Lisa Cerbone
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Lisa Cerbone

album reviews and artist impressions

Close Your Eyes | Mercy | Ordinary Days
We Were All Together

interview and album review © Russell W Elliot 2008
artist photos © Nyree Watts 2008
album covers © Ichiban Records 1995-1997
album covers © Little Scrubby Music 2003-2008
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Last updated: 12 October 2008

Lisa Cerbone is one of a rapidly growing collection of female vocalists and musical artists that have approached us via MySpace. With a sweet and child-like voice, Lisa's four albums--split into two band oriented albums recorded before having children and two sparser singer-songwriter albums afterwards--attracted us to her music as much as she admired the work done in our publication. Based in Maryland today with an active touring schedule, she draws both critical and audience acclaim. Although her earlier recordings may be viewed by some as more accessible, she says that sparser singer songwriter sound of her latest work more accurately reflects her artistic direction.

Lisa Cerbone's early attempts at playing a musical instrument were furtive efforts. As a teenager, she would wait until the members of her little brother's band left their practice area, then creep in to have a go at the instruments they had left behind. Stymied when she tried to play songs written by others, she proceeded to write her own. She grew into a respected, creative, and abundantly productive singer songwriter, putting out her self-titled recording in 1993.

Lisa became a teacher in the public school system the first five years following her graduation from University of Maryland. By 1992 she was dissatisfied and ready to give up her full time career as a teacher. She kept a hand in teaching as a writing tutor, but she steered her life back to music, this time much more openly than the manner in which she had begun years before. She decided to give herself two solid years of strong effort to make her mark in the music world. Financing for her independent first album came from her teacher's salary, and in less than 24 months, Ichiban Records' offer of a contract was on the table.

Lisa's Close Your Eyes album was released in 1995. It was actually a re-release of her debut from several years earlier, although it features several small changes from the original. The project was closely followed by Mercy in 1997. Both released on Ichiban Records, they remain available today online. Lisa's independent releases are on her own Little Scrubby Music label. Ordinary Days was released in 2004. Her latest project, We Were All Together was released earlier this year. Born in New Jersey, she lives with her family in Baltimore, MD. Her spouse, Eric Jensen, is a guitarist. Learn more about Lisa Cerbone's background and approach to her craft in our interview. Also read our reviews of her albums in this full length article about her work.


Musical Discoveries: We Were All Together is identified as a significant development from your earlier work. What can you say about your first two albums?

Lisa Cerbone: My first two releases, Close Your Eyes and Mercy, were band-oriented and had fuller sounds which sometimes went against my musical intentions. It wasn't anyone else's fault but my own though. I should have been firmer and steadfast in my beliefs, but sometimes I think, when you are just starting out, figuring that all out and then communicating it is difficult. Even though many of the songs on those two records are songs I still like and perform live, I wish my approach when recording them was different and more spared-down. With that said, many people to this day, love those recordings, and it is very nice to hear. I have also sold out of all my Mercy CDs, which amazes me.

So how did you progress your work from that point?

My last two recordings show where my head and heart are artistically. Ordinary Days and We Were All Together experiment more with mood, space, and I think, beauty. On Ordinary Days, I worked with Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and the Red House Painters. I was always a fan of his music and approach and still am.

He is also a terrific writer and guitarist, so I felt he would be understanding of who I was as a songwriter. We had many conversations about how to protect artistic vision when dealing with the business side of things, a necessary evil. He was the very first person who encouraged me to be myself musically and not allow outside influences to get me down. We never talked about the need to have up-tempo songs or songs that sounded like singles. I really appreciated that. So the songs worked on with Mark were allowed to be slow, languid; they were allowed to breathe. We let the songs dictate and tried to create a mood as organically as possible. It was liberating and so much fun.

You took the personal approach to a new level on We Were All Together, didn't you?

Lisa Cerbone
photo © Nyree Watts 2008

When working on my last recording, I wanted to take what I learned from Mark and try to do it myself. I guess I needed to challenge myself that way, and I feel I met the challenge and learned a lot. I played almost all of my own guitar leads and added some other instruments, some I didn't even know I knew how to play.

It was definitely a bi-polar life though, spending most of my days working out leads, writing, or recording, then spending the second half of my day helping with homework when my children came home from school, then running off to cub scouts or brownies and whatever else we had going on. Working with Frank Marchand and Jonesy on upright bass--which I absolutely love--and David Durst on keyboards was great. Jonesy and David were such respectful musicians and never had any problems trying all kinds of things Frank or I would suggest.

So, the last two recordings, I feel, come a lot closer to my initial vision, and I hope to work with all these great artists again.

How have your incorporated your instrumental playing talents into your music?

