Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard on Watching the World Burn

Music Features Lisa Gerrard
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Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard on Watching the World <i>Burn</i>

At this point in her four-decade career, rafter-rattling Australian diva Lisa Gerrard has no idea what diverse new musical projects will waft her way each year. So she basically just goes where the inspirational winds take her. And the past couple of years alone have easily been one of her most productive periods yet, as she found work on such diverse, often demanding projects as: Dionysus, the ninth studio album from Dead Can Dance, her sonorous duo with singer/multi-instrumentalist Brendan Perry; Melodies of My Youth, her collaboration with Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, sung in his native tongue; a team-up, live and recorded, with the Genesis Orchestra on Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (also in Polish); and—with France-based composer and DCD keyboardist Jules Maxwell—BooCheeMish, the latest offering from the exotic Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, or The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices. Additionally, Gerrard released Hiraeth with percussionist Petar Dundakov, which was nominated for a Best New Age Album Grammy in 2019, while she simultaneously juggled several film scores and/or soundtrack requests.

At 60, and with four solo sets behind her, Gerrard’s whirlwind of a canny keen still ascends from sepulchral to seraphic in a show-stopping heartbeat (as anyone fortunate to have beheld a meticulously staged DCD concert over the years can attest), and is such a force of nature that Maxwell couldn’t resist compiling, then completely reworking seven tracks from their Les Mystere sessions that went unused into the panoramic new Burn collection, with production hammered out in England by James Chapman, aka indie artist/conceptualist Maps. His instrumentation is exotic and textured, conjuring up visions of desert oases (“Noyalayin (Burn)”), storm-tossed oceans (“Heleali (The Sea Will Rise)”), Wagnerian operas (“Orion (The Weary Huntsman)”) and even layered folk simplicity (“Keson (Until My Strength Returns)”). The singer is more than overjoyed that her chum rescued these flickering clips from the cutting room floor. “Because honestly, there’s so much work that you do in your life that just dissolves, lost inside your computer or your hard drive, and it’s gone, gone forever, after you put all this emotion and passion into it,” she laments.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Gerrard’s wise, cosmopolitan—but entirely affable—demeanor is her down-to-Earth humility, in line with Australia’s folkloric Tall Poppy Syndrome, wherein any flower that grows too glamorously high above the others is quickly scythed down to size. To tell the truth, she says, she’s still unsure why she keeps getting all these amazing assignments, even though fans would probably pay top dollar just to hear her sing the phonebook, from Anthony A. Aardvark to Zelda Z. Zygote. “I mean, when it comes to my voice, I’m not a contralto, I’m not a baritone, I don’t know what I am,” she puzzles. “So I don’t really have a proper place in the grand scheme of things. So I just find my own thing in each project, and it doesn’t really matter—it’s okay, and it all works out.”

Paste: You were living in the famous Snowy Mountains, soon to be known as just The Mountains once climate change really revs up.

Lisa Gerrard: I’m no longer there, though. I’m west of there, in the foothills of the Great Divide. We came down here, where we do still get a little bit of snow. But the weather’s gone crazy—I mean, we didn’t even technically have a summer this year, which was actually nice, because normally it’s just burning all the time. But it was so lovely this year because we had rain and cold.

Paste: Your new record with Jules Maxwell is ominously titled Burn, and the closeup elephant photo on the cover shows the animal on its side, looking distressed. Is that an eerie nod to climate change?

Gerrard: Well, Jules picked the cover—I didn’t pick it. So there might be some hidden meaning, but I don’t think so. So I don’t think it’s spooky at all. I just think it’s really beautiful. When I did these songs with him, I really felt that it was important for him to be allowed to pick the artistic content, because he really is the motivating force behind this. And I thought the pieces that I’d written with him would probably just disappear. And that happens sometimes. You write so much music, and it just disappears, you know? But I didn’t take on the street signs of the album—Jules did that. He’s got all the street signs and road maps, and my contribution was the singing.

Paste: But it all started when Jules got commissioned to compose for the women in Les Mystere des Voix Bulgares—or The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices—for that choir’s BooCheeMish album in 2018? Which you ended up collaborating on, then touring behind in 2019?

Gerrard: And when Jules talked to them, I was quite amazed that he turned to me for something. But I realized when singing with the Bulgarians, and there were just three of them, that they don’t sing in bel canto scales—they sing in Occidental scales, with quarter tones and drones and sixths and eighths and ninths, and then they doubled it. They are just totally different. And I realized that the only way that I could find the key to what they were doing was to bend the voice—bend it to find the sweet spot. Because the problem was, singing in quarter tones just wasn’t working. But you don’t need to hear about all that because it’s not conducive to the album. But when we finished with all my singing, I thought we’d cut some really great stuff. And I don’t want to sound rude or arrogant, but I knew that it was fantastic work. And the reason that Jules and I work together is because we wrote a piece of music every night in Dead Can Dance one tour, and at the end of each concert, we did a piece called “Rising of the Moon,” and we grew the piece together over a period of three months. And we learned to trust each other out of that, and something really remarkable grew between us. So when he came here, I knew I could trust him, because we’d stood in front of thousands of people, completely naked, metaphorically, in concert, so that we could create this piece of music together every night. So when he came here and we did the [Bulgarian] pieces in the studio here, we did something like 15 or 16 pieces while he was here. And then he left with only three of them for the Bulgarians, and the rest were just sitting. But then, God bless Jules, he went off and turned them around and said, “I’m not going to just let these go out the window—I’m gonna use them, and I’m gonna make sure that people hear them!” And consequently, it’s been quite serendipitous, because there’s such a lovely positive energy inside that music, so I’m glad that he took that work and did something remarkable with it.

Paste: The track “Burn” itself feels almost Lion King-ish in scope.

Gerrard: Yeah? Oh, how interesting. Yes, it’s definitely got that epic feeling about it. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s Lion King, since Lion King has all the huge African drums. And I do love that score, by the way. But it does have that same epic feel, and the same positive notes to it.

Paste: But Australia has certainly felt the burn, as it were, with all of the devastating brushfires that now regularly sweep across the land.

Gerrard: Yeah. And everybody lives in these tiny, privileged pockets, but then the rest of Australia is so divorced from privileges. Where I live, we’ve got koalas and kangaroos and it’s really beautiful, and then there’s a bit of water. But then you’ve got to remember that 95% of Australia is just desert. It really is just a desert. And you know something? I remember sitting in a train station in Russia, or it might have been Poland, and there was this huge piece of concrete, and in the center of it was this tiny blade of grass coming up, making its way up through a meter of concrete. So I wouldn’t worry too much about nature. Nature’s gonna come back, nature’s gonna recover. But the human race is gonna destroy itself—there’s no question about it, because we are so stupid. We’re just stupid. And we’re never gonna get any more intelligent, because all we care about is our vanity and money. There’s really nothing else—we just don’t care about anything else. So I don’t know what we’re doing here, or how we got here, but I know that in some ways, there is something very pure and beautiful about the human being. But I also believe that there is something very ugly and disrespectful about the human being, as well. So we’re in this kind of dualistic conflict all the time.

Paste: In Chernobyl, 35 years after their nuclear disaster, plants have literally cracked the abandoned buildings apart as nature reclaims the land.

Gerrard: Of course, because people aren’t still living there. So that’s where the animals are doing fine, and they’re better off because there are no humans around. You know, the best thing about Covid was that the animals got to have their own world to live in for a while. I mean, yes, Covid has been bad for people’s lives, and it’s been terrible with everyone getting sick and losing money and jobs. But the animals have been fantastic. I mean, there were wild goats running all over London, and I thought it was wonderful. It was such a nice little pocket for the animals, you know? To be able to have some free time, instead of just getting butchered and slaughtered and pushed into corners. It’s just sickening, the way that people treat animals.

Paste: As I recall, didn’t you have an aggressive wombat living under your house that would race out and push little children down?

Gerrard: Yeah! We had a wombat and she had a baby, and she got very grumpy because she was protecting her child. And the thing that was amazing about her was that she would chase us. If someone came from the studio to the house, she would literally chase us. And when wombats bite you, they don’t bite you with their teeth moving up and down—they slide their teeth from side to side. They bite sliding, back and forth. But she was very cute—she was a darling thing, and she was just protecting her child, you know?

Paste: What animals do you have around the place now?

Gerrard: Do you know, we have a lot of birds. Lots of guinea fowl, wallabies. We don’t have any koalas because we don’t have any of their trees. But we have a remarkable amount of frogs here, which is why the property is so important to me, because I’m not going to do anything to threaten the frogs, since frogs are disappearing. So we have a fantastic community of frogs here, many different varieties. And when you go down to the lake, you understand the beginnings of Aboriginal or Australian music, because you would never hear that in, say, Nairobi. If you go to Nairobi, you can hear the beginnings of polyphonic African music [...] So it’s interesting, because if you listen to an Aboriginal tone, it’s almost an exact emulation of frogs, or the swamp song. It’s truly the songs of the swamp, and it’s extraordinary—it really draws you in. In Africa, the frogs sound completely different, and they’re all doing polyrhythms. But in Australia, they do drones, which unlocks the keys of Aboriginal music, and frogs have been here for millions of years. So it’s arrogant for us to not take some understanding from these natural things. So sometimes it’s just the simple things. All of the things that we need to know are contained in the simplest things, you know?

