When the Recording Academy’s list of its 2024 lifetime achievement awardees was announced on Jan. 5, the name “Laurie Anderson” was most surprising to one of its recipients: Laurie Anderson.
“The Grammys? They don’t usually look over at the experimental world. Then again, I do kind of go in and out of both,” says Anderson from her New York City home. “I am really happy to see that they saw this as music, because generally the Grammys ignore experimental stuff. Then again, every category of music is softening, so I’m glad to see that they’re softening too. People are much more open-minded about music than they were, say, five years ago.”
The back-and-forth, genre-jumbling that she spoke of refers to a densely-knotted, recorded body of experimental music and spoken word work for which she’s received six Grammy nominations and one win: Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance for her 2018 “Landfall” album with the Kronos Quartet during the 61st annual awards.
The luster and bluster of Anderson’s albums range from the avant-pop of 1984’s “Mister Heartbreak” (with Peter Gabriel and Nile Rodgers) to 2015’s “Heart of a Dog,” the elegiacally melodic soundtrack to Anderson’s self-directed documentary tied to her late, finger-painting dog Lolabelle and her experiences in downtown NYC after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Anderson’s wildly wide oeuvre includes recordings for independent labels (from 1981’s Giorno Poetry Systems double album “You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With,” co-starring William S. Burroughs, to 2019’s “Songs from the Bardo” with Tenzin Choegyal and Jesse Paris Smith on Smithsonian Folkways). It also includes albums released as part of her longtime relationship with Warner Brothers, followed by the Nonesuch label.
Anderson has also recorded albums that included the voice and guitar of her late husband, Lou Reed, such as 1994’s “Bright Red,” 2001’s “Life on a String,” and 2010’s “Homeland.” Along with appearing as a vocalist and violinist on Reed albums “Set the Twilight Reeling,” “Ecstasy” and “The Raven,” since his 2013 death, Anderson acted as an editor on Reed’s posthumously published book, “The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi.”
Looking backwards to the 12-month period in 1981-82 when she went from independent label artist to signing a deal with Warners for her debut album, “Big Science,” and the attention-getting single “O Superan,” Anderson happily remembers the jump to the major label world.
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“It was a big leap because I could work in bigger studios; that was a lot of fun as I had only ever recorded in my home studio,” she says. “I got to use things like horn sections, which was great. It was a great leap, too, in the music that I could do. Suddenly, I was making music for a lot more instruments. However, it didn’t feel as if I was making it for a different audience.”
Anderson tells a humorous story about the first time she visited Warners Brothers for her deal signing. “I remember being told that I would get to meet the ‘artists,’ and one of them was a band who I’d never heard of before and haven’t since. They were definitely a band, the ‘hey, baby’ type. OK. But when I heard the word ‘artist,’ I thought of like Rothko or someone like that. It was ridiculous. It’s sad to say, but I was something of a snob… I was coming from an isolated art world, and we were very sure, then, that we were changing the world. We came from the ’60s, and had that confidence. We weren’t trying to fit into anything – just making interesting music, that’s it.”
The performance artist recalls how the late Karin Berg – the A&R whiz for Warner Bros. Records responsible for signing the B-52s, Hüsker Dü, and REM among others – had been attending many of Anderson’s shows at the time and kept at her to sign to her label.
“Karin repeatedly said ‘Let’s make a record,’ but I didn’t want to make a record,” saya Anderson. “It was only when I had to make a lot of records suddenly – when I got a call from London saying that they needed 40,000 copies of the original ‘O Superman’ – and I had been putting them out myself. I had about 12 copies of the record at a time, and I’d just walk to the post office and send it out myself. So, my life changed a lot, even though I pretended that it made no difference.”
Approaching this newfound renown as an anthropologist, Anderson thought of the idea of selling records as interesting and amusing.
“I tried to continue to live in that world, and by some amazing flukes, I got to go back-and-forth in the world of… I don’t even know what you call the record world,” she says with a laugh. “I do know that I am surprised and touched by this Grammy honor. I do art shows and art performances and put out records that people buy. Not a lot of people buy them, but some do. And isn’t that great?”
