Mark Dagley interview with Natalie Rose Lebrecht
This interview was first published in Dream Magazine Issue #8, 2008
Natalie Rose LeBrecht, who released her first albums under the name Greenpot Bluepot, lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
MD: Could you tell us something about your life? Where did you grow up and how did you first start playing music?
NRL: I grew up in Denver, Colorado and a few places in Iowa. I always loved music and as a child would sing into a hand held tape recorder, then play it on a stereo and record myself singing along with that, and repeat the process until I had a multi-layered piece with many vocal arrangements.
MD: How old were you then?
NRL: About 11. I remember now that I wrote a “Weird Al” Yankovic inspired parody of Brian Adams’ “Run to You” when I was 6 or 7. It was about doing laundry. There was a joke in it that cracked me up, and I thought it was clever, but my Dad and sister didn’t get it. I wrote some other song about being trapped in space, too.
MD: What about your cultural heritage? Where are your parents from?
NRL: My mother is from China and Taiwan, and my Dad is from Los Angeles and Chicago.
MD: Did your parents encourage you in any way?
NRL: I have a very private personality and tried to keep what I did to myself… I never really shared these tapes with my family or other people, so I suppose there was nothing noticeable to encourage. But, yes, they were nice parents.
MD: What artists got you interested in making your own music?
NRL: As a child I didn’t need outside inspiration. I had a lot of free time, and I played. It came natural.
MD: Did you ever study music, in high school or privately?
NRL: I had piano lessons for a year or two when I was about 11 or 12, but got kicked out of them cause I was apathetic towards my teacher and never did what she wanted me to. I also played trumpet and bells in middle school band, but again, was kicked out of the band for sabotaging a concert where we played Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Then I took singing lessons for about one month when I was about 12 ’cause I loved to sing, but the teacher was totally showbiz and told me the most important thing was to always sing with a big smile on my face no matter what. Needless to say I didn’t keep coming back to her. I was in a very Waiting for Guffman kind of context.
MD: That’s great! Do you play the trumpet on any of your releases?
NRL: No, the trumpet player in WARRAW is so much better than me – Pasquale Cangiano. Also, I gave away my old trumpet and am extremely rusty. It wasn’t good to practice living in apartments in the city – trumpet is a loud instrument, and I didn’t want to piss off the neighbors.
MD: When did you first start composing on the piano?
NRL: I had a synthesizer keyboard since 1996 or so and played that for years so I have been familiar with the keyboard layout for a while. But it’s not until recently (a few months ago) that I actually played a real piano, something which is quite different and amazing!
MD: I would have thought you had always played and grew up around the piano. Your compositions seem so wide in scope and centered around the tonalities of a piano.
NRL: Well, we did have a piano growing up, but it gave my sister and mother a headache when I played, so I kind of stopped. I suppose I felt oppressed back then, but now I totally understand and don’t blame them – my playing would be very atonal and dissonant and their taste is more for easy listening. Plus, I’m sure it’s quite annoying to have a kid banging on a piano while you’re tying to clean the house.
MD: What about vocalists? Were there any vocalists early on that influenced you?
NRL: As a child I definitely liked Debbie Harry. Even now, I think she’s such an awesome vocalist. I saw her perform a few years ago at Tonic with The Jazz Passengers, and it was a magical show. I mean, she’s got “It”!
MD: Debbie seems to be a huge influence for many female vocalist of your generation. How do you feel about mainstream pop these days? Anyone out there that is even remotely interesting to you? I’m curious what you think of someone like Norah Jones for example or the American Idol spectacle?
NRL: I don’t have TV reception and don’t listen to the radio much. Usually I find pop music very irritating and mostly hear it in stores or restaurants, but today I was in a drugstore and heard an R&B song and the singer was really singing from her heart! It might have been Mary J. Blige, but I’m not sure. Anyhow, it opens my heart a bit when I hear someone playing music using theirs.
MD: What is success to you?
NRL: Pure unconditional love and a peaceful mind.
MD: Did you go to Art School?
NRL: I got a BFA in Intermedia Art from the University of Iowa.
MD: What is “intermedia art”?
NRL: Whatever it wants to be.
MD: That covers a lot of ground. Is it something like a cross-disciplinary approach for visual art, music, fashion, and performance?
NRL: I don’t even know. I studied it so long ago, and I’m not at all invested in the semantics of the Art world.
