Secret Language: an Interview With Lisa Gerrard

Posted May 9, 2007 in
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Talking with Lisa Gerrard

When I was asked if I would like to interview Lisa Gerrard, I accepted immediately, having spent much of my adolescence listening to Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, Clan of Xymox, Michael Brook, This Mortal Coil and just about anything that came from the 4ad record label. Of all these, bands Dead Can Dance always seemed the most bizarre and to an extent eternal or timeless, particularly as the years passed and experience caught up with vision. They were also enigmatic, obscured and seemed completely removed from the rock’n’roll industry. Yet somehow they were also one of 4ad’s most successful acts appealing to a diverse audience with their ethereal, world influenced sound that incorporated elements of rock, pop, folk and whatever else they might have felt like squeezing in. Then Gerrard and Brendan Perry simply walked away from each other, metaphorically and physically.

In the years that followed, Gerrard would find herself recording solo albums and becoming an oft-pursued vocalist for film scores while tending to her main priority: her family.

With all of this in mind, I had to admit I still didn’t know what I would ask her. What questions do you have for music itself? For that is what Gerrard had become to me. Not a person, not a physical being but a layering of sounds.

I settled in to watch the film Sanctuary: Lisa Gerrard. Directed by Clive Collier, Sanctuary is not a traditional examination of an artist. You are given a sense of chronology, a glimpse into the early muse that carried her (singing under an overpass while the sound of cars splashes by or reaching for God from the fence outside her window as a child), the ideology of connection (much like the work of Peter Brook), her concern for overshadowing others (perhaps the only person afraid of stealing scenes from Russell Crowe in Gladiator) and how death and birth changed everything. It is perhaps appropriate that in many ways by the end of the film you learn very little of Gerrard's life and yet you somehow know her completely.

It is a beautiful day outside, fitting that the sun would climb through my windows and light the room with a pleasant ambient glow. The phone rings, they’ll connect me to Gerrard, who sits in a London hotel room having just finished the European half of her world tour. Sadly, the line is busy. I’ll have to wait. Taking cues from the movie, I decide to simply wait and see what comes. The phone rings again and this time I’m put through to London.

Gerrard is friendly, with a quit wit. She tells me how she loved Salt Lake City when she was last here. I decide not to tell her about the great disappointment we all had when Dead Can Dance was scheduled to play following the Spiritchaser album, but canceled. I had wonderful seats; it is to this day the only concert I’ve had canceled on me.

“What are we going to be talking about?” she asks. “The show, the music…?” All morning I had been considering my line of questioning. I was moved toward talking about her approach to music, how she evolved and how death and life changed her.

I enter with: “I was surprised to see that there was a movie about you, not because you don’t deserve it but because you allowed it.”

“Had it been any other director than Clive Collier, it wouldn’t have happened. I spent three months with him to see if I could trust him.”

She laughs quite a bit, more so than you’d expect. The laughter is heartfelt, amused by simply being and interacting with the world around her. It is a wise laugh, one that has seen reason not to laugh and laughed anyway.

She speaks of the chemical reaction of creativity, of tapping into the electricity that surrounds you. How if you stop and listen you can sense the world around you and your connection to it. She insists that this doesn’t simply apply to music.

“We are talking in English, but to think that the only way to communicate is through words, through language is paranoia.”

In an instant there is a strange series of beeps and the call is lost. Panic could ensue, it didn’t seem like a proper ending point, but you never know. I’m trying to come up with something lighthearted, the failure of technology, settling on the US government listening in and deciding that our conversation was heading into something subversive.

Reconnected, the thought of the government intruding amuses her.

“I thought you got bored. Were you climbing the walls? I like that, get bored and just hang up. I’ll have to start doing that,” she laughs and I pray the connection doesn’t drop again.

“What were we talking about? Something boring?” she asks.

I bring the conversation back to the idea that there was energy around her that she could choose to tap into, to connect and create music with.

“I never had a choice.”

I could press, suggesting that she did have a choice but never considered it as an option but she has already moved on. Gerrard explains that she grew up in Australia as an immigrant among immigrants from an array of countries. It was a working class environment where there were no stereotypes as to what they should be or act like; there was no traditional person to try and emulate. Their languages were different, their heritage and nationalism were too varied.

