobule sent a message to her fans asking them what they thought of her idea to record a fan-funded CD. “It would be sort of a patronage thing, where you guys are the Medici family,” she wrote, “except I give you prizes for donations of certain amounts.”

After receiving all kinds of useful advice and encouragement, she launched jillsnextrecord.com, where folks could donate cash in exchange for “gifts.” A $10 contribution earned you a free digital download of the album; $50 got you an advanced copy and a ‘Thank You’ in the liner notes; $200 earned you free admission to all of Sobule’s shows for the year; and $1,000 got you your own personal Sobule-penned “theme song.” Three people who donated $5,000 got Sobule to come play at their house, which she loves to do (“They always have really good spreads”). The one fan who donated $10,000 got to sing on the album (listen for her on “Mexican Pharmacy”). The website launched in mid-January 2008. By March, Sobule had reached her target of raising $75,000 through donations from more than 500 fans and even a few non-fans. “I got a message from this one guy saying, ‘I don’t really like your music, but I’m donating because I like this idea,’” Sobule recalls with a laugh.

Because of those generous souls, Sobule was able to finance the recording of California Years — an intimate-sounding collection of keenly observed story-songs that chronicle Sobule’s new life in Los Angeles (after many years in New York) with her trademark feistiness and insightful wit. A “peerless satirist” (as People magazine put it) who has proven herself a formidable raconteur over the course of her previous five studio albums, Sobule often delivers her blunt observations with laugh-out-loud humor, like on “Mexican Pharmacy” (about scoring cheap pharmaceuticals across the border), “Wendell Lee” (about Googling old flames), “San Francisco” (about a heartbreaking talk with a Thai masseuse), and the acerbic “Nothing to Prove.” On the latter, Sobule recounts a disastrous meeting “trying to impress someone at a dying record company” thusly: “In walks this sullen girl, who looks like she’s 19 (or wants to be) with her biker boots and her hair dyed black (I did that look so many years ago). She looks at me like I’m some square or I’m like her mother. Well, fuck you kid, I’ve got nothing to prove.”

But underneath the crankiness and bravado resides a genuine vulnerability that makes Sobule’s work so appealingly relatable. Not only do the songs on California Years touch on growing older in the music industry (“a taboo subject,” Sobule says) but they also address trying to figure out where you belong. “The album is really about searching and yearning for something,” says Sobule, who is now in her mid-40s. “Whether I’m singing about trying to find an icon on ‘Bobbie Gentry’ or wanting to know what happened to old lovers on ‘Wendell Lee,’ I think it’s really about trying to find something within myself.” It’s fitting then that Sobule begins the album with “Palm Springs” — a song about going to the desert in search of songwriting inspiration (and coming up empty) on one level, and about trying to dig deep within yourself on another.

“It’s kind of a companion piece to ‘Nothing to Prove,’ in that it has some sad truth but sees a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “That even though nothing happened, I don’t give up.” Then there’s the lovely, spare ballad “League of Failures” in which Sobule portrays herself as “a dreamer who won’t wake up,” perhaps an apt description of her 18 years in the music industry. “I think the song is about acceptance,” she says. “I used to think that the years when things were really bad were a waste, but now I think maybe they brought me to who I am today. Maybe I wouldn’t have written this album if things had gone another way.”

To help her capture the intimate quality that her new songs clearly called for, Sobule turned to her friend Don Was, a legendary producer and musician who’s worked with everyone from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Randy Newman and Brian Wilson. “We were on the same page in terms of letting the story and the lyrics dictate what we did sound-wise,” she says. “I was shocked at first when Don put the vocals so upfront. The first time I heard the tracks back, I almost blushed because I felt very exposed, but he really wanted the lyric and the story to come out.”

Tracking began in late March at Henson Recording Studios, the former A&M Studio in Hollywood where Joni Mitchell made Blue and Carole King recorded Tapestry (“and don’t forget to mention the last Poison record,” Sobule says cheerfully). The band, which included guitarist Mark Goldenberg, bassist Dave Carpenter, pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz, and legendary session drummer Jim Keltner, played nearly everything live, “like in the old days,” Sobule says, lending the proceedings an organic, earthy vibe.

California Years is a welcome addition to the Denver native’s impressive catalog, which begins in 1990 with the Todd Rundgren-produced debut Things Here Are Different, followed by her 1995 self-titled breakthrough, which includes the pop hits “I Kissed A Girl” and “Supermodel” (memorably featured in the film Clueless). Happy Town was next in 1997, followed by 2000’s Pink Pearl, 2004’s independently released The Folk Years 2003-2003, and 2004’s Underdog Victorious. “I think it’s taken me so long to do another album because I really liked my last two albums a lot and wasn’t sure I could write songs that I thought were as good,” she says.

Sobule has also been busy over the last four years trying her hand at other creative endeavors, including writing the music for a new play entitled Prozak and The Platypus — a multimedia collaboration with playwright Elise Thoron and artist KellyAnne Hanrahan that was first staged in 2004 at the Beckett Festival in New York and eventually became part of the curriculum for high school and college students at the New York State Summer School for the Arts at Baruch College. In June 2008, Sobule released a CD of herself singing the songs from the show, entitled Jill Sobule Sings Prozak and the Platypus, which also includes a 30-page comic book.

In addition, Sobule contributed music to the popular Nickelodeon TV show Unfabulous in 2005 and launched “The Jill and Julia Show” — a popular series of live shows with actress and writer Julia Sweeney, whom Sobule met during her yearly sojourn to perform at the annual TED conference. In 2006, Sobule became a regular contributor to left-leaning political blog The Huffington Post, inspiring readers with her musings on political songs and Christian right-wing radio. In 2007, Sobule’s song “San Francisco” became the first single to be released in conjunction with Don Was’ Wasmopolitan Cavalcade of Recorded Music, part of the producer’s new-music website mydamnchannel.com. She was also a frequent guest on National Public Radio’s “The Bryant Park Project,” entertaining visitors to NPR.org with such musical ditties as “Ode to Super Tuesday” and “Lucy at the Gym.”

Through it all, Sobule wrote the songs that appear on California Years, which she was so eager for her benefactors to hear that she posted a preview of the songs on the site and solicited opinions about which ones to include, leading one wisenheimer to remark: “I realize this will be an unpopular opinion, but I’ve listened to these tracks all the way through and I think they need more cowbell.”

[October 2008]