by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2015 Anil Prasad.
Lili Haydn has experienced the highest highs and lowest lows imaginable across her career. The violinist and singer-songwriter has four acclaimed and diverse albums to her credit. She’s worked with celebrated artists, including George Clinton, Alice Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Bill Laswell, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Sting, and Roger Waters. Haydn has also composed 10 film scores including Anita, The Horse Boy, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, and The House That Jack Built. In addition, she has contributed to countless other soundtracks, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, parts three and four, and The Town.
But Haydn’s impressive achievements and credits were imbued with new perspective after the events that took place on March 31, 2008. It was on that day that Haydn made her debut on the number-one rated Tonight Show, performing music from her just-released album Place Between Places. Elated after that triumphant career moment, she went back to her home in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. She smelled strange fumes but was unsure of their origin. A multi-year ordeal began during which Haydn suffered a severe health crisis that derailed her life and relationships. It also put a halt to her positive career trajectory as she came to terms with the situation, eventually achieving a full recovery.
The experiences, emotions and emancipation related to the incident are captured on Haydn’s latest album LiliLand. The recording serves as a parable and features reflections related to her ordeal and after she successfully emerged on the other side of it. It’s an expansive rock album with pop, funk, dub, and classical influences. Mood-wise, it seamlessly shifts from the ethereal to the thunderous, capturing the mercurial rollercoaster ride Haydn lived through.
The situation that informed LiliLand was far from the first challenging life issue Haydn faced. The Canadian, now living in Los Angeles, is the daughter of renowned comedienne Lotus Weinstock and television producer David Jove. Her father was also notorious for his reputation as one of the first people to mass-produce LSD. Her parents ensured her childhood was never dull as she navigated through scenarios few kids can imagine. Her colorful upbringing was all the more intriguing given her status as an in-demand child actress, beginning at the age of seven. She appeared in Mrs. Columbo, The New Gidget, Easy Money, and a spate of television commercials.
Haydn has also quietly released another recent recording titled Evocations. It’s an instrumental duet effort with pianist and composer William Goldstein. It explores the world of spontaneous composition and reflects the more contemplative side of her muse.
Describe the journey LiliLand chronicles.
I bought a house after I got a record deal for my 2003 album Light Blue Sun. It was in Laurel Canyon. It was a beautiful place, but a real fixer-upper. I threw everything I had into it. I’m the first person in my family to buy a house. My mom had just died and my dad was about to die. I had inherited my grandmother’s grand piano and some of her antiques. The house was an homage to the exquisite aesthetic of the matriarchs in my family. I built a record studio in there and powered it with a separate generator. I did everything right. It was a sanctuary.
I had been living there for five years and was writing and working to promote my 2008 album Place Between Places. It was a tumultuous time. I had just done The Tonight Show to promote the album and when I got back to my house afterwards, something wasn’t right. I started smelling exhaust fumes. I got bronchitis and ear infections constantly. I called people randomly like the Lung Association and mold experts. It wasn’t until I got hold of a wonderful industrial hygienist that the problem was figured out. We determined that the generator powering my recording studio was melting. I was breathing in toxic flame retardant and melting wires. For six months, my immune system had been assaulted by this. In the process of remediating that, I had another set of symptoms. The hygienist brought in a toxicologist who said “Test for Chlordane,” which is used to prevent termites. Sure enough, Chlordane was in high levels in the foundation. As a result of the generator meltdown, the Chlordane had been disturbed and got into the heating and air conditioning system. It contaminated everything I owned. I became chemically sensitive to it.
I had a condition called toxic encephalopathy, which is a neurologic disorder caused by exposure to toxic substances. I got brain damage as a result and lost all my possessions, as well as my sense of self. I’ve always identified myself as a fairly intelligent person capable of conquering and comprehending a lot. But there were times during this saga that I couldn’t do anything but feed our tortoise. I remember going to bed, crying to Itai Disraeli, my partner, “I’m scared. I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
During this process, I realized I wasn’t thinking straight. I couldn’t process left and right. I couldn’t follow simple instructions. I’d lose my way home. I was once in traffic and interpreted the red break lights as meaning go and rear-ended the person in front of me. It was that bad. I also dealt with emotional lability—fits of emotional, erratic behavior. It was fucked up.
But I was very determined to have a full recovery and I got there. I did an intense detox program. I did hyperbaric oxygen therapy, neurotherapy and hypnosis. I engaged with multiple healing disciplines. I’m a believer that there’s value in almost every discipline. I don’t get ensnared by dogma or the institutionalization of anything, but I will investigate almost anything.
As a result of exposure to Chlordane, I moved studios. I sold two cars and rented another 15. I got rid of the majority of my belongings. I was wearing layers of garbage bags in my home, which were my poor man’s hazmat outfits. On the inside cover of LiliLand, you’ll see a photo of me wearing a kind of midriff weird modern outfit. It’s actual garbage bags that I tore and shaped to become a cute outfit to perform in as a sort of triumphant victory against this situation.
