Artist Laurie Anderson: ‘Nothing stays the same for more than a few seconds’

Artist Laurie Anderson: ‘Nothing stays the same for more than a few seconds’

I arrive at lunch five minutes late and Laurie Anderson is already seated at our table, the sunlight cascading over her slight, angular figure as she swipes through her phone.

“Nice to meet you,” she greets me warmly, slipping her phone in her pocket as I apologise. She’s wearing an orange blazer over a brown plaid shirt, hair cut short and slightly spiked.

Anderson is one of America’s pioneers of the avant-garde, a key figure in New York’s legendary Warhol-era arts scene, a creative genius across music, art and film. Today, she’s having lunch with me. The rest of the week she is: performing a show every night, preparing a Harvard lecture and then flying to Florida to play a concert with a group of rehabilitated chimpanzees (which she may or may not turn into a record of chimpanzee sounds).

“I was passing through the [Save the Chimps] foundation before the pandemic, and I heard the most amazing music I’ve ever heard, this amazing rhythm and vocals,” she later explains. “And it was these chimps, screaming and begging. And I was like, ‘Whoa.’ So we’re going to bring a bunch of instruments down, bring a sound recordist, an engineer . . .’”

She’s excited. “I told a friend last night and she was like, ‘Oh you just did cars, now you’re doing chimps.’” Because Anderson recently organised a “car symphony” in the Hamptons. But more on that later.

Speaking with Anderson is delightfully strange because her voice is one of her musical instruments, precise and unhurried, at times detached. It was her voice that took her into the mainstream, when she accidentally scored a pop music hit with the song “O Superman” in the 1980s, looping her voice with a vocoder.

Laurie Anderson photographed in 1982. She is standing the street, looking up at a strip of photographic negative
Anderson in the 1980s, when she ‘ran screaming’ from the art scene. ‘It started being more about money. I thought I was joining the art world, but I was really joining the art market’ © Redferns

In person she sounds like Apple’s Siri but more muffled, and with a Midwestern accent. But she speaks so quietly that I strain to hear her from across the table, and I’m anxious that it will later be a struggle to make out her words from my recording. I inch my phone closer to her.

Spending time with Anderson is similar to her art: mysterious, unstructured, sometimes hard to understand while it’s happening. It can be difficult even to explain who Laurie Anderson is. Promotional materials list her as a “multimedia artist”.

It’s easier to define her by what she’s done. Which is a lot. During her 74 years on earth, Anderson has: become the only ever official artist-in-residence at Nasa, made a song about the Iran hostage crisis that became a hit (“O Superman”), written several books, created a dozen albums and won a Grammy, consulted tech companies, received multiple “honorary doctorate” degrees, helped to create an Olympic opening ceremony and turned Moby-Dick into a techno-opera. The definition of art keeps expanding, but somehow Anderson remains deeply weird and uncategorisable, weaving across film, music, performance art, painting, artificial intelligence, poetry.

Anderson identifies as both a capitalist and a Buddhist. But mostly, she says, she’s a storyteller. So I ask her to tell me what the story of America is right now, a topic she has tackled for decades through her work. “Last night I was coming out of the Public Theater and people were driving drunk, really recklessly, coming up on the sidewalk,” she says. “On weekend nights there’s a lot of students and a certain level of civility has dissipated. I don’t want to do cheap psychology, but people are really traumatised.”

We’re on an idyllic leafy block of Greenwich Village. Anderson has spent the better part of five decades in this small stretch of Manhattan. She lives nearby, while her late husband, the rock star Lou Reed, lived a couple blocks north on West 11th Street. Her art studio is a few blocks west, where the island of Manhattan meets the Hudson River.

It must be nice to work there, I reason, in a stretch of quiet that real estate developers have recently tried to rebrand as “West Soho”. It’s a bit too far west for tourists to stumble into. “Oh, I wouldn’t say it’s quiet. The river is wild,” she replies, in the most Laurie Anderson way possible.

Having worked in the FT’s Manhattan office a few blocks away for six years, I’ve always been under the impression that I missed out on some bygone era of bohemian fun. Anderson’s Soho was that of Patti Smith, David Bowie, Andy Warhol (who she and her friends affectionately called “Cinderella”, she says). My Soho is $17 takeaway salads and the Apple Store. Lately the area has been defined by construction, as Disney and other corporations plant massive offices.

