Laurie Anderson: ‘Homeland’ For The Holidays

One never really knows what to expect from musician, artist, writer and dog-lover Laurie Anderson, whether she’s performing in concert or being interviewed by telephone. But expect her never to be dull, but engaging and warm.

Photo: Tim Knox

She’s been a fixture in the art world since moving to New York from Illinois in the 1960s. She went to Columbia University to learn sculpture and eventually worked with a range of artists from William S. Burroughs to Andy Warhol to Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, whom she married in 2008.

Although she had been doing performance art pieces since the late ‘60s, she hit the popular-music world’s radar in 1982 with an album, Big Science, and single, “O Superman.”

She doesn’t just write poetry, sculpt or make music. She also invents her own high-tech musical instruments. Among her creations are a tape-bow violin that uses recorded magnetic tape on the bow instead of horsehair. In the late 1990s, she developed a talking stick, a six-foot-long batonlike MIDI controller that can access and replicate different sounds.

Anderson’s imaginative use of voice filters enables her to create many characters from her own distinctive voice, including a male “voice of authority” that she has only recently given a name.

After a 10-year recording hiatus, Anderson released Homeland in July and the track “Flow” has been nominated for a Grammy Award. She has a full plate in store for 2011, beginning with a monthlong residency as curator for The Stone, in New York City’s East Village.

Her concerts can involve all aspects of her artistic output, which makes for an eclectic, unpredictable evening that has captivated fans for three decades.

You’re curating a month of programming at The Stone in New York City, which has a reputation for being a little unorthodox. What can fans expect? Or should they?

People who go to The Stone know to expect anything and to have a great wild ride. We’re doing a cool thing on Sundays as well, which is based on a place in London called the School of Life.

Alain de Botton, an artist and writer who wrote “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” has about 20 books in the School of Life. It’s not a bookstore; the books are not for sale, but you look at them and say, “Ah! I have to check every single one of them out!” Every day, they have people come in and talk about stuff that they know how to do. Not artists saying, “This is where I get my inspiration” or that kind of thing. But people talking about what they do.

I thought that would be amazing to do at The Stone, so we’re doing our version of it. On Sundays in February, the deadest, darkest days of the year, people are going to come into The Stone and talk about stuff like that. There’s going to be one by a guy named Henry, who knows all about boilers. He gives tours of boilers in New York City. You might think, “Do I really need to know about boilers?” And yet Henry is so in love with them, and knows so much about them, that it’s completely beyond fascinating. So he’s going to talk about that.

And we’ll have the person who trained our dog to play piano come in and talk about teaching animals about music, and then somebody’s going to talk about making his own bicycles, things like that.

How exactly do you teach a dog to play piano?

Lolabelle is our rat terrier, and Elizabeth Weiss, who taught her, has taught several dogs how to play piano. It’s all about the chicken. Chicken is key. It’s more about the chicken, for the dog, than it is about the notes, to tell you the truth. (laughs)

Our dog lost her sight, and a lot of her facilities sort of left her, when she got cancer. Playing the piano, for her, is something she does an hour a day and is very enthusiastic about. She loves it. It’s inspiring to watch her do that. Dogs are all heart. Especially our dog, of course.

And did this lead into your “Music For Dogs” concert at the Vivid Live Festival in Sydney, Australia, last year?

It was going to be a very high-frequency thing until a dog trainer said, “I wouldn’t do that with a group of dogs that don’t know each other. You don’t know what’s going to happen.” So I had to agree to that.

It was a short concert, about 20 minutes. It started off with some whale sounds, because it was right on the harbor on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. It was so crazy and yet so beautiful. We expected maybe a couple of hundred dogs to show up. Thousands of dogs showed up; they filled up the Opera House steps.

They of course were primed for the last week before the concert. They were in a really great mood because they’d been told by their owners, “We’re going to a show, just for you!” So of course they were losing their minds with happiness by the time they got there. And that’s a good kind of audience to have.

A lot of people say that their dogs like classical music, but I think it’s for the same reason that people say their kids like classical music. It’s what they use to put their kids to sleep on their towels. But we had a lot of rocker dogs. When we played loud stuff, the dogs were just going, “YES! YES!” They were dancing around. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had doing a show. It was absolute, pure joy.

The ones in the front row were my special favorites. They were droolers, just looking at the stage with their mouths hanging open, like, “What the hell is this?” They were so sweet.