I have no formal training, unless you count playing oboe in my school band for a while, so I don't consider myself much of a musician. But I do believe, I can sometimes approach an instrument from a different angle. I'm definitely not a musical elitist, someone who is all about rules. Rock and roll, which is what this essentially is, is about breaking rules. If you need to double check rules, you can always look in a book or ask someone, which I do sometimes. If when using my voice, guitar, keyboard, etc. work on an emotional level and sound good, that is all that matters.

What led a beautiful young woman to locate in Maryland?

I grew up in New Jersey and moved to Maryland for school, then I fell in love and got married, so I stayed here.

Who do you work with on your album projects and how has that evolved over the recordings and your "live" performances?

I have worked with musicians here in Baltimore, Atlanta, San Francisco, but lately I prefer performing alone. I like the solitariness of one voice and one guitar. It feels good to me and works well with the pensive nature of the songs. For the longest time, I was nervous about playing alone, but now I feel quite comfortable with it. I get nervous talking to the cashier at the check-out line in the supermarket, so I've made my peace with my shyness I guess. It's who I am.

It would be nice to perform with Mark live. The guitars would sound so beautiful together. Eventually it would be nice to get the upright bass in the mix sometime too. It would also be fun to play with Robert Deeble again. He is a musician/songwriter from Seattle who sat in with me once when we were touring together. His guitar playing is lovely.

How has being a mother impacted the development of your music and your craft?

Being a mom affects everything I do. I don't think I understood the true meaning of rock and roll until I became a mom. Just in practical terms, time is always of the essence. When I have time to work, I know how valuable each moment is and try not to waste it.

I like seeing how my music affects my children. Having someone trying to be creative at home on a daily basis impacts their own thoughts and creativity. It opens their minds. When I practice or write, they tend to draw or write more themselves. To me, that is a beautiful thing.

Many moms I know can see beyond themselves, so I am hoping that compassion and empathy come through in my work as well.

How did you develop the range and depth of skill to create complex musical and vocal arrangements live and in real time this way?

I just write what I like or what I feel might be missing in the world. It seems to me that the world is constantly "in your face" and turned up very loud. I like to hold a moment a little longer and add some space. Not in a new-agey way, but in a realistic way. The world is quieter than it appears. And, there is a lot going on in the silence, where no one is telling you what you need and what you think and how you feel. Those are the corners of life that make sense to me and need to be explored.

  Lisa Cerbone
photo © Nyree Watts 2008

What goes through your head when performing either in front of a camera or on stage?

I have found that just being myself, comfortable in my own skin, and true to the music is what works best when I perform. I used to worry that my performances weren't "entertaining" enough, even describing it to friends as "the opposite of American Idol."

I don't hit all kinds of crazy notes and hold them out for eons or add all kinds of musical embellishments. I just try to tell a story and sing from my heart without dictating how the audience should think or feel.

They're smart; if they open their minds to what I am doing, they figure it out. My job while performing in front of a camera or live is to stay emotionally in tune with the story and my singing. If I can't do that, the audience senses that emotional disconnect and then no one comes away with anything.

What feelings personally evoked during and following a live performance?

After a performance, it is safe to say I'm pretty emotionally drained. I'm ready to have a drink and stare into space for a while with a good friend or my family. I don't have too much to say. It's nice to listen to someone else for awhile.

In the course of your professional career, did you develop your vocal range, power and emotional delivery?

My voice seems to change with time. Ironically, the older I get, the more child-like and unadorned it has become. The older I get, the more importance I have put on preserving innocence, so I try to express that with my voice. Even when the lyrics and sound may be darker, I try to convey this kind of hope. Hopefully a bittersweet quality is communicated, which to me, seems to mirror life.

Were there any female singers that you listened to earlier or listen to now that particularly strike your fancy or drive you on?

I love so many vocalists and songwriters. The ones that I love the most are usually great writers and unique singers like Tom Waits, Suzanne Vega, Mark Kozelek, Neil Young, Iron & Wine. Their music has an enduring quality. I also just discovered Daniel Johnston through a documentary I saw. After watching it, I couldn't sleep all night just thinking about his songs and his life. I was just mesmerized.

What do you see as the major differences between recording in a studio performing live?

Recording can sometimes be tedious. But it is also extremely artistic and fun, especially when a song comes together in a way you would have never expected. "Tiny Patch of Earth" came together in such a way on We Were All Together. All the musicians did a great job of listening to each other, and letting the song unfold naturally. What ended up on tape was definitely the best version of that song and something that probably cannot be replicated. That version of that song had a mind of its own.

On Ordinary Days, Mark and I recorded guitars together on many songs. He was very interested in maintaining that live, organic "feel". Sometimes we would record three versions, then pick the one with the best feel, not worrying too much about picking the more perfect version.

When recording, I try not to polish away the character of the music. That's always a goal. Knowing how to not stand in your own way and over think though can be tricky. I think what helps is that emotional investment in the song and trying to maintain it, so every decision comes from an emotional place. It's the most honest approach, and the one people respond to the most.

