They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
This shouldn’t be as difficult as it turned out to be. A cover song birthday tribute to someone as talented as Jill Sobule, someone who has one of those songs that everybody seems to know, one that, in the benighted era of 1995, was considered a milestone in the mainstreaming of same-sex relationships (predating the famous Ellen kiss by a couple of years), should be a piece of (birthday) cake. Someone like that, with nearly a dozen studio releases and multiple soundtracks and compilation album appearances, should be pretty widely covered, making our job easier. Because that’s what we do here to commemorate artists’ birthdays — we write about cover versions of their songs. And yet, covers of Jill Sobule songs are surprisingly difficult to come by. I thought about asking for a dispensation from the Cover Me Powers That Be to write instead about Sobule’s covers of others, which are plentiful and interesting. But my pride refused to let me cave in, so after some hard work mining the Internet and wading through way too many YouTube videos of (mostly) young women sitting in their bedrooms strumming ukuleles or acoustic guitars into webcams (and an unfortunate number of covers of Katy Perry’s inferior copycat girl kissing song), I was fortunate to discover a few worthy covers for this piece.
Jill Sobule was born on January 16, 1961, in Denver, and attended the University of Colorado. She appears to have become a rabid Broncos fan, even interrupting performances to ask audience members for game reports. Like many college students, she spent her junior year abroad and found the courage to take risks- in Sobule’s case, she went to Spain and performed her own songs, busking on the street in Sevilla. Unlike most such students, though, Sobule’s risk-taking led not to some funny stories to tell her classmates when she returned to campus, but to club gigs and the decision to drop out of college and pursue a musical career.
Ultimately, after struggling musically, and with depression and anorexia, Sobule got a recording contract with MCA, and was assigned to record her debut album with (no pressure) Todd Rundgren. Things Here Are Different was released in 1990, and while it has its subtle appeal, it failed to adequately display Sobule’s unique wit and quirky charm. It went nowhere commercially, and a follow-up, produced by (no pressure) Joe Jackson, was never even released.
It took until 1995 for Sobule to find a record company to release her next album, Jill Sobule, which was a better showcase for her cleverness and willingness to push the envelope of standard pop music. This album included “I Kissed a Girl,” which placed Sobule directly into the media spotlight and which, along with the emergence of other, similarly idiosyncratic female singer-songwriters, appeared to presage a booming career for her. Also promisingly, a second track from the album, “Supermodel,” was used prominently in the popular film, Clueless.
But fame and popularity is fleeting. Despite releasing a series of interesting, thought-provoking, and stylistically diverse albums filled with keenly observed songs that were often poignant and hysterically funny, sometimes in the same song, Sobule’s career never again reached the same level of public awareness. Instead, she has, in part, settled into the niche of singer/songwriters who regularly perform at smaller venues and release independent albums geared to a committed cadre of fans.
However, Sobule is not content to play only that role. For example, she was a member of Lloyd Cole’s touring band, the Negatives. She has acted in films and contributed music to TV and movie soundtracks. She has collaborated on theater pieces. She has lectured at colleges, delivered TED talks, and has contributed to NPR programs. In addition, she has collaborated with other performers, most notably a songwriting and performing partnership with Richard Barone (formerly of the Bongos), as the “Richard & Jill Show” and touring with comedian and actress Julia Sweeney as the “Jill and Julia Show.”
And if that wasn’t enough, she is a committed social activist and has been at the forefront of alternative forms of music funding and distribution, financing an album with contributions from fans (before Kickstarter and its ilk even existed) and experimenting with advertiser-sponsored platforms.
So, Jill Sobule, we honor your talent and restless mind today, on your 54th birthday, with a selection of the far-too-few covers of your music.
