Transcript of the Laurie Anderson Interview

Welcome to Silicon Valley Radio. We bring you conversations with the Internet's most influential personalities. Today we're speaking with singer, composer, and multimedia artist Laurie Anderson. Laurie has made seven albums for Warner Bros. and has contributed music to films by Jonathan Demme and Wim Wenders. She has also created pieces for National Public Radio and has composed several pieces for orchestra. Currently, Laurie works on the Internet, contributing to her Web site at domain name

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Laurie, what artistic sensibilities will translate to the Web?
Laurie Anderson: It's going to be so interesting to see what kind of art comes out this way -- art and comedy and whatever. I think the most obvious answer is the same things that work here, probably. Even though visually it's not exactly beautiful, I think people can visualize things that are appropriate for that medium. I mean, I love pencil sketches. So I think that you don't have to do slick, gorgeous 35-mm stuff to make beautiful things. I think artists who are attracted to working on the Net will obviously adjust their work to the capabilities of a very small screen.

There are advisors to some students at the School of Visual Arts in New York -- where you can actually get your degree in Net art, which is really a fantastic way to get your master's -- who are thinking of theater in new ways. It's such an experimental, exciting phase right now that it's really wonderful to watch them coming up with ideas, some of which work, some of which don't. But the things that work here will work there for the most part. But it's impossible to predict anything like this.

SVR: As an artist, you're probably concerned with the issue of when technology interferes with the emotion that you're trying to convey and when it aids it . It's probably a difficult balance for you. How do you overcome it? How do you judge what's appropriate? And how will that translate to the Web?
Anderson: I use it in very simple ways, in ways that I can do myself. I mean, I don't ask people to do the visuals or something. I would much rather just sit down and try to do a little animation in Premiere, and if it looks homemade, so what? I mean, there are plenty of people in this world who make beautiful, glossy, very glamorous-looking visuals. I try to not focus on that, but on the kinds of ideas and emotions that I'm trying to look at.
SVR: Who are some artists you admire and why?
Anderson: Thomas Pynchon I admire very much. And now I'm using "artist" in the broadest sense of the word. Gravity's Rainbow is just so beautiful because it's very multidimensional. I really like books that you can kind of hear as much as think about, that are so graphic and visual. I wanted to make an opera of that book, actually, and I wrote to him and asked him if that would be OK (I actually found him; he's quite reclusive). And he wrote me this funny letter. He said, 'You can do it, but you can only use banjo.' And so I thought, 'Well, thanks. I don't know if I could do it like that.' I suppose it was his polite way of saying, 'No. No way can you do this.'

Anyway, other artists that I like -- I like William Burroughs for his voice. I'm almost at a loss to say that, because I so much appreciate it when anybody tries to make something and tries to be an artist that I'm happy to see the work. The only stuff I don't really like are Broadway musicals. I hate them.

SVR: What is it about Broadway musicals that gets under your skin?
Anderson: Don't get me started on this, please. [laughter] I actually don't even like to talk about the things I don't like. You can imagine, right? No, I can't bear it.
SVR: What are some things people might not know about you -- some of your interests, hobbies or personality quirks that might not be apparent by knowing who you are as a performer?
Anderson: I have a new hobby, which is invertebrates. I used to have this studio, and it had a very thick wall in it. It looked down onto the Hudson River through a couple of other rooms. And I always wanted to fill that window with water and fish and stuff. So I actually just did that. I moved my studio, my recording studio, somewhere else and put a big saltwater aquarium in that space. So this is my new hobby. I'm not going to put any fish in the aquarium because I'm really afraid of floaters. And I hate zoos.

So these are just going to be the invertebrates: different corals, little creatures that have those long tubes that wave around in the underwater breeze down there, and creatures that wouldn't go any farther than the dimensions of the aquarium. It's really fantastic. It's a pretty high-maintenance hobby, though. I've never really had a hobby before. I mean, unless you count art, which the IRS once told me I had to declare as a hobby since I hadn't made money with it for the last few years. This was a long time ago and I was just starting. They said, 'Unless you make money next year, you must declare this so-called work a hobby.'

SVR: What do you think of snakes?
Anderson: I like snakes.
SVR: You do?
Anderson: Sure. I like things that have a cool, scaly touch. I mean, I like warm and furry things too, but there's something about snakes that make me want to write stories about them. And I have written a lot of stories about snakes. There's something pretty primordial about it. But I really do like snakes a lot.
SVR: Do you think you'll ever write children's books?
Anderson: I have written a few children's books, a long, long time ago. The first book that I wrote was for children. It was called The Package, and it was a mystery story in pictures. It had no words. And it was also the first thing that I did strictly for money. I was in college, and I had no money at all, and I was too proud to ask my parents for money. But I'd completely run out of money, and so I decided I would do a book. And so -- I remember this so clearly -- it was Friday afternoon, and I walked over to the first publisher that I found in the phone book, Bobbs-Merrill, and sat down in the office.

