In Conversation: Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson has led a singular life.
Her career – if we can even use such a reductive term against her work – has moved from the depths of the New York art underground to the pinnacle of the charts, slipping between high profile collaborations and staunch individuality.
Still working, still creating, and still moving forwards, Laurie Anderson won a Grammy back in 2019, and spent lockdown focussed on a multitude of projects.
Clash spoke to Laurie earlier this year for our Rock & Rules feature, prompted by the re-issue of her 1982 album ‘Big Science’.
Available once more on vinyl, it became an unusual crossover success, spawning the bona fide hit single ‘O Superman’.
The wide-ranging conversation touched on her family, her experiences in academic, and more than four decades of stunning work; as such, we’ve decided to run the transcription at length, for a special online interview.
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I’m told you’ve just had your vaccine?
I did! I just had the second one just now. We’ll see what happens. Generally it just blows by and you’re fine, I think. I’m looking forward to it.
When you look over your catalogue and achievements, there’s so much breadth and diversity there. Has that always been a key aspect of the way in which you approach creativity?
For me, it’s a lot of fun… but it’s not for everyone! I think a lot of people get a lot of challenges by going way deep into what they’re doing. I’m just thinking about someone who just loves to play piano really fast! The good thing is there are no rules, everybody has got their own thing. For me, I just started doing this type of thing really by default. Nobody ever said “hey what are you going to be when you grow up?” I’m from a big family, I just kind of got lost in the crowd. Nobody ever asked me that question! So, I never asked myself that question.
I just started doing things that I liked and for me, it’s been really nice. Because if I don’t have ideas for painting then I can make music or something. I always did all of that stuff. So it doesn’t feel weird to me. So I think every artist, every musician has their own way to figure it out, and that was mine.
Do you think academic helped or hindered you in your path?
Oh no. I went to a school where you couldn’t do graphic things or painting or anything physical. They thought, let’s just do mental things! It was very limited. I don’t know if that’s for everybody at all. And also that’s depending on the school, too. Sometimes they can just be the greatest thing for an artist. It can be a time when you don’t have to be in the marketplace and you can just be in a school and try things out, or you can read a lot of books. All of those things can be cool.
So I’m not the kind of person who says ‘learn on your own and schools can’t teach you anything’ because, y’know, some people like ‘em. It’s also true that sometimes academic life can make things seem smaller rather than bigger. They categorise stuff, so that’s a bit of a drag. Sorry to be so cagey in my answer! It could be good, it could be bad!
No two paths are the same, ultimately.
That’s true. Yeah. But the thing is, don’t feel guilty if you didn’t go to school. There are so many ways to learn things in this world now. It’s really opened up in really great ways for everybody.
Do you mean the growth of the internet?
That, yes. And I suppose there’s just a lot of access. I find that there’s a more open situation across the board and I’ve have to say more democratic. For example, I mean culture – in New York City, anyway – is super popular now. And it used to be – when I started out as an artist – just a very egghead thing to do. Now the museums and clubs and concert halls and opera houses are packed with people. There’s no longer a stigma about liking that kind of stuff, like dance or theatre or music or anything. So I think it’s easier to be interested in that stuff and easier to see it now.
Of course, I’m not talking about the last year… but before that, it really strikes me as wildly different, to go into the Museum Of Modern Art and have it be packed with people who would not really have done that 10 years before, or five years. It’s now presented as being like the movies. Like, go and see that show… and people do. They treat it like that.
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We mythologise those 60s and 70s shows, but now there’s a bigger audience…
Oh yeah. I’m not saying bigger is better – cos I’m a snob! I did love the art world probably more when it wasn’t such a blockbuster thing. That’s sad to admit, but I do like to be in a museum where I’m the only person in the room. As opposed to, 80 people with their cellphones taking pictures.
Now, as a democrat, I like the idea that everybody goes, and as a snob I hate it. So, I kind of feel both ways. But of course now, in the pandemic, all our museums are open – or most of them – and there are real restrictions on the number of people that can go but its heaven! It’s so great, you can go and be the only person in a particular collection! Looking at all this horse armour from the 13th century! It’s really, really cool! So much fun.
I have to say, though, like most people I really miss live music more than I can say. That part really feels like a big hole.
Why is that? Is it because the audience is such an integral part of the live experience?
Yeah. And people play differently. They play with more freedom, and more craziness, than their records. It’s also not as organised. I love that chaos! And I like seeing people.
When I went to get my vaccine this morning, it was the biggest social event of my year! I haven’t seen that many people in a year. There were thousands of people there! And they were all happy, so it reminded me of a concert or something. We were all moving, trudging along, in our six foot distanced line… and it was just great! Everyone was super happy. And I thought: gosh, I miss people!
The sense of chaos within a performance must be exhilarating.
Yeah. When I started doing improv I really got into that. I always like it as a social situation, and I’m an artist who does stuff in real time. Generally, I’m not so much about recording as about live events. So I love the mistakes that can happen, and the way things can go south really fast. It’s like a tightrope. It’s fun!
