Interview / Anna Domino

The first time I heard an Anna Domino tune was in around 1989. I was in the backroom of an Acid House party, somewhere in London. The DJs were Rocky and Diesel. The track was Zanna. A duet with Al Jourgensen`s mate and fellow “Revolting Cock” Luc Van Acker. It danced slowly, and a little sadly, like a darker relative of Double`s Captain Of Her Heart. With love tied to the mast as the ship goes down. When I finally located a copy of the 12”, it was on Chicago`s Ministry-Associated Wax Trax! These connections had me assume that Anna was some kind of Industrial femme fatale. The discovery of Zanna prompted me to pick up everything I could find, on second-hand store digs, and quickly learn that this was not the case. 

Anna’s solo releases on Les Disques Du Crépuscule – the art-y Factory Records affiliated Belgian label – were far more fragile than that. With a literate, literature-like, focus on lyrics. Often describing heartbreak, of one form or another. Sometimes accompanied by a sparse musical backing. Songs such as the catchy Cold Wave of Everyday I Don’t, or former NME Single Of The Week, Trust In Love. These sung a similar sensitive Post-Punk Blues as contemporaries, Everything But The Girl, and Young Marble Giants. Later Anna’s music appeared cut from the same Cool Operator cloth as Sade, and label-mate, Isabelle Antena. The berimbau`d Jazz-Funk of Luck coming on like a groovier Joni Mitchell. On her cover of Smokey Robinson`s The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game, Anna almost out Grace Jones-ed Grace Jones. The Electro-Pop poetry of 2010`s The Light Downtown gave Yello a run for their money.

Leo Mas, one of the DJs at Ibiza`s Amnesia, told me that the tropically skanking Koo Koo was a staple of his sets during the club’s mid-80s prime. The Mancunian guys, Balearic Mike and Aficionado`s Moonboots, championed Anna’s defiant Caught. Turned it into an anthem for Balearic Militants everywhere. Phil Mison did the same for the Spanish-guitar-ed Tamper With Time. Cited as an influence by current artists such as Carla Dal Forno, I hear Anna echoed in the Pop Pulp Noir of Lana Del Rey. 

All this is my history, my context. So when Anna recently collaborated with Ultramarine, on their album Signals Into Space, and Paul Hammond from the band kindly sent the new music over, it was too much of an opportunity to miss. Introductions were made, and Anna, super charming and very patient, sat through a long list of questions. 

When I asked Anna if she thought she was “Balearic”, she had to look it up.

Why “Domino”? 

There was a big sugar refinery out on the East River that I could see from the windows of my old loft in New York. At night the company name was spelled out in huge letters of white light: DOMINO

A few weeks before I went to Brussels to go into the studio for the first time, I was on the phone with a friend and fellow musician, staring out the window. We talked about how scary it was to work for and with people you don’t know, how little control you have over what might come out of it, how far away Brussels seemed … He suggested I choose an alias – that way I could distance myself if need be.
An added benefit is having corner-stones all over the city mention me – with a few minor adjustments…as in Anno Domini 1955 … 

You were born in Tokyo, but raised in Florence and Ottawa. Did you spend any time in Japan as a child?

Only my first year and a half or so were spent in Japan. We lived in part of an old house in Midorigaoka, Meguro-ku. In the backyard there was a large smooth rock which got sun all day. Mama would put me on that rock in the late morning and I would sleep till the sun moved – without rolling off. Lying stretched out on warm stone remains one of the most comforting things in the world. After Tokyo we lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan – then came Florence in 1966 and then the cold northern phenomena that is Ottawa. My family was never anywhere for more than a few years at a time. 

Your records were popular here. Did you, do you, ever visit and tour? 

We played in Japan a number of times in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Were never there very long of course but it was always a terrific adventure. We had Parco as sponsors so were able to explore Shibuya and Shinjuku and enjoy a level of care and feeding that was otherwise unavailable to us and which we deeply appreciated. We mostly played in Tokyo, but occasionally Osaka and once in Hokkaido where the food was even more spectacular and the kimono fabrics wildly colorful. 

It was such a different world from anything I knew, but after growing up with the stories and photographs of my parents it was also eerily familiar. 

Wikipedia states that you were expelled from school for reciting comedy routines. Whose were they? Lenny Bruce?

Mostly Firesign Theater. Lenny Bruce was my parent’s generation and a little frightening but the absurdity of Firesign drew me in. I memorized the records and would recite them in the girls bathroom to anyone who would listen. I tried to get the girls to laugh so hard they’d be late for class- which was odd because I was otherwise quite shy. My sense of humor was not popular with the administration … 

You once contributed a reading to an album of Jack Kerouac poems. Did the “Beats” have a significant impact on you?

The Beats were before my time and radiated too much desperate machismo to appeal to me directly. They seemed unhappily self obsessed, behaved badly towards the women they depended on and were celebrated for it. I was seriously jealous of all that freedom of movement and rage for sure. 

You moved to New York in 1977, when the city was bankrupt, and dangerous. What drew you there?

I visited New York for the first time in 1976 on a trip organized by my art school in Toronto (OCAD). Eight bus loads of aspiring art students, shipped off for a four night stay in the city that never sleeps … After taking a shower at the hotel when we arrived, I went out to walk around the city on my own. From Times Square, south to Battery Park, back up through Central Park and down again… Didn’t go back to the hotel room, ever. On the last night I went to a small club run by the Brubeck brothers on the top floor of a building on lower Broadway. People sat on the floor in a dimly lit loft while a band played soft Californian Jazz. After so many sleepless nights it was extremely hard to stay awake, so I didn’t stay long. I managed to catch the bus at midnight that took us all back to Toronto and school. 

The following summer at a family wedding in Ann Arbor, I was introduced to a great friend of my uncle’s who lived right downstairs from the Brubeck club. He invited me to visit him and his family so I went. Intending to stay a few weeks, I lived in various parts of that loft for twenty years. 

Where did you hang out, go dancing? Were you a member of the Mudd Club? 

The Mudd Club wasn’t a private club – but it was picky. The kids guarding the door had their preferences but looking like a young boy worked in my favour. The Ocean club –  in what became TriBeCa- was still there when I first got to NY, and Max’s Kansas City, and a few other places I can see in my mind’s eye but can no longer name. After opening night at Mudd in the fall of 1978 I spent more time there than anywhere else – including home. And then Tier 3 opened, and then Area … On rare occasions we’d get dressed up in borrowed finery and turn up at Studio 54 – which was more grown up and expensive but a lot of fun to prowl around in. There was the wonderful Roxy on weekends and sometimes Danceteria, The Peppermint Lounge, The Bank, The World, MK and scary old Limelight – the deconsecrated church /drug den. There were many small nightclubs and every fall in the early ‘90s seemed to bring a new mega-club which would open to great fan fare and then fail. And there was always CBGB’s until it too slipped away. 

None of the clubs had closed off VIP areas so we were all in the same room as our heroes. Brian Eno lived across the street and would gallantly walk me home from Mudd talking about his life, work, opinions on NYC. Nico lived downstairs from me and would perform upstairs at Mudd, just her and her portable harmonium.

Was there any music you heard, that you associate particularly with that time? That brings the memories back?

Oh, lots! There were the bands that came and played for us in local clubs – which made them heroes for life. And there were the records we played – and that were played to us – for the atmosphere they set up. Patti Smith and Television at CBGBs, Kool Herc and Africa Bambaatta and the Soul Sonic Force at the Ukrainian Hall, B52s and The Cramps at Mudd, The Clash at the Palladium, Tuxedomoon at Hurrah’s and the wonderful DJs at The Roxy … The records of Brian Eno for ambient afternoons, Gary Numan’s music sounding like a brother in otherness, Prince and his generous dance music, Donna Summer made us happy, and so much more I have to stop … 

Did you perform with any bands before working as a solo artist? 

I did try but I wasn’t much of a musician and couldn’t dress up as a cute girl or mumble backing vocals on the side. I didn’t follow instructions well and kept foisting my own music on anyone who who would hold still. It became obvious pretty quickly that I had to work on my own. 

Were / are you a fan of Joni Mitchell? Were you friends with Lizzy Mercier Descloux? I ask because I can hear shared elements between your songs and those of these artists?

Joni… I studied her and I studied T-Rex. They were equally important to my teenage awareness of who I was / wasn’t. Joni’s words meant a great deal, they described a grown up world I knew I’d never be part of. My world was grubbier, grittier and distrustful of the femininity that Joni embodied. The fatal feminine that began every sentence with the word “I”, gave everything away for “love” and remained powerless. Marc Bolan’s wacky nonsense was pure, raw power. All the elfin velveteen hoopla and goofy verbiage was just a condiment for the bloody, blues based guitar at the heart. So I listened to Joni and ached with her but I practiced Bolan’s simple, gut punching grooves. Joni is truly brilliant and talented beyond belief and she has suffered for it. I could barely believe that T-Rex was allowed in a studio, much less with a brilliant producer and a label that let the product out. That band was so controversial in my hood that I had to hide the records or get trounced by the boys in my gang of pals- they all listened to Yes, Moody Blues- bien sûr…

I seem to remember one afternoon at a studio or perhaps just an apartment near Penn Station with Lizzy and Adele Bertie. We fooled around with assembled instruments but I was too shy to really join in.

