Jill Sobule: A Shredder Right From The Beginning

Oct 5, 2018

Two weeks before Kickstarter launched in 2009, Jill Sobule released her own crowdfunded record, California Years. Sobule began her fundraising efforts a year before the crowdfunding behemoth came into existence. She told Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's Ask Me Another, that Kickstarter's founders even contacted her to gain insight on the crowdfunding process: "What an idiot! Why didn't I think of making it as a business?" she said.

Music has been a lifelong interest for Sobule. When she was 5 years old, she received a drum kit, and moved to guitar soon after. However, Sobule didn't decide to seriously follow her passion until she reached college. "My third year, I went to Spain and my friends and I decided 'let's go busk on the streets,'" she said. "I had all these songs that I'd written, but they were my personal journals, and it was the first time I ever sang."

Sobule recalled that on her first day busking, she and her friends were approached by a passerby who asked them to perform at his nightclub. The offer turned out to be legitimate, and the show was a success. That year, Sobule dropped out of college to pursue a career in music.

1995 was a big year for Sobule: Her song "Supermodel" featured on the Clueless soundtrack, and she released another hit, "I Kissed a Girl." Sobule said her fans continue to tell her how "I Kissed a Girl" played a part in recognizing and understanding their own sexuality, but in 1995, "the [record] label wanted to take away the queerness of it and made it into a goofy, little novelty song." While the music video was originally meant to include a same-sex kiss, it instead ends with Sobule seeming to be pregnant with the child of romance novel cover model Fabio Lanzoni.

These days, Sobule doesn't answer to the will of record labels. Her most recent album, this year's Nostalgia Kills, was crowdfunded and self-released, like California Years. Sobule relies on her fanbase, which she describes as "small yet mighty," for the success of these projects.

Nostalgia Kills was inspired by a conversation Sobule overheard at a party. She recalled hearing a man say that people over the age of 40 can no longer write relevant music. Sobule said she confronted him: "I go, 'Sir, you're an idiot,' and I just walked off. I have no clue who he was, but he's my nemesis and he made me write this record."

Sobule joined forces with Ask Me Another's house musician Jonathan Coulton in a music parody game about musicians who go by one-word names.

Heard on Tom Arnold and Jill Sobule: Nostalgia Kills.

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. Before the break, we met our contestants, Sam and David. They're waiting backstage to play their second game. But first, it's time to welcome our next special guest. You know her from the '90s hits "I Kissed A Girl" and "Supermodel." Please welcome musician Jill Sobule.



EISENBERG: Hi, Jill. Thank you so much for coming to our show.

SOBULE: I'm so excited you asked me.

EISENBERG: Yeah, it's great. So you have a new album, "Nostalgia Kills." But we're going to get to that in a minute. But I was interested to find out that, you know, you've been playing for a long time. But you got a drum kit when you were 5 years old.

SOBULE: Yeah, that was my first instrument. I was in love with Ringo Starr.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

SOBULE: And then somehow, my parents convinced me that the guitar was a much nicer instrument.

EISENBERG: Now, was it gifted to you as a 5-year-old, you know, one of those things were someone's like, ha, ha, ha, we're going to give your kid a drumkit?

SOBULE: No, no, I was obsessed. I just wanted to be a drummer.



EISENBERG: And so they were like, OK, we're going to get you a little kid drumkit.

SOBULE: And then they decided no.


EISENBERG: No. And so at what point did you start playing guitar?

SOBULE: So right afterwards. So I - my first guitar - I had an electric guitar, and I had a big amp. And I was like about 2 feet high. and...


SOBULE: Yeah. I was a shredder.


EISENBERG: From - right from the beginning.

SOBULE: Right from the beginning.

EISENBERG: And then when did it turn into, this is my profession; this is what I'm doing for my love and my career forever?

SOBULE: Oh, not till I dropped out my third year of college.

EISENBERG: OK. So you go to college.

SOBULE: So - oh, yeah. I thought like, who makes a living doing music?

EISENBERG: Yeah. Right.

SOBULE: No, so you know what happened? My third year, I went to Spain. And my friends and I decided, let's go busk on the streets. And I had all these songs that I'd written, but they were my personal journals. And it was the first time I ever sang. And it was the first day. We sang on the street. And some guy walked by, and he said, would you like to play my nightclub? And we thought like, you know, young American girls. And it ended up being legitimate. And I wonder, if that guy hadn't walked by...

EISENBERG: What would have happened?

SOBULE: ...What would I be doing?

EISENBERG: And how was that gig in Spain?

SOBULE: It was fantastic.



EISENBERG: So then that was it. You were inspired to - you were like, this is it.

SOBULE: This was it.

