What was your childhood like?
Well, I started out in a foster home and was then adopted…..but it was the kind of adoption that was just basic needs oriented. I was kept at arms’ length and the atmosphere was pretty harsh.
I wonder why they adopted you if they weren’t going to fully embrace parenthood.
My adoptive mother has always been a bit flighty when it comes to interests. She gets focused on something for about a year or two and then erases every trace of its existence. That’s a little difficult to do with a child. They did stop being a foster home, though.
Oh, your parents were the foster home?
Yes. So I would see kids come and go for a very short while.
Was it a religious foster home?
No, it wasn’t connected to religion…..surprisingly. She probably saw a movie that influenced her or something.
They were very religious, right?
Was there a time when you embraced their religion, or did it always feel foreign to you?
I was raised in it and extremely affected by it, so — YES. I believed it until I was about 15 when the brain moves into the abstract reasoning phase. (I think that’s the phase at that age). I remember the exact moment when I thought “I can’t believe this anymore and I know it’s going to be tough.” I knew they would be even worse to me.
Was your family so religious that it was cult-like or was it just normal Protestantism?
We were always in church. I was only allowed to do recreational events if they were church related. I wasn’t allowed to go to school dances, etc. I wasn’t allowed to join the Brownies because it was “worldly.” It was very Carrie‘s mother.
When you no longer believed in it did you tell them?
Yes. I probably didn’t state it in a real straightforward way as I would have been too afraid, but she could tell by my questions.
Can you tell me about the moment you stopped believing? Was it due to some event?
No. I was sitting in a car and it just came to me — all the contradictions that made no sense. I just put it together all of a sudden.
Did that upset you or did you feel relieved? Or something else?
I felt like my life would become more difficult (not going with the flow and all), but I knew I had no choice.
Were you an only child?
Yes, I was an only child (after Mark, my foster brother was taken back by his mother). Needless to say, but I will — I’ve always had trouble bonding with people.
What’s Missouri like? Do you feel connected to it?
I feel emotionally connected to Missouri, but I feel very different (for some reason) than the people there. I often don’t understand their reasoning. I don’t know why I would be so different being raised there and all.
What do you do when you go back? Is there any culture going on?
I’ve noticed a big change in the city of St. Louis. Many more art spaces in the last few years. I really like the food there, as one usually does in the place they were raised.
What kind of food?
They have pizza unique to that city. Italian food is very popular there. It’s better than NYC’s, I think. Also, there is an ice-cream place I like where it stays open really late and people sit in the parking lot and partake like it’s the ‘50s or something.
It sounds so wholesome.
HA! Well, it’s the murder capital as well. Mostly, I am just very emotionally inspired there. Songs attack my brain there. I don’t have to think about writing — it comes to me.
Do you remember the first lyrics you ever wrote? First song?
I used to make things up throughout childhood. I would make stories up on the old spinet piano that was in the house — the top of the keyboard being little birds and the bottom being some sort of troll who eats them.
You made that up or… there were little birds on it?
I would make it up. I’d tell stories using the piano to demonstrate and set the ‘mood’.
When you’re on stage you take a little breath before starting each new song and then you seem to go into a different mode within yourself. What happens inside your mind when you’re performing?
It’s funny because people do tell me that I seem like a completely different person when I’m talking than when I’m playing and singing, but I can’t feel the difference. Mostly, when I’m singing and playing I’m trying not to think about it because when I think about it I mess up. So, if I happen to see video of myself (which I try not to do) I am always surprised by what I see because I really don’t know what I do.
Do you get nervous before a performance?
Maybe. I get more nervous about talking than singing. Morrissey is always encouraging me to talk more. Hmm. I don’t know why that is……because I go see bands all the time and they rarely speak.
Has anyone in your life ever recognized themselves in your lyrics and confronted you about it?
Oh my gosh! That used to happen all the time when I lived in St. Louis. People were sure that a song was about them. It never was. I remember one person — I had written the song before I even knew them. If they had paused to think about timeline they would have figured it out.
What formal musical or vocal training have you had over the years and do you think it has benefitted you, or would you have been the same performer had you not had it?
I would be the same performer, but the vocal lessons I had in school have helped me maintain my voice. I haven’t damaged it because of certain things I learned — mainly vocal exercises and where not to tighten muscles (throat).
When did you have vocal lessons? In college? High school?
I had a bit of training in both. I went to art schools. High school was an arts magnet school. Visual and Performing Arts. It was very inner city though, not like Glee.
How were you chosen for that school? Did you apply and were chosen or could anyone go?
It was mainly for weird kids to escape the horrid public schools they would be attending. I had to have an interview. It wasn’t a pay school or anything.
I’m shocked your conservative parents were okay with you going to an arts school.
