Born in Chicago but adopted by New York, Laurie Anderson so escapes definition that her work practically demands a new vocabulary: Though not the first person labeled as a "performance artist," she quickly became synonymous with the term. Combining music, visual art, theater, film, and whatever else fits on a stage, Anderson's performances comment on religion, politics, the mundane details of everyday life, and, in her most recent work, Moby Dick. But most of the country knows her best as the recording artist behind a string of albums beginning with 1982's Big Science (home to the semi-hit "O Superman"). A mixture of music, spoken-word performances, distorted vocals, electronic experiments, and wry observations, Big Science cleared a wide patch of territory for Anderson to explore on subsequent albums, and with the self-directed performance film Home Of The Brave. Last year marked the release of Talk Normal, a two-disc anthology of Anderson's recordings; this summer, the album Life On A String followed. Currently on tour, Anderson, prior to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about technology, odd jobs, and her dog.
The Onion: If the first three songs from Life On A String come from your Moby Dick project, where do the rest come from?
Laurie Anderson: I started this record, and I thought, "I can't go on with the sailors. I've had it." But we were trying anyway, so I said, "Look, this isn't working." A lot of times, with something that doesn't work, you think, "I'll keep plugging at it, and maybe it will." But this one didn't, so I said, "Listen, we're gonna take a break, and I'm gonna write some new things and come back."
O: So it's all new stuff.
LA: Yeah, and written, for me, pretty fast. I wrote it last summer, and in this odd kind of mood. I was very lonely. Lou [Reed, Anderson's boyfriend] was out of town, and I was walking around with my dog Lolabelle. But it was this gorgeous summer in New York, and we'd walk down to the Battery. It wasn't a self-pitying kind of loneliness, it was really this introspective time, and so that's kind of where they came from. Also, I was doing some other things at that time. I'd just written an orchestra piece, so I think that's how the string playing started to seep in. And I'd been working on this thing for the Encyclopedia Britannica, so I'd been writing in this very journalistic way, just trying to be a good observer. That's how some of those New York icons started to crop up.
O: Would you characterize this as a New York album?
LA: Well… sure. Let's call it that. That's fine.
O: What are you working on for Encyclopedia Britannica?
LA: They asked me to do the entry about New York, and I thought, "Why me?" That was my first question, because the guy who did D.C. was a national historian, and he knew stuff like the road that Abe Lincoln took after the meeting with the Spanish Ambassador, which way he took on his horse. So I thought, "This is my chance to learn about the city," because in a way… I've lived here a long time. I'm from Chicago, but I've lived here most of my life. I don't know what it's like for you, but if you live in a city, you don't find out about it. It's hard to be a tourist.
O: It's like living in Paris and never going to the Eiffel Tower.
LA: Yeah, that's really true. So I did stuff like that, the Circle Line, the Statue Of Liberty. Maybe that's a little bit of what was left from Moby Dick, though, in a way, because it was very much… [The novel Moby Dick] starts with a really beautiful description of Manhattan, and this sense of place is something that Herman Melville is really, really good at as a writer. In the first line of a lot of these songs [on Life On A String], it says where you are. It's not always in New York, but it does have that… It was odd to notice that.
O: So it's a geographical album, then? It's not a New York album?
LA: Yeah, let's say that. We'll keep revising it, I'm sure.
O: You and Melville are both really comfortable, or at least very interested in, exploring America as a theme. But the songs that made it onto the album don't really reflect that. Did you connect to him on that level?
LA: Yeah, I think so, but the biggest connection was about looking for something, and his whole book is about that, looking for something that… Well, they did find it in the last three pages, and it ate them. But I appreciated very much a book that's all about paying attention and really hunting. What I like most about him, though, are his jump cuts. You're following this character Ishmael, and he's going, "Well, why would I go to sea? I could go as this officer, but I don't like to boss people around. I could swab the decks. Or I could go as a cook. There's nothing like a real great broiled chicken. And the Egyptians knew that, too, because, you know, mummies of broiled chickens and ibis and roasted river horse and their giant bake houses are in the pyramids." And you're going, "This is page four!" He really knows how to do that, and it's the freshest book I've ever read, and it's the most modern, because he has this ability to associate like that. It makes me laugh.
O: If you knew that going in, what surprised you most about revisiting Moby Dick?