EISENBERG: OK. So you have engaged your fan base to help you fund your projects. You - actually, you did this with "Nostalgia Kills." You also did the same thing with "California Years" originally when you put it out called jillsnextrecord.com.

SOBULE: Yes, it was before Kickstarter.


SOBULE: In fact, I was one of the first to do a kind of tiered level. I had polished rock to weapons-grade plutonium, you know?


SOBULE: And in fact, the guys from Kickstarter, before they started, they had meetings like, how did you do this?

EISENBERG: How'd you do it?

SOBULE: And I'm like, what an idiot. Why didn't I think of...


SOBULE: ...Making it as a business or - no, but it was fantastic.

EISENBERG: So did you do it on just a web page, or how did you...

SOBULE: Yeah, I had a friend. We just did it because I knew I wasn't going to get a record deal, a big one. And I have small but mighty fan base. And I had no idea...

EISENBERG: What would happen.

SOBULE: ...What would happen.

EISENBERG: And so the response was great. You were like, I'm actually doing an album here. People have paid for it.


EISENBERG: And then - I mean, so what year was that, 2009?

SOBULE: 2008.

EISENBERG: 2008. It's clearly different than doing it now. I mean, how has it changed between doing it then and now with your current project?

SOBULE: Well, it took me forever to do it because back - I was so scared that I wouldn't do as well because back then, there was - you know, now you're inundated by people saying, you know, help them with their...

EISENBERG: Everything.

SOBULE: ...Their everything.


SOBULE: So there was nothing else like that. CNN and other news sources were interested. Like, what is this? So I got a lot of publicity for it.


SOBULE: And, you know, I stopped at a certain level because Perez Hilton...


SOBULE: He put up this really mean, ugly picture of me with dollar signs saying, greedy, greedy, greedy, awful Jill Sobule, you know, asking her fans. And so I quit it. And then six months later, everyone starts doing it. And...

EISENBERG: Right. What a different time...

SOBULE: What a different time.

EISENBERG: ...For a definition of greed.



SOBULE: Yes. Oh, my God.

EISENBERG: Yeah, right. So now you're doing it, you know, for your last album. In the beginning, you know, you don't have the whole infrastructure. Now it's very clear that you have to offer your fans something kind of authentic and cool as a reward for...

SOBULE: Right.

EISENBERG: ...Funding.

SOBULE: Right. Yeah, so I did try to do it this time like last time.


SOBULE: So I had some pretty interesting ones.

EISENBERG: So what did you offer people?

SOBULE: Well, as a joke, I had - my highest level was, I will put on the record, and you will be forever my personal lord and savior.


SOBULE: And Joss Whedon is my personal lord and savior.



SOBULE: Yeah, really. Oh, and then I do theme songs. And I - and Tom Bergeron has a theme song.

EISENBERG: Oh, that's amazing.

SOBULE: I'm just - so anyone want a theme song? Yeah.

EISENBERG: I want a theme song.

SOBULE: OK, you're going to get one.

EISENBERG: I'll give you whatever the dollar amount is for that level.

SOBULE: No, you're free.

EISENBERG: Whoa. All right. So in the mid-90s, that's when I discovered you because you have these two big hit songs - "Supermodel" - that was featured on the "Clueless" soundtrack - "I Kissed A Girl" - as you pointed out, the original one.

SOBULE: (Laughter) Oh, God.


EISENBERG: You - obviously, you were playing live a lot of your life. How often are you playing these songs?

SOBULE: You know what? There was a while...


SOBULE: ...That with "Kissed A Girl" - it was, like, you know what? Because, you know, I was just the "Kissed A Girl" girl.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

SOBULE: And I loved - I love - on one hand, it was so great...


SOBULE: ...Because that's - still, to this day, I get people who are saying, you know, that song meant a lot to me growing up in Alabama. And I wanted a song like that when - I wish there would have been when I was a kid. And I think, on the other hand, the label didn't - they wanted to take away the queerness of it, and they made it a real - you know, it's a goofy, little novelty...


SOBULE: ...Song. And, in fact, when we did the video - do you remember the video with Fabio in it?



SOBULE: We were - actually, in the video, we were planning on having - it was going to be the first time a same-sex kiss was going to be on. And, at the last minute, they nixed it, and they made me look like I had Fabio's baby.


SOBULE: But then, you know, I'm taking it back. And I remember that when Katy Perry - it was, like, now she's the "Kissed A Girl" girl. And I was, like, hey, buddy, I'm the "Kissed A Girl" girl (laughter)...


SOBULE: ...After all that time. So I'm proud of it...


SOBULE: ...So much. And I know I'll play it anytime anyone wants to hear it.

