Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Larkin Grimm: In Hell and Out of It

Late last year and early this one, I wrote a whole bunch of stories for Copper Press, which almost immediately proceeded to go on hiatus. This one actually ran in Supplemental #9, but I think the rest are probably toast. So I'm going to start putting them here, so that the four or five people that like to read my work can have access to them.

Larkin Grimm: In Hell and Out of It

“I’m thinking about hell,” says Larkin Grimm, in the calmest voice imaginable, a low, smokily resonant voice that is somehow simultaneously very sexy and very scary. “I had this feeling when I was a kid that I was in hell, but it was okay. Like if you were born and you were something else before that was really great and then you come into the world and it’s a hellish, hellish place. I mean, you’re there and you’re like, this is it.”

Grimm is speaking by phone from somewhere in Belgium, where she is between shows on what has become a several year long trek from venue to venue, country to country. Along the way, she says she has played a couple of hundred shows a year, linking up on bills with most of the underground scene’s current crop of bands. And yet, though her life has turned peripatetic, this phase is less uncertain that many other parts of Grimm’s existence, where she has spent time, by turns, on hippie communes and red-necked towns, the quads of Yale and the Alaskan wilderness, art galleries and mental hospitals. Along the way, she has made four full-length albums.

Her latest CD, Parplar, out on Young God in October is an unsettling mix of tradition and pure modern eccentricity, its old-time instruments wielded with an anarchist’s glee, its dizzying harmonies and descants wrapped around provocative, feminine-empowered lyrics. She is accompanied, on this particular outing, by the members of Fire on Fire, also a recent Young God signing, as well as Micah Blue Smalldone and a smattering of downtown New Yorkers.

It is a startling album, full of ruthless sexual imagery and authentic southern-tinged Americana. It is, perhaps, exactly the sort of album that you’d have to make if you’d grown up barefoot on a Tennessee commune, followed your father to gigs at red-neck bars in Georgia and earned a scholarship to study art at Yale.

Many of its strongest characters are women, reflecting a life spent under the influence of strong females – starting with an unconventional mother and grandmother. “I was trying to make an album about women,” says Grimm, “and it was because I was trying to explain the world to myself, and I thought that was the way to do it.”

Grimm was raised on a commune dedicated to the Holy Order of MANs, outside of Memphis. “It was a really beautiful childhood actually. It was really very protective of me as a spiritual being,” she recalls. “Both my parents took a lot of acid in the 1960s and both of them had run away from home and joined a utopian community and they thought about everything in terms of energy. They thought about everything in terms of how do we heal the world. How do we fix this problem? How do we escape from this competitive society that we live in? And have peace, you know?”

Yet even in utopia, Grimm found herself drawn towards darkness. “When I was a kid and my mom was cooking…we weren’t vegetarian, which is sort of surprising. But my mom would cook a whole chicken and she would always get me to pull the guts out of the chicken,” she remembers. “ I was the one – of the five kids in the family – I was the one who wanted to do that.”

Feminism and body image
Grimm gets her feminism from her earliest years, starting with a mother who was – and is – strikingly beautiful, but who made physical good looks a taboo subject at home.

“My mother’s mother was a fashion model with some pretty bad eating disorders,” Grimm explains. “My grandmother died of colon cancer when she was very young. And it was because she didn’t eat. She had cancer all over her body by the time she was 45,”

“My mother saw her own mother being objectified, and she hated that all her life. So that’s kind of why she ran away from home,” she added, “When I was born, I was her first daughter. I was her feminist experiment. You know? She wouldn’t let anyone tell me that I was beautiful. She wouldn’t let anybody compliment me on anything other things that I had done.”

That wariness of physical beauty comes through in Grimm’s music, too, in the song “Blond and Golden Johns,” with its eerie, lullaby melody and chilling sexual imagery. Against the plinking of xylophones and skittery strings, Grimm intones, “And I’ve been penetrated so/I’m welcome everywhere I go/This mouth has wrapped around something/more delicious than these songs I sing/And not just men have known my charms/You women, too, with your golden arms.”

“I wrote that song about Paris Hilton,” she says, when asked about the song. “I think we’ve got this culture where the female body is on display constantly. It’s manipulating us. You see the female body everywhere, representative of the whole universe in which we live. When you meet a girl who’s like 16 years old, there’s something about these young girls that they just represent everything in society. They’re so sensitive. And they’re so expressive of their feelings and emotions. They’re taking everything in all the time. It’s reflected on their faces and in their bodies. It’s like you can know so much about society by looking at the young women. Because they’re the ones who don’t hide it, because nobody’s making them hide it.”

Red-neck bars and old-time music
Grimm’s family left the commune when she was about six, moving to Delonica, Georgia, a hard-bitten village in the Appalachian Mountains. There, her father worked days in a record store and nights playing classic southern rock in bar bands. “My father was such a passionate musician and he just…he was trapped by his five children and his wife and working like a slave to feed us all,” she says. “He would be out until three o’clock in the morning playing music. And then come home and go to the music store that he owned and work at the music store in the morning. He’d come home at three in the morning. He’d wake up at nine o’clock in the morning and go to work and come home for dinner and then go out. So my experience of my father is really just music.”

