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St. Vincent Has Crafted a Magnificent Mythology on Her Own Terms

There is performance art. There is rock ‘n’ roll. And then there are St. Vincent dress rehearsals.

Everyone in the showcase room of Prospect Heights’ Complete Music Studios seems to know this, because even at 4 p.m. on the last frigid Friday of January, the end of two months’ worth of 12-hour, five-day-a-week rehearsals, each person (four musicians, two managers, a lighting designer, a guitar tech, and a choreographer) dutifully occupies their station.

On a low platform, framed by about a dozen lighting apparatuses, St. Vincent herself, née Annie Clark, stands downstage in a glittering cocktail dress made of a gold vinyl that makes her look like a bionic Metropolis figurine, her frizzy, dyed-gray curls framing her face like an electrified storm cloud. Working her guitar up and down with her signature severity, she stares intently at the opposite wall of windows, twitching her head and limbs robotically as she and her band march through “Rattlesnake,” the jittery opening track on her forthcoming fourth solo record, St. Vincent. After three songs, she thanks an invisible crowd in her soothing, singsong lilt.

Then things get weird.

“You were born in the 21st century,” she intones, a priestess communicating with spirits. “The corners of your mouth turn down when you laugh. Your favorite word is . . .” She pauses for comedic effect. “Molecular.”

Offstage, a crew member begins reading sentences aloud. She repeats them. Clark has written this eerie stage banter in advance, and is now rehearsing lines. “You once tried to make a hot air balloon out of bedsheets. You were disappointed when it did not fly, but you did not give up.” The stage bursts to life as Clark and Moog player and guitarist Toko Yasuda commence a robotic dance, skittering forward and backward at opposite intervals like wind-up androids; the lights strobe terrifyingly, turning their moves into a stop-motion play. The lights slow their flicker, and suddenly it looks like there are two Clarks, a dark and a light, fighting over her body while she bends and twangs her strings.

Once in a while, between songs, she speaks to the invisible crowd again. Another song begins, a new ballad, and Clark retreats, guitarless, to the stage centerpiece: a massive powder-pink throne made of stairs, where she lies down, brushing the ground with her fingertips as one might the surface a reflecting pool. Later, she’ll return to the throne and throw herself down its steps, headfirst, in strobe-lit slow motion.

Every downbeat, every dead-silent transition, every poke battle over a ther-emin in this proceeding is immaculately scripted, down to Clark’s explosive, Byzantine guitar solo on Strange Mercy‘s “Surgeon.”

Reminder: This is just the rehearsal.

“It’s sort of like training like a professional athlete,” Clark, 31, says two days later, sitting at a table with a small glass of sparkling Italian wine. Somewhere in the world beyond, it is Super Bowl Sunday, but here in the bar of The Standard, East Village, for Annie Clark, it is the end of a bizarre press day, one in which she was asked to go about a normal day with a photographer in tow. (Did they truly want to go to the dry cleaner’s with her?) She wears neutral colors and her curls are tucked neatly into a dark beanie; it’s a stark contrast from the wild, supernatural Ursula coiffure that has become the iconic centerpiece of St. Vincent since its cover art was revealed in December.

“People have spent money on a ticket, and maybe that money is the equivalent of them spending a day of their life at their job, or half a day. Money is absolutely time,” she says. “I feel, now, that it would be disrespectful to work out the kinks on the people who spent a day of their life making the money to buy the ticket to come and have an experience.”

For Clark and everyone around her over the past few months, that experience has been everything. St. Vincent is an evolution unlike any other the guitarist has made in her seven years as St. Vincent. She’s left 4AD and Beggars Group, her artistic homes since 2007, for Loma Vista, a nascent label backed by the major Republic. She’s making music in the wake of a massive collaboration with David Byrne, one that produced Love This Giant, an album that involved marching bands and facial prosthetics, among other wacky experiments. With St. Vincent, Clark wields multiple new swords: a creative director in Willo Perron, the artistic mastermind behind live shows like Kanye West and Lady Gaga; a choreographer in Annie-b Parson, who orchestrated dances on the Love This Giant tour as well as Byrne’s previous collaboration with Brian Eno; and, of course, a host of her own innovative guitar-masquerading tricks, twisted pedal-and-synth explorations that add wattage to anything she’s made before.

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“It’s more confident,” she says of the record. “I’m extending a hand; I want to connect with people. Strange Mercy, which is a record I’m proud of, [was] definitely a very accurate record of my life at a certain time, but it was more about self-laceration, all the sort of internal struggle. [St. Vincent] is very extroverted.”

