A Conversation with Laurie Anderson
Mike Ragogna: Laurie, thanks for taking the time for this interview. So, the song "Flow" from your album Homeland has just been nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Congratulations.
Laurie Anderson: Thank you, it's great to be here.
MR: Let's talk about another of the songs on Homeland. On the track "Only An Expert," you say, "Here in America, we like solutions to problems," tongue-in-cheek, of course. We do?
LA: Well, I think we like them theoretically, but trying to put them into practice is really different. I did that to tease the blowhard -- which there are many -- and I am including myself in that category of somebody who thinks they know how to do everything. And why pick on Oprah? She is in that song as well, I think, because there is this assumption across a lot of our culture that there is something wrong with you and that you really have to fix it, or that somehow you're more helpless than you really are and need to go to the Doctor for x,y,z. Ask yourself. Come on. I got frustrated with that interpretation of how people are, so I included her in my diatribe.
MR: Of course, many were raised on Jerry Springer, where the solution to everything is people hitting each other with chairs.
LA: That's another way to go.
MR: As you say, "ask yourself."
LA: It's turning people into infants. We are, after all, adults that don't have to be babied every single step of the way. Make up your own mind and act on it. I guess it's inevitable in a culture where you have to get your specialized niche, that happens to artists especially. You're the one who paints the purple squares, but you better not paint the pink squares, that's somebody else's thing that you do. There is a lot of insistence on originality, but in some strange ways, conformity as well. So, within that structure you're supposed to come up with your own original statement, but it has to be within the context.
MR: Right. Using the vocabulary that we already have rather than inventing or pushing the limits of the vocabulary.
LA: Yes, I think so. And even as people's tools get more similar, you talk to a lot of people who make music, and because they can and it's great, make a video. It pretty much looks like the same vocabulary in terms of timing and tools, but that's a little bit limiting too because it all has to fit into your computer. I am someone who started out as a sculptor so I love scale, things that don't necessarily fit into rectangles. You can make really big things or small things.
MR: The culture has truncated its focus and attention span, it's all about high speed and instant gratification, where thinking long term is just not in the culture now.
LA: No, not at all. You have to grab people's attention within the four seconds you have them and things that have a certain amount of complexity don't work that way. They can work that way and the possibilities are there, but they don't often work that way. My favorite book right now is called How To Be Idle, by this Brit named Tom Hodgkinson. It's the most wonderful book. The premise is, "Who told you that you had to be working?" I thought that was a good question. Because he's British, he is looking at it through another filter which kind of makes a lot of sense for Americans who are, in many ways, workaholics or are forced into this attention span.
MR: It seems like it's productivity for the sake of products.
LA: Exactly. You're supposed to act like a corporation. He uses the example Britain (losing) 500 million man-hours this year through illness. You're thinking, "Wait a second, when did it happen that you as a worker owed Britain your work time?" They "lost" it, and they became less productive because you were sick. What are you talking about? Who owes who what here? It's crazy. We have a lot of things in common with Britain that way. There is this kind of idea that you have to keep slaving away because you have to get all this stuff. The point is, whether it's a computer, a car or an app, that you will never ever, ever, ever have enough, and you will never get off the treadmill. To me, that is one of the dreariest things I can think of. So, I am really hooked on this book. Just stop thinking that you need all of this stuff. Best thing that you can give yourself is some time to do something else. Get lost. Get off the grid. Do you really want to be tweeting 24/7? Really, really, boring.
MR: It's a rite of passage with kids right now. I'm wondering how long it will take them to get sick of Facebook and texting as they move on to the next thing.
LA: Or sick of technology. Or to think, "How about if I did just want to get lost."
MR: We see that a little with music delivery systems, as in, "How about I want to listen to my vinyl album as opposed to my CD."
LA: It will cycle for sure, which is cool. I know, for myself, I am trying to do things in a really different way lately. More analog stretched out in time, trying to do things in the physical world rather than staring at one more screen, my God. The world doesn't fit very well into those little rectangles.
MR: Beautiful, Laurie. Regarding Homeland, you told London's The Guardian that "America is a great place for stories." How did you approach the stories on Homeland?
