MELISSA AUF DER MAUR: EXPANDING HER ROCK ARTISTRY

By Paul Freeman [September 2010 Interview]

Many rock performers are referred to as artists. Often that title doesnít truly apply. But Melissa Auf der Maur has definitely earned such a designation.

The former Hole bassistís art has taken a quantum leap forward with her latest solo project, ďOut Of Our Minds.Ē This ambitious, imaginative concept includes an album, 28-minute film and graphic novel. Each element stands on its own, as well as complementing the other creations. On the album, youíll discover tunes spanning power pop to dark hard rock to slower, moodier interludes. Each track mesmerizes.

At the beginning of this project, she was still with Capitol Records. A label upheaval left the project in limbo. While waiting for the results of a legal scrap that eventually enabled Auf der Maur to complete and release the album herself, she met filmmaker Tony Stone, having seen his Viking feature, ďSevered Ways: The Norse Discovery of America.Ē

Auf der Maur envisioned Vikings, witches, time travel and the hunt for a heart being key elements in her film, so she had found the right collaborator. Together they created the dazzling film of ďOut Of Our Minds,Ē tremendously enhanced by Auf der Maurís compelling score.

Originally from Montreal, Auf der Maur attended performing and visual arts school, from grade one through high school. At Concordia University, she majored in photography.

When first invited to join Hole (having been recommended by Billy Corgan), Auf der Maur declined, hoping to earn a Masters degree in art. But Courtney Love persisted and finally convinced her not to pass up such a huge opportunity.

After five years with Hole, Auf der Maur toured with The Smashing Pumpkins. In 2004, she released her first solo album, ďAuf der Maur.Ē She has also lent her musical talents to such luminaries as Ric Ocasek, Rufus Wainwright, Ryan Adams, Ben Lee and Fountains of Wayne.

While out of the spotlight during her label battle, Auf der Maur began a blog. This enabled her to stay connected with fans. Youíll find it at www.xmadmx.com, where you can also get a free song download and purchase ďOut Of Our MindsĒ merchandise. In addition, youíll find listings and links for upcoming concerts and screenings in North America and Europe.

Prior to the singer/songwriter/artistís October 2nd San Francisco performance (at Cafe Du Nord) and film presentation (at Artists Television Access), the ever fascinating Ms. Auf der Maur spoke with Pop Culture Classics.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
How did the concept for this whole project take shape in your mind?

MELISSA AUF DER MAUR:
Over the course of quite a few long years. Pretty hardworking. I wasnít just sitting around, watching the years go by. I really made like an intense effort expand and try new things, not only expand as a musician and a songwriter, which was a big part of it, but also as a visual/conceptual artist and wanting to bring all of my passions and inspirations into one project, if I could. So basically, it started as my follow-up solo album, which I knew from the get-go, I made a creative promise to myself, that I would have a visual/conceptual part of it. So from the beginning, I was basically saying, ĎThereíll be a fantasy film and comic book that goes with that.í And that was years before I even knew that would be possible, because even then, the technology wasnít what it is now. In the past three years, while making this project, all kinds of phenomenal technological things happened that made it possible for me to be my own label, make an HD solar-powered fantasy film and all these amazing things that were evolving while I was evolving. So basically it started as an album. I started writing songs, hunting for the concept that I would then translate into a fantasy art element, which became the film. So in the first year of writing new songs, I was literally hunting for the theme. I knew that it was going to be orbiting around the heart. And itís when the chorus for ĎOut of Our Mindsí came to me and the way that the song was written... Some songs are written like a lightning bolt, like a channel from another place. And some are a labor intensive thing. But ĎOut of Our Minds,í the song, just came flowing through really quickly. All of a sudden, I heard myself saying these words, ĎTravel out of our minds, into our hearts, standing by, our heartís been standing by for so long.í And thatís when I found the core of the concept and what I began to base the rest of the project on.

PCC:
Once you had that kind of crystallized, how did you delve into the other songs?

MELISSA:
Well, luckily, during this time, the big shift in the music industry was happening. So at the beginning of this project, I was still with Capitol Records. And honestly, I never felt at home with the major label world. Itís just that I was given this opportunity at the beginning of my career, with Hole, and then through The Pumpkins and then into my first solo record. It was what, at this point, is an old school structure. But because I had been invited into that world, I was part of it. At the beginning of the record, I was still with Capitol Records. I just knew that it wasnít going to be the place where I could explore all of these other elements at my own pace and really take my time. So, in fact, it was sort of a perfect time when Capitol Records started to almost go belly-up, right before it merged with EMI and, basically, in one day, everyone at the company was fired. Everyone that was working on my record was fired in one day and thatís when my legal battle ensued, where I fought to get the rights to this record I had been working on. And that took six to nine months to even make a dent in that dialogue. So thatís when I realized, okay,I canít release this record, this is when I have the time to start working on the other parts outside of the music. And perfectly timed, in that I had just met the collaborator, Tony Stone, that I made the film with. I had just seen a rough cut of his Viking feature, ďSevered Ways: The Norse Discovery of America.Ē And itís hands-down, the best independent, backyard epic Viking metal film ever made in the history of film [Chuckles]. So I see this and think, ĎOh, my God! This f--king guyís crazy! This is who I want to make this film with.í I had just met him and this whole change in the industry and my destiny with my record label changed and I thought, ĎOkay, so howíd you make that one? And we did it. We literally packed up the pickup trucks and went to this incredible property that Tony Stoneís family has had since the Ď60s. Itís off the grid in southern Vermont. Itís a handmade hippie cabin with no electricity and no running water. And we basically spent, over the course of one year, a lot of months living like the Vikings and loggers and witches that were in the film and built this fantasy world, built the sets, lived this incredible, simple woodsy life. And actually, right at that time, the first consumer-friendly HD camera had just come out. So we ended up shooting in this really crisp, beautiful HD, fueled by solar power. And next thing we know, weíre like a year into making this really ambitious, bizarre, psychedelic film.

PCC:
So even before you met Tony, had you already visualized the film to some degree?

MELISSA:
Well, I knew that the whole message of the album, which then translated into film I made with Tony had to involve time travel and it had to involve Vikings and witches and the hunt for a heart. So the heart and the symbol of a heart, therefore the blood that flows through the heart as a life force, I knew I wanted to tell a story in a universal language of film that was parallel to music. So I knew there wasnít going to be words. And then I knew that there had to be an element of psychedelia, surrealism, because I need the film to represent, essentially, a dreamscape and the subconscious and the other world. And I had a lot of my visual references, which have always been with me, that Iíve never really been able to bring to life in my songs, whether itís pre-Raphaelite paintings or landscapes, horses. I had all of my iconic symbologies sorted out. It was just a matter of gluing it together with someone who knew the language of cinema.

PCC:
From the start, did you envision this as three separate creations that could stand on their own, but would also complement one another?

MELISSA:
Yeah, definitely. I knew that I almost had like this responsibility, as a musician who comes from an art school background. I went to performing and visual arts school my whole life. from grade one through university, until the day I joined Hole. So I knew I had a responsibility to create a larger world. I love music, but thatís only a part of me. So, one there was the commitment that, as an artist, I needed to branch out and two was that I liked the idea that the album could stand on its own. So someone who likes straight-forward rock music, who wants to come see me play, they donít have to also want to watch a fantasy psychedelic rock film. So I knew I didnít want to impose everything on everyone. But I knew I wanted to offer those who wanted more other, dimensions that stemmed from the same idea. In many places, there isnít a way to show the film and the album at the same place. So Iím happy to bring the film to a film festival and not have any performance element. Or Iím happy to go to a little mom-and-pop comic book shop and talk about the undiscovered illustrator that I used to illustrate the comic. I like the idea that with this, I get to branch into other independent art communities. Film and comic books are new worlds for me. And Iím thrilled that I can bring these into those communities without necessarily having the music attached. Iím developing in these other areas and itís very exciting.

PCC:
And your web site offers even other opportunities in terms of interactivity.

MELISSA:
Yeah, definitely the web component. Without me even realizing, when I started this project five years ago, I was completing a very epic decade chapter. Hole, The Pumpkin and my first solo album sat perfectly in a decade, from 1995 to 2005, like the perfect turn of that millennium. And when I exited that decade and I knew very much at the end of my first tour of my first record, on my 180th show, completing my 10-year-cycle, I thought, ĎOkay, I need to go take a break and go hibernate for the winter.í I went alone to my grandparentsí house in New England and I began to read, write, dream, sleep, recover from these 10 years. I consciously made a chapter change. And while I was hibernating that winter, I knew that I was about to dive pretty deep into a new, isolated territory for myself, being someone who had pretty much been on the road and living in New York City and L.A. for 10 years. I was basically moving to a small town alone and embarking on a pretty deep research project. So I had this flash, a month into it, that I needed a way to continue to connect with people, so I started my blog at the very, very beginning of this. So, for five years, Iíve had a blog. And I donít even consider myself a computer savvy person. But I actually realize that, at this point, Iím kind of a veteran of blogs [Laughs], that I have a five-year blog and an archive that has basically followed the entire transformation from person who didnít know what to do after losing her record contract to like explorations in the woods to discovering other sources of inspiration in film. So itís really amazing. My blog became the heart-and-soul of the web site that really does offer another kind of view into the process and what makes every day go by for an experimental artist right now.