For all her onstage virtuosic flair — which existed in the form of stage dives long before she added modern dance and a giant pink throne — matching the words “extrovert” and “Annie Clark” feels a bit odd. Though she’s played music for at least a decade, first as a touring member of the Polyphonic Spree and in Sufjan Stevens’s band, then as a solo artist, St. Vincent has managed to craft a public image that is eloquent, thoughtful, and has virtually nothing to do with her personal life as Annie Clark. Questions from the press about her family — she grew up Catholic in Dallas as one of eight children, and has lived in the East Village for much of her career — or her friends or who she dates are shut down or nimbly redirected toward more “interesting” conversation; rarely do St. Vincent Q&As broach topics beyond her creative process, her gear (her signature axe is a Harmony Bobkat), or her artistic pursuits. She sticks to many of the same lines of dialogue in interviews (which explains why almost every feature about St. Vincent reads the same). Small personal details are pieced together over time, of course, but unlike many artists of her caliber, she’s created an anti-cult of personality, a media-savvy mystery determined to keep all eyes on the art instead of the artist.

Even behind the scenes, she remains the consummate professional, rarely exposing more to her team of collaborators than she would an interviewer on a good day. For example, when I suggest to David Byrne over email that Clark is a private person, his first response is, “Ha ha, that’s an understatement.”

“Despite having toured with her for almost a year I don’t think I know her much better, at least not on a personal level,” he writes. “We’re more relaxed and comfortable around each other, for sure. You could call it privacy, or mystery or whatever — I know a few isolated things about her upbringing, school, and her musical likes and dislikes — but it’s nice that there are always surprises, too. Mystery is not a bad thing for a beautiful, talented young woman (or man) to embrace. And she does it without seeming to be standoffish or distant.”

That talent for controlling her own narrative without alienating anybody has become, more or less, the crux of her essence and success as St. Vincent. In 2009, Clark told the New York Times that she likes “things that are unsettling.” Every subsequent profile, it seems, has extolled her ability to straddle two distinct identities, one warm and one profoundly unknowable. Her lyrics flirt with the candid and the esoteric without committing to either; a review of Strange Mercy lauded its “emotions that are as cryptic as they are genuine and affecting.” She creates a dystopia in the video for “Digital Witness,” then films a how-to clip demonstrating a soccer trick she learned in grade school for Rookie, a website for teen girls.

And when you interview her, the conversation is always good — she might tell you an unrelated story about her house in college, where a dead rat on the porch once left a visiting older sister weeping for her quality of life — even if she ends up picking the topics most of the time.

“I’ve learned a few things,” she says of her time in the public eye. “I realize this lovely conversation is artificial; [in a real conversation,] I wouldn’t talk about myself this much, I just wouldn’t. I also know that being too sarcastic or too self-effacing doesn’t translate in the press because it’s devoid of context. Sometimes journalists ask [female artists] more personal questions.” (The questions asked of Clark can get as personal as how much she weighs.)

“From the beginning of her career as St. Vincent, Annie Clark has succeeded in avoiding the confessional in her music,” says NPR pop critic Ann Powers. Clark is one of a select few slated to play NPR’s SXSW showcase in Austin next month. “This is not easy for a female artist — women in the arts are almost always assumed to be more naturally emotive than men, and less in control of what they produce. So it’s a huge accomplishment that St. Vincent [has] succeeded as a construct, and as one that still could hold emotion and deep meaning while still highlighting Clark’s mastery.”

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“You just have to have your own boundaries about things you’re willing to talk about and things you’re not willing to talk about,” Clark says. “Everybody has lives and heartbreaks and disappointments and great joys and all this stuff. But that’s what I put into the art. There’s an intimacy and a full commitment in the art that makes me feel like it could potentially do a disservice to the art. ‘Martha My Dear’ is about a dog. I wish I didn’t know that.”

The power Clark wields isn’t just relegated to her art; it resonates, among the people she works with, the people who write about her, and her fans. It’s such a strong force that when her commitment to boundaries is questioned, the blowback from her public is immediate: When a comedian condemned Clark’s refusal to discuss her love life on a recent podcast, for example, fans and journalists swiftly criticized the move as cruel and contemptuous, and within 48 hours of the podcast’s going live, it had been edited and re-uploaded, sans critique; in the following episode, the comedian apologized. (The same comedian wrote a feature about the guitarist a few years ago, a story that, though she’s quick to note no hard feelings, Clark says “kind of fit [me] into an agenda and [another] concept of the world, when we had sort of diametrically opposing ideas about the universe.”)

