The Anna Papers: Somewhere beyond words with Anna Domino
Hearsay #14b / 1996 / Email interview with Neil and Ewen


"If only my brain could record, not just play back"

Dusk-infused chanteuse ANNA DOMINO has shuffled genres as deftly as she spans continents. Her oeuvre embodies three full-length albums and several EPs alongside collaborations with The The, Virginia Astley and The 6ths. To coincide with the latest chapter in her other-worldly story, the compilation Favorite Songs From the Twilight Years, Neil and Ewen exchanged observations and dream therapy with Anna, currently residing in New York City...

HEARSAY: It's a long time since we last heard from you. Where have you been for the past six years?
ANNA DOMINO: Having spent a decade working within the twilight zone of Crepuscule Records in Brussels, where nothing was what it seemed, I found leaving them nearly as complicated. It kind of forced me into inaction. So I went to Paris, and stayed for a while; it was seductive but not entirely life-like. Then came home to New York and worked at things... Then put together a band with Michel Delory (from Brussels) on guitars, Peter Principle (from Tuxedomoon) on bass and Hearn Gadbois (from NYC and has worked with everyone) on dumbek and other percussion. We played in lower Manhattan for a year or so then Peter went on to other things and the rest of us continued. I wrote songs, sent demos to people... We played in Los Angeles and at festivals in the US. It was great being a band but we needed a development. Then about a year ago I started something else entirely (to confuse my luck) and called it Snakefarm. A Canadian company came forward to sponsor our efforts and promptly found themselves luckless as us (money) — though they're releasing a compilation from our time on Crepuscule called Favorite Songs from the Twilight Years 1984 -1990 (crepuscule is 'twilight' in French) that should be out now. So, with several records writ and not a dime to stand on we keep banging away on that door. And then there's life...

Your albums embody so many genres, from jazz to electro-pop to folk, each one different from the last. How far is this an attempt to try on different hats, and how much is it a gradual evolution of your sound? Do you get closer to your vision with each album or do you simply want each to succeed on its own terms?
I used to marvel how so many bands could appear at the same time with the same sound (and still do). How did they know? Though I've loved the sounds I've never been part of anything at all. Ask my friends. I will wear any hat (if it's pretty). I think there are hints of all these genres on each record. Some, if not more, of the difference between each is due to the other people present than any conscious change in my songwriting, which is unconscious. And then there are my subjects which are always the same five. The vision part, the distillation of a theme comes slowly but comes. Writing music, for me, is always about describing a place, the same places over and over, the same emotional atmospheres in landscapes — you do get closer to that.

Last night I dreamt I was going to look again for a place I was once. It's very pretty there and very hard to find. Down a stretch of dirt road there's a path off to the left that you must follow for a long time till it eventually... I never remember, but it's worth everything to get there so I go, wondering if anyone would know what I meant if I could put it on film (I know I'm asleep but plan to bring a camera next time). Then it was night and freezing on a path, through trees glazed with ice along the edge of a cliff, till I came out above houses with red tile roofs. The sun was up and the roofs were covered with small screaming birds. They were little pterodactyls (no feathers) and they were hungry. As usual they were eating each other; having exhausted the supply of smaller birds they had to feast on their own. I knew if I stepped out it would be a mess so I took one tiny body with me, turned back and woke up exhausted.

In my sleep I often look for the turn off to the left, am sure I was there once and, though there's something faintly frightening about it, know it will bring me to the prettiest place, which I know, when I wake up, is death.

Your nationality is appealingly indetermi­nate. From the odd biographical notes we've gleaned you seem to have hailed from Canada, Japan, continental Europe and New York. Obviously you now reside in NYC but do you feel it's home? And how far are your musical travels a reflection of your physical travels?
Yes, elsewhere am I. Travelling is so easy and it cures many ills but it can turn disorienting. That sinking feeling when you realise you've got it all wrong — reminds me of another dream (sleepy?) ... I was very proud of my three headed rat costume. There was a head on each hand so when I held them out I was a candelabra of rat. In my costume I dared to go down in the basement. But as I descended the stairs I knew I was losing control of the heads. I've learned how to wake myself up, the 'smell' hangs around for days. But then in another dream: having slaughtered an entire family (and uncles, aunts and pets), I stepped out of the double-wide house trailer and turned off the chain-saw. The sun was coming up as I set out over the fields towards the fence and freedom. (I didn't want to kill them, I had to.) I got to the fence and stepped oyer, surprised to have made it. Then I woke up and moved to another country.

