by Billy Amendola
(photo by Terry Gabis)
The very beautiful and talented singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb talks drums on MD Online.
Lisa was raised in Dallas, Texas, where she studied piano/music theory and wrote her first songs while still in her early teens. She’s earned a degree in comparative literature from Brown University, where she experienced her first taste of musical success with the duo Liz & Lisa. In the early ’90s, Loeb moved to New York City and became friends and neighbors with actor Ethan Hawke, who recommended her to Reality Bites director Ben Stiller. Her song “Stay” was featured on the film’s soundtrack and became a platinum-selling hit that earned Lisa a Grammy nomination—which resulted in a record deal with Geffen Records. (Lisa is the only artist to have a Number-1 record before being signed to a label.)
Lisa proved her talent over the years, showing she was a lot more than just a cute, one-hit wonder. She released her debut, Tails, in 1995 and its follow-up, the Grammy-nominated, gold-certified Firecracker in ’97. In 2002, Lisa released Cake And Pie and Hello Lisa. The Very Best Of Lisa Loeb is her latest release and features the new track “Single Me Out,” which is also the theme song of her reality TV series, #1 Single, on E! Entertainment Television.
Over the years Lisa has recorded and toured with a number of drummers, and she’s very knowledgeable and hands-on about what she looks for in her music. Her current drummer, Ronny Crawford, weighs in: “Playing and recording with Lisa has always been a great experience because her songs are so descriptive and beautiful. The drum parts are created through jamming with her and the band. A great thing is, she will always suggest a drum idea that she hears in her head that veers or stops or changes the beat around, making it unique to her music. We’ve toured extensively, and playing live is always fun because she encourages the band to stretch and create new ideas.”
MD Online caught up with Lisa while she was on a break from recording her next record.
MD: Let’s talk about how you approach the drums, from the moment you start writing a song through the process of bringing it to the studio.
Lisa: In some cases when I’m writing music, I think of the drumbeat and the feel of the song, depending on the song. Sometimes that plays a major part. I’m co-writing a song right now called “Fallback Guy,” and as we were writing it I realized the drums needed to feel like a very tom-heavy, sort of Elvis Costello–sounding drum beat. So sometimes once you get the drum beat or the feel stuck in your head, that will guide you…
MD: Dictate the direction of the song…
Lisa: Exactly. I play guitar percussively on certain songs, so that can sometimes influence the direction too. Other times, it’s not until I get into the studio and we start experimenting. Sometimes a song isn’t quite working in the studio, and when we start trying something completely different from what I would have even thought of, the song takes on a new life and we’re able to develop it from there.
Right now my primary drummer is Ronny Crawford, who’s great. I had a drummer for a long time named Jon Feinberg, who I’m still friends with. Jon was a very technical drummer who plays really well, but I turned a corner and I really wanted more of a rock drummer, and Ronny was the perfect guy. He’s very feel-oriented, and his time is great, and he’s not held-back technically. He’s more like John Bonham or Keith Moon, more wild. That’s great, because the drummers who play with us singer/songwriters, especially in the early ’90s, were a little more technical and less emotional, and Ronny’s more spirited. So I really enjoy playing with him. And I also play with a drummer named Joe Travers. Joe is a great drummer too. Depending on where I’m playing, I’ll use him if he’s available.
MD: Is Ronny in your touring band?
Lisa: Ronny’s in my touring band—when he’s available. Especially now with the state of things, you can’t really afford to keep musicians on. So it’s important to have a number of different musicians who know each other and get together and play. That gives everybody more freedom, so if the drummer’s got another great gig offer, he’ll be able to do it. And as a singer/songwriter, I’m playing with different musicians more now than I ever thought I would growing up. And it really opens up your mind.
MD: It can push you in a different direction sometimes.
Lisa: Yeah, it does, and different combinations of people create a different chemistry.
MD: Will you give direction to the drummer in the studio?
Lisa: I’ll have an idea of what I want. But I play with musicians I trust, so when I show them a new song and we start playing through it, then I’ll start getting really particular with how it’s played and what the drum feel is and how complex it needs to be. And as a singer/songwriter, the drums are really important because it’s part of the thing that creates the variety from song to song. It’s really important to me when I make an album that there’s some songs that are way more rock and some songs that are more acoustic and some songs that are more orchestrated in some way. I need a drummer who can do all those things. So, yes, I suggest drum parts.
Over the years I’ve learned that instead of trying to force musicians to play things that I’m hearing in my head, I try to start off with a little bit more of the raw materials that are close to what I need. I’ve always had great musicians, and now I have musicians who I feel a little bit more confident with right from the get-go. We start playing and what they initially come up with is usually close to what I’m looking for, so I feel less bossy. [laughs] That’s good because I tend to be very specific with what I’m looking for and what I need.
When it comes to live playing, I used to be very married to the idea of playing things the way they were on the recordings, because as an audience member that’s what I wanted when I went to see a band play. But now as a musician, I feel like when we play live, part of our goal is to play the right feel of the song. It’s not going to sound exactly like the recording, but not drastically different either. I don’t like it when people completely change it up and turn a rock song into a reggae song, or something like that. That drives me crazy.
MD: So you let the band stretch a bit.