I love not knowing who’s gonna start. When you get to be in the absolute present like that, it was just a thrill for me! Also, when you’re playing with really good players, it’s like building a big ship in the air, and then you get to look at it, turn it around, and also… the audience is in on the whole thing, and they know when you’re lost. They know when you have no ideas. They can hear it! So, it’s like they’re in a funny way sort of rooting for you. It’s a very conspiratorial thing to do, it’s a lot of fun in that way. And then when you find it, and you find the thing… you’re like: yeah! So it’s not a show saying, look at me! I have such a cool song, and I’m cool! It’s not like that. It’s much more vulnerable.
And that is the world I want to live in. Otherwise it’s just people parading their egos around, and going: look at me! And I’m sick of that… I try not to do that myself, but it’s easy to fall into that trap because our whole culture insists on finding something original. Stick out from the crowd – be different! And I’m just thinking: why can’t we all be the same? Let’s get out of this game! Let’s just be the same! Why do we all have to work so hard on this so-called individuality aspect. Take a break!
But you’ve had actual hit records as well – ‘O Superman’ is a radio oldie, for instance.
Well, like I said before – I’m a snob! In the art world in New York we thought pop culture was idiotic. I mean, that’s also really stupid, too, because there’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on in pop culture! A lot! But we were stuck in our little ideas, like: nothing could be interesting out there!
Anyway, when I walked around in the pop world for a little bit I did it really as an anthropologist. I realised this is a fluke, this is really a weird fluke, and I’m going to just have a good time looking around but it did surprise me. I’d get out of the car and 100 people are waiting for you there screaming, and I thought: what are you, out of your minds?! I found it ridiculous. And I thought to myself then, do not be seduced by this! Because I think… I don’t know why some people want that but they do. They want that attention. It’s horrible. It’s weird. It’s not fun. And it gives you a really weird impression. A distanced feeling of yourself.
So I decided not to go for that, but to enjoy it. And I also thought, this will go really fast – it comes and it goes! So I think I was cool with it. When you get something you don’t want it’s different than when you get something that you do want. So it was a different kind of thing, for me.
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You’ve won a host of awards in your time – a Grammy in 2019, for example – does the external validation of an award mean anything to you?
Gosh, it didn’t make a big impression on me. Again, because I’m not like somebody who’s like: I gotta get a Grammy! And again I don’t mean to sound ungrateful because I really like it when people say that they like your work, that means a lot to me because it means that you’re not working in a vacuum. But I’m an easily pleased person, and I was never really going for recognition, I think. I’m kind of a loner. A loner who goes out and does things in public… so it’s kinda weird! What kind of a loner is that? (laughs) Wait a second!
I do like it, and I am grateful. I’m not sneering at it for one second. I think people who win prizes or whatever they are get opportunities and many times it’s because they’ve worked really hard to make beautiful music, and I really respect that a lot. I’m not… just blowing it off! It’s cool. It’s just that it isn’t my goal. I guess my goal is to be enlightened. That’s my goal. To understand life, and try to be kind to people and try to be happy with whatever it is. That’s really my goal. Try to live life as it is, not like some dream that I have about the future that is never going to come true anyway. That’s so frustrating. You can’t be happy in the future and you can only be happy now.
I guess I also see the upsidedown-ness of so much of the world in the last year, and also… I just see so much anger in the United States. It’s really pronounced. There are a lot of people here who are very deeply angry in a wild way, not just in a sad angry way but in a furious angry way. And they have reason to be. If you look around at this country it’s abandoned. If you look around New York City right now then there’s no one in these big buildings. No one. It’s a ghost town. And a lot of people are… you go out to a factory, it doesn’t exist any more. It’s a ruin. You go out to a big mall, it’s closed. Where is there a lot of activity? Vaccine centres, drug centres. This is not a great situation right now in the life of human beings.
It’s a very tough time and New York City is, in a way, in a beautiful moment. There’s no one here, like I said, and it’s like that in all the major cities. All the tourists are gone. I love it! You get to see who really lives in the town. And who lives in New York? Weirdos! It’s a city of weirdos. When all the tourists in their Bermuda shorts leave we’re left with the artists and the weird people. It couldn’t be better in my book. Because this city never used to be a tourist town, it just got to be that over the last while. And now that we have it to ourselves again, the people who live here, it’s a dream come true for me. And a lot of that pressure is gone.
And of course, sadly, a lot of that business is gone, too, and I don’t think they’re coming back any time soon. You would be shocked at seeing it. If you stand in any of the business districts of New York, you look into the buildings and they’re not just temporarily empty they’re abandoned. Everything is totally cleaned out, they’re not coming back. So what is this? It’s really a wild, wild place now. So we’ll see what happens.
It’s been a huge communal moment of reflection, hasn’t it?