“To say one of the corniest things you can say about an artist, [Clark] is a storyteller,” says Ann Powers. “I am always curious to follow where her songs go, because they go farther than most by current artists in terms of creating worlds. . . . It takes the listener outside of herself, and I think that makes us less interested in Annie’s personal details, too; we want to go on the trip she’s charting, which is about dreaming and thinking big, not getting stuck in autobiography.”

“As St. Vincent, Annie has very much done this seemingly impossible thing of getting over the women-in-rock hump by being bulletproof; it’s allowed a post-gender freedom,” says Rookie music editor and frequent Voice contributor Jessica Hopper. Hopper has interviewed Clark (often the subject of agape “women in rock” trendpieces) many times since 2007. “And I think, in some regards, that was her mission: not to be the exception but to be the new rule.”

Everything you ever need to know about Annie Clark, the artist reckons in an email a week later from Europe, is already being sung by St. Vincent.

“There is so much autobiography contained within the songs that I don’t see the need to deflate them with the mundane,” she writes. “I’m not very interested in the ‘behind-the-scenes’ sacrifices at the altar of the god of content.”

Not that there’s much room in Clark’s schedule for a personal life even if she did want to spill her guts. Twelve-hour practices, all-day photo shoots, days of national and international press, and, presumably, sleep seemingly dominate her life. (Our two-hour conversation will be the only time we’ll be able to meet.) It’s been this way since at least 2011, she says, when she embarked on the Strange Mercy tour. From there, it was straight into Love This Giant and that tour; throughout that year and a half, she picked up the “experiences, images, ideas, and people” that became St. Vincent and came to life in longtime producer John Congleton’s studio back home in Dallas in the fall of 2013. If it were up to her — and for the most part, it is — this is how life would be all the time: consume art, make art, discuss art, perform art, repeat ad infinitum.

“I used to think, at some point, there would be one day when I would learn how to be a well-adjusted person with a home,” she says. (Her New York apartment, she says, is full of “deeply uncomfortable, horrifying art” — it’s the only thing she likes about it.) “But then I made peace with the fact that I’m not interested in that. I’m not excluding it for the future, but [right now] I would rather be making records.”

And at the moment, with a new label, different resources, solid sales (by the end of 2011, Strange Mercy had sold over 50,000 copies), and the potential for massive visibility (she’s now been on the Colbert Report twice, and has appeared on Gossip Girl, Comedy Central’s @Midnight, and friend Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia), she’s gearing up to be able to do that for a long time — far longer than many of her ’00s indie-rock compatriots, anyway.

“To come from the world she’s come from and to be able to make four albums is almost unheard of nowadays,” says Adam Farrell, creative director at Loma Vista. Though now a part of her new label home, Farrell has worked with St. Vincent since her debut, formerly as vice president of creative and marketing at Beggars Group. “Annie fits perfectly with what we are trying to do as a record label. [She] is a unique talent and a vanguard across art and culture.”

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What’s more, Farrell says, Clark understands what her success means to the people who see her succeed.

“She’s inspiring to anyone, women and men both, and she knows that,” he says. “My seven-year-old daughter is obsessed with her. She saw the photos we took out in L.A. and, from that point on, called her the ‘rock-star lady Daddy works with.'”

“The first conversation I ever had with Annie, when I was potentially interested in becoming her agent, was the first of a series of very long phone calls that were absolutely a joy,” says David “Boche” Viecelli, president of indie touring agency Billions and senior partner at Lever and Beam, Clark’s management company. Boche, like Farrell, has also worked with the guitarist from the beginning. “She was so intelligent and expressive and inquisitive and everything about it just struck me as, ‘This is the kind of artist I want to work with.’ Now I think she’s learned what to pare away as unimportant and what to emphasize as the absolute essence of what she does.”

For her fourth album cycle (fifth, if you count Love This Giant) she’s wielding that essence and the power that’s come from boiling it down in a new way: to create a “stylized,” “intentional,” and “heavily referenced” experience that’s far more incisive than ever before. (Don’t call it her Ziggy Stardust, though; “I think it’s cohesive but I wouldn’t call it a concept album,” she says.) Perhaps in part thanks to her work with Byrne, she’s intentionally left most of her “orchestral” instrumentals behind, in favor of more angular guitar and synth distortions.

