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LAist Interview: Rachel Fuller
In the middle of a busy year for British singer-composer Rachel Fuller, what with two original musicals being prepped for world premieres, one of her pet projects from years past is finally getting its wide-scale US release. In The Attic, a program of loose, informal collaborations between Fuller, her partner Pete Townshend, and a series of musical guests ranging from the world-renowned (Lou Reed, Flaming Lips, Raconteurs) to the near-totally unknown, has evolved from a webcast based in Fuller’s literal attic, to a live-on-location travel show, to a cabaret show in tiny American nightclubs. The performances captured on the CD/ DVD package released through Best Buy in April are from the last phase, and include a set of songs taped at LA’s Hotel Café in early 2007 with collaborators Amos Lee, Alexi Murdoch, Rachel Yamagata, Tenacious D and Ben Harper signing up for Fuller and Townshend's experiment in open-mic night.
Fuller spoke to LAist from her home in Richmond about her role as organizer of the Attic events, what makes them work, dreams of the perfect lineup for the show, and fills us in on future plans to present her own music, which seem more likely to involve theatrical engagements than music videos.
Out of eight In The Attic shows you’ve put on in the States, we’ve gotten three of them in LA. Is there a particular reason you like bringing it here?
Well initially, the first two, the Who were touring, so we happened to be in LA. So it was an opportunity, really. The Troubadour, I believe they were there again. So, I was traveling with Pete, as I often do when they’re doing shows. But I get a bit bored, and I want to do something creative and fun, so it’s always a good time to do one.
How do you go about choosing the guests that you want to invite to be a part of these?
Well, I guess I’m really lucky, because I just invite people that I think are fabulous. And often I try and find somebody who’s fairly well-established, somebody who’s perhaps, almost a complete unknown, and somebody who’s sort of in between. I was also lucky enough to be working with this fabulous girl called Carrie, who had worked for an agent here in London and her knowledge of new artists, especially the ones that were up and coming, was way beyond mine. So she would sometimes suggest people to me, and give me a copy of their music and I would have a listen. And we just did it like that really.
Do you think the nature of the shows, in small intimate venues, does that give the artists some breathing room to try some things that they might not attempt on a bigger stage?
I think it does but, I think personally speaking, but also having spoken to a few other people, that artists find it more intimidating to play in smaller venues. It feels more intimate to them. Whereas if you’re playing to a big arena, for some reason, it’s easier. But it wasn't just to do with the small venues, I think it was to do with the format as well. I mean, we really just didn’t rehearse. At best, we would do a soundcheck and just that kind of easygoing… It’s a bit like if you have a musician over to your house, and you just kind of sit round in the living room and play and try things out and you’re allowed to make mistakes. It’s almost required, in a sense, that the performance is imperfect. And without exception, every artist that performed on an ITA had a real laugh. You know, they just really enjoyed themselves. It did feel different to anything they’d done before. And obviously, for pretty much all the artists, they were just so kind of overwhelmed to be sitting there and jamming with Pete, I think. But the whole experience was just extraordinary. And Pete has said many times, “You’re not re-inventing the wheel, here Rachel. This is something us musicians have always done.” But there was something about the way everything was put together, that did feel really incredibly intimate, and fun, and informal.
I think had we done bigger shows, it wouldn’t have been the same. I mean, at Joe’s Pub in New York, you could hear people eating their food. But I think as well, for the audience, it felt special. It felt like they were really seeing something special. They were so small, some of the venues, blimey!
There’s clearly a lot of material from the number of shows that you’ve done. How did you go about editing everything you have in the library to what we see on this release?
Well we just decided to pick a couple of shows. We did eight live shows, there’s no way that you could fit all of that into one package. It would just be too much. We’re kind of hoping that this one does well, and people want to see more, and then of course we’ve got so much more to get out there. We just said, where shall we start, and the second Hotel Café show was… well they were all great, actually! I think we just went with that one… I can’t even remember how we chose. And then the Joe’s Pub one, because I think the thing with Lou Reed was pretty special. So we just picked two, and like I said, if this does well, there’s another six shows to get out there, which we will do.
Do you have in mind a dream roster that you’d like to put together?
Who would my dream roster be? It would be Pete… Stevie Wonder… Joni Mitchell… Prince... and who else? ME, of course! That would be pretty great. But they’re just my favorite artists, I guess. There were a couple of occasions when it looked like we may able to do one with Neil Young and Eddie Vedder, who, Pete’s worked with both before. And that would have been great. But that was really just a matter of schedule. And Bob Dylan as well. A lot of it, like I said, was opportunity, we happened to be there and we would just pull one together very quickly.
There have been some amazing people. Obviously when you do a show with Billy Corgan and Lou Reed and even to a certain extent, Tenacious D, because he’s out there and he’s a well known face, and he’s done his movies and stuff… you know a lot about the artists and you know what to expect. But it was the new artists that I was just… there’s so much SHIT in the charts… am I allowed to say that?
