Urban folk singer Emily Lacy drawn to experiment
L.A.-based Emily Lacy dips into the worlds of urban folk music and art to create a distinct sonic scene.
What the larger public knows about L.A.-based singer and experimental composer Emily Lacy can be captured in a single scene: In Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film, “Greenberg,” Ben Stiller’s younger, hipper lady friend attends a party at Machine Project, the experimental art gallery in Echo Park. In the window, strumming her banjo and singing loudly, sits folk singer Lacy, playing a role described in the title of one of her early albums, “Youngster Balladeer.” But that snapshot moment only captures a small part of Lacy’s allure.
With 11 self-produced albums, a LACMA residency behind her, two cross-country tours in which she played at both folk venues and art galleries, and a devoted local following, Lacy has created a body of work that walks the line between so-called high art and folk music. Other projects include a collaboration on a recent “dog opera” called “Tragedy on the Sea Nymph,” a piece presented at the Machine Project performance space that involved a giant wooden ship built inside the gallery, human opera singers, a small string quartet and dog “actors.”
Lacy is also currently preparing for a residency at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where she's working on a piece called “Cowboys and Angels.” Previous musical residents at the Walker have included Brian Eno, Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson. But it's Lacy's work as a folk singer for which she has garnered the most attention — even if her version of folk at times includes experimental drones and electronics.
The L.A. urban folk scene has slowly grown over the last decade from a cluster of mutual friends to a small community of bands to its own mini-alt-country music organization, the New Los Angeles Folk Festival. The group's website promotes and hosts events as well as posts interviews with local bands and musicians, and in August it will sponsor its own festival. Ariana Delawari, Amanda Jo Williams, Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond, Tommy Santee Klaws and Fort King are just a few of the names promoted.
“It just felt like this lightning bolt, I remember I came out of the Norris Theatre and we had watched it on 35-millimeter print, I just stood there smoking a cigarette and I couldn't talk to anybody. I had this feeling while watching it that, man, I should probably get a guitar,” she says.
Still, it took another year of experimenting with film before Lacy was pushed toward music again, when New York anti-folk singer Jeffrey Lewis' confessional, punk-inspired music landed on her lap. “It reminded me a lot of the autobiographical video diaries I had been studying and experimenting with in my own work. Then it was like, ‘OK, now I have to get a guitar.'”
Eight years later, Lacy is still confessing, and she's not alone. Mark Allen founded Machine Project Gallery in 2003 and with Lacy's help, he ushered in a roster of regulars who have since become core members of the folk community. He believes that at Machine Project, the line that divides the personal and the public can be ambiguous, and the tension between the two can help fuel creativity.
“A lot of it is about the gallery serving as a laboratory to bounce off ideas and believing that there is a value in letting the public into that process,” says Allen. Lacy echoes these sentiments.
“Folk music exists throughout the world,” she says, sitting by the fire in her Alhambra home drinking tea. “Anyone can make it. That's what's punk about it. There is architecture for renewal with folk music. Everyone can take a step back and see that they are a part of something larger.”
It's this ability to blur the lines between public art and sound that initially attracted Charlotte Cotton, then-head curator of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at LACMA, to approach Lacy about doing a solo installation at the museum. It was during Lacy's time rehearsing and sound checking for the Machine Project Field Guide to LACMA, a live, campus-wide event in November 2009, that Cotton first became aware of the singer.
“Many of us working at LACMA would have this incredibly special experience of going about our working day and, siren-like, being drawn to a part of the museum by Emily's performance,” she says.
The resulting installation and residency, which lasted from December 2009 to January 2010, became Temples of the Minds, a nightly performance that involved Lacy wearing long, druid, Led Zeppelin-like robes and moving from the bottom of the Pavilion of Japanese Art to the top, looping and singing with the help of fellow musician and friend Ezra Buchla.
It's not the standard definition of “folk music,” but then, that stands to reason.
Says Lacy: “I think partially why folk thrives in L.A. is because it offers an earthy alternative to the shiny, glossy, extreme pop culture that is dominant here.”
-- Nikki Darling
Photos: Emily Lacy in Elysian Park in Los Angeles. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times