her music, Lisa Germano is different. Neither she nor her sounds seem
capable of selling themselves; they need a nudge. One of the distinct
charms of her new album, in fact, is this fine-tuned ineffability. It
creates an essence of pricelessness, a quality as rare as Ms. Germano's
charisma. Lyrically sophisticated and texturally daring, Magic Neighbor, the L.A.-based
singer-songwriter-violinist's 11th proper album, is a darkly magical and
sweetly moving thing. And while hyping her considerable gifts is low on her
list of priorities, she's got a lot to proclaim.
An accomplished player first spotlighted as a member of John
Mellencamp's touring band in the late '80s and early '90s, Germano has
recorded and toured with loads of big shots, including Indigo Girls, Simple
Minds, David Bowie and Neil Finn. Yet these days she's better known to a
large-ish worldwide fan cult for a series of savagely honest and musically
intrepid solo albums that commenced in the early '90s for the 4AD label,
including the melancholy Happiness in 1994 and the sexual-warfare-running-amok Geek
also from '94.
A series of follow-up records found her exploring with widening
musical palettes some of the farther reaches of the scary rock-as-catharsis
world, but tides and trends shifted, and caused her to lose label support,
at least until Michael Gira's visionary Young God label, best known around
these parts for Devendra Banhart's early recordings, wisely came to the rescue.
Magic Neighbor is so different that I wanted to meet Germano to talk about
it, which we did at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Beverly, not far from
the Whole Foods in Hollywood, where Germano works off and on. She's dressed
casually in halter shirt and jeans, sipping some bizarre herbal tea
concoction and enjoying the sun on her face. These days, she's taking great
enjoyment in making music for its own sake, too.
"Yeah, I've done music when I felt like it," she says.
"It was more like I always told myself that when I turned 50, if I
can't make a living at music, it doesn't mean I have to quit playing it,
but I'd better start thinking about something else to do. It's not like you
have to be bitter about music or anything, but I don't really think it's
right that this is the only thing that you can do."
This idea that an artist has decided to make music primarily because
she wants to do it is appealing to the pure-expressionists among us. It
can, possibly, also change the way she hears the music; Germano took her
time making Magic Neighbor because the songs needed to be nurtured.
"I never decide to do an album until I've got enough material,
and all of a sudden it starts to make sense that it might be a
record," she says. "On this one it was hard because I only had
three songs; I really liked them, kinda, [laughs] but I thought, 'I can't
make a whole record, I don't have the music,' except for a lot of
instrumentals that I would play on the piano, or stuff that's old that I
Getting out of the house to record at producer/engineer Jamie
Candalero's studio helped Germano begin to conceive of an album project.
"This was different, because I always just record at home. I just
said, okay, I'll just go in and start recording and see if this turns into
something, and it slowly and surely became something I thought I should
Each piece is so subtly shaded with the unexpected — seemingly the
kind of thing that couldn't possibly be contrived in a formal writing
"Some of the versions, they were accidents that I liked,"
she says. "You play around and you end up doing the same things over
and over. And sometimes you just sit down and you do make a pretty huge
mistake. And you're, like, 'Whoa, I'll never do that again if I don't
record that right now, I'll never remember what I did.' That's a tool of
writing, so you go a little bit in a different direction."
But it's not as if these songs all began as totally free
improvisations. "Most of these had melodies," she says, "and
it was more like how I might arrange it, or how I might end it. But nothing
was totally, completely made up. I mean, I did have the ideas of the songs.
If you make a mistake, you don't just choose it because it was different; I
usually think there's a reason that I made that mistake, and then if it
doesn't work, then of course you keep trying."
Germano's Magic Neighbor songs, which include a handful of evocative wordless
interludes, may have arisen from her unconscious, she appears to circle the
story of inside/outside the self: the story of need, of forgiveness,
perhaps. She views each song as addressing one straightforward scenario as
it becomes a metaphor for another. The title track concerns the true story
of someone who put her two cats to sleep because she wanted to remodel her
kitchen and needed a dog to go with it.
"I just felt this evilness," Germano says, "and then
I thought of how that kind of consciousness grows bigger, how people in
wars use people for target practice, or experiment with nuclear bombs; they
don't think about people."
"Suli-Moon," with its mysterious chord shifts and shadowy
electronic feel, is not about Octomom. "I used to play it on the piano
as an instrumental, and I didn't have any words for it. I had this Chinese
cat, his name is Suliman; he was a very snobby cat, wise, old. But Suliman
died. I just wanted the song to be about feelings, I wanted it to be about
something that feels good when you hear it, makes you feel better, a
comfort thing." And extending the idea of musical metaphors, the
song's curious chords represent Suliman's cat language.
"You don't hear any actual words," she says, "except
you can kinda hear 'tuna in my bowl.' Kitties always want tuna...It wasn't
just about a cat. Someone you loved may not be alive anymore, but you know
where they are, you can feel them."
Germano seems to strive toward being direct and simple, yet she
knows that's not always possible. She peppers her work with rudimentary
sentiment like "It's a beautiful day" in "To the Mighty
One," yet the song's instrumental grain suggests a vulnerability
bordering on mild aggression. That dark/light struggle, it seeps out. You
could call it a kind of irony, but she says she's not doing it on purpose.
"I'm not actually smart enough to know that I'm doing that. It feels
like life can be so tragic that you have to have a sense of humor about
things, or see a lot of beauty.
"It's juggling the darkness and the light. It's all about
fighting with yourself, your insides. Everybody's got a demon. 'The Mighty
One' is just a person who fights the demon and comes out in control, even
if it's just for one day. And I'm going to have a good day today, no matter