Nine Songs: Laurie Anderson
I’m waiting for Laurie Anderson to find me a foghorn.
“It’s a sound that is just so haunting,” she says, searching for the sample. “I just read ‘The Foghorn’s Lament’, by Jennifer Lucy Allan, which is a kind of history of the foghorn, mostly on the coasts of England, but other places too.”
“The sound, of course, is like some animals: becoming extinct. Now mostly people navigate by GPS, you know, they don't use the…” she sends a low, rounded hum down the telephone. “I think it’s especially haunting to me because the river here is so quiet. There's nobody out there. A ghost sound summoning the ghost ships.”
Anderson’s ability to blend poetry and casual conversation - in this case, when asked to describe her favourite sound - defines her career. From beginnings as a performance artist in 1970s New York, she’s produced seminal electronic records, directed films and worked with a glittering array of collaborators, from the Kronos Quartet, to the Paris Opera Ballet, to NASA. Her playful, poignant observations on human life are frequently at the centre of her work, smoothed over by the maternal coo of her Midwestern accent.
It’s been almost four decades since the release of her 1982 album Big Science, which is returning to vinyl with a special release on Nonesuch this month. Her current preoccupation, however, is a series of ambitious multimedia lectures for Harvard University.
“They're interesting to try to do because they're supposed to be for College students. But it's becoming a much wider, more diverse audience. And I really do not know [who I’m talking to] which makes it more of a crazy exercise.” Anderson’s second performance of six, The Forest, starts in Chalkroom, the black and white, letter-studded virtual world she created with Hsin-Chien Huang. Her stream-of-consciousness voiceover touches on her favourite subjects - technology, time, language - as VR transports her to snowy woodlands, Carnegie Hall, and ominous extra-terrestrial landscapes.
“I'm DJing the whole thing looking at two different iPads,” she explains. “One for visuals and one for sound. I was actually looking at [South African artist] William Kentridge’s lectures for Harvard. He kind of comes from a similar world that I do, with mixed media and some performance, some film, and this and that, so his were very similar in that way. Except he didn't have to do it on Zoom,” she laughs.
Anderson tells me that the idea of choosing Nine Songs from her entire life “would be paralysing”, and so her selections are more transient. Friends and collaborators, including her late partner Lou Reed, feature heavily - though as ever, she is more concerned with what each song evokes than where it came from.
“It's not so much them as certain phrases that haunt you,” she shares. “I don't so much see their faces as I hear those fragments floating through - those are the ones that have the lyric, plus the tone of that person's voice, plus the song itself. It's a kind of multimedia memory.”
“My grandfather was named Axel Anderson. His story was that he came to Minnesota from Sweden by himself when he was six, he got married when he was seven and he opened up the horse business when he was eight. Okay, this guy is a fantasist to say the least! But he had 12 kids, so they all kind of believed this thing, because nobody actually questioned him.
“A couple of years ago, I was talking to one of my cousins who had discovered that he had actually come with his parents when he was six, that his mother had died and then he had a stepmother who hated him. His father put him into a prison for boys, a prison that had an electric fence, where they beat the boys. It was in Minnesota, and he was there until he was eighteen. It was called Red Wing.
“I only understood this song by Dylan when I realised that my grandfather was a prisoner there. That he had suffered so much he made up a whole other story of his life, where he hadn't been in Red Wing. It’s not so much a protest song as a song of description and empathy. He’s not saying, ‘Tear the walls down’, he's just saying what the walls are like. And I appreciate that very much. But it's not prescriptive, it leaves it to you to see what was happening.
“Hal Willner, the producer who we all loved so much, died of COVID last year, almost exactly a year ago now, in April in New York. A couple of years ago he did a show, he was very famous for doing all sorts of shows of Leonard Cohen, he was a memorialist really, and he did a show at Town Hall of Dylan.
“I had to be on right after “Walls of Red Wing” and I had just learned that my grandfather was in that prison. So I was standing off stage listening to the song and thinking, ‘Well, Bob Dylan really nailed this. This is so amazing.’”
“You know, there's certain words that just get drilled into your mind: the second you hear ‘em you got a vision. And ‘Tropical hot dog night / like two flamingos in a fruit fight’, I mean, I hear that and I can just see it.
“I really love Captain Beefheart. And speaking of visual things, he made really great paintings as well. He's somebody who I hope gets a revival soon, because he wrote amazing hallucinatory songs with the greatest lyrics.
“I got to work with him a couple of times. And he was a very jittery guy… let's say jittery. [laughs] He would come back from a walk to my studio, which is still there and still in the same place, but at the time it was next to these cracked sidewalks with weeds growing out of them. And he would come back really spooked because he said, ‘I just saw some things in the weeds!’. And then he'd look behind the console of the studio we were working at and shout ‘Woah! I just saw Brer Rabbit pop up on the screen’.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this guy's really something’. We never finished [what we were working on]. It was a casualty of that moment. But it was really, really fun to work with him, even though we didn't come up with anything. I think we probably just laughed too much.”
“I knew Dr. Landy, who was working with Brian, and one day he told me ‘Brian would like to work on a song with you, he just wants to get your thoughts on the lyrics’. And I was like, ‘Whoa, really? Okay’.
“So I went out to L.A., to this studio which was right on the Pacific with glass sliding doors with the water pounding against them. You could just surf on into the studio. There's a little honky-tonk piano, and Brian is banging this song out endlessly, you know, like how you do when you're looking for a lyric, or looking for how a song should go.
“And I said, ‘It’s a great image, the kids are going to school, they're marching along, but do we have to say marching? Because it's Monday morning, and I don't know that many kids who march on a Monday morning. No... what about if the kids are all little and wrinkled up? When little kids run for the bus, they still have the creases from their pillows on their faces, making their faces like little prunes. And maybe they’re scuttling towards the bus like old people?’ I said, ‘Let’s make it like that!’
“But he had some beautiful lines about how resourceful these kids were. ‘When it rains, they put on their coats / and when it gets floody they get in their boats’. I wondered though, where did they get their boats? But what a great song. We had a lot of fun working on that. This is the one that haunts me.”
“It's such an unusual version of this song [originally by the Velvet Underground], which I love. Brian does it completely in his own style and, like they say, ‘He made it his own’. It's really uncanny how much it sounds like Brian, and yet it's like... a combination of two people I really love, so it has a lot of meaning for me.
“And also the lyrics: ‘I'm set free / To find a new illusion’. It just seems like as we're about to spring forth from the pandemic - well, in a little while - and be set free, that this line ‘To find a new illusion’ is a wonderful follow-up.”
“Lulu was a record that was not well received and wayyyy ahead of time. I remember that David Bowie told me at that time that it was Lou’s best record. And it takes at least 20 years for people to realise. It came out, it was a flop, and yet - what a record.
“This is a song that has pure anger in it and remorse together, and I think that very few people have the nerve to just have this kind of pure anger. They're worried a little bit about what people are gonna say, you know? They want to tone it down a little bit somehow. He did not do that in this, and I appreciate that nerve so much. “Junior Dad” has that kind of purity of anger, an unapologetic anger, which is so refreshing. Everybody's always saying, ‘I'm sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry’. And no, he's just straight up angry.
“And the lyrics are so incredibly poignant, of course. It’s the old ‘Am I waving or drowning?’ - ‘Would you come to me / If I was half drowning / An arm above the last wave’ - What would you do for me? Could you help me?”
“I know Krishna Das - he's a friend of mine and we’ve been on several meditation retreats together, in which he chants. And this one, "Samadhi Sitaram", is just… transportive.
“I used this one when I was DJing at a party in Venice, on a rooftop during the Venice Film festival in 2019. We just needed to dance, because we’d been on juries all day looking at stuff and so I mostly bought dance stuff, but I then I put this Krishna Das track on and people just sort of froze as if to say ‘But what's the beat? What should I do?!’
“And then a few people just started flinging their arms around and then everybody went, ‘Oh you're flinging! You’re supposed to fling! And just abandon yourself to this beautiful beatless sound.’ So when I hear this, I think of all of these people on that beautiful hot Venetian night on the roof dancing.
“And now they’ve stopped dancing in public, I definitely dance a lot more than I did. The things you can do within the privacy and ineptitude of your own home!”
“Oh, this just straight up makes me laugh! It takes all the puffery of our nation's capital and turns it into this nutty love song.
“I really love Magnetic Fields. They kind of turn pop songs on their head and just do really simple pop songs and they're just beautiful, so beautifully made. And this one just makes me laugh; he's really, really hilarious. So this is one of my faves.
“I like making fun of pomposity. The nation's capital is supposed to be this hallowed ground, which of course it no longer is at all, after we went to an attack by some absolute maniacs! [Laughs] So I think it's a good thing to listen to as a setting for a bit of a love joy ride.”
“I love this because it's short. And cool. And true. And one observation that just works. It's really sharp. ‘It's an old man's world, but I'm a young man’. What happens to young energy? This is really well put by Mose Allison.
“I think it's something that could have been the theme song for a lot of young guys for the last four years in the United States. We're living in an old man's world and an old man's mind. Kind of like a monomaniac’s mind! To me, monomaniacal means that it's very focused and single pointed, but it’s also crazy. Single-pointed craziness. And very narcissistic. Living in the craziness of this one person who's gone really crazy.”
“This one I chose because it's a very, very vivid song for me. Illinois is my home state and when he’s singing, I can see the landscape, I can see the patterns, the roadside taverns... I can see the endless rolling plains of Illinois. It's especially picturesque for me. I really love that shot.
“I don't go to Illinois that much now. I only have one brother who's there and I have seven brothers and sisters, they're all over different places now, so I don't have much of an excuse to go. But Chicago is such a great city, when I do get a chance to go, I head right there. There's something very resonant about [your hometown] that stays. And I never go back to Illinois or Chicago without feeling that sensation of what it means to live in a big, giant, flat space.
“And the people are - I know it sounds a little corny - but they’re genuinely friendly. They genuinely would like to know how you're doing. When they say, ‘How you doing?’, it's not just a formality, they're really want to know. It's great. I'm probably exaggerating a bit, but it’s very special to that part of the country where it’s a lot more relaxed - I mean, it’s not the South, but it's got a kind of openness to it that I really have always appreciated.
“I was always very glad that I was from there, because I learned to be interested in people. I learned to be curious about them and to talk to them, without trying to represent myself in a certain way. Just talk, you know? And see what happens.”