The 73-year-old filmmaker (once again) proves her artistic dexterity with an autobiographical debut album, ‘Pink Bikini’
Sally Potter’s youth had all the trappings of an epic bildungsroman: marching through the streets in protest of nuclear arms development; dropping out of school at 16 to pursue filmmaking; touring with a troupe of feminist musicians, whose sets were defined by their improvised and irreverent humor. Having cut her teeth in the metamorphic art scene of ’60s London, Potter shaped her career on an ethos of genre obliteration and restless innovation. True to form, the artist’s reflection of a countercultural girlhood arrived two weeks ago, not in the shape of a film, as is her forté, nor the diaristic tell-all standard to those of her caliber. No—this is Sally Potter, after all. Haunting and defiant, her memoir took form as a debut album, Pink Bikini.
The artist’s commitment to “barefoot filmmaking”—her manifesto of scrappiness and sincerity—sets her apart from the crowd of indie directors turned Marvel (or Mattel) manufacturers. Where other creatives mindlessly reiterate or hungrily expand—often at the expense of their art’s integrity—Potter is a master of experimentation. She possesses, too, an eerie and career-defining prescience: “OH MOSCOW,” a Cold War ballad for which Potter wrote the lyrics, was performed a month before the Berlin Wall fell; 2009’s Rage was the first feature-length film made to be watched on cell phones; Look at Me, a short film wrestling with masculine anger, was in the final stages of post-production when Will Smith slapped its star, Chris Rock, across the face in front of a titillated Oscars audience. Maybe it’s no accident, then, that questions of time and its slipperiness haunt Potter’s oeuvre, from 1992’s Orlando to this summer’s Pink Bikini. On the occasion of the album’s release, the multihyphenate spoke with Document about true mysteries, revisiting Virginia Woolf’s epic mediation on 400 years and a change of sex, and leafleting against nuclear war in her school uniform.
Olivia Treynor: How did your past as a film composer relate to the process of creating this album?
Sally Potter: Music for film makes one listen very acutely—not just to what people are saying or the function you want the music to have, but also [to] all the other layers of sound, whether it’s street sound or room ambiance. I think it’s incredible ear training, figuring out how to situate music within film. I’ve learned just as much about how to structure music by making it for films as I ever did in my 20s, when I was a working musician on the road. I think there’s sort of a quiet, insistent training that happens through working with music on film.
Olivia: I wanted to talk about the Feminist Improvising Group—
Sally: FIG. We called it FIG.
Olivia: Okay, let’s call it FIG. That’s easier. How did your roots in improvised music affect your process for writing this album?
“[There’s] the push, the burden, to be the author and an acceptable potential muse—to look a certain way, act a certain way… False mystery, in other words. I’m very attracted to real mystery.”
Sally: About the work in improvisation: I think it’s a kind of misnomer, because live improvised music is simply fast composition. It’s spontaneous, in-the-moment composition. If I sit down to write, I’m improvising with the materials that I have, whether it’s my keyboard or samples of my voice. In the experience of improvised music—as any devotee to [the practice] will say—you have to learn to listen. It’s another form of ear training with film composition. You have to be able to listen simultaneously to many different lines that people are creating around you, and integrate [yourself] into it.
The seeds for this project, I think, came out of two different strands. One [was] wanting to work [in] short-form, condensed verse. I’ve done one whole film in verse, but there’s something glorious about the fact that a song is, essentially, a three-minute form. It is a small door, but you can put a lot through that door. I find that sort of minimalism incredibly exciting.
Then, [there’s] the specific subject of the teenage years. Looking back, it was a time of great loss and great growth. For young female people, you’re losing the freedoms of childhood, not just because of [no longer] being a child, but because puberty puts you in a female body with all the things historically that go along with a female body. There’s loss, and there’s confusion. At the same time, there’s incredible strength and power and drama and conflict.
Olivia: Both the memoiristic nature of this album and the narrative spine of Orlando is built around a confusion of time. How were you thinking about time in approaching this album?
Sally: Well, the great mystery of time continues to possess me, film after film after film—and now, song after song. Its sort of illusory aspect is worthy of endless meditation.
In the case of Orlando, of course, it was based on Virginia Woolf’s meditation on 400 years and a change of sex. These meditations on the passing of time, and on the memory of previous self, [were] then structured into songs that start to take steps away from an accurate memoir. It is a poetically-licensed version of memory. The fact that one can reach back to younger selves and speak to them—or perhaps forward, too—was the basis of the songs. That dialogue with a younger self.
Olivia: Now I’m thinking of your film, The Tango Lesson, and a kind of autobiography that is also not at all autobiographical. What draws you to blurring the lines between documentary and fiction?
Sally: Anybody who ever writes about their own experience knows that, on some level, it is fraudulent. You write a diary, even when you’re 12, and you think, I’m writing this just for myself. Except a tiny part of the brain is saying, But one day, maybe somebody else will read this. There’s a little part of you writing for posterity. That already is a sort of step away [from truth]. Once you accept that memory itself is not pure, and the facts of any given event can be interpreted and re-interpreted in many different ways, the notion of truth in autobiography becomes very questionable.
Olivia: There’s something innately temporal about live performance. How do you find that your background in live arts—as a dancer and as a performance artist—affects your process of composing?