Grimm’s father wasn’t around enough to teach her to play guitar or banjo or mandolin, but she says she picked up much of what she knows about traditional music from listening to him play. “My mom always had a baby, and it was a very, very small house,” she remembers. “And so when he was at home, my father would play acoustic instruments, banjo and the fiddle. If his friends came over, they would play old-time music.” From these sessions, Larkin got a grounding in the bluegrass, country and folk that runs through her own music. “The songs are easy to learn and I was singing along. My sisters and my brothers also. We all knew these songs. We knew hundreds and hundreds of songs by heart. They just e,nter into your consciousness at a certain point. I don’t even have to try to channel that stuff. It just comes through. Because my dad was such a crazy musician,” she says.

By the time, Grimm was nine, her mother would sometimes take her to the bars where her father played his louder, more rocking music, offering a glimpse into a rough and alien world. “The women would be throwing their underwear at him. And they were red-neck women. The women were toothless and stringy and wild. And they’d have knife fights on top of their cars in the parking lot,” she says.

“I’ve never been squeamish or very much afraid of anything,” she says, when asked how, at age nine, she dealt with those kind of experiences. “It was just, all right, here they go.”

Yale and music
Not long after that, the academically gifted Grimm got a scholarship to a private boarding school. She later went to Yale, also on scholarship, to study art. It was at Yale, at a student exhibition, that she began to make music.

“I did a performance piece in which I lived in the art gallery for one week. I didn’t bring any food, and I camped out in a tent and I was just drawing on the walls and making my own little utopian commune inside this room,” says Grimm. “Anybody who came into this room had to play by my rules. But they could also write more rules on the wall and I would have to follow their rules.”

One rule, for instance, was that everyone had to sing to communicate. Over the week, people began bringing musical instruments to the gallery. A new rule was made that there would be a musical performance every hour. “People would come into the gallery to see the art, and a song would begin and they would become a part of the song. I recorded them all. So by the end of the week, I had about 16 songs.”

Songs from a mental ward
Grimm’s second album also began at Yale, but in a much more troubled setting. “ I was in Yale University and all of my friends were having nervous breakdowns. Everybody I was friends with ended up in the mental hospital at one point or another,” she says. “ I was going in there to visit them and eventually spent some time in there myself”

Grimm describes taking anti-depressants and mood stabilizers for a time, before deciding to heal herself, at home, in Georgia. “I detoxed basically,” she says. “ It was harsh. I’d never done heroin, but I think it’s sort of like I had a similar experience to people that I know who’ve had to go through that period of physically getting off something, emotionally, mentally getting off something. And your body is shaking and your mind is screaming inside of your head. And you’re just totally freaking out.” The songs she wrote during this period were what caught Michael Gira’s ear, and led to her signing with Young God.

Connections and collaborations
Grimm went back to Yale and finished, meeting, along the way, some of the musicians who would influence her and shape her work. She first ran into Cerebrus Shoal at college, whose members, now in Fire on Fire, are also signed to Young God and play on Parplar.

She and David Longstreth, also from Yale, met, became lovers and formed Dirty Projectors. She left the band after a messy break-up and went back to making solo music. “It was like …men are vampires. They just suck the life out of you. And women are martyrs and they’re just like, ‘Oh please, take more. Oh please, let me help you,’” she recalls. “I had to quit that band because at a certain point, I didn’t have anything left of my own. I was so caught up in making his art for him, that I had nothing left. And so I quit.”

Grimm also began recording intensely, creating the songs that made up her third breakthrough album Harpoon. “I was getting my strength back when I made that album. And it was so awesome when people actually liked it and started inviting me to travel around and perform. That was the first time I had really thought of myself as a musician in any way,” she says.

Parplar…the cosmic orgasm
Grimm’s fourth album Parplar is her first recorded with Young God’s Michael Gira. She says the title comes from her own particular vision of orgasm. “Parplar is like the galaxy where orgasms come from. It’s the place beyond,” she says. She adds, “ A lot of girls, you know, they think about boys and maybe they’re masturbating. For me it was never that. I was always just thinking about stars. I was thinking about the universe and what’s beyond the universe.”

Grimm says that her bedroom, when she was a teenager, had a skylight and that she’d often fall asleep looking at the stars. Now fascinated by occult phenomena like astral traveling and lucid dreaming, she studies these out-of-body experiences with two shamans. I’ve done a lot of dream journeying, shamanic journeying, astral travel, whatever, leavint the physical body and traveling to the dream world,” she says. “Orgasm is sort of like that moment when you leave the body. With every orgasm that you have…you become so aware of the pleasure of being a physical body that you can transcend it. It’s the height of being human and then…oh, what’s beyond?”

Touring now, as she has been for the last several years, Grimm continues to think about what’s beyond and outside of herself, even going so far as to invent a fictional alter-ego named Nicky Palicula to represent another facet of her. If you go to a Larkin Grimm show these days, you may spot one of her co-musicians sporting a blonde wig and in character as a worldly, East European woman. “No man is allowed on stage with me unless he wears the wig,” she says.

Nicky Palicula is one answer a question that Grimm says she hears all the time about exactly who she is and how much of her story is true. And here’s another, straight from the source, “And, yes, I am completely honest about everything, and yes, I am who I say I am, and I’ve done what I said I did, and I’m not making anything up and I’m not trying to make it sound more exciting than it is.”

Fair enough…it seems unlikely that anyone could make Larkin Grimm up.