Lisa Loeb takes center stage -- After a smash hit on the ''Reality Bites'' soundtrack, the bespectacled songstress releases her debut album

By David Browne
Updated October 06, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

It has been more than a year since the world last heard from Lisa Loeb, the young woman who gave cat-eyed glasses a good name. And on this April evening, you start to understand where she’s been.

”We’re looking for the first oohs,” says Juan Patiño, Loeb’s bearded coproducer. The setting is Patino’s midtown Manhattan studio, which also doubles as a narrow railroad apartment. On the other side of the wall, in what would normally be the living room, sits Loeb, wearing a yellow flowered print dress and her trademark specs. Tonight’s task is recording a few background harmonies for one of her new songs. The nearby bathroom door sports a chart, its grid filled in with a color once a song, or part of one, is finished.

The scenario has the feel of a virtual home office that would make hip ad agencies drool. In fact, it’s a much more pressure-cooked situation than it seems. For the past six months, often six days a week and 12 hours a day, Loeb and Patino have been painstakingly shaping Tails, the debut album by a singer-songwriter who emerged from nowhere last year to score a No. 1 single, ”Stay,” and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Depending on whom you ask, the album should have already been released to capitalize on the hit or has been perfectly timed to distance Loeb from a song even Patiño, who produced it, calls ”overexposed.” Either way, to rely on clichés like ”eagerly awaited” to describe Tails is to underestimate the matter.

Loeb begins singing snippets of oohs and aahs and lyric phrases. Finally, after nearly two hours, Patiño (who, with his fur hat, looks like a young Russian immigrant) announces, ”Last time — here we go.” The near-finished song booms out of the speakers, the harmonies sounding full and bright. They also last maybe five seconds in a four-minute song, part of an album that’s a little less than an hour long and, some say, a year overdue.

”We have an audience for a song,” Loeb says. ”I hope they want to hear a whole album.” Adds Patiño, ”We’re bracing ourselves for the backlash: ‘She got too successful too fast.”’

As a chocolate-macaroon break is called, Loeb walks over to an unopened box sitting nearby. She tears it open, and inside is her award for sales of more than 200,000 copies of ”Stay” in England. There’s only one problem: The glass is cracked.

”That, my dear,” jokes Patiño, ”is an omen.” Reality never seems to have bitten for Lisa Loeb. At Brown University, the Dallas-born liberal-arts major teamed up with a classmate to form a duo; they recorded and sold homemade tapes at the university bookstore and by the end of their senior year had the interest of at least one major label. The deal fell through, yet after graduation, Loeb continued writing and playing club gigs in New York while working day jobs (everything from coat-check girl to studio singer on jingles for diet Coke and Burger King) and trying, unsuccessfully, to land a record deal.

”I’ve always been focused,” she says. ”I’ve always worked on a certain kind of music and songwriting and tried to learn about the business side so that it didn’t get in the way of my music.” In a shrewd arrangement, Loeb actually owns the master tape of ”Stay” and has leased it to both RCA (which released the Reality Bites soundtrack) and her current label, Geffen — meaning Geffen has to pay her an additional fee to use the song on her own album. ”In this business, you rarely encounter people who know what they are when they start,” says Geffen A&R exec Jim Barber, who signed Loeb. ”I would love to have five or six of her in that way.”

By now, the kickoff of Loeb’s career is as established as her frames: how friend and Village neighbor Ethan Hawke admired her music and suggested using one of Loeb’s songs in his movie Reality Bites. How that tune, ”Stay,” a song on her demo tape, found itself sharing space on an album with U2 and ”’My Sharona.” And how the crisply produced confessional ballad (and its eye-catching video, directed by Hawke) climbed to the top of the charts in the summer of 1994. ”’No artist in the history of the record business has had a No. 1 record and no deal,” says her then manager, Rob Gordon. ”Puts you in a good leverage position.”

An understatement for sure, since Loeb found herself with six major labels bidding for her services. In an incident Loeb dryly recalls as ”almost funny,” a slew of RCA executives went to see her perform at a New York club shortly before ”Stay” became a hit, and many of them, including label group chairman Joe Galante, were so underwhelmed that the deal was called off. ”Sometimes a performer reaches out and grabs you, and this was not one of those nights,” Galante remembers. Later, after the ”Stay” phenomenon, RCA found itself backtracking; one executive was told to buy Loeb ”anything she wants” with a corporate credit card to woo her back. It didn’t work: Says Gordon, ”She remembered that [slight] forever.”

Eventually, Loeb opted for Geffen, then the industry’s hottest alternative-music label, for an undisclosed advance. The task of recording the album began in September 1994, with a constantly changing roster of release dates: first February 1995, then May, and finally Sept. 26. ”Indie bands make an album in a weekend with a case of beer,” says Patino. ”We don’t work that way. We were making a movie.”

The creation of Tails wasn’t quite Waterworld (and cost only about $250,000), yet it was meticulous. Complicating matters somewhat was that the equally exacting Patiño and Loeb also happen to be dating (although Loeb maintains her own apartment). Patiño, a onetime studio engineer who has written music for promotional spots on Comedy Central, is an apt alter ego for the cautious Loeb. Outgoing and quick to shake hands, he is Loeb’s polar opposite: ”They play good cop/bad cop,” says one label executive who worked with them. Patiño is also given to disarmingly grand pronouncements: ”The record has a medicinal quality. If three people won’t be committing suicide because of listening to these songs, it’ll all be worth it.”

Given the casualties left by the time the studio smoke cleared, the question ”Was it worth it?” takes on new shades. First Gordon, a friend who became one of several Loeb managers, exited. Claiming he gave Loeb years of ”great advice for free” before she ultimately opted for big-league manager Will Botwin (Liz Phair, Los Lobos, Rosanne Cash, etc.), Gordon adds curtly of the breakup, ”It was convenient timing for her.” Counters Loeb: ”It wasn’t the right time and place for us to work together. It doesn’t necessarily work out with friends.”

Then, after the recording sessions ended, two of the three members of Loeb’s backup band, Nine Stories, were given notice. (Their photos and names will appear on the finished record, though.) ”Nine Stories is a revolving door,” Patiño asserts. ”They knew long before the album was done that it was not going to continue.” (The musicians declined to comment or were unavailable.)

The precision that pervaded the recording sessions didn’t end there. A second photo session for the cover art had to be arranged when the first batch of stills didn’t pan out — a bunch of different hairstyles didn’t work for Loeb, who was also heavily involved with the design of the album, a rarity with musicians. ”It takes time to work on the artwork,” she says, ”and it takes time to figure out if the size of the letters is the right size… Creative control is a natural — it’s not something you need to get.”

Gordon sees it another way: ”She’s a control freak,” he says exasperatedly. ”She wants everything to be perfect.”

It’s hard to reconcile that taskmaster image with the diminutive person picking at a salad one night in early September. Physically, Loeb doesn’t look as though she has the mettle to survive the carnivorous world of the music business. In person, the 27-year-old is even more petite than she seems in the ”Stay” video, with a pale, gamine delicacy. Yet it’s clear that Loeb has a steely resolve, not to mention a guarded nature. She responds to a query about how many pairs of glasses she owns with a suspicious ”Why do you ask?” as if there were an implication that her nearsightedness is a calculated image. ”It’s been explained to me,” she says, ”that people try to find ways to cut you down if you’re doing well, you know?

”In a way I can understand that. I’ve had the same experience — people have hits and I can’t believe it. Hopefully, people will not judge me on the fact that I’m not Courtney Love. I’m not.”

The fickleness of the great American public was pointed out to Loeb when she played before a teacher friend’s class of fifth graders. ”I asked them what their favorite music was,” she recalls. ”It was all bands that were on MTV and nothing else. And one of them said, ‘Oh, I like Spin Doctors.’ And the girl next to her said, ‘Oh, no, I’m tired of them.’ And their video had just gone on the air a month beforehand.”

With such media overload in mind, both Loeb and Geffen are now into the next phase of the project: reminding record buyers who Loeb is while tweaking her geeky, genteel-folkie image with things like loud electric guitars and an arty Edwin Fotheringham cover illustration (of a cat) intended to give her, in the word of one Geffen marketing executive, a ”quirkier” image. Yet in a way, the yearlong gap between hit and album might help. Given the grunge backlash and the resurgence of folk pop, perhaps America is in search of a female Hootie, someone who can express intimate, love-letter sentiments in a dulcet, easy-to-sing-along fashion. Sure enough, in its second week on the air, the album’s initial single, ”Do You Sleep?” was the second-most-added record at both modern-rock and Top 40 radio stations, according to the radio trade magazine Friday Morning Quarterback.

As midnight approaches, Loeb is clearly tired from a day of photo sessions and an interview with VH1; plus, she’s just returned from a promotional swing through Europe. Now she’ll do the same for another three weeks in Australia and Japan. And she and Patiño still have to rehearse potential replacements for Nine Stories’ fired members for a world tour that starts this month.

”I’ve learned that it all comes back to me,” Loeb winds up. ”I still get shocked when I hear about bands whose record doesn’t work out and you never hear from them again.” In any way she can, Lisa Loeb wants to ensure that we’ll be hearing from her for a long time.