LA: The lyricism, I think. I started working on this because a DVD producer was saying that kids don't read books anymore. No wonder they're bored: All they have is pop culture. There are libraries full of insane writing. So he asked about 10 people to pick their favorite book and do monologues. Robin Williams was going to do Dickens, and I picked Moby Dick, so I read it again. I'd read it in high school, and like a lot of kids, I kind of liked it, but I didn't get it. So I read it again and went, "Oh my god, this is just a song, a long song." Then I read it four more times, and I loved it. That's why I did this show. I don't think I would ever do that with a book again. I was afraid Melville was going to find me and kill me. His book does not need to be a multimedia show. It's just fine as a book, so it was weird. It kind of made it a lot more difficult, thinking, "I need to be faithful to this thing that I love," rather than just jump around. That felt like a straitjacket to me. It was freeing and also really scary.
O: It'd almost be easier if you had a book you didn't like so much.
LA: Yeah, but why would you do that? Come up with your own thing. No, I'm never going to do that again.
O: Moby Dick is about a quest that destroys the people questing. Your album ends with sort of an open-ended quest. Is that the safest kind, where you don't necessarily know where you're going?
LA: I absolutely don't know where I'm going. Since I've finished that, I've been trying to know even less. I've been doing a lot of trips and projects, doing things that I have no business doing. I was working on an Amish farm for a while as a farmer. I worked in McDonald's. It's really been interesting.
O: Is this for some sort of project?
LA: There were different reasons for each thing. With McDonald's, I went in thinking, "I'm going to see a factory." How do you make things that appeal to a mass audience, whether you're making hamburgers, or CDs, or whatever? How much sugar do you put in these things? And, in fact, I had a great experience there. I really loved the people I worked with, and it was very surprising to me.
O: Were you undercover, or did people know who you were?
LA: I just went in and got the half-page application form and started working there. People I knew did come in, and I would look at them, and they would look at me. I would say, "Good morning, welcome to McDonalds," whatever. And I thought, "They're going to say something," so I'd wink, and they didn't recognize me at all. I'm standing three feet away from them, but because I wasn't supposed to be there, I wasn't. It was really odd.
O: How long were you there?
LA: A couple weeks.
O: Did you give two weeks' notice?
LA: Yeah, I gave notice the day I… no, I didn't.
O: What other experiments like that have you done?
LA: A lot of them. The great thing is that they've been the opposite of what I expected. We were going to go to Utah and study… it was going to be two weeks of silence and paddling down a river, studying the work of the Dogen, who's a 13th-century Japanese teacher. He was someone who believed that mountains were aware. I thought, "Boy, I'd like to find out how that works." In fact, the whole trip was—it's too long to tell you, but it was the absolute opposite of what I thought it was going to be. Part of what I was trying to do was, I had realized that a lot of the things that were happening to me were based on my expectations. My motto was, "Expectation is experience." It was a negative motto, because I was just experiencing what I expected. I thought, "This is crazy." Try to avoid that. That's why I'm trying to learn by doing something that's hard for me, or weird.
O: One comment I heard a lot after the results of the last election were finalized was that art gets good under a conservative government. Do you agree with that statement?
LA: [Long pause.] I think probably. That's a pretty big thing to say. But if you were going to say a big thing, then that's truer than its opposite. Is that vague enough for you? Would you like me to try to make it a little vaguer? I think it's true. It makes everybody kind of go, "How could that have happened?" Then they think of other stuff, rather than just kind of letting the government do what it's doing. It's good in that it makes people question, really, what we're trying to do here, instead of taking things for granted. Not that I know what we're trying to do here.
O: What was it like seeing your career boiled down to a two-disc anthology?
LA: I didn't really have anything to do with that. They did send it to me. They said, "Would you like to help choose?" I said, "No, I can't." I can't listen to it. They play old stuff, and I run out of a room. That said, the tour that I'm about to do, I'm playing six old things that I haven't played for 20 years. It's really, really interesting. It's far enough away, and they seem… I thought they weren't going to work at all with the new things, but they sound fine. The only thing I've had to do is, a couple of them are from the '80s, and they had a certain sound. You can get a digital so-called farfisa, but it's all fixed up. It doesn't have any of these snarly, ratty, great farfisa sounds that the real instrument did. So I've been having to mess up some sounds. That's been fun.
O: Your albums are just one facet of what you do. Have you grown more comfortable with albums as the means by which you reach the largest audience?
