Jill Sobule doesn’t plan, onstage or off. As a musician on the road, she loves to riff between songs, most of which she calls “story songs.” “They’re narrative. I talk about people. I was influenced by storyteller-songwriters… Dylan. John Prine. Leonard Cohen.” So, it wasn’t that difficult for the singer to turn her catalog into a theatrical piece that rocked New York City in October and November of 2022.
Sobule’s F*ck7thGrade at Manhattan performance space the wild project was extended, and beloved by critics for its warmth and honesty. I sat down with her recently to ask about her process, her influences, and her background.
Sobule might be best known for the song “I Kissed A Girl.” No, not the 2008 Katy Perry song. Sobule created her version in the nineties: “I was about to record for Atlantic, and I was goofing around… there were no queer songs in 1995 on the charts. It was kinda based on queer pulp fiction from the 1950s.” Unlike the straightforward flirting of Perry’s record, Sobule’s is wry.
She describes it as “two unhappy housewives who get it on after their Tupperware party.” And the irony was intentional and double-edged. “We knew that the only way to get that song on the radio was to make it light and funny, so we could get away with the ‘insidious gay agenda’,” Sobule jokes.
The lyrics of the song are brave and simple:
“We laugh at the world
They can have their diamonds,
And we’ll have our pearls.
I kissed a girl
For the first time.
And I might do it again.”
By the time Sobule was recording in the early ’90s, she’d learned to forge her own path. She didn’t want to just be the singer in the band: “I wanted to be a little rocker, but there were no female role models for me…” When she was coming of age in the ‘80s, female musicians in a Guitar Center were “asked if that’s their boyfriend’s guitar,” and one label even felt comfortable explaining to Sobule that they’d love to sign her, but “we already have a female artist.”
Sobule managed to acquire not only a guitar but also a strong identity and sense of self growing up as a “Denver Jew, third generation from the Old Country.” She describes her family’s secular Judaism with humor and self-awareness: “We were to Judaism what Olive Garden was to Italian restaurants.” In fact, as the sole and self-described “token Jew” at St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school, she was excused from theology class but elected to attend, and even played guitar at mass. “I’ve always been, and still am, interested in everything from world religions to weirdo cults.”
Growing up, she mined music, religion, and words wherever she could find them. She recalls asking her mother for Ms. Magazine, devouring her mother’s copy of The Women’s Room, and frequenting a bookstore in Denver called Women To Women. “I remember going in there like going into a speakeasy for books. I remember having this huge crush on Gloria Steinem,” she laughs. “I was a little political girl, a little radical left-winger. I don’t know where I got that. Maybe knowing that inside there was a little queer identity waiting to burst out.” In Denver, she had no one to share that with. “It was my own thing.”
So when Sobule decided to put together F*ck7thGrade, she knew the story had to take place in that particular moment. “I realized I had a lot of songs about that period in my life. Freud said, the first week or month or year in your development is the most important. He was full of shit. It was seventh grade that made you who you are today.”
This isn’t her first theatrical piece—this summer she played “a rabbi’s wife who gets murdered” in A Wicked Soul In Cherry Hill at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. That role marked her first time back on stage in a scripted piece since playing “Miss Hanukkah and Queen Esther” in first grade. “It’s a whole different world than what I do in concerts—having to memorize! I have a whole new respect for actors.”
Now that the run is over, Sobule is in familiar territory, the unscripted. “I’m a rolling stone. My stuff is still in a storage locker. I have to figure out where I want to be.” And whatever the next story song brings.