Photo of Ann Magnuson by Austin Young
Many of my dearest friends happen to be professional musicians. Perhaps this is because it’s a talent I respect so much and yet possess so little of myself. But this also means that all my life I’ve been put in the position of having a friend send me “my new album” and there is always that moment right before I press play when I imagine what I would say to them if I just don’t like it.
I’ve been good friends with actress/singer Ann Magnuson for half my life. We met when I—a massive fan of her group Bongwater—proposed that I do a video for their song “The Power of Pussy” sometime back in 1991. I’ve seen Ann do her various extravaganzas live probably more than any other performer and have always considered her to be a major, major talent (even if Hollywood has never known quite what to do with her). She can act, sing, write songs, curate museum exhibits and she paints fabulous fake Basquiats. She’s an energetic all-around talent who excels in the DIY arena with a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney-style “let’s put on a show” plucky work ethic. And her work is uncommonly smart and sophisticated.
Allow me to preface the following remarks by letting the reader know that as someone who reads, writes and edits the work of others all the live long day, I can’t listen to radio, TV or music with lyrics (let alone your podcast, random pesky Facebook “friend” who I have never met) during the workday, or else it’s impossible for me to do what I need to do. My wife works from home, too and she won’t have it. So we listen to classical music during the day around the house if we listen to anything at all.
When Ann Magnuson sent me her new Dream Girl CD in the post over the summer, I was pretty confident that it would be something that I would really love, so I immediately popped it on the stereo. The first number, “We’re All Mad” was lovely, a shimmering, gossamer—and eerie—folk song with classic Disney soundtrack dramatics. But the second song, “Be A Satyr,” a rambling drum-led beatnik sex rant reminiscent of “Help I’m a Rock” by the Mothers of Invention (and about as long) tested my patience to the point where I hit eject before the track was over, prompting my wife to remark tartly “Thank you.”
About a week went by. I tried listening to Dream Girl again, but I skipped around, failing to connect with any of it. Then one morning, I grabbed the CD to listen to in the car on the way to the gym. Now I go to the gym pretty early. The sun’s not shining and there are few other cars on the road at that hour. In that context, or enclosed environment, I was completely blown away by the brilliance of the exact same album that had annoyed me as I listened to it casually, with my iPad in hand, surfing Amazon and laying on the couch a few days before.
Now I think Dream Girl is one of the very best things I’ve heard so far in 2016. I listened to it nonstop for two months—for eight solid weeks, every single day—driving to the gym and back in the predawn hours and—this is the important part—giving it my undivided attention.
And that’s my message for you, the reader, who hopefully will take advantage of listening to Dream Girl in its entirety after (after!) you read the following interview with its multitalented creator. You cannot listen to this album casually and “get” it. Like a Firesign Theatre album, there are (apparently) hidden things, jokey multiple meanings and clever punning going on all over the place. It’s musical, but Ann’s vocals are as much spoken word as they are strictly singing. I’ll say it again: You have to pay attention to it, there is no other way to appreciate what she’s doing here.
And if you’re thinking this all sounds intriguing—or if you don’t believe my rave-review-but-with-a-twist approach here—for the next week we’ll be hosting a streaming file of the entire Dream Girl album. DO give it your full attention, it’s massively rewarding I think—and hope—you’ll agree. Try to listen in your car if you can. At least take a break and listen on headphones with your eyes closed and your head down on your desk (put down that mouse!) and dig Ann Magnuson’s dreamy and surreal theater of the mind. Buy the Dream Girl CD here.
I asked Ann Magnuson a few questions over email…
Richard Metzger: When you sent me the CD in the summer you wrote that it was a “return to your Bongwater days” but Dream Girl is super slick, whereas Bongwater was sort of shambolic psychedelia. What did you mean by that?
Ann Magnuson: I was referring more to the lyrical content, as opposed to the musical styles; a return to surreal storytelling via spoken word using my dreams, different voices, characters, sexual personae… and creating much of it through improvisation. But there are a couple of songs that are not unlike the folksy stuff I did on the BW records.
It’s wild that you say Dream Girl is “super slick” because it’s actually pretty stripped down, in terms of instrumentation, except for maybe “Cat in the Sun.” The Millionaire (from Combustible Edison) provided orchestrations on that. I told him to go full on sunshine-pop psychedelic with it and add a massive sprinkling of Yardley folk-hippie chick “Come With The Gentle People” Renaissance Faerie Dust. You, know, wooden wind chimes and flutes; lounging around in Mexican caftans at Nepenthe in Big Sur?
