To celebrate the release of Lavender Diamond's new record Incorruptible Heart, check out BUST's interview with Becky Stark, the lady behind the music!
By Hilary Hughes
When I meet up with Becky Stark (aka Lavender Diamond) at the Trails Café in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, it's a matter of minutes before she's effusing her thoughts on everything from the Mayans to the redefinition of femininity to "space ballet." After we pick up coffee and score a spot at a nearby picnic table, she whips out her phone to show me photos recently snapped of her suspended in air, her arms and legs outstretched from an ethereal bouquet of tulle. This "space ballerina" ensemble, as she dubbed it, was created for the video shoot for "Everybody's Heart's Breaking Now," the lead-off track and single from Incorruptible Heart, her first album since 2007’s Imagine Our Love. Rife with longing ballads and the occasional dance-pop escape, Incorruptible Heart (out now on Paracdute) is a fearless, emotional pursuit that not only drags the bleeding-heart bones of Stark's songwriting out in the open, but proudly displays them front and center under a merciless spotlight. Her honesty is brutal and her delivery serene, providing a delicate contrast that leaves one wondering how the hell someone can channel those universal feelings of betrayal, loss, lust, and redemption while keeping the hooks so damn catchy.
Thankfully, she's as open in conversation as she is onstage, and the delicate balance between beautiful music and lyrics that rip at that ever-beating vessel inside your chest aren't lost on her. We got into it about her big-name collaborations, her philosophical breakthroughs and why "empathy" is at the crux of Incorruptible Heart—but not before we discussed her newly discovered talent for gliding through the air in a tutu.
HH: Which song was this crazy aerial ballet choreographed for again?
LD: "Everybody’s Heart’s Breaking Now." It's the first song on the record. For Imagine Your Love, we wanted to make this whole movie that was going to go with the album, a video for every song. It was a myth about this girl who hears that the earth is in trouble, and she goes on an interplanetary journey to liberate the earth. It involved a lot of space ballet and falling through the galaxies. So, I had this in mind--the kind of movement that I wanted to create to express the feeling and the meaning of the music. Are you familiar with Dogon culture?
LD: It's pretty fantastic and interesting. So, the word for music, dance, language and medicine is the same word. It’s like how yoga is more of a code, you know? The idea of Lavender Diamond is that it has energetic codes in it, healing codes. I wanted to make the dance videos for the last record, but we never got to that. With Incorruptible Heart, I'm really excited that we'll get to make videos for all the songs, and the first one we just shot last Tuesday is this beautiful aerial dance.
HH: Yeah, I feel like having a visual or video component to compliment your music is what people are looking for, more and more.
LD: Yeah, totally! We put everything into making the record, and then as soon as it was done it was almost as if it didn't matter at all without a set of images and videos that would exist. It’s a necessity to have them together, which was sort of a shock to me. I think that so much of making this record was completely oriented in the sound, the melodic and harmonic codes. And then I started to think about videos, because I feel that there are dances that go with the music, I just have never expressed that before. I always felt that for this video. Maybe the whole album's going to have space ballet videos! A couple of months ago, my friend Aska Matsumiya—we created the L.A. Ladies Choir together—she called me and said, "Hey, I'm in this video, do you want to be a waitress in it?" It was this video by Doug Aiken--he makes beautiful, really fancy videos for museums. We got to the set, and the crew guys were like, "Are you the ladies here who are going to fly?" And I was like, "I hope so! I thought we were going to be waitresses!" They had this whole aerial rig, and some of us were just going to be in the air in these harnesses. As I approached it, it all came to me like a flash, that I knew exactly that I could do what I imagined. I studied ballet and modern dance for many years, and it was totally my fantasy—it was so funny! I've never had a moment like where I was like, "I KNOW HOW TO DO THAT." All the crew guys were like, "Whoooaa. You were born to do that." And I was like "I KNOW. I was BORN to be a space ballerina."
HH: "I was born to be a space ballerina." That is. The best.
LD: I've been fantasizing about that my whole life! After that happened, I said, "We have to do an aerial ballet video." The feeling of that dance is so beautiful and liberating. Your heart opens so wide.
HH: There's a little bit of everything on the album—poppy tunes, ballads, epic rock moments—and overall it's a universal, accessible body of work. Does that consideration factor into your songwriting process? Is it important for you to make your music to be as palatable as possible?