Songs like “Rattlesnake” — a naked communion with nature gone horribly awry — and “Huey Newton” — an Ambien-tripping encounter with the Black Panthers cofounder’s ghost — have basis in fact. But even the most banal lines — even, for example, when she sings her to-do list, “take out the garbage, masturbate,” on “Birth in Reverse” — are bathed in a science-fiction glow, an effect blown out with the help of Congleton and additional percussion by Dap-Kings’ Homer Steinweiss and Midlake’s McKenzie Smith. As Clark said in her announcement of the record earlier this year, St. Vincent is “a party record you could play at a funeral”: a characterization that, if multiple subsequent interviews are to be trusted, “sounds like myself.”

While most of St. Vincent was masterminded alone, her art direction was born of collaboration: a partnership, negotiated by Farrell, with Willo Perron.

“The indie vernacular is always marred with this kind of unintentional, laissez-faire, I-don’t-give-a-fuck [attitude]; it’s just a snapshot,” says Perron. “But in our conversations, we were like, ‘Let’s do something for that audience that’s super intentional.’ The performance, the look, everything thought through to minutiae. There’s a story, maybe not a narrative-narrative, but an aesthetic story, a through line.”

The pair exchanged a steady flow of cultural talismans and assembled a “visual bible” that has guided every artistic element of the newly reborn St. Vincent, from costumes and lighting to videos and, of course, the instantly iconic album art.

“I’m very drawn to symmetrical images, and I wanted to make sure that the cover conveyed a sense of power. That leads you down the rabbit hole of ‘What does power mean? What does that translate to? What does that look like?'” Clark says. “In this instance, it seemed as though power was in intentionality. So I’m on the cover, on this pink Memphis chair that’s very structured, very symmetrical, very sturdy. But also, it’s pink, a soft color. I experimented with different poses; it was so interesting, every micro-movement . . . if I put my legs to the left, it looked like Golden-era Hollywood. If I put my legs to the right, it looked imperious and queenly in a way that was just not it. So I think the cover shot we got, it was like the third shot [we took]. Symmetrical, clean: It was direct.”

The result: an aesthetic Perron describes as “postmodern-meets-new-cult-leader,” a commanding new identity that takes cues from touchstones like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s shamanistic The Holy Mountain (she says she had no idea that Kanye West had picked up on the 1973 film around the same time); the angular, colorful Memphis furniture design movement of 1980s Milan; and (of course) old David Bowie YouTube clips. It’s more than a few jumps from the guitarist who wailed, “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more” on her last record (and played a life-size ceramic doll in the corresponding “Cheerleader” video to boot).

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The art, as rehearsal showed, doesn’t disintegrate when it meets the outside air, either. With the help of lighting designer Susanne Sasic and throne architect Lauren Machen, that otherworldly aura is translated to the tour’s stage design. There’s little accompanying St. Vincent onstage other than Toko Yasuda, keyboardist Daniel Mintseris, and drummer Matt Johnson, but despite the minimal collection, she says, “everything you hear is made by a human.” That means while Mintseris is teasing horns and strings out of his keyboard, the synth tones are coming from Clark’s guitar pedals; and when Clark relinquishes her instrument for a melancholy throne lament, Yasuda assumes guitar-picking duties. And of course Annie-b Parson’s artfully stiff choreography — for which she mined her own past work designing routines for a fleet of guitar-strapped dancers on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s elaborate 2008 tour — fills each and every moment where Clark’s limbs are free of instrumental imperative (as well as many moments where they’re not).

“She wanted this show to be something powerful, and at the same time, something very supernatural,” says Parson, from whom Clark requested frequent notes at the ends of their long-winded rehearsals. “Maybe not the first day you teach her the movement, but the third day, she totally embodies it. She’s a very natural performer, so when you give her a movement, she knows what to do with it. That’s not typical of a non-dancer, not at all. She’s very special.”

Of course, despite all the professional high-art talk, Clark’s still got a soft spot for the extemporaneous. (She’s a crowd-surfing, rip-soloing Dallas-to-New York rock guitarist, after all.) For all her refined tastes, she’s still using Netflix and a fourth-generation HBO Go password to binge on Scandal and True Detective. (“I love Matthew McConaughey now. He’s a Texas boy. There’s something comforting to me about his accent. The only thing I don’t like [about the show] is that the women are only prostitutes, nagging wives, or mistresses.”) She and Yasuda sometimes use Louis C.K.’s Louie theme song as a vocal warm-up. And the inspiration to bleach her hair came from The (“totally insane”) Bachelor: She took the plunge after watching recent contestant Sarah Herron leap off a 30-story building, despite a crushing fear of heights, to stay in the running. “She fucking did it!” Clark exclaims. “She faced her fear. The reasoning is questionable maybe, but she faced her fear, maybe for no good reason, but maybe it’s admirable. She had blond hair and I was like, I think I’m gonna go blonde. If she can [go] off a building, why not?”