Certainly! We don’t censor in LA!
There’s really just so much shit. And before we did these shows, every once in a while I would flick through the music channels and I’d just think, “I just can’t bear another video in a fucking night club with girls in bikinis and … I just can’t bear it. Just… ecch!” And of course there’s the very odd good thing that gets into the mainstream, of course there is. But so much of it, I was so disheartened. Then reaching a bit further and finding the extraordinary wealth of talent which is out there, that nobody really knows about. And of course people like Alexi Murdoch and Joe Purdy and Amos Lee and Rachel Yamagata, they are all starting to make a name for themselves, and of course Martha Wainwright. It’s just extraordinary, I just think they absolutely blow away so much of the crap that’s out there. It seems very unjust to me that a lot of this kind of second-rate stuff is doing well and there’s this extraordinary talent that’s still very much behind the scenes in some cases.
I guess that’s not a new condition. It seems sometimes like it improves and after a while it starts to slide back.
Well Pete said to me, it’s always been this way. It’s always been this way, even in the 60s and 70s. Out of the top 40 there would be two or three really good tracks, a track by the Beatles or the Stones or you know, but there was also an incredible amount of shit around then. So I think you’re right, I think it has always been that way. But I got very disheartened, and now my faith has been really restored. There’s just a huge amount of just amazing talent out there, and people writing new music that’s different, that’s touching and moving and makes the hairs on your arms stand up. And that’s what I want,. I want to be moved by music. But obviously, different things for different people.
I know that you come from a classical background. It seems to me that in the last twenty or thirty years, that the distinct border between serious, composed music, and popular music is starting to break down. I’m thinking about things like John Adams turning the works of Radiohead into a so-called serious concert piano, or Frank Zappa’s music entering the repertoire of 20th century orchestras. Do you think that’s true, and if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I think there’s always going to be a divide between the classical, more serious music, and pop because I do think they have different functions. Pop is so transient. Yeah, I do see a merging of the two, but... I think movie soundtracks is where I see them really coming together in a way that works really brilliantly. A friend of mine, Cathy Nelson, is a music supervisor out there, and she’s amazing. You know, in the course of a movie there’ll be extraordinarily diverse… there’ll be a Vivaldi harpsichord sonata, or a Scarlatti harpsichord sonata, a piece by Coolio and a piece by Alexi Murdoch, all in the same movie. And that seems to tie it all together really well, so I think movies have really brought that together.
Do you have any plans at this point to perform your own work in the US?
Well with regards to In The Attic, I’m sure there’ll be some more at some point in time. I don’t know when. And I love putting myself in the middle of that, and kind of screaming at the audience. And I feel comfortable. I certainly can’t compare myself to most of the artists that I share a stage with. But I feel like I have a right to be there and I do enjoy performing. But I don’t know if that’s something that I’m going to focus on, myself as a performer. A, I think I’m too old now. I’m thirty-five. And the idea of going out there with no knickers on and kind of shocking people, is something that I did, God, a long time ago. And now I’m almost, kind of smoking a pipe in my pajamas.
I think my music is also very middle of the road, so short of getting it on boxes of Tampax across the nation, I don’t imagine that millions and millions of people will ever get to hear my music. But I’m always very touched when someone does find it and they say “Oh God I heard your music and it was really great.” And, you know, I’ve reached a fair number of people with my stuff. And I’m passionate about it. I don’t see myself jumping into the charts any time in the future, and I don’t think most people know about about me. Nobody knows about me. I could maybe do like a small three or four day residency at Joe’s Pub, I kind of have enough mates over there that would come see me and have a nice time.
What about recorded music? Anything coming our way?
I have, actually. I just put it up on my web site now, and my Myspace page, and people go and listen to it and I get a bit of feedback, and it’s very nice. I’ve recently done a thing, I’m a big fan of a movie director called Pedro Almodovar. And so, I picked four of his films, I’ve seen pretty much all of them, and wrote four pieces of music inspired by the movies. That’s mainly piano, Spanish guitar, cello and voice. And Pete and I have been working on those, and they should be ready soon. I'm just finishing some of the lyrics up, I always struggle with the last few lines, But as soon as they’re recorded they’ll be up, and on my site.
It’s all good. I’m really lucky. I’m working on two music theater pieces at the moment, one based on my experiences playing the organ in a crematorium when I was seventeen for two years, and the other one is set in the 50s, it’s like a noir detective falls in love with a stripper. So that’s a new style of writing for me, very like Etta James. Smoky nightclub… It’s going on, I’m putting it on in a theater here in London at the end of this year or the beginning of next year. And the other piece set in and around the crematorium, which is also a lot to do with growing old, plastic surgery, and that kind of thing, I’m hoping is going to go up, will get workshopped at the New York Public Theater, maybe at the end of this year or the beginning of next. So I’m still writing, I’m still out there writing, singing, doing my stuff. I love it. I’m lucky.