Ed. Note: in 2012 we published this interview with Lisa Gerrard, who talked about the long running band – then currently on tour and with their first album in 16 years recently released – she shares with Brendan Perry. Since then they’ve also issued a live album, In Concert, which documented the tour for Anastasis, and were set to tour again this past spring but, due to unforeseen circumstances, had to cancel. Meanwhile, in 2014, Gerrard worked on a number of film scores (details at her Wikipedia page) and released solo album Twilight Kingdom on her own Gerrard label, and is reportedly readying another solo project. It seems like a reasonable point, then, to revisit longtime contributor Gil Macias’ insightful, in-depth conversation with the remarkable Gerrard. Enjoy!
BY GIL MACIAS
It’s been 7 years since their 2005 reunion tour, but after an overly long hiatus Dead Can Dance are once again touring and enchanting the world in support of their stunning new album Anastatis, which is also their first new album in 16 years. Dead Can Dance, formed by minstrels Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, began captivating music lovers over 30 years ago their unique and now signature blend of experimental art rock, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Celtic, African and other world music influences and they have undoubtedly not lost their magic touch. On August 14 the duo enraptured a very enthusiastic audience at the Gibson Amphitheater in Los Angeles.
Entering the stage wearing a gown and a flowing golden cape that looked like a cross between some sort of elegant superhero meets Greek Goddess, Gerrard along with Perry took the stage to thunderous applause. The band opened up with “Children of the Sun” (the album opener for Anastasis) where Perry’s soothing and one of a kind, mighty baritone filled the theater and instantly set the tone for what would be a breathtaking and out of this world, two hour show. The next song, “Anabasis,” was the first lead vocal by Gerrard and once that very first second of vocals emerged, it sent an instant shockwave of spine-tingly loveliness across the room. If you’re a fan of this particular genre or not, it’s a voice that needs to be heard and it’s truly amazing how much of a modern day muse Gerrard really is.
The band also delivered some of the many fan favorites from their back catalogue. The crowd erupted into cheer as “Rakim” began and Gerrard marveled us all by displaying her talents with the hammered dulcimer (aka Yangqin). Other highlights that received strong audience reactions included the lush “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove,” “Nierika,” and the always chilling and goose bump inducing “The Host of Seraphim,” arguably one of Gerrard’s finest vocal performances, which was also backed up by Perry’s haunting chants. It was with the latter track where you looked around the room and you could clearly see that her voice had an emotional and spiritual impact as it brought some of the audience to tears.
But the most impressive moment of the show came after the band performed their epic, Celtic-styled “Return of the She-King.” The stage was cleared, the audience clamored for more and Gerrard once again emerged for a third encore, this time with only one other musician. She performed a serene and mesmerizing little number called “Rising of the Moon” that had the audience entranced—it was like an audience full of serpents watching an elegant and unworldly snake charmer. At the very tail end, after her final note, there was this small moment of complete and total silence—you could hear a pin drop. Gerrard, eyes closed, stepped to the microphone, and in a breathy tone said: “You’re absolutely fabulous” and the crowd went from dead silent to roaring cheers and applause (See the video below) and she smiled, blew a kiss and waved. It was the perfect and gratifying finale for this enchanting evening.
We were lucky enough to have a little chat with Lisa Gerrard a few days after the show. In our interview we discuss the writing process of Dead Can Dance, her unique style of singing known as glossolalia, the tour and what journey lies ahead for our two favorite musical soul mates.
BLURT: This is your first new album in 16 years and we’re curious as to what sort of magic occurs between you and Brendan after such a long break. Can you explain what it’s like in the studio when you two reunite in person for the first time? What’s your writing process like?
GERRARD: The way that the process happened with this one started while Brendan was experimenting with Mediterranean rhythms, which he sent to me over the internet to acquaint myself with. They were quite complex. They sound really simple, but they’re quite complex to write with because of the way that the harmonies have to stretch out and still make sense over different periods of time. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked like that with him. From that point of view it was different, but I have to tell you that as soon as we started writing together I felt that you could immediately hear the signature of the stuff that we make. I was really excited that that hadn’t gone. The character of what we do together was still there.
I have to ask about your style of singing, glossolalia. Your vocals are amazing, yet they aren’t a real language. Are they instantly induced by the music you hear in the studio? Or is it more like an epiphany and that can even take place outside of the studio?
