Lisa Gerrard

Australian-born Lisa Gerrard, herself the daughter of Irish immigrants, has spoken about being raised in a Melbourne suburb where Greek immigrants also lived en masse, hearing much music from that country just as a matter of course. Besides proving to be a gifted singer, she also explored a variety of musical approaches, joining in Melbourne’s late 1970s/early 1980s post-punk scene already having begun to perform on what became a signature instrument, the yangqin, a Chinese equivalent of the dulcimer.

These experiences and much more formed the roots of became one of the most remarkable bodies of work in recorded music, as Gerrard – whose astonishing multi octave vocal range, ranging from contralto to mezzo-soprano, can truly be called operatic – proved to be open to and interested in creating music based in approaches and instruments from around the world, both in her own right and with a wide variety of collaborators, including a now well-established career in creating and contributing to movie soundtracks. Impossible to pigeonhole in any one approach and having spoken many times about the spiritual connection she aims to convey with music, she has created a body of work so vast it has almost perversely escaped true notice.

Meeting someone else in that Melbourne scene led to Gerrard’s first steps towards wider attention: the UK born, partially New Zealand raised Brendan Perry, who with Gerrard and two others formed the band Dead Can Dance in 1981. After relocating to London, the group signed to the 4AD label for their earliest releases, soon reducing down to the core duo of Perry and Gerrard along with a floating pool of key collaborators live and in studio. The group rapidly became emblematic for the label as a whole, winning initial acclaim in goth and underground music circles while demonstrating an astonishing ability to fuse a range of music across geographic space and cultural time. Both were accomplished singers, with Gerrard’s already jaw-dropping abilities seeming to only grow, whether singing in English, multiple other languages, or the wordless, glossolalic form she has described as ‘the language of the heart.’

In what became a quiet sign pointing towards the future, some of their music began to appear as choices in film soundtracks, though the band itself dissolved during the 1990s as both began formal solo careers. Gerrard’s first release was The Mirror Pool, while her second, Duality, listed as a formal collaboration with Dead Can Dance percussionist Pieter Bourke, was the first in her now extensive catalog of such work with kindred musical spirits other than Perry. Meantime, Gerrard’s initial steps towards wider cinematic music prominence came via director Michael Mann, first with some selections from The Mirror Pool in Heat, then two from Duality in The Insider, along with a commission for some original music from her and Bourke. 

It was the tragic early passing of Israeli singing legend Ofra Haza in 2000, however, which inadvertently led to Gerrard’s wider breakout beyond music-focused circles when Hans Zimmer approached her to replace Haza as a collaborator on the forthcoming soundtrack to Gladiator. The smash success of the Ridley Scott epic and its score, credited to both musicians, soon led to a continuing soundtrack career for Gerrard throughout the 21st century, either via further collaborative movie scores, including more work with Zimmer, as well as one-off contributions or full solo efforts, including her remarkable compositions for 2003’s Whale Rider. Even while she made a name for her efforts in this field, her general creative churn was equally strong, regularly working with a wide range of collaborators on various projects, ranging from German electronic legend Klaus Schulze to the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir.

In the midst of all this, beginning in 2005 she and Perry restarted Dead Can Dance on an irregular basis, first via a reunion tour and then with studio releases in following years as well as more touring, an extension of their early years together while finding a different balance. By the 2010s she was releasing new work every year, including solo, collaborative, and soundtrack music. As of 2022 she shows no signs of slowing down, with efforts ranging from contributions to Zimmer’s soundtrack to Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune to her recent albums Burn and Exaudia, both also collaborations, her vivid vocal and musical art in general a continuing testament to the power of tapping deep historical and emotional veins for a modern world.

Aion cover

By their fifth album, even as Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard had separated personally, their musical partnership had reached notable heights, able to tour Aion in the US even without record distribution while achieving even more of a reputation in goth, industrial and world music circles. Aion kept their streak going to the full, the duo self-producing work that took an even more specifically historical European music turn, including adaptations of a 14th century Italian song, “Saltarello,” and both Castilian and Catalonian lyrics from the early modern period.

Samsara [Original Soundtrack] cover

Michael Stearns had worked with the music of numerous artists when creating the soundtrack to Ron Fricke’s 1992 film Baraka, including Dead Can Dance, so it made plenty of sense when the time came for Fricke’s 2012 semi-sequel Samsara for him to reach out to the now well established soundtrack creator Lisa Gerrard. With the tracks generally split between Stearns and Gerrard, the latter working with regular collaborator de Francisi, songs range from loud percussive compositions to calm moments where only Gerrard’s voice can be gently heard.

