I met Larkin Grimm in the springtime: she and her band came over to my house for tea and stir-fry one sleepy afternoon during SXSW last March, after playing the Leafy Green showcase at Emo’s with Vetiver, Sleepy Sun and Kid Congo Powers. The next day, we bravely explored the chaotic, throng-clogged streets of downtown Austin, in search of late night Thai food and transcendent musical experiences. Luckily, we found both, and got to know each other during the hunt.
Photo by Ports Bishop.
Larkin Grimm is an elegant warrior, strong and tall and crowned with unruly ringlets. Her eyes change color, and her calm gaze penetrates even the most fortified defenses with a chthonic wisdom far beyond her 26 years.
Her legendary upbringing tends to precede her: she was raised in Memphis, Tennessee by devotees of the religious cult The Holy Order Of MANS. When she was six years old, her family moved to the Blue Ridge region of Georgia, where, as one of five children of folk musicians, she found herself largely left to her own devices. She was a wild mountain witch child who dropped out of public school at age ten, yet went on to attend Yale to study painting and sculpture. Nomadic by nature, she has rambled all over the world, learning healing arts in Thailand and engaging with entheogens with a shaman in the Alaskan wilderness. She taught herself how to sing and play music during these mind-expanding journeys, locked in dark rooms and deep in the woods, possessed by spirits. She recorded two experimental albums, Harpoon and The Last Tree, both of which were improvisational and intensely cathartic works.
The enchanting Larkin Grimm sings by the side of a lake. Shot and edited by Bow Jones.
After corresponding for years, Michael Gira (of Swans and Angels of Light) signed Larkin to his own Young God label, and was instrumental in the birth of her latest album, Parplar. In her own words regarding their time working together, “…he has this great ability to make me feel comfortable being my flamboyantly perverse Mary Poppins self, and the songs I’ve written under his whip are probably the best I’ve ever come up with, so I am super grateful for this time in my life.” Gira’s appraisal of Larkin captures her aptly:
Larkin is a magic woman. She lives in the mountains in north Georgia. She collects bones, smooth stones, and she casts spells. She worships the moon. She is very beautiful, and her voice is like the passionate cry of a beast heard echoing across the mountains just after a tremendous thunder storm, when the air is alive with electricity. I don’t consider her folk though — she is pre-folk, even pre-music. She is the sound of the eternal mother and the wrath of all women. She goes barefoot everywhere, and her feet are leathery and filthy. She wears jewels, glitter, and glistening insects in her hair. She’s great!
In a time when our culture seems to openly scorn –but secretly craves– magic, Larkin Grimm is an unashamed and forthright power to be reckoned with.
Coilhouse: Listening to your first two albums (Harpoon and The Last Tree), I get the impression that there was something of a strange sea-change in both your music, and your mode of self-expression, kicking off with Parplar. It’s an incredibly powerful album, and it’s clear that you ventured to some fantastic other-worlds while making it. What was that process like? I’ve read that you recorded the album in a haunted mansion: did the ghosts put their two cents in?
Larkin: Well, my first album was incredibly strange. I was still thinking of myself as a visual artist and a noise musician at the time. I had no interest in songwriting back then. There were some elements of folk that came through, though, and on the second album I tried to explore my folk roots a bit, but still avoided song structure. The big change came when I met Michael Gira and we blew each other’s minds and there was a lot of excitement in our exchange of musical ideas. Michael would force me to sit down and listen to these tunes by Bob Dylan and Neil Young and The Beatles, all bands I avoided like the plague before.
Interview continues after the jump.
Of course, I listened to a lot of Swans as well. He wanted me to write songs, so that he could produce them. It was a new thing for me, and definitely an experiment in collaboration. I wrote all of the material, but Michael provided a valuable frame of reference. Of course those were the pre-recession days and he had all this money from Devendra [Banhart] and he just spoiled me rotten. I was living in this slum in Providence, Rhode Island and the label would send me money so that I could write and eat. I was sleeping on the floor in a bare room with a few instruments and a typewriter. I was studying to be a psychic at the time and the experience was pretty overwhelming. I cut myself off completely from friends and lovers and focused inward, on work and meditation. I was writing songs in my sleep. It was great.
I don’t think that experience could ever be duplicated.The stars were just aligned in my favor at that moment. When it came time to record, we did it mostly analog, with great engineers and dynamic characters going in and out all the time, ghosts and pirates and even a succubus showed up while we were staying in that old mansion. I tried to keep my psychic channels open and let the ghosts have a say in how the music should turn out. Michael was going out of his mind, mostly in a good way.
