Dead Can Dance cofounder Lisa Gerrard is every bit as regal as her music would have you believe. Kosta Lucas was bestowed with privilege of talking to her about the themes of her group’s long overdue new work: the idea of life as an eternal cycle of recurring events – and how to break it.
A conversation with Lisa Gerrard is certainly a special kind of encounter. Throughout our chat she displays the same gravitas and elegance that is present in her work as the vocalist for the world-fusing, time-shifting chamber music duo Dead Can Dance. However, as she waxes lyrical about the group's latest release, Anastasis, she's refreshingly warm and gracious in her explanations. Maybe it's because for the last 30 years she has never lost sight of what she has previously called her “arrogant vision”, and no matter how she does it, she knows how to communicate it on some level. “[Dead Can Dance] always had something that's driven the vision, and the holistic nature of what we want at the end of this journey, so that it feels like a book in a sense,” says Gerrard.
For the uninitiated, acts like Dead Can Dance rose to prominence in the international independent music scene in the early '80s on the legendary label 4AD. These groups were the ethereal and otherworldly alternative to the thoroughly modern and dour New Wave of the time, and their legacies endure to this day (most visibly within genres with wanky names like 'dream pop' and 'avant pop'). Gerrard was one of a stable of artists who laid the foundations for 'indie' music as we recognise it today; a fringe artist who's uncompromising vision got noticed and actually touched people. “There has always been something liberating about living outside of the kind of boundaries, of the simplification of Western music.” She clarifies her position, protesting, “I love Western music! But when it comes to writing things… you want to explore. It opens up a completely new window of where you can take things.” And like any true creative, she adds, “We just get very bored with 4/4. It's all swings and roundabouts, really. Let's get out of the box here.” Little wonder then that Gerrard has had such a long career. Her ability to collapse any number of musical epochs and cultures into singular transcendental musical moments (with Dead Can Dance or otherwise) has seen her collect serious accolades for her work (one being a Golden Globe in 2000 for Best Original Score for Gladiator) and amass an unrelenting international cult following ever since.
As we speak, Gerrard is about to embark on the second half of a world tour in support of the duo's long awaited release of Anastasis, their first in 16 years. There doesn't appear to be a cataclysmic event that caused the duo to part ways all those years ago. The pair's lives simply moved in completely different directions, with distance being a huge factor (Gerrard lives in Australia, Perry lives in England). After the recording of Spiritchaser the “creative tissue” that bound them wasn't there anymore. But the so-called tissue eventually healed itself, albeit very slowly. Starting with a phone call from Perry to Gerrard during the Victorian bushfires to check if she was okay, the process of artistic exploration between the two started again almost by accident. A lot of things can change over time, so it's unsurprising that it has resulted in the duo taking a slightly different approach. “Over the years with the albums that we've made, there have been conceptual properties within each piece of work that link them and it's all, you know, centred and very directional… this one isn't.” The album, whose title is the Greek word for 'resurrection', is an earthier, fuller-bodied affair than past efforts as the majority of it is rooted in the more percussive Mediterranean musical traditions of Ancient times. “Brendan did a lot of research into Greek scales, into rembetiki scales and rhythms to explore for this work”, she explains, “but there are other classical influences (for example, the more Celtic-sounding Return of the She-King) that wouldn't be called Mediterranean or that are just purely something that's developed within the context of how Brendan writes or how I write.”
Anastasis seems like an appropriate title for a group who have come back after a very long absence, but Gerrard insists that the album's message is not meant to be so self-referential or simple. “It has many different facets to it, it's not just about resurrection; it's about the cycle of life” she says. “It can also be the metaphor used in wanting to learn from the things that we've experienced instead of living in the absolute now.” Anastasis, is not about dwelling on the past so much as it is about using it to uncover the long forgotten truths that are clues to unlock our future. “[It's about] looking back 400 years and saying, 'Well, how did mankind go through different periods of time, through wars and through their cultural identity and what did they achieve? Things can be reborn and these ideas can be kept alive, and nurtured and reborn, [but] there is a certain repetition as to what happens with human ignorance.” It's a worldview which implies that life repeats itself if we choose to ignore the mistakes that have invariably been lived-out before. If Anastasis seeks to resurrect anything, its life's actual truths, not self-serving rewrites of history. “It's that kind of information… that we should be looking for. That's what Brendan is talking about in [album track] Amnesia; how we choose to forget.” In fact, Gerrard's own explanation about what she hoped to gain with the creation of Anastasis somewhat echoes its message. Instead of starting from scratch, she too seeks to give new life to new situations using the lessons of events passed. “When you've been doing music as long as we have as well, the last thing you want to do is reinvent yourself. You want to put an absolutely exquisite, exotic, complex world of music out there, that if you have a musical soul or if you have an artistic soul, it will resonate or communicate something with you.” This feeling is what she later describes rather poetically as “something that becomes the chariot for the soul tissue.”
Given how rare a Dead Can Dance tour in Australia is (this is their first Australian tour since leaving here in the early '80s), many a chariot will no doubt be racing towards their shows. The duo's upcoming tour, which starts off in Australia and ends in Japan, throws Gerrard straight into what looks like a very busy 2013. And luckily for her fans, we're being treated to the fruits of other projects she's been working on. “[After] a little break, I go to Poland to work with Stephen Friesner, who's a Polish composer – he's wonderful. We've just done an album together so we're going to do some performances of that… And then Dead Can Dance gets back together in about mid-April and it starts over again [with] some big festivals and about six more weeks in Europe.”
Dead Can Dance will be playing the following dates:
Sunday 3 February - Opera House, Sydney NSW
Monday 4 February - Opera House, Sydney NSW
Wednesday 6 February - Palais Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 9 February - Perth International Arts Festival, Perth WA