Lisa: Yes. But if there are signature parts of a song, I like to play those close to the recording. And when we play a single on TV, I do like to play it as closely as possible to the recording, because at that point it’s a commercial for that one song.
MD: Is there anything you don’t like drummers to do?
Lisa: I do have certain drum quirks, like I don’t like Blastix and Rods. I know a lot of people start trying to revert to Blastixs when they are trying to support the singer. I like drumsticks! I like the sound of a drumstick hitting the snare drum squarely. Those kinds of sticks just don’t have the impact of a drumstick hitting the drum. And it’s funny, because I’m a singer/songwriter and a lot of people are like, “Oh, does your drummer use Blastix”? [laughs]
MD: Yeah, one would think you don’t want the drummer overpowering you.
Lisa: It’s often a challenge to be a singer/songwriter who prefers rock music. In a large venue drummers can play louder, and the mix engineer in the house can balance out the instruments. Whereas in a place where we’re more likely to play, like a House Of Blues or a place that’s a bit smaller, you get into that weird situation where you don’t want the drummer to hold back, but you also don’t want them to have Blastixs. You know what I’m saying?
MD: So the drummer has to have control.
Lisa: Yes. And luckily I have great drummers who have a lot of control. But that’s always something that has to be contended with.
MD: Do you have certain drums in mind for particular tracks?
Lisa: Oh, yeah, I’ll work with the drummer and engineers together on that. Sometimes you need a tighter or deeper-sounding snare drum, or you need certain toms or cymbals or percussion elements. Obviously the tuning of the drums and the depth of the material and what the drums are made out of—and the rooms that we are recording in—all play a part. But again, I can keep honing down my team to the point where we are all on the same page at the get-go, so it doesn’t become a four-hour discussion about which drumsticks or snare drum to use.
We’ve also gone through phases where we were so specific about the drums and gear and looking for special rooms, and it gets to the point where that gets too complex. And I think a lot of us have gone back to saying, “Let’s just play it,” and you do the least amount of that kind of over-thinking. I remember when we worked in Electric Lady in NYC for some tracks on my first album. We had a great room sound and it was awesome, but when we got to mixing we ended up using mainly the close mic’s, because the drums were taking up too much space in the track. And all of a sudden it was like, “Wait.” So I started recording at people’s home studios and small spaces and that worked just as well. The drummer felt comfortable, and the drums were set up well, and the studio was set up well. Sometimes you don’t need a big expensive studio with a big room. With some great playing and some engineering, you don’t necessarily need expensive rented drums and a bunch of nonsense.
MD: Do you have certain drummers in mind for certain tracks?
Lisa: In most cases I love to work with my own band just because I love them so much. Ronny and Joe are both fun to work with and hang out with, besides being great drummers.
MD: You’ve also used studio players on your records at times, such as John Robinson on “I Do.”
Lisa: Yes, J.R. played on that song. That was a situation where the record company wanted a single, and we invited J.R. to come in and play. He played well on that song; it had that more commercial feel to it. I just have a tremendous loyalty to my band, so it’s always hard for me to work with…not hard…but I always feel strange working with other musicians who aren’t in my band. And yet, I’ve learned from those experiences that it’s okay, you still can be loyal to your band, and you can learn so much and be introduced to different playing styles. Like, I love Matt Chamberlain. He’s a fantastic drummer. I remember being so disappointed when I heard that The New Bohemians, who are from Dallas, where I grew up, replaced their drummer. After playing with Matt I realized how incredible a drummer he is. He’s artistic but still really strong.
MD: And his feel is great.
Lisa: Yes, exactly. So we may pull in a different drummer for different projects. Honestly a lot of it has to do with whether Ronny is on tour in Europe or somewhere and we can’t get him to come to the studio.
MD: I read that you did two tracks for CD tributes to Shania Twain and Cher. Who was the drummer on those tracks?
Lisa: Brett Chasson played on those recordings. He’s a really nice guy who works with Bob Kulick a lot on those tribute records. So Bob brought Brett in to play on them. Brett is a really sweet guy. He loaned me some drums that I have in my living room; I try to play them every once in a while.
MD: So you get behind the kit and play?
Lisa: I’m not very good, but I do. [laughs] I’m always learning things. Matt Chamberlain taught me a few fills. But Brett’s drums are custom Innovations with gold hardware. They’re black with multi-colored sparkles, and they’re really beautiful.
MD: Who played drums on the new track, “Single Me Out”?
Lisa: Adam Marcello. He’s someone that producer/songwriter Jimmy Harry works with a lot. Adam’s another great drummer.
MD: That song is rocking.
Lisa: It totally rocks! We wanted to get a drummer in there who could play that kind of feel. It’s basically old-school rock/pop.
MD: One last question: When you hire a drummer, what are the requirements?
Lisa: He has to be able to communicate well in musical terms. We have to be able to communicate with each other, and he has to be flexible and be able to take constructive criticism. He also has to have his own creative ideas about things. I don’t want a follower who does only what he’s told, though he has to respect that I’m the leader of the band. He has to be familiar with basic drum beats, feels, and references. And he has to be fun and easy to work with, and have a good attitude. That’s really important. Musicians hang out a lot, and you want to have a good time. And no drugs.
For more on Lisa, visit her Web site, www.lisaloeb.com.