Anderson humorously remembers the broad question of branding when she initially signed with Warners, an idea that has since grown more crucial in a world of Instagram influencers and TikTok producers.
“I thought that the question of my brand was the funniest thing I’d ever heard,” she says. “I mean, I knew what they were talking about. I told them I’d be wearing the sort-of glasses and suit on my album cover that I wore during my shows and that was it — like a joke, or something. Now, young artists and musicians take branding very seriously. You have to show up on TikTok, or you don’t exist.”
Anderson launches into a story about how within the last month she has received calls from friends that she had gone viral on TikTok, that people had picked up on the two same lines from “O Superman” – “You don’t know me, but I know you” and “I’ve got a message to give to you” – and turned them into memes.
“I guess I tapped into the zeitgeist of what TikTok would be 45 years ago.” she says. “The thing about TikTok is wanting to be known. It’s a little bit about celebrity, a little bit about branding. This song is about how I’m going to send this message to the guy I just ditched in a way that is interesting, and how long am I going to put myself out there…. Whoa. People are really smart, how they picked up on this thing and used it in a new way to send messages to each other. It’s as if I reached into the future then, and found something really useful – the usability is fantastic.”
Anderson has added AI-generated projects to her sonic landscape since becoming the Australian Institute for Machine Learning’s first artist-in-residence with a project that found her funneling her songs into an AI program for works based on her tone and sense of language. While Anderson points out that the question of AI being great or terrible for artists is way too broad, she does believe that the art of artificial intelligence is a great writing partner.
“I want to emphasize that it is a wonderful tool, and that students will be writing their college and high school papers – their 8th and 5th grade papers – using Chat GPT. People should use AI as a great jumping off place for how humans can collaborate with technology.”
Though the avant-garde composer, performance artist and digital storyteller started her aesthetic life in painting and sculpting, one challenge that has long existed for Andreson has been creating music that was dynamic enough to see, feel and smell.
“That’s actually something that I’m just working on with the next record that I’m putting out, ‘Amelia,’” says Anderson about the large-scale orchestral piece she composed, and has performed in, in dedication to Amelia Earhart, the aviation pioneer whose plane disappeared above the Pacific Ocean in 1937, and whose lost aircraft may have recently been spotted through newly-found sonar images. “Amelia” premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2000 with the American Composers Orchestra, toured Europe, and was performed and recorded in Brno, Czech Republic, by the Filharmonie Brno, as conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.
“In how a record is different from a performance, ‘Amelia’ is pretty different as it was a recording of a performance where I just put a lot of electronics and language and sounds effects on top of it. It sounds right, not as if the sauce was put on later.” While “Amelia” is scheduled for release this year through Nonesuch (date TBD), Anderson states that there is also a possibility of releasing a “purely” live record from her ongoing tour with Sexmob, “Let X=X,” a showcase featuring old and new Anderson songs. “I don’t need to add anything to the live album as there was already lots of energy and language that was a part of the performance,” says Anderson.
Before letting her go, thinking of the wide berth of recordings and diverse experimental sound that the Recording Academy had to consider when honoring her with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, I ask which albums of Anderson’s was the most her – which albums did she feel closest and most connected?
“Wow, what do you think?” she quizzes, something she does often throughout this interview.
When I state 2001’s “Life on a String” as the most her, with its discordant but warm melodicism, and lyrics about the death of her father (“Slip Away”), Anderson thanks me for my suggestion.
“I don’t do things to express myself, so when I think of the ‘most’ me, it doesn’t really matter,” she says, perhaps in connection with William S. Burroughs’ forever-focus on the “you” of the matter, and never the “I.”
“I don’t care if people get to know me. I’m just trying to look at the world in a different way. However, in the sense of how I would like to look at the world, yours is a really great answer. Thank you for being of service.”
And the Recording Academy thanks Laurie Anderson for her service with his weekend’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
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