Yet, true to her paradoxical nature, there’s still something profound about her more pedestrian endeavors. At one point, our conversation inexplicably turns to high school sports; when I explain how water polo is played, she responds, eyes wide in amused disbelief: “We distract ourselves from death in so many creative ways.”

A week after our meeting at the Standard, Clark and her band are on a very different stage. This one is in Tribeca, at design house Spring Studios, on the occasion of Diane von Furstenberg’s Fashion Week show. At the back of the runway, off to the side, St. Vincent and her trio occupy a small platform against a wild backdrop of black and white. It could have been the light before, but her hair — wild again — is definitely lavender at the roots now, and she’s traded her gold vinyl frock for a short black wrap dress. Instead, the models are in metallics; as they begin parading looks down the platform, the band opens up and plays a few songs as accompaniment to their strut. While most eyes are on the women sashaying past, Clark performs Parson’s choreography through the two or three songs that soundtrack the show, and at the end the models and von Furstenberg take their bows and dance to St. Vincent.

A few minutes after the show concludes, Clark and the band move to a larger stage in a members-only lounge, where high-threshold credit-card holders cluster to watch a live stream of the show projected on a white wall. Everyone is young and dressed as relevantly as possible; supermodel Coco Rocha is here. Now, as guests sip pink cocktails and regale each other with tales of Fashion Week shows past, St. Vincent and Co. rev up again, under deep blue and violet lights. There is no pink throne here tonight, but a small platform takes its place, and as St. Vincent moves back and forth between the edge of the stage and the back, she and her bandmates perform their robotic choreography just as methodically as they did at rehearsal.

Only now there’s a spark in Clark’s angular joints. Where the robotic moves were truly dead-eyed as she trained, that dance seems just slightly bigger, pumped with the kind of understated adrenaline that historically has preceded fearless leaps into crowds. Of course she doesn’t jump, but as she gazes out into the sea of cocktail dresses and tailored blazers, many of whom have probably never heard of St. Vincent, her eyes flicker.

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BOOKWORM’S DELIGHT

David Byrne, Ed Park, Rivka Galchen, Zadie Smith, Lynne Tillman, and Colm Tóibín — it would be a treat to see just one of these writers (or, in Byrne’s case, make that writer-musician-producer-artist-activist) in person. But Bookforum is doing much better than that. The venerable publication has managed to bring all of them together for a night of readings at the New Museum titled The Night We Called It a Day. And it’s completely free. File this one under: only in New York.

Wed., Feb. 12, 6:30 p.m., 2014

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Os Mutantes

For three decades, between the release of their self-titled 1968 debut album and Beck’s 1998 Mutations—whose name is a tribute to the São Paolo legends—there wasn’t much talk about Os Mutantes. That started to change after Mutations dropped and the record’s best song, “Tropicália,” a lush homage to the Brazilian psych-pop sound that Mutantes helped forge, started to get serious burn on college radio and mixtapes. The next year, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label released a Mutantes compilation, and in 2008, the band hit paydirt when their classic track “A Minha Menina” was featured on a McDonald’s commercial for the 2008 Olympics. By then, ostensible leader Sérgio Dias Baptista had already reformed the band, and recent albums, including this year’s Fool Metal Jack, show that they can still conjure up magic, even without most of their founding members.

Fri., Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m., 2013

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Songs of Disco and Dictators

When David Byrne dances he seems both absorbed in the movement of his body and detached from it, torso and legs vibrating rhythmically, face oddly expressionless.

In his recent book, How Music Works, he describes his terpsichorean style as “jerky, spastic, and strangely formal.” You can see it almost nightly at Here Lies Love, his seductive new musical about Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, now playing at the Public Theater.

Byrne is hardly the only chart-topper to have recently turned to theater. A John Mellencamp musical has just announced an out-of-town tour while Kinky Boots, with music by Cyndi Lauper, and Hands on a Hardbody, co-composed by Phish’s Trey Anastasio, have racked up Tony nominations. But Here Lies Love stands as the most original and fully realized of the lot.

It may seem surprising that Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman and celebrated solo artist, has written (with the assistance of DJ Fatboy Slim) an Off-Broadway tuner. More puzzling: What took him so long?