Even after all the therapy I engaged in, I still wasn’t thinking straight and I thought I would be like that forever. But I got a gig and started sight-reading classical music. So, there’s a song on LiliLand called “How I Got My Brains Back,” which was inspired by Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto, E minor.” I was playing the Mendelssohn piece just for the sheer technique of it. It ended up yielding a new piece of music and was one of the catalysts for me getting my brains back. It wasn’t until I started practicing my violin and sight reading every day that I actually noticed I was myself again. It was a miracle because I was told the brain damage was probably irreparable. There was intense, timeless gratitude as I noticed the sparks of my mental acuity returning.
LiliLand was my way of chronicling of the evolution that came through this situation. It reflects the spiritual, physical and emotional bodies of Lili throughout it. It traverses the saga of having lost everything, getting it back in the most innocent of ways, and now relating to the world in a much freer and softer way. The chemical didn’t just represent toxicity. It was a metaphor. It was like the resonance of rage that I had in the lineage of my life.
Tell me more about how music spurred your recovery from the brain injury.
It’s hard to say, but what I can tell you is they did electroencephalograms, in which they put electrodes on your head to measure your brainwaves. There are typical waveforms that indicate someone is functioning normally. There are also waveforms that indicate someone is autistic, had a stroke, aphasia or chemical poisoning. When you saw mine, they looked like something a Simpsons character might have. It was weird. I didn’t need the waveforms to tell me I wasn’t thinking right. When I was in detox, I was so confused that I couldn’t figure out how to weigh myself. If they told me to walk down the hall and make a left, I’d make a right and get lost. I was so confused. I was brain damaged as it relates to toxic encephalopathy in which brain cells were killed by the pesticide. I wasn’t processing information correctly.
What scientists have determined is that music actually causes neurogenesis and increases neuroplasticity. So, whether or not I got those same brain cells back, I can’t say. Perhaps because music causes neurogenesis, what happened is I took control of the other 90 percent of my brain and started utilizing that real estate.
I always knew music was my meditation. It’s really my first language. It was the only place I felt I had full permission to express myself. If I’m angry and want to fuck shit up, I can attack my violin and play it through distortion. Music was also the place in which I had something of a meeting of the hearts with my father, who was a sociopath, drug addict, gun freak, and someone with all kinds of borderline personality issues. It was also the place in which I shared the deepest communion with my mom, who was this glorious individual with whom I shared the music of the spheres. Having been an extremely unpopular child, music allowed me to jam and connect with anybody I met. So, there’s never been a question that music is a magical thing and has the power to heal. It’s the closest you can get to the divine.
Career-wise, did you feel it was risky when you initially released LiliLand to publicly state you had suffered and recovered from brain damage?
The truth is, I wanted to tell a story of how I triumphed, rather than focus on the problem. I still cringe when I see headlines like “Lili Haydn Had Brain Damage.” What I was trying to communicate is I lost everything and got it back. I’m a better person now, because I’m not attached to meaningless things. I wanted to use the toxicity as a metaphor for stuff I didn’t need anymore. I now live in a beautiful place by the beach with my soul mate Itai. I saved the Laurel Canyon house through elaborate cleaning and mitigation protocols. I now rent it out. I also started scoring films. Another world was born. Those are the headlines.
But it’s no secret that some members of the media go for the lowest common denominator. I should have been more careful and not been naïve about how I discussed this. I probably should have exercised more control over how the situation had been represented. However, I’ve never shied away from being vulnerable. I think admitting my own vulnerability gives me more empathy, compassion and understanding for others.
I’m not alone in this. I may have lost my belongings to pesticide, but how many people have lost their homes in the last 10 years? How many people have lost everything? How many people have become homeless? Look at the Middle East. We’re also on the precipice of losing everything due to climate change. California has one year of water left. These are real issues. Yet people go about their days blogging, posting pictures of their food, as if none of this exists.
I’ve never been one for small talk. So, I’m going to speak to the zeitgeist. I’m a voice for the voiceless in whatever way I can be. Yes, I wish I could have my grandmother’s beautiful piano back, but I’m grateful to have emerged from this situation as I have. It was risky to talk about it publicly, but everything worth anything has some element of risk to it.
Elaborate on the idea of how this experience further emancipated you from material attachment.
