As half of world-renowned global fusion purveyors Dead Can Dance, Lisa Gerrard has become famous for her mesmerizing, enigmatic vocals. The group’s first new album in 16 years, Anastasis, continues expressing their love for all sounds symphonic, ethic and sacred. Along with musical partner Brendan Perry, she continues creating cinematic soundscapes of the mind that inspire listeners to embark on imaginary journeys in their minds. It’s like musical teleportation. While the new DCD CD has been a long time coming, Gerrard has kept quite busy over the years with solo albums, film soundtracks, collaborations and even some video game work. Gerrard chatted with A.D.D. about all of these things and more.
You and Brendan have split vocal chores on most albums, although Spiritchaser did have you singing together on some tracks. “Return Of The She-King” from the new album features you both. When you write music together, how do you determine who sings on which track? Has there ever been a track that you wanted to tackle that he ultimately sang?
No, it’s innate within our understanding of each other’s poetic contribution who should sing whichever piece. It seems to be innate itself within the work itself.
I am enjoying Anastasis a lot. It’s an atmospheric album, although without some of the faster and heavier rhythmic tracks of past works a la “Saltarello” or “Cantara”. Was this shift just you two getting older or just the way that the album turned out?
This album rhythmically is dedicated to rebetiko, which is the rhythms of the Mediterranean and Greece in particular. They are 9/4 rhythms, they’re a lot slower, but they’re really quite intricate and quite fascinating. The pieces that I’m working on there are rhythmically really different. It’s really hard to tell when you’re listening to it until you try to sing to it or play to it. When you listen to those rhythms, it’s almost like the song form came before the rhythms because the rhythms were created to work with the song form. It’s got nothing to do with age really. We’re performing pieces from really early albums on this tour.
“When I come into the house after being in the studio, I turn on the Electric Light Orchestra and it just makes me smile.”
I played Dead Can Dance’s music to a friend years ago, and she immediately had the knee-jerk reaction of “cultural appropriation”. I tried to explain to her that it was not meant to be pure fusion. I was re-watching the Sanctuary documentary again, and you were talking about growing up in a multiethnic neighborhood in Australia. Your father mentioned that you were in one of maybe two families on the block that spoke English. Your music is ultimately an amalgam of sounds that reflect that diversity. Have you found people have not always understood that approach to your music, or has it not been that much of an issue over the years?
It’s been a huge issue over the years because for one thing we were called Gothic, which was a bit bizarre. We were never Gothic. It was just absolutely bizarre, and even now people say, “When you were Gothic…” God, have these people ever listened to our music? Have they ever heard it? It’s like they read an article about what the music is about, and Gothic came out. Or because the word dead was in there, that it had to be Gothic. When you grow up in a multicultural area…Americans will really identify with this, although America is much more American than Australia is Australian. In Australia, if you’re born from an ethnographic kind of background — and I hate that word — but if you come from a foreign family, an immigrant family or not an English-speaking family, you’re actually allowed to hold onto your culture and your language for a very long period of time. In fact, there are people that have actually never bothered to speak English, and their communities are so strong. Whereas in America, it is kind of mandatory that you must come to this culture and start to embrace what we have here for you, so we do have that difference.
There is something about when you’re an artist and growing up in an area where there’s a huge cultural diversity that you respond to the reality of those diversities because that’s where you take your feed from, that’s the line that provides the fabric for you to sew with, to create with. In a sense, you connect to that local frequency so much so that you make a voice or a song form or a musicality that really encompasses or encapsulates those influences because that’s true to the environment that you were exposed to. In a way, you’re kind of creating a cultural music for Australia because that’s what Australia is. Someone once asked me, ‘Why do you do Persian? Why do you do this or that?’ What do you expect me to do? Bushwacker music? I grew up in a multicultural, Greek-Turkish-Italian area.
There are some critics that might not get what you do musically and think you have to do this, this and this in order for it to be legitimate.
