Phoebe Legere is a transmedia artist. From resident composer at the Wooster Group while still a teenager, to opening for David Bowie on his national tour, to a nomination for a Pulitzer for her work with Morgan Powell and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, her existence infinitely incarnates artistic and human experience. I caught up with her just before the Mayan calendar ended.
Vienna Boa (Rail): You’ve recently returned from a phenomenal success in Berlin. Please describe your experience there and your personal inspirations for creating this show. Was it at all different from what you would present in New York or elsewhere?
Phoebe Legere: I felt like Josephine Baker. I was the toast of the town! I was featured in the New York Times of Berlin, Der Tagesspiegel, and got a Critic’s Pick. I was interviewed in all the culture magazines. I sold out every show and received many standing ovations. People were fighting to buy my paintings. Thousands and thousands of people watched my videos and downloaded my music. What did I do? I wore my kinetic costumes, hand painted my own sets. 90 percent of my patter was in German, which I learned for the occasion, and I translated several songs into German—German is a very nice language for cabaret—it has so much authority! I played many instruments, sang songs, improvised, painted life-sized nudes and genitalia on stage, danced around, read poetry, made self-effacing jokes, improvised with the computer. At one point I was playing bebop with a dubstep beat. And I suddenly started playing Harlem Stride with the dubstep at about 170 beats per minute. The audience was on their feet cheering—I am very physical on stage because my primary relationship is with music and art. I am married to the piano.
Rail: Is cabaret still a valid outlet for politically committed art in N.Y.C.?
Legere: How can we have a political cabaret movement in New York? Cabaret is a hand-made music made by real musicians. The New York “in” crowd prefers electronic dance music. There’s a New York sound; a funk and ferocity that is very different from what you hear anywhere else. When jazz musicians in Europe hear New York musicians their jaws drop. We got rhythm and higher intervals. We got funk. We got realness. I came up through the jam sessions and the loft scene. I am a New York improviser. I am an advocate for our local music scene. My show Roulette TV (roulette.org) features the extreme frontier of local art and music. I founded the New York Underground Museum—to preserve, present, and curate the works of the New York underground, and to support artists and musicians who are not backed by major institutions.
Rail: Is there a difference in the way you experience the creative act of drawing/painting and writing/performing/playing music?
Legere: Yes. My gut tells me what it wants to do and I listen. I work across disciplines daily. I start from a concept and then explore it using different parts of my body. It’s like when people work out and work the legs one day and the core the next. I use my inner hearing in the morning, and my inner seeing in the afternoon. Songwriting combines inner hearing with inner seeing. Art and music are processed in two different areas of the brain. There’s about an inch between them. But if you stimulate both areas of the brain simultaneously the brain builds new neural pathways between the two locations. Transmedia makes you smarter!
Rail: Which modality do you relate to more personally and when is your next New York gig?
Legere: My parents were visual artists, my grandparents were musicians. I speak both languages fluently. It’s all the same to me. My confidence is absolute in visual matters. I instantly know what is great and what sucks. I have no patience for shit. At the same time, I love to play the piano. Preferably a Steinway. It is better than sex. Better than talking. Better than shopping. Better than beer.
My next gig in New York City is May 4 at 8 PM. One set at the new Cutting Room. My paintings will be on display. The new paintings are interactive. They play music when you touch them.
Rail: You were kicked off Epic records for writing your song, “Marilyn Monroe” because its content involved a girl kissing another girl.
Legere: I was signed to Epic Records at seventeen and then got bounced off the label because I wrote a song about kissing a girl. And I wouldn’t back down. O.M.G. we were harassed for being gay every time we turned around! Epic expected me to disappear quietly into obscurity, but instead I started to get famous without any independent radio promotion, without a manager, without payola, without corporate money, without cocaine, and without a big 808 drumbeat. It was just happening by itself. As you can imagine I had to be suppressed.
Lagere: Well, as I wrote in my movie, the Marquis de Slime, (1995): “What would happen if everyone made their own clothes, sang their own songs, and rejoiced in their own magnificent nudity?” I wrote the Marquis De Slime after reading Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing of Consent.
Rail: Did it surprise you when a corporate mega hit was manufactured a few years ago about a girl kissing another girl?