They were okay with it because they knew the public school I had been going to had a lot of drugs and drinking going on. Also, my mom started working in the library of the Arts School when I started going there. There really wasn’t much “drugs and drinking” at the Arts school. People were focused on their “craft” and everyone seemed to enjoy it there. No one really wanted to cause trouble. The teachers there actually encouraged outrageousness – storming out of classes and all — if you can imagine! They thought it showed character. I know that seems too good to be true, but that was the school atmosphere I thrived in. Same thing in college — I went to a school that had a reputation for being avant-garde, so they let me run wild with projects. Not surprisingly, I loved school. This was the opposite atmosphere of my home. I tried to stay at school as much as possible. This wasn’t difficult in college. Of course, I moved out of my childhood home as soon as I turned 18. I ran away a couple of times before that.
You’ve attracted some fans who are slightly gothy. Do you identify as goth at all?
I seem to have a way of looking at things that others sometimes think is dark. I have dark hair. I like to wear black… I like some of the more emotional classic goth music, but besides that I’m not sure what being goth really means. Also, I’m a bit of a contrarian. If you book me on a goth bill, I swear to God I’ll wear white or something colorful. I don’t consciously do it, but I do it. I just can’t stand joining a group. I always kick against…..whether I want to or not. I’ll go in all lollipops and moonbeams, but then something turns.
“Life’s Not Short, It’s Sooo Long” is one of my favorite songs. It touches me because I read the lyrics as being about pining for a different life, wanting to be rescued from one’s circumstances, which I relate to. What were you longing for and have you found it?
Well, that feeling goes way back and has been consistent in my life. Morrissey says it’s my life’s theme song, but I don’t know. I do know that nothing has been quick in my life and I’ve always felt imprisoned by something. When I was living at home it was home and waiting to get the hell out of there, then, as an adult, it turned into other things — waiting to be acknowledged, waiting for kindness. I finally feel like things are starting to open up a bit for me for the first time after all this time.
That longing seems to be a common feeling among artists. I remember when I first heard “Comfort Is Never A Goal” I thought “Yes it is! It’s time I had some comfort finally!”, but then I realized it wasn’t aimed at me.
“Comfort Is Never A Goal” is sort of a mantra for getting through it all. And yes, artists often lose their perspective when too comfortable.
Do you collect anything?
No, I don’t collect anything. I try to do the opposite. I try to not be attached to anything.
You live in New York City. Do you enjoy being a New Yorker or is it just convenient to live there if you’re a performer? Is the music scene there important to you?
I live in New York, but I’m rarely here because of touring and when I am here I am usually working day and night in my apartment, getting ready for the next tour. Also, it’s a very transient city….so many of the friends I have made in the past are now gone. But, I do love many of the shows I’ve played in New York. Some of the Santos Party House shows (I’ve played) are on my All Time Favorite list.
You’ve said in the past that you adore Rome. Why is it such a magical place for you?
It’s difficult to say. It’s just the feel there. The light is golden. Everything looks too beautiful and old to be real. I love Italians — they’re so emotional and demonstrative about it. Think I got my first real standing ovation there (in Milan). I cried, of course. I’m sure I didn’t deserve it.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
I’ve got taste that’s all over the place… and very mainstream at times. More mainstream than people usually think. I don’t care about categories — never have. I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop and R&B. I didn’t really get into anything “underground” or hardcore until college. I mostly just had the radio before that. I would buy records and my mom would throw them away as soon as I got them…., but I was allowed to listen to Christian music at home — Oh goody. I even had to sneak the radio. At the same time I was playing classical stuff on the piano and I was hearing a lot of jazz. I was in a vocal jazz group in school and gospel choir. I also liked musical soundtracks. I like a bit of everything really. It’s all just music to me. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes not.
Jazz? Interesting. Jazz forces me to vacate my compound.
Well, most of the jazz I like is classic jazz if that makes you feel better. I like Ella Fitzgerald a lot. I can listen to Ella all day long.
What is something you like about yourself?
The one thing I like about myself is probably the one thing that’s been my biggest problem: I can’t do anything about being me. I can’t change who I am at the core. I’ve tried. I am the big mouth who speaks out even when I don’t want to because I get this feeling in my stomach that won’t go away until I do. I am the same musically. I’ve tried to be something else. I’m not sure who I am really…..but I truly am whatever that is.
And you like this despite the trouble it causes?
Yes, because…I think it’s rare. Most people just go along. Most people do what’s most popular. I like people who aren’t like that — people who have a built in individuality. I think I’m that too. At least, that’s what I surmise from the feedback I get from those around me.
What is it about old movies that you love? …And what are some of your favorites?
I like snappy dialogue and I like snappy clothes. Most movies now have imbecilic dialogue and ugly clothes. I like a lot of movies that were written by members of the Algonquin round table — “The Man Who Came to Dinner”, “Stage Door Canteen” …I can usually tell by the dialogue — I’ll look up the writers and usually it’s an Algonquin Round Table member. I go through phases with favorites. Right now those are them.
Has this been a lifelong thing or have you only recently gotten into classic movies?
