Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Emily Lacy is as talented as she is obscure. She's prolific, with 15 albums to her name since she started releasing music in 2005, but she puts out records at her own whim, via her website, with no fanfare. When she tours, she rarely plays clubs—it's either house shows or museums these days, with little in between. Lacy has performed at MoMA PS1, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Hammer Museum, and this winter she joined her comrades from LA collective the Machine Project for part of a seven-week residency at a Cleveland gallery called Spaces as well as two days of short performances in an igloo outside the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
The way Lacy approaches her career makes her a natural fit for the art world—she's unconcerned with publicity, indifferent to moving product, and prefers reinventing herself between projects to establishing an easily packaged identity. Like many visual artists, she goes through periods of intense focus on a particular technique or motif; to get a sense for the whole of her, you have to take a long view. She's done cover albums devoted to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Jeffrey Lewis; her 2009 LP Myriad is all electroacoustic guitar improvisations, edited down from 45 hours of live recordings made in the Machine Project's storefront gallery; and in 2008 she released an album of more or less straightforward romantic folk called I'm Here Babe. Her latest, The Country Singer, showcases one of the few relatively consistent elements in her work: her big, gorgeous voice, which is totally distinctive despite being perfectly plain.
I got turned on to Lacy by local outsider-pop genius Rollin Hunt, and at one point (before a terminal computer mishap) I had at least a half dozen of her albums. My fandom is actually sort of responsible for Lacy's appearance at the MCA this weekend: my fiance, Matt Clark, curates the museum's Face the Strange series with his White/Light bandmate Jeremy Lemos and curatorial assistant Michael Green, and he got to know her music because I played it so much. (For the record, he has no financial stake in the show.) Lacy says her set will draw heavily on material from The Country Singer, but she'll also do some pedal-assisted vocal improvisations and possibly try out some new songs she's working on for electric guitar.
Looking at the arc of your work—your performances and your discography—you don't seem like a musician trying to "make it." You put out disparate records back to back, you have a gorgeous voice but make instrumental albums, and this year you followed experimental museum pieces with a country album that you didn't promote in any way. Are you trying to have a music career?
It's an interesting question. [Laughs] The way I look at the music I make is that part of the appeal is the total risk of failure and the risk of trying to make challenging work. I want to be a success; like everyone else, I struggle to pay bills, go to the dentist. I'd love to sustain on art alone. I'm just making my artwork, and record task to task. I don't see a need to limit myself in terms of genre—not just be experimental or folk or an artist or a girl in a rock band. It's not healthy, as an artist, for me to limit myself to a context. As a solo artist, I can do what I want, not worry about what people want or expect, whether it's audience or collaborators. What I do is about movement from space to space. I just want to make it as good as possible piece to piece, like as if I was a painter or poet.
How did The Country Singer come to you?
I was working with a batch of songs that didn't sound like they were going anywhere, and then some new songs came out and I heard this potential. This comforting sound that sounded more like country, more than other things I had done—something charming. I would get up and sing them while I was making my coffee every morning; they've got a real domestic feeling. The thing that makes me record is if I can hear a mood, hear something compelling. My background is in film, so when I make an album, it's very cinematic.
What were you picturing when it came to these songs?
I could see these really naked songs about acceptance, accepting one's place in life. A really simple, naked quality. From a point of view of not giving up, saying "It's OK" at every point in the process. I was influenced by a live record of Townes Van Zandt's. It's just raw. I started to prefer that album over his produced stuff, and that inspired me to just record it.
That's interesting, because who this character in your songs seems to be singing to, or singing about loving or being tangled up with, is a Townes-like character. Not quite a bad boy, but he's definitely trouble to love. A sort of lonesome pride.
[Laughs] It is—coming to terms with how to accept yourself, how do you accept someone else? What's the positive way in this?
You haven't exactly toured to support the record, but you have had a busy few months making music. Can you explain what you've been doing?
