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Lisa Germano's Dark Magic 

An artist best known for her classic work for 4AD returns with a lush new record

Thursday, Jan 21 2010
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Like 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 almost 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 the Girl, 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.

click to enlarge Lisa Germano: making music for its own sake (and for hers)
  • Lisa Germano: making music for its own sake (and for hers)

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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 way appealing to the pure-expressionists among us. It can, possibly, also change the way she hears 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 hadn't recorded."

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 finish."

Each piece is so subtly shaded with the unexpected — seemingly the kind of thing that couldn't possibly be contrived in a formal writing process.

"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, like, 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."

While Germano's Magic Neighbor songs, including 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," she continues. "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 what."

LISA GERMANO | Magic Neighbor | Young God
Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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