I’ve pretty much always liked them. I’ve gotten a more thorough education as of late, but I was always attracted to “Little Rascals” and Groucho and stuff like that as a kid. I know that some people think “Little Rascals” have some racist overtones and maybe there could be a phrase here or there, but I always noticed that all the kids played together equally (black and white kids). There never seemed to be class difference with the kids. I think that was unusual back in the ‘30s, to show something like that on screen.
Also, I have always loved “I Love Lucy”, which again, was ahead of its time, or maybe we have been de-evolving. To show a white woman and a Latino man married (on prime time) and having it be no big deal really, well, I think they would think twice about that now even, which is sad. I think any show that practices exclusion is horrid. This country is comprised of so many different people — it’s repulsive that only one type is constantly displayed.
That new show, “Girls” on HBO is so excellently written and so popular, but none of the main characters are non-white. It’s so strange to me. You can say “I don’t see color”, but that’s not how non-white people see it. Believe me, they see color and they notice. It’s easy to say “I don’t see color” when you are in the control group.
Your outfits are works of art. What kinds of things inspire you to create a new one? When you’ve retired an outfit do you store it somewhere or get rid of it?
Thank you. I have no idea what inspires me. I just get ideas. Sometimes I’ll see something and I’ll try to copy the neckline or something or sometimes an idea just comes out of nowhere, at least consciously. Maybe I’ve seen it somewhere years ago. I don’t know. Right now I just throw old outfits in garbage bags and throw them on a shelf or in a corner.
Do you also make your own street clothes or do you reserve your sewing talents mostly for your costumes?
I re-work a lot of street clothes. I don’t really have time to make any from scratch.
Your last two videos, “Fantastic Failure” and “I’ll Get You Back”, were shot in Missouri? How did it feel to be shooting at home? Are you a local celebrity?
No, I’m not a local celebrity. I’m known other places a lot more. I think the press there has issues with me that I don’t understand. When I lived there they treated me like such a joke — making fun of me all the time. Then, when I left and started working with artists they respect, they seemed like they resented it. I remember one time Tony Visconti guested at one of my shows there (in St. Louis). He played bass on a couple of songs. The press said “Are we supposed to be impressed and feel privileged that she brought some big time producer to play with her.” Umm, maybe I just thought it would be a treat because so many tours skip St. Louis completely. So, I guess, YES, you were meant to enjoy it. I learned my lesson. Never again.
It’s puzzling. In 2009, I think, Morrissey played there. I wasn’t opening, but he complimented me (on stage) and the press reported it as being sarcastic. I mean, it was such a leap to say that it was sarcastic. That’s the old hometown. Everyone has one. I can deal with it. There are worse things.
You’ve toured quite a bit with Morrissey. How have you changed since first meeting him? Has he influenced your work?
Oh, gosh. I was a mess when I met him. I don’t know what he saw in me and I’m sure many feel the same way. He’s taught me so much — how to talk to people, how to talk at all. I was always a decent writer, but I had problems with actual speaking. Also, life had been so hard for so many years — I was always on the defensive — just ready for the shit to be slung — always ready for the fight. I was a wild thing. He dealt with me in a very loving way and I became warm again. Strange how that works. Also, the validation I feel from him has changed my life. I am stronger.
Do you plan to remain a solo act or do you think you might get a band together in the future?
I’d like to get a band together in the next phase.
You mentioned possibly having an all girl band once. Is that still something you might do?
I like the idea of changing the live format to keep it fresh. I would love to have that experience. Rock and Roll (whatever that is now) is still very much a male dominated field. I’m often (usually!) the only female (on the tour or in the studio, etc.)…which is fine, but I always wonder what it would be like to be in a band that’s all my own gender as that’s what men experience all the time.
Do you have any plans for after the Morrissey tour?
I want to record a new album later this year. I’m very excited about my new material.
Can you tell me anything about your new material?
I am very confident that my new material is the best I’ve ever written. I know that artists always say this….because they want people to buy their new album,…..but in this case, it’s true. I am getting better, as a writer, with each new project. I am not deteriorating as most pop/rock artists do. I am getting better and stronger. I am learning……like an unnatural reptilian alien.
If you could travel back in time and tell your younger self one thing, when would you travel to and what would you tell yourself?
I would go back to my involvement with my first boyfriend and tell myself “Run as fast as you can away from this person.” He was really a continuation of what my parents had done to me. He almost killed me twice — this is not a cutesy overstatement. He was abusive and suffocated me on two different occasions until I was passed-out and dying….then…..he would shake me until I was conscious again. I had such low self-esteem then. I had it in my mind that he was the only one I could relate to, but he stole a lot of my life. After him I never put up with anything that resembled abuse of any kind. I did learn. Some people don’t.
You’ve said in the past that you don’t change, but you did. And for the better.
Well….yes. My behavior changed. I learned things. But I am the same person …..at the core.
(photos by Tony Visconti)