Sugar Shock #013: Bunnies, Traps, and Slip ‘n’ Slides: An Interview with Brie Larson
’ve been following Brie Larson’s career for about two years now, since one year after both the release of her debut album on Tommy Mottola’s Casblanca Records (Finally Out of P.E.) and the inauguration of her truly awesome MySpace page, on which she muses, jokes, quotes Henry Miller at length (she’s currently re-reading Ralph Waldo Emerson), and lightly abuses her friends and fans in her comments section.
Appropriately, I figured I’d try to contact her via MySpace for an interview before writing and production were fully underway for her as-of-yet untitled sophomore album, and Brie didn’t disappoint. We had a lengthy email exchange about her new arts and literature magazine, Bunnies and Traps, bubblegum, Bob Dylan, Heidi Montag, and the advantages and disadvantages of forgoing climbing the music industry ladder to ride the pop Slip ‘n’ Slide to fame.
Wanted to start with Bunnies and Traps, which I haven't read yet myself but have heard is pretty awesome. Specifically, my friend Frank Kogan received a copy of the second issue and enjoyed your own piece, part of which he excerpted for me. (He said it's "emotional but at the same time it's cold steel.") Anyway, without knowing the whole story, I'll just ask: what sort of writing sensibility do you bring to your fiction, and does it carry over to your songwriting lately?
Wow, I've never been referred to as "cold steel" and I certainly don't hate it. Well I guess the best way to answer is to back track for a second. I was the girl in the English class that when the teacher asked for a two-page fictional story, I would write a ten-page first chapter to a book I would never finish about a mystical land filled with creatures and adventure. Overachiever? Not really actually. I was just in a hurry to finish my math homework so I could write.
But time goes on, innocence leaves us and our minds become crammed with insecurities and lack of self worth. It’s amazing what the power of growing breasts and zits can do to your creative juices. I kept writing, just never showed it to a soul. When I would put my fingers to the keyboard I wasn't over-thinking a thing, I was saying exactly what I wanted to say. With that being said, I was very afraid of what I had to say. The truth I found was TOO raw, or TOO true. It would surely offend people or make my parents raise a ‘brow. So I wrote more, and more, until I had dozens of short stories and poetry. A certain poem I had, I had been working on for almost a year and was 12 pages long. It was at a certain moment I realized: There must be more people like me out there. That have things to say but no way of expressing them in an open environment. That’s when I came up with Bunnies and Traps. It’s a medium to write, sing, draw, and just BE. We don't ask for much. Just your best. So far, so good.
What's your submission rate like generally?
Well, we get probably 20 or more submissions per issue, but it grows the farther we get along. I'm much more fascinated by the kinds of people. We have girls that are Middle Eastern and dealing with racial issues, 25-year-old males that are getting married, girls who love Cody Linley, and just cool kids to boot.
Are you drawing in a lot of people who know you from your movies/music, or more informal writer networks through collaborators (local or whatever)? (If it's the former, it seems like a pretty good way to inspire your fanbase to take creative matters into their own hands.)
Good question. It’s a fine balance. I want my friends to collaborate just because they are so insanely talented it makes me want to tear my hair out, and on top of that, it entices people to buy the magazine. Some young girl might buy it because Alex Greenwald from Phantom Planet wrote a funny story about a rather long bender in New York, but might decide to collaborate because of something a 16-year-old girl from Minnesota wrote. It’s a community where we are all peers. It’s quite amazing.
Could you elaborate on your hyphenated phrase from our first MySpace exchange [Brie referred to a category of celebrities she called "teeny-bop-pop-bubblegum-back-stabbing-public-relationship-loving 'artists'"]?
Oh no, I know I'm going to get in trouble for that statement. Whatever. I just can't stand to go to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk, only to see these "artists" on the cover who have nothing to talk about but their love life and their catfights with their friends. I just feel that once you put those stories out into the universe the audience eats it up, and wants more. Nothing is sacred. You can't be on Cosmo with a featured story on your deathly saddening break-up with LC from The Hills and then next month publish a story about how you "just wish you could be left alone. That your business is out in the open and you don't understand why."
Did you know that Heidi Montag from The Hills (which I've never seen) has a pop song out? With her boyfriend Spencer rapping? It's an OK song, actually, but a friend of mine let it be publicly known that if you support Heidi, you effectively end any friendship with her. (I don't feel strongly enough about it to risk it.)
So amazing. I haven't heard it but it just makes me ask one question: "Who does she think she is that she can sing music?" I mean, really. She's famous because she was on a show on MTV. That doesn't mean you should do music. I can't stand that crap.
[…]What happened to the days when a musician was a mystery? Bob Dylan was my hero because I couldn't figure him out. I didn't know where he stood on any level. And I certainly didn't know if or when he broke up with some model girlfriend.
I am here to make music. To make movies. I will talk all day about the creative process. But I am not a "personality." I'm not here to wash my face on TV and tell you how great such and such product is. That stuff isn't real. And I just couldn't live with myself projecting something that’s conjured up.
I think that’s a pretty accurate description of Dylan—interesting that he's been taken up as a sort of counter-culture hero who always "stood for what was right," when what's really striking about his best music (at least that I've heard, and I'm not the world's leading Dylan scholar, mind) is the questions and contradictions and ambivalence. But he could certainly bait the press as well as, say, Britney.
I'm guessing his girlfriends etc. were of "entertainment news" significance at the time, but I don't know a whole lot about him, to be honest. And I think your point is probably right—whom he was dating didn't have much to do with the power of the music, even if said relationships likely contributed to his writing it in the first place. But then I could probably make the same argument about Ashlee Simpson, right?
