Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard, the interview: 'It hurts, there is pain, there are blessings'

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From the early ‘80s to the late ‘90s, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry built their own niche in the independent music world as Dead Can Dance, releasing a series of albums on the 4AD label that turned them into one of the most celebrated cult acts of their time.

Their albums built unexpected bridges between seemingly incompatible worlds – a time-tripping pastiche of neo-classical, folk and world music with hints of Goth, Gregorian chant and ambient. The couple broke up after the “Spiritchaser” album in 1996, reunited for a tour in 2005, then drifted apart again. Now, they’re back with their first studio album in 16 years, “Anastasis” (Pias), and a rare tour that brings them to the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on Tuesday.

In a recent interview on the duo’s first day of tour rehearsal, Gerrard discussed the couple’s difficult path back to a musical reunion:

Q: Did you think at points over the last 16 years that you’d never work with Brendan again?

A: You never really know even what’s going to happen tomorrow. We never decided we’d never work together again. The way Brendan and I are used to working together, we discover books, painters, philosophy and art together. Our relationship was almost like being at university. When we tried to get together in 2005 after the concert tour, we realized we hadn’t spent that time together. You don’t just dial that work up, it comes from reading, exploring different cultural references. It’s an unlocking process and we didn’t have that. It’s not, “Let’s get together and write music,” it’s more of a hunter and collector thing.

Q: How did you reconnect for this album?

A: It was during the brush fires a few years ago in Australia (where Gerrard lives), and Brendan contacted me (from his home in Ireland). Our property was on fire and he called to check up on me: “Are you OK?” I was fine, but the conversation was how we started to open up the box. By accident we started the process of getting us where we needed to be to do this work.

Q: So what was the research like for “Anastasis”?

A: Part of it was about returning to the Mediterranean. Brendan and I were both brought up in Greek-Turkish areas. We connected with art objects from Greece, musical tunings and timings, we revisited these pieces of our past. Brendan wrote words that are very current to where we are. If you look at storytellers and poets, it’s about a taking stock and a gathering up of wherever you are. Brendan’s not writing love songs, they are songs about where we are, what we experienced, how we reach our potential. It’s a very personal conversation driven by the chariot of music. I work in response to the abstract. On my own, I can be practical with my words. With him, I stay abstract, I try to be a pathway to heart and soul. He spells things out very literally. I paint with a more emotional brush. … Ultimately the message is to cathartically open up the possibilities for other human beings to have a space where they can look inside and discover who they really are.

Q: Why do you still need Dead Can Dance to do that?

A: I suppose it has to do with your first love, and being allowed to come back to it. I can go off and do things I’ve written alone. But there is a connection between the two of us. It’s not always a good connection sometimes. But we’ve got something weird between us, there is something between Brendan and I when we work together that is really strong, something I’ve never found with anyone else. It hurts. There is pain, there are blessings, there are moments of great beauty. A friend of mine said to me, “If you feel weird or stripped when you work with someone, it’s not from God.” And sometimes I feel this is not from God (laughs). But if we can get this right, if Brendan and I can get this thing right, we have overcome one of the great lessons in our life. If we walk away from each other in vanity and arrogance, and haven’t picked up the thread of being humble and spreading love, we’ve failed. When you’re disciplined with the work, you become invisible.

Q: Your music seems to have always stood apart from everything else out there. Is that a conscious choice?

A: It’s very weird to be in this for almost 30 years. There is this very mainstream area of music, defined by mediocrity if you like, but we’ve always tried to keep things very pure. I’ll give you an example that will clear it up very quickly. I went to a gallery in New York a few years ago. My brother had just passed away, and I saw two pieces of art, an installation piece that drew you in and the other a Joan Miro painting of strings and wheels. I was so raw from the feeling of losing my brother that I connected instantly with the strings and wheels. It’s exactly what you do when you write music, you’re a music machine, it’s wheels and strings and when it connects, it’s motivated in a mechanical, beautiful way. And this other installation, this pipe, this is how we go through the world. That art spoke so clearly and sincerely in my present state of mind, that’s the value of it. If you are spoiled or too well off in your life, you have no need for it. But if your heart is hurt or lonely, it’s someone communicating to you who is not your friend, or neighbor, or mother, and they peel back the membrane of superficiality or mediocrity so that you can connect with it, and you can become a member of the human race. It says, “You have a right to be here.” You are not being patronized. There is a feeling that you can connect with something. I think that’s what God wants us to do. It isn’t necessarily about how we speak, or whether we look glamorous. There’s this essence that is sincere. When an artist makes something with sincerity, and is willing to make this journey while facing up to the horrible reality of their limitations and still manages to do this work, that becomes a safe place for others to come to and build from there.

Q: That sounds all consuming. Is it worth it?

A: You have to expose yourself to the work. I know it’s really frightening, it’s horrible and really, really scary. At the same time, it’s where all of your love is. You visit that and make your best effort to nourish and make it healthy and reach its potential. Your husband is music.

greg@gregkot.com

Dead Can Dance: 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, $19 to $100; jamusa.com.

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