I’ve never been that materialistic. I grew up on welfare. My mom, Lotus Weinstock, was a single mom. My dad, David Jove, would come by and charm us, then terrorize us in consecutive seconds. We lived in a guest house with no kitchen. We washed our dishes in the bathtub. We briefly lived in a commune and it informed my nature. I like to make sure I’m covered, but I’m pragmatic. I'm not trying to drive fancy cars. I don’t give a shit about that stuff. What’s hard to lose is the enchanted stuff. My grandmother’s grand piano had spirits in it, for sure. You’d sit down at it and music would write itself. Honestly, it was really like that. The piano was using you to get beautiful music out. I would really love another piano like that, but I can’t have that piano again.
When you say your dad terrorized you, what do you mean?
My mom was a comedienne. She was the first woman to perform at The Comedy Store. My dad was the first person to mass-produce LSD. He was a borderline personality, which meant he had dissociative disorder. He was Canadian and left Toronto using a dead guy’s passport, running from the law. When he came to the States, I remember being blindfolded as I was driven to his house. He was so rageful and violent. He had guns and machetes all the time. He could also be funny, charming and really talented. He had an exquisite singing voice and was super-handsome and charismatic. He could have a complete soul connection one minute and the next minute threaten to annihilate you with a gun in your face. He did that to my mom. I remember him putting a gun to her face and right after that, shooting himself in the foot by accident.
He was a coke addict. One time, he was angry about something and yelled “Don't you challenge me!” He took out his machete, which he kept by his chair. He thought he took it out of his sheath, but realized it had no sheath, and it cut off his fingers. He got them sewn back on again. He was incredibly resilient and started playing piano again, even though he couldn’t feel his hand. So, that was my dad. My mom used to say “He was the only man in the world who Gandhi would have slapped.” We had the conundrum of being connected to this dark force that was responsible for so much shit.
Give me a snapshot of what your mother was like.
Lotus Weinstock was named Maurey Haydn in the ‘60s and was engaged to Lenny Bruce during the last year of his life. She was devoted to her love nature and the Divine Mother. She was the embodiment of the Divine Mother. She was psychic and could zero in on anybody she met and they would automatically tell her their deepest thoughts. She could, in turn, automatically give them the love they needed. To this day, people write and call me to tell me she changed their lives. She was, in a way, like a saint, yet she was married to this fucking freak. It’s hard to understand.
She was hilarious. She was like Lenny Bruce, but with femininity. She understood the absurdity of life and the lightness of being. She wasn’t as grounded as maybe she could have been. I was the grounded one. I felt like I had to protect her from my dad. She was poised to become a huge star, but a terrible, terrible thing happened at the hands of my dad that got her blacklisted from show business. She cried about it on her death bed.
Describe the experience you’re referring to.
She wrote a book called The Lotus Position. She asked Joan Rivers to write the introduction to it. Rivers was the most successful comedienne at the time. Everybody knew she was somewhat of a saboteur when it came to other comediennes. But my mom asked her to do it. Rivers read the manuscript and said she wanted to write a book just like it and wouldn’t write the introduction.
My mom got the manuscript from Rivers back in the mailbox. But on the manuscript was a note that said “Don’t worry, my lotus flower. I’ll fix this.” And in Rivers’ mailbox was a gruesome, vile death threat. Rivers hired a famous private investigator named Gavin DeBecker to look into it. He supposedly told Rivers that my mom wrote the letter. Rivers turned around and told roomfuls of the most powerful people in Hollywood that my mom wrote the death threat. It got my mom blacklisted from every show. Newsweek had just called her one of the queens of comedy. She was on a trajectory to being very recognized.
My dad denied it, of course. My mom didn’t believe he did it or couldn’t admit to it, because if she did, she would have had to leave him. I think she was also afraid that he was going to kill us if we left him. Perhaps she still loved him. I was nine at the time. In the lore of my childhood, Rivers was the bogeyman and DeBecker was her lapdog, and my dad didn’t write the death threat.
Years after my mom died in 1997, The New York Post wrote an article about Joan Rivers and it regurgitated all the ugly, wrongful, slanderous things said about my mom. One of her friends wrote a letter to the paper saying it was slanderous and that everyone who knew Lotus knew she would never have done anything like that. He got all my mom’s friends, including Jay Leno, Bill Maher and Sandra Bernhard, to sign it, demanding they recant the accusations. It never happened.
A couple of years later, I ran into DeBecker at a party and introduced myself. He said “I never said your mom wrote the letter. I said some crazy guy with black hair who lived in a storefront off of Fairfax wrote it,” which described my dad perfectly. Of course, if he was a private eye worth his salt, he would have known that was my dad and that they were still married. But it occurred to me that in Rivers’ generation, if you were married to a criminal, then you were in cahoots. That, in a way, exonerated my mom. It demystified the bogeyman.
How did your parents influence you?