Legere: Not at all. Want to be a visionary? Want to be an artist? Buy the ticket, take the ride. You will get ripped off, you will not be recognized, you will take a meteoric rollercoaster ride to obscurity, they will pee on you in your best years. You will be tested.
Rail: What makes a corporate music hit today?
Legere: Money. Repetition. Machine-made perfection. Subliminal messages. Propaganda. The Engineering of mass consent. And MOST important: Indie promoters working their black magic at commercial radio. A hit is produced by a think tank of producers and accountants. And where does this money come from—the seventy million dollars plus that it costs to make somebody into an international star? Artist-puppets are fronts. For what? Well. Where do you get that kind of money boys and girls? You sure don’t get it selling records anymore. So where does it come from? Hmmm. I wonder. The point is, at some point in the ’20s we were turned from a nation of people who made music together as families, as groups—into a nation of passive consumers of music. Before, each family, like the Legere’s, made their own music. This created a natural harmony within the family, blending the generations and relieving tensions. Now only a handful of people in America are allowed to sing and write songs and this is very, very, very sad for the human animal. People don’t even know what they are missing.
Rail: Has media surveillance via Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc. changed or influenced your approach to creating art?
Legere: Twitter is the medium of a disintegrating world. Follow me: www.twitter.com/legere. The Internet has given me a chance, for the first time, to get my music and ideas heard, and my art seen. In my formative years there was a bottleneck that very effectively choked off ALL indie artists. You just couldn’t get your music distributed into the store, or on the radio, or on MTV unless you were on a major label. I now have 11 CDs on iTunes and four at Roulette.org. The downside is that it’s so easy for celebrities to rip off the downtown underground with the click of a finger. The corporate copycats and their teams of killer stylists rip off our styles within hours! They have budgets of hundreds of thousands of dollars and sweatshops full of people sewing round the clock—I’m not a clothes horse. I get so bored shopping. I hate that mass produced clothing. I create my costumes from nothing. I make one costume and wear it until it falls apart. The reason I wear special costumes is that performance is ritual, and ritual requires that you wear something extraordinary to signal to the audience that they are in the Zone of Transformation. The major record company stylists and ghostwriters—who are the fuel behind Major Fakeness—are trying to placate a bottomless, insatiable corporate maw.
Rail: Your new album East Village/East Berlin is available on iTunes. What parallels do you see between the two places and why did you create a record about this theme?
Legere: “East Village/East Berlin” is the title song of my new album. It’s cabaret-hip hop. I have a Marlene Dietrich song going all through it. I’m playing the old style song over a hip hop beat and singing in German like Marlene and then, woven in, as a rap, I do an overview of the East Village art scene in the late ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. I end up talking about how I love these new kids I’m seeing: the new generation. Their grandparents were hippies. “It” always skips a generation. The new ones are so beautiful. They believe in alternative medicine and veganism and being nice. They go to Burning Man. They smile and hug you.
Rail: What do you have to say to the emerging artists?
Legere: I advise young artists not to think about the crisis of American culture. Let the heads of foundations stew about that. You have better things to do. You have to work on technique and your next idea. Just keep doing strong work and try to stay healthy. What makes us artists is what makes our world: human sense perception. As artists our real medium and our real reality is the Imagination. Don’t watch TV everyday. Don’t listen to the radio too much. Keep your mind a “hollow bone” as the Shamans say. The true art is not in museums and galleries. True art is not in time and it’s not in space. Art lies within each and every one of you. Please reject trends. Do the opposite of whatever is hip.
What has been proven over the years is that the people who are really famous are not the people that matter ultimately. I don’t believe in time. I don’t believe in death. I think what we’re going to find is that the blue chip artist, creating value for the one percent in blue chip galleries will not be the people who are remembered and celebrated by the art and music lovers of tomorrow. Wars don’t matter, and ultimately, governments don’t matter. The only thing that lasts is art, and so the artist has a duty to reject all the mechanistic materialism of today’s commercial music and commercial art. The artist has a duty to create from her ovaries. Remember young artist! You are the prime mover. You are at the absolute center of your world hallucination!
VIENNA BOA is a New York based operatic singer and performer.