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Interviews

Laurie Anderson

Fenway Spark

Laurie Anderson It’s a strikingly sunny April day, and somewhere up above the sparkling east London alleyway where Laurie Anderson is sitting, a spreading ash cloud is threatening to strand her in the city. She looks up and smiles at the prospect: “It’s kinda great to just improvise, isn’t it?”

Time was, Anderson would have been the last person you’d expect to extol the virtues of making things up as you go along. The pioneering performance artist used to be known for giving shows so tightly planned, she’d script them down to the last syllable, learning translations phonetically to deliver them in the languages of the countries she’d visit.

But just the night before, while performing her latest show, Delusion, she injected off-the-cuff riffs on the British election and the Icelandic volcano into her choreographed set of stories, songs and video projections about dreams and death. “In the past,” she says, “when I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do [in a show], it made me really, really nervous. It’s really been fun to be a little looser.”

She gives credit to her husband, Lou Reed, and his off-the-cuff performance style; together, they’ve been playing fully improvised instrumental shows with saxophonist John Zorn (“It’s been a lot easier than I thought,” she says). Reed also had a large hand in Homeland, her first studio album in nine years.

The album started out as a collection of live recordings from performances in 2007-08, when she was touring a show of the same name. “I came back [home] with a million unrelated files,” she recalls, “and tried to put a viola part from a show in Sweden next to a bass line from Mexico City. That record almost made me crazy. Lou got so tired of listening to me saying, ‘I’m going to kill myself!’ He said, ‘I’m going to come in the studio and sit there till you finish [the album].’ And he did. He would just say, ‘OK, that one’s done.’ I’d say, ‘That’s not done!’ ‘That’s done – move on.’ If he hadn’t been there, I would still be working on it this afternoon.”

Homeland incorporates many collaborators – from Antony Hegarty to Tuvan throat singers to Four Tet to Anderson’s rat terrier, Lolabelle (who paws away at the piano) – but the voice that provides the album’s oddly moving centerpiece belongs to her own new alter-ego. In her performances and on albums for the past 30 years, she’s occasionally been using an electronically-altered basso profundo which she’s dubbed the “voice of authority”; for this album, Reed gave it a name. “Fenway Bergamot” has since taken on his own personality.

Crouched on a stone slab behind the record store Rough Trade East, Anderson is taking off her earrings and preparing for Fenway’s first public appearance; it’s to be a Q&A session in support of a limited-edition vinyl single she’s releasing 30 years after her first 12-inch, “O Superman,” became a surprise hit in the UK. To “transform” herself into Fenway, whose image adorns Homeland’s cover and who looks like an absurdist Robert Goulet, she dabs on fake eyebrows and a moustache with makeup. It’s rather a low-tech approach from the “high priestess of technology,” but she finds being Fenway liberating. His voice, delivered through a microphone with a voice filter, apparently saves her from getting “bored” with her own – an odd admission given that her resonant alto is often described as soothing or calming. “Sometimes,” she says, “I’m in the middle of a conversation or discussion, and I just hear myself going on and on – it’s horrifying.”

When she takes to the record store’s stage, the assembled fans seem somewhat bemused at her appearance and the muddy sound; Fenway’s repeated, rumbling pleas to a clueless soundman named Dave bring to mind HAL, the malfunctioning ship’s computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet, Anderson rolls with the punches, gamely engaging the audience in meandering, surreal banter about politics, science, the afterlife, and the importance of stories to make some sense of our lives.

Much of Homeland’s lyrics are comprised of stories, whether straightforward anecdotes or oblique snippets of narrative. Over 40 years of performance, her peripatetic life has given her a surfeit of material to work with, from sailing to the Arctic to investigate global warming to trekking through Tibet (and nearly perishing of altitude sickness) to being the one artist-in-residence ever appointed by NASA. The question arises: does she ever find herself at one remove from experience, and thinking, “This will make a good story when it’s over?”

A few days after the Q&A, over the phone, still happily stranded in London, she muses: “I try to keep my life different from my work. If I were thinking [about stories] all the time, I think I would try to organize [my life] a little bit more. And with this volcano making a very strange interruption in people’s lives, it’s one of the times I think, ‘Wow – I don’t know how this story’s going to end! And neither does anybody else!’ I try very hard not to project onto it, and just try to live it.”

— Originally published in The National Post, Jun 21, 2010

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