Introducing: Lisa Papineau’s “The Last City”

The premiere of a new video, plus a discussion between the artist and her friend, filmmaker Dante Harper.

Lisa Papineau and her friend, filmmaker Dante Harper, got together for a meal and a discussion about Lisa’s new music, specifically “The Last City.” Scroll down for a first look at the song’s haunting video, and for a discussion about the end of the world.
—Josh Modell, Executive Editor

Lisa Papineau: Are you OK if we talk about the end of the world, or even the beginning of the world? Can I get some of your thoughts?

Dante Harper: Well, I pretty much can only talk about or think about the end of the world at the moment. It’s what I’ve been thinking about to a point of almost total distraction. I went into a state of shock a few years ago, because it became so evident that the world as we knew it was ending within my lifetime… I suddenly became aware of needing to change how things mean, because nothing meant anything anymore. I hadn’t been able to tell if it was just me getting old and being dumb, or if it was the world changing, and whether those two are the same thing? I don’t think they are.

Lisa: I think for quite a while I thought it was a normal part of getting older that all of us go through at various points in our lives, and then one day realized: No, actually, somewhere along the way recently, all the lines and boundaries that determine our collective meaning have all been sucked out with a straw and… the world is ending.

Dante: [Laughs.]

Lisa: The end.

Dante: The end. I had this crazy experience a couple months ago — I was having a dipshit end-of-day conversation with my boyfriend where we were just talking about silly things and all of a sudden I got the wind knocked out of me, because it occurred to me that we were both going into live into a time in which having these kinds of little minor conversations would no longer be possible… that we would live into a time when every conversation would be about the bad thing that’d just happened and the bad thing that might happen next.

Lisa: Or even just, “Did you churn the butter?” If we get that lucky — if we’re lucky enough to re-attain some basic skills that most people had a few generations ago or so, depending on where you grew up. My mother and I have started playing this game/not game, “What usable skills do I have to offer in the post-apocalypse?” My mother definitely gets to stay in the stronghold, because she knows everything about gardening and food growing. They’ll definitely want to keep her. Me, not so much. I do know some martial arts. I’m not very good at them, but maybe I could train the youths. So I’d probably just be kept down in the rabble pit, to throw the kids in to teach them some survival skills. But that’s about it, no good scraps off the table for me.

Dante: It’s funny, because at the end of the conversation with my beau, I turned to him and said, “Would you be my surviva-buddy?” In the future, you’d want to find a partner who can do things you can’t do.

Lisa: I do know some dry stack masonry, which might be helpful.

Dante: The problem is that the world is so full of despair, even though things are actually pretty good. But it’s already a fight to even want to be part of it all.

Lisa: I think it’s a collective “let’s burn it down” at this point. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, I think all of us have tipped over the chair that we’re all sitting on, and at this point the relief would be for it to all burn down, so that things can start growing up through the ground again. Not zombies, but, um, plants.

Dante: I don’t care so much about whatever’s going to happen. The thing I didn’t expect was getting to a place where I suddenly didn’t know why to make anything anymore. It was like, “I don’t know why to do anything.” This was true of relationships, of trying to make anything worthwhile — other than trying to make enough money to stuff in your mattress, or run and get out of town. When I started listening to the album, I felt like there was this thread that connected all the songs that had to do with this perspective in the context of a world that feels like the value of making something suddenly seems very different when you’re looking at the possible extinction of everything.

Somehow there’s a way to use that, and the thread that connects it is this letting go, it’s not giving up. It’s a weirdly very hopeful album, because it’s actually acknowledging that sadness and it’s acknowledging this loss, but in a weirdly constructed but unbelievably painfully sweet way. There’s this kindness that connects everything to me. So that was partly why I wanted to see you. I wanted to talk to you because I was feeling like [you’d] figured out why to make something again, and I haven’t figured that out yet.

Lisa: “The Last City” isn’t a negative song, it’s a relief. I feel like the weight is off, because things have fallen apart. Rather than this never-ending building up of tension, finally everything has exploded and there’s quiet. I think that’s the thing about recent times that I struggle with — I just can’t take the noise, literally or figuratively.  

Dante: The songs all seem to reference a much larger world. My experience with your previous albums and songs is they tend to be so intensely private, and there’s this act of sharing and community in this album, this reaching out to people to share the experience of grieving together. But again, the album is not a bummer. There’s a cathartic quality of everyone acknowledging that we are going to have to let a lot of things go. People have written songs about dying since they’ve written songs. But when you write songs about dying in the context of there will be no continuation, the world that you were in won’t continue either

Lisa: I don’t know if this is negating what you’re saying, [but] all the songs are about dying, but more in the sense of a celebration, again, of letting go — whether it’s about “going over to the other side” or just nonexistence, allowing oneself to be extinguished in a way. To embrace that.

Dante: Yes, when I was listening to “The Last City,” I thought, this is like hospice care for the world, for Los Angeles. It’s about letting go, but there’s no giving up. We’re still all in this thing together, whether we’re all dying together or whatever we’re doing.

Lisa: Maybe shifting gears from passion to grace. Grace can be a strange word. I was always afraid of the idea that the opposite of passion was nothingness, emptiness, or cold, or not caring. And what I’m coming to realize is that it’s not those things per se. There can be stillness that isn’t passion-filled, but is just as imbued with wonder and beauty and unknowing and mystery as the hottest, noisiest, bustling passion. I guess that’s the experience I wanted to evoke.