Exaudia cover

Lisa Gerrard’s constant winning streak of emotionally intense and remarkably beautiful albums kept on continuing with one of her most dramatic – and, even though it wasn’t for a film, most cinematic-as-such – albums, 2022’s Exaudia. Another one of her collaborations, in this case with regular studio/soundtrack cohort Marcello de Francisi, Exaudia begins with the sublime swell of “When the Light of Morning Comes” and runs from there, her elegant vocals riding a range from stirring rhythms and arrangements on songs like “Fallen” and “Stay With Me.”

Anastasis cover

Following some years of solo work, with Lisa Gerrard notably working on many soundtracks and collaborative albums, Dead Can Dance first reunited in the mid-2000s for a well-received series of live shows and then formally returned to the studio for 2012’s Anastasis, their first album not released by 4AD. Continuing in the less melodramatic, steadier vein that they found themselves at by the late 1990s, Gerrard and Brendan Perry remain in fine voice, her rich range and his ear for deep command working both individually and blended, as on “Return of the She-King.”

Hiraeth cover

German percussionist David Kuckhermann had played with Dead Can Dance on one of their reunion tours so perhaps little surprise that he and Lisa Gerrard, as ever exploring further possibilities in collaboration, worked with him to create the 2018 album Hiraeth. The striking contrast of rhythms and vocals that Gerrard had demonstrated back to her earliest work continues here, while the addition of further musical elements creates an entrancing setting, not always as ritualistic as some of her other work but among her most romantic and mood-stirring.

Twilight Kingdom cover

Lisa Gerrard’s 2014 solo album Twilight Kingdom is more of a surprising collective effort than might be thought, as besides her regular collaborators Patrick Cassidy and Marcello de Francisi, Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns and Scottish vocalist/live Dead Can Dance member Astrid Williamson appear throughout as performers and cowriters. It’s still a Gerrard album first and foremost, and while there’s a darkly contemplative atmosphere, her rich vocals aim for and find a beautiful serenity on songs like “Adrift” and “Neptune,” with spacious arrangements to match.

The Black Opal cover

Lisa Gerrard’s 2009 album The Black Opal has an overwhelming feeling of intensity, as the strangely beautiful, unnerving cover art suggests. Seemingly lighter pieces like the piano-led “The Messenger” have shadows while her initial vocals on “In Search of Lost Innocence” are utterly haunting. At the same time the album features some of her most formal lyrical songs, including the steady “Tell It From The Mountain” and the serene and subtly moving “The Serpent and the Dove,” plus a moody trip-hop interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.”

The Mirror Pool cover

Lisa Gerrard’s solo album debut appeared during the final years of Dead Can Dance’s first phase of existence, itself drawing on a variety of pieces she had worked on both within and outside of the duo’s work – two songs, “Sanvean” and “Persian Love Song,” had initially appeared on that group’s live album and film Toward the Within. It’s a strong showcase of her well-established vocal, songwriting and technical talents, and, supplemented by John Bonnar’s orchestral arrangements, has the air of a yearning, ages-old myth summoned to the present.

Spleen and Ideal cover

Right from the start of their second album with the dramatic vocals, drums and rich instrumental textures of “De Profundis (Out of the Depths of Sorrow),” one can hear Dead Can Dance suddenly become the version of the band that became a worldwide subcultural obsession.

Creating a kind of elegantly intense kind of romantic medievalism that was never exactly one thing or another, symbolist in their own description and feeling ritualistic in general, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, each in commanding voice, felt like they’d started invoking deep powers.

Duality cover

Pieter Bourke had already worked with Lisa Gerrard as a contributing musician on The Mirror Pool but Duality was their formal debut as creative partners. It’s perhaps slightly more retrospectively famous due to two key tracks, “Tempest” and “Sacrifice,” carrying over to their score for The Insider, while the mysterious beauty of the opening “Shadow Magnet” would go on to inspire Gerrard’s work on Gladiator with Hans Zimmer. But in its own right, it’s simply entrancing, her singing and his rhythms creating a ritualistic sense of rapture and sublime awe.

Farscape cover

In interviews for Farscape, Klaus Schulze and Lisa Gerrard had professed to mutual admiration of each other’s work for many years prior, so perhaps little surprise that two artists who had brought their own interpretations of deep listening to life turned out to be in excellent creative sync. With the music already created by Schulze and the whole swiftly recorded in a few days’ sessions, Farscape found both artists in a striking collaborative space, with Gerrard’s exploratory vocal improvisations suiting the electronic swells and rhythms of Schulze beautifully.

