Jill Sobule: Singing it like it is

“And we laughed at the world. They can have their diamonds and we’ll have our pearl. I kissed a girl.”

Those are the words from the 1995 hit record “I Kissed A Girl” that catapulted singer-songwriter Jill Sobule onto the national stage. In a career spanning three decades, Sobule maintains a strong following of fans who appreciate her fearless drive to address social issues in her music. Her songs have covered topics as far ranging as the death penalty, anorexia nervosa, shoplifting, reproduction, the French Resistance, adolescent malaise, LGBTQ+ issues, and the Christian Right. Don’t let her impish smile, lilting voice and frequent peels of laughter fool you, Sobule is a serious activist who is not afraid to let the f-bombs fly, usually followed by a smile! She will be performing on August 13th & 14th at the People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern. Vacuum out that car and grab some friends for this special drive-in show. 

Your latest album, Nostalgia Kills is a look back in time, so let’s go back in time a little. Tell me about growing up in Denver. 

My God, well it’s all I knew. And when I go back now I’m like, “Oh my God, the sky!” and I’d look west at a sheet of mountains, it’s just so beautiful. But for me, Denver was a big city, as fancy as you could get. [Laughing] I thought I was an urbanite because I lived in Denver. It really was a great place to grow up, and I lived in a great neighborhood. But you can live in the most idyllic town in the world and still be a miserable, awful teenager! And knowing that I felt different from everybody back in the 70’s, it was a trip. As you can imagine, it was tricky. 

Tell me about the fam.

It was just my brother and my parents, who have both passed. My parents were great but I had to laugh recently because just before my mother passed, I did the math and realized that she’d been having an affair for a good part of my life! She married my stepfather when I was in high school, but she met him when I was just one. He was a car salesman and sold us a red Ford Fairlane. That’s what Nostalgia Kills is about, mining your history for songs and stories. 

What traits do you think you got from the folks?

My dad was such an unusual man, he was a WWII vet, but he was kind of a sweet, absent-minded professor. He was almost androgynous and he was the more affectionate parent. I look like my dad, the same light skin and blue eyes, cheekbones, and I get the creative and bumbling parts of myself from him. My mother was more… she definitely wore the pants in the family. It’s weird, as I get older I look in the mirror, and I’m starting to look like my mother and say things she would say. It’s so fucking scary! [Laughing] I think she’s haunting me! But to answer your question, I guess now I’m a combination of the two of them.

What were the best and worst parts about growing up in Denver?

The best? I belonged to a ski club called The Eskimos and every weekend in the winter we’d take an hour train ride to Winter Park and ski. Looking back I really appreciate just the air there and the weather. When I moved to NY everyone said, you should be used to the cold. But the cold there is NOTHING like here, it’s different when there’s two feet of snow and not a cloud in the sky and all you need is a sweater. Colorado has its issues, groups like Focus in the Family, but Denver was always a very progressive city. I grew up in a progressive family and everyone around us was as well. The first song I ever wrote when I was little was “Nixon is a Bad Man.” 

Right on!

The worst thing? Just realizing there was more out there. I’d get music magazines and read about places like CBGB in NY where David Bowie and Lou Reed and all these cool people were hanging out. Denver had Dan Fogelberg and the Eagles. And as a budding gay person, I’d read about NY and San Francisco and I’d just think, wow, someday I’m going to go there! [Laughing] I remember the first time I went to NY city I was like, [whisper/shouting] “What that fuck is this!” It was so massive I was having a panic attack! But I can’t really say anything bad about Denver, other than the geographic isolation, and I was lucky because I got to travel a bit. My aunt Micky lived in London and in 1977 I went there to visit and it was like, “Who is this band, the Sex Pistols and who are these people on the tube with Mohawks?!” There was an exciting music subculture happening that hadn’t yet reached Denver. 

You started writing music at a young age…

Yeah, but I never wanted to perform my songs, they were more like my diary. I was a guitar player in a band. I wanted to be Jimmy Hendrix, I wanted to shred. 

What got you playing your own music and singing?

I will tell you. I spent my 3rd year of school abroad. I went to Spain and a friend of mine there said, “Why don’t we make some money busking on the street where all the musicians play?” and I was like, hell yeah! And I started playing my own songs because I didn’t know that many covers. I also thought, one, these people aren’t going to understand what I’m saying, and two, I’ll never see them again. One day a guy walked by with a huge dog, like an Irish Wolfhound, and said that he had this club in Sevilla and asked if we would play it. At first we were like, yeah right, two young Americans, what bullshit is he trying to pull? But it ended up being legit and I ended up dropping out of school and playing my songs at his club. Sometimes I think, if that guy hadn’t walked by, would I be selling real estate with Coldwell Banker now? But I got the bug and when I went back to Denver I started playing open mics, then I got a band together and started to become a big thing locally. Then one day the girl I was dating decided she wanted to move to NY and I thought, maybe it’s time for me to try to make it in the big city. So I went and ended up working in Barney’s department store selling shoes and waitressing in a dyke bar at night! 

Which bar? Do you remember?

