Since 2005, Larkin Grimm has made four albums, the first of which are unvarnished howls from the world of psychedelic folk. These early albums are beautiful, seductive, unruly, unpredictable, full of twists and turns, and they seem to involve the sounds of the forest, sex, death, fairies, and murder, all within modal song structures that have no conventional beginning and no end. Occasionally, the songs even resume on subsequent albums, as if the album format, or even the song itself, is an inadequate container for Larkin Grimm’s Big Bang. The lyrics often are addressed to Grimm herself, or to various lovers and insiders, and they are so suffused with desire and with the contours of physical love as to represent a completely new approach to how talk about feminine sexuality. Grimm makes Liz Phair look like a debutante. She makes Tori Amos look like a minister’s daughter. She makes Joni Mitchell look old and in the way.
The new album, Soul Retrieval, is a marked departure from Grimm’s early work. Not only are the arrangements, many of them involving significant input from the renowned British producer Tony Visconti, complex and uniquely expressive, with harp and recorder and strings featured throughout, but the songs are also, well, more adult. Grimm recently became a mother, and universally, on the album, the lure of domesticity wars with the siren call of the desire, often with startling and unsettling results. A melancholy, a falling away from paradise, is written into the compositions, even in its more upbeat moments, with a resulting emotional complexity that I have heard on few albums recently. People who want simplicity are probably warned to look elsewhere. Larkin Grimm has a different mission. As this album is self-released, and self-produced (with help from Visconti), Grimm has announced her intention to control the music herself, and she does so with supreme confidence and determination and with a very adult seriousness. How does she react to the inevitable hipsters who prefer the early songs, recorded on laptop, drenched in hiss, and unadorned with significant harmonic ideas? Her Twitter feed has a good example of her response: “sexist record reviewers who said having a baby made me lose my edge I will cover you with afterbirth! Descend into the vag of the universe!”
This interview took place in northern Manhattan in March, on one of the last cold days of the year, not far from the edge of Central Park, and involved input from Larkin’s exceedingly adorable son, Otis. Master Lee, her husband, also appeared and disappeared adding commentary on many subjects. There were frequent breaks. Photographs by Laurel Nakadate.
The Rumpus: Let’s begin with the easy questions. So why is the album called Soul Retrieval?
Larkin Grimm: It’s a ceremony I did when I was working at the Omega Institute. I was a sound engineer, and all of these gurus and shamans would come, and I would record the workshops they were teaching. And I took part in a shamanic journeying workshop, and this woman leading the workshop had brought Ayahuasca, which is a Peruvian hallucinogen and contains DMT. Ayahuasca is a brew that’s made from the vine, which is the hallucinogenic element. And then there’s also this leaf from a bush. And the vine is supposed to be the masculine and the bush is supposed to be the feminine, and this female shaman did a tea drinking ceremony with us, where we drank Wyoosa. And the intention was to go and find pieces of your soul that were missing and bring them back to your body so you could live more fully with yourself and it’s called soul retrieval. And it was a super awesome experience for me, because I’ve always been curious about people’s psychedelic experiences, and I kind of had this assumption that I was going to have some kind of crazy mindblowing psychedelia thing happening, but actually, it was very quiet, and I didn’t have any hallucinations at all. Nothing changed, except that suddenly I could hear the voice of my conscience, which I didn’t ever think of as being a real voice. And ever since having that experience, I’ve had that voice in my head and followed it occasionally. So that’s what soul retrieval is.
Rumpus: And how does it specifically relate to this project?
Grimm: The album is about love, really. And it’s about a love song to myself, and a love song to the universe, kind of like the way that Song of Solomon consists of love songs to God or like the way Sufi poems are erotic love songs to God, I kind of wanted something like that. Because I was getting to know myself more deeply at this point. I’ve always been on this track where I wanted to be enlightened. And I’m totally a narcissist, so I was doing all this performance and having lots of weird ego time, and learning to set aside my love for the ego and find a deeper love for myself and through that seeing myself as one with all beings. And through loving myself, loving all people in the world, that was my cure for narcissism, the only cure.
Rumpus: You must have been making this record while you were pregnant, correct?
Grimm: I finished it while I was pregnant. I started it before. I was thinking about having children at the time I was writing the stuff, and maybe writing the album was a process of finding a peace within myself to allow me to think I could bring a child into the world. And I finished all of the recording before I was pregnant, and then I did like the mixing of it, like forming the tones and tweaking the sounds of the album, giving it a certain kind of feeling, when I was pregnant. I think it has a gentleness for that reason.
Rumpus: Is parenting a kind of soul retrieval?
Grimm: Mmm… no. I think parenting actually makes you lose pieces of your soul again, because they go off, into your children. Or, I mean, I am so fragmented, and I’m such a spacey person now. Like the oxytocin you get as a mom makes you forget everything constantly. And I’m a totally different person after having a kid. Did you ever read the stories about Don Juan?
Rumpus: Carlos Castaneda? Sure.
Grimm: I remember there was this one lady shaman who said that having children puts a hole in your soul. And the only way to get it back is for your children to die. And, you know, monks don’t have families. There’s a Buddhist story about the guy who wants to be enlightened, and then he gets a cow and a wife and a child, and all these things get in the way of his enlightenment. So, yeah, I have no chance of being enlightened.
Rumpus: Huh. I’m not sure I agree—speaking as a person with a two-year-old daughter.
Grimm: Before I had a kid, I was off in some kind of cosmic state all of the time, and thinking about the world beyond, thinking about intellectual stuff. And then, after I had a kid, just the whole process of giving birth is just so earthy and grounding and insane and it’s all just an intense physical ordeal. I mean, the closest thing I could think of that men go through is like a prisoner of war being tortured, and then coming back from that experience. It’s traumatic and grounding and makes you commit to the world. Also, because you want all of these things for your kid.
Rumpus: Back to the record a little bit? The new album’s a quantum leap from the others. And I like the other ones. So I’m wondering how that happened. What were your ambitions were for the look and feel and sonic aspect of the whole when you were thinking about it? And how you account for its really spectacular production?
Grimm: Well, this if my fourth full-length record. My first two records, I recorded all by myself with no experience, no knowledge how to do it. It was just experimenting with my computer, with instruments that I only half-way knew how to play. And then I had a chance to work with Michael Gira, and the whole time I was working with him, I was just watching and taking in everything. He’s been doing this for so long, he really knows how to get it done. He knows how to get other people to do the work you want. He’s just this magnificent control freak. But I didn’t want to work with him again, because I wanted to have my own vision. Because he couldn’t help but try to control me, and I was like, I really love you and I think you’re amazing, but you’ve got your own records to make and I’ve got my records to make. Anything I did with him would have been a collaboration, which I didn’t want. But I really learned how to make a record sound good. It was so important for me to learn that I don’t have to control every single aspect of the creation. It was like this egotistical thing for me before, like, I can do it all by myself! It was like a toddler. And after letting somebody else take the reins, I was, like, okay, I can be in charge. And I can direct other people to get my desired result, as long as I choose the people very wisely and stick to my guns.
And it was really funny because everybody wanted to be the producer of that album. Everybody I worked with was, like, Let me produce this! And I said: no. I’m the producer. But do your little part and make it awesome, and they’d be, like, Okay, okay, okay. You know, I had so many really funny arguments with these super-talented people who wanted to take control of my project. I mean, I had Tony Visconti in there, and I wouldn’t even let him be the producer. It was really funny and sort of stubborn and dumb, but I think the album is great, so screw it.
Rumpus: How did Visconti get involved?
Grimm: He heard a song. I did a cover of a Tyrannosaurus Rex song, and somebody sent it to him. He thought it was interesting and got my record and thought it was really crazy and wanted to meet. He lives in the West Village and I live in the East Village, so he said, Come over and have some tea. Then I learned that he wanted to play more music. He wanted to play live more. So I was, like, I don’t have a bass player right now, because I’d just had a falling out with my bass player. So he played a few shows with me, and then I invited him to come up and record. We were just in the studio for a couple of days because my money was very small, and so he was there almost the whole time. His presence made everybody do better. That was the thing I really credit him with, because the musicians, you know, they were my friends, and they were really happy to work with me. But I think when I brought this super-famous producer in, everybody was, like, Oh, shit! We better be on our best behavior! I have got to impress this guy! So everybody was just snapped to attention. He’s just, he’s got an energy, and it was cool. And he would tell, even when we were taking breaks, he would tell us stories about The Beatles and Bowie, all these people we admired. He was good.
Rumpus: Did he come up with those fancy wind-instrument arrangements?
Grimm: He did, he did.
Rumpus: But you had parts in mind?
Grimm: It was a very free, a very, like, playful experience of recording. We worked at this studio called Old Soul, which is in upstate New York. And the guy has a huge house that’s just filled with all sorts of musical instruments and toys. And he’s got an analog studio and he’s a really brilliant engineer. So you just arrive at his house, and you can stay there, like you sleep over, and you just play and play and play and play. And when an idea comes to your head, you’re like, Oh, there’s that instrument. I can’t remember if Tony brought his own flute, or if there was just one lying around. But we were doing that, these two songs we played flute on. I think I was like, Play some flute, and it all just came out. It just all came together and the musicians were great.
Rumpus: The arrangements are so spectacular. I mean, there are so many beautiful adornments tucked into the cracks and crevices for people who listen carefully. Someone’s just tapping on the their guitar in the background throughout one track.
Grimm: It was a harp. Yeah, my friend Jesse Sparhawk, I said, “Can you make the sounds of insects eating out the bad thoughts in your brain?” And he said, “Yeah! I think I can—I’ve done that, I know what you’re talking about!” And I think he used his little tuning lever, which it has a piece of metal on it, and he just started tapping on the strings.
The way that I work with musicians is that I give them metaphors, you know. I give them an image, and I say, Can you make that image in sound? And then it comes up as something totally weird. That way it doesn’t sound like other music. I think the way other musicians do it is that they bring in CDs of, like, that great Bowie record, or, like, you know, The Beach Boys, Smiley Smile, and the engineer’s just like, Yep. I can do that. Unfortunately, it makes a lot of really derivative albums. They sound, good, I mean you can still listen to them, they sound nice. It’s just not really art.
Rumpus: What are some other examples of strange directions you gave people?
Grimm: I think I told Tony Visconti that he was a fairy dancing little jigs across the room. I always tell the guys to imagine strippers, or, you know, Brazilian dancers at Carnival, shaking their butts. And I’m like, This is where the butt-shaking comes in!
Rumpus: Do you actually write out all the words and melodies ahead of time? Or is that part spontaneous too?
Grimm: I have in the past. For my last record, I was afraid of losing control, because Michael Gira’s such a strong personality. So I did write down all the lyrics, and I would makes notes at the different points, you know: how I want this to sound, how I want this to sound. But when I did this record, I had already worked with all the musicians before, and I knew none of them were going to step on my toes. They were all just happy to be there. So I sent some MP3s around. It’s usually me playing guitar and singing, or me playing the harp and singing. So when I’m working with somebody who’s a little bit more of an uptight musicians, classically trained, I will often send them the melody and the words in an audio file before they come in.
Usually, I think it’s best to play the song for them once and have them mix it up on the spot, because when the logical mind gets too involved, I think it kills a lot of magic. I just think the subconscious mind is so much smarter, and unfortunately, people do not trust their subconscious. A lot of people just don’t access to all of that, the secret genius that’s inside of them. And it’s so much easier to get it out of a musician if you don’t give them a chance to overthink.
Rumpus: This sounds a lot like the stuff Eno said about the Low and “Heroes” sessions for Bowie that Visconti produced and played on. So it must have been a known voyage for him.
Grimm: Tony said he had a, like, a tarot deck that Eno designed.
Rumpus: Yeah, Oblique Strategies, yeah, it’s great.
Grimm: He was totally comfortable with the way we were working. He just fit right it. It was wonderful. I think that’s why we found each other, because in some way we have a similar vision. But I have to say that I’ve listened to tons of Eno, and tons of Bowie, so much. So that is definitely in my subconscious mind. And I think I related to it because I love that way of working.
Rumpus: One thing I was interested in from a compositional point of view is the fact that there is not a chorus on the entire album. And I was really wondering how you thought about the song structure? There aren’t hooks, exactly—or maybe there are melodic hooks, but there’s no traditional chorus. And to me, that’s really unique. I’m sort of struggling to come up with an analogy. I mean, you can do it, there are Bob Dylan songs that have no chorus, and Leonard Cohen songs that have no chorus, but what you do is different from those examples.
Grimm: Well, my dad is a musician, and he had a music store that I grew up in, so I definitely had tons of those resources around me. I remember reading a book that was on songwriting at some point that I found in my dad’s store, and just… I did not relate at all. I’ve always hated structure of all kinds, it just doesn’t work for me. I can never fit into the schedules of other people. It’s like putting a schedule on your song, and it doesn’t allow you to be moved by your own music. And I just know of so many musicians who burn out because they go on tour and they have to play their one-hit song over and over and over and over again. And they are not moved by their own song. And then when you go and see them perform there’s something off. And I think, I just always want to leave the door open for, you know, I don’t want it to be finished. I’ve never gotten sick of a song, I’ve played them over and over and over again, and if I get bored with something, then I’ll just change that thing. Most of the musicians that I’m playing with now have jazz backgrounds, so they’re comfortable with improvisation. And they all know to make eye contact with me, and I’ll give them some kind of sign when I think that the song’s ending. Or maybe I don’t even have to, because they all sort of feel it at the same time.
And it’s also, I really believe in psychic powers, and I’m really trying to increase my psychic powers as much as I can all of the time. And I think music is the best way. And when I was in a really academic background, psychic powers were forbidden.
Rumpus: Can you elaborate on what you mean, exactly, by psychic powers?
Grimm: Like the ability of all the musicians to end the song at the right time. Or when it’s time for a chord change, but nobody knows what the chord should be, and you all, you know, it all just changes, magically, at the same time. It’s when you pick up your phone to call someone and that person is calling you. I mean, it happens all the time. I think everybody is psychic. I think it’s one of the things in our subconscious that, for some reason, we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s not real or possible, and luckily, we’re getting closer and closer, I think we’re using technology to give us these psychic powers that we already had. It’s sort of like the idea that you can’t dream up something unless it already exists.
Rumpus: You brought up the academic part of your life, so I want to use one song as a template just to talk about exactly how you compose and stuff, but also because I’m really interested in the song “Without a Body Or a Numb And Useless Mind.” I know because I watched some YouTube that it’s about your time at Yale. So I want first to ask: how does a song like this come about?
Grimm: I need to find the picture. I could Google it, but I was taking a class with Alex Nemerov. He’s related to the photographer who took all of the pictures of freaks.
Rumpus: Well. He’s Howard Nemerov’s son, maybe?
Grimm: Yeah, he’s Diane Arbus’s nephew.
Rumpus: You were taking his class?
Grimm: I was taking his class on Abstract Expressionism and…
Rumpus: Were you in the Art Department? Is that what department you were in?
Grimm: I started off in architecture, and I just couldn’t fit into the vibe there. I just felt more at home in the Art Department, so I just ended up there. But I would be an architect if it didn’t require so much engineering. So Nemerov showed us this picture, which is of Apollo flaying Marcius. You don’t think of Apollo as being the sort of person who would skin someone alive. But the story behind it was that there was this guy who was a really great musician, and all the women loved him, and people started saying he was the best musician in the world, so Apollo got jealous and he challenged this guy to a musical dual. They would each play a song and the muses would judge who was the better musician. Apollo said, Whoever wins the contest gets to do whatever he wants to the other. So Marcius, being a satyr, took it as some kind of sexual thing, or like, this is going to be hot god sex, and he was like, Yeah, sure. So they had the contest, but the muses are friends of Apollo, so they made Apollo win. They sort of cheated. And Apollo decided what he was going to do Marcius was skin him alive. And when I was at Yale, I felt like Marcius in that situation, where I had a lot of raw talent, and I was kind of naïve and coming from a really small town, and having grown up in a commune, and not just understanding the world that you come from. Where you go to these really good schools, and it’s all about preparing for the next step of success. That was never even on my radar. My job is to explore the world, because this is my one life, you know? That’s totally how I see it. But I came to Yale just being like, Yeah, now I get to explore this place and meet all these people who are really smart. And I was just excited to be surrounded by people who were as smart as me or were probably smarter. And I just did not expect the level of competition and bitterness and anger, and, the tearing each other down. When I met someone who I thought was really talented, I would just be like, Wow! How did you get that way? And I met a lot of people who would just do anything to claw their way to the top, and it was just shocking and awful for me to see that for the first time. And now I live in Manhattan so I have become desensitized to that.
Rumpus: You started “Without a Body…” with that thought about your Yale experience?
Grimm: Yeah. Why even live? If that’s your goal, if you’re just clamoring your way to the top, I mean, why even have a life? Somebody was telling me the other day about the lives of investment bankers who work ninety hours a week and how it affects their patterns of consumption. They don’t even want the stuff that they’ve got, you know the fancy cars and houses. Their consumption is basically just a keeping up with the Joneses or let’s buy the markers of success because this is what I’m supposed to have and this is what I’m supposed to do. And they are working so hard that they don’t even have the time to think about what they might actually desire. My dad, as a Buddhist, his whole life is about trying to free himself from desire because desire is the root of all suffering. I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the world as it is, and that song is about that.
