The animated paint onscreen dazzles us into forgetting: fairy tales can be scary as hell. Even Walt Disney’s bowdlerized versions of the Grimm Brothers’ classic gore-fests routinely give kids nightmares. For every addictive heroine in a billowing yellow gown, there’s a witch whose bent back and gnarled fingers inspire dread in preschool audiences. The two basic ingredients for a gripping fairy tale are, after all, death and magic.
By this criteria, Lisa Germano—the acclaimed singer/songwriter who got her start in the late ’80s playing ?ddle in John Mellencamp’s band before releasing solo albums for both Capitol and 4AD—has composed a fairy tale of the highest order. The material on her newest record, In The Maybe World, displays a fascination with both death and magic. But, in Germano’s mind, they are one and the same.
“I didn’t say to myself, ‘I’m going to make a sad record about death.’ It was more like, you know, nobody has any idea what death is. It’s just sad for those of us who miss the people who died. But how do we know it’s not the most amazing, magical thing?”
If Enya’s lilting New Age ballads are the aural equivalent of Disney’s G-rated fairytale epics, Germano’s equally ethereal tunes feel more like their Grimm sources, full of shadowy, nail-chewing conflict and occasionally PG-13 musings. Her sensually breathy vocals drift atop sparse piano and guitar lines in a perpetually dream-drunk stupor while synthetic textures heighten the arrangements’ already-otherworldly tenor.
As the record came together, death loitered about, cueing Germano’s pen at numerous turns. One of the album’s most endearing cuts, the lullaby-ish “Golden Cities,” sprang to Germano’s lips as she cradled her dying cat (“I would just start singing this song without even thinking about it. It was very magical.”) Then her other cats began bringing her dead birds from the roof as goodwill offerings, which inspired “In The Maybe World.” “It was like, ‘God, this is so sad, you guys,’ but they’d be looking at me like, ‘Hey, look what we got you!’”
While her dad underwent a major surgery, Germano wrote “Too Much Space,” about how she imagined life might feel with him gone. Fortunately the surgery was successful and she isn’t bothered that most people will assume it’s just another break-up tune.
Having spent many difficult years in therapy fending off both clinical depression and near-paralyzing agoraphobia, Germano knows her demons well and sings about them with unsettling candor. “In The Land of Fairies,” offers a prime example: “Narcissistic little fairy / Why do I feel dead / Who was that stupid ogre / Messing with my head / Somebody saw a monster / It was real mean / Every little soul has / Sides you’ve never seen.”
Even in the original Grimm fairy tales—where Cinderella’s stepsisters have to carve off hunks of their feet to remove the ill-fitting slipper and Snow White’s evil stepmother eagerly gobbles up what she believes is her stepdaughter’s lung and liver—the happy ending remains miraculously intact (at least for the story’s protagonist). Happy endings are derided for being too contrived, too easy, but still we hold our breath as comatose Beauty’s eyes flutter open and squint in the sunlight. We like to see the Reaper stymied. And, on an emotional level, Germano’s doing just that.
“Some of the songs are just about feeling dead inside, which is such a waste when life is so beautiful, you know? It’s because you’re being so self-focused and narcissistic. It’s like, ‘Get out of your head.’ You know you don’t need to feel dead. Just go outside, there’s lots of life around.”