TAS Interview: Laurie Anderson
Genre-defying musician and theatrical innovator Laurie Anderson has been one of New York's most influential artists, experimental or otherwise, for four decades. Her boundary-blurring career has gently zigzagged from a left-field radio hit ("O Superman") to monumental stage shows (Home of the Brave) to recent improvisational collaborations with husband Lou Reed and free jazz master John Zorn.
Over the summer, Anderson released Homeland on Nonesuch Records, her first studio album since 2001's Life On A String. The collection of songs, which she's performed on tour for several years, were co-produced by Reed who prodded an overwhelmed Anderson, facing thousands of sound files, to finally finish the project. The record's thoughtful range of guest artists includes friends Antony Hegarty, who delicately accompanies Anderson's wizened, low-pitched alter ego on "Another Day in America," and Four Tet, aka Kieran Hebden, who adds a propulsive dance thrum to the cutting declarations of "Only An Expert."
Last February Anderson debuted her latest performance piece, Delusion, a commission for the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad. The dreamy, astute, deeply personal multimedia monologue, laced with improvised music and striking video imagery, has since played London's Barbican Centre and Berkeley's Cal Performances. It is currently in the midst of its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, now through this Sunday, October 3. Later in the month, Anderson will tour with Delusion to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and even Troy, New York where she first developed the play at EMPAC.
This past Sunday, Anderson spoke to The Alternate Side on the phone as she traveled to Brooklyn for her matinee. Bad cell phone reception and a couple of dropped calls sparked conversational tangents, punctuated by Anderson's mellifluous laugh, that touched on technology, capitalism, the idle life, dead donkeys and her ailing, but feisty rat terrier Lolabelle who really does play the piano.
(photo courtesy of Lou Reed)
TAS: What has your experience of finally performing Delusion in New York been like over the last couple of weeks?
Laurie Anderson: Well, it’s been intense for me. I guess because I get a lot of feedback from my friends and it’s an intense show. So they’re like, “Whoa, I brought my friend and I had to talk to her three hours after the show last night.” Everyone sees a different show. But for me, the material is kind of intense. I can either pretend that it’s someone else saying it, and just do it, or I can get into it and realize that it’s a real story. It takes a lot of energy. A lot more than I thought. When you’re on tour you’re preoccupied by the place a little bit, a new place every night or two. This way, it’s twelve shows in the same place, in your home town.
TAS: And when you’re traveling there’s a shift in perspective too.
Laurie: Absolutely. But I like it. It’s also a chance to really play the music. The two people I’m playing with [violist Eyvind Kang and Colin Stetson on horns] every night is really different because it’s largely improvised. [Eyvind and Colin] are really game to do stuff that’s different all of the time. Which I love because I would just die of boredom if it were just the same music day after day.
TAS: Speaking of improvisation, you’ve been working a lot of with John Zorn and Lou [Reed]. The three of you played the Montreal Jazz Festival not long ago which turned into a rather emotional and strange event.
Laurie: I love Montreal. The thing about jazz festivals for me is, well, I don’t fit in very well. I remember the very first one I was in, during the 70s, in Berlin. I was playing this song, kind of the way I do now, and I heard this voice in the audience go (deepening voice), “Play jazz!” And I though, “Oh my god, he’s right.” I’m at a jazz festival and I don’t know any jazz. I don’t know the first thing about jazz. I kind of froze, though I finished the song. I realized it’s a pretty loose definition of jazz when I’m in a festival like that. It’s okay. I don’t fit into rock festivals or opera festivals either.
TAS: But you really wouldn’t want to fit into a niche or genre?
Laurie: No, that’s never been my goal! I want to try to make music that I find really beautiful and interesting. For me, it’s not weird at all. So when people say [my music] is so odd and weird, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like that.
TAS: Does Delusion touch on the dream state as it affects your waking life? The marriage of the two?
Laurie: That’s true, but I think you could probably say that about 90 percent of the works of art ever made, [finding] another way to see the world and often that’s has to do with the way you string together things in your dreams. But this is the first time I’ve really made it the subject of a couple of sections or really said that this was a dream. Mostly when people tell you their dreams it’s kind of awful. They go, “Well, my father was walking down the road, no, wait, no, no. It was my uncle who was, no wait.” And you’re like, “Please, don’t tell me your dream.” Because it’s a personal movie. You know the references and sometimes people will tell you their dream like it’s a movie, but it’s really not. It may be only to you.
TAS: Do you dream vividly often?
Laurie: I do.
TAS: Do you tend to sit up at night and scribble down what you’ve dreamed?
(At this point there is an awkward, extended silence that TAS realizes, after twenty seconds, is a lost call, not a particularly pensive moment on Anderson's part. After two minutes, we reconnect).
Laurie: I was rattling on to dead air! Our phone service in New York City is insane. Why can’t we have good phones? Good connections?
TAS: Do you have an iPhone?
Laurie: I do.
TAS: That’s the problem. AT&T.
Laurie: That’s very true. But I think with technology doesn’t make stuff that much better. I was just reading this great book called How To Be Idle. It’s all these tips about how to get out of your work ethic thing. All these things about how work is good has seeped into our consciousness and people have forgotten how to have a good time. Except the exhausting good time that people force themselves to have over the weekends. But to really go, “I think I’ll take a three hour lunch and then I think I won’t go back to work this afternoon.” People go, “Oh! You can’t do that!”
TAS: Are you good about giving yourself time off?
Laurie: I’m getting better. Well, my whole life is time off. I try to do what I feel like doing. Like today I was just making some paintings. I don’t know why and they’re really awful. But I felt like making some paintings! So it’s kind of ridiculous. I often need to do things in which I don’t really care what people think about them. I just like doing them. But going back to AT&T, technology and all of that, Americans work an average of nine hours a day which is an hour longer than twenty years ago. It’s not making things easier, all of this stuff. It’s turned into this sort of work mania. Even places that have the veneer of “hanging out,” like Starbucks. It has overstuffed furniture, it’s a little dark, there’s cake and coffee. But you’re still at work the entire time. You’re never not at work. I’m really making a big effort to try to figure out how to escape from that and build something else in my life that isn’t along that sort of career path. That’s also, a little, what Delusion is like. It starts that way. This image of going from project to project, this carrot and donkey thing, and this story of how one day my donkey died. I don’t care about what reward you think I’m going to get; I’m just not going to do this anymore.
TAS: In terms of Delusion being a series of stories and the art of storytelling, since we now seem limited to 140 characters to often communicate with one another, is that something that we’re in danger of losing as a culture?
Laurie: I think you can tell a great story in 140 characters, but some things take more. Some take less. It’s always possible to get around the technology. It’s easy to blame it for the shortcomings of everything else. In the way that, like, the Spanish Inquisition blamed books or something. It’s not the fault of books and pencils. They’re just things. It’s not the fault of our computers that we don’t have friendships anymore. It’s our fault (laughs). You can get up and leave. No one has forcibly tied you down. It’s just that the whole thing is about getting stuff done and doing it fast, as if that’s a great thing. In fact, that’s what employers would like you to do. And then you realize that you’ve even turned yourself into your employer. I see a lot of artists doing that too. It’s almost as if they had a real job. They turn their work into an office. It’s wild.
TAS: And that drive also becomes about success. What is success and how do we judge what constitutes “success.”
Laurie: That’s the way that most things are judged in our country. There are very few artists who go, “Oh, success is when I make a painting that only I like.” You’re like, “Really?” The general thing is [that success is] when your painting has been sold at Christie’s for 7 million dollars. I’m not trying to say that’s not kind of a cool thing, but it does limit people in terms of what they can do if your life is seen like that, with a dollar sign hanging over your head.
TAS: You touch on some of this on your new album Homeland which shares two songs with Delusion. What is the bridge between the two?
Laurie: It’s so hard to sum up, but [Delusion] is a story about love really and how you can delude yourself and how you can engineer it so that it looks like that but it really isn’t. It’s a story about families, parents and dogs. There’s a lot of stuff in there. A lot of nouns. It’s also kind of sad, I have to say in certain parts.
TAS: Your mother passed away last year ....
Laurie: Actually two years ago.
TAS: So at the time this commission for Delusion happened, you were still dealing with that surreal time of her passing?
Laurie: Yes, in the middle of that, yeah. It ended up in [Delusion]. I had no intention of doing that. When the first version of it was done in Vancouver in February, people would ask what it was about and I’d never even mention her when, in fact, she’s really key to the whole thing. Kind of strange. I had a hard time with that.
As for Homeland, I was mixing it as I was writing Delusion. And Delusion was originally a series of two person plays. When I was working on it at EMPAC in Troy, they had a lot of projectors and I thought I’d try something. It turned into a three dimensional movie and then I said, “Let’s put the stories back in.” And then music. It’s a funny hybrid.
TAS: I vividly remember attending one of your shows at Town Hall, supporting your 2001 album Life On A String, not long after 9/11 and what a comfort that concert was during a terrible time. There was a long span between that album and Homeland and I wondered if you needed the time to make sense of that event, the eight years of the Bush administration and all that followed.
Laurie: I’m not sure it was so much that or the things that developed from it, because [September 11] could have gone so many different ways. It went in a way that I still feel is really unfortunate. We had this opportunity to really open out and have a different attitude towards violence and instead there was a lot of revenge. And that didn’t come from New York. If you remember, people here were like, "Wow, that was so bad. That should never happen to anybody." We had to wait for George Bush to come tromping in with his boots and hat saying (with Texas twang), “We’ve gotta get those guys!” People here did not feel that. When you live in a place, you always wonder if something bad happened here, would anyone help me? In New York we had the chance to see what that was like. People did help one another. People ran into burning buildings. We have a chilly reputation and it wasn’t like that. It was this incredible, tender moment and everyone was so vulnerable. We then turned that into war. Watching that happen was pretty heartbreaking. We turned that into revenge and suspicion. Now all of that is a reaction to people being blown up, you have to have some kind of reaction to that. That was not okay. But what we did with it, making our own country into a place that would torture people ... that truly shocked me. The Nazis tortured people. We didn’t torture people. But now we torture people. We invade. One of the things I tried to do originally with Delusion was make two characters react to a situation in totally different ways. Each very true, vivid and totally the opposite of one another. So many things in culture have to resolve themselves. But you know from your own life that it’s a lot more complicated. It’s not that simple.
TAS: You’re going to be touring with Delusion this fall, going to the West Coast and Europe. Have you noticed a difference in the way the piece is received in the States as opposed to Europe? Or were the differences more noticeable when you brought Homeland on the road?
Laurie: It was more about Homeland. We don’t deserve our reputation in Europe. It’s one thing to be self-critical, and it’s another to hear yourself describe as a barbarian. And you’re like “You don’t know us! C’mon!” It’s easy to make those pronouncements, but why don’t you come [to the States] and see what it’s like? It reminds me of the Seventies. I was in Holland and listening to these people talk about how racist Americans were and how we didn’t understand multiple cultures. Which is fine when it comes from people who are blond and blue-eyed and they look exactly like their neighbors. When Amsterdam, London and Frankfurt began to get more multi-cultural,as we are, and people like the Maluccans who are people from the Dutch colonies, came to Amsterdam and they were black and different, suddenly the Dutch got an idea of what it’s like to live with all sorts of people. That’s what America is like. For all its flaws, it’s been amazing. Look around at what we’ve done in terms of race. It’s not perfect, but we’ve had a lot of black governors. We have a black president. We’ve accomplished a huge amount and it’s something to be more proud about then when we were technological leaders in the 90s.
TAS: Two years down the line of the Obama presidency, though, do you feel that there might be an even more insidious [kind of racism] taking hold here?
Laurie: One of the most interesting books I’ve read lately is something [on reality and capitalism]. It’s easier for people to imagine the end of the world then it is for them to imagine the end of capitalism. What’s driving stuff here? It’s not ideas of freedom and equality. It’s money and fame. It’s no secret, it is what it is. What concerns me is that it’s exhausting people. They just don’t have any time to do anything else except play that game. It’s not fun and it’s not relaxing and it’s no way to live. I’m trying to get myself as far away from that idea as possible. That’s why the first image of Delusion - a donkey dying - is my mantra at the moment.
TAS: One last question. How is Lolabelle doing?
Laurie: She’s doing great! She just finished her Christmas record! It’s four and a half minutes long and there are a lot of samples in it.
TAS: That is Lolabelle barking on "Bodies in Motion" on Homeland, yes?
Laurie: That’s Lolabelle playing the piano! It is! There’s a poet, I can’t remember his name, but he had a really old dog and he said that his dog taught him how to grow old. That’s what is going on with Lollabelle. She’s not a frisky puppy anymore, but she’s a really good old dog. It’s great to see how she’s dealing with things, like “Well, I can’t see anymore, I think I’ll play some piano.” It’s great. It’s very inspiring to take care of an old dog who isn’t feeling very well because dogs want to live. They have a big drive. You talk to some old people and they’re like, “I’ve had it, I’m depressed, shoot me now.” Dogs don’t do that. They go for it. That’s an inspiration.
Laurie Anderson's Delusion continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's 2010 Next Wave Festival now through Sunday, October 3 at BAM's Harvey Theater at 651 Fulton Street. Tickets begin at $20 and can be purchased here.