But to answer your question... no, wait — have you been to New York? What does home mean to you? Are you home? No. New York is not home (that's part of its charm) and I am glad to hear indeterminate nationality called appealing. Travelling gives you ideas and room to think. As a kid, I always tried to conform to wherever we were; many costume changes later I can pass but not belong. You certainly learn a thing or two about who you aren’t. There's oblivion in all that movement. Here's another question —what do you do with the people you love when you keep moving and they stop living? There is not a patch of grass for miles you'll see twice, so the urn sits on your kitchen table, or the window sill, or a top shelf... You can't put them in a drawer. And even though they may have requested it, the river is suddenly, and obviously, a sewer. And the ocean is a surface you don't really want to be under. Mix their ashes in the potting soil and plant flowering things?

Do you think an outsider can unravel the mysteries of America better than a bona fide American, in the way that, say, Wenders achieves in Paris, Texas?
In the sense we can't see what's in front of us, yes. America is a myth. All history is tall tale for that matter. The people here first have to recreate themselves from fragments. The people who followed by volition or violation make a lot of noise right now and live in a very young culture. We get to dress up as a variety of fictional characters and eat deep-fried food, like children. The cowboys out on the range wear those ten-gallon hats and them pointy boots as much because they've seen the movie as for any larger purpose. Same difference here in NYC — all dressed in skinny black or huge sportswear. The thing you realise once you leave anywhere is how much you're defined by your language, looks, clothes and mannerisms. And though you aren't the sum of those, how little you'd have without them. That desolate thing is America. It's not hard to find your metaphor in or of it, but can you see how big, how huge it is? USA is for whatever you want to find, or don't. We need new meanings for these letters (universal symbol approxima­tor? under sun, anything? utterly slavish acquisitiveness?). There's simplicity here, at least single-mindedness, that will be clouded in time with increasing, and relevant, gripes. Bye bye empire, hello civil strife (and adulthood?). But you asked me a question. I think America is a great place to hide and certainly someone from elsewhere would find it easier to turn over a rock, unafraid of what they'd find, because they can retreat from it, unlike someone who must call it home (except David Lynch and Primus and...). I predict that in a hundred years the USA will be three countries, or six, each heavily armed against its immediate neighbour.

Your repertoire has included some devastating covers. What draws you to songs like Aretha's Land of My Dreams and Jesse Winchester's Isn't That So?
Like most people I am my own radio station, usually repetitive, sometimes surprising. These two songs came into my head sporting new arrangements when I was able to record them. It happens a lot but there's seldom an opportunity to get it down. I am lucky to get a few in edgewise. There is so much to be done! If only my brain could record, not just playback.

Which brings us neatly on to your new project: Snakefarm. Tell us a little about the project; the band you've assembled and the choice of material...
Years of research have led me to the obvious. When I was twelve I took guitar lessons above a shop called The Blue Note from an old-looking man who sat and smoked and had me listen to the classics. Scratchy old blues and folk records; songs of drunk wives and trains and murder and trains and jail and heroes, on trains. Michel and I arranged it and invited a band called Lazy Boy to play on it, as well as other old friends. We aren't quite done. Early 1997 I'd say.

The appeal of the songs you cover with Snakefarm is traditionally one of reflective melody, yet, from the tracks we've heard so far, you seem to have taken a dramatically different approach, playing down the melodic lines and constructing your performances around rhythms or grooves. Was it important, when recording well-known songs, to reinvent them? And what of yourself do you hope to invest in the songs?
These songs have been around. Some go back to British street ballads. Others came down from the Appalachian hills. They have dozens of verses and different melodies and everyone who sings them changes them a little, makes them theirs. My grandfather sometimes sang after

dinner, same melody for every song and often a new verse or two. You are, no doubt, familiar with some renditions provided by saints: Woody Guthrie, Huddie Leadbetter, Cisco Huston, Barbara Dale and Odetta. What do I hope to invest? "NOW." These songs remain relevant, moving and scary. To keep them from becoming relics they get reinterpreted every few decades. I used a strong rhythm section because I love that and don't get much chance to with my own melody-centric music. Mostly the songs adapted themselves, some got a little bent, but not irreparably. One lullaby went over a Black Sabbath drum loop, but it works. They're unusual arrangements but they're still just variations on our ancient themes. And it is so much fun!

