Lisa Germano has been a sad, sad girl. Lucky for us, she swings moods, misfortunes and malaise into songs that make us hurt so good. By Jason Ferguson
Preconceptions abound about Lisa Germano. The most prevalent is the one that’s always prefaced by “John Mellencamp’s fiddle player” and closes with “she’s really sad.” And, in as much as both of these statements are currently untrue, so are all the assumptions in between. Germano has come a long way since her Bloomington, Ind., upbringing hurled her into a very small corner of pop culture’s spotlight with her most famous neighbor.
“Yeah, a lot has happened,” says Germano mock seriously, “I got my hair cut.”
Indeed, the long tresses this skinny girl from Indiana used to hide behind on stage are gone, replaced with a short hairdo that nearly borders on “perky.” And, as superfluous as it may seem, those locks may have symbolically held as much sway as an inverse Samson.
A seemingly normal, if convoluted, course of events brought Germano to the tiny, sunny L.A. apartment she now calls home. Her association with Mellencamp gave her the opportunity to tour, feel her way around a recording studio and, most importantly, gain the courage and wherewithal to commit her own songs to tape. Albums were made—her self-released, folk-tinged Coming Down From Moon Palace (recently reissued on the Egg label) and then the “big break”: Happiness (on Capitol)—and a career unsteadily moved forward, with dreams of international fame being poured into her head by unscrupulous label folk.
Of course, international fame isn’t the sort of thing that comes to people like Germano. Happiness, despite corporate retooling for mass acceptance—and continual reminders by the label that “this is John Cougar’s fiddle player, dammit!”—tanked. Thus, contractually bound, Germano floundered in the “I’m stuck on a label that hates me” tidepool for quite a while. Rescued by 4AD Records head Ivo Watts-Russell, Germano’s contract (and masters) were bought from Capitol, and 4AD soon reissued Happiness in its original configuration: the moody, sexy and deeply emotional schizophrenic stew that Germano and producer Malcolm Burn had originally intended. And though it certainly didn’t sell many more copies the second time around, it connected Germano with an audience that perhaps understood her better—an audience that wouldn’t shout out “Pink Houses” during one of her hauntingly funny live sets. (Germano is the world champion of onstage monologue.)
Yet even this audience couldn’t have been prepared for her next record, the terrifying Geek The Girl. Recorded by Germano on her own, the album is, technically, demos (the starkness and emotional intensity the recordings conjure would only have been confused by additional production). In their raw form, they paint a powerful and moving picture of a very sad, literate musician who, perhaps, needs to get out of the house more often. Framing her daunting lyrics in claustrophobic silence and oppressive soundscapes, Geek tapped a vein of pure emotion that was so openly narcissistic and quietly violent that probably even the stalker who inspired the album’s most disturbing track, “…A Psychopath,” felt a little uncomfortable. Needless to say, it didn’t exactly tear up the charts; needless to add, this didn’t stop Germano’s quest for self-realization. The brighter but no less harrowing Excerpts From A Love Circus displayed a stylistic diversity that probably stemmed as much from Germano’s own schizophrenia as it did from the presence of the 17 guest artists who performed on it (if you don’t count the two star turns from Germano’s cats).
Then things started to change. Soon after finishing Love Circus, Germano got together with her friends from Giant Sand—Howe Gelb, Joey Burns and John Convertino—to help create Slush, the debut album from their OP8 project. At the behest of Watts-Russell, Germano (along with all other 4AD artists) was asked to find someone to collaborate with on three songs. A CD EP by each 4AD artist would be released monthly, to be compiled at the end of the year. The project ultimately proved unfeasible, but by this point, Germano had already completed her collaboration with Gelb, Burns and Convertino.
“We really liked working together, and we really liked these three songs,” she says. “So (Giant Sand’s) manager and my manager got together and found a record deal and got [Thirsty Ear Records] to pay 4AD whatever it cost to do those three songs. And then we went in and did the rest of [Slush] in four days. (Giant Sand) had always had this idea to be OP8, and every time they were OP8, they’d have a guest artist. So even though I started the project by asking them to join me, when we went in to finish the record, we decided that it should be OP8, with Lisa Germano as a guest.”
Though the OP8 collaboration ultimately ended in an awful gig at this year’s SXSW festival, the freewheeling sonic exploration of Giant Sand’s timetable-free ethos opened up Germano to new possibilities within her own music. With a clutch of songs that would ultimately wind up as Slide, her latest album, she and 4AD decided that it might be helpful for her to get out of the too-familiar environs of Bloomington and record in Los Angeles.