Reporters wanted to know who Dylan was dating just like the girl down the street singing along to her radio wanted to know. The difference was he didn't think it was relevant to the music, therefore it was "disrespectful" to even ask. Sometimes he took his theory a little too far. I mean, at one point he went on a rant as to say that clapping during his concerts was bullshit. I find that statement brilliant, even thought it’s false. You should really watch Don't Look Back, it’s one of the greatest rock documentaries of all time. And you will see where my Dylan worship comes from.
Backing up a little—how'd you get into the pop racket, anyway? You were on Tommy Mottola's Casablanca label for Finally Out of P.E.; was there any pressure to conform to a certain type of pop? How involved were you in its writing/production, and how do you generally feel about how things came out?
Yeah. When it comes to how I got into the music world, I'm kind of the person I hate. I fell in deep love with the guitar when I was about 11. I started getting "lessons" from various friends and such while I was on a TV show. We had a musical guest on the show, her manager took interest in me. All of the sudden, I had a manager all before I had even thought about putting a record out. I just loved music, man. I was just some scared little kid.
Well, my management wanted to make sure I could write music. So they set me up with some producers who really didn't think I could write either. They gave me some dusty track called "Butterfly" of all things and told me to come back in a week. I did. I stood in from of them and sang my song and they were both floored. They turned to my mom and said, "Did you write that?" She laughed and said no. They took that song to a couple different labels. Tommy Mottola heard it and signed me sight unseen. "Butterfly" turned into "Invisible Girl" which was the first real song I had ever written. I guess the pop racket found me far before I found it.
But on the reverse side, my lack of "knowing" made it hard. My youth made it hard. I was the perfect target for the typical ways of labels. They made me do so so so many things I regret. So many things I will even say I'm embarrassed by. But I don't beat myself up over it. I understand so much more now, that I feel very confident making my own decisions now, that I feel will be organic and set me apart from others who could be considered to be in my category.
You say, "I'm kind of the person I hate," but what kind of person is that? Seems to me that the relationship to your manager and then your producers you’re describing is pretty typical of younger artists who get any kind of significant exposure. Which is a unique position to be in, because you can write about adolescent issues as they're happening; not that this is inherently more "true" than reflecting on it later, but that it doesn't even really seem possible to comment as it happens—in a way that anyone, especially people of the same age, will notice—without that prior biz connection.
It is "normal" for the music industry, but that’s the problem. In a real world, you can't get hired without prior experience. What should have happened is I should have continued playing music, writing songs, learning, loving, creating a voice, gaining a TRUE fanbase, THEN I should have been signed. Instead of climbing a ladder, it was like going on a slip and slide...but there wasn't enough water on it so you got a rug burn.
What are your plans for the future, album-wise? How have your experiences shaped how you think about your music (writing, production, maybe even promotion) now?
I've been battling with my label for some time now because I sent them demos for my new album and they said they didn't get it. That, to me, was a great success. Not so much to them. But we are working out the deal right now to do the album with Harry Maslin, who produced one of my favorite favorite favorite favorite albums (Station to Station by Bowie). He’s a genius who’s worked with tons of geniuses. I just feel lucky to be in his presence. My experiences haven't shaped me all for the good; I'm much more hard on myself when I write—but I strive for perfection. I look at songs like “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen and want that for myself. I want brilliance.
What music are you liking these days, and what sort of music is on your mind (if any) when you're writing music? What sorts of themes, ideas, etc.?
My favorite and hardest question to answer. I have a huge and awkward obsession with the Beatles, they are just wonderful. After that, it's the Zombies, Kinks, Nico, Arcade Fire, Dylan, Sonic Youth, and a few other random things. I love the Days of Being Wild soundtrack. And Bonnie "Prince" Billy. I don't really know much about contemporary music. But from what I hear, I'm not missing much.
PS, Just looked over [Emerson’s] "Self-Reliance" again for the first time in five years and came across this part:
For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlour. If this aversation had its origin in contempt and resistance like his own, he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs.Weirdly enough, this reminded me of Britney Spears...no "deep cause" separating the vilification/public "sourness" toward Britney and the "sweetness" of...oh, John Cusack, let's say, talking about how Hilary Duff is an angel "unlike those other stars who shall remain nameless" (not like he has many names to choose from).
Seems like you fall into an interesting category here, celebrity-wise, in that you can put out music on the same label as Lindsay, star in Hoot, etc. (that is, participate in the same cultural sphere as Lindsay and Britney), and have no particular sweet or sour baggage follow you around, for the most part—which I imagine gives you some freedom to conform or non-conform at your leisure in your music and writing. You can have it both ways, the blessing of approval for a younger audience and a kind of provocative artistic freedom.
(Don't mind me raving, by the way, I'm not much of an interviewer.)
Ha. Well, you've broken me down quite easily. I thought I was more complicated than that! Seriously. If you do what you like, the audience will find itself. You don't need to project in interviews what you are trying to do. When I see someone as smart as Mandy Moore constantly saying, "I just want to be taken seriously!" it bums me out. She has all the tools she needs. Money. Connections. Name value. All she has to "do" is do it. I don't understand why she is fighting one song (“Candy”) that came out what, ten years ago? It’s a good pop song, it shouldn't be stopping her from what she wants to do now. I mean, I'm certainly not one to be giving career advice. But I just firmly believe that if it’s what you want, you'll get it. As long as you stop groaning and just sit down and do it.
By: David Moore
Published on: 2007-09-19