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The Summoning of the Muse: A Conversation With

Lisa Gerrard

by Shad Clark

What can I say? It isn't everyday I'm actually able to speak with someone whose voice and music have lifted me out of creative and emotional lulls. Lisa Gerrard is, to me, a musical muse. Hers is the most beautiful and most dynamic voice I can think of. It was a great pleasure to talk to her.

I must tell you I've been a fan of your work and of Dead Can Dance (Lisa's former band) for quite some time.

Fantastic! It's always good to meet someone who likes the work.

I don't see how everyone doesn't.

It's funny, because it's been around for a long time. It's managed to stay just far enough out of sight to not get trampled all over and destroyed. So it's a good thing. You don't want it to be too much in the foreground, because then the things just start to go stale.

Yeah, but it's managed to evolve.

L-R: Lisa Gerrard, Pieter Bourke

Things have changed. I will always write the pieces using strings, because string samples are a good sound to write with. They're really expressive. But it's great -- it's always great -- being able to go into the percussive areas. With Michael [Mann]'s film [ The Insider ], the strength in the percussive area was Pieter Bourke. He's quite brilliant with moving samples around and creating drum loops and stuff like that. He's really quite clever. Not that that's all he did, because he's a composer, too, but that's definitely his area. Have you heard the soundtrack record?

Yes, I have. I quite like it. I haven't seen the movie yet. I'd spoken to Pieter last week and he was telling me that even though the music doesn't seem to fit, it does totally play into the film.

That's right. It works really well. Michael is quite remarkable. There are times when you're making the film that you just have to trust him, because you sort of feel, "Oh, how can this be right?" We're receiving reels of film. We'd never seen the whole film. We were just given parts of it, so it's really hard to get that big picture perspective. You really have to trust the director for that. But it was interesting. It was a really interesting experience. And very challenging, for crying out loud. We wrote so many pieces that didn't get in, but partially were the cars that drove us to getting the things that Michael needed, whether they were right or wrong. Sometimes when you look at the work, you think, "How will it sit and how will it be effective and what part of the image will pull at its persona... ?" I love the subtlety. You're going to be surprised. It's totally ingrained. The whole experience of what Michael has done is very refined. The music sort of cuts into the shadows and into the shapes. It's really quite interesting.

I've seen some of his other films. He's used your songs in Heat and in Miami Vice ...

He used three pieces in Heat . One of them in particular... it was really amazing that he used that piece in that scene where the young girl had tried to commit suicide. Have you seen the film?

Yeah...

Obviously, I'm really careful [about] where I put my work. When I first heard about Heat , I thought, "Aw, gee, this is a really heavy film. I don't know if this is right for me. It's so heavy." I didn't really know Michael's work at that time. I remember watching the film, the underlying current in the film of the young girl and how our kids are affected by these contemporary relationships. The child is sort of like the ping pong ball. And there we have this end result of her just completely losing it. I thought that was a really important message there.

It's interesting, 'cause that same message -- that kind of depth -- is in The Insider , where ultimately, you realize that the reason this man's conscience is overhauled is because of how he sees himself as a father. I think this work is interesting. Michael's work is incredibly interesting from that point of view. He's a real artist in the Andy Warhol sense, where he is the contemporary voice of exactly how it is now. He encapsulates that and is the storyteller of that. This is where we are now. And these are the emotional reactions. And this is where we compromise. And this is what we're up against. Here we are. It's like he lifts up the veil and we look behind at exactly where we are. These things are completely visible to us but we don't see them. They're smoothed over by media and legal comfort zones. Everything's kept secret, but he's managed to sort of lift that curtain. Bingo. This is where we live. This is what's going on. And I think it's a very important social message in Michael's work. It's not a movie for entertainment. It's not a popcorn movie. He's an extremely intelligent person. He's incredibly dedicated to the reality, to the real picture. Although you have these little comments -- things were poeticized for the purpose of dramatization and what have you -- these issues are real issues that we have to address in our society, and these characterizations are things we all identify with. This whole thing has gotten out of control. These bits of paper have ruined so many people's lives. Everyone identifies with that. Everyone has had that parking ticket that they haven't paid, and the consequences that have come from these legal whitewashes. How do we survive them? I come up against things like that all the time. I choose not to take any notice of them in the work that I do. With music, there's always that, "How powerful are these contracts?" I love the clauses in contracts that say "undiscovered planets." Just in case they happen to discover a new planet we can all move to, I'm still under contract.

You've really read that?