Lisa Cerbone
photo © Nyree Watts 2008

How important is your own image to you as a recording artist?

My image isn't very important to me personally, however, I do understand its importance in attracting the "right" audience. I am interested in showing my image as a reflection of the work.

I don't feel compelled to have my face on the cover of every recording. I just like to choose photos that are poetic and meaningful, like Nyree Watts' photos used on my last two CDs. Her photos are beautiful and thought-provoking, suspending a moment in time. To me, they look like what I try to convey musically.

With the internet, you are just a mere click away, so you want that image to look like the music as much as possible since that's sometimes what someone will see before they even listen to the music.

It is the thing that helps them make the decision as to whether they want to invest their time into listening. There is so much information at our fingertips all the time, but only so much time.

What do you see as the benefits and curses of digital music delivery?

It's great that people now can find my music so easily. I hope most people pay for it legally though. It just makes sense that artists get paid for their work, so they can continue doing what they do best.

What does MySpace offer you?

I guess MySpace makes it easier to find artists and sample their music, but I don't personally use it much to find artists I like. I very rarely add people as friends unless I have had some kind of communication or connection with them that I would like to continue. But I do personally answer all my mail there and do my own updates. It can be time-consuming and not the easiest method I have ever used. Sometimes I would rather use that time working on music.

Album Reviews

Close Your Eyes CD Cover
Image © Ichiban Records 1995

Lisa Cerbone's first album on Ichiban Records, entitled Close Your Eyes is said to be a reissue of her self-titled 1993 recording but with some of the songs slightly reworked. The enduring quality of the ten-track project is a result not only of Lisa's sweet vocal work but the well produced instrumental arrangements. Listeners will appreciate the outstanding string work throughout the album. Upbeat, mid-tempo and acoustic ballads grace the album. Clearly a singer songwriter rather than a pure pop or rock artist recording, the song lyrics are evocatively delivered with vocals placed high in the mix.

Lisa's voice lends itself to a variety of production treatments. Although her voice is characterized as sweet or child-like, her power permits lead parts to be are sung effectively with or without backing harmonies. The upbeat opening and standout track "Amber" is an excellent characterization of Lisa's work during this period perfectly balancing heartfelt lead, backing harmonies and guitar-laced instrumentals. "Blue Frog," "Three Boys In The Schoolyard" and "Asbury Park" build on the band oriented sound adding crisp percussion and thicker rock arrangements.

The wrenching ballads "My Little Sister and Me," "Painful Smile (New Year's Day)," the countrified "Close Your Eyes" and the reverberating "Manic-Depressive Jubliation" are more string-based and therefore present another but equally enjoyable side of Lisa's early music. Vocal harmonies are tremendous. The emotive track "Tears" goes further to demonstrate the power, range and energy of Lisa's voice and her ability to drive emotion through her voice. Lisa's first album concludes with the guitar laced rocker "Dead End Streets."

Although it is not representative of her current artistic direction, the album is an excellent introduction to Lisa Cerbone's voice especially Close Your Eyes for listeners that prefer a band-oriented sound. Production quality and vocal mix perfectly match the outstanding talent of the artist.

Mercy CD Cover
Image © Ichiban Records 1997

Mercy is the twelve-song 2007 followup to Lisa Cerbone's debut album on Ichiban Records. Like the debut, this is clearly a singer songwriter album, but unlike the debut, even more emphasis has been put on the instrumental or band-oriented arrangements. Lisa's voice continues to be sweet and evocative; her backing vocals are joined by other band members. From the opening track "Watching You Drown," listeners will observe an increased prominence of the rhythm section and larger presence of the guitar-based instrumentals. We especially enjoyed the way Lisa's instrumental style vocalise adds texture to the arrangements.

Vocal arrangements are heavily produced with layers of backing harmonies contributing to the overall accessibility of the music, but overall vocals are suppressed in comparison to Lisa's other recordings. Instrumentals are clearly more dominant in the album's upbeat tracks, including "Passing This Train," a memorable track called "Sorry" and the lovely "Calm As Houses." We really appreciated the contrast of Lisa's vocal power against the crisp percusission and powerful keyboard washes in the ballad called "Everything He Loved." There really is something to be said for the production of this album.

Stylistic variety is also evident on Mercy with the ballad "Black Holes Don't Disappear" and the acoustic texture of "He Took the Silence" contrasting the upbeat rock numbers. But the producers didn't completely shut out electric guitars, rhythm section or backing harmonies. The sonogram-style rapid heartbeat spanning the album's uniquely adventurous title track certainly draws the listener's imagination to events in the artist's life ten years later. The processed vocals and instrumentals in the downtempo "Stalls When It's Not Warm" is equally creative. "Only Good Thoughts, Love" is a piano-backed ballad that opens a crack in the doorway of the artist's vision and, like some of the other tracks with their lovely harmonies, is most reminscent of Charlotte Martin's early work. "Pieces of My Dreams" is an everso lightly arranged ballad with acoustic guitar and whistle-based keyboard washes that perfectly showcases Lisa's sweet and evocatively delivered vocal work.