It’s automatic. And it’s innate within the music itself that determines how I respond with my voice. I can’t explain it myself, I really can’t. And I’ve tried for many years and I just think, you know what, I’m not going to try and explain it anymore because I really don’t know. I know that it is an innate, automatic response to the music that I hear. It’s like the pathway between my mouth and my heart, and I respond emotionally with the groaning of the heart. Each piece of music presents a completely different inspired sound.
Do you always write the music first then do the vocals after? Or has there been a time where a vocal has come first and then you built the music around it?
Yes, in fact, the very last piece that we do at the concert, “Rising of the Moon.” I’m writing that as we go and it’s really about the voice and just two notes. So, that will just grow from there. And after some concerts it will have developed into a piece. Sometimes it’s nice to do something that you’re writing while onstage.
You once described your style of singing as being free and uninfluenced by the prisons of language. After you record these original vocal pieces, what’s it like for you to replicate them live? Other artists who sing and write in English, for example, can write their lyrics down on paper and memorize them.
It comes very organically. The thing is, I have written my words down if I have to repeat something that’s got a very difficult keyboard line that follows the voice and there’s no timing. I’ve had to write out the words for the person that’s playing the keyboard and mark where the chord changes are under the phrases so that it has the same organic. But I’ll be really honest with you, I almost can’t sing them. I can’t say them. I can’t do it because I’m reading and my work doesn’t come from reading. It’s a completely different dynamic. In fact with “Anabasis,” because there’s a gap and there’s a really strange timing in that piece. I had to write out the phrases so I could give it to the musician so that they would understand what was happening at that point with my voice. As soon as I wrote it down, I couldn’t sing it. I really struggled with that. It created a drama in my connection to the music and I had to refine my connection after corrupting it by reading those.
So after you finalize a recording and move on to live performances, would you say that your vocals for a particular song are never exactly the same again and they’re always evolving?
They’re always slightly different but the vernacular is very similar. That’s the thing that always surprises me about it, is that particular vernacular is unique to that piece of music. There are some colors that cross over but mostly it comes innately.
BLURT: I’ve heard a few bands cover Dead Can Dance songs and it’s always interesting to see other female vocalists tackle your work. Some of them are quite good, not exactly the same, but executed quite nicely. Have you come across any vocalist that covered your work successfully?
LISA GERRARD: I have heard various performances. Sometimes I’ve gone on YouTube and had a look at some versions of my own abstract pieces. I’m curious to see how people pull those off. I was really pleasantly surprised. Because they didn’t try to copy my words, they made them their own. And I loved that. If they were just to copy my words, then it would take the authenticity away. I found it really interesting and inspiring because it shows you that I’m not slightly autistic and I’m just doing this thing. It shows you that it’s a matter of tuning into a certain frequency.
Because your music is influenced by so many cultures, do you tend to travel a lot and engulf yourself in various foreign environments for inspiration before you write or go into the studio?
With Dead Can Dance, we’ve probably been touring now for about 25 years and we’ve been to lots and lots of different places, but ultimately most of our influences came from our childhood. We grew up in Greek, Turkish, and Italian areas. And I grew up in an Irish home, so did Brendan. I think you can very clearly see the mosaic of things that inspired us as children that kept us hungry on the path of music at a very early age. There’s also education and exploration. If you’re really passionate about something, you’ll want to learn to play various pieces of music from around the world. It enables you to understand how they’re constructed and it also it takes you out of the box of simply making Western four form music.
Brendan dabbles more into the Western influenced stuff and sings in English. Do you ever co-write his lyrics?
I never touch his lyrics, they’re very personal to him. He never touches mine. We’re very reverential towards that side of the work. We do influence each other when it comes to writing music. We definitely create the musical side of the voices very differently, but that’s kept very personal. Although, I did write a piece for him to sing. It was called “Hymn for the Fallen” and I ended up singing it myself on the last tour. I did want him to sing that but he said, “No, it sounds really great when you do it, you should do it.”
You’ve collaborated with Hans Zimmer on the score for Gladiator. Have you ever thought about doing an original score with Brendan as Dead Can Dance? I think that would be amazing.
Of course I have, and if Brendan was to write a film score it would be really beautiful, but he is not of the temperament that he could do a film score he feels. He can’t just go and change a piece of music so that it fits a picture. He wouldn’t do it. He’s very consistent when it comes to it. With him its: This is the song form, this is how it is, and nothing can be changed. The only reason we’ve been able to do an edit one of our pieces is because we were able to take out some parts of it without changing the words. When you’re doing film, you have to be obedient; you’re working as a team. You can’t take control of the music in the project. We did a movie together, El Nino De la Luna, years ago and it ended up almost coming to blows. That was really frightening. He didn’t want to conform to what the director wanted, when in fact you have to. It’s not your movie. [Laughs]
You hear a song like Return of the She-King and it’s so epic. Something like that should be in a film.