But Anderson dismisses the notion that this neighbourhood is any less cool. “This is a wonderful version of New York,” she says, likening it to the 1970s, when “everyone was just out on the street”.

“That’s where the action was. There was nothing to do inside except have a job. And nobody wanted a job. It was a generation of people who just thought working was for idiots.”

It’s easy to see the parallels to now, as protests over race, the dystopian threat of global warming and the trauma of the pandemic weigh heavily over New York. People are rethinking their careers. “It’s a culture built on feeling inadequate. So you always have to want something, and you want so much, and you do stuff that you’re a slave to. And then you go, ‘Did I really even want that?’” she says. “You go outside the city for 10 minutes and you see all these ‘help wanted’ signs. I think a lot of people are deciding not to want it.”

I order an iced matcha to wake up. It’s the smoothest matcha I’ve tasted, not a trace of the bitter grassy flavour found in corporate coffee shops. The server places the glass on the table and it glows so electric green it almost looks like an LED light. We marvel, and Anderson asks for one too.

It’s peak Saturday afternoon brunch hour, but this cavernous Japanese restaurant is nearly empty, light flooding through the two-storey windows as generic piano music plays. There are two menu options, and I’m vegetarian, so I order the vegan bento box, while Anderson asks for the bento box with miso black cod.

When I ask about her massive exhibition at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, which is the official reason she is doing this interview, Anderson is dismissive, almost embarrassed. “I said no initially. I don’t know what world I’m in,” she offers. “The Weather”, which is both a look back at 50 years of her work and a home for new pieces, is filled with oil paintings, graffiti, virtual reality, installations and video.

She named the show in dedication to her friend John Cage, the composer, who wrote a piece entitled “Lecture on the Weather” in 1975. “He wanted to make things less like objects and more like the weather. And during the pandemic, I became more and more aware that nothing stays the same for more than a few seconds,” she says. “And if you want it to stay the same, good luck. It won’t.”

Anderson was last year chosen for Harvard’s prestigious Norton Professorship in Poetry. Previous honorees have included Toni Morrison, TS Eliot and Robert Frost. She gave six lectures, framing each one around a concept. One class was devoted to the river, another to the forest, and when we met she was preparing to talk about “The City”.

On her 10-minute walk over here, she says, she saw more than 30 of the ad hoc outdoor dining constructions that now line every street in New York City, a visual marker of the pandemic.

“It’s so weird because, especially in Manhattan, in the past it was so buttoned-up. And suddenly we’re all outside, sitting in these really weird huts. They’re like houseboats, like we’re in Amsterdam or something,” she laughs as she scrolls through photos on her phone, pointing out the “cheesy living rooms with flower boxes”.

“And there are very few tourists, even now, so these are primarily New Yorkers. And you realise that the people who live here are weirdos! New Yorkers are total weirdos, and it’s wonderful to see that.”

To Anderson, everything is art. She finds playfulness in New York’s honking cars, the exhaust blowing out from air conditioners, the sounds of trucks speeding over sewer caps, and yes, the restaurant huts.

But she’s also feeling the heaviness of this late pandemic stage. Anderson lost three friends to coronavirus, including Hal Willner, the longtime music co-ordinator for Saturday Night Live. He called her on the phone one night and told her he had been infected but it was a “light case, thank God”. The next day, he died.

EN Japanese Brasserie
435 Hudson St, New York, NY 10014

Cod brunch $28
Vegan brunch $24
Iced matcha x2 $18
Chef cookies $12
Matcha gelato $3.50
Fig gelato $3.50
Pumpkin gelato $3.50
Sesame gelato $3.50
Total (incl tax and tip) £124.52

The server interrupts with our food — a palette of individually packaged bursts of colour lined up like windows in a building. My box contains Japanese sweet potato, lotus root, maitake tempura, salad and rice, but Anderson tells me the speciality here is the tofu. They make it in-house every hour at “neatly spaced show times, much like a killer whale at Sea World”, according to a New York Times review.

I dig my spoon into my tofu, which looks like a scoop of ice cream dipped in soy sauce. It’s gooey and smooth.

