Though singer/songwriter Jill Sobule has what she calls a “small but mighty” fan base that’s sustained her throughout her career, she hasn’t had the best luck with record companies.
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Though singer/songwriter Jill Sobule has what she calls a “small but mighty” fan base that’s sustained her throughout her career, she hasn’t had the best luck with record companies. After having been on four different labels (two of which dropped her, the other two going bankrupt), she wasn’t eager to go through the process of selling herself all over again. “I didn’t fit in to any kind of package,” she explains. “I always have trouble-‘who am I like?’ And trying to say, ‘I’m going to write a song that’s the focus track.’ I don’t know what the heck that would be….”
And then she realized–why bother with a label at all? Why not draw on that fan base to fund her next record? She originally considered selling shares in the project (“People would’ve been stockholders in a sense,” she explains), but after realizing the difficulties of setting up such a venture, she instead opted for the straight fundraising approach. A website, jillsnextrecord.com, solicited money, with rewards for different levels of donation, from the $10 “Unpolished Rock” level (getting a free digital download of the album) to the $10,000 “Weapons-Grade Plutonium” level (getting to sing on the album).
“When I first started, I thought, ‘OK, this could be a complete disaster or really humiliating and I could just get $10 from my mother,'” Sobule says. But after a few reporters picked up the story, the word spread, and she met her goal of $75,000 in less than two months. Sobule involved her fans in other ways as well, streaming potential album songs on her website and asking for opinions. “I’m having fun with it,” she says, “which is different than the past process, where everything feels out of your hands.”
The album, California Years, is full of off-beat characters and wry observations, leavened with a dose of self-deprecation, as in “Nothing To Prove,” drawn from Sobule’s own experiences with record companies, “going to some meetings and you just feel like, ‘ugh, I hate this!’ and being in that kind of yucky ‘industry’ mode,” she explains. Sobule then turns the scenario back on herself, when she later meets someone she’d written off as “snobby” and instead learns that “basically they were just really nice and just shy.”
Or take “Where Is Bobbie Gentry?” inspired by hearing “Ode To Billie Joe” on an oldies station. “I hadn’t heard it in years, and it was like, ‘what a weird, kind of creepy song,'” says Sobule. “There’s no drums, it’s these weird strings. And I thought her voice was so great.” Sobule further mythologizes the song’s mystery with her own idea of what was thrown off the Talahatchee Bridge. That the song’s already mentioned in Gentry’s Wikipedia listing makes Sobule laugh; “I’m in Bobbie Gentry’s Wikipedia entry, so I’m the ultimate stalker!”
Having successfully developed a new model getting her music out, Sobule sees lots of possibilities. “It’s still kind of a frontier,” she says. “It’s a strange time when you’re just feeling things out. But I think it’s exciting.” Nor does she see herself going back to a regular label, “unless Live Nation gives me the 100 million dollars they gave to Madonna!” she jokes. “Then maybe I’ll sell out. But I don’t really see that in my near future. I think that this is just too fun.”