I Want To Give Back To My Country: A Conversation With Emily Lacy (Part 1 of 3)
August 28, 2012 1:10 pm
By: Jason Bacasa
Emily Lacy isn’t the kind of artist interested in a curriculum vitae. Her work is organic, seemingly coming from the very earth, and one gets the sense that if she had to type one up (or in her case, perhaps write longhand), not only would it read like a blur, it would be extremely difficult to fit onto one sheet of paper. Her interests are broad and wide-reaching: music, visual art, performance, costume design, and documentary filmmaking (which she studied in college). She has self-released 16 albums in the past eight years, performed at MoMA PS1, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, the Hammer Museum, and in an igloo outside the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Perhaps even more rare, Lacy is socially-minded, interested in the reciprocity of sound. Her most recent work blends sound and performance into a “wild trance of human exchange.” On the centennial birthday weekend of Woody Guthrie, I spoke with her at my home, a 1920s hunting cabin in Los Angeles’ Elysian Heights, where Guthrie spent some time. I caught up with Lacy to discuss her recent projects, inspired by the global protest movements and Occupy, and what’s in her mind and heart as the November election approaches .
JB: You seem like a very busy lady. Your most recent project, 99 Times – not to mention your latest EP, Rise – are situated around Occupy. How did these projects come about?
EL: 99 Times was a project I was invited to do by Women and Their Work, a gallery in Austin, Texas. The gallery brings somebody out about once a year to participate in a festival called the Fusebox Festival. It was an interesting predicament because in the past I have done more site-specific work where I make a residency, installation or sound piece for a specific room in a museum, or for a specific gallery or hallway. This was strange because it was going to be in a giant theater. It got me thinking about how I could design a piece that would be totally portable and could work everywhere. The invitation coincided with the protest energy that was occurring in the fall and I really started to think that this was great: ‘I’m gonna make a piece that is populist from its very beginning that doesn’t have to be performed in any one room, country or state.’
As I was researching the piece, I wanted to make a performance that would be about this energy of protest — what does a culture sound like at its boiling point, and where does music fit into that? I thought a lot about violence and prayer and music as a human drive and a cultural history. It was really influenced by all the events of the Arab Spring and everything that happened in America. What it became was a portable theater-performance-art piece that could poke at these issues, but also leave enough room within the space of the performance to improvise and deal with the energy of the room. That’s one of the things that I always think about: who’s actually here and who showed up to be a part of this.
JB: If I’m not mistaken, 99 Times begins with you hidden inside of a tent, where you loop your voice and other recordings before emerging onto the stage in full costume. Did you make attempts to reach out to Occupy Austin? Did you get a sense of reciprocity from them?
EL: I did make an effort through the gallery to reach out to different artists who had been involved in Occupy Austin. It’s always tricky to say, ‘Yes, I identify with Occupy, but no, I didn’t live or camp at city hall for three months.’ I tried to be aware of the symbols that I was among, but not take too much ownership of what had occurred. No one can do that. Personally, I was profoundly affected and traumatized by the kinds of confrontations that I witnessed here in Los Angeles between police and protesters, the tensions between protestors themselves, the jockeying for power, and the hopelessness and desperation of ‘shit needs to get fixed.’ How are we gonna go after it?
That said, I wanted to make a piece for Austin that tugged on these issues and spoke to what was on my mind in the fall, which was this sense that something needs to change. Things were at a boiling point for me — it felt like a lot of that energy subsided and changed and remixed itself. About the tent: I’ve always been interested in cloaking mechanisms for my performances. It was such a big year for the camping tent in the US! I thought it would be really great to use that as a jumping off point for the performance.
JB: You also include actual voices and field recordings from Occupy in your performance…
EL: Some of the recordings and chants I had recorded at protests. Others were recordings I had found from Occupy Austin, and I thought it would be great to include them. That was another thing I was interested in just in terms of sound: how does sound function at a protest? Or how does sound bring people together through these chants? It’s very primal when you’re out there saying these kinds of things.
JB: It’s interesting, too, the double nature of the communication. On one end, you have sound that is so loud, which is wonderful — but it certainly becomes difficult to hear, discern, to literally communicate. And here’s where hand gestures enter as a way to also bring people together. And of course, there’s call and response.
