When I call Laurie Anderson at her home office in Manhattan, just days before she and husband Lou Reed are set to glide down Surf Avenue in Coney Island as King and Queen of the Mermaid Parade, she answers the phone herself. No third parties, no tinny music. Several times during our conversation, she clicks over to other line to answer call waiting. At least once, it’s a telemarketer trying to sell her something she doesn’t need. Anderson’s new studio album, Homeland (Nonesuch Records), produced by Reed and Roma Baran, is her first in ten years. It’s about America (“Let’s say you’re invited to be on Oprah and you don’t have a problem / But you want to go on the show and so you need a problem”) but includes Tuvan throat singers, and was sewn together from recordings of her live performances all over the world. It’s nomadic and personal, familiar—there’s Anderson’s violin—and ethereal (that violin, again). Tonight, she performs at Le Poisson Rouge in the Village; this fall she’ll be at BAM in Brooklyn for her new multimedia performance piece, Delusion. Here, Anderson on the difficulties of recording, William Burroughs, and her alter ego, Fenway Bergamot.
How is Homeland different from your other albums? I suppose one of the things was that it’s actually kind of not a studio record because it was written on the road. I came into the studio and we recorded it, but then the air sort of went out of it. At the end of that time period I realized that the budget—which is still pretty tiny these days—just ran out, and I was left with these things that were not really working. They were kind of stiff. And I thought, “Oh no! What am I going to do by myself here?” So I decided to make a record out of the live sessions and take these finished pieces—like a viola line from Sweden and a guitar line from Texas—and try to put them together. [laughs] Oh, it was insane! It was kind of like trying to put together a building that had fallen apart or something.
Gosh. Yeah, it was really strange. Plus, I had been working on it as a kind of hobby, and when you do that, you lose the thread and you have to keep picking it up. It was just a weird process, and at some point I just thought, “I can’t do this.” It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I was complaining about it so much to Lou that he finally said, “Okay, come into the studio, and I’ll work with you until it’s done.” And I was like [in a whiny voice] “Is that a good idea? Are you sure?” [laughs] So I’d play something, and he’d say, “That’s done. Move on.” And I’d be like, “No, no, that’s not done; I have to put horns on that, and strings, and do the vocal, and put backup vocals on it!” “It’s done; move on.”
He wanted to give you a deadline. Exactly. Having a great editor is irreplaceable—somebody who just goes “Don’t make it so tight. Leave some air in it.” It’s a record where you feel it’s gone through different rooms and different countries and different airs. It’s not from my digital box into your digital box.
What exactly did you record when you were on the road? Everything. I did a lot of shows called Homeland, but some of them would just be a long instrumental and then a long talk about the difference between Karl Marx and Herman Melville. I just went off to kind of goof around and play something called Homeland. Probably about thirty songs came out of that, and when I started pulling things together for the record, I really got rid of most of the political threads. I know it sounds odd because there’s still a bunch of them there, but there were more of them because I started it in the Bush years. Every time there’s a conservative government I write more political stuff. When there’s a more liberal government, I do more poetry. When Obama came in I thought, “I don’t want to sit around and complain endlessly, so I’m going to take some of those out and keep them for my scrapbook.” [laughs]
I was going to ask you if the album would have been fierier had it come out when Bush was still in office. Is it a very different album now? Well, there’s a lot to complain about these days, too, but… well, weren’t you paranoid about the gulf?
I am incredibly paranoid about the gulf! I have the suspicion it’s worse than they’re actually saying. Why would you think that? [laughs] Yeah, I do too. I have that same feeling, and it really makes me crazy, and things like, “Wait a second. I don’t necessarily take my identity as a human being from the country in which I live.” But it really does make a difference to me that I’m part of a country that was torturing people in that kind of way. I think that was really difficult for me to think about, and even if you’re not any kind of flag-waver I think it still does affect your identity.