Of course! It was 1987 and it was the Cubby Hole, which later became Henrietta Hudson. I was awful as a waitress! I’ve always had shaky hands, so I was spilling everything all over the place. My girlfriend’s brother would help me bus the cleans. Did you ever go there?

Yes, I’ve been to HH a few times, last time I think my partner (at the time) was doing shots off my stomach!

Oh wow, it was a trip for me, even at the Cubby. I felt different from everyone there. I’ll tell you, I played with a friend’s band recently at some big queer event and there were all these beautiful dykes in their 20’s and I was like, “Why weren’t these cuties around when I was young? [Laughing] What did we have? The gym teacher who looked like Buddy Hackett and Miss Hathaway. Back in the day at the Cubby Hole, it was slim pickings! Fortunately, I found these Playboy magazines of my brother’s that had beautiful pictures, soft focus, a bad 70’s pictorial of girls in a French school in diaphanous gowns with their lesbian teacher, and I was like, “Wow! Is that what lesbians look like? That’s AWESOME!” But the first I went into a lesbian bar, the Foxhole in Denver, the women there were not like the women in those magazines. You know, I was recently thinking of that time and the fear of coming out and how amazing it is now that you see openly gay people everywhere and find so many supportive families. All my friends’ kids are just like, whatever, it’s just not that big a deal. In general, not for everyone of course… But, I have to say, there was something kind of exciting about having to sneak around. There was something sexy about it when it was taboo. I wouldn’t want us to go backwards, but it was cool when people would drive in from Connecticut to go to an unmarked bar in the village. It was like living in a pulp fiction novel. 

I agree 100% and it was fun being part of a secret society.

Yes! You felt like you were special and here was your special family. And yeah, there really was something sexy about it! Now, when you turn on the TV and see lesbians together, it’s like [fake yawning] “whatever,” but back then, it was so rare it was thrilling! I mean I’m glad that we’re being represented everywhere now, but I do miss the excitement. 

What was the first lesbian movie you saw?

Oh my God, it was… I don’t know how I got in, I think I had a fake ID. It was an R rated French film called “Bilitis.” Very soft porn, with that blurred, vaseline on the lens, dream like cinematography. I think the director turned out to be a pedophile! Then there was “Personal Best” where I thought, great, am I going to have to arm wrestle someone to initiate sex? And of course “Desert Hearts” which still stands up. Then I went on a kick watching old Criterion films like “Olivia,” they were all very dramatic. Oh, and of course Catherine Deneuve in “The Hunger” did it for a lot of us. 

Wow, I’d forgotten about that film. So tell me about coming out and where you identify on the LGBTQAII etc. alphabet. 

We didn’t have the alphabet back then, bisexual was a dirty word, you had to pick a side, but I called myself that because I’d had boyfriends, even though I was in love with my two best friends, not at the same time. But in the last 20 years I’ve leaned towards the gals. I knew what a lesbian was at a young age, I was a smart little kid, plus I had my brother’s Playboys, but though I knew there was nothing wrong with it, like a lot of teens, I was afraid of what my friends would think. Would they think I was gross, would I be ostracized? I remember in 7th grade the mean girls decided they didn’t want me in their click and they started calling me lesbo. They didn’t even know what they were saying, but it hurt. And though I could be a Tomboy, I was equally comfortable in a dress. 

My friends and I used to go to the Broadway, which was a disco. It was gay, but of course we weren’t gay, we just went there because that’s where the cool people hung out, like our version of Studio 54. And then I went for that year abroad program and changed everything. It seemed like 80% of the people in the program were gay! All the girls were flirting and messing around with each other. I think it took being thousands of miles away from home, and in those days there were no cell phones, no facetime. Even calls were expensive, so you were really on your own. And talk about that taboo thing, we went to a gay bar in Sevilla and it felt like a speakeasy from the 40’s. You’d knock and they’d open a little window in the door, but once you got in, the place had marble floors and chandeliers, and it was so cool. You felt like you were doing something dangerous just being there, which was exciting. And that night I slept with one of the girls in our group, Ivanita, and that’s how it started. When I went back to Denver, I found my crowd and I was pretty much out from there on. 

So when “I Kissed A Girl” came out, were you out? I don’t remember hearing anything.

Well, that’s the crazy thing. So I was out in the 80’s and early 90’s and then I got my record deal and I was sitting in a conference room getting ready to have the first big meeting with the president and the head of marketing, all the bigwigs, and they said, “We’ve already had Tracy Chapman and Melissa Etheridge. Thank God we finally have a straight, female singer-songwriter.” It freaked me out, but on one hand, I didn’t want to be categorized as a lesbian singer-songwriter. I never had a desire to be part of the “Women’s Music” scene. I love Holly Near, it just wasn’t my thing. But if you say something, you get put in a box, so it was a strange time. 