Rumpus: Did you write the words first or did you write the melody first?
Grimm: They both definitely came to me in the same day, and came out probably together. The words and the melody come together, but they will be rough, and then I will, you know, edit. Most of my songs are written with or through my subconscious.
Rumpus: Do you ever write without an instrument? Do you ever just sing melody?
Grimm: Mm hmm.
Rumpus: That’s sort of how this one (“Without a Body…”) felt to me because the melody’s so spectacular. It’s really an amazing, beautiful melody.
Grimm: I’d just come back from Dollywood.
Rumpus: So it’s like a Dolly Parton melody? So it has a bit of the country vibe a little bit?
Grimm: I think it’s like if Dolly Parton wrote what she was really thinking. Because she’s so amazing. If there’s anybody I would want to have in my daily life that’s in the music industry, it’s Dolly Parton.
Rumpus: Because of her will of steel and her total determination?
Grimm: Because she’s just so brilliant. She’s written so many incredible songs.
Rumpus: What’s interesting about Soul Retrieval is that it starts with a super-upbeat song about paradise, and then it moves inexorably into sad, reflective songs. I kept thinking of it as (alternately titled) Paradise Lost. I’m wondering what the paradise is in the first song drives the whole record in this interesting way.
Grimm: It’s the sense of walking back into the Garden of Eden or something like that. Where suddenly everything is perfect and you see how you’re connected to everything in the world. You understand your place in it, and you feel an incredible love for everyone and everything, and you’re just sublimely happy, and then you’re suddenly jolted back to reality, and you’ve got to deal with the world as it is. And you’ve got to deal with the world with all of its troubles, while you’ve still got this alternate image. It’s not about being in a different place or being in heaven, it’s about seeing the world through magical eyes for a moment, and then being back in that same world, and everything is dull and gray. Having to remember the color.
Rumpus: So it’s not childhood you’re referring to?
Grimm: No, it’s enlightenment. When I was working at Omega, I took this Zen retreat, where you’re quiet, you don’t say anything for a week, and this guy there said, “You’re going to be enlightened at the end of this week, that’s my goal.” I was the engineer, so I was recording everything at it was happening, but I was also participating, because I felt like it. So at the end of it, I did understand what enlightenment was, one-hundred percent. And I told my friends, “Hey, I’m enlightened, I just took this class and he gave me a certificate in enlightenment,” and then everybody got so mad out me, like, “You aren’t enlightened! How can you be enlightened?” It was the craziest thing ever, so I was, like, Fine. I’m going to become endarkened. So I just started doing all the things that were bad, you know, acting selfishly and being a jerk to show them that contrast, that I had been enlightened before. This is the world. I don’t really believe in hell or heaven or an after life at all, I believe this is it. It can be a paradise for you, if you’ve got the right mindset. Or it can be a total nightmare. The song is just about remembering these moments of, you know, these epiphanies or magical moments of clarity that I think everybody has at some point in their life, often, while they’re taking acid or something like that, or while they’re doing really intense yoga.
Rumpus: All right, one last one. “Be A Great Burglar,” has this last amazing last quatrain that goes, “Now be courageous, jump in his bed/Tear off your clothes and cut off his head,/ He’ll probably kill you, isn’t that great,/Isn’t that the original philosophy?” Really spectacular, actually, it’s a world-class lyrical moment there. And I thought it was a Bluebeard illusion, and maybe you’d read Angela Carter’s essay about the Sadean woman? Or her story about Bluebeard? If not, I’m interested in what the “original philosophy” is in that line.
Grimm: I do not know. I think that song is just a big question mark. I didn’t read the book about Bluebeard, but I’m familiar with the fairy tale, and I found that really compelling and dark. When I was a kid, I was really interested in Bluebeard. And you’re right, it is about, well, it’s about Muslim women for sure, and my feeling that they need to be responsible for their own liberation and that it is completely awful and misogynistic for Americans to go in and be, like, “We’re going to save you.” The Muslim women that I have met are super-powerful and amazing and smart and they are, they’re not allowing themselves to be held back by the laws that exist. And you know, the Internet exists now, and mobile phones are freeing up stuff. I have a really good friend who’s from Iran and a really good friend who’s from Kuwait, and they talk about getting music on the black market and how that’s such an intense, amazing experience. And how they value the music so much more, because it’s such a risk to own it. But at the same time I feel like answering that question would be bad.