It seems like you’re grappling with American identity on the album, and that’s one reason I thought it was interesting that you chose to import so many international elements. Well, I don’t think of it in terms of nationalities. I’m on a city circuit. If I’m going to play in Germany, I never say, “I’m going to Germany.” I say “I’m going to play in Berlin.” Or I say, “I’m going to play in Antwerp,” I don’t say, “I’m going to Belgium.” I think that’s an incredible way that people can get along and learn about each other not just in this official way but because cities are the real beat of music and art. That’s how you travel; that’s how you work.
What sort of new sounds or instruments have you brought to this record, any new technologies you were exploring? Well, I’m going to do a really big retrospective of that in a show I’m doing in Sao Paolo. One of them is going to be a Tibetan singing bowl on top of a revolving circular saw blade. They made them into speakers so that the sound comes up a rush tube and comes out of the bowl with some of the added harmonics of the metals. It was a really crazy and fun instrument to design. It was in a show in the Guggenheim a few months ago—last year, I think. I don’t ever really know what I’m doing. [laughs] It starts as one thing and it turns out as another thing, which is one of the great things and one of the awful things of being a so-called multimedia artist: you can start out with an opera and it turns into, like, a potato print.
Well, tell me about Fenway Bergamot. Oh, what a character.
What is his personality like? Well, I invented that because I wanted for years to try a certain writing style that works better in another voice than my own. In a way it sounds kind of pretentious, but I was trying to represent more of the way your mind jumps from topic to topic and saying stuff that you wouldn’t really say. So it’s a collection of these kinds of phrases that are still strung together in a way. I also wanted to do a kind of a meditation on time in the middle of this record, and I thought that would be a good voice to do it in. It started out—the first time I used that was for a William Burroughs celebration. He’s one of my favorite writers of all time; he is just so hilarious and so dark. Anyway, I had to be the MC, so I thought, “Well, I’ll just try to have some fun with this.” So that was the [voice] filter that I used. I find an alter-ego really useful in a lot of ways, you know? You don’t have to be yourself, which can be so incredibly tiring. You have to go back to this so-called consistent personality and say what that person would say, where it’s like, oh, come on! This is like some kind of PR exercise! It didn’t make any sense to me, so I was like, “I want to be freer than that.” And there’s just so much pressure to have a sort of consistent personality that most people don’t really have. I think a lot of people do actually have alter-egos, they just aren’t quite aware of them. They do have voices they slip into that sometimes sound like, I don’t know, their parents or somebody they know.
Right, and then you suddenly realize you’re adopting someone else’s mannerisms right in front of them. And you’re just suddenly like, “What am I doing?” It’s hilarious. And I think the Japanese are a little bit looser than we are about that. They have a different way of thinking about the self and the ego. Like, if we were having an argument between an American team and a Japanese team, they would not say “Akira is angry” or “David is angry.” They would say “There’s anger in this room,” and I thought in a way that was a better description of it because anger travels like that. It goes jumping from person to person. It doesn’t mean that you yourself are angry, but it is passing through you. Our whole culture emphasizes “me” and “I” to such a crazy extent that it’s a trap, so Fenway is an escape from that trap. And the name… [laughs] I don’t know where I came up with that. That was Lou’s idea. I didn’t give him a name and he was like, “That voice should have a name.” So I just came up with this kind of crazy Boston ballpark, and also—this wasn’t part of the plan I guess—but Bergamot is a type of lemon. And it’s used in Earl Grey tea, but it’s also a little bit like a Madeleine, like a memory trigger.
Is there something about having a male alter-ego in particular that lets you do different things? Well, it’s just as far away as you can get. That’s the object. As a writer, it’s hard to escape your point of view, but I also feel like a lot of the things that I do involve being a good journalist, and to me that means seeing things as they are, not as they should be or as they could be, but really the way they are, and that’s a much harder story to tell. Much harder. It’s when you get, like, that sort of fake punchline that doesn’t quite work but it’s funny enough and it’ll do the job and you’re out of…life is so messy, you know, and it’s hard to tell a messy story, but when you do, people are like, “Oh, you’ve got it! That’s what it is!” People know when it’s fake and when it’s not.