Laurie Anderson isn’t solely responsible for me turning out a little bit weird, but she still played a significant role in skewing my worldview. I stumbled across her Big Science album not long after it was released, when I was an impressionable young teenager. This 1982 record contains her unlikely hit single “O Superman (For Massenet),” which opened my eyes to a new world of performance art and left-of-center music. Years later, when I recently got my first chance to speak with Anderson, the last thing I expected was to be making small talk with her about the weather.
“How was your winter, by the way?” she asks before I start asking questions. “Terrible, it’s been terrible,” I grumble, adding politely, “How was your winter?” In her familiar conversational tone, Anderson replies, “It’s really extreme. Personally, I love it. I’m from Illinois, and I love winters like this. It’s been like our seventh major snow storm.” This comment prompts me to grumble some more about shoveling snow. “I think it’s just beautiful,” she continues. “I was missing weather so much. It’s just such a great pleasure to see it and all the beautiful snow.”
At that moment, I felt like I had been transported into one of Laurie Anderson’s performance monologues. For decades, she has been telling stories and making observations about life in America—from the very mundane to the drop-dead serious. She first shook up the worlds of art, music and pop culture with her ambitious, extended performance piece United States I–IV, which debuted in 1983 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This was followed by her 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, which offered a similarly iconoclastic vision of America.
On April 1, Anderson will grace the stage of the Englert to talk about some of her new projects. “I’m making a film for Arte TV France,” she tells me, “and they said, ‘Can you make a film about your philosophy of life?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have a philosophy of life, and if I did, I wouldn’t try to foist it off onto anyone in the form of a film.’ So, anyway, we shot quite a bit of it, and it’s expanded into several other realms, so it’s very exciting.”
Anderson’s explanation is a bit cryptic, so I ask her if she has a nutshell summary. “It’s a film about my dog,” comes the unlikely answer. “One of the subplots is actually surveillance and cameras. The ways that the two worlds of machines and animals come together is what it’s really about.” I then end up even more confused, but in a good way. What strikes me about Anderson during our conversation is her utter lack of pretension, even when her thinking veers into more abstract areas. She stays grounded with a mixture of wonder, mischief and humor.
Not only is Laurie Anderson an artist, performer, storyteller and musician, she is also an inventor. Over the years, she has modified her violins in a variety of ways—from attaching a turntable to the instrument in the 1970s, to the digital violin Anderson created in the 1980s—which allowed her to trigger samples with a bow. What motivates her to create these things? “Fun. Just tinkering,” she says. “It’s the same motivation when I always make something new—which is to make something new, for the thrill of it.”
“I used to do that as a kid,” she continues. “One of my hobbies as a child was to sit around in my fort out in the woods and think of things that never happened before. I don’t know why this was so interesting to me [laughs], but it was intensely interesting and important at that time. I’m not sure what the motivation was other than the excitement of discovery.”
So, I ask, is inventing like making art or is it different? “Kind of the same,” Anderson says. “Now I’m working on a fountain with a zoetrope viewer, so when you look through the viewer all the water is going backwards. That’s kind of like a science fair project in a lot of ways [laughs]. But it’s also a really beautiful image. So I try not to worry so much about the difference between a science fair project and an art project.”
Was it the thrill of discovery that moved her to experiment with voice-altering technologies, like the vocoder Anderson used on “O Superman”? “Well, it was actually to have another way to tell a story,” she tells me. “To be able to have another point of view, which I find is very valuable when trying to tell a story.”
“I don’t know if it’s happened to you in conversations, but you suddenly become aware of your voice and its pretentious elements [laughs]. You hear this voice droning on in a pretentious way and you realize, ‘THAT’S ME!’ [laughs] So I think it’s important to distance yourself from things. As a writer, I think it’s valuable to have a few points of view.”
We begin to talk about her new visual art—a series of large-scale drawings—which is a departure from the sorts of projects she is most known for. I wonder what has pushed her, over the past five decades, to work within such a wide variety of mediums and contexts. “Pleasure,” she says. “The pleasure of making things.”
“Sometimes the art world and the music world are about trying to define people’s work very narrowly. For example, I’m known as this cool, um, multimedia artist. So when I do these big drawings with charcoal, you realize, ‘Uh oh, here come the art police!’ And they’re blowing their whistles—whiiiirrrr! ‘What are you doing, making those drawings?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I wanted to be an artist because it’s the most free thing I can do.’ But it’s actually one of the most restrictive, in terms of the way the art world works.”
This reminds me of the time I interviewed Yoko Ono, who told me something similar. Even the avant-garde world, Yoko noted, had certain rules: You can’t do this or that. “Strict rules,” Anderson exclaims, agreeing. “Strict ones!” If the art police do come calling, I’m sure Laurie Anderson will be able to evade arrest with her head-spinning mental jujitsu.
Kembrew McLeod’s new book, Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, will be published by NYU Press on April 1.