LA: Yeah, but I'm not this ambitious person who needs to be understood correctly or something, or puts out an album every two years. I'm not very professional, in a certain way. It's also part of the curse of being a multimedia person. People go, "Well, this is your first album in, what, seven years? Your first theater work in, what, four years? Your first exhibition in…" I work on what I feel like working on at the time.
O: Animals tend to pop up a lot in your work.
LA: Yeah, they do. Don't get me started.
O: The idea is to get you started.
LA: Let's see. This record actually went through a phase of being all about animals, germs, spiders, of course dogs. I think it's a reaction to technology. The more you work with technology, the more stupid you realize it is. You get these really weird questions from people, like, "How does it feel now that technology has caught up with you?" What is this, a trade show? I never thought of what I was working with in terms of technology: "Look at this stuff, it's really fast and speedy and cool." I think it's just the meanest trick, the meanest marketing trick I've ever seen: "Convince people that they need all this stuff." The biggest hard drive, the smallest cell phone, the coolest web site. It's a lot of pressure on people, and it works extremely well because it's based on the fear that you're going to fall behind unless you have that stuff. Not very many people know how to work it, but they feel like they have to have it. They don't quite know why, except they won't be good 21st-century citizens unless they are good consumers. That's really scary to me. I look at it as pencils, more or less. Slightly stupid pencils. That said, I use technology for everything, and I just got this great new camera.
LA: The [Nikon] D1X. I'd lost interest in photography because digital stuff looks so horrible, but this is gorgeous. I'm working on a big project in Zurich that is like a kind of huge living painting. We're building a pavilion, and 70 people are in beds, and three stories up we have all these cameras that take their picture, and then we project them into this big living painting on the ceiling. It's really going to be cool. It's going to open in May. Anyway, I love stuff like that, but I don't really trust it, and I don't trust the hype at all. I think that just makes things real difficult for a lot of people.
O: Is that why you featured your dog so prominently on your web site, as sort of a counteraction?
LA: Yeah, I'm more interested in how her mind works than how my hard drive works.
O: What have you learned from your dog?
LA: Tenderness, and being in the moment, and fun. Terriers are just… Our dog trainer explains it like, "You have to imagine how your dog would talk, because every breed has radically different personalities." If you give a command to a German Shepherd, he'll say—you have to imagine how he sounds, which is basically, "No problem, I'll do it exactly the way you want, and it'll get done, and I'll do it right, boss." Poodles, if you tell them to do something, they go, "I just want to please you. I just want you to love me. I'll do anything." But terriers, if you tell them to do something, they go, "Is it gonna be fun? 'Cause if it's not gonna be fun, I'm not really gonna bother with it." That's the best thing that I've learned from Lolabelle. The most useful thing. Not that I know it, really, because I always forget and think suddenly, "Oh, I'm working."
O: Do you feel that people tend to overlook the humor in your work?
LA: I don't know. It depends on the project. Sometimes I'll do something I'll think is hilariously funny, and people will just go, "That's not funny at all." Generally, I think I'm an average enough person so that what I think is funny, some other people will think is funny. But it's kind of great to find something that only you think is funny, where you're the only one in the world who thinks that's hilarious. To each his own. I learn the most about that from doing live shows. I don't know about it otherwise, in terms of what people think is funny in what I do.
O: Do you currently see your influence anywhere? Or have you had an influence?
LA: It's hard for me to step back and… I don't know. Is that a good answer? I really don't know. What I'm going for is trying to see things from a slightly different angle, and doing something where people go, "I know what you're talking about, but I never quite thought about it that way. And I see what you mean." That, to me, makes it worth it. Because you can sit around and think, "I've done the most beautiful song that's ever been made." But if nobody else gets it… To me, that's pretty much 50 percent of making work: It needs to jump across to somebody else. Other people don't feel that way. I don't think, on the other hand, that the more people it jumps across to, the better it is.
O: Does it matter, though?
LA: Not really, no. I'm not really… Like I said, that would disturb me. And then, it doesn't make me feel bad if somebody says, "Well, then you're just playing for your friends." And I'm going, "Yep, that's who I'm playing for." A lot of people, most of the people who come to the things that I do, are other people who make things. Other designers and musicians and artists and painters. And I think they come to see stuff because they're thinking about similar things. If they can get something from that, I couldn't be happier. Because everybody's work is so radically different that if I can do that in some way for other people, that's what I'm interested in doing.