By Shannon Carlin
Twenty years ago, Lisa Loeb became the first independent artist to take the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with her song “Stay (I Missed You)” featured on the soundtrack to 1994’s Reality Bites. It would be another 19 years before another indie act would top that same chart — a little rapper from Seattle named Macklemore with a song called “Thrift Shop.” But when Radio.com caught up with Loeb recently she was quick to question this idea of independence, explaining that even though she wasn’t signed to a label back then, everything she accomplished was done with a little help from the right people.
“Doing it completely by yourself is just impossible,” she said over the phone. “I mean, I made the music I wanted to make…But my song ‘Stay’ was on a soundtrack on a major label. We had the support of the radio department, who were really into the song.”
Loeb says that radio promotion was probably the sole reason her song became such a hit. In 1994, artists were still selling cassette tapes at the merch table and without the luxury of the internet had to rely on extensive touring to get their name out there. If you were lucky, you’d get the backing of a label who could throw a little money your way and help you get your feet off the ground by getting your song on radio stations across the country. It was an approach that worked faster (and cheaper) for struggling artists than relying on word of mouth. Though, Loeb does have a fan named Ethan Hawke to thank for getting her song out there to begin with. He was the one who gave Reality Bites director, Ben Stiller a copy of the song.
When Loeb was first starting out —she was just 26 when “Stay” went to No. 1— she scoured New York City for affordable studios where she could record her music. She was spending months on the road so she could sell a few CDs each night and hopefully build up an audience. But even though she’s now an artist who’s recorded nine studio albums for numerous different labels on a budget that is a good bit bigger than what it was back then, she still considers herself to be an independent artist. Mainly because as Loeb changed, so did the definition of “indie.” Now it’s not really about what label you’re signed to, but how original your sound is. “I stick to my guns and know what I want my music to sound like,” she said. “I’m pretty opinionated about all that.”
That’s why when “Stay” became a hit, Loeb would get frustrated when people would discuss her cat-eye glasses more than her music. “I didn’t like being labeled the ‘girl who wore glasses,'” Loeb explained. “But I remember somebody calling me waifish and that being worse. Like, ‘I’m just on the thinner side right now and I wear glasses, but I care about the music.'”
“Now I don’t care as much,” Loeb said. “It’s exciting when people are interested in what I’m doing. That makes me happy. But I’m so not devastated if they want to talk about my glasses.”
Loeb even took an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach by creating her own eyewear line, which features frames named after some of her more well-known songs. Unfortunately, there is no style named “Stay.”
Even now at 46 years old, Loeb considers landing at No. 1 with her debut single one of the most unbelievable moments of her life, comparing the experience to a movie montage “where the character ends up on the cover of a bunch of magazines and all you see are the magazines spinning around and around.” She also will never forget her first radio promotion in Houston, TX, which is when it finally hit her that people actually thought of her as a pop star.
“Our record company flew us down there and a white limousine picked me up,” she remembered. “I think the song was on in the car and it was super compressed and very powerful and, I think, it was played between a Mariah Carey song and an R. Kelly song. There I was being played back to back with these big pop singers we had seen on MTV.”
After two decades, Loeb still loves “Stay” and swears she’ll never stop playing the song live since as a fan she understands how disappointing it is when an artist doesn’t play the song you came to hear.”It’s been really cool to have a centerpiece in my career,” she said. “Some people don’t get that luxury of even one song. And to me, it hasn’t held me back, it’s given me opportunities.”
But Loeb doesn’t want to live in the past, admitting that her two small children have never even heard the song she became famous for. That’s why Loeb was caught off guard when her daughter came home from preschool a couple of weeks ago asking her if she sang the song that goes, “you say stay.”
“She had a couple of words of the song and I was shocked,” Loeb said. “It took me a minute to realize that a teacher or a grown-up in her life had sung that song to her because I never sing that song to her. That song is not ever on in the house. Here, I’m just mom.”