Paste: The last time I spoke to Brendan Perry, a little over a year ago, he was really going down the aesthetic rabbit hole with Greek music and instrumentation (he’s just released a new solo album, Songs of Disenchantment — Music From the Greek Underground). And you grew up hearing the same music in your mostly Greek neighborhood in Melbourne, right?

Gerrard: Yeah, but look—Brendan has always had an affection for Greek music. It has nothing to do with me—he loves those rhythms, loves those choruses. And it’s the music’s story, you know? So he’s always loved the music of the Mediterranean, and he loves Mediterranean instruments. Now, I grew up in a Greek area, and I was heavily influenced by Middle Eastern music, but that didn’t influence Brendan, although a lot of people think it did. The thing that happened between Brendan and I is that we both had our separate sounds, and when we came together, we had some problems because our separate sounds didn’t always match. But the way that they complemented each other was exquisite, and we were both comfortable with that. But there were a lot of things that we couldn’t bring together, because we didn’t see eye to eye. And that’s the lovely thing about collaboration. And it’s the same thing with Jules—when Jules came here, we had a bit of a fight. I won’t go into details, but I didn’t want to do the things that he wanted me to do, and I said, “Listen, this is what I’m doing.” And it can be like that—you can have a little bit of conflict sometimes. But you have to stand up and be strong enough at the end of the conflict to say “This is what I’m doing, so what are you doing? Let’s get together and work on that!”

Paste: And you’ve actually been singing a lot in Polish of late, Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs with the Genesis Orchestra, and on film composer Zbigniew Preisner’s 2019 album Melodies of My Youth?

Gerrard: Well, I did the Polish thing, and I actually worked for months and months on the Polish language. And I did the Sorrowful Songs thing, and I asked Preisner, “Listen, what do you think of my Polish?” And do you know what he said to me? “I understand nothing.” And he’s Polish, he’s a Polish composer. But he understood nothing of what I was doing. And I’d worked so hard on the language! But I said, “Well, thank you for telling me the truth!” But with the Gorecki thing, I had to go up, down, up down, through difficult keys just to get through it. But I got through it, and I think it’s really beautiful. But what I love about Gorecki is the circles, these beautiful sonic circles that keep going around and around. And some are small, some are large, so it’s like throwing stones into a pool of water, and the circles keep getting wider and wider. It’s beautiful and I just love it.

Paste: And you have even more film soundtrack work coming, like Man of God.

Gerrard: Yes, and I’m also doing a movie called Bonded, which is about child trafficking in America. It’s a pretty hard movie. But on Man of God, I didn’t write the music—I just sing. But on Bonded, I composed the music, so it’s a different feeling altogether. Because sometimes I write the music, and sometimes people just say, “Do you wanna come in and sing on a song? We’ll send you the lyrics.” And if I feel it, I’ll do it. And then someone else will say, “Do you want to write for this movie?” And if I feel like it, then I will write the music and sing or do whatever. So the only thing that’s come between me and all this is Covid, because you can’t travel. And I don’t want to complain, because I know a lot of people have lost loved ones, and I’m very sad about that. But sadder still is not being allowed to spend time with them when they’re dying. That is the most horrific thing, because all they have to do is give [relatives] the suits that the frontline workers are wearing and let them sit in the room with them. So what is going on there? I don’t get it. I mean, if somebody said to me that my mother was dying in the hospital but I couldn’t go visit her? I would go abduct her in the middle of the night and take her. That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in the history of mankind—that deliberate, contrived separation, that breaking of the chain of life between two people. It’s a disgrace, and it is so weird.

Paste: But how amazing will it be to finally return to America on tour with Dead Can Dance this October? And is there a new album in the works?

Gerrard: Well, we were talking about it for awhile. But now we’ve booked the dates, so you can go online and see. And new material? We’ll see. Maybe Brendan’s just going to do another one, and I’ll do a bit of singing on it, you know? Because I don’t think Brendan and I have done a proper album together since before Anastasis [in 2012]. And for Anastasis, he had already written all the music, so I just went in and did some singing. And okay, I created my own singing. But that’s not an album together. We should really be writing together, you know? And I don’t know how to do that with him right now. The only reason that the other albums happened is because we were pretty much living together in the same house—I wrote my own stuff and I sang, and he listened to it and said, “I like that” and he added to it, and that was how Dead Can Dance worked. But if you’re not together, you can’t say, “Okay, let’s spend the entire next month writing an album.” It’s just not going to work like that, you know?

Paste: Have you ever thought of doing a children’s album?

Gerrard: Well, I always think that all of my music is for children. Not to be arrogant or anything. Because I’ve always found it hard to determine what is for children and what is for adults, you know? But the greatest thing about music, I think, is that it brings out the child in everyone.

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