Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb is known for more than a few things: her 1994 No. 1 hit song “Stay ((I Missed You)”; her acting career (Gossip Girl, Community, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver); her reality shows on Food Network and E!; her voice-over work (DocMcStuffins, Jake and The Never Land Pirates); and even her signature eye glasses. Yet, as of late, the 47-year-old is attracting attention for a personal love and interest of which many fans may be unaware: Lisa Loeb is a major summer camp veteran, fan, advocate, and philanthropist.
Last fall, Loeb received the 2015 Camp Champion Award from the American Camp Association New England at a Fenway Park celebration.
Loeb attended a number of summer camps as a child, the most memorable being Camp Champions, a sleep-away camp located outside of Austin in her home state of Texas. She described it as a “typical summer camp experience,” one that she said challenged her to step outside of her comfort zone and imparted important lessons that still reverberate today.
“Trying new things was a really big deal,” she remembered. “I wasn’t really an athlete, but we had to try all sorts of things, from swimming in the lake to jumping off huge rocks to playing sports I wasn’t really great at. Going through those challenges and coming out on the other side alive and happy made me a stronger person, both emotionally and physically. I think that’s such a great thing for kids to learn — to participate, to try things they haven’t tried before. Being able to engage in those challenges really makes you a stronger person. If you get that self confidence, that ‘Wow, I get to try something and I might be able to do it,’ it does make a big impact on us as grown-ups.”
And while camp stretched Loeb’s comfort zone, it also nurtured a favorite pastime.
“There was music everywhere, all the time, just for fun,” she said. “It was the first time, I think, that I played guitar in front of people. It was when I really recognized that music was fun to perform, but it was also a great connector for people. We used to sing for fun in the cabins and all over the place.”
Those annual weeks, Loeb said, gave her and other campers an opportunity to experience some freedom in those growing years, as well as a respite from a demanding school year.
“I felt like a stronger person at the end of [camp],” she said, the affection still strong and deep in her voice. “It’s not making a good grade, it’s about being a person and having life experiences. School was really important to my family, making good grades, that whole school track. I found that summer camp was where I really learned more about being myself and how to be in a community. There’s so much freedom at summer camp, hanging out with other kids, but with the feeling of safety. It gives you the chance to try yourself out. Values were so important: leadership, working together, doing what’s right. All those things that were so important and had a really big impact on me.”
Loeb attended Camp Champions “for years and years, until I was too old to go.” And even after leaving those cabins outside Austin for the last time, she would return to camp in a whole new way as an adult.
Loeb released her first kids CD, Catch the Moon, in 2003, then found herself wondering what to do for the follow-up demanded by fans. She realized there wasn’t a lot of summer camp music in the market, and her figurative return to her camp days was born in the form of a new rock/pop CD: Camp Lisa.
“Camp Lisa highlighted a lot of the songs I sung in summer camp when I was growing up. I wrote some new songs that reminded us of that era of going to camp, of the late ’70s, early ’80s — songs we listened to on the radio at camp. We wanted to capture the era of the ’70s, where kids stuff wasn’t just for kids, grown-ups might enjoy it also, like, The Muppet Show, Steve Martin, The Carol Burnett Show — grown-up stuff kids could enjoy, too. I pinch myself. I can’t believe part of my job is singing these silly, gross-out songs I sung at camp.”
Camp Lisa was recorded as a way to share the summer camp experience with everyone — even those who never attended. “As I got deeper into it, I thought, Why not just send kids to summer camp? ” said Loeb, who created a nonprofit organization, Camp Lisa (lisaloeb.com/camp-lisa), which is funded by proceeds from the album. Camp Lisa, in turn, takes that money and partners with SCOPE, a New York-based nonprofit with the same goal: funding camp scholarships so more kids can reap the benefits of a summer experience.
Loeb returned to camp once more last year, this time via a play, Camp Kappawanna, inspired by the song “Best Friend” from the Camp Lisa CD. A Miami theatre company approached Loeb about developing a short play based on the song. The project eventually turned into a full-length musical that enjoyed a limited run off-Broadway last spring, with music and lyrics co-written by Loeb.
The story of a group of campers who learn about themselves via the values and experiences of summer camp, the musical received a good review from The New York Times: “Like its campers, it has abundant humor and heart. You can’t spend a summer here, but 75 minutes is a delightful stay.”
“It was amazing,” Loeb said. “It was very emotional to see the songs all come together and see the characters’ development before our own eyes.” The production is still in development — “a great, long process,” she noted — and is one Loeb hopes to take on the road in the future.
Now a mother of two (Lyla, 6, and Emet, 3), Loeb is now seeing camp from another side — as a parent. Lyla is already a day camp veteran: “She asked me at the end, ‘Mom, when can I start going to sleep-away camp?’”
From Indie to Kindie
In addition to developing a musical and receiving camp accolades, Lisa Loeb is writing and recording music — music for parents and, last fall, her latest kids CD, Nursery Rhyme Parade.
“I finally had kids and I started thinking about what we really need as far as kids music,” Loeb said.
While there is a lot of kids music already on the market covering nursery rhymes, most of it was recorded in a variety of styles. Loeb researched classic nursery rhymes but couldn’t find any basic, stripped-down versions, “the way my mom might have sung it to me as a kid,” she said.
“There might be a funny rock version of ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ or a Cajun version of ‘Jack and Jill’, or ones that were very animated, played-up, and produced to entertain the kids, but they weren’t just the simple ones I remember as a kid,” Loeb added.
The result is Nursery Rhyme Parade, (available via Amazon Music or Prime), which she describes as “simple recordings of classic nursery rhymes.”
“It’s very soothing, intimate, very personal,” she explained. “We tried to keep the production as simple as possible, so it almost feels like I’m the mom who’s in your room singing to your children, just like the way I sing to my kids when we wake up in the morning, when I change a diaper, when we get dressed, when we take a bath. These are songs that will help soothe and relax and engage kids rather than hype them up. It’s information and music kids can take in at the same pace their brains can process. Because they’re so simple, when I play them for kids I find they really connect to the lyrics, the melody, the rhythm of the songs.”
Loeb admits that researching the songs “became a little bit like a homework project in a way. There were certain songs that I thought, Oh, well, I know this, we’ll just go in and sing it, and then when it came down to it, I thought, I actually don’t know if this is the real melody. I would call my Mom, I would go on the Internet, I would look up sheet music, and in some cases I had to reference a number of sources to try to find what I thought was the most authentic melody. It was fun. It was like a puzzle, figuring out how to produce so many songs so that they sounded different from each other but they had the essence of the song in the simplest production possible.”
Loeb is one of several recording artists who gained fame via rock or pop and later branched out into music for smaller fans.
“With kids music, the fun part is it’s completely open-ended,” she said. “It’s not about being cool, it’s about making fun music for people to connect to.”
With her appeal to adults and children, Loeb is now officially a multi-generational artist, a role she values.
“It’s a relief,” she said. “In this day and age, it’s hard to have a long music career; I didn’t realize that when I was starting out. I really appreciate I’ve been able to acquire a fan base from people who listened to me when I first came out on the radio to now, where some of those people have children or grandchildren.”