I've been doing longer-form durational stuff where I install myself in a space and improvise. That's what I did at LACMA during my two-month residency there. That stemmed out of a gallery project where I would just play for however long I wanted, every day. It was my first experiment with durational music; I went really deep into pedal stuff. It's a melding with space or achitecture, not caring if someone's there watching—it's like being a monk, making music that's just existing of its own accord. It's a practice.
Did you care if there was no audience? Was that difficult to get around? I know that's the cornerstone of the DIY ethos and all, to not care about the audience, but—
[Laughs] The gallery where I first did this, it was very public. People walk by and see in the window and notice. That notice was just being part of the public life of the street. The idea I had going into it, it would be very public—I had speakers out so people could hear it. As the piece went on over a month, the awareness and desire for looking and listening faded away into the background. That became a spiritual practice—it was incredibly liberating.
At LACMA, there was an appeal to feeling like the museum was a sanctuary; there was an appeal to not a ton of people being there. I would be alone, playing, and open my eyes and someone would be there, having a peaceful moment. The other end of the spectrum, the other stuff I have been doing, is really personal, playing to one or two people at a time, maybe two to five minutes, where I sing directly to them. Both of those types of interactions, experiences, you are not going to have at a club or a bar show.
There's something particularly feminist about both those approaches. As a female performer, there's a lot of baggage in how the audience sees you, and there's the idea of the female singer appeasing an audience. But here you are, either ignoring the audience—creating in a pure way despite whoever's paying attention or isn't—or else doing those personal shows like in the igloo, to just a couple people, which is almost confrontational in its address of the audience. Both are really about asserting yourself and your vision.
I totally agree with that. It's disarming. I don't know exactly how to articulate it myself. I've always been kind of awkward in my physical presence, and, uh . . . it's strange for me because I have intense confidence in one way, about the right to perform and have things to say. And it's not conventional, not typically, I'm not performing to expectation. Performance has always been a way to find a way to accept and formulate the self. I've always been strange and awkward; art is a way of solidifying myself.
How did you get into making art and music? Did they come together?
It was a way I could entertain myself and not be dependent on siblings.
Sounds like you were the youngest.
Yeah, I was. It was a way to have something to do that was fulfilling, drawing and painting—and I got into video in high school. Late in college there was a point where I realized my friends were musicians. I saw they would hang out and improvise—jam—and I'd never realized you could just make stuff up. That's how I started. I thought: I bet I could do that, if I didn't have to know what I was playing. My friend Laura encouraged me and gave me a guitar and I got a chord sheet. I was mystified by simple sounds. I would play a C chord—I couldn't believe I could make it. I thought I had to be able to read music to make it, so I thought I could never play.
What I started doing was just making my own material, and it felt authentic and satisfying and it would just appear to me—words and phrases—and they would be unified with chords I knew. Once I had that, things I could practice, the first year or two of that was really the first songs I ever wrote. I couldn't keep time. I couldn't figure out when I could change chords, but two, three years in, I knew I could figure out songs by other people—I learned that way as well. And suddenly I could play Dylan! Or Leonard Cohen! [Laughs] I started in 2002 and my first humble album was around 2005.
Your record-releasing process is extremely humble too. You make records and just put them on your site.
I'm not really knowing what to do with them. I have benefited from an immediate artistic community here in LA, and grown and developed a lot around a small audience and friends—and it's just a struggle to know how to approach a broader audience. One of the reasons I left LA and started touring, figuring it out on my own, was because I wanted to grow more as a performer, but the whole music industry seems so intimidating for someone like me. I have sent my albums to labels and never heard back, so it's not that I've given up—my theory is that if someone is interested, they would ask me. [Laughs]
I opened a tour for Dr. Dog three or four years ago, and thought, 'Maybe I will reach a broader audience.' They have a large audience, Dr. Dog, but their crowd could really—they didn't want to see me play. They wanted a rock band, not a solo female performer. So I am awake to the disjunctive qualities of an audience in that setting. [Laughs] At certain points, it's depressing. Committed, but no one cares. But what am I gonna do—stop?