Comes with a Smile # interviews
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Lauren Hoffman
 by Matt Dornan / pictures by Steve Pitman

unedited transcript

Lauren Hoffman by Steve PitmanWhen her distortion pedal died mid-song on stage at the 12 Bar Lauren Hoffman compared the feeling to having someone walk in while you're in the shower. Excuse the poor analogy but the nakedness of her music in this intimate solo performance became even more pronounced without the 'cover' of the distortion. She seemed to sing and play with extra conviction from that point on. Even if she didn't know it herself...
When you're alone with the guitar it's very subtle, she explains over an Americano at the Tate Gallery a couple of days later, the things that you have to do to create a sense of fullness. And it's all through build of tension and when you get to that point and suddenly it's cut out where you've created this illusion, in a way, and then it goes all of a sudden, oops! the curtain fell...

From The Blue House is more stripped down that Meggido but seeing you at the 12 Bar, the songs connected more, at least for me, being heard that 'naked'. Did you view it as a special show?
I don't qualify it as good gigs and bad gigs anymore it's just like that's what I do. It was all right. I was having a fucking horrible day but... after the 12 Bar gig I had this scary sense of only feeling like myself when onstage playing music.

Can you explain that feeling?
Well it reminds me of something Bono once said when he had a vacation and didn't know how to handle himself without thousands of screaming people around him at all times. It certainly wasn't that, but just that sense of... I just was feeling off all day and I was depressed and thinking 'what is ever gonna make me feel okay?' Then I got onstage and within the first verse I felt okay, and I was like 'Fuck, that's weird.'

So when you're onstage you become 'you' and the rest of the time you're waiting for that?
I guess having been doing this since I was nineteen, eighteen and before that... in The Talented Mr Ripley, have you seen that? The title comes from 'Everybody has a talent, what's yours?' You know, and music has always been my thing that brings me to other people, makes me stand out, it's what makes me be social otherwise I think me just as a person is not a very exciting thing, or... I'm not as comfortable with myself just as a human being in the world, I feel small and insignificant and fucked up. But onstage or playing music in general or finishing an album or recording a guitar track, I don't know, it makes me feel [long pause] worthwhile.

You seem to have had a semi-charmed introduction to the industry. You knew Dave Matthews before either of you were 'known', you worked with David Lowery before signing to Virgin. Was it just the people you stumbled across that got you so far, so young? Were you aware of this at the time or did you just figure this is how it worked?
Probably yeah. My father was in the business. I started playing bass when I was eleven, started writing songs when I was twelve. I started taking my songs to my dad and right around that time he met Dave Matthews and they started writing songs upstairs in his loft and I'd go upstairs and watch. Then when Dave made it big it just seemed like 'sure you can come from a small town and make it in the music business, this isn't some sort of ridiculous dream.' And having my dad around, it helped teach me and being around all those people. Everybody in the band knew me and I could just hang out and I'd get introduced to producers and record company executives and stuff. I was always the precocious grown up 14-15 year old, so they all thought it was really funny and we'd all smoke pot together and they'd laugh. For me it feels like this is where my life went and that's what prepared me for it and it would be very hard for me to imagine me suddenly becoming very academic or becoming a business person. Even though I started a label I'm definitely not a business person. The only point of business is to protect art in my life. It's just who I am, people who come from lawyer families grow up to be lawyers, it's just the way it is.

So, it's never been a dream, just a natural course for you.
It was a dream when I was seven. I went through a big phase of wanting to be a ballerina.

And then?
Then I had hips! [laughs]

With hindsight, were you used by Virgin as a product, albeit one that they then failed to market? What's the story from your perpective?
I can't really say why it went the way it did. I can say I'm glad it went the way it did. The only time it would be appropriate for me to sign with a label would be an Elliott Smith situation where I'd done enough of it my own way and someone wanted to be supportive of that and trust me. They're not gonna trust a nineteen year old to know what's best for themselves or what's best for their music or where they wanna go with it, or be on a path that will eventually end up somewhere good. That's how I feel, I mean it may not end up somewhere good, maybe it'll just be fun along the way. The point is not, for me, to sell a million records because Alanis Morissette did and it's a good time. I mean that's why they signed me. Every label had to have an 'angry young woman'. And so Virgin had a hole in that department.

Does that bring you down? Because you're a woman you get compared to other women, never men.
Well that is sort of annoying because most of the music that I've been really influenced by was made by men and that's probably because I'm a girl... I don't know if that makes any sense? But there's something that's much more mesmerising for me about a great male rock star in a very different way to how I look up to Tori Amos and PJ Harvey and Bjork; it's just a different feeling. The thing that hooked me into it was just being in love with John Lennon's voice. And the thing that's also funny about the press is that it's usually your own fault or the record company's fault because however you spin it in your own bio is probably how it's gonna wind up looking in the end that's why on my new bio it's totally vague when it comes to references and things I grew up listening to. In the beginning I think that, for most artists, the record company will try to come up who you're going to be compared to before you even meet anybody. So the person out there is like 'Oh, she's Alanis Morissette-ish' just because that's what the record company already told them. A conspiracy theory, somewhat!