And hopefully we can come back with a better idea of how to do it. I think a lot of people have learned a lot of things in this year of solitude and strangeness. I’ve also lost a lot of friends, who died of COVID. There’s that as well. And we still have… it’s still an epidemic here in many ways. Even though tonnes of people are getting their shot. It’s really, really a lot of people. It seems to be really well done.
The choreography of this big trade centre that I was at this morning to get my shot… it was run by the army. And I’m not exactly a ‘support our troops’ kind of person, but I was supporting our troops this morning. I was like: hi guys! (laughs) I think they were just happy not to have to shoot at anybody for a change. They just kind of go: right this way! Go on! Hurry up! You’re gonna walk 8000 steps in the next hour so keep going! It was a cheery thing. It was a really positive thing.
I think most of these places where people are getting vaccinated it’s turning into a major industry, and everyone is together in it and it’s a very happy moment for everyone to be able to think about going to their house again and doing some things and feeling free.
You’ve developed an incredible catalogue, one that spans different genres and disciplines. How do you interact with that?
I think for people who have done a lot of work then it’s cool to treasure your catalogue. A lot of people have done beautiful things and they get to perform them over and over and they learn that way too. I don’t know what’s innate and what you learn to do, but I am somebody who actually only believes there is a present. My mind training goes that way. So I don’t want to think about things in the past. Which is sort of stupid, because you can learn a lot of things from your past mistakes and your past good decisions, too. I just try, though, to not mull that stuff over, as circumstances change and what worked in the past isn’t necessarily going to work now.
So it’s good to be able to think on your feet and go: well, I know that worked then, but it’s so different now… and everybody is in that same boat at the moment because we don’t know how to go on. When this world comes back will it even want us there? What is that world going to be? It’s taken a toll on a lot of people. On their sense of self.
Especially people – like me, too – who get a sense of self from being with other people. It’s like reflection. You say something, and then it becomes part of your self image. Nobody is being your mirror. A lot of people don’t know who they are any more. They’re lost. And that’s cool, too, because being lost is a good thing. You can kind of go: wait a second… what do I want to look for now? You can be a new person again. You’re a new person anyway, whether you want to or not.
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What is it you’re looking for, then?
You’re searching to be lost! It’s the first line in Dante’s Divine Comedy. “I found myself lost…” He’s in the woods, and he’s lost, but he puts it like that! So, I think that it’s kinda cool not to be doing your whole thing on and on. We get trapped into this self-image thing. Can’t we get beyond that? It’s so exhausting to be honing your image.
When I first started to do that – when I first started working with record companies, long ago – they’d go, well, we need to figure out a way to brand you! And I always thought it was a joke, but now people take it seriously. Branding themselves, having an image. It’s like, you become your own PR firm! What are you doing? Forget that, forget trying to present yourself in this careful way.
Of course, that’s what we have to do on Zoom every time. This carefully posed individual with certain hobbies and hair dos. You’re like: ahhh… I’d like to get beyond the world of individuality. But you know, it’s hard because everything in our culture says not to do that. You’ve got to sell yourself, sell yourself.
How do you break out of that cycle, then?
You know, I don’t know what’s innate and what you learn. I’m someone who’s always looking for teachers, and I’m always looking to think: why would you do that? Tell me why you do that! Of course I’m sure we’re born with certain instincts, and we all have slightly different ones, but we all have to find teachers, and that’s what I’m interested in. It doesn’t have to be a formal teacher, it can just be someone who is like doing it in a different way. Teach me how to do that!
But with ‘Big Science’ it was funny, because today – when I got my vaccination – they gave me a badge, and it had an arm making the muscle on it. And it said: you’ve been vaccinated! And it’s like, wait a second: that’s the cover of ‘O Superman’, this arm flexing! So it’s like ‘OK, wait a second…’ that’s a really good graphic. And what is this vaccination campaign except ‘Big Science’? The whole thing is big pharma, big collapse… big everything!
The record ‘Big Science’ was about the collapse of corporate America in many ways. It’s part of an eight hour work called ‘United States’ and it looked at this collapse. And so now, 40 years later, it is like that. It’s really unique. We’re very lucky to be in this era when the merry-go-round stopped. It’s a disaster in many ways, and it’s a big opportunity as well, for everybody to think: what do I want? Really. Not what you think other people think you should want… but what you actually want. So I’m having a good time, basically!
What are you focussing on for the rest of the year?
I’m writing an opera, and I’m making a lot of big paintings. They’re really bad paintings, but they’re really big. They’re really big! I’m leaving them outside to see what happens. That’s making me happy as I like painting a lot. And then also, making some music. And doing some… writing a couple of books. A little of this, a little of that! And just trying to stay in touch with my friends, as you can forget how important friendship is… when you get so hermity!
Remember the time when you could just go out for a really long walk with somebody who knows you, and you know them? That’s the greatest. So, we’ll have that again, but in the meantime fans the flames of friendship with people you’ve lost touch with, I think. That’s what makes me happy.
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‘Big Science’ is out now.
Words: Robin Murray
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