EISENBERG: Anytime - that's good to know.


EISENBERG: In your new album, "Nostalgia Kills," you've said this is your best work. Tell us about this party conversation you overheard that inspired it initially.

SOBULE: Yeah. I was at some party, and I overheard this conversation. And I just walked by, and he goes, yeah, yeah. I'm a music publisher, and I just tell you I've known that, you know, people over 40 - they can't write songs anymore that are relevant or good.


SOBULE: And I remember just walking up to these three people - I was just - I go, sir, you're an idiot.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).


SOBULE: And I just walked off. And I have no idea who he was. But he's been my nemesis, and it's worked for me. And it made me write this record.

EISENBERG: That's great.


EISENBERG: Jill, are you ready to help us with an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

SOBULE: I would.

EISENBERG: All right. Jill Sobule, everybody.


EISENBERG: Let's bring back our contestants Sam and David and our house musician, Jonathan Coulton.


EISENBERG: So Jill Sobule is going to help us with the latest in our music parody series where we take things too literally. We rewrote songs by artists that are known by one-word names to be about the literal definition of their one-word name.

COULTON: For example, if we sing "Hotline Bling" but with lyrics about a male duck, you would answer Drake.

EISENBERG: And great news - this game is worth double points. Sam, stay in the lead, and you're in the final around. David, you need to get more points, or from now on, you'll have to go through life with just one name - disappointment.



EISENBERG: It's the meanest thing we've ever written.

COULTON: That is pretty heavy.


EISENBERG: All right. Ring in to answer. Here we go.

COULTON: You ready?

SOBULE: I'm ready.

COULTON: Here we go.

SOBULE: (Singing) First, you take some crimson. Then you add a little white. Then you mix them both together for this - a shade that isn't just for girls.




COULTON: Pink. That's right.


COULTON: It's "Just Give Me A Reason" by Pink. (Singing) Baby, I compare you to a sea lion - both pinnipeds. You have smaller flippers and no visible earflaps. And you're more quiet and shy. Crawl on your belly on land.




COULTON: Seal. That's right.


COULTON: "Kiss From A Rose."

EISENBERG: No visible earflaps just screws me up.


COULTON: That's how you - one of the ways you tell a seal from a sea lion.

EISENBERG: Don't like it. Don't like thinking about that.

COULTON: Yeah. Here we go.

SOBULE: (Singing) A lot of hair.

COULTON: (Singing) Dude is hairy, and it's all disheveled. Man, he's really quite unkempt.

SOBULE: (Singing) A lot of hair.

COULTON: (Singing) Picture this - try to comb it, got stuck, didn't make the next attempt.

SOBULE: (Singing) A lot of hair.



GROSSMAN: That would be Shaggy.

COULTON: It would be Shaggy. That's right.


COULTON: Jill's doing a lot of excellent acting over here.

EISENBERG: That was great.

SOBULE: (Laughter).

COULTON: I'm loving it.

EISENBERG: I'm going to say superior version.


COULTON: Here's your next one. (Singing) I'm in the treetop, watching my blue eggs, oh, oh. I'm up with the dawn, singing the first song, oh, oh. You don't know your birds, but you recognize me even so. My red breast is how you'll know.




COULTON: Robin. "Dancing On My Own." That's right.


SOBULE: (Singing) I'm a precious stone, like the Heart of the Ocean now. I'm a precious stone, faceted or polished and smooth, boy.


SOBULE: (Singing) I'm a precious stone. And I'm stuck in a crown.




COULTON: Jewel. That's right.


COULTON: OK, good. This one is really high. Here we go. (Singing) If you ever get too close to me, this will cause you pain 'cause I'm a bee.




COULTON: Sting. That's right.


COULTON: All right, this is your last clue. (Singing) And I own all this land now, land now.

JONATHAN COULTON AND JILL SOBULE: (Singing) Feudalism suits me. I swore allegiance to the king.

COULTON: (Singing) That means I own everything.

COULTON AND SOBULE: (Singing) I will rule this manor.

COULTON: (Singing) Manor.

COULTON AND SOBULE: (Singing) I will call you serf three.

COULTON: (Singing) And if you won't serve...

SOBULE: (Singing) Won't serve.

COULTON: (Singing) Won't serve.

SOBULE: (Singing) Won't serve, then get off my property.




COULTON: Lorde is correct. That's "Royals."


COULTON: Ophira, how did our contestants do?

EISENBERG: Oh, what a great game. Sam, congratulations. You are moving on to our final round.


EISENBERG: And thank you to Jill Sobule. Her latest album is called "Nostalgia Kills." Give it up for Jill Sobule.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.