MD: What do you feel your practice is, then? Should we consider you a performance artist or a musician/vocalist?
NRL: I want artistic freedom from the confines of categorization. I am just doing my thing.
MD: Was your exposure to the historic avant-garde at the University of Iowa? Or earlier?
NRL: At the University.
MD: Was there anyone teaching at the University who had an impact on what you are doing now?
NRL: Professor Stephen C. Foster – a Dada and modern art scholar – was my primary teacher. I even assisted him for a while. Also, Estra Milman – a Fluxus and Alternative Traditions in Contemporary Art scholar. I assisted her, as well. I’m not sure what they are doing now. Last time I saw them they were living a seemingly fairy tale existence in a breathtaking Chateau in New England. They taught me a lot about historiography and Art Institutional theory (how the machine works), so that is part of the history of my process. But I am not working from an academic place at the present time.
MD: Was WARRAW your first CD-R release?
NRL: No. There were three before, and they are all out of print. And WARRAW was not a CD-R; it was an officially burned, high-quality CD with handmade packaging. I also released a full-length vinyl record album called Daymares and Nightdreams back in 2001.
MD: You seem to surround your artistic practice with word play. The best example is the palindrome found in the title of your CD, WARRAW. You reinforce that word play by switching the ‘R’s around and by the use of mirrors on the cover art. This creates a false doubled mirrored palindrome. The use of a mirror again in the cover art for Imagining Weather is once more very intriguing. Where does this interest in reflection, doubling and word play come from?
NRL: Gee, I’ll have to reflect on that!
MD: I wanted to talk about your vocalization pieces. Not surprisingly they seem to refer back to the first multi-layered recording experiments you mentioned at the beginning of this interview. Is this something you have consciously gone back to exploring?
NRL: No, I never thought in a linear fashion: “I did this when I was a kid, I should do it now, too,” but I suppose it is interesting that I am doing the same thing as I was when I was 11. My friend Eugene used to always say that who we really are is who we are when we are five years old. I don’t agree or disagree and, if I think too much about a statement like that, it becomes so abstract it means nothing. But, on the other hand, it’s fun to think of everyone you are relating to as a five year old relating to another five year old – well, it’s only fun if you’re having a good time with someone.
MD: When you perform these works they appear to be improvisation; are they? Are they non-verbal; is there a text? Both?
NRL: The vocal loop pieces so far have been improv. I enjoy performing them very much so long as no feedback begins to occur which it sometimes does. It’s nice to just be focusing on the voice and not playing an instrument, although it’s also very nice to play instruments. Sometimes I can really get lost in the vocal loop and that’s when I dig it the most- when I can get into a trance with it. But it doesn’t always happen, especially when there’s a lot of light shining on me. It’s easiest in the dark. I feel like doing a vocal loop performance right now…
MD: Do you see yourself as someone working in a modernist avant-garde tradition along the lines of someone like Meredith Monk or Joan La Barbara? Are you familiar with their work?
NRL: I have much respect for Meredith Monk. I look forward to hearing Joan La Barbara.
MD: But do you see yourself as someone also exploring the inherent parameters of a specific medium, abstractly exploring the elements of text and sound, or should your practice be considered more holistic, emotive and/or internalized? Explain.
NRL: Well, I did get a formal education in art and the Western avant garde, so I have that language (and the language of categorization) embedded into my system. However, back when I was in school, I remember so many of the grad students and professors saying with a depressed tone that you learn Art, and then you have to unlearn it. The idea being that learning Art strangles your inner creativity (because your creativity becomes institutionalized). It’s not that I “unlearned” it, but I just stopped caring a long time ago about the institutional “dialogues,” “discourses,” expectations, categories, and structures of Art. Right now I’m more into beauty, the visceral, and creative outputs that strike at the primal level. I love to hear an intellectual mind express itself so long as it’s bullshit free – unless the BS is funny and intentional of course (like Colbert). I love to laugh! The problem is, in my opinion, art school teaches you to BS until you don’t even know that’s what you’re doing, and you’re just an automaton with a formula climbing the ladder of Creativity. Right now, I’m not so interested in playing Ivory Tower games – they don’t end suffering, they temporarily ease boredom. Now, I’m not saying that beauty ends suffering either – beauty is subjective and a dualistic concept. But geez, life is so hard for almost everyone I know, and I live in what is still considered a wealthy country that is not in a war zone. I mean, we all deal with so much oppression on a daily basis. Even billionaires can’t buy themselves and loved ones a longer life forever – yes, they can get the best medicines and doctors, but that still doesn’t make for immortality and the end of their suffering. Our bodies fail us, our healthcare systems are corrupt, unexpected bills come up, we loose friends and loved ones, we have to struggle with power, nagging bosses, the mortgage, husbands and wives and friends that drive us crazy yet we are too attached to sever ties, loneliness, boredom, anger, depression, addictions, the phone company, Apple not sending us our money after completing the mail in rebate, computer upgrades, car repairs, violence, etc. I was watching a documentary on insects yesterday, and they have so many struggles too! It seems like nature on Earth is a state of war, with a survival-instinct seed dominating every being. Sometimes the only non-destructive thing that can revive a person from the most existentially-tormenting of days is beauty or good comedy. Unfortunately, my sense of humor hasn’t been that great since the Bush administration went to war on Iraq – not that I’m directly blaming Bush for my not being funny anymore – perhaps it’s just a coincidence.