Into the Labyrinth cover

With 4AD getting a formal distribution deal via Warner Bros in the early 1990s, Dead Can Dance finally released a full new album in the US along with the rest of the world for the first time with 1993’s Into The Labyrinth. Maintaining their particular course even in the ferment of alternative rock’s seeming triumph, the same fusion and exploration of past and present remained Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard’s obsession on their longest album yet. Notable tracks included Perry’s “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” and another example of Gerrard’s glossolalia, “Emmeleia.”

The Serpent's Egg cover

By the time of their fourth studio album Dead Can Dance had reached a remarkable high point with their moodily dramatic combination of dark singer/songwriter feelings and melanges of worldwide musical instrumentation and approaches, creating a never-never land that wasn’t quite medieval or ritualistic but wasn’t anything else either. “The Host of Seraphim” started the album with shocking command, while further songs like “Severance” and “Ullyses” further underscore their abilities with their fusions.

BooCheeMish cover

Using the English translation of the Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares name which had been formally granted to them by original compiler Marcel Cellier, on 2018’s BooCheeMish the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir featured a guest singer who like them first came to wider attention thanks to 4AD in the 1980s, Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. Most of the songs are based around the choir’s always remarkable work itself, but Gerrard’s various appearances further electrify on songs like “Pora Sotunda,” “Unison” and “Shandai Ya.”

The Silver Tree cover

Lisa Gerrard’s first solo non-soundtrack album in over a decade since The Mirror Pool, 2006’s The Silver Tree found her in a vivid creative space, exploring further sonic and linguistic possibilities with her voice and again showcasing rich, mood-shrouded music pitched somewhere between mournful classical, dark ambient and even, on “Space Weaver,” something trip-hop tinged. Regular collaborator Patrick Cassidy provides some orchestrations, as on “In Exile” and “Toward the Tower,” but otherwise it’s all Gerrard’s work, elegant and powerful.

Gladiator [Original Soundtrack] cover

The self-consciously epic scale of Ridley Scott’s smash hit sword-and-sandals throwback practically required an equivalent soundtrack, and the debut collaboration effort of Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, with the music primarily performed by the Lyndhurst Orchestra, delivered. Remarkably dynamic in feeling throughout – compositions such as the lengthy “The Battle” shift between almost beautiful tension and sweeping orchestrations – it’s Gerrard’s soaring, rich vocals adding the next level, almost creating 21st century film music cliches out of whole cloth.

Whale Rider cover

Simultaneously a mesmerizing soundtrack to a striking movie and a striking solo album, the only work not done by her being a brief piano part and vocal samples from the film itself, Lisa Gerrard’s Whale Rider is one of her most elegant and powerful efforts, the more so because of its primarily instrumental nature. Given how signature Gerrard’s vocals had rapidly become in film work in previous years, this shone a clearer light on her musical abilities, creating rich sonic textures based on synths and keyboard, occasional percussion and other instrumentation.

Burn cover

One of Lisa Gerrard’s shorter albums overall, reaching just over half an hour, Burn is also one of her most contextually intriguing; her main collaborator this time, Jules Maxwell, had appeared with Dead Can Dance in the past, and created all the music for this release, favoring a very dark, almost metal-tinged crunch combined with echo-laden keyboards. Gerrard’s own vocals similarly have the reverb added, making her always remarkable singing more strangely ghostly, and the result are fine songs like “Deshta (Forever)” and “Orion (The Weary Huntsman).”

2:22 [Original Soundtrack] cover

The movie 2:22 itself didn’t get much in the way of critical praise, and the opening cuts are by other artists, a fair to middling selection, but once “The Stars” starts, it’s Lisa Gerrard in full effect on a film soundtrack once more, this time accompanied by one of her many regular collaborators, James Orr. It’s one of Gerrard’s most sleekly modern soundtracks in feeling, with pulsing electronics and snippets of dark dance-pop as much a factor as haunted orchestrations and a feeling of mysterious depths, not to mention of course her always remarkable singing.

Immortal Memory cover

Having focused on film work for some time, Lisa Gerrard returned to creating standalone albums with Immortal Memory, the first of many albums she would work on in collaboration with various creative partners in the 21st century. Irish synth musician Patrick Cassidy had already released a number of albums on labels like Windham Hill before meeting Gerrard via work on the Gladiator soundtrack; here they create slow, achingly lovely performances, including adaptations of old Gaelic songs and poems by Yeats and Milton that are captivating.

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