Anderson grew up in Chicago, known as the “second city”, which left her with an obsession with New York, the first city. In landlocked Illinois, she dreamt of New York as a port city on the water; she read books about tugboats. “I like things that are moving. And now I just need to see the mighty Atlantic passing by.”

She moved to New York for university, but would end up spending most of her time at her studio. She started out as a painter, doing shows in the 1970s at galleries and museums, marching her way up to the top of New York’s art scene. But once there, she “ran screaming away”.

“In the ’80s, it started being more about money. I thought I was joining the art world, but I was really joining the art market and it’s just very — you know — now everything is about NFTs,” she says. “They’re excited about the money. Which is OK. But it’s about the market, with the cover of it being about the art.”

Part of the magic of Anderson’s work is that while serious it’s also playful, poking fun at the absurdity of our daily norms and the dark sides of American life. Her “car concert” was pretty much exactly what it sounds like. She conducted a group of Hamptons residents who placed their cars in a circle in a grassy field, honking their horns for 20 minutes.

“It’s completely dopey,” she says as she searches through her phone for a video. The server clears our plates and asks if we want dessert. I feel the need to stretch our time, so I order literally all the desserts.

She put up signs advertising the concert, but initially nobody was interested. “We were the hippies, you know, with our gardens and drugs. So I thought, OK, what motivates Americans? Competition.” Anderson released a new callout, this time telling people that they “might be able to audition for the car orchestra, for free”. Everyone showed up.

She finds the video, and there she is, in the same orange blazer, instructing drivers through a megaphone to “start your engines” in her wry monotone voice.

“The Hamptons has this culture. I wanted to do something where it wasn’t about showing off your house or your clothes. It was a sunny beautiful afternoon, in your town by the seaside, and you’re doing something really silly that made a really big sound.”

At 74, Anderson says she is “doing more than ever before”. She’s been painting more, and finds it similar to playing the violin or the saxophone. It takes the same physical gestures, and she likes using her body. “I ask music all the same questions: is it big enough? Is it beautiful enough? Is it sad enough? Is it finished?”

She has a problem deciding something is finished. She has been sneaking back into the Hirshhorn exhibit and changing things (“I just needed to add more green to one of the paintings,” she explains — the Hirshhorn was not pleased). “If you really do believe in change, it’s always unfolding.”

The server arrives again with a comically large display of sweets, including a pumpkin gelato which Anderson politely offers to share — already an intimate act with a stranger; in a pandemic, it’s out of the question. I stick to my black sesame scoop, which is just the right amount of sweet.

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson sit on a bench outside a magazine shop, drinking from takeaway cups
Anderson in New York with Lou Reed in 1997. They were inseparable for two decades, until his death in 2013 © Sygma via Getty Images

Time is running out, and I finally broach the topic of Lou Reed. She met Reed in her forties at a festival in Munich. The pair became inseparable for the next two decades, playing music together, studying butterfly hunting, enjoying life in the West Village with their friends. Reed died in 2013 from liver cancer. “His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn’t afraid,” Anderson wrote in a tribute to Reed. “I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life — so beautiful, painful and dazzling — does not get better than that.”

The only time her smile turns sour is when I ask about a new documentary about The Velvet Underground, Reed’s band, that was well received at the Cannes film festival last summer. “Officially what I would say about the movie is it seemed to focus more on film-making than music,” she says, declining to elaborate. “So it was an interesting version of that time.”

Anderson spent the worst days of the pandemic at her home in Long Island, by the sea, “being a country person with my dog”. But the pull of the city has brought her back.

Still seeking some kernels of wisdom, I press again. What are we supposed to learn from this time? What’s the story? “It’s too soon to know,” she says, digging into her purse as she prepares to get up. I haven’t finished paying the bill, but she’s got to go.

Anderson turns back to our table where I’m still seated, poking at the gelato. I wonder if she has more to say. But instead she calls: “Thank you for lunch!” And she’s out of the door and into the humming city.

Anna Nicolaou is the FT’s US media correspondent

Best of FT Weekend

Why is it considered ok to be Ageist?

Lucy Kellaway on an unspoken prejudice — and a puzzling discrimination against our future selves

US cable titan Rocco Commisso bought ACF Fiorentina for €170m. The emotional cost? He’s still counting

Follow @ftweekend on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first