Articulate

S5 E15 | FULL EPISODE

Self, Aside

Self, Aside: Stephanie Blythe: Uncaged: One of the fastest rising stars in opera; Diana Al-Hadid: Excavating the Muse The story of Gradiva– a sculpture that came to life; (What’s So Funny About) Nick Lowe As a young singer-songwriter, Nick Lowe was preoccupied with looking cool and getting famous.

AIRED: January 17, 2020 | 0:27:01
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TRANSCRIPT

- Welcome to Articulate, the show that examines how

creativity is the very essence of our humanity.

- I'm Jim Cotter, and on this episode, Self, Aside.

As a young singer-songwriter, Nick Lowe was preoccupied

with looking cool and getting famous.

But, as Tori Marchiony reports,

he didn't really find his groove

until he dropped the act.

- When you actually get over that,

and you can be yourself, it makes things a whole lot easier

because you'll never mess up.

- [Jim] The story of Gradiva, the sculpture

that came to life, captured the public imagination

at the start of the 20th century.

Today, the artist Diana Al-Hadid has resurrected her.

- The story resonated with me because my work

is built physically by means of many things

accumulated layers, so there's a natural

archeological, let's say character,

to my process, and she also is just such

a fabulous character.

- [Jim] And Stephanie Blythe,

was one of the fastest rising stars in opera,

when an anxiety disorder threatened to take her down,

but she refused to let it be her undoing.

- I think that what happened was my psyche said

okay, now you have the wherewithal to take care

of yourself, you have a great job, take care of yourself.

You can do this.

And that's what happened.

- [Jim] That's all ahead on Articulate.

(rousing classical music)

♪ As I walk (audience cheering)

♪ This wicked world

♪ Searching for light in the dark ♪

- [Tori] For the past half century, Nick Lowe

has been a perennial presence in rock music,

and he's still living the life

of a thriving touring musician,

these days fronting a Mexican wrestling mask-wearing

Tennessee rockabilly band called Los Straitjackets,

fitting for a musician who's managed to keep

his sense of humor in tact after all these years.

- I take what I do very seriously,

but I don't take myself seriously at all.

I think it's a fairly strange way for a grown man

to earn a living, you know.

♪ What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding ♪

- [Tori] Nick Lowe is a master of juxtaposition,

known for combining dismal, and often sarcastic, lyrics

with catchy pop melodies.

Take for instance his upbeat but disconcerting

1979 hit, "Cruel To Be Kind."

♪ You gotta be cruel to be kind ♪

♪ In the right measure

♪ Cruel to be kind, it's a very good sign ♪

♪ Cruel to be kind, means that I love you baby ♪

♪ Gotta be cruel, you've gotta be cruel to be kind ♪

- There's something very wistful about

if you put a sad song with a cheerful,

or whistly melody.

It sort of sounds like the person singing

is sort of doing their best, somehow.

You know, they're really all broken down,

but they're getting on their feet and doing their best

to get through it.

It has that kind of effect.

I'm rather interested in that.

- [Tori] Despite Lowe's tongue-in-cheek style,

he's long approached his craft with great intensity,

but when he was first starting out,

he didn't have particularly studied ambitions.

- I was quite empty headed really about it.

And I had no thoughts of being an artist,

I just wanted to be famous, really,

when I went into it.

I was a fairly stupid and callow youth.

Shallow and callow.

- [Tori] By 1967, Lowe was playing bass in his friend's band

best known as Brinsley Schwarz.

In 1970, the group had a label eager to make them

the next big thing.

It devised a scheme to gain media attention.

The band would open for Van Morrison

at a highly publicized event

at the legendary New York City rock venue, Filmore East.

British journalists were flown in just to cover the concert,

but one mishap after another led to unhappy,

unimpressed critics, and vicious reviews,

forcing the members of Brinsley Schwarz

to withdraw from the public eye.

- We were so freaked out, and we'd all been through

this experience and we'd realized we'd been so taken in

that we, instead of breaking up and going our separate ways,

we got a house together.

And we wouldn't have thought it was a hippie commune,

but that's basically what it was,

and we couldn't get any work or anything like that,

but we had a rehearsal room, so we just started practicing

and getting as good as we could,

but all the time it wasn't happening.

We were learning how to be good and work a room

and talk to an audience and all that stuff.

- [Tori] By the mid-70s, Lowe had left Brinsley Schwarz

and joined the new wave group Rockpile.

He was also an in-house producer

for the iconic label, Stiff Records,

where he earned the nickname The Basher

for his ability to churn out hits quickly.

♪ Stop your sobbing

"Stop Your Sobbing," the breakout track for The Pretenders,

"New Rose," by The Damned,

arguably are first punk record in the UK,

and many more for Elvis Costello,

including the notable post-hippie anthem

"What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding."

♪ What's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding ♪

But Lowe didn't completely give up the limelight

and had a number of his own hits

throughout the '70s and '80s.

At the height of his powers, Lowe fell in love

with the country singer Carlene Carter.

She was country music royalty,

the daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith,

and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash.

The pair married in 1979,

but it was doomed from the start.

- We loved the idea of each other, you know.

We made a great couple.

We used to play and sing together and everything.

We had a ball, we really had a ball.

It was great.

But we were always touring,

we were both ambitious and getting somewhere

with our careers, and it never, ever, ever

could survive that.

And we were both as bad as each other, really

in the area of straying from our vows,

I'm sorry to say.

- [Tori] After the divorce in 1990, Nick Lowe

found himself in his 40s,

running on empty, lacking direction.

But it was advice from his former father-in-law,

Johnny Cash, that realigned his priorities.

The message was maddeningly simple.

Drop the facade.

- It makes things a whole lot easier,

because you'll never mess up, really.

And people, they're much more interested in that

than they are in your pathetic little act

that you've concocted, that stands a chance

of falling flat every time you open your mouth.

♪ And so it goes, so it goes, so it goes, and so it goes ♪

♪ What's going on

- [Tori] Nick Lowe's new perspective led to fulfillment

on and off stage.

In 2005, he and Peta Waddington

welcomed their son, Roy.

Today, Lowe enjoys a casual level of fame

and a quiet personal life.

And August 2019 brought a new biography about his life

penned by his longtime friend,

the British music journalist Will Birch.

Many enthusiastically anticipated the book,

but Lowe wasn't one of them.

- It's impossible for me to read it.

I absolutely, I'd rather eat my own knees

than read the thing.

I think all my indiscretions

and many romantic liaisons and all that

I think, from what I've been told,

that the sky isn't gonna fall in, frankly.

- [Tori] Now 70 years old, Nick Lowe is, at last, it seems

at peace with who he is.

And his latest chapter with Los Straitjackets,

a welcome new beginning.

♪ I long each waking hour for you ♪

♪ Blue on blue

♪ I've got a message in a song for you ♪

♪ You're like a mill, you run me through ♪

♪ I call you blue on blue

♪ I call you blue on blue

♪ I call you blue on blue

♪ I call you, call you, blue on blue ♪

♪ Blue, blue, blue

♪ On blue, blue, blue, blue

♪ Blue, blue

(audience cheering) (audience applauding)

(inspiring classical music)

- [Jim] Diana Al-Hadid is not afraid of failure.

If anything, she runs towards it.

- I always think about in terms of like

just throwing things in the past,

like, just make it, just finish it.

I feel like the more I can produce

the more I'm gonna know my work,

and it's sort of insatiable because it'll never really end.

But I feel like there's better work

if I can just get through this work.

- [Jim] In the last 15 years, Al-Hadid has become

well-known for her large, intricate installations.

She is celebrated for her innovative processes,

and symbolic references to art history,

but her life as an artist might never have been.

Al-Hadid's family immigrated from Aleppo, Syria

to North Canton, Ohio when she was five.

The transition from the Middle East to the Midwest

was difficult, but made easier by the kindness of strangers

along the way.

One of the earliest was Diana's first grade teacher, Mrs. D.

- My memory of her is that she was just like

this incredible, magical person,

and she was in a sense a second mother,

because she took care of me for the whole school day,

and taught me to read, and interact with kids.

Everything about her radiated acceptance and curiosity,

and she just set such a high bar.