When we shot the video, I wanted to capture something you can come across in some places in the woods of Vermont. In the 1800s all of the old-growth forests were burned down to clear the land for sheep farming. Which is when they — oops — discovered that the land is too rocky for pastureland. So there are towns and farmhouses that were built around this failed venture, abandoned, that have slowly been retaken over by the new grown forest. Ghost towns, minus the tumbleweeds. Anyhow, we went up to your place in the mountains, thinking, “Oh there will be snow and pines, it will have something of the feeling of Vermont…” Lo and behold we arrive and there is the old burned-down house on your land. It was serendipitous to be shooting next to this all this char and house-bones, mattress springs, and a tumbling-down chimney with saplings and briar pushing up through. Sadly we couldn’t frame it into the shot, but I walk by it, and it definitely set the tone.

Dante: That house was built by this guy who was one of the oldest residents of the whole community. He was the one who built all the trails, and named all the trails in the area. But he was in his 90s and he had fallen in love with a woman who lived down in the valley, off the mountain. He was spending months at a time with her and the house was in major disrepair, he was a packrat. Some kids broke into the house and built a fire in the fireplace, and the chimney caught fire and the whole place burned down.

Lisa: Walking in the woods is one of my favorite things to do, but there’s always this struggle, this tug, because I have to actively not look deeply into the overgrowth because if I do, I will step off the path and I will walk into the thick and I will not come back. It’s always been that way for me, since I was little… I keep my eyes out of the deep woods because going back to the sprawl never appealed. I just want to be in the woods but probably realistically we know that’s going to involve raccoons eating my face after about 24 hours.

Dante: What is this song’s relationship to cities?

Lisa: I think the relief of all this mess we’ve made, maybe it’s a beautiful mess for most, the feeling of everyone huddling together can be a comfort for many, but for me that’s not a comforting feeling. And it’s not that I wish anyone ill. I think for me the relief of watching weeds and saplings growing up through the remnants of a fallen city, that seems peaceful to me. [Laughs.] I don’t mean it in a bad way.

Dante: In relation to the other songs on the album…

Lisa: All were coming together in the same idea of the relief of letting go, the comfort and peacefulness of everything finally falling apart. And what happens after that; after death, after failure, after heartache — the soft spot of the Apocalypse, if you will. Nothing negative, only good feelings, positive, quiet, a little bit of space to breathe… All of us letting go of holding on so tightly.

Dante: You just made me think of Big Sir’s Before Gardens After Gardens, because this album feels at once like a departure, but also like an album you were getting ready to make.

Lisa: Yes, those two are very connected thematically, there’s no question. Maybe all my lyrics are only ever about being open to death, but not in a morbid way, rather in way of change, in a sense of transformation. I think if Before Gardens After Gardens is about the departure, this album is about the arrival. The starting line, the place to begin again.

Dante: It seems like the whole album is dealing with a sense of great loss and now you’re sort of putting things back together. You know it’s at once grieving but also… oddly hopeful.

Lisa: On a personal level there was quite a lot of that. Also, I think all of us are resonating with a collective grief, of things we’ve lost. Maybe it’s time for us to mourn the things that are done and to move on. This is a place where we all often get stuck.  Now, I think we’re all ready to let go, I mean we’re about to burn everything down. So maybe we are ready to rip it all up and tear it down and start again.

Dante: The thing that strikes me is the sense of once you begin to really believe the world is in some danger of [Laughs] ending…

Lisa: [Laughs.] Why did you laugh?

Dante: It’s just a funny thing to say out loud. It’s one thing to come to terms with your own death, it’s another thing to come to terms with the idea that EVERYTHING might go away. It’s not unique to our time; I’m sure that in the early ’80s when everyone believed the world was going to end because of nuclear bombs there was a lot of stuff that relates to that…  But one of the things that hits me again and again when I listen to the album, and this song in particular, is this sense of letting go of who you thought you would be, letting go of what you thought you would do, and….

Lisa: … Just seeing what happens.

Dante: Yeah!

Lisa: We are all so busy being on top of what we’re supposed to do, with our day-to-day. If we could all just get a little bit more comfortable with not knowing and being in the “awkward.” If we don’t figure it out, and soon, I think my bigger concern is: Do we have to wipe out everybody else, all the frigging bears and manta rays and cockroaches and spider monkeys and huggable trees? Do we really have to wipe them out, too? Can’t we just figure a way to wipe our dumb-asses off the planet, and let the plastic bags and the dolphins live in harmony?

Dante: [Laughs.] One would hope! But this song, like a lot of songs on the album, manages to do this piece of magic: It both relates directly to the whole world and it’s completely personal at the same time. It’s this acutely private experience of this acutely public trauma that everyone’s going through, which is the sense that we might be among the last generations.

Lisa: Yeah. All the reckonings that are happening now; they’re painful but they’re wonderful and necessary. We may not survive them, but if we are going to survive, we have to go through all these reckonings… the reckonings of no longer hiding our nasty-selves or victim-selves in the shadows, and to no longer be the victim, to no longer be the aggressor — all those things that we’ve hidden about ourselves, whether things that have been done to us or things we’ve done to others, we have to take them out of the personal and bring them into the world. And it’s really burning the house down. There are a lot of people who aren’t going to survive that, but I think if we are going to grow as an entity, as a species — I hate that word — as whatever the hell we are, we have to find a way to stop being two different people, being our public and private selves, we have to be as good as we dream to be. And also as tender and sensitive as we are privately, that’s how tender and sensitive we need to be publicly.

Dante: Well…

Lisa: The fucking end.

(Photo Credit: Kozyndan)

One would be hard-pressed to think of a more quintessential go-to artisan for dynamic and progressive new music than Lisa Papineau. She began her performance career in experimental theatre and has since amassed a body of work that spans albums, film soundtracks, art installations, dance and theater productions, narration and producing, but is best known for her own mold-breaking voice. Papineau can possess an unmistakably hushed yet still-beating heart-in-hand vocal style or tear screams from the same breath. She fronts her eponymous group and the band Big Sir with bassist Juan Alderete.

(Photo Credit: Kozyndan)