They both defied category. They were both the black sheep of their families. They both followed their hearts and gave me permission to. I’m never satisfied with anything that doesn’t push the boundaries a little bit. I think by example, I’m always looking a little deeper. In addition to being a comedienne, my mom was a singer-songwriter and a writer. She could turn a phrase in a really special way. She could perform comedy haiku. She was so feminine, profound and edgy. Often, women in comedy tend to take on a more masculine valence, because it’s kind of a masculine art form. But without being self-deprecating, or playing the dumb blonde, she had an adorable softness about her, which she cultivated.
As for my dad, he was a director, philosopher, conspiracy theorist, and small-time drug dealer. He created a show called New Wave Theater, which preceded MTV. It was shot with fast edits, mostly cocaine-induced, but he was a seminal filmmaker. It had an obvious influence on MTV. After that show, he had another one called The Top and he had Bill Murray in it. His proximity to people everybody knew was no accident. It wasn’t because he had cocaine for everyone, though that may have had something to do with it. [laughs] He was also a publisher of Aleister Crowley. My mom used to say he was a renaissance man, which means you never used the word job in his presence. He sold drugs and in his own words “turned the world onto God.” LSD was, for him, a path to God. For a lot of people, it probably was. I’ve never done it, by the way.
On the down side, I had a lot of rage to overcome from the survival mechanisms of dealing with my dad. He wasn’t really in my life that much. But to engage him at all, I felt I had to be something of the same kind of monster. I feel like I’ve finally exorcised most of that. I don’t have rageful anger about things anymore. I still have a bit of righteous anger, but the destructive part has been deactivated. But they were both geniuses. Neither of them were really recognized as they could or should have been. That was hard to reconcile.
LiliLand has a song on it called “My My Cross The Line” with a lyric that goes “You never know the price of freedom, ‘til you are free.” What informed it?
It was one of the first songs I wrote after I got into a new studio during the Chlordane ordeal. What I most wanted to do while I was going through the saga was to have a musical idea and make it happen. So, when I finally had a new studio in which I could play and record, I was so grateful. I’ve always aspired to non-attachment and the softness that comes with spiritual evolution. There’s a freedom that comes from that. Sometimes it also relates to dealing with tragedies. If I knew I was going to lose my mom to a brain tumor and my dad to pancreatic cancer, I would sooner have checked out than deal with things that unbearable. That perspective is why the song also asks the question: “If somebody said this is the exact price of getting to that moment of freedom, would you pay the fee?” Not many people would, because it’s too daunting.
Why did you choose to give a song that deals with such heavy subject matter a rave-up gospel treatment?
I gave it a happy-go-lucky feel to signify the idea of letting go. I had this image of a campfire outside the ruins of a city. It’s kind of a shimmy thing. It wasn’t intentionally gospel. It was a melody that came to me at 4am in the studio. I played the groove and melody for Itai and he came up with that killer bass line. Marvin Etzioni co-wrote and co-produced the song.
Nobody told me until after the song was finished that the melody was very close to the David Essex tune “Rock On.” I didn’t grow up listening to rock. The piece is based on a pentatonic scale like that one. I had no clue and had never heard the song. But it didn’t matter. My publishing administrator said “If you think this could be an important song, go to his publishers.” So, I did, and Essex now owns half the song.
“My My Cross the Line” deals with someone who’s lost everything, while “Did Your Mama (Teach You How to Share?)” looks at materialists who have everything. Describe the perspective it explores.
I was asked to perform at the beginning of the Occupy movement in Washington, D.C. for the We the People Convention. I performed at it and while I was in D.C., they were having hearings on Keystone XL. I went to them with a friend. We were there to be on the side of Keystone XL. While we were there, the Chamber of Commerce was present. So we protested the Chamber of Commerce. There was a four-year old girl there that had a sign that said “I know how to share.” I thought that was just great. I was a political science major at Brown University. I understand the levels of nuance and complexity involved with public policy and how we’ve arrived here. But things aren’t that complicated when you really break things down. The questions are: Can you breathe? Do you have clean water? Do you have enough to eat? Can you learn? Are your basic needs met? It seems to me, breaking things down to the fundamentals, and down to the very basic question of “Did your mama teach you how to share?” is valuable. It’s really easy for progressive people to get really heady and engage in a lot of shaming. I thought it would be more interesting to come from a place of saying “Well, you already have everything. What else is there for you?” That was the essence of it.
What inspired “Sea of Gold?”
I’m really into Joseph Campbell. I really love the idea that myth and imagination inform our subconscious. Our belief systems inform our reality. It can be helpful to have fairy tales, myths and gods. When you do guided meditation or even close your eyes and “imagine what success looks like” as some do, all of it is the manifestation of these nebulous concepts. I love metaphor.
