Yeah, I have friends who send me URLs about writing projects and I send back notes that say: "The words 'work for hire' came up in their contract." And I was done.
Percy: That's right. As an artist, you have to approach the work from the perspective that you do it because you have no choice and you love it. Number one. If your stuff isn't getting played on the radio or isn't getting reviewed, at a certain level that shouldn't matter because there has got to be an intrinsic motivation to create beauty. That has to be there. When it's not there, then it isn't artistry, it is entertainment. I'm a little hard-headed about that. I have this aesthetic discussion with people and they're like: "Who are you to say that Madonna isn't an artist?" Well, I don't think she is an artist. I think she falls more under 'entertainer.'"
It's a product that is being marketed.
Percy: Yeah, it's product. And she's very, very good at gauging what people want and delivering it to them. As far as deep artistry? Come on, if this was a culture that really recognized artistry, someone like Diamanda Galas, someone like Jarboe, someone like Scott Walker, they would be selling a lot more records. But they don't.
It's a committment from the audience that's not there.
Percy: Yeah, it's difficult stuff. You can't just throw it on and groove to it.
You can't just put it in the car when you drive to work.
Percy: (laughing) Well, I do.
You might drive off the road.
There's an anecdote floating around that record label executives would go to their jobs during the day and push the latest Backstreet Boys and then put on Tom Waits when they get in the car for the drive home because they wanted to hear some real music.
Percy: Some of them do. There's a guy named Stephen Saporta in New York and he's a big agent. He's got a list of clients that you would not believe. Bill passed on to him some of my stuff from Nûs and this guy just came out of his skin. "This guy is great. This guy is a genius." About two years ago, a meeting was set up in Manhattan. During the time we were recording Meridiem--last day actually. I go to this meeting and he's got this uptown office. I sit in the lobby and he's got this beautiful lobby, nice looking receptionist, the whole bit. She says: "Mr. Saporta will see you" and I go in and he starts to schmooze me. "The music is great. The songwriting is great. But I don't think I can sell it. Who's going to want to release it? Do you think you could do this? You think you could do this?" The same old stuff. And this guy really likes my work. I have no doubt that he actually listens to it on his own time. What these people do is invariably underestimate the open-heartedness and intelligence of the average person in the sense that if you put it out there to them, they may not glom onto it immediately, but people do like warmth and beauty even if it is somewhat indecipherable to them.
For example, a lot of people at my day job are always curious as to what I'm doing because they'll see an article in the paper, they'll hear about my records, they'll pick up a magazine, and they'll ask to hear it. And they'll say: "You know it's really different, but you have a beautiful voice." People are going to go out and get what is put in front of them. That's what they're going to do. That's why there are so many people that go to the Backstreet Boys and the 'N Syncs and the clones and the clones of clones because that's what's out there. Some of these kids have never even heard Sarah Vaughn. If they hear Sarah Vaughn, they might like it. But they're not going to hear it. That's the thing. It's just easier to regurgitate the same old stuff and spoon-feed the people. It doesn't take any thought, commitment or preparation.
It's this nasty self-perpetuating machine.
Percy: At a certain level, you accept it and then subvert it. For me, taking a cue from Laswell, my whole thing is: you can't worry about it. I'm able to make at least one record a year. Sometimes two or three. Just get the work out into the air. Get it out into the world. And let it do what it's going to do. And be happy with yourself regardless.
I think it shows in the product. When I'm working on a project that I don't have a vested interest in and let people read it, they come back to me and say, "Your mind wasn't in this. I can tell." And other projects really get people excited. They can't sell them because they can't pigeonhole them, but they're enjoying them inonetheless.
Percy: And you can't worry about it. Things have a way of creating their own lifeforce. I feel very fortunate in that I'm having the kind of career that I really want to have. I get to work with the people I want to work with. Every year more people know who I am and appreciate my work. The flip side of this is that no artist wants to be the proverbial one hand clapping. We don't want to do that. You have a need to share yourself. But why do you have to have millions and millions of people acknowledging your greatness or your genius? That's kind of beside the point.
It becomes a question of which to acknowledge: the fact that you can sing or that you can entertain a million people or that your songs are beautifully constructed.
Percy: Right. Or are you just the flavor of the moment? With me though, the connectivity is so important. And with live playing, you can really feel that connectivity with the audience. I enjoyed the Seattle show more than the other two shows that we did because after the first two songs we could feel there was this connectivity--this shift--and they were all there. And we talked about this after the show. A lot of people in the room were doing the vibe of "who is this guy? Is he going to mess up what I like about Bill and Fred?" I knew that people were going to do that. There was just this fidgeting nervous spiritual energy and then after the first two songs, it was just gone. And that is a nice moment. Anyone who is a musician and who wants to share his art loves that. We all had a great time with that show because we could feel that connectivity.
They've done a real nice job with that space. It's intimate enough that you can feed off the vibe of everyone else.