LA: I started writing that back in the Bush era. I realized then that a good story doesn't have to be a true story. The story we got at that point was about an evil guy out in the desert and we were going to go get him. It was great because it had a villain, it had a big somebody hiding, it worked. And I thought, "Wow, that is really amazing that it doesn't even have to be true." It's hard to tell what is fiction on every level, in personal relationships, politics... It's a lot of people sort of telling their own version. It's the best we can do, as well. So, I started writing the record out of anger, I looked around and thought, "I don't know if I like this place anymore. It's not something I recognize." It was the torture that did it to me. It didn't square with the place I wanted to live, a place that would torture people.
MR: That is so true, and thankfully, I think that was the corner that finally got turned with a lot of people here.
LA: As we turned the corner into the Obama era... Typically, in my own history, when conservatives are in power, I write about politics. When liberals are in power, I go for the poetry. So, I thought, "Here comes Obama, I can relax and not worry all the time about what is going on." Two years later, I'm starting to worry again. If I were starting a record, it would be from a political point of view, to try and take another look around.
MR: He presented a lot of the ideals that we got excited about. Whatever happened to the majority of them or even accountability.
LA: Exactly, what happened. What happened to all of the people that were going to be called to account for that crash.
MR: With the aftermath of the Obama election, it's becoming more obvious that once you become President, "they" tell you, "Okay, this is how it's going to be." That used to sound like a conspiracy theory, now I think it's just taken for granted.
LA: Well, I think that is what happens and it happens in the first week. Those guys go into a room and they come out and their hair is gray, I think you're right. "Now that you're President, we are going to tell you that corporations really run this place." Everybody knows that. It appears to come as a shock to the President-elect.
MR: (laughs) Right. Maybe because he spent all his time and his money on his ego thinking he was going to be able to do whatever once he was elected. And I'm sure his inner circle reinforced that belief.
LA: You're going to be "Mr. Big." I don't think so.
MR: Getting back to your music, what does "Grammy" mean to you?
LA: It means pop culture, I like it a lot.
MR: And your track is nominated. What's your reaction?
LA: It's kind of a shock. I don't have a chance, but it's so flattering. I kind of go in and out a lot of different kinds of worlds -- mainly the art world, the experimental music world, and the installation world. I think it just gets to your ego when someone goes, "Oh, that's a nice thing." "Flow" was like a sweet thing. It's kind of like a song, in a way, because it says a lot of things without words, it goes, "Look over there, there it is, but then again, I kind of doubt it. It's okay anyway. Let's look over in that direction now." It's kind of a little poem that is very melancholy in certain ways.
MR: It is beautiful, and it takes you to places that you least expect. But a lot of your work does that.
LA: I hope so, although I love things that are really one dimensional like little Haikus. There is a film that Julian Schnobel just finished called Miral, a beautiful and challenging film that has "Flow" moving through many of the scenes of it as well as some other simple violin pieces. The film is about four generations of Palestinian terrorists, so it's a super-challenging film right now. The bitter sweet thing of "Flow" is that it's kind of perfect when you see images that have so much conflict in them like Israel's bulldozing Palestinian houses, and really heartbreaking things on both sides of that conflict. It's something that seems so irresolvable after so many decades of it going on and on, and so central to the balance of world power at the same time. So, this film is an amazing thing, coming out in March.
MR: Wonderful. Speaking of films, you have a 40-minute film on the DVD portion of your Homeland CD called Story Of The Lark.
LA: It's a series of interviews more than a film, it's a "making of the record" by a filmmaker who I really like, Braden King, who decided to tell the story of the making of this thing. I didn't really necessarily want people to know that story, but now that it's there, I am happy. It was a super-frustrating record to make, I abandoned it many times. He decided to tell that story and I thought, "Well, okay, is anybody interested in that?" I think a lot of people try to do things and abandon them, to see things that aren't that easy to do, and they struggle with it. I don't think it's a story that is uninteresting to other people in the end.
MR: Earlier, we talked about "Only An Expert" on which a certain husband of yours, namely Lou Reed, is noodling around. I have to ask, what was the creative dynamic like?