I was watching Bill Moyers’ Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth series. In one episode, Campbell was talking about Carl Jung working with a woman who was very introverted. She couldn’t relate to the world. She would dream about being on a bed of rocks and inside the rocks were all her treasures—her gold. But it was trapped in these rocks. Once she worked with Jung, she felt connected and the rocks opened up and the gold started to flow. I realized from watching that, that I needed a new image and fairy tale if I wanted to connect with people after my ordeal. So, it was very poignant to me—the idea of the gold inside the rocks flowing down the quarry, into a sea of gold. So, a sea of gold was the image that came to me—a primordial soup of connectedness that’s the divine force that created all life.
I understand “I’m a Man” has very deep meaning for you.
This song is the essence of who I am. I was asked to perform it for the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. When I saw the signs the sanitation workers wore when they marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. the night before his assassination in April 1968, I was very moved. They said “I’m a man.” In the face of all the strife and injustice, as they protested for higher wages and fairer working conditions, it simply came down to “I'm a man.” I was in tears for weeks. It was so elegant. To simply say “I'm a human being” is the essence of all my politics and feelings about spirituality. It’s about respect for life and its essence. Can we finally adopt the elegance of that statement? My hope is one day we will.
Tell me about the creative process behind LiliLand. How were you able to channel your energy during this time of trauma into the act of making music?
Music has always transcended career moves for me. Of course, I wanted to make another record because I felt I reached a new plateau on my last album Place Between Places. I got to a new level of being recognized and I wanted to follow it up. But once I was sick and realized perhaps I’ve lost everything and maybe nothing means anything, there was this simple act of making music that helped keep me going.
Phrases, melodies and words would just come to me. I would hear them and capture them. During this period, I had started scoring films too. That came easily to me because I was a child actress. I related to dramatic scenarios very sensitively. It’s very natural for me to be in a scene and react instantly and creatively to the setting. I’ve scored 10 films to date. So, that also influenced me in a positive way as I started making music for myself again.
At 4am in the morning, I would be messing around with sound and having fun with different computer programs and plugins at my fingertips. My studio was in the midst of Hans Zimmer’s studio. There were all sorts of amazing composers, creators and sound designers around. They would come into my room and say “Hey, If you did this…” or “If you tried this synth…” as suggestions. It was really fun. The creative process evolved very organically. It was like the early days of the formation of the Earth within my theory of the planet of LiliLand. [laughs] It was like a flower was blooming again after the nuclear holocaust. There was triumph, gratitude and playfulness.
LiliLand isn’t all heavy. There’s heaviness, but there’s a lot of fun in it as well. It’s a very special album for me. I didn’t have a record company breathing down my neck. My career wasn’t what was driving it. I had stepped out of the game in a way and it all became about a very personal creative process. I definitely wouldn’t have made this record if I had been signed at the time.
Your first three albums were on three different labels. Describe the progression from them leading up to releasing LiliLand independently.
My first record, Lili, was on Atlantic in 1997. I made a second one for the label that never came out. The producer was a fundamentalist Christian trying to simultaneously save my soul and bed me. I have a lot of confidence. Nobody can make me do anything. I can handle myself, but the fact that he was sexually harassing me meant that the record was made under major duress. As a result, the record had no soul. I went to the record label and told them “He’s sexually harassing me.” But they said “Without him, there’s no record.” It was so bad that I got the chicken pox while making the record. It was like a psychosomatic manifestation of the “Get the fuck away from me!” feeling that I had, so that album never got released.
It was very painful to have been dropped by a label as a result of a situation that was at the hands of someone else. But on the other hand, it was a turning point for me. It gave me a more personal relationship to social justice, women’s rights and the importance of taking a stand. Everything I’ve done since has had some social justice affiliation or leaning. I think there’s a causal relationship there.
I floundered for a bunch of years, but started making music again. I had been a session musician and I was in love with Bill Laswell’s music. I was going out with Steve Nalepa at the time, who is now in a band called The Acid. He knew I loved Bill Laswell’s work and said “The next time you go to New York, you have to call him.” So, I did. I played Bill my stuff and he said “Yeah, I think this would be a great record. I’m a consultant for a couple of labels. I’ll shop it around.” So, he brought me to Private Music, Arista and Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures. We determined Private had the best deal for me. So, I made the album Light Blue Sun, which came out in 2003.
I did half of Light Blue Sun in my studio with a couple of producers. I brought that half of the record to Bill, at which point he played on it, as well as did his Laswellian thing to it. I did the rest of the album with Bill. It was cool, but I didn’t have a strategy for the album. I didn't have strategic management, either. I was all over the map. I had just been playing with Josh Groban and P-Funk. Instead of using that mystery as an asset, it looked like I was schizophrenic and didn’t know where to land. The record company didn’t know how to support me and then it folded and I was on my own again.
A bunch more years passed and I picked up the pieces again and made new music. My lawyer introduced my music to Terry McBride at Nettwerk Records and they dug what I did. That was a one-off deal and quite honestly, they didn’t capitalize on what I had with Place Between Places, the album I did for them in 2008. I got on The Tonight Show, through my own hustling. With the exception of Sarah McLachlan, not too many other artists on the label had my degree of visibility. I worked hard to make things happen for the record, but the label never supported it or ran with it. That was disappointing. And after The Tonight Show appearance, I got sick.
