Heart-to-heart: Psychologically rich pop songs buoy Lisa Germano

By Mark Guarino

You can tell the songwriters who make music according to public expectation and others who work according to their heart. Lisa Germano is among the latter and she makes it clear her music isn’t for everybody. If you haven’t had bad luck, suffered abuse or been to therapy at least once if your life, she says “you’re not going to like it at all.”

Consider that a warning. Germano, who enjoyed a prolific career in the ‘90s and counts John Mellencamp, David Bowie and Neil Finn among her many employers as a side musician, writes starkly beautiful music informed by, among others things, her therapy sessions. Since self-releasing her first album in 1991, she has steadily connected with a small but growing audience, but also suffered the fate of record companies who could not find a clear-cut way to market her music.

So for the past few years, she retreated and, aside from session work as a vocalist and fiddle player, she worked at a bookstore on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. “Lullaby For Liquid Pig” (Ineffable Records/iMusic), is the music that grew from those isolating years. Since she works more by instinct than design, Germano decided she wasn’t going to make another album because she felt uninspired and burnt out. Then, over a period of three years, she discovered that the songs she was tinkering with suddenly “made sense.”

What she had, she said, was a bunch of songs “about the relationship with alcohol.” Although she considered titling them “The Fix,” she stumbled upon the phrase “Liquid Pig” which made what she was writing less personal, turning her struggles with drinking into a metaphor “about a much deeper thing.” “It’s about a behavior that you’re seeing you need to change now and you can’t,” she said. “But at least you’re seeing it, so it gives you some hope.”

The finished album is strewn with liquor references that, when sung in Germano’s faint, fragile voice (“I smell like wine/most of the time…it’s party time”), are devastating. But the songs are far from being a strict diary of a lost weekend. Sounding emanating from inside a child’s tiny music box — the atmospheric production features muted percussion, whirring motors and the hallucinatory use of simple pianos and guitars — the music is comforting and spooky simultaneously. The emotions that surface inside these sweet melodies, like vulnerability and desire, blur together and what’s left is a naked portrayal of someone struggling to stand up in more ways than one.

Two of the songs — “Into the Night” and “From a Shell” — she wrote, not with alcohol in mind but with the desire “to be alive.” “That’s much, much harder than be buzzed from a drug,” she said. “That’s when I got excited.”

Germano moved to L.A. only five years ago. Before then, her homebase was Indiana. She was raised in Mishawaka, outside South Bend, to a large Italian family. Her dad once played viola for the Chicago Symphony and, inspired, she started up with violin. When living in Bloomington, she suffered from agoraphobia and frequently had panic attacks, which coincided with her attempts to quit performing. Her quick fix was a stint in country band around town that played covers. Through Kenny Aronoff, the drummer in John Mellencamp’s band, she was introduced to the Hoosier rocker. Then, one day while working in a clothing store in town, Mellencamp called her and asked if she’d join his band. She was 26.

“You couldn’t say no,” she said. “But I knew I had to get help real soon. I was absolutely terrified.”

Germano ended up a key component in Mellencamp’s revamped band, which he designed as a return back to his country and folk roots. Debuting on “The Lonesome Jubilee” (Mercury) in 1987, she has appeared on five Mellencamp albums. Although she doesn’t like talking about Mellencamp today (“I learned about a lot of things about being out there in the real world, but it has nothing to do with my own music”), she credits the experience as the kick she needed to start therapy for the first time.

“Before playing with John I was very sick in a lot of ways,” she said. “I quit trying to play music and I think when you quit doing what you need to do, you get sick. I had to deal with the stuff I wasn’t used to dealing with at all. My own music started teaching me to strip away the stuff and to get down to what’s real … so you can actually be honest.”

Because of her tenure with Mellencamp, Germano became a sought-after session player, recording and touring with Simple Minds, David Bowie, Neil Finn, Giant Sand, eels, and others. It wasn’t until she entered her thirties that she felt confident enough to write her own songs. In time, she gave up the violin (“I honestly don’t love playing it anymore”) to concentrate on playing piano. Her steady string of albums — the first five in seven years — were atmospheric bedroom pop that received critical raves but connected with a small audience, partially due to the continual shakeups at her labels.

“It’s been just weird luck,” she said. “But it hasn’t been that much of a blow because when I do connect (with fans), I know I really do connect with them. They just really tell me how important it is to them.”

The raw emotions in her music never scream for attention, but are subtly layered in the carefully mannered construction of the songs. Germano said an effort is made to showcase the feelings, with little dressing as possible, so that the music is less personal but more widely accessible. “It feels horrible to be stuck. In a way, I only share my music because I do know other people feel this way. I hope, because it helps me, that it can help other people was well,” she said.

For her, the emotion of a song comes first. “It somehow has to hit your heart first to give you the desire to write — I find that writing more moving. Unlike musicians who can play millions of notes or have great voices but there’s no heart to it,” she said.

After her current tour — which arrives for two nights at Schuba’s starting Wednesday — Germano has no plans. She might return to the bookstore, she might go back to school to become a teacher. The California sunshine has been good for her, but lately she’s started hating the traffic. The last time she contacted her therapist, it was when Neil Finn called to ask her fly to New Zealand for a concert he was organizing which meant she would be sharing a stage with members of Radiohead, Johnny Marr of The Smiths and Eddie Vedder. “I was kinda freaked out and started having panic attacks again,” she said. “Most of the times I can figure out what is happening but some things you can’t.”

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