"Between Hi and Goodbye" is clearly one of the album's most memorable tracks. While the vocals could have been mixed higher in the final production, the accessible tune provides an excellent contrast between verse and chorus while also showcasing the band's robust arrangements. While Mercy closes the band-oriented sound chapter of Lisa Cerbone's career, the everlasting quality of the material is achieved through the clarity of her vocal work and the richness of the instrumental arrangements. Although original copies of the album are said to be sold out, the album is readily available online in physical and digital formats. Lisa's sound takes a sharp turn after the hiatus that follows this album's release.

Ordinary Days CD Cover
Image © Little Scrubby Music 2004

Ordinary Days marks a dramatic change in the style of Lisa Cerbone's material. All songs are sparsely and acoustically arranged. Very gentle, the album has a bluesy coffee house texture. Clearly a singer songwriter effort, Lisa's voice is crystalline clear and less child-like but still sweet. Harmonies from project collaborators add depth of texture.

The immediate delicacy of solo acoustic guitar on the opening track "Swallowing Stones" is evident. A pair of acoustic guitars accompany Lisa's voice on "How You Shine" while additional texture from bass joins the mix in "Sweep Your Hair From Your Eyes." We especially appreciated the percussive and keyboard washes in the arrangement. Lisa's voice has certainly matured on this album.

The album's depth continues to develop in "Ruthless Order" and "Araby" with the addition of electric guitar and gently shimmering arrangements. Chord structures are more prevalent, but the vocals remain high in the mix, Lisa deliciously delivering the lyrics smoothly on the recording. The purity of the vocal recording is everso evident in "Love Grows Slow" and "Dangerous Thing" both sung atop a gentle pair of electric guitars backing. "Mrs. Foster" is a memorable folk tune with electric guitar textures and backing harmonies supporting Lisa's tender lead vocal line.

Lisa's third album closes with the title track, gently backed by acoustic guitar. A collection of gentle ballads, the album indeed reflects the artist's vocal maturity. In a gutsy move, Lisa has gone for an album of similarly styled tunes. The guitar work is excellent, perfectly mated with the crystaline lead vocals. Harmonies and arrangement depth are far more sparse than earlier work but reflect the significant talent developed during the gap between her last album and this one.

Mercy CD Cover
Image © Little Scrubby Music 2008

Lisa's self-produced project We Were All Together is clearly the result of fifteen years experience honing her craft. While the album is acoustic, the production uniquely embraces her vocals with additional reverb and standup bass lines that make this album more accessible than Ordinary Days. From the opening ballad "Humming," it is clear that Lisa Cerbone has again found a stride.

Acoustic guitar, piano and bass perfectly support Lisa's sweetly delivered vocals in the album standout "Tiny Patch Of Earth." The track's gentle melody is extremely memorable and we especially appreciated the additional depth of the instrumental arrangement. Light percussion adds to the mix in "Close To The Battlefield," which continues the album's development with even more expressive vocals in the verse chorus construction. The stand up bass is even more prevalent in the tremendous track "The World Is Shaking" that serves to offset Lisa's voice and the crisp keyboard arrangement as well.

The simple acoustic arrangement of "Mia Noelle" again perfectly suits Lisa's expressive lead vocal. The strong bass line in "You Are So Loved" again offsets crystalline vocals while piano melody in "Change The Ending" and acoustic guitar in "The Fields Are More Golden" equally complement the artist's voice. A pair of folky acoustic guitar parts provide a foundation for "Feels Like The End." Listeners will find the untarneshed arrangements, whether acoustic guitar, piano or combinations of them remarkably consistent within each track, but with variety across through the album's development.

Lisa Cerbone's latest project concludes with the acoustic guitar backed "Journey." As in "Ordinary Days," the album is far more sparsely arranged than her first two albums but illustrates a depth beyond the third. Her vocals have continued to mature and are magically recorded to be even more up front without any loss in the quality of the instrumental arrangement. Compliments to the artist for the tremendous production this entirely independent project.

Lisa Cerbone has demonstrated significant artistic growth over her fifteen year recording career and has aligned current recordings with her singer songwriter vision. She has a unique voice that has developed from a sweet and child-like tone to a more mature crystalline sound without losing her unique character. With albums available online and in physical forms, sampling streams are also available at Lisa's MySpace. A great talent still early in her career, we stand ready for Lisa's next offering and encourage readers to seek a live performance.

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