And I remember thinking that she was always this person

that we thought of as how wonderful America is,

and how we'd see these bigoted people and say

you know, you'd hear things, but there was always a Mrs. D.

- [Jim] But Al-Hadid never took

any of these helping hands for granted.

She relentlessly pursued her passion for creativity

with a dedication bordering on the obsessive.

Take for instance that time in grad school

when she spent eight hours a day for months

carving a giant piece of foam with a dental tool

trying desperately to sculpt it into the perfect shape.

- And the thing never looked right.

I had it in so many different forms,

I painted it, I scratched it all out, I recombined it,

I put some of it on the wall, some of it on the floor,

I tried everything to make this thing right,

and it just didn't,

the organizing principle was missing,

and everything was just peripheral stuff,

and I just had to get rid of it.

There was some core question, or something that I wasn't,

that I was, just like a blind spot.

Like I really just wanted,

I think I was the sculpture all as an excuse

to learn how to do this technique or this process,

just to get it right.

And I kept re-writing the narrative

around this carved foam business.

But this is the beautiful thing.

Now, what is it, 13 years later,

and I just now realized a way to kind of give it.

- Make it work?

- Yeah.

- [Jim] Diana Al-Hadid is preoccupied with material,

but not with the expensive meaning,

and for the past few years, Gradiva has been her muse.

Gradiva, or the one who's splendid and walking,

is the female character in a novella

written by the popular German author,

Wilhelm Jensen in 1903.

It tells the story of an archeologist

who falls in love with a Roman sculpture

of a woman mid-stride.

Obsessed, he begins chasing his hallucination of her

through the streets of Pompeii, all the while

trying desperately to rationalize his attraction.

It was already a well-known tale, but in 1917,

Sigmund Freud brought it to an even wider audience.

- I think he thought of this as sort of an allegory

of the psychoanalytic process,

that you would excavate, of course you're in Pompeii,

so kind of to get at your root desire,

you kind of have to peel back the layers,

like an archeologist, and I found that--

- What were you trying to say?

- The story resonated with me, because my work

is built physically by means

of many thin, accumulated layers.

So there's a natural archeological

let's say character to my process.

- [Jim] Reverse archeology.

- [Diana] You're seeing, right. It's built up.

- [Jim] You're building the onion inside out.

- Correct. Correct.

And I'm making the paintings in reverse, in a sense,

because I'm laying out the first color

and it gets progressively buried

behind each subsequent mark

and when it dries, all this drippy imagery that I have made,

it gets reinforced with fiber glass,

so it's essentially like a fresco

because those colors are embedded in the material

and it's like a tapestry, but it comes off

and it's these panels.

So the making of the work was resonant

with the narrative, and she also is just

such a fabulous character,

like she's leading this guy around Italy,

and I just find that the perspective

of the narration really interesting.

- [Jim] Gradiva first appeared in Al-Hadid's work in 2011.

She returned in 2018,

and in 2019 she took her place in the new Penn Station,

a wing to the original Penn Station

which was demolished after just half a century

of use in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden.

- It seemed appropriate to refer to the old Penn Station

in the building of the new Penn Station,

and I felt like Gradiva could kind of now pass

through New York, and she kind of walks

up the stairs and out of the station.

(down-tempo electronic music)

- [Jim] Like her Gradivas, Diana Al-Hadid is a woman

perpetually in motion,

always striving, forever searching for what's next.

(inspiring classical music)

(singing in foreign language)

Whether classical,

or classic rock ...

♪ I'm forever yours

♪ Faithfully

Stephanie Blythe has had an unquenchable need to sing.

- There's something about letting loose

and just taking a risk, being brave, making that sound.

When you connect to it, and it's right,

it's like a drug.

You just can't stop.

(singing in foreign language)

- [Jim] It's rather a good thing that Blythe

won't be asked to stop singing any time soon.

For the past 25 years, she's been one of the most

beloved operatic voices around.

In 1994 she got a foot in the door when she won

the prestigious Metropolitan Opera

National Council Auditions.

1995 brought her Met debut,

and in 1996, her big break.

When the legendary mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne took ill,

it fell to a 26-year-old Blythe to take her place

as Mistress Quickly in Verdi's "Falstaff".

She pulled it off brilliantly,

and suddenly she was in high demand.

