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Laurie Anderson: “I didn’t love my mother – but I did admire her”

Laurie Anderson talks Lou Reed, childhood trauma – and the decision that influenced her whole adult life

When I was 16 I stopped playing the violin. After years of playing I realised I wasn’t good enough to be a solo violin player. That was kind of shocking to me. And I also realised if I wanted to be a professional violinist I’d have to practise so hard, like eight hours a day, and that would mean I could never learn anything else.

I looked at the musicians around me and all they were doing was practising. I wanted to ask them, do you have any regrets? I wanted to learn German and physics, and I wanted to travel. So I quit playing the violin very suddenly. Several decades later I still don’t speak German and I don’t know physics. And I don’t play the violin very well. But I’ve done lots of other things and I think that 16-year-old made a good choice. In fact, that decision, at that time, kind of marked the rest of my life.

It seemed crazy to me, to be just one person all the time.

I stayed away from music for a while after I was 16. The thought of it just stressed me out. We used to go to music camp, and the idea was that we’d play music in the woods in the summer and it would be beautiful – Tchaikovsky in the trees and lakes. But we also had these challenges and we’d be judged against each other. I am not a competitive person and I don’t really enjoy that with other artists. It seemed like it had become more about the competition than the music.

I think I was a lot of things – well-balanced, angsty, happy, unhappy – when I was 16. I didn’t work at having a consistent personality. I knew you were supposed to but that seemed crazy to me, to be just one person all the time. I understand why people don’t want to change into a completely different person each day but there was a lot of pressure on teenagers to adopt one personality and stick with it. Like in the art world, where you’re supposed to have one style and stick to it. That to me seems deadly. So I realised I wanted to be flexible.

I was always good at doing things for myself. I was from a very big family so you were always vying for attention and I didn’t get much. I remember when I was about seven, my sister and I would run home from school, make peanut butter sandwiches, leave them in the kitchen, run back out, then run back into the house and say: “Wow, look what mom made for us! Peanut butter sandwiches!” Because my mother never had time to do things like that for us. I realised, though, love is, for me, the most important thing in the world, it’s also important to take care of yourself.

As I’ve got older I’ve realised how much my memories of childhood are just stories I came up with to explain, or cope with, what was going on. When I was 12 I broke my back and had to spend a long time in a children’s ward in hospital. When I talked about it I remembered that the doctors were idiots, they told me stupid stories, they said I’d never walk again – what did they know? When I looked back as an adult I almost had an audio hallucination – it all came back to me, being in that big room for months with kids who had burns or terrible sickness, screaming the way kids do when they’re dying. I was not able to handle it. And I realised my younger self’s version of that time was my way of coping with being very frightened. And so every time I told that story I got further from the truth, I forgot it. You have your go-to stories from your past and you develop your themes.

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I didn’t love my mother – I really didn’t – but I did admire her. Her mother didn’t love her either. Sometimes it just comes down the line. But there were parts of her that were wonderful. She was a huge influence on me. She was a very formal person and not able to articulate emotion at all. She should have been a CEO of a major corporation. She went to college at 16, and graduated, but she was born at a time when that stuff stopped when you had a family. She taught me to love books, which is a wonderful gift. My dad was much lighter, a very sweet person who did love me a lot. I was lucky, a lot of people have two parents who don’t like them very much. The more I think back on it the more I realise how much your parents shape what you become.

My parents didn’t care much about what other people thought. My mother was quite a snob, so if people thought my work was ridiculous she would defend me by looking at their lives and saying, well most people just stick to the status quo so don’t worry about what they say. I always tell young artists, why care what people think about what you do? A lot of people limit their own freedom by concerning themselves with the approval of others. So they decide not to be free. It’s hard to be free.

If I met the 16-year-old me now, the first thing I’d do would be to thank her. She made some pretty good calls. I’d admit to her, I never did learn German but thanks for freeing me up to have fun. When I was young, much of art was about showing how you were suffering. I had some questions about that. I wanted to go towards the light. I haven’t completely got over that, I’m still interested in other people’s opinions. But ultimately I’m my mother’s snobbish daughter – you don’t like it? Too bad. I like it. I don’t want to sound too trivial but I’m here to have a good time.

Probably you fall in love with people who share certain basic things with you. It might have been hard for me to fall in love with someone who had big rules. I met Lou [Reed, her partner for 20 years until his death in 2013] at a music festival and that was my beat and it was his beat too. We were both pretty free but I don’t think Lou and I just did whatever the hell we wanted. Even when he made Metal Machine Music, that was about giving people the opportunity to hear that. It wasn’t showing disdain for people, it was ‘check this out, this is great’. Oh, I was so lucky to meet him and be with him. I consider myself incredibly lucky. And not to have that go on forever? Well… that’s just the situation.

Laurie Anderson is Guest Director at the 50th Brighton Festival, which runs May 7-29. She will premiere new work at the festival, which has a theme of ‘home’. Her new documentary film Heart of A Dog opens in cinemas on May 20, and the soundtrack is available now on Nonesuch Records

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