Multimedia artist Laurie Anderson takes on life, death and the afterlife in her new autobiographical feature-length film, Heart of a Dog. Using stories from her childhood, her mother’s deathbed speech, Tibetan teachings, literary influences and other memories and current events, she makes connection after connection, often triggering the viewer to think back to earlier moments in the film.
So what does it have to do with a dog? It’s anchored by Lolabelle, the rat terrier she and late husband Lou Reed made part of their family and became an experimental artist herself. Yes, the dog, Lolabelle, who died in 2011, played piano and performed publicly — just like her homo sapien parents.
The film began as a short, about the meaning of life and work, commissioned by Luciano Rigolini of Franco-German TV network Arte after Anderson did a performance in Paris with Lolabelle. “How about some of those stories about your dog? That’s philosophy, no?” he apparently asked.
Narrated by Anderson, one of eight siblings, we learn that she rescued her two brothers from drowning, in a lake and that she was told she would never walk again after a diving accident. Some memories, as she explained, had morphed or were suppressed until she saw old photographs and 8mm home movies and then even smells and sounds came back.
The film soundtrack includes Anderson’s violin compositions, plus “The Lake” and “Flow” from her 2010 album Homeland, “Rhumba Club” from 2001’s Life on a String, “Beautiful Pea Green Boat” from 1994’s Bright Red, and excerpts from Landfall, her 2011 collaboration with Kronos Quartet. It ends with Reed’s “Turning Time Around” from 2000’s Ecstacy.
Heart of a Dog opens Oct. 21 in New York, Nov. 6 in Los Angeles and then theaters throughout the rest of the country over the following weeks. It will air on HBO in 2017.
Billboard talked with Anderson in Toronto about a range of topics — Lolabelle, storytelling, sadness, memory, and Lou Reed.
If this [interview] is for Billboard, this is going to be a record. And only by fluke because I was working on the film and since I come from the music world, I said, “Now I’m going to master the soundtrack,” and the guy who was doing it, Greg Calbi, I think he just assumed it was going to be a record because I hadn’t mentioned this was a film and at the end of the session he said, “I love your new record.” And I said, “Record?” It hadn’t occurred to me that I could make a record.
Will it include the songs from your earlier records that are in the soundtrack or just the score?
Just the score. Well, the talking. The whole thing. It will be a story record, almost like an audiobook with music. A lot of the film leaves it to your imagination. They’re looking at telephone poles going by and you’re hearing the story about a lineman who has spent his life up in the trees. But there’s no picture of one. I love the footage but I’m just saying that this is a very collaborative work so you are asked to imagine a lot of things.
When one hears it’s a film about your dog that died, one thinks it will be depressing, a downer [She laughs]. But right at the start, you have a story about a dream when the dog is implanted in your stomach. It’s an amusing visual.
It tells the viewer that he or she is not in for a…
Sob fest. But you do cry at this movie. It’s about that. It’s about stories and how to put an experience into words, whether it be a song or a story or whether it is the NSA [National Security Agency] deciding who you are or whether it’s Amazon, you buy a book and then 30 seconds [later] they go, “You would like this book since you just got that,” and you’re like, “No no no, you don’t know me. That was a present.” [Laughs]
As your Buddhist teacher told you, did you accomplish or try to feel sad without actually being sad?
I do all the time. It’s a big practice of mine and I often fail because it’s a tough one to do, but the reason it’s important to do and is one of the main teachings of my [Tibetan Buddhist] teacher Mingyur Rinpoche is that there is a lot of sad things in the world; there is a lot of suffering and if you pretend it’s not there, it’s gonna come back and bite you. So the idea is to be able to feel it, really. Not just pretend and then don’t just sit there but do something. So the thing I did was make a movie [chuckles]. The other thing I did, the most important part of this not to be sad is to look at that, accept it and understand it, feel it and then let it go.
As an artist you have all these outlets to release your sadness. Do you think you are in a more fortunate position than someone in a more traditional job?
No, I don’t because we’re not talking about therapy here; we’re talking about how we live and how you process things, how we experience things and then let them go, and then make them into something else.
And that’s not therapeutic?
Being an artist is therapeutic in general, no matter the topic because it’s God-like. You’re making something — it wasn’t there and then it’s there. And you put it there. So that’s already pretty crazy. But the ‘feeling sad without being sad’ is something that we all can do, whether you make a movie about it. And also empathy. So that’s why “dog” is in the title because dogs are very empathetic; they study us and I like that attitude of “Who are you? What are you doing?” and then also trying to see what stories are because that’s really what the film is about. You tell the story of being a kid, how much does that really represent you? Nobody expects when somebody says, “What kind of kid were you?” that you’re going to tell they something other than the little short story that you have, unless you are a psychiatrist and they say, “Tell me about your childhood.” [Laughs]
The film is autobiographical but not in a traditional way. Did the connections reveal themselves as you were working?
Yes. In making the film and deciding which stories, I made big diagrams. It wasn’t random. A lot of things got kicked out because they were nice stories, but they didn’t advance this thing and advancing the themes would be how stories work and how dreams work. And then you have to be as loose as possible within that framework.
Let’s talk about your dog, Lolabelle. She was an experimental musician pup, who played piano. There are even YouTube videos of her.
She was a really sweet dog. She was a New York dog so when I took her out to California, she had just been in the social scene in the West Village, a city dog. So when she got into the California hills and those hawks came down, the back of her dog brain, she knew exactly why they had come. I felt very bad to have shown her a place where she would be very afraid. She was trembling. When she went blind, a lot of dogs do very well — their smell is great; their hearing is amazing — but she would not move. She froze. We had to pick her up to take her out every time. And then you’d put her back down and she wouldn’t move. I would never have tried to teach her to play piano unless I was at the end of my rope.
Was there really an album?
Yes, I did it for my friends. I didn’t do it through Warner Bros. [Laughs] — although maybe they’ll be interested now.
You would take her in to perform for people.
Yeah, she did a lot of benefits because she was a really great old dog. In fact, I gotta learn how to be old from Lolabelle. She went from being paralyzed to loving playing. Music saved her life; it saved my life too. I’m sure a lot of people who read Billboard know exactly what I’m talking about — it can save your life. So also it was her own little world where she could play and she played keyboards and bells and castanets and barked and it was a joyful little scene for her and she would run in every day and she’d turn the keyboards on and just play, using these little programs, stuff I use.
Do you have a new puppy or dog?
I do. He does not play anything. And he does not paint.
Living the dog’s life.
He’s a guy. He likes to make up ball games. What he likes the most is eating. [Laughs]
And how are you doing since the passing of Lou?
For me, when someone who is your other half dies, it’s a very crazy situation. But also a great privilege to be able to experience that. That door opens once in your life if you are really lucky. And it will open again when you have to face your own death. But to be able to go, oh, whoa, that’s what it is, and we all disappear, [whispers] all of us, it’s awesome. It makes you treasure your time here. It wakes you up. It makes you really love the world.
Tell me about using Lou’s song in the closing credits.
“Turning Time Around” is one of my favorite songs that Lou made. What it is is it’s just a song about the present and I love it for that because he’s just saying that don’t be nostalgic. Don’t think, “Oh, it was so great back then” or “In the future when I saw that, it’s going to be so much better.” No, just try to stay here.
I don’t know about biopics. It depends on who’s doing them. They can be good or they can be jus freakishly horrible. I’ll see the Hank Williams one. Is it good?
Okay, I will check it out.