LD: Yes. To me, the greatest, most beautiful possibility for a song is one that everybody could love, or a song that as many people as possible could relate to. I think about what a song would mean to someone if they sang it to themselves. It’s interesting—this record was hard to make, because the songs are so sad. It's such a heartbreak record. So for a while, I was just going to make it as a solo record, and I was jokingly calling it Agony Agony Agony, but I couldn't finish it. It didn't jive with my idea of making music because it’s so important to me that a song could be of service to someone, could be of use. Just being in this world of pain that was so personal and just writing songs in order to transform or express a feeling, it was a different experience for me. It was like I could only be inside a limit of this own experience without really thinking about how it would serve anybody else other than my own need, really. I think that if there's anything that really needs to be addressed in the world, the real heart of the matter as far as how healing and evolution can occur, it's dispelling the idea or the belief in disconnection. I feel like if there's any appearance of evil, it's the belief in disconnection. I think that that's the idea that is holding us back, this belief, this grueling ideology and disconnection associated with patriarchy and a patriarchal economy. If you're in the reality of thinking your actions don't matter, there's no reason to do anything other than consume mindlessly and be reckless and be depressed. If you're in this reality, "Oh, there’s nothing I can do to stop the war or heal the planet"—if you’re thinking that way, you’re thinking in a false reality. It's a paradox. Our relationship to everything is direct. I guess Incorruptible Heart was the first time that I felt so disconnected that in these songs there was no divide from myself, no conscious attempt to make a song for anyone other than myself. In a sense, healing your relationship to yourself is the first principle, you know? The real force of magic, of transformation in the world, is empathy. When you can feel something that another person is feeling, there's an alchemical reaction and that feeling can be lifted. I think actually by expressing whatever feeling that you have without any limit or filter and sharing that, you can allow for some empathy to occur, because of the suffering that other people are experiencing.
HH: Would you say that Incorruptible Heart is autobiographical, then?
LD: Well, yes. I guess so. I've always thought of Lavender Diamond as an alter ego, or a way of very specifically focusing certain energies or ideas that are not autobiographical. That's more specific. I guess this record has been more of an integration for me.
HH: Because you're acknowledging the alter ego as a part of you, as opposed to defining it as not yourself.
LD: In that way, I think yes, it is autobiographical and an integration for sure.
HH: Are there any songs in particular that reflect this?
LD: I think they’re all from that same place of rupture. So, Incorruptible Heart: "Corruption" comes from the French words for "heart" and "break." "Coeur" is heart, and has the same root in French, so it's the un-heartbreak-able heart. I had all of these songs that I just didn't know what to do with, thinking, "I can’t bring that into the world! There's no redeeming value! There's nothing uplifting about it!" I imagine Lavender Diamond to be so much this very specific resonance of this healing, joyful, and loving energy. What I discovered, in the experience of being so shattered and allowing that to occur, was actually something so amazing you know? I call it the unbroken dimension—I feel like this record is an invocation of the unbroken dimension by expressing empathy for the terrain of separation. I think it can dispel that. One of the things that's happening around this record that I'm so excited about is that we're making a perfume, too. I met this amazing lady, Mila, and she makes these all-natural perfumes. It's actually an ancient, incredibly healing art form, and almost no perfume is made just purely naturally because it's incredibly expensive, but the real essential oils are so powerful. I met her at a coffee shop in Echo Park, and she had come to see a show, and she said, "Do you need some merch for your band? Because I make perfume!"
HH: I don't think I've ever seen a bottle of perfume hawked at a merch table before.
LD: Yeah! It's really a beautiful thing, I think. Cosmetics in the ancient world came from a healing art. Beauty was seen as intelligence. All the ways that we apply cosmetics was associated with some medicinal practice. Mila's all tapped into that using all-natural oils and creating some kind of medicine, really, that can restore consciousness and invoke the unbroken dimension. I collected bottles of my tears—
LD: Yeah! And I was going to sell them as merchandise as a bit of a joke because I was in such a state of total devastation that I was trying to get myself to stop crying. I can't remember if it was my idea or a friend's idea but I got little vials and I actually collected bottles of my tears. So goth, I was joking that I was going to sell them with Agony Agony Agony.
HH: Do you still have them?
LD: Actually, I gave them to Mila! We can't legally put them in the perfume.