Yeah! I've signed contracts with those clauses in them, dear. My two hands with a knife in my back, thinking, "if I don't sign them, how am I going to earn money? How am I going to release records?" These are the things that you come up against. I've made just as many mistakes as others, I suppose. Fortunately, I rely on God to steer me through. At this stage, I have come through completely unscathed. So I'm quite fortunate in that sense.

I have a wonderful story... I went to stay in a hotel in Ireland when I was working with Brendan [Perry, Gerrard's former partner in Dead Can Dance] once. He was out somewhere -- I don't remember where he was -- and I'd just arrived in the country. I had to stay in a hotel a bit longer than I was meant to. I went downstairs and said to the lady, "I found this bit of paper in my room and it says I have to be out by half past twelve, and I can't leave the hotel 'til 3:30. Is there somewhere I can put my bags?," or something like that. She looked at me with this perplexed expression and said, "That's only a bit of paper. Don't take any notice of it." From that day on, my whole respect for bits of paper... I know you can wind up in jail but... really. We should just treat these things as guidelines, shouldn't we?

Definitely.

How do they have so much power? This fabulous woman dispelled all of the fear that we have ingrained within us in one moment by saying it's "... only a bit of paper." Life changed from that. It's amazing how a little thing like that can switch on a lightbulb, isn't it?

Sometimes, it's the simplest things.

It's true...

I understand you've been working on the score for Ridley Scott's new film, Gladiator . How did you become involved in that? Did he approach you?

It's all a bit vague, really. I'm not really sure. I got a phone call from the music editor, saying they wanted me to come over. I'm not really sure who "they" were. They sent me one of the reels of the film, and I just loved it. I got such a strong feeling from it. There are lots of symbolic things in the film that I really connected to, and I thought, "I want to be involved in this." I sent them over a piece of music, and I never heard anything back. I thought, "Oh, well, that was the kiss of death." So I let it go...

They got back from London, and I got another call saying, "Ridley wants you to come over and see the movie." So I went over and had a look at it and met Hans Zimmer, and I just loved him immediately. We worked together for a week. We wrote all these pieces in seven days. Even though a lot of them won't be in the movie, it was just a wonderful initiation of a creative process. I felt so excited and so happy. Even if that's all that would've happened, it would've been a totally worthwhile experience...

I came back to Los Angeles, and I've been here ever since. I go to the studio every day and write music with Klaus Bennett, one of the composers of the new venture. Hans is working on all the big stuff, on all the major stuff. Klaus and I are doing areas that require other sensitivities... At this stage, whether the work will go into the film or not, you never really know. It was the same thing with Michael's film. We never really knew. We just had to keep providing Michael with the necessary -- not to sound pompous -- but the necessary poetry that helped to unlock that which he saw within the vision of his film. You just have to keep going and exercise a certain amount of patience and wait for the right time when the director is able to review the work. Whether you have something that is a key that will unlock that for him... You can't tell until that time. I quite like it, although at times it's scary, and you think, "oh, is this all for nothing? I'm doing these wonderful pieces and maybe it's for nothing." You just have to push that away and don't care about it. As Klaus was saying to me yesterday, "Don't you think the weirdest thing about computers is the 'undo' button? We don't undo in life. We do. There is no 'undo' button. It's a totally wasted concept." I thought this was such a philosophical understanding that he had. It is true. We don't undo. Everything we do is of great value... The values that are revealed within the process, you don't undo. You come away profiting from the situation in a way other than the material.

That's a very positive outlook.

Oh, totally essential to maintain. One thing I have great respect for -- and it's not the sacred cow to me, but I do respect it and I do nurture it -- is my work. I keep it in a very positive, very happy nursery. I don't put negative things where my work is, because I don't want to harm it at this stage in my life. I'm nearly 40 years old. When you're 16, working in the area that I work in and was working in when I was 16, you find out you could be in a battlefield because of humiliation and the cruelty of others and the cruelty of poverty and all the things that life throws at us. I've learned that if I want to be doing this work when I'm 70, and I want to be able to bring something to the table that is grown in love, then I need to nurture it and protect it from certain dramas that are based on career, ambition, and self-glorification. You have to be extremely careful.

