Q&A: Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard on Her Band's "Resurrection" Album, Where Her Lyrics Come From And What She Likes About New York
With the recent release of Anastasis (PIAS)the title is Greek for "resurrection"Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry have reignited their world music-celebrating group Dead Can Dance after a lengthy hiatus. They sound as though they haven't missed a polyrhythmic beat. The album contains eight songs with Mediterranean-influenced textures, full of orchestral strings and Perry's carefully measured croons playing against Gerrard's lilting contralto intonations. The result is a beguiling, entrancing, dreamlike experience similar to the one evoked by their last album, 1996's Spiritchaser.
The pair drifted apart greatly in the years between their subsequent breakup in 1998 and their reunion last year, even though they stayed productive with their own projects. Perry released a couple of solo albums and scored a short film for his friend who had designed artwork for Dead Can Dance's self-titled box set and Wake compilation. He also moved to Ireland. Gerrard eventually moved back to Australia (where she and Perry had started out) and also released solo albums and soundtracks, winning a Golden Globe for her work on Gladiator. They reunited in 2005 for a tour, but no recordings came from that reunion.
This time, though, working on their musical and personal relationships eventually led to Anastasis and their current tour. Here, Gerrard explains how it all came together.
You titled the new Dead Can Dance album Anastasis, which is the Greek word for resurrection. In what ways do you feel this is a resurrection?
Well, I don't believe that it is about Brendan's and my work relationship; I do believe that our work relationship is more to do with a reunion than a resurrection. The idea of a resurrection is really about life forms and life cycles. We've used the dormant sunflowers on the cover to depict those dormancies. The sunflowers seem to die, but they don't actually die. They sleep. It's really about the human condition.
Did part of you feel dormant when you weren't doing Dead Can Dance?
Very much so. It's like things are sleeping. And I think that's why we both wanted to make the effort to put this back together, because we've worked together since we were 17. And our journey had been such a strong one, such an intense one. We basically took this dream all over the world with no money and in quite difficult circumstances at times. We faced a lot of poverty and adverse situations. We'd given a lot of our lives to it. And we built a way of writing together. I've collaborated with lots of people and I get a really powerful, really lovely response working with other people, but there's something unique to working with Brendan that is like with nobody else.
What did it take for you to get on the same page again personally when you restarted Dead Can Dance?
That's a good question, because previous to this album we had a lot of difficulty reconnecting emotionally. That's because we hadn't spent a lot of time together. We had always discovered things together: books, genres of music, philosophy, history and cultural references of different music and paintings. There's always been a very visceral mosaic of our collective interests that we've built with this work. And we didn't have that because I'd started having kids and I was living in Australia. Our lives had moved into different areas.
Brendan contacted me because he'd heard that my property was burning, and, after that, we started to rebuild our relationship. And through the internet, we were able to rekindle those interests that we had lost touch with because of the distance. It was a logical conclusion, really because we actually have a lot in common when it comes to our interests and there is something very powerful that happens when we write together. And we can't ignore that. It happened the very first time we ever wrote a piece of music together, we were completely surprised by what we made.
What did you connect over?
Definitely Greek and Mediterranean music.
That was a big part of your early life.
I grew up in a Middle Eastern, Turkish, Greek area of immigrants. Because my family were immigrants, we lived in an immigrant area and we were the only English-speaking people in the street. So I can see how that has influenced my singing, especially. The fact that I could identify and be moved emotionally by song forms with words I couldn't understand, that definitely crept into my psyche somewhere along the way.
You often sing in what sounds like your own language. Where do your vocals come from?
Yeah, I often wonder that, too. Lately they come from the music. Each piece of music is very singular and, although there are shapes that do cross-pollinate into some of the pieces, ultimately most of the vernacular is born innately within the work itself. It's quite automatic. If I write those words down, I can't sing them. So it's not from a practical center; it's from a musical and emotional center.
Do those shapes change in a live context?
No. They vary, but the innate kind of "orbous" vernacular is unique to each piece of music. I don't fully understand it either. But that's the response. And if I'm not inspired, then I can't respond at all.
It sounds like you give yourself over to the sounds.
Yes, there is an element of absolute surrender. Definitely. Well put.
Dead Can Dance, "Anastasis"
What are you proud of about Anastasis?
We stretched out of the box of 4/4 rhythms of Western music, which we've always tried to do, but we have more so on this album. It's a way of introducing new dance steps, if you'd like. And every piece has its own kind of conceptual context for us.
Could you describe the concepts behind some of your more abstract songs, lyrically speaking?
"Anabasis" is something like a love story about a woman in a forest that has lost the connection with nature and lost her connection with animalisms and humanity. Which is why it sort of goes into a huge processional romp at the end. It's almost like a ghost in the forest; this woman is basically walking in a mist, quite forlorn and disconnected. "Return of the She-King," is based on Granuaile, who is Grace O'Malley [a character from Irish folklore]. And for "Kiko" and "Agape," they're very much Mediterranean pieces; "Kiko" is almost like mother courage. It's to invoke power within people, the subtle and profound gentle power that can be provoked within music to empower people and give them their strength back. And "Agape" is a celebration of, it's "come to the dance," "come to life," "come to the sunlight," "peace."
What drew you to those concepts this time?
It's a natural evolution, really. I don't see this album as being completely disconnected from the other works that we've done over the past 25, 30 years. It really is all about the oracles of the campfire, the storytellings and sharing knowledge and sharing emotional tissue and fabric and celebration through the context of music.
We always had very fond memories as children of the power of music because we both came up with Anglo-Irish backgrounds, so we were exposed to Irish music and when our families would get together, there was always music, there was always poetry, and the tin whistles would come out. It was always a really good time. There was a lot of good energy. So it was kind of inevitable that Brendan and I would take that past.
Lastly, since you're playing in New York on Wednesday, what is it you like to do when you come here?
I just walk the streets because I just want to look at it. It's just so fascinating. And the atmosphere in the streets is really different. I like going to delis, as well, and having bagels with lots of cream cheese. You've got to get into those delis. They're pretty fabulous.
Dead Can Dance play the Beacon Theatre tonight and Thursday.
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