You've also, for similarly misguided reasons, been compared with Fiona Apple. Isn't that purely based on [in unison] age? And timing? On your web site you mention that you were a fan of Tidal...
Yeah and the new album. I've been listening to it a lot. I'd rather be compared to her that Jewel, quite honestly. Or a lot of other young female singer songwriters. But I don't think there's that obvious comparison. For one thing she plays piano and I play guitar and that changes it. The style of our songwriting is pretty different, I mean the premise even is different. I wouldn't consider my music to be confessional and I definitely don't catch much sarcasm in her, or irony.

And she doesn't seem as, for want of a better word, confident. When singing of relationships she is portrayed as the victim, whereas you seem more empowered.
That's possible. Maybe I just write about the empowered stuff. To be honest I think most of the songs where I come off sounding vulnerable tend to go onto the backburner. I can think of a lot more relationship songs that aren't on the albums than ones that are at the moment. But I can't say that I've been in a lot of, uh, romantic relationships anyway, so I think that some of those times when I talk about it are observations, something that I've seen in other people's lives.

You don't sound bitter about your experiences with Virgin.
I was never angry at Virgin. The only thing I'm bitter about is the old 'loss of innocence' bit, you know, that I had dreams before. And now I don't have them.

You must have some to keep wanting to make music.
Yeah, but they seem unreasonable, they seem like they exist in a world that doesn't exist anymore.

So do you still want to make records until you're 50?
Yeah. Not necessarily my own records, but all I wanna do in life is make records, so yeah.

You see yourself as a producer as well? Recording at home?
Starting out that way. I mean I'd love to get to record someone in a beautiful big studio but that's not where I am right now and that's not where my skills are right now.

You've done work with other people since you made From The Blue House?
Yeah, I've worked on two projects, finished one and have a third one when I get home.

That's quite a business thing to do, to have a label that not only releases your own records but promotes music that you admire. Isn't that a big responsibilty for a non-business person? Is it fun?
No, it's not. I have somebody to do most of that shit, the administration; I bring the whole music business, 'been-there-done-that' vibe to it all. God, that could come out sounding bad! You say some things that are jokes and they come out and the sarcasm doesn't seem to work in print.

Let's talk about Elliott Smith. You wrote a song about him so I'm guessing he made an impression on you.
Absolutely. I met him in LA - he was at one of my shows, I was opening for Jon Brion and he arrived just before Jon's set - I ran into him backstage and I told him he'd been an influence on me and I gave him the CD and we wound up hanging out and talking. I saw him carrying the CD around and so I kind of assumed that he'd listen to it. Plus all those people are my friends, Jon Brion, Ethan Johns and the whole LA crew that he'd been hanging out with. So last night - Smith was in town for a show at ULU - I realised that maybe he's heard the album, heard Look Like Shit and he hates me! And so I didn't wanna go and talk to him, just in case [laughs] this guy that I idolise so much was gonna have this attitude cause I said he looked like shit - that I can totally understand, even though it's meant to be... [pause]

It's a very frank song. I think perhaps, it was very brave for you to title it that way when it's a very complimentary song.
I have to be honest and, you know, a lot of times people give me CDs and I don't get around to listening to them. He didn't even see my set or have any reason to. I wasn't like 'See this song, Look Like Shit? It's about you!'

Obviously Rock Star was another song with a particular person in mind, Kurt Cobain. Was it meant as literal as it sounds or were you just encapsulating the Rolling Stone myth of what a Rock Star is?
Well it was specifically about him as an example. It's something that a friend and I had always talked about, that so many people died at the age of 27 and how weird it was. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix... and then you look at Paul and you look at John and people just revere John in this way that they don't Paul. It's different for different people but John is this mythical creature who can do no wrong because he's dead, you know? Paul's a human being, he's still alive. And then the weirdest thing was when Jeff Buckley died... and his father...

It's a dangerous industry. You've talked vaguely on your web-site about being young and buying into the whole lifestyle thing... and I'm guessing from the tone of the piece that you went a little far down that route?
I think I connect with The Cure for the same reason, this sense of... hopelessness. I dunno there's probably something I relate to about artists and it's the same with painters and other mediums which is why I like coming to museums. I don't know what it is but I've always related to the sentiments, or just what I see in the eyes of certain people and I know that I'm the same way and there'll be times in my life when I'll lapse into that and... One thing that's really hard for me is being straight and going to gyms and looking around at vanity culture and I just don't want to be a part of that. I'd much rather just... 'Fuck you!' and go and get pissed, y'know? I go through phases of 'I'm straight-edge' or something and that's just as much of an addiction as drinking or something. It's nice to do things in life for positive reasons instead of just to be anti something. So that's why music is redeeming for me.

CWAS #5 - Summer 2000