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Phoebe Legere, a native of Lexington, Massachusetts, has lived many lives.
She was one of '80s New York underground "It" girls. She’s had her paintings hung in major museums and collections. She lived with the late gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson, traveled to Africa, Asia, China, remote areas of the Amazon, hiked the Himalayas and lived in Tibet. She studied with John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Oh, and she’s the executive director of the Foundation for New American Art. She's been educated at Vassar and Juilliard and recently has been recording a new album in Montreal. In short, Legere has been around. But returning to Massachusetts always feels like coming home.
“My love of Massachusetts is not a love of Route 9 and the malls and chain stores," Legere says on the phone from Montreal. "My love of Massachusetts is the land itself and the people that were so attached to that land. My family is from Massachusetts. They had a cattle farm in Hopkinton; my entire family is buried around there. I’m a Mayflower descendent. You can talk about Americana authentically being from the hills of Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky, but we have [an Acadian] folk tradition that’s just as strong."
If Legere's name isn’t familiar, it may be because she’s worked in a multitude of genres and long shunned the machinations of major record labels. To say she has great antipathy toward most aspects of the music business would be an understatement.
Legere was slated for a homecoming gig at Somerville's Union Tavern on Thursday, Sept. 27, but she bowed out Sunday, citing an ear infection and high fever. She is, however, planning on helming the same bill at The Luthiers Co-Op in Easthampton Saturday Sept. 29. (Legere hopes to reschedule a Boston-area date for April 2019.)
Her three-woman show is called “Sisters in Song.” The other musicians on the bill are Maine-raised singer-pianist Heather Pierson and Northampton-based singer-guitarist-pianist Carrie Ferguson. It’s being dubbed “Home — Where the Heart Is.”
The connective tissue in her work, Legere explains, “is my deep love of nature. I learned how to canoe on the Concord River and Sudbury River, I took life-saving at Walden Pond and I consider myself to be a modern-day transcendentalist. I consider myself to be a descendent, not in blood, but intellectually, of Thoreau and Emerson.”
Legere, whose ethnicity (reflected in her music) is a mix of Acadian and Native American (Abenaki tribe) among other backgrounds, defines herself as a “transmedia artist.
“When I come on the stage, it’s going to be a mixture of what I do: Cajun, Acadian, Americana, blues. I’m like an encyclopedia of American music.” She’ll be unveiling songs from “Squeeze Me,” the all-French album she’s been recording in Montreal, and playing both originals and Cajun-Acadian classics.
If you knew Legere only from her biggest moment in the spotlight, this might shock you. In the late ‘80s, she was one of the New York City’s “It” girls. Not in the mainstream sense, but certainly in the underground world where the edgy music documentary film she was in, “Mondo New York,” was a hit and she acted in two “Toxic Avenger” comic-horror cult movies. On college radio, her electro-new wave song “Marilyn Monroe” was a hit.
Who picked up on that buzz? None other than David Bowie, whose antennae were always attuned to the underground.
“I had no manager, I had no agent, nobody handling me,” says Legere. “It just happened the old-fashioned way, which is very rare in our corporate hype-driven society.”
Legere sets the scene: “I’m playing the piano. The phone rings. It’s David Bowie saying, ‘Would you like to open for me on my national tour?’ I said ‘Yes. Can I bring my band?’ Because I had this really hot rock band. He said, ‘No, I love your cabaret, I love when you play the piano.’ ”
Bowie agreed to supply a grand piano, so for every one of the nine shows on the 1990 Sound + Vision tour that Legere opened for “they put a white grand piano on a forklift and lifted it onto the stage. I came out an unknown, this skinny kid playing a white grand piano, playing for 20,000 people. I hope I won some people over. By the end of it, that sound of 20,000 people cheering is music to any artist’s ears.”
Bowie helped further her dream. “Bowie would come into my dressing room,” Legere says, “and say to me many times, 'Don’t do what the music companies are telling you to do. Stick with your piano and your cabaret and your beautiful singing. That’s timeless and eternal.’ ”
Legere still performs cabaret style music, but her range of genres and stylistic choices is almost beyond belief. Her eclecticism, Legere says, comes naturally. “I’ve gone through different periods where I was studying different forms of music and histories of music and traditions. I was very assiduously diving really deep into electronic music and I got my masters in classical.”