PCC:
And the site can be an ideal marketing tool.

MELISSA:
Itís incredible. I can sell it directly, from my little cyber home to yours, without any middle man. Have you ever heard of such a thing? [Laughs] Itís just the best thing thatís ever happened to me. And that is my future, as far as my sacred relationship with the people, the listeners and the viewers, that fact that, no matter what happens with the third-party partnerships I have right now that are helping me distribute or promote, I have that. And that is all I need. And that also is a very big part of this project.

PCC:
And itís great, in this download age, to have an album that works not only in terms of individual songs, but as a creative entity.

MELISSA:
Definitely. Obviously Iíve thought a lot about this project, because itís been years in the making. But even with that, Iím again giving the listener, the viewer the option. If they want to go all the way deep and get the picture disc and the 12-inch vinyl and they can experience the whole project. But I have accepted the fact that there really is a whole world of people who just download one song at a time for free and thatís the most theyíll ever do. I know that Iím not one of those people. I definitely am a whole album person. But itís been interesting to see. Iím offering the whole world to those who want it. But if thereís a person who just wants the free download and the tip of the iceberg, Iím hoping that that one little crystal and that one little song will represent the rest of the project in itself. Itís almost like a weird exercise for me, that I want to be comfortable with all the different shapes and sizes. But obviously, I, like most people who relate to me, Iím definitely not a one-hit wonder, single person. So I am definitely connected more with the people who want the bigger world. They want that limited edition, silk-screened poster, too. We want all the little things to hold in our hands.

PCC:
The film, the imagery is so stunning, but itís also the score that makes it such a riveting experience. Did you find that came naturally to you?

MELISSA:
It was just so amazing what building that film did to the rest of my record, because, I basically was writing songs and I took a complete year off from the record while this whole battle, the legal things happened. And there I was, living in the woods, learning what it is to make a car crash and trees bleed and how long it takes to set up a shot. And then by the time we got into the editing and scoring process, I had already sort of deconstructed myself so much from the normal songwriting process that I was already in this completely different language of building. So it it did come easily and itís actually quite liberating to know that you donít have to make a song and a chorus and think about the words. Incredible. And the collaboration. Like on my solo records, I always take very particular drummers or guitar players to work with. And for the score, the collaboration with the L.A.-based band The Entrance Band, was also a very natural, easy choice, because I knew that all I needed was three days in a little studio cabin in Joshua Tree and The Entrance Band around me and the film being shot onto sheets on the wall and thatís how we built it. We basically spent three days in Joshua Tree, putting layers upon layers upon layers. And then later I went through and shaped and molded it with the final edit. So it was really a total pleasure and I would do it again any day.

PCC:
Your usual songwriting process, does that involve finding the balance between the intellectual and emotional sides of yourself?

MELISSA:
I try to do as much with the emotional, subconscious one as possible. So, for example, if Iím not writing a record, Iím often not writing at all. I write in my diary. I write blogs. I think. I research. Iím making notes of references. But when Iím writing a song, the way that itís worked is that itís when Iím in Ďtime off,í the equivalent of like a vacation, where I just trap myself in a room for weeks with a four-track and couple of instruments and thatís it. So I definitely rely on isolation, being alone, just channeling whatever flows through. I definitely am not somebody whoís thinking about, ĎDo D and G complement each other? And what key is this in?í Oh, boy. No way. So itíll be interesting, after this long journey through all of these different projects, to see how I write my next record. I will probably have to lock myself up for a month during, basically, most likely a recovery, after being very busy in 2010, I look forward to just a winter hibernation, where I just sleep, eat and put lots of my favorite books and films around me and always just a four-track. I keep it really, really simple.

PCC:
I had read that your fatherís passing had some impact on the new project.