“[4AD] just thought it would be good for me to come out (to L.A.) and meet some producers and engineers and a band and get my thing together out here,” says Germano. “We thought it would be cheaper for me to get a little apartment, rather than staying in a hotel the whole time. So I found this apartment—which is very cheap—and then (producer) Tchad (Blake) decided he’d do the record, and everything sort of came together.”
Indeed. Not only did the sessions for Slide come together in L.A., a lot of Lisa Germano came together there as well. Leaving behind the roots of her well-documented sadness was a difficult decision for her, both creatively and emotionally. But ultimately, she says, “I moved out here just to make the record. But I wound up feeling more uplifted here, so I decided to stay.
“There’s a lot of sentimentality there,” Germano says of Indiana. “My family is near and my house is there. I think the sentimentality that I was hooked on was because I get so lonely and depressed there, and I wrote from that place a lot. If I get really depressed now and I start to write my feelings, I realize that I’ve been there before and that it’s not new. I know why I get depressed now. I know why it happens, so it’s really not that interesting.”
Though most of Slide was written in Bloomington, the combination of Blake’s sonically direct production (which alternates between sparse and overwhelming) and Germano’s new outlook resulted in an album that presents a much broader portrait of the artist as a growing woman. There are still songs of crushing sadness (“No Color Here,” “Wood Floors”) and mystifying symbolism (the utterly perverse “Reptile”), but mixed in are songs of hope (“Turning Into Betty”) and groove-worthy loopiness (“Way Below The Radio”).
According to Germano, the ups and downs of the record weren’t so much intentional as unavoidable.
“When you’re so used to feeling dead all the time, it takes a while to get used to feeling alive,” she says. “That’s kinda why it’s called Slide, because you’re wanting to be in an upper place but you keep falling back down because that’s what you’re used to. It’s really just been within the last few months that I really feel super-uplifted. When I was making the record, I was going down and up a lot.
“I was all happy, finishing up my record, getting ready to promote it, and then I get this call,” explains Germano of the simple beginnings of one of the more disappointing chapters in her life. The phone call was from the Smashing Pumpkins’ manager, under orders from Billy Corgan to contact Germano about playing with the group on its most recent tour. Initially, she turned it down, unwilling to sacrifice her current happiness simply to be “Johnny Cougar’s fiddle player” for rock’s most self-important superstars. But a personal call from Corgan convinced her that her role would be more collaborative. “I thought that was pretty cool,” Germano says, “because the last thing I want to do is go be a fiddle player in somebody’s band right now—or ever.” So, she flew her cats to Indiana, quit her job, sublet her apartment and took off for four weeks of rehearsals in Chicago and London, to be followed by a four-month tour.
And then things started to get weird.
“The first thing that happened,” she says, “was both MTV and Billboard had specials that said, ‘John Cougar Mellencamp’s fiddle player joins Smashing Pumpkins.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh, no. This is exactly what I did not want to happen.’ But I would have stayed on anyway, because I said I would. Then, all of a sudden, the night before the first show, at three in the morning, I get a call in my hotel room from their tour manager: ‘Oh, Billy decided to fly you home. Where do you want to go?’ And I just said, ‘Indiana,’ because that’s where the cats were.
“I was actually relieved, but I think the way they did it was really cruel. I mean, Billy could have called me, or somebody could have told me at some point that it wasn’t working for whatever reason. But just to have the tour manager call me, with no, ‘Good-bye,’ no, ‘Thanks for trying,’ and then trying to charge me for my plane fare—it’s unbelievable. It’s like, ‘Fuck you for trying.’ They wouldn’t even let me go get my instruments. They just left them in London at the cargo place.”
Rock-star encounters aside, Germano remains optimistic—about her music, her life and about herself. Her bookstore job and occasional session work with the likes of Sheryl Crow help pay the bills. Walks in the L.A. canyons help keep her healthy. Occasional gigs (and an upcoming tour) keep her playing. And, though no new songs have emerged from her new, happier surroundings, she’s none too worried. Nor homesick.
“I didn’t even have a second thought when I left,” she states, not quite making it clear whether she’s referring to a geographical place or an emotional one. “I doubt I’ll ever go back there.”