Larkin Grimm performing at the Ard Bia Gallery, Galway, Ireland. Photo by Brian Kelleher.
You have been described by many as “a force of nature” or “an elemental spirit”. I know you to be an environmental activist, and an extremely magical woman- your connection with the land, and with spirituality and healing work resonates through your music. What’s it like working within an industry that at times is dominated by a lot of cynicism and waste?
I just ignore that stuff. I turn inwards at a certain point when bullshit is going on, and visualize the experience that I want to have, and with a certain force of will I end up associating with the good people. I only have enough energy to focus on my own personal growth and responsibility. Like attracts like. You have to embody the change that you want to see in the world.
When I saw you perform during SXSW, you talked about Paris Hilton and Brtiney Spears and your fascination with pop culture and these “leggy, surgically enhanced blondes” that inspired you to write “Blond and Golden Johns” and “Dominican Rum”. What is it about these women that sparked your muse?
It’s just incredible how we sacrifice those starlets on the Hollywood altar. We love to build them up when they are young beautiful virgins and then humiliate and dismember them. Paris Hilton was smart because she degraded herself first, and after the sex tape came out the tabloids couldn’t take her down. They work for her. She is in control of a lot of things, including Britney Spears’ pussy. I am impressed. But of course I am also disgusted by the whole thing, and see those girls as the lowest of the low in our culture. So I wrote this album wondering, “What do Paris and Britney need to know in order to become enlightened beings?” And you know what? I think Britney is getting there. Her most recent album, Circus, is GREAT.
You have identified as transgender, and it seems that in making Parplar you went through some major shifts in your perceptions of gender and sexuality. In exploring these different aspects of your persona, you’ve played around with different roles: most noticeably in your stage attire. What transformations sparked your shift from moccasin boots to spike-heeled, red-soled Louboutins?
So, say you want to be enlightened. The first thing you have to do is get rid of your societal imprinting, the things that people tell you you are, things you have been forced to do since childhood. I’d say the two biggest problems are gender and religion. These things take you away from your self, and blind you against your intuition, making you easy to control, making it easy to predict your actions and tastes and exploit them in the nasty world of economic and political power.
Harpoon album cover by Sophia Cara Dixon.
If you want to be free, you have got to escape the expectations and rules of gender and religion and be your self. The scary thing about your self is, it’s just and empty void. It is a beautiful nothingness.
I have a certificate on my wall given to my by this shaman named John Perkins, who wrote Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. It says “Larkin Grimm: Advanced Shapeshifter.” It’s right next to a statue of Kali, the goddess of necessary change and destruction.
When I was a kid, playing music involved climbing trees and picking blueberries with a dulcimer on my back. I wore moccasins and played shows in canoes and gardens. Nowadays, I am living in New York City, and there is a new concept: The Indoor Shoe. I am over six feet tall in my stilettos, and men are powerless against the sexual exploitation of the Indoor Shoe. For me, this is a fun trick to play. I question everything.
There’s a dark thread that runs through Parplar that separates it from typically optimistic freak-folk, especially in “They Were Wrong”, when you sing “Who said to you you’re going to be all right?/Well they were wrong, wrong, wrong/In my mind you’re already gone.” It’s not often these days that we are told so bluntly that no, it’s actually not going to be all right. Your work is almost brutally honest, but also strangely comforting. Where does that come from?
Fearlessness in the face of total disaster is really fun, really empowering. Enjoying life, even when it seems inappropriate, will make you powerful and kind.
I’ve heard a legend that you were kicked out of a town in Alaska for being a witch. True story or tall tale?
Oh, no. They kicked me out for being a bitch! I was dating several men at once in a town where men outnumbered women 7 to one. I thought I was being generous, but the dudes disagreed. I was also only 20 years old at the time, and partying at the bar with my fake ID, trying to pick up married women. I was young and stupid and irresponsible. I nearly started a riot. Oops! At that point in my life I brought chaos and drama with me everywhere I went, because I wanted the world to change faster than everyone else did. Only lately have I learned that it is much safer to put this energy into the music. I try to channel my energy wisely these days, and visualize a benevolent outcome. I think it has to do with growing out of that teenage rage and deciding to do something positive with my time on this earth.
Last but not least, would you tell us a little bit about the Musicka Mystica Maxima festival that you’re working on?
I am the co-curator of the festival with a gnostic priest named Freighter Lux Ad Mundi, presented by Ordo Templi Orientis U.S.A. It’s two nights of music made by practicing magicians/practicing musicians whose work celebrates the magical lifestyle, as well a public performance of ceremonial magic ritual. It’s taking place September 21st and 22nd at Santos Party House in New York. The line up so far is as follows: