Singer/Composer Lisa Papineau is best known for her work with Tyler Bates in Pet and Big Sir with bassist Juan Aldrete of The Mars Volta. But those aren’t her only projects; she has contributed vocals to Air, M83 and many others, as well as produced her own solo albums. Her most recent of which is Red Trees, released on Sargent House Records May 5th. She is exceptionally prolific! Lucky for me I received a press release that included a link to an mp3 of the single, White Leather Pants, otherwise I might have missed out.
Papineau is an inspiring artist who doesn’t let her battle with multiple sclerosis get in the way of her work. In fact, at the time this interview occurred (mid-May) she had just released Red Trees, was performing some dates in France and then was back in the recording studio making even more music.
Reading that fateful press release I got a picture of an adventurous woman with vast reserves of creative energy. Since I admire people who aren’t afraid to pick up and move to different states, or in her case, countries, I wanted to ask her about that experience and how she manages to be as prolific as she has been. Though she was in the middle of promoting her new release, and recording even more music, she took some time to answer my questions via email.
FLABmag: Where are you originally from? Are you French-Canadian by chance?
I am from New England… was born in Providence R.I. I grew up in Massachusetts and Vermont, used to spend a lot of school vacations in New Hampshire and on R.I. shore.. My family pretty much has the region covered. Three of my grandparents were of mostly French-Canadian heritage, the other of Irish-American roots. My Dad’s father Alfred was born and grew up in Canada. My Grandmother Annette was born in the U.S., but grew up speaking French, and went to school at a convent in Montreal. My Dad was born here but spoke French in the house until he was 4.
FLABmag: Why did you originally move to Los Angeles and then what lead to your decision to move to France?
Drove cross country on a bit of a whim with friends via the 40 before I moved there, and got kind hooked waking up one morning in New Mexico (Land of Enchantment). I had had no idea that desert could be so full of color. Then when we hit LA, it was all mountains and windy roads, and raining and flowers. Again, not the flat beige gridlock impression you get from watching cops shows on TV. I know it can be that. But. Something grabbed me. So I came back.
With France, It really was a case of trying to head in a completely different direction, but the Universe conspires to round you off in another direction. I was thoroughly on my way to Alaska, which had been a burning life-long dream… but the more I tried to plan the move, the more things didn’t work out. What did keep working out too easily was a bunch of different “French” events… first a little tour with Big Sir slid into place at the last minute, then a bunch of various unconnected sessions with French musicians, then I met someone… and then… I was there. I had become such a planner, such a worrier, and suddenly I was somewhere I had never had any intention of being. Not unlike how I ended up in Cali.
FLABmag: I read that you are/were a performance artist. Did you study with anyone in particular? Do you have a background in dance (most performance artists seem to have that in their backgrounds)? Who are some of your favorite artists?
When I went to school, I had planned to be an anthropologist, and was studying philosophy of religion, ethnography, but also took a beginners course in the theater program, that over the year showed us every part of what creating a performance is, not just acting, and not just the person on the stage, but the whole process from building what you are standing on, to what you are bothering with in the first place to put on as a “show” (I just stopped typing to do jazz hands), and how you discover and create that.
I guess that in that general mix of ideas and study organically lead towards the things I ended up being involved in. I’ve been lucky to have amazing teachers all my life, and was lucky to meet some great cohorts early on who wanted to start creating things right away, not merely read about doing so. I’m sure most of our early stuff was silly and pretentious, but how great to actually dive right in, to decide you are going to make something happen, and get about doing it, start to finish.
There were so many artists working in this medium who inspired and influenced me back then, Robert Wilson, Merideth Monk, Jerzy Grotowski…and Pina Bausch, so you can imagine how blown away I was to get to have a piece of music I co-wrote be a part of one of her pieces. And have a chance to come back round to that world again.
I never really formally studied dance, though I finally took some choreography classes later in college, but I think I can safely say that dancing is my favorite thing. Just dancing around wherever, shaking ones ass.
FLABmag: Have you always incorporated vocals in your performance pieces? Are there videos of your work prior to dedicating yourself to music?
It was an unconscious thing to use music (it) just happened more and more in pieces as I came out of my shell. And it seemed to be the thing that people responded to, though not so much my voice. A small incident that changed everything for me… a guy at school named Brian Claflin, a singer-songwriter with a great voice, heard a little song I wrote, and asked if he could record a version of it. When I heard his version, I was just blown away by the whole process of how a song can take shape and keep growing after it “leaves you.” Insert any stock phrase here: that was all she wrote, captured hook line and sinker etc.
Regarding the second question: Boy, I sure hope not.
FLABmag: Do you consider yourself a storyteller or a painter of scenes employing sound and words?
I’m definitely going to go with painter of scenes employing sound and words. One of my wonderful teachers, Shirley Kaplan, used to like to say, “Crazy mixed up water-color” to describe things she liked. (Hello Shirley)
FLABmag: If you feel like it could you tell us the inspiration behind White Leather Pants and Sorry I Cannot English (My favorites…I always have my favorites that I ask about. I’ve been told it’s an annoying habit but so what! I’m curious to know)?
White Leather Pants: Again, the dancing! Dancing yourself into a whipped frenzy until no one can hurt anymore, until nothing hurts anymore, until you are a fireball, until you are He Man, Master of the Universe.
Sorry I Cannot English: The tunnel, or, bottom of a well of half-understood and half-expressed language… In a dream when you want to turn around so you can better hear what the person behind you is saying because it seems so important, but you can’t quite. In pain when the words don’t form properly in your mouth and so it’s as if an alien or a witch is using your body to speak an agenda other than your own. Sitting at a table of people you’ve just met who speak another language, and after an hour of saying nothing finally piping in to emphatically agree with what everyone is discussing only to learn that they have been specifically with fists slapping palms saying the direct opposite. Being in a place where if you just shift your focus a half a degree off plumb, all conversation becomes melody without lyrics. And, in spite of any and all that, the connections between us are still made. They are still there.
FLABmag: Does it annoy you when music reviewers make overly saccharine references to over emoting in your music? I read one review that made you sound like a doll rather than a woman. If you aren’t annoyed I can be annoyed on your behalf.
Wow, now I really want to read this review you mention! I appreciate your offer to be annoyed on my behalf, but are willing to go the distance? As in, toilet paper this reviewer’s house, corner them in a back alley, take out an ad in Variety taunting them in scurrilous language? Or… something. Anyhow, I am neither a doll nor a woman. I am a mad killer robot in secret human skin disguise and therefore you both got it wrong.
FLABmag: Speaking of Europe, and France in particular, do you find it easier to explore your vocals and create work than it is here? And I would assume you are much happier with the medical care given there than you would here?
Speaking for myself, I don’t think it easier or harder in one place or the other to write songs. And as the song takes shape, it dictates what will be required vocally.
To talk about and compare medical care systems would be a daylong conversation. In something of a nutshell, I am not entitled to free medical care in France, but because the system is efficient and has been in place for some time, my costs out of pocket are somewhat less. I’ve had amazing care from wonderful souls in both countries, and have experienced some of the most astounding callousness from medical professionals in both countries. I do think the French system more easily lets a doctor do his job and take care of his patient, but my two cents is that great care comes down to someone who can listen and be a partner, and someone is doesn’t become abusive and/or absent when they can’t cure you. The rest is up to me taking responsibility for how I live my life.
FLABmag: I notice you have very lustrous hair. Which shampoo and conditioner do you use?
Thank you very kindly for this compliment, but I’m not sure I deserve it. Perhaps you were looking at some wig shots? Last week I tried to make a homemade conditioner with whatever seemed good in my refrigerator: an egg, yogurt, honey and olive oil. I put it all in my hair, and when I went to rinse it out, the instant the water hit my head it was like I had a white dwarf star on my head. I literally thought that the huge heavy mass was going to pull all of my hair out. The heat of the water cooked it into some kind of omelet hairdo. Seems like a charming anecdote, but I seem to be a walking sitcom of personal grooming and have just one too many disaster stories like this. In this area, I am just not very good at being a girl, or a metrosexual, or whathaveyou.
FLABmag: You have also been photographed wearing a lovely shade of red lipstick. What is the name of the shade and what brand is it?
Mac™ Russian Red mixed with, well, Mac™ Diva, or Chanel™ Barcelona Red. Or, of course, my own blood. That old fallback.
FLABmag: Does every apartment come with a bidet and do women (or men) actually use them? What’s it like using one of those things?
The only thing I’ve ever seen them used for is a place to wash socks, or hand-washable delicates.
FLABmag: Do people really walk around with baguettes and Brie cheese? (I love Brie! I also love a good Bordeaux.)
One favorite visual memory is of seeing a young dude walking around in a Paris suburb, totally gangstered out, baggy pants sagging, gigantic gold chains, baseball hat pulled low, tatted up hard, with a baguette tucked under his arm.
By the way, loving Baguettes, Brie and a good Bordeaux means that you are a good person, are kind to kittens and will get to go heaven when you die.
FLABmag: Are the French good at French kissing?
As you may guess, they don’t call it that, don’t really know that we call it that, don’t call French toast French toast, don’t call French fries French fries, and hence didn’t understand the Freedom fries insult (Ha ha). Pepe le Pew for them is… Italian. Back to the kissing, Yes, they are. And they don’t wear pants either
FLABmag: Are you ultimately happy living in France? I assume so but if you had to come back to the States where would you live?
For the past four years, I’ve spent more than half of each year on the road or in the States, so I’m not even sure I officially get to say I live in France. I love things about everywhere I’ve lived, and actively miss each place when I am away. I just look forward to feeling a bit less lost about where home is. Someday soon I hope.
Visit Lisa on the Interweb: Official Site | Sargent House | Facebook