The unique and outstanding Australian vocalist and composer Lisa Gerrard gained worldwide recognition as half of the ethereal/alternative world music group, Dead Can Dance, with Brendan Perry.
Since disbanding in 1998 (reuniting temporarily for a world tour in 2005), Gerrard has focused on a wide range of projects, from movie scores to enterprising solo albums such as 1995's The Mirror Pool, and more recently, The Silver Tree,
In 2007, the 4AD label released the unmissable retrospective album, The Best of Lisa Gerrard, exploring many of the highlights from Gerrard's various solo and collaborative projects to date.
There seems like no better time to question Lisa on her past, present and future...
In your formative years with Dead Can Dance, why did Brendan and yourself move to London in the first place, could you not achieve what you wanted in Australia? Yes we did move to London, as the potential for growth and our desire to communicate our poetry was limited in Australia. We saw the move as a way to take the chance of acquiring a record deal and taking our work on the road throughout Europe and further. We could not have achieved what we wanted to achieve in Australia as the awareness in my work, particularly in this territory, came mainly through winning a Golden Globe for the Gladiator score with Hans Zimmer.
When you arrived in London I would imagine it was in the midst of an emerging electronic scene, did you ever consider following the commercial electronic pop route? No, as the embryo that was the creative voice that Brendan and I had already begun to speak in had already started to take shape. But before moving too far ahead we must ask ourselves to define the term "electronic", as soon after arriving in London we began to utilise the Commodore 64 computer and a Mirage synthesizer, which allowed us to express the work through electronic means; in this case samples of real instruments, i.e. classical percussive ethnography of early folk origin.
How difficult was it to share a romantic relationship with Brendan and also work together creatively with all those collisions of ideas and the disagreements that would naturally arise in such circumstances? I feel that the relationship that Brendan and I shared cannot be traditionally termed romantic. In retrospect, it would be deemed as two highly impassioned minds and souls, excited and inspired by common and opposite interests. You must remember, Brendan and I were very young when we met and both shared a common integrity, respect and an aggressive desire to be accurate to our creative visions. I would say that we shared an apprenticeship at that time and this is not to be found in academic circles. We shared poetic romanticism and pondered darkness and pure light in search of a means to escape the horrible mediocrity that was the alternative to the choices that we made exploring life as artists.
You were ignorantly lumped in with the Goth scene, does it irritate you that your music has been pigeonholed in this way and generally do you think the audience truly connected to what you were connecting with as a member of Dead Can Dance? I must admit that at times I did find it to be misrepresentative and a little daunting, but you must understand that I have never really known how to describe the work as anything other than an inspired reaction to the love of and a desire to communicate an arrow from the heart. If this does not exist automatically at some point in the creative process then music, for me, becomes something that I cannot connect with. So you understand that to arrive at a stereotype of any descriptive value becomes premature, as the work has not fully evolved by virtue of its experimental ongoing journey.
When did you first realise that you had a somewhat unique vocal range to that of other female musicians? I have sung since before I can remember. I am not unique, I am focused; I choose to open the pathway of the heart instead of rational intellect. Although I have been inspired to sing some words in English, these things must come naturally otherwise I don’t believe them and have no energy to interpret them.
I understand that your vocal has never been trained, so do you put your vocal ability down to some form of genetic trait or have you acquired it solely through self training? I have always had a deeply entrenched desire to show love through my singing. I have never had a choice, it is a vocation, it is where I speak to God from, it is what I have always known. I don’t care about cynicism, it is death to all that love might bring. If I have made physiological mistakes with my voice I have paid by not being able to sing for a while, my voice is far from perfect but that is not my greatest concern, my greatest concern is that it furthers the music into a tangible emotional and soulful space that projects love.
Do you find your vocal is continuing to improve, and if so, in what way? Does it require any form of disciplined practice? I have found ways of preparing the voice before a concert. If I am recording I don’t always have time to warm up as my best ideas come very quickly, and as I also write music the moment of inspiration to sing is not predictable so my best performances don’t always end in recordings - but I keep them because they have an elusive, indefinable quality that cannot be calculated. It is for this reason that in the concerts the pieces are never concrete. I read somewhere once that the voice is at its best between [ages] 45 and 55, so the potential for improvement is still a possibility.
I understand you have young children, I am not sure of their ages but do you encourage them to sing and develop an interest in music, are they naturally inquisitive about it? They have developed there own natural artistic journey. It has been an interesting process as I have never pushed them, the little one in particular is extremely complicated about her creativity and profoundly imaginative. I am writing a piece with her to allow her to gather momentum in her unique fragility.
