Lisa Loeb—who was catapulted to singer-songwriter stardom when her 1994 song “Stay (I Missed You),” from the soundtrack to Reality Bites, made her the first-ever unsigned artist to have a Billboard number-one single—has spent the last few years devoting herself to projects from acting to eyewear-design to children’s music and books. With her new album No Fairy Tale, which hits stores today, Loeb finally returns to pop music.
Loeb spoke to TIME about what she learned writing for kids, what it’s like to sing other people’s songs for the first time and why in the world people might think mock turtlenecks are cool again.
TIME: Tell me about the album and the title track. What does “No Fairy Tale” mean?
Lisa Loeb: When you first hear the phrase, it sounds almost like life is tough, but instead of it being that “life is not all it’s cracked up to be,” it’s actually “life is better than a fairy tale.” Life is more rich and full when you live your life with all its ups and downs instead of trying to have a “perfect” life.
Is that an attitude you try to have in your own life?
Yeah, it’s sort of a reappearing theme in my album titles as well as my songs and my general philosophy. It’s really important to see life the way it is. I think a lot of us grew up in a way where there’s a lot of focus on the end goal rather than the process. As I’ve gotten more experience in life, I’ve found that winning awards, making good grades, going to good colleges, you know, being thin or whatever the thing might be, the process is a lot of what life is about. That’s something that’s important to me as a musician, as a person, even as a mom.
What was it like to come back to pop-rock music after spending time in the world of kid’s music?
It’s so great. There’s a lot of freedom in writing kids’ music. Also, I usually collaborate on my kids’ music and we’ve been able to tell stories and write songs about things we never usually write about.
Like pancakes, or opposite day. Just using really fun, visual imagery. That’s been really a great freedom but it’s also informed my grown-up writing and honed my skills in story-telling. Through my experiences with the kids’ music, where we try to make it sound like there are really people singing together in a room, because that’s how you want to present music to kids often—like something that’s happening in their real life, not something that’s happening outside of them—bringing that experience to this project worked perfectly with the genre of music that we’re doing. This record is really a poppy-punky-rock record and I think in that there’s a lot of energy and immediacy and a different kind of energy than you find in a singer-songwriter album and an acoustic album.
But no songs about pancakes.
No. But a lot of pancakes were made. Especially in the process of mixing the record, we were in a big pancake phase.
On this record you also have some collaboration.
It’s my first album doing that. It was great to know that I could continue to grow as an artist, which for me meant recording somebody else’s songs, which I never would have done in the past. I think as a songwriter, especially when you’re starting out, it was a source of pride that I write my own music. But with more experience I realize that throughout those songs it’s always your own voice. And to be able to do songs with Tegan and Sara—I don’t even think Chad [Gilbert, of the band New Found Glory], who produced the record with me, knew what a big fan I was of theirs. When he had the idea of making the record he called me up and one of his references for what he wanted to make, he said “I don’t know if you know the band Tegan and Sara…” I’d actually listened to their music for years and years leading up to this record, while I was writing songs. It’s pretty cool to able to play songs by people who you listened to while you were writing your record. It added dimension to the record, too. I told stories I wouldn’t typically tell in ways that I wouldn’t typically tell them. It was more like being an actor than a musician.
But you tell your own stories too. I wanted to ask you about the song “The ‘90s.”
The ‘90s was a song that Chad wanted to write. At first I think I gave him a little bit of resistance because I couldn’t imagine how I would write a song about the ‘90s that I would be pleased with, because I didn’t want it to be kitschy and I didn’t want it to be like, you know, a jokey song like “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” What is that called?
A novelty song?
Yeah, I didn’t want it to feel like a novelty song, but I started writing the verses and I realized this is a great opportunity for me to write about making the video “Stay” and what I was going through at the time. I loved the ‘90s and it was a great time, but I want to keep looking forward. Anybody who’s nostalgic about the ‘90s or any other part of their life can relate to that. I think that’s what’s so great about this song. We wrote a song that’s definitely about the ‘90s and even has production references to the ‘90s—I don’t know if you noticed that the way the song ends, that’s a production reference to a lot of songs that would continue on that way after the song’s over, with the dropped tambourine and everything—but it’s also very current sounding.
It does seem like there’s a lot of ‘90s nostalgia in pop culture right now. Why do you think the ‘90s are having a moment?
I guess it’s time. We’ve done the ‘80s. People seem to be wearing what I wore to my Bat Mitzvah. At American Apparel it’s a glimpse into my closet when I was a kid. But there’s always nostalgia for time periods that came before us. The ‘90s are a little bit harder to pin down, I think, because clothing-wise—I guess people always feel that way when they lived through a certain era. Like mock turtlenecks and cut-off jean shorts. But apparently people do like that stuff. I see kids running around in ‘90s looking clothes. I think also for people who lived through certain time periods, they didn’t seem that long ago. I don’t know why the ‘90s are having a resurgence, except that it’s their time. People miss their perms? I don’t know.
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Speaking of seeing people wearing things you used to wear, you also have your own line of eyewear. How does it feel to have worn hip glasses before they were cool?
I wear glasses because I can’t see and because I am allergic to contacts. I used to reject wanting to talk about glasses because I wanted to talk about music, not wearing glasses, but I find there are a lot of people who need that support emotionally. I’m glad to help people feel comfortable in glasses and to also look stylish, without being wacky or anything. What I’m always looking for is something that’s classic and has a sense of style but doesn’t talk before I talk. You wear glasses, right?
So you understand. You want to wear something where you don’t look super artsy but you also don’t want to look sad and boring. I’m happy to be a part of the eyewear brigade, if it makes people, especially women, feel comfortable in their own skin. I think the more comfortable people can be in their clothes, in their glasses, in their shoes, the more likely they are to be themselves, which is what life is about.