I chose to release the new album on my own. It’s on MRI, which is the independent wing of Sony distribution. It’s received some good attention and it’s in the process of being licensed and released abroad.
Alice Coltrane made an incredibly rare guest appearance on “Denied” from Light Blue Sun. How did that come about?
I was a fan of hers. Her album Journey In Satchidananda blew my mind. I knew Bill Laswell knew her and I said “Do you think we can get her on the album?” Bill said “She doesn’t play with people, but I know where she lives. You can go hear her do a sermon on a Sunday and talk to her yourself.” Alice had become a swami and founded her own ashram in Agoura Hills in California. So, I did that.
Before I go into more detail, I should should say that “Denied” is a song my mom wrote. The lyrics go:
The many times I have tried
To live on easy street and been denied
You’ve seen me cry, oh Lord
Swim against the tide, oh Lord
When I have been denied
For every target I have missed
For every angel I have kissed
You’ve seen me try, oh Lord
To be satisfied, oh Lord
When I have been denied
And I've been furious
And I have accepted it
And I have feared my fate
While I’ve projected it
And I have lied my Lord
But mostly deep inside my Lord
When I have been denied
And I've been arrogant
And I have been atheist
And I have sung your praise
With my seductive twist
It was just my pride, my Lord
Made me want to hide, my Lord
It's you that's been denied
Yes, it has been you that I've denied
I didn’t understand the song when my mom was alive. I didn’t relate to it. I wasn’t ready for it. It was only a few years after my mom died and I was going through a hard time that it came smacking me in the head. I realized I had inherited this beautiful piece of art and I had to record it. It was sacred to me.
So, I went to see Alice and I brought a CD of the song and printed lyrics. When I saw her give her sermon, she was impassioned. She was a preacher, in the African-American Baptist tradition, but all the singing was in Sanskrit. She gave a three-hour sermon which actually looked at exactly what my mom wrote about, which was amazing. Then she got on the organ playing passionate stuff. She would talk about God and then all of her disciples would start singing Hindi prayers. It was the full gospel treatment.
I was no stranger to the cross-pollinating of cultures because I’d been in so many of my mom’s strange places. The commune we lived in was an offshoot of the American Sikhs from Yogi Bhajan. My mom was always investigating different disciplines. So, I was comfortable at Alice’s ashram. It felt like people I had grown up with.
I went up to Alice after her sermon and said “I know you don’t play on anybody’s stuff, but this was my mom’s song. I felt like you and she were saying the same thing. I would be so honored if you would consider playing on it.” She listened to it and got back to me and said “This is a beautiful song. I’ll do it.” She recorded it on her own and sent me the tracks. Bill mixed them in.
I was ecstatic and exuberant. This was divinely guided and was bigger than me. I was just delivering my mom’s message. Being a faithful daughter of an angel, this made perfect sense. It’s only with a bit of perspective, realizing she didn’t really play on anyone’s records that I realized how incredibly special it was. People didn’t really get to sit in with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page either, as I got to. I’ve been lucky and naïve. I’ve been in the right places at the right time. There have been little twists of fate that have allowed me to have some unique experiences.
Pharoah Sanders also plays on Light Blue Sun. How did you make that happen?
Bill Laswell invited me to play with Material at a jazz festival in Germany. Pharoah was on the gig as well. I was just so blown away by him. We jammed and it was electric. I was making Light Blue Sun at the time and said “Would you be on my record?” My mom was always instigating and encouraging me. I grew up in show business. In my mom’s world, nobody was better than anybody else. So there was no reason to be intimidated by fame. It didn’t even occur to me that it would be strange to ask Pharoah to play on my record. I had exuberance, good ears, musical sympathy, and empathy. The combination has allowed me to enter a lot of worlds. So, I asked him and he said yes.
Explore the making of Evocations, your recent duo album with William Goldstein.
LiliLand was such a catharsis, personally and artistically, as well as being so labor-intensive and multi-layered. I wanted to make something without it having to be the distillation of my spiritual evolution and second-guessing it. I also wanted to focus on my violin playing, in more of a classical style, completely uncluttered by electronics, sound design and arrangements. Doing a completely improvised duet album without any overdubs or production to hide behind is a more unforgiving and challenging undertaking on a technical level than what we do in the studio, generally speaking, and I welcomed that challenge.