How do you think current music culture serves them compared to what was available to you during your youth? During my youth I was able to escape stereotypes because of the very new immigrant pool of unfamiliar languages of music’s religious festivals etc., there were no real direct expectations from working class people as they weren’t really sure what was going to happen to them apart from the fact that they would be able to get work.
Are you a ‘spiritually-inclined’ person, how does your own value system infiltrate your work, if at all? My understanding of spirituality is if you have known love then you have known God, as God is love. My experience of spirituality is the Spirit of God, which is the entrance of a seed of love expressed by pure unselfish utterances of the heart - being prayer, an outward expression from the spirit that through love unites us with God. This brings trust, faith that love has the power to change the hearts of mankind and prepare them for the truth.
Many artists have told me that creativity comes through them and they’re merely used as a conduit for its transmittance, are you in agreement with this? Assuming you agree, do you believe this instrument/channel applies to one’s life in other forms? I have come to understand that there is more than one way to communicate, and if the experience of life is to bring growth and maturity of the soul and evolution of the spirit then we must explore every potential to listen, connect with, and show reverence to any life source that by birth has a right to be here. There is so much to learn; to provoke sensibility is to develop deeper intelligence.
How does this marry with your perception of personal creativity, for example is an individual far less important that the creativity they transmit? That is like saying that the only things that are of value in a human are of a creatively narcissistic nature. If we truly desire to connect through creativity then an ability to give comfort and reaffirmation that we all have an equal right to be here and are able to sensitise ourselves to all other lifeforms will evolve far beyond materiality.
"I have sung since before I can remember. I am not unique, I am focused; I choose to open the pathway of the heart instead of rational intellect."
You have worked on many film scores, what challenges/rewards does this represent as opposed to recording solo? With film work you are obedient to unlocking the sub-textural reality that exists within the vision that the director seeks to convey through the music. When you work alone you draw upon your own personal experiences to deliver a poetry that is in continuity with you emotional response to life at that time. These two realities cross over into each others worlds as I have often draw upon my own personal experience to help find the abstract tissue that allows intimacy.
Does the complexity of working on a big soundtrack ever frighten you at first? Of course, it is terrifying. But if you can work with people that are trying very hard and trust you, you will through trial and error arrive at the thing that the director requires to unlock his or her vision.
Do you watch excerpts of the movies you score and when completed is it difficult to observe the work neutrally - as a piece of entertainment - having been so involved in the process? There is certainly an element of anxiety as it is no longer in your power to make all the decisions where the music is concerned, and its life is grafted to a different centre of expression so there is always a period of adjustment.
How is the creative process affected by the deadlines that the film industry or other directorial considerations put on you? Pressure is an interesting thing, it forces things into reality on the one hand but on the other causes neurosis and altered perception depending on whether things are going right or wrong.
I think out of all the films you’ve scored, Heat, is a particular favourite of mine, can you tell me a little on how for example you approached the scoring of the film, did you enjoy the film? I contributed very little to this film. It is an Elliot Goldenthal film, but it was my first introduction to Michael Mann, and I feel without this work I may never have entered into cinema.
Working within the film industry as frequently as you do, have you ever felt attracted to celebrity lifestyle, and what is your view on it regardless? There is no such thing, it is a complete fabrication by the media. As Hans Zimmer said to me once, “Becoming successful doesn’t change who you are, the only thing that changes is the quality of your car."
Do you have a home studio, if so is this where you work for all of your recordings? Yes, most of them unless I must travel to another’s studio to work. All of the works for the Silver Tree were created in my home studio, although the home studio description is probably misleading, as it is extremely sophisticated and I can finish a film score there or an album of music apart from the dubbing or final mastering of course.
Do you work solely with computers? And do you have any particular pieces of equipment, software or hardware that you would consider an essential component of your studio set up? Mostly with computers yes. I do live recordings as well, obviously the voice is recorded live. I have an AKG V12 microphone that I send the vocal signal through and an Avalon mono valve compressor - this travels through an apogee then to Pro Tools.
And for software? The writing software I work with is called Nuendo, and I use the Akai 5000 plus Giga. For effects I use the TC 4000, plus various stereo reverbs and compressors and a KX88 midi keyboard. I have just bought Reaktor, and use a pro-control desk. For American work I need to use a Black Burst Generator and I'm using the Motu for midi time clocking. I have a young engineer working with me in the studio, James Orr. I thank God for him every day as anyone who does this work knows computers are great when they are all speaking together. Then of course there are the Yang Chings; I also have a Hungarian Cimbalom and various percussion.
How much, if at all, is your vocal manipulated by the technology? I some times create choirs by overlaying my vocals. Mostly I don’t use headphones, so I like to use the bleed creatively but other than that they are simply used as recording machines.
