Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Personifying the Next Renaissance: A Conversation with Phoebe Legere

Quite simply, Phoebe Legere is a force of nature. She is an author, playwright, singer, songwriter, a visual artist, non-profit manager, Pulitzer Prize nominated composer, engineer and inventor, and always an activist.  She is also a passionately philosophical thinker of big thoughts. 

And, Legere knows history.  Recently appearing at the Bread and Roses Festival in Lawrence, Massachusetts, she performed on the Carmen Teoli stage. 

“Carmela Teoli was one of the icons of labor history.  She was a 13-year old girl working in the mills in Lawrence, when her hair was caught in a machine and her scalp was ripped open.  During the famous Bread and Roses workers strike in Lawrence, in 1912, she testified in Congress about the working conditions for children in the Mills, and within days, the Bread and Roses strike was over, and important concessions were made to the workers. I love that I’m performing on a stage named for her, and debuting a song I wrote about her.”

Legere is couldn't be more deeply rooted in the American experience. Part of her family came over and helped found Massachusetts and Acadia in the seventeenth century.  The other part were here to greet them. 

“My music and art celebrates my ancestors, who were all from New England.  On one side, I am an Abenaki Indian, and the other side were part of the original 17 families that founded ‘New France’ on the northeastern coast of Canada. The founder of the family was a former court musician for Louis the 14th.  I am also descended from the Reverend Peter Powers, who was the first man to preach revolution in America from the pulpit. He knew John Hancock, and John Adams. He was lost at sea, and all of his property and money ‘disappeared.'  That had a significant impact on the family.  

Eventually, my family- both of my sets of grandparents- worked in the mills in New England, so ‘Bread and Roses Festival’ is sort of a homecoming’. I’ve done a lot of research about it, and about the role of the French in New England history. Some of the folk songs of ‘New France’, which I sing, were in some cases really the work songs of those in the factories.”

The uber-versatile Legere is working on several new projects, in addition to touring this summer.

“I just received a grant from the New York Council for the Arts, a commission, really.  I am writing a play about the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution.  It’s called ‘Shmattah’, which is a Yiddish word for ‘rag’. It’s the story of a piece of fabric, as it moves through the manufacturing process and into the community.  I’m very excited about it.”

Legere has written for the stage, before. Her recent musical Shakespeare and Elizabeth ran for 3 sold out weeks Off-Broadway. She has had half a dozen musicals produced in the New York area, which is her home base when not touring.  

But it’s her extraordinary musical chops and multi-octave voice that have unsealed many doors for her. She opened for David Bowie, during his 1991 tour.  It was a learning experience.

“What did I learn from David Bowie? I had always known the importance of ‘gesture’ for a musician.  When I was much younger, I had seen film of Edith Piaf, and I understood how she used gesture to help tell the story of the song, to underline the content that she was singing. Bowie used the same thing- he was familiar with and skilled in ‘kabuki’- he was always tapping into stillness and using gesture as an ancillary handmaiden to content. With Bowie, it was the perfect interpenetration of content and form.  I also learned from him that a modern musician makes significant money from ‘swag’ they sell.”

"Bowie was sort of locked into his 'persona' early on, so his use of gesture helped him to evolve through his different personas over time."

The well-educated and intensely thoughtful Legere has also had an opportunity to work with other musical legends.  After graduating from Vassar, she studied at both the Julliard School of music, where she honed her composition skills, and the New England conservatory, where she studied piano. Legere also studied with John Lewis, the keyboardist and founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis was a master of improvisation, and considered a gifted teacher. 

 “John had a tremendous influence on me.  He was always very honest with me. He said ‘you have so much skill up and down keyboard, but the most elegant is the closest place.’ I've never forgotten that.”

Legere is a multi-instrumentalist, primarily playing keyboards and accordion. She has released 15 CD’s of original music.  One of her latest, “Acadian Moon”, has been
extremely popular on ‘the college radio circuit.’ 

Phoebe Legere believes strongly in the need for artists to remain active and engaged in the community.

“You know, I read a number of sermons written by Reverend Powers, my ancestor.  He was powerful and eloquent speaking out against tyranny. The candidates running for office today seem like people who are more interested in own egos, than in serving the people they are supposed to be representing. Our number one responsibility is to take care of people in community.  I come from a long line of people who understood that we have a responsibility to work for the good of the people.”

Legere has also found what she believes is her most important work, serving the community.

“Recently, I received notice that my application to form a non-profit 501-c-3 in New York had been approved. Years ago, I founded the New York Underground Museum, which was about celebrating and encouraging artist whose work wasn’t being featured in museums.  And the most amazing thing began to happen- the Museum is located in a very diverse neighborhood, and lots of local kids would come in to see the art.  I began to realize that these kids were getting very little in school about art, and few opportunities to create.  My hope is the non-profit will change that.”

"I've received wonderful press, been the subject of features on NPR five times. I've had a chance to work all over.  And I still think this is some of the most important work I do."

Legere is also a self-taught engineer. She has created a environmentally friendly mode of transportation called the Shamancyle, which uses three forms of renewable energy to move people around.  

"It helps if you are a 'wires and buttons' guy. My grandfather fixed clocks, so I guess I inherited my interest in how things work from him."

She sees major changes happening in the music industry, from when she started back in the early nineties. 

"You know, the Indie artists have won. Major record companies are now copying people like me. Technology today means that you don't have to spend $20,000 per track to record something. Most of what I've done has been created by me using basic computer technology in my own bedroom."

What's happening in the music business fits, in Legere's opinion, with a larger dynamic. 

"We're having a 'correction'. It's as if we've grown too big, maybe too fast. Nature abhors a tyranny of species.  The music business had to eventually crash and burn, and it hurt a lot of people except those on the extreme fringe of the underground.  That helps me, in a way."

"Things often change because we hear fusions of new things, or even familiar things. What often sells in music are very much the stupidest of sounds.  Things that sound like something you've heard before. I've read studies where it turns out that even the worst song becomes appealing once you've heard it three times- it loses it's ability to offend. And yet, American music is one of the great treasures of this world. Blues, folks, jazz- all the stories and melodies and harmonies. I believe that artists have a moral duty to address the agenda of scientific and social justice- that is really your gig as an artist.  You have to nail yourself to the 'cross of truth.'  The gig for musicians and artists- for all of us- is to leave the world a better place than you found it."

Few artists do that as intentionally and brilliantly as Phoebe Legere.  She takes a great deal of her inspiration from the world around her. 

"I do a lot of camping when I am on tour, and it gives me an entirely different perspective.  I go to some of the most remote places, people invite me... I meet people who tell me their stories, people who have overcome terrible calamities, losses, grief- people tell you things that you can learn from.  That's been a wonderful part of my journey."

She has been called a ‘musical Renaissance woman,' 'a genius,' and a ‘treasure.’ Phoebe Legere is a brilliant, thoughtful artist, with an amazingly clear vision for her art, and for the world we live in. 

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