It’s ridiculous. People who think or say things like that don’t understand the process of creation. They don’t understand how it works. They have no concept of how poetry works and what inspires poetry, the desire to write. They have no concept of it. It shocks me when a writer [says that], and I say, “But you’re a writer. You know what provokes these energies. You know the things you need to be inspired. That everything around you comes through you and through the work. That you become a conduit for those things.” Otherwise, where’s your material coming from? It’s not original.
Are there any musical styles that you have wanted to incorporate into Dead Can Dance that you have not yet had the chance to?
Yes, I would like to incorporate some traditional Seanos. I grew up in an Irish family. My father was Irish, and there was Seanos [shi-nose] singing in the house. It was going to end up in the work somehow because it’s part of my tradition, and I don’t do it in the absolute sense. When I heard Antonin Artaud when I was 12 years old — I was exposed to some of his work from a French documentary on a radio station — he absolutely gave me the right to sing the way I sing. When I heard the abstract forms he was working with, I thought, “This is my area. This is where I am.” I was very young at the time, but it empowered me to know that there was something really worthwhile about what I was doing. Because I had an artistic soul, this was not something that I could stop or control. You’re born with that. It’s in your blood. So these influences are coming to the work. It’s not traditional Seanos singing, but it’s my response to the Seanos singing in my abstract languages.
Four years ago you collaborated with German electronic music pioneer Klaus Schulze. When you work with Brendan or Klaus, there are some elements that are rather fixed or highly structured. With Dead Can Dance, there’s a metronomic element to many songs, and Klaus programs a lot of his synthesizer parts. What was it like working with Klaus in particular because of your very intuitive style of singing?
It was completely different because I wasn’t writing music with Klaus, I was completely improvising with my voice, so it was a completely different world. We fell in love with the idea of doing the concerts without playing the music at all, so it was highly experimental. We just improvised every night, which was fantastic and really liberating as an artist, because normally when I write I sit down at the keyboard and plan things out and structure things and build pieces like architecture. Whereas when I was working with Klaus, he was doing the beautiful things that he does with his Moogs and sounds. Every night it was different, and I was singing with him.
I don’t know. I haven’t had a massive input in the games. I’ve contributed some of my singing, but for me it’s no different to doing film. You either get the sense of something that you want to unlock emotionally or dramatically in something, and that’s what allows you to do it. If you don’t get that sense of inspiration, or if it doesn’t open up your imagination, then you have nothing to give.
What do you think your fans would be surprised to learn about you after all these years?
That I love Electric Light Orchestra. I’m going to be really honest about it. When I come into the house after being in the studio — and sometimes the work that I do is really dark and I have to dig really deep and have to be alone and do very long shifts — I just turn on the Electric Light Orchestra and it just makes me smile. I love the backing vocals. It’s just gorgeous. They’re full of sunlight.
Are there any other artists you would like to collaborate with in the future?
Yes, at this present time I’m working with Zbigniev Preisner.
“Someone once asked me, ‘Why do you do Persian? Why do you do this or that?’ What do you expect me to do? Bushwhacker music? I grew up in a multicultural, Greek-Turkish-Italian area.”
Have you and Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins ever done anything together?
No, and I love Elizabeth. I think there were too many similarities in the way that we were approaching the work for us to ever really work together. I can’t speak for Elizabeth because we’ve never had this conversation, but I know from my own perspective that I need to work with my opposites. I can’t work with people that are too much like me or it all becomes too much.
Did Pieter Bourke become too much like you? Or did he go off in a completely different direction?
We’re very different too. Pieter has a very practical approach to the work, and we worked really well together. But he didn’t want to do movies. We had two experiences in film, with The Insider and Ali, and that was it for Peter. He just couldn’t handle it. The pressure and the hours and the expectations are so bloody high. Look, I’m pretty tough. I’ve been in the trenches a long time, and when I do that work I think if I hadn’t been through what I’ve been through in my life with the work that I’ve done, I wouldn’t be able to cope with it.