I went from being very out to my audiences, which in Denver were mostly straight and didn’t care, to now wondering if I was going to have to start being cagey about things. When Kissed a Girl came out, I didn’t even think it was going to make it onto the record, but it came out and was treated like a novelty. For me, I wanted it out because it was the kind of song I wish I’d heard when I was young. I knew the only way it was going to get on the Billboard charts was to make it like pulp fiction, so I had the scenario of these suburban wives that get it on. [Laughing] It was my fantasy. At first the label was all in but then they started backtracking a little. There was a station in Nashville that put a disclaimer on the video and the song got banned on some stations, which was awesome! 

But here’s what bummed me out more than anything. We had Fabio who was on all the romance novels and I loved the idea of leaving him for the neighbor. [Laughing] I did have a crush on the woman who played her, but anyway, we were going to have a real kiss at the end, and that would have been fucking revolutionary. It was before the Ellen kiss, so it was ahead of its time but at the last minute they pulled it and instead ended it with me pregnant with Fabio’s baby. That broke my heart, but to this day, I still get messages from people saying the video really helped them. 

Hey, I was one of those lesbians screaming it at the top of my lungs at karaoke.

Yay! I am proud of it, even though in some ways it was a detriment to my career. They would put out pictures of me and Fabio together and I remember being on Entertainment Tonight and the host asking me, “What was it like being with the hunkiest man in America?” and I wanted to shout, “It was a fucking joke!” 

Well, I think the song did the job of what it needed to do, with or without the kiss. It was groundbreaking. 

I’m so glad to hear that! Thank you. For a while I didn’t want to sing the song, because I was afraid I was just becoming the “I Kissed A Girl” girl. And then Katie Perry did her version and I was like, “Hey, I’m the “I Kissed a Girl” girl!” So I proudly reclaimed it and started performing it more. 

I understand you created one of the first crowd funded records. 

Yes, I put up a web page, “Jill’s next record”, the idea was that instead of going with a big label, I’d get the fans involved. I came up with the idea over a glass of wine and we thought up different tier levels for people who gave money. At the top you got to sing a duet with me. It did amazingly well, I got lots of press, CNN did a piece on it and then a friend of mine said that these two guys are starting something similar and they’d like to talk to you. They ended up creating Kickstarter and I could have kicked myself, what an idiot, why didn’t I start it? But I was on a lot of panels about new business models in the music industry. It was an amazing chapter. 

You write a lot of political songs, your song, “Givin’ it to the Libs” is about the republicans voting against their best interests. It reminded me of when they mocked Obama for suggesting people inflate their tires by handing out tire gauges at rallies and it was the first time I really saw him lose his cool. He said, “These people are reveling in their own stupidity!” 

It’s true, the stupidity just does not stop and the worst part is that the stupidity is in Congress now! It’s one thing to have weirdo, extremist nutballs on the street, but it’s another thing when they’re elected to office! It’s scary to know that there are more knuckleheads out there than we imagined. I just like to write about truth, things that people don’t talk about. Wouldn’t you like to see more of that? What if Mick Jagger wrote a song about how his back hurts when he gets up in the morning? Instead of another song about some young model.

I think you should do a collaboration with Randy Rainbow. What would be your ideal collaboration?

That would be fun, he’s hysterical! My fantasy collaboration? Joni Mitchell, but she doesn’t do duets. Paul McCartney, maybe Bob Dylan. 

I think your song “Supermodel” which was featured in the film Clueless was one of your first ‘statement’ songs. 

I didn’t write that, but I threw in several bits and pieces to make it more of a “Jill” song. In my 20s I dealt with an eating disorder, so I wanted to say something about that. 

What do you think prompted that? The need to look a certain way for the industry?

That’s a big topic, I’m sure it came from many things, anxiety, depression, and the fact that for years I was told that I was big and tubby. I felt awkward but I look back at pictures of me as a kid and I was beautiful! But I never felt that way, never. It’s something I’m writing about now, including an eating disorder center I went to for 6 weeks in 1984 that was like the cuckoo’s nest.

That should be interesting. So a few random questions: what’s something you wished that you had a picture of?

I went to the Met last week and there was a great exhibit of women photographers from the 50’s. I’d love to have an original Lee Miller. 

You’re known in good part because of your video, what’s the first music video you remember?

The first memorable ones were the DEVO videos, they were very creative. 

Ever have any paranormal contacts?

No! And I’m open to it, but I’ve never seen a ghost, never found a picture of Mother Mary in my toast, never been probed by an alien. I’m kind of bummed. But Julia Sweeney and I were traveling and saw a Lizzie Borden B&B. We thought it might be fun to stay there until we realized it was her actual house where the killings took place. 

What song makes you happy?

A lot of them, “O-o-h Child” and the Spiral Staircase song, “I Love You More Today Than Yesterday” and the Sly song, “Hot Fun in the Summertime.” [We all break into singing for a minute.]

And speaking of happy, you’re going to be performing in our area, have you been to Philly before?

Of course, I LOVE Philadelphia. I used to play in Philly all the time and go to the radio stations.

Is this the first drive-in show you’ve done?

No, I did a drive-in with the show, “Fuck 7th grade.” It was really fun. I’m excited to be at People’s Light and Theatre and I hope people will come out for the show. You’ll be there won’t you?

With bells on, or at least a car horn.

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