LA: For the record, I spent a lot of time complaining about not finishing this record, I couldn't put the pieces together, and he just got really sick of hearing it. He said, "I am going to come over to the studio, and I will sit with you until you're finished." And I thought, "Is this such a good idea for a married couple to do? I don't know!" But you know, we did it and he was fantastic. First of all he is a really great producer so it was fun. He would just sit there and go, "Play me that," I would play it, and he would say, "Okay, that's done, now let's move on." "No that's really not done. I need horns. I need backup vocals, and need to redo the vocals." And he goes, "That's done, let's move on." That's one of the reasons there is a lot of air in this record, it's because of Lou. He was really beyond helpful with structuring it.
MR: There's something intangibly similar between what you did with United States and Homeland, what is it?
LA: I have done a lot of different things in between, but the thing that Homeland has in common with United States is that it was made on the road live. You can feel that. It's not a studio record, even though I finally did go into the studio to finish it. It was made in front of people and trying to talk to people, it has that feeling of being about something and trying to make contact with people. Some of the songs are introspective, but when I've played "Flow" live, it's been really exciting because there is this strange time. Instead of bars, you'll wait seven beats until the next phrase and it's kind of, "Woah, what time signature is that in." It's in the time signature of regret or something, sort of flowing.
MR: Since you've had a #2 hit in the UK with Big Science's "O Superman" -- also a huge underground phenomenon here in the United States -- what are the major differences between Laurie Anderson then and now?
LA: I still don't know what I'm doing. I still like to try a lot of different kinds of things. I try and be a pretty good anthropologist and try not to get too involved in whether people like it or not. I try not to write for that. If I do, then I try and do it in a way that is super-direct, like doing shows and editing on the spot. If people don't get what I'm doing, then I'm not going to bother doing it, it's just too hard to make stuff and have it fall on more deaf ears. I try and balance being a populist and being a snob.
MR: Your multi-media project Home Of The Brave took a kind daring compared to what was out at the time.
LA: It was really fun to do a big visual thing as well. I've learned also that big isn't always necessarily better, and the things that I like the most of what I've done I can still kind of relate to. Really, I look at most of my work and I plug my ears. I can't stand it.
MR: Like every true artist.
LA: I don't know, I just hear the mistakes and would never in a million years go listen to old stuff. It would be like torture to me.
MR: You, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, David Byrne... there are certain established artists whose works seem very fresh no matter which era they were created or played in.
LA: I think it comes with the territory of not knowing what you're doing. You're feeling your way, and you're not really using a formula yet because you don't have one. So, you try and step out and then start backtracking and do something that is a little bit raw and weird.
MR: When you look back on the audio and video of "O Superman," what are your thoughts now?
LA: I wish I hadn't put the smoke in the video. Easy on the smoke -- a good mantra for life and art. I do like it because it's political and personal, and that's always my goal. It's not always about expressing myself. But like any good love song -- and this is a love song for our country, and for a parent in a weird kind of way, and also a love song about power -- it works in those ways. I appreciate it on that level.
MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?
LA: Play live. That's a great way to make your work more immediate and you'll find out a lot about it. Get yourself out of the house. You don't have to go out on the road and do big tours, but play live. The future of music is going to be in live stuff. Everybody puts out their stuff and you listen to it on computers. You do the whole thing on a Mac. You buy your program, do the music through the Mac, mix it through the Mac, and then sell it on the Mac. Wait a second. What's going on here.
MR: I am so thrilled to talk with you Laurie, this has been one of my favorite interviews ever because I have so much respect for you and totally appreciate what your art has contributed to the culture.
LA: Thank you so much.
1. Transitory Life
2. My Right Eye
3. Thinking Of You
4. Strange Perfumes
5. Only An Expert
7. Another Day In America
8. Bodies In Motion
9. Dark Time In The Revolution
10. The Lake
11. The Beginning of Memory
(transcribed by Erika Richards)
Surprise! Here's the audio stream of Laurie Anderson's Grammy-nominated song "Flow":
Al Di Meola - "Strawberry Fields"
Legendary guitar virtuoso Al Di Meola's new album Pursuit Of Radical Rhapsody will be released March 15th, 2011, and it will contain his cover of The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields" that is presented here as a Huffington Post exclusive audio clip. Years in the making, Pursuit Of Radical Rhapsody will showcase Di Meola's usual mastery of complex rhythmic syncopation, provocative lyrical melodies, and sophisticated harmony.