HH: I think it’s interesting that you keep bringing this back to empathy through various channels--you're talking about healing through perfume and collaboration and articulating devastation so people can relate to it. Now, you've worked with tons of people over the past couple of years—The Decemberists, She & Him, John C. Reilly, the L.A. Ladies Choir—that's got to be a lot to handle, but in an exciting way. How did collaboration facilitate this record, especially?
LD: Since the last Lavender Diamond album came out, I've been on a quest, you might say, really around healing and harmonizing my own femininity and understanding the energetic equality and difference between masculine and feminine energy. That's something that's been very painful for me, experiencing the elemental balance between masculine and feminine energy. I feel like what has happened culturally in the wake of feminism is that masculinity and femininity as such kind of collapsed. I think that for a lot of women of my generation, and men, too, there's a real corruption of masculinity and femininity, rather than an understanding of them as opposite but equal forces and the idea of power put on those differences. It's like saying a fire's more powerful than a flood. If there's a flood, it's going to destroy your city the same as a fire. The power is the same. It's like in a battery; there are positive or negative channels. If we are embodied as women and have femininity embodied more dominantly, and especially as a female artist, I feel like it's my role to share feminine energy in a strong way. I feel like feminine energy has been mischaracterized and corrupted—and masculinity, too—according to these power principles. If, elementally, it's masculine to lead and feminine to follow, I think there's been a real misunderstanding about the fact that it's somehow better to lead than to follow, or that it's somehow less powerful to yield or its more powerful to speak than it is to listen. In my work in the last couple of years, I've really been questing for an understanding of that. The first avenue of that was the ladies choir. I felt this tremendous need to sing in harmony with women. I felt like I needed to do a play of bathing in this kind of elemental femininity, so we'd sing together and cook together and dress up, totally almost being in drag. The Ladies Choir, in a way, was an art project. There were no auditions; it wasn't about being a good or bad singer. It was just about organizing our time around being kind to each other and creating community and experiencing our voices with pleasure. That was the only real discipline in the choir. It was the sound of that which made it a really beautiful experience for everyone. The Ladies Choir was a very healing experience. To feel yourself as part of a group, it really was kind of the beginning of my understanding or awakening about that element, the feminine element, and redeeming elemental power outside of the idea of power. So, then I went on tour with The Decemberists, and that was really fascinating, too. I was really sad to leave the choir, actually, because the choir just came to life spontaneously, but Colin had written The Hazards of Love to be a musical, and he had written the part of Margaret for me to play, but then they decided to make it as a record. In a way, it as an escape for my own life a little bit.
HH: You joined them at Newport Folk, right?
Yeah! So that was this whole epic elemental story that was also part of the quest into understanding the masculine/feminine wheel. All these terrible things happen to Margaret—William, her lover, and Margaret die at the end—but they both sacrifice themselves for true love. I spent the whole year traveling in this exploration of my character and the innocent, abused, heroic aspects of the feminine psyche. That was quite an education as well. I've been on a lot of adventures in the past couple of years! Before the choir, singing with Matt [Ward] and Zooey [Deschanel] was a wonderful experience. Everyone in their band treated each other with such kindness, and I think they have such a supportive balance. Zooey and Matt are just both so beautifully expressed. Matt is such a supportive, liberating person. He's just another great example of an artist who has a relationship to his own creativity and I think that's what makes him such a kind person. The more that someone is in harmony with their own creative nature, the more the person has liberated their own creative nature, and it creates a gentle strength. When you allow yourself to be creative, it causes kind of a peace. Creative nature relies on that principle of connection. When you create, that’s how you're part of the world. I've been lucky to experience working with people who have a peaceful relationship to their own creativity, in that they just allow it. Recently, I've been singing with John C. Reilly, and that's been such a beautiful experience. We have this band, and I'm the only woman in a band of eight. I went from the ladies choir to a bath of men! Oh god, that sounds horrible. But I love that. It really is the opposite of the ladies choir with all this masculine energy. I don't want to say it's old-fashioned, but everyone in that group is so dedicated to the cause of bringing forth these beautiful songs that speak of love in a very pure way. I've just loved that, because I'm trying to allow myself an unlimited area of expression. I just wish more for myself and for everyone that people would just let themselves be wilder and less limited. The world needs more room for people to express their passions.
HH: The world needs more room for space ballet.
LD: Yes. Art can do wonderful work in lifting the spirit and creating new vistas of possibility. The work of the imagination is just so important. Work in the arts can really go a long way to heal our ideas about who we are. If our ideas about who we are evolve, it contributes a lot to the possibility of real change occurring in our world.