MELISSA:
Yeah, thereís a track on the record called ĎFatherís Grave,í which was one of my greatest dreams, to do a collaboration with Glenn Danzig, who was one of my teenage role model heroes, the guy who gave me like enough confidence to imagine myself as a Viking. Even though me and Danzig have very little in common, his music, as a kid, I always sort of looked to him as like a superhero, warrior type and if I could only be a little bit more like him, I wouldnít be so shy. So he was always this role model for me as young girl. And when I decided I wanted to approach him to, although Iíd never met him before, invite him into this record, I wrote a song for him and I wanted to create a character that was worthy of this mythological man in my head. So he became this healing gravedigger. And so the song ĎFatherís Graveí is a duet between a gravedigger and a woman whoís lost her father and a walk through the cemetery. And through this walk and through him leading her to the place where he put her father, she finds this strange healing. So essentially, heís a healing gravedigger. And when I wrote the song for him and wrote the letter inviting him to be the gravedigger, in the letter, I explained how I had been looking, for 10 years, because my father was gone for 10 years, I just said, ĎIt would be an honor to have you be the man who walks me to this place where I honor and let go of my father.í Losing a parent, especially kind of earlier than planned, it takes a long time to even process anything. And I guess I felt like, in the decade marking, there would be a creative and poetic way to lay him to rest. And for me to like follow my childhood dreams to find this warrior to help save me from my mourning seemed like the right way to do it.

PCC:
As you were growing up, were there others who had the kind of impact on you and your music as Glenn Danzig did?

MELISSA:
Yes, the two people were Glenn and Morrissey. Theyíre the two people who kept me the most company in my youth. There was, of course, a little bit of Blondie and Cyndi Lauper, so a few women. But musically, I never related to them like I did Danzig and The Smiths and all of Morrisseyís solo records. So that was definitely the formative years. And then, by the time the alternative grunge explosion happened and my introduction to The Smashing Pumpkins, obviously Nirvana, and also Kyuss, later Queens of the Stone Age. Those were more, they seemed like my peers, like, ĎAh, now I have found my generation and this is how we do it.í

PCC:
With Morrissey, was his music just kind of reflecting what you were feeling during your teen years?

MELISSA:
Oh, yeah. Sad. But this ability to be poetic and so melodic while being so melancholy. Like my high school yearbook quote was a Morrissey quote. So yeah, I was definitely a pretty haunted teen [Laughs]

PCC:
Do you recall what that Morrissey quote was?

MELISSA:
Oh, yeah, itís ĎStretch Out and Wait.í Itís like, ĎIs there any point in ever having children? Will the world end in the nighttime or in the day time? I really donít know. Stretch out and wait.í

PCC:
Are you conscious of trying to have that sort of impact on those who listen to your music?

MELISSA:
I definitely am. Obviously, my years in Hole, in particular, made me very clear about the representation of women. So that definitely kind of created my more social awareness of the responsibility of representing an underrepresented creature on the planet [Chuckles]. So that for one, yes. And definitely in the song ĎOut of Our Mindsí and my mission with this record is I really, truly want to, the way that I described what I went through in the last few years, discovering nature, discovering these other parts of myself I didnít know I had. All that sort of growth, in this past year especially, and the self-releasing of this and becoming a self-sustainable, self-reliable, responsible independent musician who books most of my travel and most of my shows. Iím totally the opposite of what I was when I was a daydreaming woman in my twenties. So, in many ways, I feel, not a responsibility at all, but I feel excited to invite someone else to explore all of that in themselves. ĎOut of Our Mindsí is an invitation to travel to another place in yourself, whether itís via me and my journey or whatever. But I have come to greater places of happiness based on all this exploration and I want others to, as well.

PCC:
Taking on all the business aspects, not relying on a major label, was that cumbersome or just liberating?

MELISSA:
Oh, yes, I felt liberated and tortured. Emotionally liberated. I had no idea how much work this stuff could be. I had no idea.

PCC:
So was there a concern that the pragmatic side might get in the way of your creativity?

MELISSA:
Well, weíll see this year. But I think actually, honestly, my psychedelic dancer and dreamer side has been so 99 percent of my entire life up to this year [Laughs] that I think I was due. Iím making up for lost time. But the past two years have been brutal, as far becoming a secretary to myself, because during the middle of all this, I decided to leave managers, leave agents, leave everything and just start over and see what I was capable of. And it was much harder than I thought, honestly. And I have cried more this year over stupid stress than anything ever in my life. But, what keeps me going is that I know Iím protecting my future. Iím protecting the future of my heart and my art. And I will now know I can rely on myself and I donít have to rely on these other people. I realize now, if you donít know what needs to be done, others canít help you. Youíre like living in some sort of cloud, like Imaginationland. No wonder so many things got screwed up when I was relying on other people. And now I feel like I can actually be a real team player with people, because I actually do understand the nuts and bolts and it will be easier to have people help me and me help them, because Iíll know whatís up.

PCC:
Knowing that youíre capable of creating such an ambitious project, going back to your years with Hole, were you always eager to move to the next step?