“There was no sense of Australian nationalism then. The things that we said around me I couldn’t understand. Does that make sense?”

I’m thinking of the first time I visited New York in my early teens and had my first conversation with a black man, a homeless storyteller who talked of his days of being a boxer. I remember the joy I feel when in London surrounded by a hundred different nationalities with a thousand different opinions.

Yes, of course it makes sense. To simplify I say, “So it was a cosmopolitan environment.”

She corrects me. “No, it was the opposite of cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan is chic. My children were brought up around artists. This has helped them avoid stereotypes in the same way I was. So many people want to know why I’m different [from other Australians]. It is because I hadn’t been designed.”

Not only was there no mold for her to fit into, it would seem that she was fortunate enough to grow up without even knowing that there was a mold. The thought of being like everyone else never occurred to her because there wasn’t an “everyone else” to be.

The moment’s calm is suddenly interrupted as Gerrard catches her personal assistant rummaging through her purse.

“You’re a bloody liar and a thief” she banters toward him, followed by a brief exchange and a laugh. “He’s going through my purse to see how much money I have! Is that going to be in the story?”

“Do you want it to be?”

It is here that she begins to speak without stopping. I try to interject from time to time but it is clear that she has found exactly what she feels she needs to say. Questioning is unnecessary and perhaps at this point unwanted.

“We’ve been on tour for a month and we’ve literally done a million concerts. I know that we’ve changed the world.”

It seems like a drastic statement, changing the world being a rather difficult thing, but in the context that follows it makes sense.

She spoke quickly, using a wide range of adjectives, far too many for my pen to keep up with. What follows isn’t nearly as eloquent, perhaps it doesn’t even touch on the passion and honest concern that was felt through her voice. Hopefully the purpose, the hope of her message is not lost.

“When I was born I knew I was going to be in a world that had promise, which was passionate, full of beauty. I want people to know it is still a beautiful world.”

“It is still a beautiful world” is a phrase used throughout In the Nursery’s Duality where they sample from the poem Desiderata. This resonates not only because it is my favorite In the Nursery album but because I had considered asking Lisa if she had listened to them because I felt they were among the few contemporaries that shared similarities stylistically. But there is no stopping for sightseeing.

She speaks of the daily papers, the news reports, and the general sense of paranoia and doom that is handed to us as a distraction to a greater sense of being.

“We must dedicate ourselves through abstract sensibilities to making a better world. While we sleep, dream and daydream, these are the moments when we can see the purity needed to bring change. We must rely on trust and faith and love. These absolutes have become boring because they have become lies.”

“People need to be elated, enlightened and chemically changed to be able to change the world. It is really important what we are doing with these concerts. We’re bringing people together to connect with the beings around us. We live in an age of fantastic computers and technology but we spend our money on roads. We don’t need to learn how to build better roads. We need to spend money on building an environment where we can walk on the ground.”

She speaks of being in the Kew Gardens the day before with a friend. I’m forced to try and keep focus on her as my memories of wandering with friends through the wonderful, beautiful and expansive gardens that rest to the southwest of London.

She suggests that we need to look at the world not as a massive, unmovable thing but as a series of tiny parts. From this point of view changing the world, if only slightly, does not seem as daunting, as impossible.

“You could look at one leaf. Touch one piece of bark for 10 years and still not know the texture of what you feel. We need to connect; we don’t need to understand words to understand each other.”

She speaks of people who have, without being forced by the government or popular opinion, tried to improve the world environmentally, connecting to what is around them.

“You know the phrase ‘A gust of fresh air’? How people say that ‘He suddenly felt better from a gust of fresh air’? Open a window and there isn’t any fresh air, it’s filled with pollutants!”

She insists that people who think we’re destroying the planet really need to look at things from a different, more accurate angle. The world isn’t being destroyed, our place on it is. Environmental concerns aren’t just about trees, it’s about our survival.

“I think the world is going to have the last laugh” she says as a phone rings in the background. Suddenly there is silence. Perhaps she was bored, climbing the walls of her hotel room. Either way that would prove to be the end of our conversation and evidence that I had changed the way she would end phone calls.