Like with Bongwater, I used my dream journals and a lot of improvisation with this new CD. Mostly, I just had fun in the studio rather than go in with too many preconceived ideas and arrangements. In that way I feel like Dream Girl has helped me get back in touch with my own voice as well as a sense of playfulness. In that way, the entire project was “shambolic.” I think we get pretty psychedelic in a lot of it, just in a very different way than Bongwater did. It’s a gentler trip. Although “Ayahuasca, The Movie” gets pretty wild!
Did “Cat in the Sun” start out as something you would sing to your own cat?
Ann Magnuson: Kind of. That one initially started out as a declaration, “Cat in the sun!” You know, like “Land, Ho!” or “Thar she blows!” Then it became more musical. And yes, I would sing it to our cat.
I’ve sung it to our cat. She liked it. I think she even got the “Band on the Run” joke.
Ann Magnuson: I am constantly making up songs and singing them around the house. 90% of them just disappear into the ether. But “Cat in the Sun” survived. So did “Be a Satyr.”
Dream Girl is the single most Firesign Theatre-esque thing I’ve ever heard that’s not actually the Firesign Theatre themselves—you’re a one-woman version of them—and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. It’s super smart, funny, nuanced and even though it’s primarily a spoken word collection, it still bears repeated listenings due to its innate musicality and to hear all of the “dog whistles” contained therein. I really think this “theater of the mind” format suits you.
Ann Magnuson: Thank you! I definitely take that as a compliment! I never owned any Firesign Theatre records myself but the older hippie dudes I hung out in high school with played Firesign Theatre records all the time. I heard that stuff at nearly every party we had back in the early 70s (usually when everyone was extremely toasted or peaking on something we shouldn’t have been frying our teenage brains on.) Yes, I love the “theater of the mind” format very much! That’s what I wanted to get back in touch with—simple, albeit “trippy”—storytelling; stories that were like little movies where the listener creates the visuals inside their head.
Didn’t we all grow up doing that while listening to music on headphones (or often with the transistor radio) before the tyranny of the image? (Which is now literally in everyone’s face thanks to cellphones.) One of the earliest memories I have is of a radio show that was actually piped in over the public address system in our grade school—in fact I think it was broadcast to all of the grade schools in West Virginia—back in the early Sixties. I think it was called “Talking Pictures.” The radio host would narrate a story and play a piece of classical music and we would all lay our heads down on our desks and just listen. Then, after it was done, our teacher gave us art supplies and we were instructed to draw or paint pictures, interpreting what we’d just heard. The one I remember the most clearly is Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” Can you imagine any school—let alone one in West Virginia—doing that today!? I think it only lasted a couple of years. My mom narrated some of them since she was involved in the local radio station as well as community theater. I got exposed to a lot of radio and theater growing up and so this concept of the “theater of the mind” goes waaaaay back!
And yes, I love the ‘dog whistles’. I intentionally sprinkled in some specifically for the Bongwater fans; David Bowie’s toy xylophone being just one example.
Bauhaus, David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Ann Magnuson (as vampire Bowie’s soon-to-be victim) in the opening moments of Tony Scott’s ‘The Hunger’—the single best beginning to a film in all of cinema history???
There’s another self-referential one related to Bowie, too, when the drummer does the thing from “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” You know, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you what it was like to meet, work with, and even make out with him, which is weird considering how long we go back and what a major Bowie freak I am. So I guess I’ll just ask you that now…
I’m glad you noticed that drum bit! Joe Berardi really created a great percussive soundscape for that track.
The whole experience of doing The Hunger was a somewhat dissociative. There were issues with British Actor’s Equity about bringing over an American to do that role. (There was dialogue in my scenes that later got cut out in favor of the prescient MTV-style editing director Tony Scott was fond of.) I got the part after auditioning but it became an off and on again ordeal. Finally it was definitely off, as they ‘had’ to hire a Brit. Then, suddenly, at the last minute, it was back on! They flew me to London first class—on Pan Am no less—which was quite a treat as I’d only previously flown to Europe on the cheapo flying-bus airline Capitol (remember them?). Then I was there on the set standing next to Catherine Deneuve and Bowie and…. it was truly an out of body experience.
More with Ann Magnuson, after the jump…