The other catalyst for Evocations was a small disaster while headlining a festival in Los Angeles. I showed up with my full band and production, and the sound was prohibitively bad. There was feedback through the entire set, destroying the arc of the songs and music. It was so unpleasant. I thought, "I never want to do that again." Usually, when I have technical difficulties with computers or electronics, I retreat back to my 200-year-old violin and go practice in the corner. In a way, that's what Evocations is—a retreat back to the core of what I do, which is play this ancient instrument and improvise. I also had to be in especially good technical shape to be ready for whatever inspiration struck us. Improvising in a classical style on a fretless instrument leaves no margin for error. It was a relief and freeing.
William is a unique virtuoso and an accomplished film composer. He has a gift for spontaneous improvisation of complete pieces. There aren’t many people who can do that. He isn’t riffing on the head over established chord changes, like in a jazz style, but in the spirit of the classical composers Bach and Scarlatti. This was a perfect setting in which I could call on all my musical influences and challenge myself to be the best player I could be. It was the perfect antidote to the catastrophic festival gig, and it took just two days to record.
Itai Disraeli is your partner, bassist, occasional collaborator, and frequent sounding board. Provide some insight into your working relationship.
Itai and I met at a festival. He has a wonderful band called Maetar and they’re making music all the time. We do make music together, and we play with each other's bands now, but we didn’t start out playing together because we didn’t want to mess up the relationship dynamic. It wasn’t until he came to my studio one night after the first year of our relationship when I was working on the title track to Place Between Places. I wasn’t sure what its final form would be. I asked him to come up with a bass line for it and he played something that was cool that was jazzy and reflected parallel motion. I said “What if you played something a little more dub against it?” And he threw down something that blew me away. I fell to my knees and said “You’re not going anywhere!” [laughs] I just love what he brings to the music.
I’m kind of a closet bass player. For “Tyrant” on LiliLand, I initially played the bass line on a Moog and gave it to Itai and said “Okay, now fuck this up.” And he did. [laughs] He put the flavor on it and applied all kinds of distortion. It’s really fun to collaborate with him. I’ll also give him my two cents on his music when he wants it and sometimes when he doesn’t want it. [laughs] He’s a real supporter of my vision. Also, when I feel I’m doubting myself, he’s always been there to say “I really respect your ears and what you’re doing. You need to stand by the work. Don’t back down.” It’s always been a real blessing.
Describe your journey from being a child actress to focusing on the violin.
Both my mom and dad were musicians and singers. My dad was a child actor. My mom was in show business, but not famous. I grew up in Hollywood and we were on welfare. My dad didn’t give my mom any money. And though he sold drugs on the side, it was just to get by and have a steady supply himself. So, I started acting as a child. At age seven, I was doing commercials for Jack in the Box and department stores. I was on a show called Mrs. Columbo with Kate Mulgrew.
I was paying for half the rent at age seven. In fact, I remember getting my first paycheck from the first commercial I did. My mom asked me what I wanted to do with it. I said “I want to take some poor people out to eat.” She said “Where should we go?” I had a sense of protecting the underdog even back then.
I had a dream I could play violin and I told my mom. She said she always had a dream that there would be a violinist in the family. My mom honored both dreams. The school I was at wouldn’t let me in the orchestra because I was too little. I was a year younger than everyone and they didn’t have a violin small enough for me. I was heartbroken. I remember my mom picking me up from school and I was crying. She drove me right to the music shop and I picked out a violin that night, paid with money I made from acting.
When we got home, she wrote a song in G major, which is a key I could just play open strings in without having to know how to play. The song was called “Mama’s Pride.” The lyrics went:
All my life, I’ve waited to feel this feeling I’m feeling now
So preciously, you’ve started to play with me, darling daughter
You’re my musical pal
Playing this song with you is what Heaven is to me
I praise the Lord for giving us this gift of harmony
For all the times, my heart’s been satisfied
There’s nothing deeper than a mama’s pride
So, right from the start, I was making music. I heard melodies in my head. I started sitting at the piano and plunking things out. I was doing music and acting for a few years. In fifth grade, I discovered my academic side. I started getting straight As and got into a highly-gifted program. My mom told me I was sleepwalking once and came into a room and said “I’m not smart enough.” I was working my ass off. I was obsessed with academic performance, probably to be perfect enough for dad to give a shit about me.
At one point, I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and got bit by the social justice bug. I got into Brown University and took political science. My mom was so proud. I was the only person to graduate from college in my immediate family. It was my mom who empowered me to run with everything I was passionate about.
I was on a path to becoming a human rights lawyer. My violin was stolen in my senior year. I wasn’t practicing that much anyway. The violin was falling away. But the universe said “Use it or lose it” to me. I freaked out and fell back in love with the instrument. A guy I was dating got me another violin. He had a salsa band and asked me to sit in and that’s when I got the passion for it again. When I returned home from Brown once at age 20, my mom picked me up in Los Angeles and took me to Genghis Cohen, a music club, and I sat in with her friends. Five songwriters came up to me after the show and said “Will you play with me?” So, I went from doing pre-law banking policy studies and never having fit in anywhere to having people engage me intimately within the world of music. I was bitten by the jamming bug. There was no going back.
