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INTRODUCING . . . JILL SOBULE : Pop Success Kisses a Wry, Whimsical Girl

June 11, 1995|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner writes about pop music for Calendar

In Jill Sobule's songs, truth is often stranger than fiction--particularly when it's bent a bit.

Among the tracks on Sobule's new album (most of them co-written with Robin Eaton) is a ditty called "Karen by Night," about an uptight shoe store manager who, after the moon rises, becomes a barhopping tigress. Sobule once worked for such a person, sort of.

"I made her out to be this exciting outlaw," she says in a telephone interview, "when she was really more of a pathetic alcoholic."

Such wry, whimsical humor permeates "Jill Sobule," the thirtyish singer-songwriter's second album, which was recently released on Atlantic Records.

It's a breakthrough that's been about 20 years in the making, dating to when a 10-year-old Sobule was given an electric guitar by her parents. Driven by a fascination with literate rock minstrels such as Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello and a passion for pop standards and show tunes--which perhaps accounts for her ability to combine witty lyrics with sweet, buoyant melodies--Sobule began writing songs, but only for her own satisfaction.

While spending her fourth year of college abroad in Spain, Sobule, a Denver native who now lives in Los Angeles, had a chance encounter that changed her life. Having bought a flamenco guitar, she decided to play and sing on the street in Madrid one day, "only because I figured I'd never see these people again, and they wouldn't understand what I was singing anyway." A nightclub owner spotted her and persuaded her to perform at his establishment. A month later, Sobule dropped out of school.

After signing with MCA Records, she put out a misdirected album and promptly found herself dropped from the label at the end of 1991.

"It was a really hard time in my life," Sobule recalls. "I mean, I had no other skills, aside from having studied political science. What was I gonna do?"

She identifies "The Jig Is Up," a wistful lament featured on the Atlantic album, as a direct result of this experience. "For me, this new album was a way of dealing with a lot of problems. . . . But I put a kind of hopeful cynicism in it, a sense of humor."

One of the album's cheekier songs, "I Kissed a Girl," has garnered a lot of publicity as a single, thanks to the bisexual implications of its lyrics. Sobule has denied that this goofy tale of two experimental girlfriends is her attempt to "out" herself. But she'll openly champion female bonding of the professional variety:

"I would hear, 'Oh, we already have a female singer-songwriter.' Whereas you never hear anyone say, 'Oh, we already have a bad male metal band.' And I love the way they try to pit us against each other--like it's 'Dynasty' and we're gonna get in a Joan Collins-Linda Evans fight. Me and Sheryl Crow, going at it!"

Clearly, Sobule is more interested in the sort of melodramas she can tap into artistically--the (embellished) misadventures of Karen or the true story of "Margaret," the Catholic schoolgirl-turned-porn-star she immortalizes in another song on "Sobule." For all the self-discovery she's done in recent years, the singer maintains that she will always draw inspiration from the travails of others. "I'm a great voyeur," she says.*

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