You have a track called Tamper With Time, which appears to be pretty melancholic. When I`ve played it at parties in Tokyo I`ve had members of the audience crying. If you could, how would you tamper with time? On a personal level, I`d have spent more hours listening to my grandparents stories, and far fewer days drunk. 

Ha! Yes. We don’t appreciate the grown-ups till they leave and take all that memory with them. You can never do too little drinking …
Tamper With Time was really about being very angry. Written from the point of view of a girl who may be losing her mind after one too many men in the office have led her on and put her down. She imagines destroying one co-worker after another in strange and creative ways that I never describe. 

When I was small, the stories told to little girls were inevitably tragic – The Little Match Girl, The Little Fir Tree, Undine, most women in folklore or the bible – it sets you up to write songs to make people cry. The most effective of mine may be Lake? 

You must have seen a tremendous amount of change during your time in the city. Is it a place that you are still in love with, that you can still draw inspiration from?

People who grew up in NY say the city barely changed from the ‘40s through the ‘80s. When I first moved there the most obvious trajectory was the city’s inexorable decline towards collapse. It looked and felt like the end of a once great but unsustainable metropolis – absolutely everything was broken. In the ‘90s it began to slowly pick itself up and is almost unrecognizable now. The classic skyline is nearly gone but the light will always feel just like home. 

Your songs have been described as “literate” – one of your compilations even comes packaged like a Penguin Classic. They do share something with contemporaries like Lloyd Cole, and Suzanne Vega. Ringing with the kind of prose that runs through Joan Didion`s Play It As It Lays, or Carson McCuller`s Ballad Of The Sad Cafe. I was wondering if you have any favorite authors or poets? I was also wondering if, as well as songs, you write poetry and prose? 

Thank you … I love words.
Music is personal – it demands or leads to a sort of understanding with the composer. We will listen to everything by a songwriter we love, yes? The written word requires a bigger investment in time and imagination. If you find a great book at the right time it can truly change one’s life but I may never read another thing by that same author. Conversely, I get furious with books when I feel they are a waste of time. Some things I read over and over – but as with music- I love to be surprised by the new and unexpected.
I write some but finish very little and have never had the nerve to send poetry to anyone but a few friends. Not much survives.
I started a list of writers and their work for you, but it got very long.

I`ve read interviews where you talk a lot about your dreams. Do you keep a dream journal? Do your dreams directly influence your lyrics?

Dreams Loom Large in my Legends. I’ve always had very complicated, colorful nightmares and they can be exhausting: descending the basement stairs in the famous three headed rat costume; trying to find my way out of the huge, abandoned, dark and foul smelling parking garage patrolled by black dogs that whined and writhed with some awful sickness; taking off in an airborne speed boat through a forest … I once went through a spell where I woke up laughing and am hoping that comes back to me someday. My process of writing songs is largely visual. I need to see the place in my head – the landscape, weather and the light and smell – if I’m lucky. 

Do you have a favorite song from your own catalogue? 

88 maybe, or Lake. Dust ended up sounding as I intended it to which is so rare it still surprises me. I was very proud of Summer when I wrote it but I lost it in the studio. I rarely listen to my own recordings as the making of these things was always so damn fraught. My favorite song is whatever I’m working on now. 

You’ve stated that the changes in your music have been down to “the other people present” at its recording, and you’ve worked with a range of producers. The Associates` Alan Rankine, Tuxedomoon`s Blaine L. Reininger, Placebo’s Marc Moulin, Flood, Luc Van Acker, Anton Sanko, and Michel Delory. Were these people that you sought out, or were these producers suggested by the label? 

Everyone came to the projects in different ways. The label brought in Blaine and Luc Van Acker who were both encouraging and cheerful and became friends for life. I’m not sure who recommended Marc Moulin but I was lucky to have him for a short while. Alan Rankin was recording for Crepuscule at the time and taught me a great deal. Flood was a puzzle as he was from such a different world. A very funny guy but mine was not his kind of music, methinks. Anton was a friend in New York, was wonderful to work with and remains a great pal. Michel Delory is with me still – miraculously. 

Can you tell me anything about the experiences of working with these people? Are there any producers you would really like to work with?
There are too many stories! As for producers … I think my heroes have grown old and expensive. I’d love to work with kids I’ve never heard of- towards which end I must seek a medium of contact … 

You`ve recorded a few covers – I love your version of Smokey Robinson / The Marvelettes` The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game, and Merle Travis` 16 Tons. Do you have a favorite version of 16 Tons?

16 Tons was a last minute accident – a sort of “OK, we’ve got a half hour- want to try something else?”, and it popped into my head. Suppose Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version is the one stuck on repeat in the playlist of my mind. 

