NEW YORK — Though she is a paragon of downtown Manhattan cool, Laurie Anderson was in a state of desperation when she realized that her long-in-the-making album “Homeland” might never be finished.
Mired in the minutiae of uncharacteristically angry songs from the George W. Bush years, she wondered what was still relevant as she worked alone in the studio, assembling tracks from live concert recordings with sounds that ranged from electro-pop to Mongolian throat singing.
“I literally thought I was going to lose my mind,” she recalled the other day in her expansive Canal Street apartment, filled with books and dog paraphernalia.
Instead, “Homeland,” her first studio album in nearly a decade, is enjoying fine reviews plus a support tour. It was all salvaged by her partner of 18 years and husband of two — rock ‘n’ roll legend Lou Reed.
Having never utilized him in past creative impasses, she hesitated when he made an offer that many in the music industry would kill for: He’d sit with her in the studio until the album was finished.
She fretted about the impact such intensive work could have on their marriage. But having spent her Nonesuch-label production budget, what choice did she have?
“He had a lot of influence at that point,” she said. “We’d work on a song and he’d say, ‘That’s done. Move on.’ And I’d say, ‘But there’s a horn arrangement and I have to redo my backup vocals.’ He’d say, ‘Leave the air in. It’s done.’”
So spare is “Homeland” that the technogeek side of Anderson’s persona is completely submerged in her outspoken lyrics and storytelling.
The music’s meeting of diametrically opposed temperaments is heard on songs such as “Only an Expert,” which uses a hard-driving beat (and Reed’s guitar licks) as a backdrop for Anderson’s expansive, rap-style observations: “Just because you lost your job and your house and all of your savings doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay for the bailouts ...”
Some critics have identified “Another Day in America” as the album’s centerpiece, and an odd one it is. Anderson assumes her mildly annoying male alter ego Fenway Bergamot, with her voice electronically distorted into the baritone range. Normally a professorial windbag, Fenway describes a landscape awash with consumer-generated detritus, from Styrofoam to computer chips. Only the stars are safe because they’re too distant to be manhandled by calamity-prone humans.
Though Anderson prides herself at raising questions rather than giving answers, Fenway asks “What are days for?” and gives a bleak, existential reply: “To put between the endless nights.”
A eulogy for America? A benediction on a wrecked planet? Anderson initially recoils from the thought.
“Did I say we wrecked it?”
She thinks for a second: “It is there (in the music). It’s definitely there.”
And yet: “I really am an optimistic person in a lot of ways ...”
Personally and professionally, she has reason to be.
She feels there should be some word other than marriage to describe her union with Reed, whom she describes as “a best friend” of many years, as well as a great producer and writer. Together, they were recently king and queen of the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, which she loved, especially since many of the costumed mermaids were smeared with oil to protest the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The couple has also begun playing public concerts with avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn, an extension of the private music-making they’ve enjoyed for years, which Anderson describes with words like “weird” and “symphonic.” More recently, her sight-impaired geriatric rat terrier, Lola Belle, has been taught to join in on keyboard. And with all that, Anderson still has time for summer reading, a 900-page book on Russian czar Peter the Great.
Such an eclectic life explains why she has always inhabited so many artistic categories without belonging to any of them. Often, she’s a cultural critic. Always, she’s a storyteller, sometimes working with highly unusual collaborators such as Herman Melville, whose “Moby Dick” she adapted in a multimedia stage piece.
Some years, she has seemed like a rock star — such as in the ‘80s, when she and an entourage of 40 staged a tour that, for all its success, left her in debt. “On days when I feel sorry for the record industry collapsing, I think of that stuff,” she says. “Being treated like an idiot product isn’t fun.”
Yet that kind of exposure has helped make her such an identifiable voice that elevators have prerecorded Laurie Anderson soundalikes announcing floor arrivals in her confiding, unmodulated fashion.
Current projects suggest that, at 63, she’s at a late-middle-age creative peak. She’s working on three pieces on three continents: “River of Sound”, an environmental sound piece in Basel, Switzerland, for which she’s developing sound-generating leaves that allow trees to sing; an exhibition of Anderson-designed musical instruments in Brazil; and, lastly, a new evening-length work titled “Delusion” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in September.
The irony is that the big productions that turn out so well, such as “Songs and Stories from Moby Dick,” are what she enjoys the least. She hates wielding authority. “I kind of implode,” she says. “I’m a hermit by nature. I’d rather take a bike ride by myself, eat dinner by myself. My real desire is be a farmer.”
But could Farmer Anderson exist without her high-tech gadgetry? She did once. The mention of the Coney Island parade brings up memories of impromptu, real-life comedy routines she performed with Dada-humorist Andy Kaufman before his TV success in “Taxi.” The two of them would arrive at one of those “test your strength” booths: He would claim the machine was rigged while verbally abusing onlookers. She’d demand the stuffed rabbit he would have won for her.
Kaufman died of lung cancer at age 35. “Andy didn’t die because of his art. Like a lot of people, unfortunately, he just got sick,” she said, sounding almost teary. “He was a hand-washer, you know. He washed his hands every minute. I don’t know how he did the TV show.”
Anderson’s survival is due, in part, to her “dream self,” the part of her that’s at work when she’s sleeping. “I respect the one who has really been in control, the one who dreams this stuff up, the part of you that has no idea whether you’re 5 or 90, the part of you that’s pretty crazy,” she says. “All of the projects I’ve done started out as a dream in that they don’t have the same rules that I have to follow as an adult.
“My approach as an artist has been to always remember that I’m free. That’s what I tell young artists. You hear them say, ‘I can’t be an artist! Michelangelo was an artist! What would people say?’ Well, most people don’t care about what you do. So knock yourself out. You’re free.”