Why didn’t you continue pursuing the acting path?
It was a mutual separation. I wasn’t passionate about it. Music and academics were way more compelling for me. I wasn’t a classic ingénue. The parts I was being sent out for weren’t inspiring, for the most part. I did some things that were cool, but I thought “Why should I spend my days auditioning for stupid sitcoms when I could be playing Brahms and be in ecstasy with music?” I missed the paychecks and hustling to become a successful musician was a lot harder than getting a commercial.
You opened for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s 1998 U.S. tour and also played with them on their 1994 tour. How did those opportunities come about?
In 1994, I met a band in Los Angeles that was opening for Page and Plant in San Diego. So, I went to the San Diego show on the train without any place to stay or any plan other than to see the show. They had a ticket and backstage pass for me. When I was backstage, I asked to meet Page and Plant and was told “That’s not going to happen.” [laughs] It turned out the Egyptian percussionist in the band was someone I had played with a couple of years earlier. He recognized me and called me over to meet them. I had my own gig at the Viper Room in Los Angeles the next night. I had a flyer for it and gave it to Plant. [laughs] So, the next night, I did my gig and Page, Plant, their entire band and entourage came to the show. I was invited to go out for a meal with them the next night. When we did I said “Can I sit in with you guys?” [laughs] They said “Yeah, do you know ‘Kashmir?’" I said “Of course!” But I didn’t know it. [laughs] I didn’t grow up with rock. I grew up with classical music and my mom’s music. When I heard them do it with the Egyptian orchestra, I flipped out. I couldn’t believe how cool it was. So, I learned it and got to play with them in Los Angeles.
A few years later, I was in England. I got hold of Plant’s publicist and said “I’m in town.” Plant heard and got back to me. He said “We were just thinking we need somebody like you to open for us in the States.” And I got the gig. It was only supposed to be for a handful of dates, but they went really well and they kept me on for the whole three-and-a-half-month tour. They were really supportive.
Is your decision to cover “Kashmir” on LiliLand related to that experience?
Yes, but I wasn’t going to do it initially because there are so many covers of “Kashmir.” A friend convinced me to. He said I had a right to do it because of my experience with Page and Plant. So I did it to tell the story and also because it’s a really fun song. People love it. I feel like I did a good job on it. There’s no guitar on it. I liked the idea of covering Zeppelin without guitar. I also remember bringing in Matt Chamberlain to play drums on it. He said to me “I’m not going to play Bonham’s part.” I agreed with him, but knew that Bonham’s part is part of the composition of the song. How can you not have that backbeat? But Matt came up with something that wasn’t the Bonham part but was equally compelling. I’m really happy with how that came out.
In 1998, you also performed with Spinal Tap, amusingly, at the annual meeting of the National Organization of Women. What led to that appearance?
My mom was friends with that whole comedy community. I once sat in with the Spinal Tap guys when they did a show as The Folksmen. In 1998, when they played as Spinal Tap for that National Organization of Women show, they asked me to sit in again. It was a one-off. It was a benefit to support the Equal Rights Amendment movement. So, someone decided Spinal Tap would be funny as the opener. You don’t book Spinal Tap to be politically correct. They started with “Bitch School” followed by “Big Bottom.” [laughs] Feminists aren’t known for their sense of humor. Half of the crowd was silent and horrified. Half were tepidly laughing. I thought it was the funniest thing ever. I didn’t think I would even make it on stage given the way things were going, but I ended up playing on a couple of songs.
Tell me more about the political perspectives that inspire your music.
They have to do with basic human rights. I’m something of a workaholic, for better or worse. I applaud work ethic, but none of that has anything to do with recognizing the divinity in someone else’s soul or when you see life across from you. When life is in your midst, we must honor it. And that means respecting human dignity, in whatever way we can. Because of the nature of money and politics, it’s almost impossible to change the system from within. There are only a handful of people I know who have an interest in doing that like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
So, I’m an activist for love, in a way. I can talk public policy and I protest. I put my body on the line as much as I can at different marches. I’m sure I’m on every government list. I do it all because I simply wish we would respect each other. I realize when an animal is scared, it can’t be loving. Humans are the same. It doesn’t matter if you have billions of dollars. If you’re scared, you probably aren’t going to be able to feel your own humanity, much less the divinity of life in front of you.
I thought I was going to become a human rights lawyer, but I realized when I made music, people seemed to respond in a way that made them nicer. And if they can feel their own hearts more, they can feel more of the hearts around them. My mom used to say “The Bible said ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself,’ but if you don’t like yourself, your neighbor’s in trouble.” So, essentially, that’s why I make music.