A restless creative force, Byrne has already supplied scores for dance performances and films. He added a modern-dance troupe to his recent tour. And in the 1980s, he composed music for a section of Robert Wilson’s operatic epic, the CIVIL warS, though this has never been staged in its entirety.

On Mother’s Day, Byrne pedaled to the Public a couple of hours before the evening performance. He was running late, having just returned from a visit to his own mother, but he seemed unperturbed, radiating that signal mix of intensity and impassiveness as he spoke about the show or paused to dandle the four-month-old child of its star, Ruthie Ann Miles.

Byrne wore a white denim jacket, a white button-down, and a bristling wave of white hair, all of which blended with the white brick at the back of the Public’s mezzanine, but didn’t camouflage him from the fans squealing below.

He first conceived the musical some years ago when he learned that Imelda had a mirror ball installed in her Manhattan townhouse, converted the roof of a Manila palace into a club, and made the rounds at various New York discos in the late ’70s and early ’80s, though Byrne never encountered her there. “I wasn’t really part of that scene,” he says.

Byrne began to wonder if disco’s dazzle and sheen could serve as an allegory for Imelda herself. “Maybe that music or atmosphere evokes something of what she’s feeling,” he says.

Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, who helped shepherd the piece through years of development, called disco “a beautiful metaphor for what [Byrne] was really interested in—the way people in power live in a bubble of their own.”

After a year of research, Byrne began to shape the words of Imelda, her husband, Ferdinand, and her childhood housekeeper and friend Estrella Cumpas into lyrics. Rather than offer “straight retro-disco-nostalgia,” he enlisted Fatboy Slim to give the melodies and rhythms a more contemporary dance beat.

Initially, Byrne wanted to stage Here Lies Love in a club rather than a traditional theater, re-creating the feeling of “this big democratic thing, a giant room full of heaving bodies.” But he toured several local clubs and found them too partitioned and exclusive: “They’ve all been subdivided into VIP rooms and bottle rooms and chill-out rooms. And the actual dance floor space is a quarter of the size of what it used to be.”

So with the aid of the innovative, Obie-winning director Alex Timbers and a crack design team, Byrne worked to transform a little-used Public space into a club and a concept album into a musical. This meant cutting old songs, penning new ones, adjusting lyrics, jettisoning verses, enhancing the character of political rival Ninoy Aquino, and diminishing that of Estrella.

Some artists might bristle at these changes, but his collaborators say Byrne responds to most suggestions with speed and grace. “He’s not interested in his own ego,” says Eustis. “He’s interested in making something happen.”

And something does happen. Here Lies Love feels far less like a Broadway show than a dance party. A great one.

Lights swirl, bass notes boom, and platforms bearing the actors move around the floor. Though there are a few seats in thebalcony, most audience members stand and shimmy for the entirety of the 85-minute running time. As does Byrne. “We’re not sure he’s ever missed a show,” says Eustis. (Byrne admits to missing several.)

“I can’t help but want to dance with him,” writes Miles via e-mail. “We all get so excited when his head of white hair is spotted through the fog.”

Here Lies Love is both a traditional musical (it has a discernible plot and conveys character and emotion through song) and a startlingly inventive one. It relies almost entirely on found text (speeches, interviews, clandestine recordings, Imelda’s high school yearbook) and eschews a libretto.

“Part of the energy is that the music keeps going,” says Byrne. “If you stop it too many times with dialogue scenes, you lose that musical momentum. Every DJ knows that.”

Indeed, the uninterrupted music is so infectious, the atmosphere so dynamic, and the performances by Miles and Jose Llana (as Ferdinand) so charismatic that you often forget you’re boogying down to the beat of a deeply repressive regime that used martial law and murder to silence discontent.

Though Byrne’s friends have called the show insidious, he takes it as a compliment. It proves “how easily we’re seduced,” he says. “When there’s a beautiful couple mouthing the right slogans, we go with it.”

He also notes that several Marcos loyalists have attended. Some left midway through, but others stayed. “They saw what they wanted to see,” says Byrne.

Though he embraces the ambivalence and coercion of Here Lies Love, with Eustis’s prompting he added a closing section that acknowledges the People Power Revolution’s nonviolent overthrow of the Marcos regime. Suddenly, the disco disappears. Lights and haze fade. Prerecorded thump cedes to live acoustic guitar, and you hear “God Draws Straight,” an impossibly moving song assembled from the revolutionaries’ oral testimony. “I weep every time I hear it,” says Eustis.

Unfortunately for theatergoers, Byrne does not have another musical in mind. “I wish I did,” he says.