It’ll probably end up in a movie, but it’s such a different climate when you’re in a room of full of people and you have to write something for them. You have to tune in to what they want. You have to redefine the fabric of yourself based on the inspiration of what you’re looking at and on the energy from the people you’re working with; it’s all part of it. Brendan doesn’t want to explore that area. He’s not interested.
Well, maybe one day. Maybe he’ll reconsider.
I think he will. I remember talking to Mark Magidson about that. He wrote a little piece for Baraka at the end titles. He wrote that for the picture but he’s been working with Mark for years. It’s like, you write him a piece of music and you give it to him. I just finished working with him on Samsara. And we wrote the music to the picture. But he’s different to work with because you’re writing whole pieces of music. When you’re doing cinema, the picture’s constantly evolving and changing. And you have to constantly redefine the music so that it’s getting nearer and nearer to unlocking the subtext. It’s a completely different experience and that would unnerve Brendan.
Speaking of an unnerved Brendan, I want to talk about the tour a little bit. He spoke to the audience when they got too noisy, in a polite way, of course. He even told us a story about walking offstage during the last tour because people were yelling and requesting things like “Free Bird.” [Laughs]. Do you get distracted by noise from the audience? A lot of your music is so serene and there are near silent moments, and that’s usually when a fan takes the opportunity to scream that they love you.
I don’t notice it at all. I’m so tuned in to what I’m doing. I have to really, really focus very deeply for me to be able to do the work that I do. It’s an internal experience. For Brendan, it’s much more external. He’s actually telling a story and so for him the bridge of communication is already open.
One of my favorite moments at the Los Angeles show was at the very end of “Rise of the Moon.” When you were finished, there was this moment of complete silence. You could hear a pin drop. And then you smiled and said to us, “You’re absolutely fabulous.”
I thought it was pretty amazing for you to say that. It caught us off guard and the audience erupted in cheer. It was almost as if you said that because even you noticed the dead silence and that you had captivated us.
How lovely, I know, what an audience. What a fantastic audience. That piece is so exposed. I wouldn’t have noticed the silence while I was singing, but when I stopped, I was moved by it.
Is there a reason why there was no chamber orchestra on this tour?
We weren’t really sure how things would go, you know? We had to sort of see if our audience was still out there. Maybe next time we’ll have a budget that will enable us to bring a lot more live musicians, because we’d really like to. It’s lots of fun having live musicians onstage. We’ve already got great musicians; the people we’re working with are phenomenal.
Well, you sounded amazing and you look stunning by the way. Can you tell me about your wardrobe? You walked out and it was like elegant superhero meets Greek goddess.
[Laughs] That’s so lovely, thank you. It’s really tricky to pick the clothing to wear onstage for Dead Can Dance, because you have to cover so many genres of music and styles of singing, that in a way, it has to be timeless but still poetic. Women speak volumes with their clothes. With something like this music, the dresses almost have to be able to lend themselves to each individual piece uniquely. That’s why my dress was designed so that it covered anything from Byzantine, through to Greek, through to the Mediterranean, through to classical in a kind of suggestive and poetically quiet manner. As opposed to, wearing a sort of ‘60s cocktail dress [Laughs]. It’s really tricky getting those right.
Was it a daunting task to pick your setlist for this tour?
It came pretty quickly, really. We were a bit disappointed we didn’t get some things in there. We were sorry we didn’t put something from the really early catalog, which we would’ve liked to play something from the very first album. And we thought about that, but we didn’t get to it. By the time we got all those other pieces ready to perform, we ran out of time to go further.
You and Brendan seem like musical soul mates. Even after 16 years without making new material, you finally came back and did another album. How long will fans have to wait until the next album?
I think what we’ll probably do because this concert tour is about 7 months overall, we’ll develop pieces while we’re away. Otherwise, we can’t do the same pieces for 7 months, we’ll go insane. I think out of this experience of us working together now, we’ll grow new pieces while we’re actually traveling. So they’ll probably come out not too long after the tour is finished. Maybe 3 or 4 months after. That’s basically what we’re hoping will happen, but you can never tell—Especially with Brendan and I [Laughs].
Below, some moments…