So to sum up a long ramble which I wonder if anyone is still reading, I hope to help people experience some majestic beauty through my music. I know, beauty is subjective so not everyone will think my music is beautiful, and that’s ok – some will find it abrasive even, but I know that some will find beauty in it, and that is what I hope to offer as a service to others (since I’m not funny anymore ’cause of President Bush).
MD: Can you mention some of the books or writers you responded to early on?
NRL: I didn’t develop a taste for literature until my early 20’s. Andy Kaufman wrote a brilliant work of fiction but died before it was finished. The book came out nonetheless around the same time as Man on The Moon with Jim Carrey but is out of print now. It is called The Huey Williams Story, and it is my favorite book. Of course, I haven’t read it since I was 22, but, when I read it, it was the best thing ever! I cried when I finished it for two reasons: I was intoxicated and my supply ran out, and Andy died and didn’t get to finish his vision. He was such a master of form and would really pull the veil from your face over and over, so I was upset that I didn’t get to know what he had planned. I only know one other person who has actually read the whole book (an ex-boyfriend I gave a copy to) – it’s kind of obscure, I guess. I love Andy Kaufman! I also really like the writing of Paul Bowles. His writing is very musical. It makes sense that he was also an accomplished musician.
MD: Indeed, and critic and painter. Your recent CD, Imagining Weather, contains a two part song called “Sahara”. This piece contains some very specific imagery. As it seems the centerpiece of the release, could you explain this song in more detail?
NRL: The song and music explain themselves.
MD: But for someone reading this, and not having the music to reflect upon, how much of an element of fiction is involved in the text to this piece? And how much room is there for, say, surrendering to a more psychedelic textual experience?
NRL: That depends on the subjective experience of each individual listener.
MD: When did you move to the East Coast?
NRL: The year was 2000. I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (corner of Roebling and Grand), and my rent was $275 a month. I bet now it would be $800 for the same closet-sized room.
MD: Where were the first places you performed here on the East Coast, and what was the response?
NRL: My first performances were at the Knitting Factory, and the response varied depending on the individual audience member.
MD: But you felt it was a positive experience or…
NRL: I remember polarizing people. I did much more ballsy performance art back then. People would respond by saying, “That was bold.”
MD: Do you feel part of any musical community?
NRL: My friend Kristen and I hang out sometimes and sing and play instruments. We also play solo shows together and plan to tour later this year in Japan. She is very supportive and helpful and nurturing. I look forward to making more and more friends like Kristen – she’s a gem! I do have random great friends who are also extraordinarily talented musicians, but I don’t usually join forces with them directly through music. I definitely look forward to building more music community as time goes on.
MD: What would be the main difference between those early shows to what a listener would hear now seeing you live?
NRL: Oh, they were very different. I’ve gone through a few different phases, but the early NYC performances were multi-dimensional Andy Kaufmanesque trickery exercises. They often would start out so intense, political, and dramatic and then unravel into complete absurdity and mass laughter. My performances were a lot funnier back then (before the war). My most recent performances have been devoid of shenanigans, razzle dazzle, hand made gifts, audience participation, and show-womanship. But I think my work is really maturing, and I feel great about that. I’m mostly giving intimate music concerts where I sing my heart out and play piano, harmonium, maybe nylon guitar, and then do vocal loop stuff. The pieces are usually long (10 to 35 minutes), so the listener can go deep in, as they don’t have A.D.D. I’m also winging it much more. I don’t have a completed plan for what I’m going to do or play, and then I just get on stage and see what happens. That’s what I’m up to now. I’ve always tried to challenge myself as a performer or else I get too bored to perform.
