Interview: Laurie Anderson, musician

LAURIE Anderson was at home in New York for a few hours last month - a rare occurrence.

The musician and multimedia artist had returned from Poland, where she had performed improvised music with the saxophonist and composer John Zorn and the bassist Bill Laswell. Soon she would be off to Iceland for a solo recital, and then to Australia, where she was a curator of the Vivid Live arts festival in Sydney with her husband, Lou Reed. In addition to retrospective and work-in-progress performances, she would introduce a video installation and give a high-frequency outdoor concert composed primarily for an audience of dogs. (It was apparently a hit.)

Consequently her TriBeCa loft - her base of operations since 1975 - was a hive of activity, including a conference about a coming museum installation in Brazil and various promotional tasks surrounding the release of Homeland, her first album of new material in nearly ten years. Thirty-odd years into a career that began on the fringes of the downtown avant-garde scene, Anderson, 63, is more prolific than ever and, together with Reed, has ascended to New York art world royalty. The two were even queen and king of this year's Mermaid Parade at Coney Island.

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When we meet, Anderson - dressed in a dark plaid shirt and loose, cement-coloured trousers - is still thinking about Poland. Before her show there she visited Majdanek, a former Nazi concentration camp, with Zorn. "It was a devastating trip," she says in her home studio, which overlooks the ruins of a Hudson River pier. "Zorn and I spent two hours crying after walking through this thing, and just couldn't stop crying."

It's an understandable response, yet slightly surprising to hear coming from Anderson, whose work often considers the horrors and follies of humanity from a cool, more detached perspective. Her signature song, the left-field 1981 new-wave hit O Superman, conflated maternal succour with the psychology of the modern corporate state using electronically processed verse. "So hold me, Mom, in your long arms," Anderson sang, "Your petrochemical arms/Your military arms."

Homeland similarly twists together ideas of the personal and political, beginning with the title, a word that has acquired ominous overtones in the shadow of 11 September, 2001.

"It's a very cold, bureaucratic word," Anderson says. "No-one I know would say 'my homeland'." She notes its recent pairing with the word "security", which she contends "is not about security, really, but more about control. The phrase doesn't make anyone feel particularly safe, does it?"

Sociology of language notwithstanding, Homeland may be the most frankly emotional record Anderson has ever made. The album is dedicated to her parents, and the mood veers between degrees of darkness.

The lead track, Transitory Life, begins with a yarn spinner's sly indictment - "It's a good time for bankers, and winners, and sailors" - then segues into a more intimate voice, describing the funeral of a grandmother who "lies there in her shiny black coffin, looks just like a piano". The music is shaped by a stark, mournful viola line played by Eyvind Kang, and a pair of igils - horse-head fiddles - played by members of Chirgilchin, a Tuvan traditional group Anderson has performed with. The Lake and The Beginning Of Memory are slowly unfolding songs that each refer to the death of a father.

But the sense of loss on Homeland goes beyond family. Dark Time In The Revolution tries to square modern-day America with the nation Tom Paine was defining when he wrote Common Sense. "You thought there were things that had disappeared forever/Things from the Middle Ages/Beheadings and hangings and people in cages," Anderson intones over Joey Baron's inexorable tom-tom rolls. "And suddenly they're alright, welcome to the American night."

For the record's 11-minute centrepiece, Another Day In America, Anderson uses a vocal processor to assume a male persona, a trick she first used in 1978 as MC of a tribute to the writer William S Burroughs. She referred to the character as "the Voice of Authority" back then. Now he's aged and acquired a name - Fenway Bergamot - coined by Reed.

"He got melancholic and got a personality somehow," Anderson says. His semi-robotic voice is strangely emotive. As modern pop singers regularly alter their voice with Auto-Tune and other effects, Another Day In America suggests creative roads not taken.

In the song, Bergamot (who has his own Facebook page) ponders the future in a discursive monologue, adding a direct address to God. "Ah, America," he says through Anderson and her electronics. "We saw it, we tipped it over, and then we sold it." In a nice conceptual touch, the gender-bending vocalist Antony (Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons) adds ghostly vocals in the background.

If sadness and loss make up the primary tone of Homeland, there's also anger. Only An Expert features beats by the British electronic musician Kieran Hebdan (who also records as Four Tet) and eviscerating electric guitar by Reed. Speaking rapidly and with unusual specificity, Anderson riffs on climate change, the banking crisis, the war in Iraq and civil rights post-9/11.

"It came out of frustration from living in this Oprah Winfrey culture where everything is done for you and people are just infantilised," she says. "I mean, that show is based on the premise that there's something wrong with you. There's nothing wrong with you. You're just a human being. It's not easy being a human being."

While the recording has an organic feel, Homeland is a digital collage of live material - recorded during a lengthy tour of improvised storytelling - and home recordings.

When Anderson finally began assembling the album, she faced an overwhelming amount of data.

"I was staring at, like, a million sound files, trying to fit together pieces from different songs, different years," she said. "I thought I was going to lose my mind. I was going to give up, and I was kind of crying about it every day. Lou got a little sick of hearing this. So he finally said, 'Listen, I'm going to sit with you until you finish it.' "

And Reed did, sitting in the studio and helping her make ruthless, don't-look-back decisions. "I think this record is the fruition of everything from her prior records and experiences and thoughts; they all came together in this one," he said in a promotional interview for the record. "She's a mature artist. There's a lot of things she can show you."

As an experimental pop pioneer, Anderson is a model for young musicians, even if her themes can set her apart from art-rock's new school. "I think most young musicians are shying away from that kind of political, global perspective," Hegarty says. "Their songs are like little gardens of the personal. People aren't engaging in a wider dialogue about what we're doing, and what our relationship is to this massive system that we're part of. Laurie has always done that."

That may be one reason for Anderson's international appeal. Fergus Linehan, a producer of the Vivid Live festival, which Anderson and Reed organised at Sydney Opera House, says her international resonance is part of her appeal as a curator. "The purpose of the festival is to look at artists who have had a far-reaching influence," he says. "And in addition to their own work it was about what their fascinations were. Laurie is perfect. She wanders into so many different areas."

The Brooklyn singer Shara Worden, a fan and occasional collaborator of Anderson's who also performs as My Brightest Diamond, says she found the recent Sydney performance of Delusion tremendously moving. "I think it makes you ask yourself whether you really love people, and what is it that prevents you from loving them more fully," says Worden. "It's extremely honest in a way that I found very challenging. I went home and had one of those moments where you take a hard look at yourself and then thank the artist for making you take a hard look at yourself."

As Reed says of Anderson: "What she does is overwhelmingly beautiful. In a more enlightened age, they would build a statue to her."

Homeland is out now on Nonesuch

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday July 4, 2010..