Laurie Anderson - Biography

By Michael Keefe


             Born in 1947, singer/composer/violinist/keyboardist/performance artist Laurie Anderson was in her mid-30s before she became a successful pop musician. Raised in a Chicago suburb, Anderson later spent the 1970s as a New York performance artist who worked in relative obscurity and recorded only occasionally. Her 1981 single "O Superman (For Massenet)" became a UK hit, leading to Warner Brothers signing her. She has since released five studio and four live albums, all of them well-regarded. In addition to collaborating with composer Philip Glass and like-minded musician Peter Gabriel, she has acted in a handful of films and is the inventor of two musical instruments, the tape bow violin (1977) and the talking stick, created in the late '90s. Primarily, Laurie Anderson is known for her daring, sometimes funny, often haunting, and always creative art-pop.


            Laura Phillips Anderson was born on June 5, 1947 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. After attending Mills College in Oakland, California, she matriculated to Barnard College in Manhattan, where she earned a history degree and graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa; accomplishments indicative of a sharp intelligence that would permeate her future works. Anderson earned an MFA in sculpting from Columbia in 1972 and then began working as an art teacher and critic. Her first musical work was a symphony for car horns in 1969. Throughout the '70s, Anderson recorded sporadically, releasing some works in very limited quantities as singles and on the compilation New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media: Women in Electronic Music (1977 Arch).


            Laurie Anderson's big break came that same year, when her independently released 7" single, "O Superman (For Massenet)" (1981 110 Records), was championed by legendary British DJ John Peel. Following a huge demand for the song, Anderson signed a distribution deal with Warner Brothers and the single reached #2 on the UK charts. That success led to a multi-album recording contract. The next year Anderson released her magnificent debut LP,  Big Science (1982 Warner). An intelligent, nervy and surprisingly catchy pop-art record, Anderson critiqued everything from love ("Sweaters") to suburban sprawl ("Big Science"). As would become her trademark, Laurie Anderson mixed sung vocals (often treated with effects) with spoken word over a musical backdrop of violin, saxophone, syncopated percussion and eerie keyboard sounds. The album was a modest hit, reaching #29 in the UK and landing at #124 the US album charts.


            Laurie Anderson's sophomore LP was even more successful in America. Mister Heartbreak (1984 Warner) peaked at #60 on the Billboard charts. The album sounded somewhat more commercial although Anderson retained all of her cerebral lyrical quirks. She teamed up with old pal William S. Burroughs for closing cut "Sharkey's Night" and forged a new bond with Peter Gabriel on "Excellent Birds." Standout track "Gravity's Angel" is notable for being based on Thomas Pynchon's epic novel of World War II Europe, Gravity's Rainbow. Speaking of epic, Laurie Anderson's next album was a five-LP set called United States Live (1984 Warner). Recorded in 1983, it documented the musical portions of her hugely ambitious stage performances of recent years. Almost all of the songs from Anderson's first two albums had been drawn from her United States show, an eight-hour event that took place over the course of two nights. The musical portions of the concert comprise United States Live, which ranges from spare and brief spoken word pieces to full-band songs. Amazingly, the record cracked the Billboard charts, hitting #192.


            Laurie Anderson's next album, Home of the Brave (1986 Warner), was another live disc, this time serving as the score her concert film of the same name. Opting for brevity, Anderson's fourth full-length wasn't terribly full, made up of eight songs and lasting just under 35 minutes. Although short, it's another quite good release from an artist who's yet to record a mediocre record. If Mister Heartbreak edged towards commercialism, then Laurie Anderson's next studio album, Strange Angels (1989 Warner), was her most polished, song-oriented, mainstream work yet. This was at least partly the result of Anderson having taken vocal lessons during in the interim. By reducing her spoken word parts, her pieces moved towards more traditional pop structures. Cuts like "Babydoll," "Beautiful Red Dress" and the title track are as catchy and accessible as any of the major label alternative music of that era. Despite this approach, the album performed only as well as most other Laurie Anderson releases, just edging into the lower end of the Billboard charts at #171. She then spent the early 1990s touring and returning to a greater emphasis on spoken word.


            Anderson tapped Brian Eno to produce her return to the recording studio, Bright Red (1994 Warner). In many ways this is the quintessential Laurie Anderson album and it's among her best. The LP is less polished and more immediate than Strange Angels, but also a little thornier. She balances spoken and sung vocals, making great use of the vocoder throughout and transforming her voice into a range of other personae. A chilly ambience pervades the record but it remains quite a compelling listen. Anderson's romantic partner Lou Reed sings on "In Our Sleep," marking the first of several collaborations between the two. Laurie Anderson quickly followed with another live album, The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories (1995 Atlantic). Using minimal instrumental backing, Anderson brought her storytelling ability to the forefront here (as the album's title suggests). A subtle work that requires intent listening, it is nonetheless quite rewarding, particularly for those who appreciate Anderson's mesmeric speaking voice and gloriously odd expositions. Unfortunately, the record was her first not to reach Billboard.


            Another lengthy period of time elapsed between Laurie Anderson releases. At the dawn of the new millennium, the two-disc retrospective Talk Normal: The Laurie Anderson Anthology (2000 Rhino) was released. The following year she finally issued an album of new studio material, the Hal Wilner-produced Life on a String (2001 Nonesuch). The lushly recorded CD was her prettiest and most buoyant since Strange Angels. As its title implies, strings play a key role in the album's sumptuous sound. One year later Laurie Anderson again quickly followed a studio album with a live release. The double-disc Live in New York (2002 Nonesuch) was recorded in NYC just one week after 9-11. Unusually for Anderson, the concert features material from throughout her career, providing an alternate "best of" to Talk Normal, perfect for those fans who like her live works best.


            Laurie Anderson has built a very strong body of recordings, both live and studio. After years of toiling away to little acclaim, she became a popular and artistically successful recording artist, receiving strong praise from critics and contributing some of the more offbeat entries to the Billboard album charts of the 1980s and early '90s. Currently, Anderson is in the studio recording her next album, titled Homeland which is set to be released in 2009.





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