MD: What is you ideal performing situation?
NRL: For the kind of performances I’m doing now, my ideal is a comfortable, warm, intimate yet formal, clean, non-smoking place with great acoustics and a great sound system. The sound is the most important thing to me. If I hear myself sounding good, then that enhances the performance and I can get lost in it… if I think the sound quality is poor, then I cut the performance very short. I also want an audience that truly wants to be there specifically to receive music because they have a capacity to appreciate the experience. And I want the space to be very comfortable and non-distracting for the audience.
MD: Have you ever performed in Europe?
NRL: Yes, I went there to perform in 2005 and 2006. I really like playing in Europe! It’s exciting to meet people from other countries and hear their perspectives on the world. I find it very educational and look forward to going back to Germany this summer. I think I’m going to play a show in Hamburg and do some video work with a good friend. There’s just one big problem for me, and it’s that I’m allergic to cigarette smoke. It’s harder for me on a physical level to go out there. Even the health-conscious ayurvedic restaurant in Hamburg was full of smoke! Also, I can’t perform in a smokey environment, so it takes careful planning to play concerts in most of Europe.
MD: You have mentioned pure unconditional love as an ideal of success. Is this a spiritual condition? Can it be found in the here and now?
NRL: Better to ask someone omniscient. I’m still trapped in a neurotic ego mind. Tension swells in my body, and I develop health problems. I get in irritable moods. Let’s just say I’m not yet evolved enough to be preaching about anything, and I hope I’m forgiven if I ever do.
MD: Should we consider your music spiritual?
NRL: If it strikes you that way, then yes. If it doesn’t, then no. (Although I hope it does.) More recently, I’ve been getting audience responses saying they felt the music was very spiritual, and I take that as a very good sign to keep on keeping on ’cause my own vanity is not enough fuel to keep me working like it did when I was younger.
MD: It’s a tradition in DREAM Magazine to ask the artists being interviewed if dreams or dreaming have an influence on their work or life. You mention in the liner notes to your release WARRAW, that it is one very long song (like an epic dream). Tell us how dreams continue to influence your artistic production.
NRL: I love to dream! Many times I prefer dreaming to being awake. Since a baby, I’ve always wanted to get a lot of sleep and found it exciting to dream. I remember many dreams from years ago just like I remember experiences from waking life. I have many different kinds of dreams. Some of them are the personal ego, Freudian dreams that are obviously just about my outerself, ego, experiences and daily life. But other dreams really feel beyond the ego stuff, and that’s when I really love it – even if it’s creepy – I feel like I’m picking up on information I wouldn’t receive when I’m awake. Dreams speak the language of archetypes, and I love that. I think that kind of symbolic language is influencing my new direction of lyrics. I’m very interested in dreams and usually enjoy hearing about others’ dreams – particularly when they are surreal and wild.
MD: Do you have a ghost story?
NRL: I’ve had my share of supernatural encounters, especially right after I moved to the country into this 200 year old church recreation hall. That place turned out to be a very bad experience, and there was definitely a lot of intense psychic residue there – in fact, I was kind of scared to be alone there at night. The first night me and my boyfriend were there, I woke up to the sound of a grand event happening in the main space. It sounded like a crowd of 150 people hanging out. There was a window from our bedroom to the main space, and I had to psychically block it so no spirits would come into the bedroom (some were trying to get in). I didn’t want to wake my boyfriend up cause I thought that might induce a hysteria between us, so I let him sleep, listened to the party, and firmly told the spirits they were not allowed in the bedroom. Soon after that night, I consulted with a man I respect a lot – the man who wrote the films Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder and is also a meditation teacher – and he told me I did the right thing by firmly blocking the spirits from the bedroom. He then instructed us to open up all the doors and windows and demand all the spirits leave. So we did that. I think it helped a lot, but I still had a few more unpleasant numinous encounters before we finally had to leave – skunks moved under the foundation and sprayed us out. Looking back I think it was a blessing. I’d probably be insane if I still lived there. It was one of the worst times of my life, and I think the heavy psychic residue there really affected me negatively. And I still have a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder around skunks.
Photographic images of Natalie Rose LeBrecht by Mark Dagley