I’m imagining a doggie VIP package.

There was! There were ones that got the really special treatment. Some people brought their very old dogs in these kind of crazy conveyances. Little carriages, weird sort of wagons, for dogs that had maybe one leg. For those, we had a lot of veterinarians that offered their services and they gave these dogs free treatments, massages, things like that. It was really lovely, with everyone pitching in.

You also have an upcoming exhibition in Rio de Janeiro. Please tell us about that.

It’s a retrospective of a lot of instruments that I’ve designed and installations of projections and stuff like that. The second part of it opens the end of March. The first part is already taking place in Sao Paulo.

If you’re down in Rio for Carnaval and still haven’t recovered, come on down to the show. It’s a combination of a retrospective of all the instruments I’ve designed and some photographic projects. There’s also some new pieces I created for the space; three dimensional movies and some things from the last live show that I did, that I’m adapting into an installation. It’s very exciting. I’m very pleased with it, and hope to do it in the United States at some point.

You released Homeland this year and received a Grammy nomination for it. Congratulations.

Amazing, isn’t it! Thank you.

It’s your first recording in 10 years. Is there a reason for that, or a matter of being the right time?

I didn’t have a reason to make one. I was doing a lot of stuff on the road. I don’t know; the record business is kind of crazy and it was like, “why make one?” And then I decided I’ll make one.

In the end, I made it and I think that I’m probably going to try to make a bunch more pretty soon. I have so much material now. If you just wait around, you get less inspired to put it out. So I probably will do that now on a more regular basis.

Laurie Anderson – “Flow” by Nonesuch Records

After at least 15 years, you’ve given your “voice of authority” a name.

Yes! He’s Fenway Bergamot. What a name! He just acquired it, because he could. It was a last-minute addition to the record, when I decided to put that voice on. Then I decided, he’s been in a lot of my shows. I think I should let him have a name.

And I had, by chance, just been photographed as him. I decided, “I’m so sick of being on album covers as myself, I think I’m just going to put that guy’s face on it.” And I can let him do all the things you’d have a surrogate do. Just let him take over.

In your liner notes, you say Homeland was a work in progress that was actually created on the road. With the last 10 years and the country’s fixation on security and terrorism since 9/11, is there anything you’ve seen on the road the last decade that perhaps you didn’t expect?

It’s so horrible. I really didn’t expect this particular turn a couple of years ago. I began writing Homeland in the Bush era and, as soon as Obama came in, I thought I was going to be less judgmental. Now I look around and I don’t feel like I’m seeing what I was hoping for.

Generally, my line is that when conservatives are in power, I write more about politics. When liberals are in power I go back to poetry. But I don’t know. I’m going back to politics for a while. I think there’s a lot to say. I’m kind of disheartened, I have to say. I really am. Now, who do you vote for? You already voted for him. I’m a little scared.

Sticking to the Homeland theme, what do you think the American landscape is going to look like in five, or even 10 years from now?

I don’t know, but I’m going to be writing about it. I’ll let you know.

Switching gears, a friend wanted me to ask what you think of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music? Do you like it?

I do. For many of the same reasons that I like Phil Glass’ Music In Twelve Parts. You can fall into it and really kind of get lost in it. And also, unlike Phil’s music, it’s very different with each show. That’s even more intriguing to me, that it can have so much variety and complexity to it. I like noise stuff. I genuinely do. Lou has a lot to say about noise. He loves it; he always has. He’s also an incredible songwriter. But he can really cook up some amazingly dense, complicated and beautiful grooves. We’re hopefully going to do some of that at The Stone in February. We want to do some crazy love songs. Noise love songs.

Would you ever do music for cats?

I don’t really have as much of a rapport with cats. But if someone who is a cat lover wants to make it, I say, do the music for cats! I don’t know if they would sit around for it, though. They are not as social as dogs. But I’ll bet there is some kind of beautiful music that they would enjoy. I think there’s a big future in interspecies music.

Photo: Leland Brewster
“I have so much material now. If you just wait around, you get less inspired to put it out.”

Laurie Anderson has given Pollstar three autographed copies of her Homeland CD bundled with her 1982 album Big Science to pass along to our readers. To win, send an e-mail to [email protected], slap “Laurie Anderson” in the subject header and you’ll be entered in a drawing taking place after the holidays. You can enter as many times as you like.

For more information about the artist who’s as unique as she is talented, click here for