MELISSA:
Oh, as a creative person... on a personal, emotional, creative level, always. With all due respect to Hole, when I was asked to join the band, I said no, because I was finishing my photo degree and planning on getting my Masters in an art school. San Francisco Art Institute was on top of my list. I wanted to be in the art world. The opportunity was so extreme, to join Hole, that I ended up, of course, saying yes. But Courtney did a lot of coaxing. And even my mother, my parents, my friends. But my instinct was no. Iíve got stuff to do. Iím finishing my degree. I had my own band at the time. I had my hands full, creatively. But the opportunity was so life-changing that I ended up, of course, saying yes. But I always felt like I was leaving this part of me behind. For 10 years, there was this part I left behind, that Iíve only now addressed.

PCC:
Was there frustration, because the media tended to not always focus on the music with Hole?

MELISSA:
Yeah, ultimately, that was why I left. Yeah, absolutely, that was very frustrating, especially because, in defense and protection of Courtney, I always thought, ĎWow, this woman is such a one-of-a-kind, amazing performer and lyricist and I cannot believe that itís all overshadowed by this crazy drama of her life.í I thought it wasnít good for the band. It wasnít good for her. It certainly wasnít fun for me. I thought it was like really quite a waste of time for everyone. And thatís why I left, because I felt so frustrated that there was so little music going on in there.

PCC:
Youíve been able to have a variety of collaborations with a lot of gifted musicians. Did you view each of those as a creative building block for you?

MELISSA:
Yeah, mainly itís been I follow my instincts in music and I knew who my heroes were. I know who my favorite drummers are. And the fact that Iíve created in my solo projects and my solo chapter here is basically a sanctuary, where I can invite anyone, whether itís a filmmaker or my favorite drummer. I have a world now where I can invite all these different collaborations. And thatís a huge creative achievement, I guess, as far as my dream. But every single person Iíve worked with, absolutely. Making my first record with Chris Goss and Josh Homme, those guys were far more ahead of me in terms of knowing their own voices and their styles and the way of making records. So Iíve been f--king blessed beyond belief, as far as role models to learn from.

PCC:
With so many media to explore, your photography and everything, it must seem like you can present yourself with limitless challenges.

MELISSA:
Yeah, I plan to. Absolutely. This to me is the beginning of what I hope and plan to be a very elaborate and varied creative path. Exactly. I want to be open. Collaborations definitely are my passion. As much as I often go into a retreat into myself to find the core, once Iíve found it, I go out and work with other people to build it and itís my favorite thing to do. Just like playing shows. To have that exchange is the real satisfaction, because it makes you feel alive and connected to the human race. So Iím completely open to many, many kinds of collaborations and projects. And I look forward, like with ĎOut of Our Minds,í to creating new shapes and sizes to projects. As much as I absolutely love and respect the 12-song album format, there might even be moments where I just release one song with a film that goes with it. Or who knows? I like the idea that anything can go now.

PCC:
Thereís got to be tremendous satisfaction to knowing that youíve brought such an epic project as ĎOut of Our Mindsí to fruition.

MELISSA:
Sure, but really, I probably need it to be next year to feel that satisfaction, because Iím still like working 24/7 to get it to the people. You know, North America, especially the U.S., has been hard for me. Iím far from a mainstream artist. In fact, Iím probably more eclectic and avant garde and underground than Iíve ever been. And the U.S. is a pretty hard nut to crack with that. In Europe, I have a whole strong network of alliances there, because they relate to my music more and they relate to this project more. So honestly, with the U.S., I donít feel like I have been able to bring it to fruition and to the people, as far as why I looked to make this, which is to share it. There have been some big stumbling blocks, that have made it very frustrating and difficult for me. But Iím lucky that I have Europe. [Chuckles] Right?

PCC:
Well, you have brought it artistically to fruition. And the greatest artists tend to be those who are not in the mainstream.

MELISSA:
Well, yeah. Thank you. Exactly. Now that Iíve found myself, one of the things Iíve discovered is that I donít fit into the mainstream, clearly, in the U.S. And as Iím embarking on a brief, minimal west coast tour, I will be embracing and enjoying that. That intimate tour will be satisfying. But youíre right, ultimately, Iím still just sort of juggling, fitting into this new shape.

PCC:
Great art sometimes just takes longer to reach its full audience.

MELISSA:
Well, I definitely consider myself a pretty slow burn and a late bloomer in many ways. And I have a lot of yearsí experience under my belt, but Iíve really just begun. So I needed all these years to cultivate and percolate.