Wait: There’s more. “I’m a classically trained composer, but I went back to school to learn how to conduct the orchestra and write for the orchestra. I studied electronic music and I brought it into my new wave music. At the same time, the first music that I heard was our Acadian family band, La Family Leger Band. I heard my father playing the spoons and guitar and I heard my grandfather playing the accordion, so everything in some sense is rooted in that 400-year-old tradition of Acadian music. It was very easy to infer everything else from that.”
Legere has a four-octave vocal range, plays seven instruments (“If I can carry it, I can play it.”) and boasts a dazzling, dizzying resume. That includes being signed at a young age by Epic Records (this did not end well — "I was signed at age 15 and was in the belly of the beast at that time") and singing at Lincoln Center, Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall. She fronted the post-punk riot grrrl band, 4 Nurses of the Apocalypse, and played the late punk clubs, CBGB in New York and the Rat in Boston.
“I grew up in my formative years in the East Village,” Legere says, “where long ago ‘Marilyn Monroe’ in 1989 was the peak of the East Village renaissance. Many people were experimenting with combining art forms. My parents were very strong visual artists and my grandparents were very strong musicians, on both sides. I always worked in both art forms and wanted to combine visual arts and music — this has been an obsession of mine from the very beginning. I am a multi-talented person, which they now call a multi-disciplinary artist.”
Talk to Legere for a half-hour and she’ll exhibit flashes of anger about the star-making machinery of music and stretches of pleasure talking about the joy of music-making.
“I was in the belly of the corporation,” she said in a follow-up email. “Isn’t the fact that I gave my life to this art form enough? Do I also have to be debased? … I survived numerous rapes, assaults and abuses in the music business.”
Ultimately, she adds, she believed the record business wasn’t even searching for great musicians, that technology had supplanted talent. “I think that is what brought the music business down as much as the internet,” Legere says. “By the late ‘80s, the music business didn’t need real musicians anymore. The machines were able to do all of that work. When they saw the colossal success of a couple of non-singers whose names I will not mention because I would never say anything against a fellow artist, they realized that they didn’t need people who were able to sing. They didn’t need the divine gift anymore. All they needed was somebody who could dance a little more and lip sync. So, they no longer had any respect or any patience for the exigency of the incredible science of music, which is in our world, here on earth, but it’s also a telescope to a parallel universe.”
On the 21st century music industry, Legere adds, “When you talk with people in the music business, all you hear is bellyaching and complaining and acting as if the sky is falling. And, of course, it did fall, but it was a good thing that it did because capitalism was in control of our music — the greed-heads and the accountants were controlling it — and that had to stop. Music found a way of escaping. It’s a miracle. I’m very happy to be in music.”
I asked her that with all she’d done — making music in all those varied genres with all these different people and with her multiple talents — was she at all frustrated she hadn’t gotten further or made it bigger? She’d had brushes with fame — "some very, very close brushes with fame" — and I thought she certainly deserved to be better known. I wondered what her take was.
Legere’s (edited, emailed) response: “You want me to be pissed off because I am not as famous as Coke or Pepsi? Coke and Pepsi are waste products with no real value. Media Stars are nothing more than Corporate Brands. Corporate Brand Awareness is bought and paid for. It's called Advertising. Advertising is Propaganda; Propaganda is an affront to the dignity of the human mind.
“I have seen first-hand, the horrors of fame. Celebrity is a form of abuse. Sun Ra once said, ‘First comes the Glory, then comes the Shame.’ … Stardom is achieved through brainwashing. We are convinced, using aggressive multivalent sensory stimuli, to give our attention, our money and our love, to a simulacrum - A ‘STAR’ who has been created through plastic surgery, pitch correction and hype.
“Stardom is something that is bought and paid for. Even mediocre, derivative artists who haven't had a hit in years can hog people's attention by manipulating the media through ‘public relations.’ ... I consider my Underground Status to be a great gift from God. I am a musician's musician, a singer's singer and an artist's artist. … The mass market can go f--- itself. I'm happy being me, Phoebe Legere, from Massachusetts, born on the Fourth of July.”
"Sisters in Song" perform at Easthampton’s The Luthiers Co-op on Saturday, Sept. 29.
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