The passing of David Bowie almost exactly a year ago, has particularly poignant memories for musician and visual artist Rachel Mason.
A key influence on her career, Mason shares Bowie’s sense of theatre and flair for transformation.
Just a week before his death, on 10 January 2016, she sent a letter to to her fellow New York resident about a rock opera she had written.
She’s now hoping Bowie’s son, film director Duncan Jones, will get involved in the project.
Better known in her native US than in Britain, Mason is a true polymath, her work comprising performance, film and video art, along with sculpture and music.
She achieved critical acclaim for her rock opera film The Lives of Hamilton Fish based on newspaper reports she discovered about two famous men with the same name, who both died within 24 hours of each other.
One was from a prominent family descended from America’s founding fathers – the other a depraved serial killer.
Though currently working on a new documentary about Circus of Books – the celebrated adult book store run by her parents in Los Angeles – Mason is really here to talk to EP about her latest album Das Ram.
Dramatic and powerful, it’s an eclectic collection, that reveals a surprising pop sensibility, which has drawn comparisons with artists as diverse as Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono.
So tell us about Das Ram – it feels like a very varied assortment of songs, but was there a concept behind it?
It’s a mix of songs that I’ve had for a long time, and I was able to group them together after I realised there is an underlying theme of experiencing a kind of split-identity in much of my work– living in a fantasy world and also living in a human world.
You’ve been compared to a lot of female artists, but your use of video and theatrical elements seems akin to David Byrne and David Bowie. Are they artists you admire?
Absolutely. You got it. Also one of my big heroes is Klaus Nomi.
How were you affected by Bowie’s death last year?
I had sent him a letter the week before he died. I wrote a rock opera about stars that I knew he would love. I feel his presence deeply in it and I would like for his son to see the script. He’s absolutely one of my biggest heroes, not just in music but in life.
You seem unhindered by any kind of commercial considerations. Would you say that you make art to please yourself first and others second?
Well, I actually love things that are melodic and beautiful in terms of precisely crafted songs. I love pop music. I definitely only make work from a place where I myself am excited to do it– otherwise I just can’t get up the inspiration.
You’re very prolific – do you adhere to the Andy Warhol principle that the single most important thing is work?
I totally agree. And I actually most just want to do work. That’s what keeps me from falling off the face of the earth.
You’re a performance artist as well as a musician – what’s most important to you – the performance or the creative process?
Both things are the creative process. I literally feel like I’m creating something new every time I perform. It’s such a hugely important part of the creative work. Last time I performed I was near a swimming pool and I jumped in halfway through the show and performed the rest of it dripping wet– I was able to do some synchronized swimming during the instrumental break.
Are you always thinking about the visuals in your songwriting, or does the music always come first?
It’s a divide – the music is what I think about when I’m doing the music and the performance/ art comes when I’m doing that part.
You seem to be constantly transforming yourself – often in less than flattering ways – in your videos. Would you say that’s a theme in your work?
I suppose… I never actually appreciated what I look like – I still don’t. And I’m amazed at how many people want to just stare at the faces of other humans. I find it much more interesting to stare at something that has been constructed– or is more animal-like.
Does the audience reaction to your work ever surprise you?
Sometimes… Usually I get a very good response- but sometimes I’m amazed when (not just when I’m performing) someone is pouring their soul out onstage and the audience is carelessly talking. It’s like an amazing thing how there can be such a disconnect sometimes.
You’ve been involved in re-creating political events such as the 2015 presidential debate and Rand Paul’s 2013 filibuster. Can we expect a response to President Trump?
Whew… not sure. I’m currently drafting a letter to President Obama. I’m more interested right now in actually getting artists to be more powerful– I wrote this piece on the Huffington Post specifically in order to get artists to feel inspired to actually be leaders. Not just reactionary protesters, but leaders. Run for office!
How do you anticipate a Trump presidency will affect artists such as yourself and the lives of Americans in general?
It’s really painful to think about…. at this moment, I’m just really scared for those among us who are in the U.S. illegally and who he might target for myriad reasons. It’s these people that I most want to work to protect – however I can.
Do you think there’s a risk that under his leadership there will be a growing fear of anyone perceived as different – whether that be race, sexuality, gender or belief system?
Well, yeah. Its already happening. It’s really awful.
How do see the future of multimedia art, with the development of new technology?
I think this is a REALLY exciting time to be doing work which spans media- and there are so many different platforms that people are already working within. I think art schools basically need to shift entirely to learn from the younger generations who are growing up with it…
Do you think the development of social media is presenting more opportunities for artists to get their work out there?
Definitely. I do think so for certain. However, there are so many more people who try out being an artist for a few years and lose interest, but who may have the ability to be immediately elevated if they are good at the social media aspect. So, its got a good side and bad side.
- Das Ram is out now, find out more about Rachel Mason on her official website here