EL: Exactly. One of the things I was interested in when I would attend protests and marches was that instead of looking at that old model that we picture when we think of the 60s protests — folks singers, everyone listening — I was more interested in how I could harmonize with these sounds. ‘How can I work with the sounds that are already happening, and work off that?’
JB: Which is lovely because that’s the whole idea of Occupy. No one is supposed to be up front. It’s all horizontally aligned. ‘How do you integrate into the form that’s already present?’ Which I think brings us back to what you said earlier. Even though you didn’t physically camp outside of city hall, a few of the songs on your Rise EP are older songs, aren’t they? So it seems like you’ve definitely been thinking about these kinds of things for a long time.
EL: Right, it was almost like those songs — those words — had a different context. Suddenly, they were ready to go. There was a context that I could use. But of course, I sang them much differently..
JB: And played them much differently! It’s percussive, loose. There’s a real fire there. You seem angry, and dare I say, it almost sounds like you went “electric.”
EL: (Laughs) It’s certainly the loudest album I’ve recorded. As I said, I was reaching a boiling point.
JB: So the “sound” was a conscious thing?
EL: One of the things that was great about the fall was that every week there was some kind of shit happening. Every day on the Internet — if you were following Occupy — some kind of shit was happening. I approached Jim [Smith] at The Smell about putting a show together, and it all just happened so quickly. I guess what I’m saying is, the sound that occurred throughout Rise was not premeditated. It was: ‘I wanted to put together a show, Jim says I can do it, it’s in seven days, I’m gonna start rehearsing.’ What I like (and I’m glad that I took the time to record everything when I did) is that was just the energy was happening for me at that time.
JB: The songs seem to almost have the amazing, nervous energy of first takes. Was that the case?
EL: The whole process was really organic, and playing those shows at The Smell really influenced me and allowed me to explore the sound. Part of the reason that I wanted to do the show there is that I felt like The Smell said, through its space and architecture: ‘You can do whatever you need to do to get the sound out.’ If it’s quiet, if it’s loud, if it’s electric, if it’s folk or an orchestra… So I felt like I had the freedom to get really loud at those shows. I felt like I discovered the potential through those shows, and then tried to further, for the recordings, channel that sound that was happening.
JB: In this day and age, the protest song is very hard to do…
EL: Yes, there’s a lot of baggage.
JB: And yet, you seem to pull it off on Rise. You start with chaotic guitar — then by song two, you’re yodeling, reminiscent of Appalachian folksongs. And then the third song, “America!” — I was listening to it for the first time in my car, and while I didn’t quite pull over, I certainly stopped. This lyric: “America, I used to know you, but now you’ve bled me blue. You won’t take care of anyone. Not even the sick, will you?” It’s such a basic conceit, but hearing it sung and in your voice… It’s so real and significant. I wish everyone could hear that.
EL: I think we should have songs about healthcare. Why don’t we have healthcare? Why did these holes exist within the culture, and where’s the social contract? It’s daunting, but how do we restore that, and how do we think about building connections between people? It’s important to have that cry!
JB: Who’s job is that? The classic idea of a protest song is a man or woman holding a guitar or banjo. Indeed, that tradition still very much exists, but as music is more oriented toward pop and hip-hop, one might argue that its [the pop artist's] responsibility to do the protest song. At least in terms of disseminating it to the masses…
EL: I think it’s everybody’s job. I think one of the problems, and one of the reasons why it’s hard to get a message out there, is the medium by which a lot of material is consumed — radio, MTV, television, E! Entertainment. I feel like these mediums tend to feel plastic and devoid of political content and human content. It’s hard to know — is it the medium or the message? When something steps into that space and tries to be this authentic thing, it feels really foreign.
One of the major takeaways that I have had over the last six months in terms of all this, is we really need to get organized as people on the ground and as neighborhoods and cities. We can’t depend on our politicians or musicians — these various entities within the culture who have been seen as leaders in the past. I feel like through thinking about the civil rights movement and the various times where there has been progress — and when I go back to listen to recordings and think about labor struggles, etc. — people have to get organized, and really show that they’re unified. So the pressure is really on us as citizens to organize.