Well, I talked to the secretary and said, 'I would like to talk to someone about a book that I'd like to make.' And the secretary was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm afraid, my dear, that we make appointments six months in advance.' I said, 'Well, that's OK. Do you mind if I just sit here and wait?' And I just sat there with all my drawings for about eight hours, staring straight ahead, not reading anything. And finally, at about 4:30, an editor said, 'All right, what do you want? Come into my office.' And I showed her the drawings, and I said, 'I would like to make a book called The Package, duh-duh-duh.'

And she said, 'You know, I was just going to kick you out. I can't believe it, but you know, I'm really interested.' And I said, 'Great! Could we make the agreement now?' And she's like, 'You know, these things take time, they take lawyers. You know we can't do this, but I would actually like to do this book. I can't believe I'm saying this, but yes, I'd like to do it.' And I said, 'Well great, I have to say, I don't have any money. Could you give me an advance?' And this woman was so great, she actually reached into her purse and gave me $70.

And I was just sort of skipping home, and I was really happy. Anyway, when I was finally paid for the book, I was walking back and I was so proud that I had a book out. It didn't matter that it was a children's book or whatever. I was passing a travel agent. Big airplane. See Jamaica. I went in, bought a ticket, and left. And that was the best vacation because I checked into this place in Jamaica and said, 'I'm an author, I'm working on my second book and please don't disturb me.' I had no paper with me; I had no plans to do that.

SVR: What were you like as a kid?
Anderson: A nerd. Got to school early to feed the fish. I liked fish then. Obnoxious, you know? I read a lot. I'm from a very big family, so every moment that I could spend alone I really tried to get off by myself.
SVR: Being an Anderson, are you a fan of Hans Christian Andersen?
Anderson: Different branch. He's farther south. We're the Swedish version, the -ons's, and they're the Danish ones. But yeah, I like scary stories. I probably like German fairy tales more because they're even more frightening.
SVR: How did your trademark hairstyle come about? What's the story behind that?
Anderson: Boredom. I was in Germany, and somebody told me the theater we were working in had to postpone our shows for a week. We were stuck in Munich with nothing to do, and there was a Japanese puppeteer, and he said, 'How about if I just cut your hair very short?' And I said, 'Great, go ahead.'
SVR: What's the greatest compliment you've ever heard regarding your art?
Anderson: I don't take compliments so well. I mean, I always hang my head and shuffle and kind of try to immediately forget, because compliments sort of remind me that I should be working. I'm a real workaholic.
SVR: Are you and Lou Reed still together? How's that working?
Anderson: Well, you know, when you fall in love with someone, that's how it's working.
SVR: Is Lou Reed a fan of the Web at all?
Anderson: Yeah, he looks around.
SVR: Has he opened your eyes to new ways to approach your art and have you opened his?
Anderson: Well, I think he's probably made me a little tougher. And by that I mean if I'm sort of talking around something, he just goes, 'Why don't you just say what you really think? OK? You don't have to be nice or pretend. So that's been very interesting. And maybe it's almost the opposite thing that he's learning from me.

You know, I'm kind of like, 'You don't really have to say that straight out. You can maybe take another turn around before you do it.' But of course the best thing is that I never know what to expect from Lou. It's great to be with someone who's always surprising you with his opinions and thoughts. That's very exciting.

SVR: What are the key ingredients to making a relationship work?
Anderson: Oh, you've asked completely the wrong person. [laughter] I would never presume to make any comments about that. It's just such a great miracle when things do work, and they work for such a wild variety of crazy reasons. To make any kind of pronouncements like that, I would just feel ridiculous.
SVR: What are your future ambitions?
Anderson: I have a very ambitious thing that I'm working on now, which is a big five-year plan. After I got back from the last tour, I realized that instead of doing what I usually do, which is go from project to project, I thought I'd like to really think about what I'd like to do over a bigger time period.

So I made a lot of charts, and they all had dotted lines connecting them, showing how different things would relate to each other. I highly recommend this to people, just to take a bit of a longer view and think, 'What would I really like to do if I had no limitations whatsoever?'

I hope I get to do a few of these things. But if I don't get to do all of them, I still think it was a really great exercise in learning about myself as an artist. To just kind of think of what I'd really like to do, what I really dream of doing.

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