Sally: It’s certainly affected all the films I’ve made and, in particular, the way I work with actors. I was looking for a quality of performance that was transparent—not layered up with genre or with style or with effect. Technically speaking, [the album] is very bare; nothing is done to the voice in the studio. That comes from the work that I experienced in performance, which was a lot about using real time and real spaces. There’s also the part of me that has a legacy as a performer, which rarely gets taken out of the closet. [Laughs] I found that I was much more at ease with being heard than being seen.
Olivia: I think it’s in ‘Ghosts,’ you sing that you want to be Leonard, not Suzanne.
Olivia: That conviction of wanting to be the author rather than the muse—it’s so potent. I think especially as a woman in the arts, you don’t know whether you are Leonard or Suzanne. I’m curious if you feel like both within this album?
Sally: No, I never made it as Suzanne, nor Marianne. I was always kind of limping along, trying to be Leonard. That’s a little bit self-pejorative. It was really—well, I said it best in the lyric: ‘I’d rather be the singer than his muse.’
Time and time again, especially in my earlier working years when I was the token woman in a film festival or on a panel, attention [was constantly] drawn to the fact that I was female. [There’s] the push, the burden, to be the author and an acceptable potential muse—to look a certain way, act a certain way, be sufficiently mysterious, all that shite that goes in the name of the muse. False mystery, in other words. I’m very attracted to real mystery, like the passing of time. But not false mystery, like ‘woman.’
Olivia: From The Party, to last year’s short film with Chris Rock, to FIG, there’s this kind of playfulness that spans your body of work. Do you feel that there’s humor in Pink Bikini, or was it an exercise in sincerity?
Sally: I’m greatly in favor of playfulness. You can do much more serious things with comedy than the other way. But the first songs that I wrote in this particular series for Pink Bikini were very light. I was aiming for brevity and wit. Pink Bikini and Black Mascara were among the first ones. They end with punchlines. As I wrote more and more, [the songs] became more melancholic. I thought, Oh dear, I wasn’t intending to write a lot of small sad songs. But if I go back to the years that I’m spanning in the songs—from [ages] 12 to 18—these were melancholic years for me. Therefore, at least autobiographically speaking, they’re true.
Olivia: Your songs treat teenagehood with the seriousness they’re experienced with. I want to talk about the way your songwriting acknowledges how political personal moments are—whether it’s the instance of slut shaming in Pink Bikini or thinking about the impending climate doom in Black and White Badge.
Sally: It is absolutely autobiographical that I was marching from the age of 11 against nuclear weapons. I was a very young activist in that sense, leafleting on the street in my school uniform. I really did dream every night that the bomb was falling. When I went into my memory, thinking about how I can write about [politics] in a way that isn’t polemical, I remembered how [complex] it was. For example: I was marching against nuclear weapons militantly, yes. But I was also looking at these slightly older teenagers who were marching along, who had their arms around each other, or were wearing cool clothes, and I was feeling bad about the fact that I was in my scrappy school uniform.
Within the same person, the same mind, and the same body, you can have two very contradictory things going on: absolutely right-thinking activism, political commitment, clear-headed thinking about wanting to save the world on the one hand; and total juvenile insecurity about looks, clothes, romance, and all that [on the other]. They can be jostling up against each other.
“There’s also the part of me that has a legacy as a performer, which rarely gets taken out of the closet. [Laughs] I found that I was much more at ease with being heard than being seen.”
Olivia: You had a few collaborators with you on this album, but as you said, there’s something bare about this record. Was that a conscious effort to return to the artistry of your youth?
Sally: [Gesturing to her room] You’re looking at the resources. I wrote most of the songs in this hut—which is a very small hut—with this keyboard, with the computer that I’m talking to you on. The writing absolutely felt like barefoot filmmaking. This was barefoot album-making.
Olivia: I read that you’re working on revisiting Orlando, with a Black choir and an emphasis on music. I want to talk a bit about what it is about music that dialogue or writing or images can’t communicate, and what draws you to revisiting Orlando with music at the center.
Sally: Well, those are two different questions. What can music do that dialogue and cinematic representation can’t do? It can do transcendence. It doesn’t have to justify itself. It is the most direct way, that I know, to enter into a zone where you begin to feel that you’re touching the ineffable, the invisible part of all of our existence.
Concerning Orlando: I may have made announcements about it a little bit prematurely. I have written a lot of it, [but] I’ve been somewhat conflicted about revisiting it, thinking, Come on, I did the film. Why revisit [it]? [But I would revisit it] because of the notion of the passing of time. Identity is a subject you can afford to revisit quite a lot of times. I was motivated to revisit it because of what’s left out in Virginia Woolf’s book, and in my film, because I was quite faithful—not to the letter of the book, but to the principles that she was working with. It leaves an entire history of British colonialism. [Laughs] Filming the book can’t do everything, but I felt there must be a way of telling those 400 years and narrating it in a way that looks at it with very different eyes, and very different ears.
Olivia: How are you thinking about Pink Bikini going into the world?
Sally: What is interesting is [that] a few days ago, I actually lost my voice. My voice isn’t usually this croaky. I was thinking about the virus and coughing away. Then it occurred to me that the timing was quite interesting.
Olivia : Don’t you end the album with a track—I think it’s ‘Ghosts’—about finding your voice?
Sally: Exactly. ‘The sound you can hear breaking is my finding my voice.’
Olivia: So you’re finding your voice and losing it, all at once.
Sally: Maybe I had to lose it to find it.