We first heard your voice emanating from The The's Infected album. And, most recently, you've worked with Stephin Merritt on the 6ths release. How did these collaborations arise?
They each called me out of the blue, I sang the parts and wished there was more — I love collaborating. For The The we were in a tiny, fancy, recording studio here in NYC. You could watch yourself on a big screen in front of the control board which we thought was hilarious. For the 6ths, Stephin sent an ADAT tape, I worked alone, then he came over and we talked for hours about other things. There was one 6ths performance which was fun, but exhausting for Stephin (12 singers!). I sent Snakefarm to Matt after I heard his Hanky Panky tribute to Hank Williams. He liked it enough to tell me so. These days he's just down the street, working and worrying about the hardest part of his record, the words. We will meet next week to discuss lyric strategy (good idea don't you think?)... Stephin, when in town, stays with relatives and doesn't give out the number. He is shy and knows, whether he knows it or not, the importance of keeping to yourself. He appears fragile but is really focused on what counts — work and love — and that takes a lot of concentration.

You've been backed throughout your career by Michel Delory. What can you tell us about him? What kind of a working relationship do you have?

In 1984, his roommate was my bass player. I wrote most of what became This Time at their house. I didn't know him till he toured with us in 1986, playing guitar. After that he started arranging with me, then he produced Coloring, now he does a lot of computer programming, hence our web site. We've been married four years and are just learning to really work together. I haven't figured him out (he is very quiet) but that mystery part is more fun than anything. He's the only thing I trust and something very else.

How about Anton Sanko? What in particular did he bring to Mysteries of America?
We had a mutual friend who played him a song I was working on (and still am). He liked it, we met and discovered a mutual history in bad jokes. He is a very funny man and a real professional. Without him Mysteries wouldn't have happened — he gave it depth sound-wise and had a lot to do with the arrangements. The engineer, Denny McNerney, has a very good ear I think, very clear, lots of room. Suzanne Vega let us work at her house, despite the odd and endless hours. Anton put all this together. I hope to work with him again. Somehow that first song he heard, Stick and Stone, never got finished. It will show up yet.

We've always loved the sleeves of your releases, particularly those on Anna Domino, Coloring the Edge and Mysteries of America. Did you know the artists personally and were they specially commissioned?
They are all by the same artist, Benoit Hennebert. He is a recluse and a genius of sorts. Before the Anna Domino cover he came over and we watched a couple of Russ Meyer films, for some reason. Then he left and several days later I saw the painting that became the cover [pictured]. It is me and my apartment but it's beautiful. I wished I was there. For Coloring... I gave him a photo, of a girl clinging to a riverbank, which he painted on. All the other images are his and the font. Mysteries took a while as I was in
New York by that time. We had to send ideas back and forth. It started with the image at the beginning and end of the movie Blue Velvet (flowers, a fence and a big blue sky). I rented the film, took pictures of the screen. He sent paintings. I took photos of a play house. He arranged objects. We spent hours trying to describe colours over the phone. Then he cut out shapes and painted them in intense pigment. The colour of blue of the sky took the longest. I wish you could see his other work, it turns up in coffee table books of record sleeves a lot, Crepuscule is him.

Who or what has had the profoundest influence on you, artistically? Do you draw inspiration from fields outside music — cinema, literature and art?
Influences aren't the same as inspiration, are they? They're hard to separate. NYC is my biggest inspiration, followed by everything else. I don't get out much because when I do it takes a while to get back. Movies are hardest, especially scary ones. A week after seeing one I'm still dreaming it. A friend told me recently she thinks frightening films are replacing our myths — yet more work for the analyst who must trace the patients' dreams to Hammer horrors and Hellraiser. I have to be careful about music sometimes. The same way movies slip into your dreams and actors seen on the street are mistaken for people you actually know, someone else's sound can change my mind. I work on instinct and don't question my motives when writing so it's only later I'll realise I've lifted a passage from something I heard at the time. This is a fine way to start (arranging puzzles) but I'm after my own sound now. And then major influences are like exposure to the sun, whether or not you get melanoma once you're grown up has more to do with what you soaked up as a child. All I know is only music is strong enough to take me out of myself and make me glad — and it's time I wore my own hats, wouldn't you say?

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