People talk to me about reincarnation and things like that... maybe reincarnation is true. For me, it has no value, because I have a relationship with God, and I know that's where I'm going. I stick by His rules, and I'm doing everything I can to get there, to be with Him. But I really do believe we only have one shot at this life. If you cut diamonds for a living, you're going to be extremely careful in how you go about the job. I believe, as human beings, we have the ability to hone ourselves into something quite wonderful... We all have a different journey in life. Whether you're working in a supermarket or you're doing music in Hollywood movies, you're experiencing exactly the same complexity, same pressure... You're going through things. There are no real safety nets or parachutes that protect you from life itself. I suppose I've had to learn to duck and dive in order to stay alive.

The world I've been in has been a subcultural one. And in the subcultural world of the work, standards are much higher and much tougher, and there's much more criticism. So you sort of come out of there pretty tough. People say to me, "Oh, that whole Hollywood thing... It's so tough!" Darling, believe me, it is nowhere near as tough as touring around Europe in a van, starving to death, being beaten up, earning no money, being ripped off everywhere you go... and managing to maintain this ideal, your work.

Do you mean physically or emotionally beaten up?

Physically and emotionally.

Really?

Yeah, yeah... Look, when you've been around as long as I have and you come up as slowly or you've not come up -- because I've always felt the same level -- it's not that you go up. You widen out and you go down and you go over and you go back and you go forward. It's all multifaceted, the shape that you take on in your learning curve. Yes, we've had terrible experiences and wonderful experiences. The thing that's always so extraordinary about looking at the work... is that state of excellence that you want to be a part of. There's safety there. There's safety in creating these gardens that you... I don't know. I've never been able to fully understand it. I always hope I'll stumble on it by accident, this creative driving force that makes it all worthwhile somehow. I often look back and think of the things that poor ol' Brendan and I have been through. We worked together for nearly twenty years. I think of the poverty and challenges we faced going on those rotten old tours... in vans that were blowing up and ending up on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. And starving. And wounded. Absolutely destroyed. Yet there we were, searching for something with a greater value, knowing that there's more to this than this. There has to be... When I think of the things that he and I have been through. It's so extraordinary. It makes me cry when I think about it. You think of your kids.

Human beings are so remarkable. They know that this isn't it. They know there's been some terrible accident and that man -- that the human being -- has gone wrong. And we're told Biblical things that we don't understand. And there are philosophical things that we don't fully understand. And we look at indigenous people and we see how wonderful their lives were before we came along. It's the West that there's something wrong with. We're the ones that have relied on intellect instead of the heart. Being disobedient to rules that have led us to absolute material chaos. We've ignored nature. We've just stomped it into the ground. We're in an awful mess. We really are...

I think that's why I've always chosen to do art, and I understand fully why I do music. I believe that music and these things -- these aesthetic things -- enable people to maintain a certain amount of sanity. You provide something within the environment that enables people to maintain a certain amount of sanity. If you sit down and listen to a piece of music, you'll come into contact with feelings you otherwise wouldn't take time out to come into contact with. And this is important, because the society that we live in denies us of this. Look at indigenous cultures where people would sit and sing songs and tell stories. It enabled people to come into contact with deeper feelings. We're losing this. Yes, it's recreated in Hollywood films. And these are the grandiose storytellers, the campfire. There it is. It's just grown up and grown up and grown up because of this ever-perpetuating... material web that gets bigger and larger but never solves itself. And there we are, telling the stories in these forms... It is essential to our growth, essential to staying sane, that we do this.

I think that's definitely true. Music like yours -- there are some other bands and things, too -- definitely helps maintain a sense of sanity. I wouldn't really call it escapism, but it does help push away the problems of the world at times.

Absolutely. You're right. Cathartic things, joyful things, places to go, safety in the engagement of working with another person -- it's stimulating, it's nourishing, it's kindling. The thing with us is we've sort of lifted ourselves into these areas of comfort that we're not satisfied with. I always prefer to go back to the simple, which is my work. I go there, and I believe it's worthwhile. It's a worthwhile thing to do. And I feel a responsibility to try to help to maintain some sort of sanity within this crazy place that we're living. If you can, create a situation that somehow has a contact with something outside of all of this garbage and all of the things that have diluted our relationship with God and created these factories and businesses and traditions and things that have nothing to do with the abstract, nothing to do with spirituality. If you can maintain this current, that will allow people to maintain just enough sanity so that when they hear the truth, they're able to listen. That's my responsibility. I know that's my purpose here. I have no doubt about it. And as long as I'm allowed to do that, I'll always believe I'm doing something worthwhile.

   To further explore the wonderful work of Lisa Gerrard: http://www.lisa-gerrard.com

   For more information on Michael Mann's The Insider : http://movies.go.com/insider/index_flash.html