Puremusic Interview with Jill Sobule

by Frank Goodman

I first saw Jill Sobule play in my early days in Nashville, '89. In those days, before the 48 Hours story and the forgettable movie that centered around it, The Bluebird Cafe was a hip place for aspiring songwriters to hang out.

Between the New Traditionalist movement in the late 80s and early 90s spearheaded by Randy Travis and the Steve Earle/Lyle Lovett wave, a lot of new blood was coming into town. Songwriters and singers of many descriptions were thinking that this looked like a pretty hip scene, and it was, for a little while.

To the newcomer, there were so many good songwriters to be absorbed and emulated in rooms like The Bluebird that one could go out every night (and I did) and see people that were writing hits, or writing great songs. And the town got bigger, even the newcomers could feel it swell. In those days, before the country boom of the mid 90s (and the inevitable, subsequent bust of the late 90s) one of the new writers on the scene was a diminutive, blonde dynamo from Denver named Jill Sobule.

She wasn't playing the tiny Vagabond Travel Guitar just yet, which would soon come to be her trademark. She was playing very cool, jazzy pop songs on a nylon string with a keyboard player who had a million great sounds. By jazzy pop songs I mean here that they were inventive, cutting edge pop songs that used jazz chords, not that they sounded in any way like jazz standards. She had a big stage presence in a tiny frame, which is always a confounding dichotomy. Sexy, but androgynous. Vulnerable, but she could ram it right down your throat. She was exciting. And she was good, so good that you'd be shaking your head in disbelief whenever a moment came that you could take your eyes off her.

Then Michael Rhodes came into the picture. First as part of a trio, then for some duo gigs when the keyboardist went back to Denver. The gigs with Rhodes were my favorite, some of my favorite gigs of all time. As bassists go, I have never seen or heard anyone put down a bigger, badder groove than Michael Rhodes. Period. He also has an uncanny ability to adapt like a chameleon, no, like a guerrilla, to the situation at hand. He and Jill cut such a fine form physically, he so tall and shaven of head, he seemed also her bodyguard. Jill's Dutch boy haircut and the steam coming off his head always looked so good in the stage lights. And they both had those penetrating eyes that seemed to be brighter than eyes usually are, and they were generally locked on each other.

Their dynamics were pronounced, they'd get so quiet and then so crazed, they'd hit small pockets of free space where one or the other would improvise something, and the other would answer. I wish I could say I've seen a lot of shows that were that good since those incredible duo and trio gigs of Jill Sobule and Michael Rhodes, but it isn't true.

Jill's first CD came out after that, the one she made with Todd Rundgren. It was great to have one, but it didn't sound enough like those gigs to me. Really good record, though, called Things Here Are Different, MCA 1990. The so called missing album was made the following year with Joe Jackson, it never came out and MCA dropped Jill.

The second label was Atlantic/Lava. The fine 1995 recording Jill Sobule marked the beginning of her work with Robin Eaton and Brad Jones of Alex the Great Studios in Nashville, which is still ongoing. Off this disc she experienced her MTV breakout hit "I Kissed a Girl." Just one of many great songs on that record. Atlantic/Lava also put out Happy Town in 1997, waffled on the single because it had the word "bitch" in it. (Very shortly later, Meredith Brooks had a huge breakout single called "Bitch.") Atlantic dropped her.

Beyond Records put out Pink Pearl in 2000, these are all really good records, every one. A retrospective called I Never Learned to Swim: Jill Sobule 1990-2000 came out on the same and current label, and is the finest introduction to Jill's work available. (Plus, there's a fab version of Lauro Nyro's great song "Stoned Soul Picnic" that was a big hit for the Fifth Dimension in the 60s.)

Why Jill Sobule is not yet a huge star is one of the many mysteries of life for me. But yet is the operative word, and more people catch on to her greatness every day. When you do (if you haven't already), be so kind as to spread it around. Surrey down to the Listen page and check out the chick, she's amazing.  continue to interview