NORTH BETHESDA, Md. — They burst onto the scene as singer-songwriters in the ’90s.
Now, they’ll both play intimate sets at AMP by Strathmore in North Bethesda, as Lisa Loeb performs two shows on Sunday, while Paula Cole arrives on Thursday, Oct. 19.
“My dad’s a doctor and he was doing some training there in Bethesda, so that’s where I was born,” Loeb told WTOP. “I have a vague memory of allergies and cherry blossoms from D.C. but I was like 2 years old. But I feel a connection to it, I can’t help it. That’s where I was born!”
Perhaps those allergic eyes inspired Loeb’s signature cat-eye specs. Either way, her family left Bethesda for Dallas, where she grew up listening to Burt Bacharach, The Bee Gees and Olivia Newton-John. In her teenage years, she fell for Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith before forming a college band with Elizabeth Mitchell and Duncan Sheik at Brown University.
Those various influences have allowed her to record both adult records and kids songs, which she’ll perform Sunday afternoon at AMP for a special Kids Concert for families.
“I started doing kids music like 15 years ago,” Loeb said. “I’m a child from the ’70s and ’80s. I wanted to make the kind of stuff that I used to listen to as a kid, like Donnie & Marie, ‘Rock the Boat,’ all the soft pop hits of different artists, ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,’ which was a Coke commercial, I wanted to make stuff like that. Turns out, the genre is called kids music.”
After the kids concert, stick around for the adult show on Sunday night. What might we hear?
“I put out a record called ‘No Fairy Tale’ a few years ago that I made with Chad Gilbert of New Found Glory, who makes poppy-punky music,” Loeb said. “I definitely play the songs that you’ve heard on the radio because I know when I go see a band, that’s what I want to hear.”
Those hits include her breakthrough No. 1 single “Stay (I Missed You)” (1994), which she wrote while attending summer school at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“I always have an image of me sitting on a mattress on the floor,” Loeb said. “Somebody from [BMI] told me that Daryl Hall was looking for music for a solo record. … So I started writing that guitar part, the groove, and putting lyrics to it. … Halfway through, I learned Daryl Hall wasn’t looking for music anymore, but I finished along those lines. … I also had this great singer as a roommate, who sang like Whitney Houston. … That kind of inspired me.”
After moving to New York City, it was actor Ethan Hawke who gave her a big break.
“Ethan and I ended up being neighbors,” Loeb said. “I wrote music for his theater company and a group of us all went to see each other’s music, plays, movies. … Ethan was making a movie and said, ‘Can I pass along a copy of your song ‘Stay?’ … I gave him a cassette tape and he gave it to Ben Stiller, who ended up putting it in [‘Reality Bites’] and the rest is history.”
The song made Loeb the first pop star to have a No. 1 single without a recording contract. As it climbed the charts, she was now in demand by those who had once ignored her.
“I had been so close to getting record deals along the way [and] meeting all these up-and-coming music industry folks, and all of a sudden all of those people who were coming to my concerts and wanting to sign me, all of a sudden their bosses wanted to sign me saying, ‘Remember that girl you told me you wanted me to sign? Oh, I see what you’re talking about!'”
After signing with the Geffen label, she went to work on her album “Firecracker,” which didn’t originally include its leadoff track, the smash hit “I Do,” which was written in protest.
“I made the record and was really excited,” Loeb said. “[The] label was saying, ‘Can you write a single now?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You have a whole album full of catchy tracks!’ So I sat under a conference table at the Loews Santa Monica Hotel and wrote that song. It was about the record company, me saying, ‘I wrote a single, you can’t hear it, but I do!'”
After you check out Loeb on Sunday, come back for her contemporary Paula Cole on Oct. 19.
The singer-songwriter will play a mix of old hits and new songs from her latest album “Ballads,” including covers of “Body and Soul,” “God Bless the Child” and Bob Dylan.
“Any time I release an album, I tour it and I draw songs from it,” Cole told WTOP. “But I always play the favorites. I always play the catalog. It’s part of who I am and it’s what my audience wants. I love it. They’re like family reunions, these concerts. We just come together and have a wonderful time and listen to the catalog. I’m longer in the tooth and deeper in the catalog!”
Unlike Loeb in Bethesda, Cole’s journey started in Rockport, Massachusetts.
“I was so lucky to be born into my family,” Cole said. “They were so musical, my dad especially, he played many instruments and he was a musician on the side to make extra money. He would play functions on weekends. He was a bass player in a polka band. … He got me singing so young. I thought everybody made music at home! I thought everyone could sing and play!”
Turns out, she wasn’t like everyone else, landing her first tour with Peter Gabriel in 1993.
“Imagine a five-star tour being your first tour! It’s all downhill after that,” Cole joked. “Peter heard my finished album ‘Harbinger,’ but it was still unreleased. He literally called and left a voice message: ‘Paula, would you join my tour? Would you fly to Germany? … I said yes because he was a hero. I had one rehearsal then was thrown out in front of 16,000 Germans.”
Her big break came four years later with “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” (1997).
“I was in San Francisco sharing a loft with three roommates, surviving on a burrito a day,” Cole said. “I wanted to write something wry with overtones. The lyrics came [then] I wrote a rumba. … Nobody liked it! It stayed in my closet of demo tapes for years [then] it came time to build up songs for my second album [and] I thought, ‘I know that’s a good song, I just have to dress it up differently.’ … It went up the charts so quickly. That changed everything.”
That same album, “This Fire,” featured the equally successful “I Don’t Want to Wait” (1997).
“I was living in New York [in] an apartment in Chelsea,” Cole said. “I was sitting at my spinet and I wanted to write something for my grandfather. I felt he was going to leave the planet soon. … I know his spirit is in that song, my grandmother, too, so it’s a family song for me really. Of course, it was used by ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and it took on a whole other life.”
The TV show ignited the careers of actresses like Katie Holmes and Michelle Williams.
“I don’t know if I can take any credit for that,” Cole said. “They probably got really sick of the song! … I went down to Carolina where they shot that and they were all really nice.”
The whirlwind continued when she won Best New Artist at the Grammys.
“It’s all so overwhelming,” Cole said. “I’m such a high introvert. … I’m used to being a singer [and] talking to people, but this was a different level when fame was hitting for my two minutes! It was uncomfortable. … I was overwhelmed by the attention that this album got.”
While her rise was meteoric, she now hopes that fans can appreciate her entire journey.
“Now I have more perspective, it makes a good bookend, a nice title, ‘Grammy winner,’ but really I’m an introvert with a lot of catalog,” Cole said. “I have a lot of albums, a lot of songs, so to me, it’s more about the whole. I wish to be known more for the content of my catalog.”
Click here for more on the AMP shows. Listen to our full chats with Lisa Loeb and Paula Cole below: