Laurie Anderson Talks About Homeland, Spalding Gray, Being a Snob

Laurie Anderson performs Homeland for five nights at the Lincoln Center Festival in NYC, Rose Theater, Lincoln Center Time Warner Center. Ticket information here.

"I'm not messianic about this. I don't need to bring my message to the world. I'm a classic case of talking, you know, to the people who agree with me in a lot of ways. And it's also because I'm a snob, you know. I don't think art's a very good way to convince people."

Laurie Anderson Talks About Homeland, Spalding Gray, Being a Snob

Touted as "one of today's premier performance artists," native of the Chicago suburbs and longtime New Yorker Laurie Anderson has toiled, among other art forms, as photographer, poet and pop star―her single "O Superman" reached number two on the British charts back in the day. And her recent schedule has been typically busy as well. In April of this year she married longtime companion Lou Reed in Colorado. In June she celebrated her 61st birthday on tour in South Carolina and this week Anderson will bring Homeland, a musical project which first premiered as a work-in-progress at the Highline Ballroom in May of last year, to the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center for a five-night run.

On a beautiful Friday mid-July morning we discussed the evolution and meaning of Homeland, her love for her adopted hometown and her collaborations with the late monologist Spalding Gray.

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I'm not an etiquette expert but seeing as how we're inside of six months from your wedding, I guess you're still officially a newlywed and I should say, 'Congratulations.'

Thank you very much.

You're so welcome.

Can you tell me something that you've never ever done before in your life?

Answered a question like this one.

Okay, tell me something that you've done once and one time only.

Skydiving.

Really?

Well, not skydiving. Sorry. Cancel that. Hang gliding.

Which is almost as terrifying as sky diving, so congratulations on that as well.

Thank you.

The name of a book that you've read at least twice.

Tristam Shandy.

A movie that you've seen at least three times.

Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Your favorite Beatle.

I don't have one.

No?

No.

You love them all equally?

No [laughs].

[laughs] Well, I guess that's one way to answer the question.

Yeah.

And is there a beverage within your current reach?

No, but the ice coffee is about 20 feet away. Let me just go get it. Can you hold on?

Certainly.

Okay. Thanks for reminding me of that.

No problem at all. I'm glad the question could serve some kind of purpose. So if my math is correct it's been about 14 months since the first work-in-progress performance of Homeland. Does that sound about right?

Yeah. You know, for the last couple of years I've done a lot of live shows, and at the beginning they were all really, really different and then I would pick like one thing from that show and it would go into the kind of Homeland bin. And I collected them like that. I didn't sit around in the studio writing songs. I kind of wrote them really quickly, performed them right away and the audience more or less edited them.

It's interesting that you trust the audience so much as to allow their reactions to inform the editing process. Am I hearing that right?

Yes, you are.

 

Have you always been that trustful of your audience?

Always, yeah. I am. You know, it's not that I'm going for . . . I'm just working in an art form that has to work that second. You can't work next week. You know, it's not like a painting. So if it doesn't jump across to someone else right then, I take it out.

Now what I did onstage and what you're doing onstage is apples and oranges in terms of style and, I'm sure, quality, but I had moments when I would come offstage and the crowd would be going nuts and I'd be thinking, 'Did they not hear what I heard? How could they like that?' And maybe I'm being overcritical . . .

No, no. You're not. I just have been listening to some boards, and if you really want to shoot yourself then spend a couple hours thinking, 'Did people, you know, think that was music?' Or else sometimes I do misread the audience. Like I was doing a long show--very opposite of this--last month in Germany, and it was just long adventure stories. I don't know how I got booked into this place, but, you know, English was a challenging language for a lot of them. They kind of spoke it. But it was long clauses and you'd lose where the noun was going to be and I was reminded of my favorite Groucho Marx line as I looked out at the audience, which is, 'Is that an audience or an oil painting?'

[laughs]

But at the end of the show they went wild. So, you know, sometimes you can't read it right then, but you can read it. And I totally trust people to do that. I think people are really, really smart. But, you know, I'm in this kind of crazy thing where . . . I'm talking about people who come to my shows. And the people who would buy a ticket for that aren't the ones who are going to buy a ticket for, you know . . . The people who come to my shows, I think, are people who also make things, you know, and they're either musicians or artists of some kind. They make stuff. And I think part of their interest in seeing my show is like how I'm making that certain thing. I get that feeling. You know, I may be wrong, and I've never done any polls, but I have a feeling that it's a little bit like that somehow.

That they're almost as interested in the process as the finished work.

Exactly. Exactly. And so even when I'm doing things, you know, in other countries, I still have that feeling of they're looking at it that way.

What have you learned about Homeland over the 14 months you've been performing it?

To try to make it simpler a little bit, particularly in the writing because there's some very long stories in there. Sometimes I've gotten lost in sort of the fun of words. I mean, that's largely what they're about too, the fun of putting words in like really odd positions, you know [laughs]. But I've simplified it in the sense that I've just tried to make the imagery a lot more clear. And you know what? It comes really from working with translators. I've done this show in several different languages and when you're working with a translator you have to kind of revise the lyrics a bit because English is so evocative in a way that, for example, French is not. It's much more specific. You know, when you say "weight." I'm just looking at a lyric sheet now. In English it can just feel like ponderous and in French it's just, 'How much does that weigh?' So starting with the title, Homeland, you know, it's already a word that Americans don't use―ever, ever―except when it's paired with Security. So it already has quotes around it. And I found that out too when I was doing this in Italy and I didn't know but one of the biggest U.S. bases is near one of these towns, Vicenza, and a lot of the people from the base came thinking, 'Hey, there's a show called Homeland.'

Uh-oh.

And this is not the show I would make for, you know, a U.S.O. tour, so a bunch of them walked out. And I've been really, really surprised at that, too. You know, living in New York you think, 'Well, everyone, everyone has got to be against the war at this point,' or whatever. Or everyone's got to be suspicious of what's going on in terms of what it's like to live in a surveillance culture. I mean, isn't everybody aware of that? But they're not, you know [laughs]. They have no idea what the Homeland Security budget is going for.

When I was in Madison, the only leftist town left in the country it seems like, they were saying, 'What do you think of the recent ruling of InfraGard?' And I was like, 'Huh? What's InfraGard?' Because, you know, we're from a place where we're just not getting very much information. And so I find it really difficult to look at so-called news. I mean, I never look at news actually, but if I'm on the road and I turn on the so-called news and see how much it's about entertainment, it really is shocking. Or how much even the dialogue in the election is just gossip stuff. It's not really about what's going on. What happened to all the American intellectuals? And then you think, you know, how Susan Sontag got crushed and you think, 'How come nobody's really saying anything?' It's just on this gossip level, and it's pretty frightening to me. This is really what Homeland's about.

Well, we've been playing to the lowest common denominator in this country for quite a while.

Oh, yeah.

 

You seem to have a pretty firm idea about the people who attend your shows. When you're performing just outside a major military installation overseas, are you optimistic enough to think that you can reach these people? And when they do walk out, does it hurt your feelings?

No, no, no. It was the wrong audience. That's the thing. I'm not messianic about this. I don't need to bring my message to the world. I'm a classic case of talking, you know, to the people who agree with me in a lot of ways. And it's also because I'm a snob, you know. I don't think art's a very good way to convince people. This material came into my work not because I was trying to deliver a message, but because I couldn't get it out of my mind. It just became about that. I'm not a missionary. I'm not trying to convert anyone to see things a certain way, at all. I'm really not. Why do I use political content? Because it's the crossover with journalism, and with anyone who tells a story. And here's the classic example, for me, about stories living in a very story-savvy country like this one. You know, when we were invading . . . or saber-rattling last November about invading Iran, Bush's story was 'Here's an evil dictator with weapons of mass destruction.' Jaw-dropping, you know. Like, we'd all heard that story before. We saw where that went. But, you know, there was still some people who went, 'Oh, okay.' Instead of going, 'What are you telling that story again for?' So it didn't matter than it wasn't a true story. It mattered that it was a good story, with the evil guy and hidden treasure and all the things that people want. It's not a complicated one, but it's got a good cast of characters. So it's a fantastic time to be doing this kind of work because everybody's got their story about where we are, where we're going. 'We're going to be at war for 100 years.' You have to say, you know, 'Why is he telling that story? Why is he smiling when he's saying that?' But I don't think there's a lot of that real kind of analysis going on, so that also is what Homeland's about, you know, stories and how you tell them.

You mentioned analysis. Has there been a successful post-9/11 work of art in America? Something that has provided you clarity as someone who lived through that experience as all New Yorkers did? Is there an artist who's been able to grab a piece of that very, very large subject and communicate it successfully?

No, and that's why it's so baffling to me. I mean, it is a huge subject but I think, you know, we think we live in a culture where there's a lot of free expression, but there are a lot of taboos going on. And, you know, appeals to patriotism and all of this stuff. So it's like people stopped talking. They just stopped, you know. Because I think the lesson . . . because I think the spin is so severe now that you really don't know . . . I mean, it's so advanced, and it's also, you know, people have bigger stakes in it. I'm just trying to talk about like media, for example, and the privatization of media and what happens when you have to sell your story and when it has that kind of value. And now that everything's for sale . . . You know, we voted in an anti-war government in '04, but they didn't stop the war because, you know, basically the government doesn't run the war. You know, the privatization of things is . . . It's not what I'm harping on in Homeland, but it's the thinking that went into this. For me, prisons are the most stark example of that. Ten years ago or whatever there were like 350,000 people in prison. Now there are almost three million. We don't have, you know, a sudden surge of bad guys. Probably. But it did coincide with the privatization of prisons. For which you need customers. And so I think that what it means to be a customer is really also what this is about, as opposed to, say, a citizen, and on the far end of that patriot, which is, you know, what we're supposed to be [laughs]. You know what I'm saying? So really we're customers buying these stories. You know, 'I don't really care what you think. I care what your focus group thinks.' That kind of thing. So, again, I'm not saying that kind of stuff in Homeland, but this is the frustration with living here now that made me want to write this.

Well, your frustration is obvious, and even though it's an absolutely gorgeous day outside, the picture that you're painting is rather bleak. A reviewer of your Homeland performance in Melbourne wrote, 'She has never sounded as mournful.' Is that an understandable response? Do you understand where that reviewer is coming from?

Yeah, I do. There really is that, but it's also . . . you know, that's not the main note in Homeland for me, because it's also funny. I think. And I think audiences think that too. It's not just some kind of dirge at all. It's not a dirge. And I am an optimist, or I wouldn't be doing stuff like this, you know. I'd just sit at home and cry. But I kind of . . . and part of my downfall in a way is I kind of like the world as it is. I don't really feel like, 'Wow, I have to change it.' I don't. It's kind of always fascinating. I might not like it, but my first impulse is not, 'I've got to change things.' Except for, let's say, politicians. We need to change the politicians. They don't know what they're doing.

Good luck with that.

Your art obviously cuts a very wide path, and one London review made note that you were still "best known for the unlikely top three single 'Oh Superman.'" You know your audience, but do you have a good sense of your public identity? Do you have a sense of what you're actually known for?

You know, I kind of . . . I'm an artist that goes between so many, you know, worlds that I don't have a perception of how I'm seen here or there. And that's really not on my radar, how I'm seen, and I would leave that to somebody in their own city who has an impression about what happens when I blow through town, you know. So I don't know.

Well, let me go at it from a local perspective. One of your current projects is a series of documented walks. Can you walk the streets of New York without being recognized? Can you walk the streets of New York without being bothered?

You know, it doesn't bother me to be recognized. I enjoy meeting people and it's a great way to meet people, so I'm not one of these like 'better get a disguise and slink around,' you know. I don't care, you know. It's like I went through that kind of mill at one point of like getting out of the limo and everyone screaming, and I'm going, 'This is ridiculous [laughs]. Just ridiculous.' And I try to do it as an anthropologist, you know, because otherwise you can fall in love with yourself in a very creepy way, and I didn't want to do that. I mean, your question is about, you know, shaping your image, and I really leave that to other people to do.

But I'm working on a lot of new things. One is a series of plays, for two people, that's my next big project. And they won't be so much about music. They'll be really, really about language and some of the things that I learned in writing Homeland are what I'm going to use. You know, I really love the dynamics of arguments and conversations and duets, and so that's what those plays will be about. Every piece I do seems to open up another thing. At the end of the run of Homeland I'm going to go, 'Oh, I wish I had done more with that.' And I say, 'Okay, I'll go off in that direction now.' It's this kind of crazy writing style that I invented for a couple of long talks in Homeland which I'm putting out as like 8-track cassettes.

 

Yeah, I saw that cassettes were the . . .

Medium of the moment.

Well, let me ask you about your future work. I believe you're noted for not often revisiting your prior work. That doesn't mean that you're not pulling, as you did for Homeland, from other work, but you're not doing the 'Laurie Anderson's Greatest Hits' world tour.

Someday I'm going to do that one. But this isn't that. I did just bring in a very short, like 30-second from a piece I did a long, long time ago as a quote into Homeland, but I'm not going to tell you what it is.

Okay, but you're working in such a wide area―plays and documented walks and music projects―if you only focused on current conceptions and sort of froze out new work, how many years would it take just to bring those present ideas to fruition?

I don't know. I don't think of it that way. If I thought of it that way I'd really get depressed. I kind of just try to have as much fun as possible.

Each and every day is something new?

I know it sounds like a children's show . . .

But I said that. You didn't.

I can't help it. I can't help it. You know, I really do think that we're here to have a really good time, shallow as that may sound.

You've got one more Homeland run at Lincoln Center and then there's nothing on the tour schedule until South America a month later. Will that really be time off for you or are you going to be working each and every day because each and every day is a new challenge and opportunity?

Well, you know, I'm supposedly doing a record but I'm not quite sure when that's going to come out because . . . part of it is, again, it's not possible to sit in the studio for a lot of reasons. Like financial reasons, attention span reasons, the fact that my back can't take it to sit there looking at ProTools for 10 months, you know, moving files. I just don't want to do it. So the record that will come out of this is going to be like a combination of things, you know, live things and studio stuff, so it'll be done when it's done. I've stopped trying to predict that one.

You moved to New York to go to college. If you had attended somewhere else, would you have still ended up here? Was New York a magnet that drew you in?

I came because of TV, really. I came because of live TV. As somebody growing up in Chicago you'd turn on the TV and they'd go, 'It's 9 o'clock in New York,' and I'd look at the clock and it's 8. And I thought, 'I've got to go there.' I always wanted to go there as a kid, because it was more exciting, darker, later, cooler, and I think that's what draws a lot of people. It's a very cool city. I'm never going to get over it. I love it here. It's sparkling, it's interesting. If nothing's going on you can always go to see the armor collection at the Met.

I know that you got your MFA in sculpture, but unless I'm missing something architecture has never been a primary focus. Do you have a favorite building in the city?

Right now the Guggenheim. And I'm just planning on doing a project there in the spring so it's going to be . . . I've been thinking about it a lot, and we'll see what happens. It's going to probably be some strange songs for the building.

I would suffer great regret if I spoke to you and didn't take the opportunity to ask you about Spalding Gray.

Oh! Darling Spalding Gray, where did you go? I'm so still angry, you know, that he did that, but I love him so much that, you know, it's one of those things. You know, you open that Spalding box and a whole lot of things come out: love for his work and love for the guy, and sadness and anger. It didn't mix up and turn into one thing. It's a lot of stuff when you open that box.

You composed the music for two of his films. Did that inspire similar emotions of both love and anger? Or was it less emotional, a little more delineated since he was still with us then?

Well, I wanted to make his stories more vivid without getting in the way of him, so I loved being able to make something that seemed just a bit of a raised eyebrow into something very dark and scary. You know, because music and film gives you the cue of how you're supposed to think about that, more than probably facial expressions. So for me it was a way to do a duet with Spalding and it was really, really just a fabulous experience.

We've talked about your audience. Was Spalding your audience when you're doing something like soundtrack work for his films?

Absolutely.

And he gave you the cues that you needed.

Everything. Yeah.

New York is really one of the few cities that has yet to feel the full effect of the housing bubble and the economic downturn, though ours is coming any day, obviously, with all of the recent layoffs. And so in that sense, currently it's more expensive than ever to move here. Will the lack of affordability for new young artists cause some kind of artistic crisis for the city down the road?

I think New York is going to be Venice, you know. It's going to be kind of an antique and kind of tottering, but the satellites around it, like where artists scurry off to, like Williamsburg and Hoboken, Red Hook, those are going to be great. They already are great art communities. And it also depends on what you think you want and need. If you're moving to New York to get a big loft and be an artist, forget it. If you're coming here to make stuff, there's a million ways to do it and make it work for you. It's like I don't think just because you can't live in a Manhattan or SoHo or Tribeca loft that New York is dead as an art scene. You know, we've got a bunch of boroughs. Plus the art scene is always shifting and maybe it'll shift out of New York and become more amorphous in the future. I think that it is easier now for artists to work in places that are extremely remote and still be kind of connected.

That's just sort of a line in a way also, because I think to really make a scene, you have to live with these people. You have to live with other artists. That's how I learned to be an artist was living with other artists. But there will always be artists and they're going to make really great scenes.

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