Sally Timms – Rock Me to Sleep (Jill Sobule cover)
“Rock Me to Sleep” is the last song on Sobule’s fourth album, Pink Pearl. Co-written by Richard Barone, it is a quiet song, featuring only Sobule’s voice and guitar. It is a song of loneliness, a catalog of the few tangible items in the singer’s simple life. Sally Timms is probably best known as a member of the Mekons, and like a surprising number of musicians who emerged from the world of punk, she also has a love of country music. She covered “Rock Me to Sleep” on her 1999 release Cowboy Sally’s Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos, and it is a pretty faithful cover, although with more twang and a more country-sounding instrumental accompaniment, including piano, pedal steel and mandolin.
The Musclé – Supermodel (Jill Sobule cover)
From what I can glean from the Internet, the Musclé is an Australian band, now resident in Auckland, New Zealand, whose mission is “to make everything smell like sweat.” They took Sobule’s “Supermodel,” a mid-90s pop-punk gem, and fuzzed it up and distorted the vocals to the point that the satirical lyrics (which even namecheck Tori Spelling) are virtually unintelligible. It isn’t bad, but by burying the vocals, it loses much of what made the original more interesting than millions of other of mid-90s pop-punk songs.
Jason Heath and the Greedy Souls – Palm Springs (Jill Sobule cover)
Sobule has described “Palm Springs” as being “about trying to end my writer’s block by emulating what some of my favorite singer-songwriters did during the seventies – drop out for a week, go to the desert, and take psychedelics. I did it minus the mushrooms, which was probably my problem.” Despite the lack of mind-expanders, she created a fine song that describes her temporal and spiritual journey, working in references to “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” Sonny Bono, Gram Parsons, Brian Wilson, dolphins, and cacti. Her version starts quietly, with just voice and guitar, and builds to a satisfying climax, adding instruments along the way. The cover is a more ramshackle affair, recorded live by Jason Heath and the Greedy Souls as part of the Voice Project, a charity that fuses music with work for peace and freedom of expression, to which Sobule herself has contributed a cover of Wayne Kramer’s “Great Big Amp.” The band, which includes Jason Federici, son of the late Danny Federici of the E Street Band, has more of a jangly, ragged take on the song than the more polished original studio recording.
Namuel – Lucha Libre (Jill Sobule cover)
Try as you might, you won’t find a Jill Sobule song called “Lucha Libre.” Nor will you find one called “Free Fight” or “Wrestling,” which is what that translates to from Spanish. But she did write a song called “Mexican Wrestler,” and that’s what’s covered here. Originally written for the Pink Pearl album, Sobule has described this song about unrequited love, written from the perspective of a “middle-aged sad sack,” as her most requested – even more than the one about kissing a girl. Later, Sobule wrote the music for a tween show on Nickelodeon called Unfabulous, which starred the young Emma Roberts, then best known as Julia’s niece. Needing a breakup song, Sobule made a few changes to the lyrics of “Mexican Wrestler,” and turned it into a perfect torn-apart teen tune. Roberts’ cover of the song is adequate, and itself has spawned a large number of YouTube covers. But I’m a sucker for foreign language covers and gender swaps, so instead of Emma Roberts, you get Namuel (real name, Manuel Granić), a young Chilean singer who delivers an emotional cover in Spanish. To top off the switch, the video for this version depicts a gay male couple. Sobule posted the video on her website with the note: “I cried.”
Marina V, Garfunkel & Oates, and Jill Sobule– I Kissed a Girl (Jill Sobule cover)
I know we are stretching the “cover” concept a bit here, what with Sobule playing guitar and singing backup on this version, but there really are surprisingly few covers of this song out there that aren’t, at best, dull, and at worst, awful. I mean, there are YouTube videos of this song sung by men, and what’s really the point of that? So, rather than subject you to those covers, I figured, why not feature this fun version, with vocals in Russian by Marina V, accompanied by Sobule and by the comedy team of Garfunkel & Oates (actress-songwriters Kate Micucci, who has appeared in Scrubs and The Big Bang Theory, and Riki Lindhome, who has appeared in Gilmore Girls and The Big Bang Theory). Recorded in Sobule’s shower, it is an exuberant, fun, Slavic cover that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is fitting for a kind of silly song that has had way more analysis and discussion that is probably necessary.