Singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb is eating a tuna sandwich and a spinach salad, talking about "Cake And Pie."
In a voice as sweet and knowing as her wistful folk-pop, she says the point of her new album is that in life, as on the dining table, you can have your cake and eat your pie, too. "As weird as it seems, the best way for me to keep healthy and keep my weight down is to eat a little of everything," the petite, famously bespectacled chanteuse-guitarist explains between bites at an Encino cafe. "If somebody offers me cake or pie, I say, 'I want both!' It's a feeling of no limits. In the music business, and in a lot of businesses, you often hear the words, 'No. it's not going to work.' But things can work. You can make things happen."
Loeb -- whose musical debut was in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" at her Dallas Jewish Community Center -- should know. Back in 1993, she was temping by day and working New York clubs by night, all without a manager or a record deal. But she did have a famous fan, the actor Ethan Hawke, who lived across the street from her Greenwich Village apartment (he used to call down to her from his second-floor window). When the fetchingly rumpled actor suggested Loeb's lilting ballad, "Stay (I Missed You)" for the soundtrack of his 1994 Gen-X flick, "Reality Bites," the singer suddenly found herself sharing album space with U2. She also starred in a coy music video, directed by Hawke, that appealed to MTV viewers burned out on gloomy grunge rock.
Loeb became the first unsigned artist to have a number-one single, making her one of the first female folk-rock musicians to emerge in a trend that would later include Jewel and Alanis Morrisette. Six major record labels vied for her services; a Grammy nomination ensued.
"It was a bit overwhelming," concedes Loeb, who also had to deal with critics who questioned whether she was a one-hit wonder. "Some of my friends and family thought I was changing, but I was just busy. I was managing myself, as well as [doing] just basic things, like making sure my hair looked good on TV."
Besides "Cake And Pie," there is a distinct duality to 33-year-old Loeb -- and it's not just the contrast between her perky, retro-'60s look and her melancholy lyrics about ambivalent lovers. In person, she's cerebral and girlish, wearing funky-granny glasses and a ponytail. She's a pop culture diva who loves opera and has a comparative literature degree from Brown University.
And while her shows suggest Americana (she hopes to bake an apple pie onstage during 2002 shows), some of her earliest musical influences hail from her childhood Jewish community.
The first time Loeb played acoustic guitar in public was at Dallas' Camp Chai, where, she says, "We changed the words of 'Stairway to Heaven' so they dealt with 'cabin number one' instead of 'that lady.'" Musically, she says she related more to the "singalong songs" she learned at camp than to the "very dissonant, modern classical music" she heard at her Reform synagogue.
At her elite girls' prep school, where she was one of only a few Jews, she refrained from singing the obligatory Christmas carols. Classmates attended a cotillion at a club that barred Jews, but that didn't prevent Loeb from serving as class president or starting to write songs at age 15.
Even then, her lyrics were angst-ridden: "In my family life and my school the focus was always on keeping everything together, putting on a good face and trying to be pleasant and polite," she explains. "For me, songwriting was a time to let everything else come out."
The habit continued as Loeb formed a singing duo at Brown, burst on the national scene with "Stay" and released her 1995 debut album, "Tails," which went gold. Her 1997 CD, "Firecracker," featured her hit single, "I Do."
By now her career trajectory is as famous as her frames, but Loeb has also embarked upon a quieter, parallel journey: her exploration of the spiritual side of Judaism. It began about six years ago "as I was getting of the age when I would hopefully get married and have children," she says. "And -- my parents would say, unfortunately -- I've been dating men who are not Jewish, which means I have to really think about and be able to explain to somebody else, what I believe." Loeb notes that she's currently dating Dweezil Zappa, son of the late subversive rocker Frank Zappa: "He's very anti-organized religion, which has really put my beliefs to the test," she says.
To learn more, Loeb's been reading books such as Rabbi Ted Falcon's "Judaism for Dummies" and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's "The Book of Jewish Values" and attending a variety of synagogues around town (she favors Traditional services).
"Every time I go to temple, I think, 'Why don't I go more regularly?'" she says. "It's almost like going to a shrink -- you know if you go at least once a week it gives you time to think about where you are. And it allows you to connect with your community."
It makes sense that Loeb, the self-proclaimed bookworm, would connect through charities that focus on reading. She's participated in celebrity readings for Koreh L.A., The Los Angeles Coalition for Literacy and a CD project to benefit the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles.
Has her Judaism affected her songwriting? "It's perhaps my tendency to be very analytical, to ask questions and to overquestion."
With her musical career melding seamlessly with her faith, Loeb's clearly having her cake and eating her pie, too.
"Cake And Pie" (A & M Records) hits record stores Feb. 26. For information about Loeb's April concerts in Los Angeles, go to www.lisaloeb.com .
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