Then, in 1999, she won the Richard Tucker award,

the ultimate honor for any young singer.

But as her success mounted, so too did her anxiety.

- The first time I ever was really hit by it,

I ended up in three different emergency rooms

over three different nights,

and the second emergency room doctor said

"You know, I suspect that you've been on a low boil

"most of your life, and your tea kettle just,

(sputters) "it just blew."

And I think that he was right.

I think that what happened was my psyche said

okay, now you have the wherewithal to take care of yourself,

you have a great job, take care of yourself.

You can do this.

And that's what happened.

- [Jim] Years of therapy, she says, saved her life,

and today, Blythe has at last found peace.

- I used to pray

fervently, in the middle of an anxiety attack,

please God, take this away from me.

I don't want this.

Please, I can't take this.

And he never did.

And then I realized one day

that I was meant to experience this.

This was meant to happen to me,

and in this life we all have a well,

and into that well, we're just

constantly pouring experience.

Constantly pouring experience.

And it's from that well that we fish out

all the things that we need to

when we're on stage.

(lively orchestral music)

(singing in foreign language)

- [Jim] Blythe was raised

in rural Sullivan County, New York,

where her dad, an accomplished jazz musician,

encouraged her to master, not singing, but the flute.

- [Stephanie] We never listened to singers.

- Oh?

- No, we never listened to singers.

I was not encouraged to be a singer.

It was actually my high school choral director

who told my father that I had to be in the chorus.

- But you would have been singing in the shower

and the like, did you have a sense of this sound I'm making

is pretty good?

- I don't know if I recognized that at all.

I know that when I sang at church

that people would comment on it,

and I know that when I was at school,

people would comment on it,

and as I got older and my friends and I

started jamming a little bit more,

and I had one of my best friends

all through high school played the piano,

and we'd get together in home room

and he would play Journey songs,

he would play like "Faithfully,"

"Open Arms," all those great numbers.

- "Don't Stop Believin'."

- Oh yeah.

I really loved belting out ballads.

More than anything.

I loved it.

- And did I read somewhere that you're more interested

in Broadway than opera to begin with?

- I was more interested in Broadway than opera, yeah.

- What changed?

- I wasn't encouraged to do that

by many people,

because I didn't fit a physical mold.

I was a big kid,

and be an opera singer came

not really as an afterthought,

I didn't really start singing

really working on my voice

until I was about 21.

So once I started getting interested in technique,

and understanding my instrument,

then opera started to make more sense to me,

and became something that I really started to love.

- [Jim] But even with her great successes in opera,

Blythe has continued to pursue other ways

of expressing her love of song.

In 2015, she started experimenting with cabaret,

and in 2017 made her debut as the sometimes ukulele playing

drag artist, Blythely or Antonio.

(singing in foreign language)

(audience cheering)

♪ I Googled cracker

♪ So many snacks

♪ Snack food and Republicans

♪ But finally, on YouTube, there she was ♪

♪ Martha, Martha

Today, Stephanie Blythe is a consummate artist,

one who revels in discovering even more ways

to entertain herself, and us.

- I never thought that I would play the ukulele,

or any number of opera roles,

or be a drag queen, king.

I never thought about that.

I never thought I'd be a drag artist.

I am.

And it makes me unbelievably happy.

♪ How will she ever love me

♪ How will she ever, ever, ever love me ♪

♪ How will she ever love me

(audience cheering)

(inspiring classical music)

- [Jim] For more Articulate, find us on social media

or on our website, articulateshow.org.

On the next Articulate, every life is comprised

of a series of revelations.

For KT Tunstall, one of them almost derailed her completely.

- So I got out of my marriage,

sold everything I owned, and moved to California.

- [Jim] Pam Tanowitz is one of the finest choreographers

in modern dance,

but she refuses to put her feet up.

- You stay grounded, and you

just keep trying to make the work.

- [Jim] And Natasha Tretheway coped with the tragedies

of her young life by turning them

into exceptional poetry.

- There's no me now

as I know me

without those things.

- [Jim] I'm Jim Cotter.

Join us for the next Articulate.

(inspiring classical music)

- [Announcer] Articulate, with Jim Cotter,

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

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