Veteran singer-songwriter Jill Sobule got fed up with business as usual three years ago, and on a new song she pinpoints the moment.
“I’m here at a meeting,” she sings in a voice perched between exasperation and resignation. “Trying to impress someone at a dying record company.”
The California Years
(Pinko; US: 14 Apr 2009; UK: 13 Apr 2009)
She describes the jaded talent scout, the air of condescension thick in the room, the sense of creeping frustration. Then comes the I’m-not-gonna-take-it-anymore payoff line: “I got nothing to prove!”
Sobule did more than just write a song about her dissatisfaction, however. She did something about it.
Despite what a few burned-out executives may have been telling her, Sobule knew she wasn’t through. She has written some of the wittiest songs of the last 15 years, including the 1995 hit “I Kissed a Girl” (which sounds a good deal different - and quite a bit better - than the recent Katy Perry song). She has released a half-dozen acclaimed albums and toured the world. For her trouble, she has been dropped from two labels and worked for two more imprints that went out of business.
Sobule’s quirky, sarcastic and seasoned - a bad fit for an industry thriving on easily packaged divas.
So what next? Sobule was in her mid-40s in 2006 and in no hurry to sign up for another dispiriting trip on the record-label merry-go-round when she decided to go directly to her fans. She set up the jillsnextrecord.com Web site and solicited donations for her next album. In less than two months, enough donations poured in to match her goal of $75,000. Then Sobule went to work, hiring Don Was as a producer and a handful of session musicians to piece together “California Songs,” an album she will release on her own Pinko Records label April 14.
“It’s kind of scary,” Sobule says. “It’s one of those things I was never quite sure if it was ever going to work, and so far it has. The initial fear is that it would just be my mother and some cousins donating, and it could’ve been humiliating.”
As musicians seek alternative ways to deliver recorded music as the music industry suffers through its worst downturn in a century, attention has been focused on innovators such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, who have released music directly to their fans on their own Web sites. But there are a bevy of lower-profile artists who are making similarly innovative moves out of even greater necessity. Even as the Internet affords artists an unprecedented opportunity to communicate directly with their fans, they must figure out how to make their music heard amid a cacophony of viral voices.
“I didn’t have a publicist, I didn’t have a label, but I’d built up a small but loyal fan base over the years,” Sobule says. “I’m really accessible. I get an e-mail from a fan, I e-mail them back. I’m still at the point in my career where it’s possible to do that. It’s not like some generic site where people invest in a band they don’t know. It was something personal for these people. They knew they were contributing to a real person who was going to put the money to good use.”
The songs on “California Years” dissect the surrealism of her new surroundings in Los Angeles, where she moved two years ago after decades in New York. They range from the bossa nova-flavored “Mexican Pharmacy,” about how Hollywood types score cut-rate drugs over-the-counter just across the California border, to a haunting meditation on a long-ago country star who fled the music industry, “Where is Bobbie Gentry?” Sobule could’ve faded away into obscurity like Gentry, but instead she produced an album that ranks with her best work, a winning mix of poignancy and sarcasm.
She brought the same pluck, fortitude and wry humor to her self-marketing campaign.
She created numerous tiers for contributions, and offered incentives depending on the size of the donation: $10 bought a free digital download of the album, $200 earned free admission to any Sobule show this year, $500 ensured that the donor would be mentioned in a song at the end of the album, and $5,000 booked a Sobule concert in the donor’s living room.
Great idea, right? But Sobule advises any artist intent on following her footsteps that the time investment is substantial.
“I haven’t written a song in a month and a half,” she says. “I’m too busy doing my social networking. I feel like a little kid doing her dad’s job - I have my cubicle with a computer, and go to work there every morning.”
Sobule could’ve made the album at home, but decided to go for a bigger budget and a professional recording studio. “I wanted to show the labels that I could do what they’re supposed to be doing at a fraction of the cost, and do it better,” she says. “I spent a couple of weeks in a studio in Los Angeles where Joni Mitchell and the Carpenters and Poison - let’s not forget Poison - recorded. I wanted to make an album that could’ve come from a big-label artist, and at the same time was totally grassroots.”
The contributions even allowed for a small budget to promote the album. Sobule will release a guerrilla-style YouTube video of her teaching the songs to guitar-shredder friends such as Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer.
“If you have ideas on how to promote this album, I’m open,” she says with a laugh.
“Really, I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’m responsible for my decisions. I can’t say the album wasn’t as good because the label didn’t do something. I have no excuses. It’s scary, but it’s completely liberating.”