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A Conversation with Jill Sobule

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If Jill Sobule wins any Grammys for her latest album, The California Years, she'll have to thank her fans before God, family and any household pets. After all, the record's $25,000 budget was completely made of fan donations. 

In a move that's now being copied by acts like Public Enemy, Sobule set up www.jillsnextrecord.com. By donating to her cause, she thought, fans would get an inside view of the music-creating process. Plus, no record label, no hassle; Sobule was able to record the album on her terms, in her time. The result makes perfect sense: The California Years is a laid-back, shimmering collection of acoustic folk-pop with Sobule's familiar story-song format and deliciously catchy choruses.

 

Your songs have long tackled difficult issues like sexual identity and eating disorders. Is there a lack of a social conscience in pop music?
I think with pop music, you're really trying to deal with teen issues -- crushes, first love. But I'm in a position where pop radio isn't going to play me, so I might as well write what I'm feeling at the moment. But I was always that way -- thus being dropped by my labels.

But even your radio hits like "Supermodel" and "I Kissed a Girl" weren't fluff.
Yeah, I don't even know if I can write fluff. I tried, actually. I thought I'd try to write some songs for big pop artists, but I'm really bad at it. My heart's not in it -- there's a certain art and craft to a really great pop song, and I don't know if I have that skill. I only know how to write my little story songs. 

Though your records after 1995 didn't sell as well, you never seemed to slow down. Did you ever get upset about not reaching those commercial heights again?
I think it'd be false to say no. Everyone wants to sell records and make a living doing what they like. I'm always thinking my next record's going to be better than my last. I think I've come to an understanding in the last year -- a friend told me about meeting with his 80-year-old trumpet teacher, who still plays four or five gigs a week. He's a lifer. I'm like him -- he'll never be Miles Davis, but that's just what he does. 

California Years was funded by fan donations. How did that idea come about?
I had that idea for years, it just took me a while to implement it. I've always had a close connection with fans. Through social networking that the people do these days, we put together jillsnextrecord.com, which had different levels of donation. So I finally said, let's do it. I didn't know it would be as successful as it was -- I had no idea how many people would contribute. 

What fan feedback did you get about the idea?
People want to be involved, to be a part of it. That makes them feel closer to an artist -- what I would've loved when I was a kid was to send $25 and have my name in the liner notes on a David Bowie record. How great would that've been?

Public Enemy is doing the same thing for their next record -- they're trying to raise $250,000. What does this method change about the music industry?
It used to be you had two choices: you sell over 300,000 records, or else poverty. But now there is that middle ground for the middle-class worker. I don't have to sell that many records because I don't owe anyone anything. I think today, instead of everyone being famous for 15 minutes, everyone will be famous for 15 people. 

What do you still want to achieve with your music that you haven't yet?
I always want to make a record different than the last -- and now I want to be in a band. I want to do more collaborating, be a real band member. I just want to shred. I'm just not satisfied yet. I'm still running. I'm feeling like Brett Favre -- I had to get one football analogy in there.

 

Jill Sobule with Kelly Joe Phelps. 7:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 7. Carnegie Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $35. 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.com

Fan favorites: Jill Sobule
  • Fan favorites: Jill Sobule

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