Your earliest recordings have after-hours Jazz, or Noir, feel to them, and your more recent albums with Snakefarm also have a dark, cinematic quality. The latter chasing down Americana myth. Robert Johnson at the crossroads, Jim Thompson, Stagger Lee, the Joshua Tree and Faulkner`s Southern Gothic. Is Noir conscious influence? 

Great list of inspirations! Not consciously – it’s just the weird and mysterious atmosphere you grow up with in America: the warm and familiar, our utterly alien chaos, the seriously twisted, the mesmerizing, immense, hilarious, agonized, exalted, heart wrenching, obsessive violence, reflexive generosity, terrifying beauty and very very dark darkness- just like humanity everywhere? only louder.
Also as portrayed in the paintings of Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper. 

anna domino Charles Burchfieldanna domino Edward Hopper

Can you tell me more about ElutzC!a?

ElutzC!a is an “evil twin” who lives in my head. She is from Chechnya, her band is her mother who plays synth and nods along in her floor length polyester print dress, headscarf and designer shades. Utzi – as her friends call her – makes her own costumes from old clothes she has cut up and reassembled for her rare, unbridled performances… That one song came out fully formed and there are others crying out to be heard: Make-up and Revenge Tips; I’m Moving Back to the 80s; What is it About the Weakling?… If I could find time I would make videos of her with some friends – I’ll be mom.

Were you aware that your songs were hits in the hedonistic clubs of 80s Ibiza? Koo Koo is considered a classic “Balearic Beat”. It contains the line 

“I`ve been to Paris, nobody seemed to like me there.” 

Is that true? 

I had to look up “Balearic Beat”- cool! I like Koo-Koo, one of those songs that wrote itself and still makes me happy. As to Paris – it was true, in a way. Americans were very uncool and young American women were – and still are in many ways – easily despised. We are foolish, outlandishly dressed, assumed to be rich, overly cheerful, annoyingly curious and apologetic, awkward, ubiquitous, in the way, and exhibit terrible table manners – what’s not to love? I had the owner of a cafe come to my table and present me with a live cockroach. He knew where I was from and was making the point that – like the bug – we were an invasive species with a bad smell. Ouch. 

 

Caught has become a kind of hushed anthem. The song sounds political – “Paid for by the people who brought you hope” – is it?

A bit – in deference to the opportunism and usury of the music industry. I saw some delightful people get treated with unnecessary cruelty. As if their youthful enthusiasm and bravery deserved to be punished. Kids were encouraged to be outrageous and then brought down without mercy. Some ended up very lost. Caught came out of that. 

A friend of mine runs a small UK record label called Aficionado, and I know a few years ago he was hoping to license some unreleased versions of your songs. Included in there was a wonderful take on “Rythm”. Can you tell me what happened to this project, and these versions?

Aficionado rings a bell. I certainly wish it had happened, don’t know why it didn’t. Was the version of Rythm the one I did for the After Twilight record, organized by Isabelle Antena, perhaps? There was another song on that release called The Light Downtown that I am mightily proud of.

You worked with The The, back in 1986, providing backing vocals for the Infected long-player, and more recently voiced the band’s Pillar Box Red – from the epic Radio Cinéola Trilogy. How did you meet Matt Johnson?

I met Matt in and around the derelict precincts of what became Soho in lower Manhattan. I don’t really remember how we first met but we became good friends who got together regularly to argue about life and death, music and politics, life after death, other big stuff … 

How did the recent collaboration with Ultramarine, Signals Into Space, come about, and how did it work? Were you aware of Ultramarine`s music prior to the collaboration? Is there a lyrical concept behind the album?

Paul and Ian got in touch with me and we traded tracks back and forth for months while traveling a great deal, changing our minds and ideas … They were incredibly generous. I knew their work but wasn’t sure I could fit into their intricate arrangements. It was fascinating to hear the songs come together over time. The lyrics are more cut and paste than conceptual. Each song being its own world in a way. 

I know you travel a lot. Where are you right now? What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m in Los Angeles, just returned from New York, and before that six months in France … Michel Delory and I are trying to finish recording three songs before the end of May, or the end of the world, whichever comes first. Wish us luck!

Track-list

Caught (From Anna Domino, 1986)

Zanna (single with Luc Van Acker, 1984)

Luck (From Coloring In The Edge And The Outline, 1988)

The Light Downtown (From After Twilight, 2010)

The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game (From Anna Domino, 1986)

Rythm (2010 Version)(From After Twilight, 2010)

Tamper With Time (From Mysteries Of America, 1990)

Koo Koo (From Anna Domino, 1986)

Lake (From This Time, 1987)

Trust In Love (From East And West, 1984)

 

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