Percy: Oh yeah, I love it. We'll be back in January with this project I'm doing with Jarboe and Rieflin.
Let's talk about the songs. "The Seventh" from the Meridiem album.
Percy: That's not my lyric. It's by a Hungarian poet by the name of Attilla Josef. The way I came up on him is really interesting. There's a book by George Klein called Pieta--a study of suicide. It takes all these figures--these people--and looks at why they committed suicide. One of the focuses of the study was Attilla Josef, a relatively unknown poet who was just amazing. He had a lyrical gift that was astounding. There are only about eight of his poems that have been preserved. He died in 1941. When I read this lyric in Pieta, it just totally attached to me. There is this whole issue about seven being a holy number. The song just brings out this theme of this progression, when you see this thing happening and being in this space to maximize it in the holiest way--in the best way. Being there at the right time. It's all about synchronicity. There is a certain kind of Godliness infused in every moment and this really attracted me to the lyric. And I thought there has got to be some way to sing this. I just brought it in to the guys and we worked it out.
You also used Josef on "Lament" from All the Vertical Angels.
Percy: Right. Same thing. It came from my reading of that same book. The thing about "Lament" is that it is a juxtaposition of Josef and kind of the spirit of Langston Hughes. At the same time I was reading the two part biography of Langston Hughes (The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander). In the early '30s Hughes wandered the deep south of the United States and he archived all these old spirituals so that they wouldn't be lost. I was just musing about these two men who were very similar; they were alive at the same time, they were both poets of experience and being, and they both wrote about some very sad things in an elevated and joyful way. So I came up with "Lament." Some of it is an old spiritual--an old blues thing--and then some of it is Josef's poetry. It was a way to fuse these two poets who I really admire and respect into one being for that song. Kind of a channeling of their intent.
It's a stripping down of so much of the material and the omnipresent technologically forward-rushing world into this sense of pure simplicity. It's the line "Embrace, or kill the one you love," which I just can't get out of my head.
Percy: That's it. That's really the choice. That's what we do. That's what you do when you're faced with that. You're faced with that in relationships. This is my second marriage. I was married before for almost eleven years. My wife now and I have been married a year. We were together for almost four. I'm extremely happy in this relationship because we are very conscious and we accept loving each other on another level beyond just the superficial. We've gotten to this next level where it is an extreme acceptance of the other. And it is my goal to get to this level with everyone. Because then you are free. You're really free. It's amazing how that line operates with people in a live setting. We did this festival in Italy in 1996--the Time Zones festival--and we did "Lament" differently than we usually do. We did it real quiet at the end. I just kept repeating that line. You could just see it working on people. It was amazing. (laughs) They were mesmerized by it; some people were really uncomfortable, some were really moved. People know that. That's true. They all know the tiny violences and joys that we foist upon one another.
On a very literal level when you first hear that lyric, you can't escape the visceral and violent reaction which it brings to mind. But it is only after it works on you a bit that you realize that it isn't necessarily a physical death, but it's a spiritual death. If you don't embrace that love, then it isn't going to last.
Percy: It's not going to last. It's not going to stay. Relationships are like flowers and plants. You got to prune them, you got to water them, you got to weed them.
One of my other notes here was to ask you about your Muse, whether or not it was your wife.
Percy: You know, the Muse is variable. Sometimes it is. I wrote "Under the Wonderment" on Incidental Seductions for Andi. Sometimes the Muse is other things. It's just the Spirit. We did "Seraph Song" [from Incidental Seductions] and that's just a deep attachment to an angelic presence that is difficult to describe. So the Muse shifts and morphs. Sometimes it is circumstances; sometimes it is pain and tragedy. So the Muse morphs to wherever I'm at. I'm one of those writers--I'm like a lot of writers I think--I don't do my best work when I'm giddily happy.
(laughs) Of course not.
Percy: Even if you're writing about love. It doesn't generally come from that.
Usually I'm not even writing when I'm giddily happy.
Percy: I'm trying to work on that. I've got to force myself to write something when I'm ecstatic. Just to see what comes out. Generally when I do that I think it sucks.
'Cause you look and go: "Wow. That is just too sappy."
Percy: Yeah, too saccharine.
A lot of the songs about personal relationships come off as very involved. I feel almost voyeuristic in some ways listening to them because I'm aware that it is not my relationship. It is the singer's relationship with someone else and that person is a very lucky person because there is a connectivity there that is transcendent.
Percy: Yeah, Andi inspires a lot of that. Some of it too is a universal wanting, some of it is experiences I've had in the past. I've been fortunate in that I've had some very good experiences in my life and that's good. You encapsulate and learn from it. I'm also one of these people who is very good at reverie and projection. Some of this stuff isn't always grounded in complete fact. You take the two part cycle "Thirst" and "Succubus" [on Incidental Seductions]. Now, I've not had any relationships that awful. I know people who have been put through the wringer and seen the pain and tragedy. You see how the masochist/sadist dyad really wrecks people.