Do you find technology hard to keep up with or do you stick to tried and tested equipment? What I find difficult is getting people to stick to reliable surfaces instead of sacrificing creativity for new things that don’t always deliver what they promise. There is also a risk ofbeing put out of synchronicity with other workers because of sample and bit rate issues.
Can you tell me a little about the concept behind your new solo album, The Silver Tree, and how it differs from your previous work? The Silver Tree, like all creative works, has found its own innate narrative that can be as surprising to the composer as the listener. This is when the work is exciting because it shows to us that there is an even greater consistency when we speak poetically and a layer within a deeper pool that cannot lie.
The Silver tree is a point of reflectivity that I believe to be a direct result of us coming through two wars and the worldly devises that manifest themselves as justifications to permit this primitive and appalling behaviour. In Exile, the opening track, is a lament and pays homage to the innocent people that died because of an inability to find the true and balanced respect for every individual's right to be here. It is a lament, a prayer to bring peace. It is full of sorrow but still heralds the potential hope for wisdom; its purpose is to remind us of the pain and loss inflicted on each other; it asks for Gods love to enter the hearts of these madmen so that we can begin to reach our true potential and leave fear. Doubt is the opposite to love and has no place in clarity of vision.
We then travel through the hope for better things to come through a serious of lullabies to provoke and remind us of the sacred love we have for our children and their safety in the hope that we will find no justification for the ruin of peoples unknown to us.
As we arrive to, Towards the Tower, we visit an explosive entrance into all of the trappings of faith in governments, religions and false promises, all the while desperately, and often hopelessly, trying to find the truth. The piece finishes with a prayer to bring understanding. Then we meditate and reflect on those soft keys that will bring enlightenment through a connection with all lifeforms so that we might contemplate gentle solutions to these pathways that are our only hope of finding soulful unification, With the earth, the sunlight, water, and the air, The Silver Tree represents to me a strong fold of like-minded visionaries that provide hope and a sanctum for those who genuinely care about our planet and its inhabitants and can find refuge and begin to make a difference. This is the work of the artist, to meditate upon those things that we are able to bring attention to in a subtle and unique way.
In terms of subject matter, the lyrical aspect of the album is somewhat alien to the listener – I have often wondered if the vocals carry – in their delivery - a specific message or are merely intended as an important sound tool? They are utterances of the human heart undiluted, and able to communicate through abstract means. They are emotional and at times cathartic; I believe that they are able, with focus, to bind a mutual sense of well being. I am singing in English now, so it is how things have evolved for the moment. I see this as a discipline.
Would you agree that the album is a sophisticated union of your solo and soundtrack work to date? The work evolves as a result of where and what you are faced with at the time. I see this as very much a current response to the frequencies that are present in our familiar existence. Never in terms of marketing, but in a way that speaks about where we are now and the windows that are clearly visible to us but not quite yet attainable to all by choices of their own or the lake of exposure to the primal properties that remind us of who and what we really are.
Did you achieve what you set out to achieve with this album and do you ever consider the critical or audience reaction as a barometer of your success? Every time a new work takes on a life of its own I must begin again, to revisit the layers that can be shared and bring insight to things sometimes too simple to see. The olive branch at the foundation of all works is in some way to house and provide deeper understanding so that we might find harmony.
Have you ever considered working with other male/female vocalists? If so, is there anyone in particular that you would like to pursue a project with? I work with whoever is available at the time. I desire to work with people that are artists first and have natural artistic humility. The ones that see their ability to see clearly as sores of humiliation are destroyers and will ultimately destroy themselves. They can be rescued, but only when they accept equality.
Do you have time to listen too much other music? Could you name some recent artists that have inspired you or you simply love to listen to? Air, Portishead, Arvo Part, Shnitka, Stravinsky, Maria Callas, Daft Punk, Billie Holiday, African Kora music from Mali, Tim and Jeff Buckley, John Lennon, Zvegbig Prisner, Pink Floyd, Armenian music, Moby, Salif Keta, The Furies, sefard music of the troubadours, Bulgarian music, Steve Miller Band, David Sylvian - just to mention a few, you will have to check spellings.
What new projects do you have lined up? A concert tour in November. A Japanese movie, a boxing movie, and the libretto for a theatrical performance that I will direct myself.
"As Hans Zimmer said to me once, "Becoming successful doesn’t change who you are, the only thing that changes is the quality of your car.""
Lisa Gerrard interview, Barcode 2007 ©
No part of this interview may be reproduced under any circumstances without the written or verbal permission of the editor.