But Here Lies Love will inform his next several albums. “I was given the liberty or permission to write from all these characters’ points of view. I loved that. I’ve started writing to other musicians, saying, ‘I’ve just stumbled on this great new way of writing songs.'”

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Tyson Takes a Trip to Bountiful; Imelda Dominates Here Lies Love; Midler Meddles as Sue Mengers

Three obstinate females—one fictional and two historical—dominated my theatergoing last week. Tenacious women make great showy roles for leading actresses, and also seem to have a stimulating effect on male writers: Medea and Tosca, Mistress Quickly and Mrs. Warren, Dolly Levi and Maggie the Cat all sprang from masculine imaginations. In plays by women, who see the female mind from inside, the woman at the center is more often vacillating or self-doubting. Men, stuck with the external gaze, focus on the determination that masks the doubt.

Mrs. Carrie Watts (Cicely Tyson), the heroine of Horton Foote’s 1953 play The Trip to Bountiful (Sondheim Theatre), has flickering doubts, but conquers them on her way to her simple goal. Raised and married in a tiny Texas town called Bountiful, she’s been trapped for over a dozen years in a claustrophobic flat in noisy Houston, with her son, Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). Getting back to Bountiful, for reasons even she doesn’t fully understand, is her one desire.

Self-centered, pleasure-loving Jessie Mae, on whom Carrie’s compulsive housecleaning and hymn-singing piety constantly grate in the close quarters, would gladly let her go. But the family has suffered reversals and can’t make ends meet without Carrie’s Social Security check. Getting back to Bountiful, once thriving but now almost deserted, is a hopeless dream.

Or would be, but determined women of Carrie’s age, whose bodies tell them they have no time to lose, can be both quick and clever. Dodging Jessie Mae’s watchful eye, Carrie manages to hop on a bus. Her trip offers many setbacks and a few desolating shocks, but some alleviations as well. Never glossing over life’s darkness, Foote balances its harsh truths against the kindnesses that offset them.

Carrie strikes up a friendship with a young military wife (Condola Rashad) heading home to live with her parents while her husband is shipped overseas. (The Korean War goes unmentioned, but the young woman is tense with worry.) In Harrison, the bus stop nearest Bountiful, Carrie must confront bad news, and also finds help from a kindly ticket agent (the venerable Arthur French) and a considerate local sheriff (Tom Wopat). People who associate rural Texas exclusively with brutality and bigotry may find the graciousness of Wopat’s performance surprising; Texans, knowing better, probably won’t.

The Bountiful that Carrie finally reaches is an abandoned ruin, the opposite of its name. The astute playwright lets his heroine face this unappealing future with equanimity—an unexpected extra layer of the resourceful obduracy that helped her escape. Michael Wilson’s direction, never lagging, shapes each scene in a gentle, unhurried arc, letting Tyson bring a gleeful fervor to every moment, seemingly as happy to be back onstage, after decades away, as her character is to be on that bus. Once or twice, almost impishly, she signals how much fun she’s having, but for the most part, her performance is a sustained delight, rich in energy, detail, organically produced sorrow, and immaculately timed humor. She’s wonderfully seconded, too, on all sides: Rashad conveying sweet, nuanced pathos; Williams giving a full, sharp-toned mixture of comedy and pained vulnerability. Gooding, brand-new to the stage, uses his mike-bred vocal limitations to shade a convincing three-dimensional portrait.


Imelda Marcos was no small-town girl to start with, and once she had moved to Manila, never dreamed of the small-town life back home. A child of the oligarchy that still controls the Philippines, she vested her dreams in international jet-setting, showy new buildings, and innumerable pairs of designer shoes. The shoes, like the affluent origins, go strangely unmentioned in Here Lies Love (Public), the flashy, lively, tuneful new musical in which songwriter David Byrne and director Alex Timbers purport to tell the tale of how Imelda and her president-turned-dictator husband rose to power, abused it, and duly fell.

The triple whammy of iron-fisted totalitarianism, near-universal economic corruption, and multimillion-dollar shopping sprees became too much even for the Marcoses’ Western trading partners to tolerate. World opinion compelled an election; Marcos’s underlings worsened matters by assassinating his principal opponent, “Ninoy” Aquino (a former beau of Imelda’s). Aquino’s widow, Cory, won the election; democracy returned, shakily, to the Philippines. The U.S. military airlifted the Marcoses to safety.

Byrne and his collaborators (Fatboy Slim and others contributed to the score) supply only the basic outlines of this story; they’re more interested in setting it in dance-club motion. And why complain, since their musical medium isn’t really suitable for dramatizing politics and economics anyway? Timbers sets the show on rolling platforms around which most of the audience stands, disco-style, dancing and clapping along to the steady drive of Byrne’s appealing rhythms. The evening’s broad strokes, both in staging and musically, are often extremely effective: There’s a particularly nifty one when unplugged democracy finally supplants the amplified pulsations.

Here Lies Love never conveys, though, what attracted Byrne and his colleagues to this particular story—or why they should seemingly strive, by downplaying the differences between the two ladies, to stress its similarity to Evita. Musically, to my taste, Byrne’s work is far superior. And although the show’s substance frequently vanishes inside its dance-party exhilaration, it’s clear that serious, intelligent effort has gone into creating the hoopla. The heartfelt, flamboyant performances prove that too, especially Ruthie Ann Miles’s Imelda and Conrad Ricamora’s Ninoy. Some quality of Philippine society must provoke analogies to club life: Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, produced by the Public in 2001, also viewed Imelda through a disco prism.


The life of super-agent Sue Mengers (Bette Midler), as playwright John Logan describes it in I’ll Eat You Last (Booth Theatre), resembled an evening-long gossip column, all name-dropping, varied with snide one-liners and celebrity anecdotes. Logan arranges his overfamiliar material neatly; Joe Mantello’s production deploys it skillfully. Midler’s Mengers, lolling throughout on her couch, never resembles an actual human being, or even a Hollywood agent. As formalized and distant as Kabuki, it’s nonetheless an immaculately turned performance.

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SO HAPPY TOGETHER

Graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, who has designed album covers for the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and David Byrne, among others, has been on a 10-year quest, not for the perfect typeface, but for happiness. Sagmeister, a fan of positive-psychology pioneer Martin Seligman, has taken his exploration on the road through a series of traveling exhibitions. Tonight he presents Happiness?, an intimate master class that will touch on his recent experiences with the three methods most often prescribed to become happier—meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and mood-altering drugs—and what he thinks works best.

Wed., April 24, 7 p.m., 2013

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ONCE IN A LIFETIME

If the shoe-obsessed Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos were able to attend David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s new musical about her life titled Here Lies Love, she’d probably wear fancy high heels for the occasion. But, for the rest of us, comfortable footwear will be more practical as the Public will be transformed into a dance club, where you will move with the actors as they play out the action in a 360-degree scenic and video environment. Big Dance Theater founder Annie-B Parson choreographs; Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) directs the party.

Mondays-Sundays. Starts: April 2. Continues through May 19, 2013

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FLOAT ON

Last year, Canadian Mac DeMarco popped up on several music critics’ “artist-to-watch” lists for last year’s CMJ Festival, and upon listening to either of the albums he released in 2012, Rock and Roll Night Club and 2, it’s easy to see why: They were hypnotized. Everything about DeMarco’s easygoing, Jonathan Richman-on-acid 
persona effortlessly transports you to some other realm where you’re floating. Lo-fi 
indie-rock songs like “Baby’s Wearing Blue Jeans,” off Night Club, seem to consist only of his low, pining tenor, some swishy drums, and his slightly warped take on 
David Byrne’s seductively texture-prone guitar picking. And on the best songs on 2, like the surfy “Ode to Viceroy” and fuzzily warm “Dreaming,” DeMarco’s through-the-looking-glass guitar tapestries are worthy of their own shimmery spotlight. It’s all so mesmerizing, it’s hard not to get swept away. With Naomi Punk, Calvin Love and Tonstartssbandht.

Fri., March 1, 9 p.m., 2013

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Jherek Bischoff

The Seattle composer-bassist is one of the more promising uncategorizeables operating in the slipstream of contemporary music. Bischoff knocked one out of the park earlier this year with Composed, an album of charmingly akimbo arrangements sung by David Byrne, Caetano Veloso, and others. These shows include a half-hour of new music created at the behest of Lincoln Center and performed by Bischoff, the yMusic ensemble, and Deerhoof percussionist Greg Saunier.

Thu., Dec. 20, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2012

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TALKING HEADS

Released at the same time as his album with St. Vincent, Love This Giant, David Byrne’s newest book, How Music Works, discusses how technology has changed the way we produce and consume music forever. Author Chris Ruen’s book Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity offers solutions to the disconnect and has been praised by Byrne for its insight and positive spin on the shift. In the latest installment of Live from the NYPL, the two men will chat about “music and copyright in the digital age” and perhaps address other forward-thinking ways of adapting to the constant change.

Wed., Dec. 5, 7 p.m., 2012