BREADWOMAN: MYSTERIOUS AND UNKNOWN
illustration by angie samblotte
Anna Homler is the performance artist and vocalist behind Breadwoman: a character, a deity and a living example of poetry born from a slow drive through Topanga Canyon in 1982. Born into a family of pharmacists, Homler deviated by becoming a professional artist and vocalist, yet a certain degree of apothecary savvy informs her visual work and this musical creation with her collaborator Steve Moshier, reissued as Breadwoman and Other Tales by RVNG Intl. in February of 2016. Her work deals with expression beyond meaning—exploration of language divorced from its quotidian role as explanatory agent. The lyrics of her Breadwoman project are sung in a language all their own, familiar while incomprehensible—like a conversation with nature. Fittingly, she spoke with warm, seasoned patience emanating from her voice, whether referencing Demeter or teasing herself for overusing affectionate nicknames. She left me with a sense that I’d been touched by a bit of the universal truth she so effortlessly summons through her vocal work. She performs Breadwoman tonight at 7:30 PM at the Santa Monica Public Library. This interview by Christina Gubala.
It seems like you came from a performance art background, and then found yourself into a musical realm, and Topanga Canyon had something to do with that.
Anna Homler (vocals/performance): I was a visual and performance artist and I thought of myself as a storyteller, using texts that I wrote in English. I was open to images—poetic and surreal interventions in everyday life. In 1982, I was driving through Topanga Canyon when this song first came to me.
I love the idea of music coming to you in a car. That seems like such a Los Angeles thing. We spend so much time in our cars—so much time alone in our own heads traversing these winding roads.
Anna Homler: I just started to sing the chants. They emerged—they came out of me. I didn’t normally sing in my car. I always had a cassette player because those were the cassette days. So I recorded over the cassettes what I was singing.
And you exchanged these cassettes with people who’d become your collaborators.
Anna Homler: Right. I played some for Steve Moshier. By the time I met Steve, I had drawers full of cassettes, and he took the ones that he was most interested in.
Who is Breadwoman to you? A goddess? A spirit? What identity did she develop?
Anna Homler: I think of Breadwoman as a being that lives in another dimension. The music and the character had their own threads of development, but then ended up being woven. It’s like braided hair—made of the same piece, but with sections. I don’t like the word ‘channeled’ so much because it has so many connotations. But it’s something that I would tune into, and it was very spontaneous.
After reading about Breadwoman, which I’ve been doing a lot, I noticed that you discussed not having a mythological figure like her in the past. There were Demeter and Isis, and they were goddesses of grain and fertility, but not of bread. What differentiates that for you—bread versus grain, and what it represents? It’s easy to wrap your head around the notion of grain as fertility, but what does bread say to you?
Anna Homler: What bread says to me is universal. Bread to me is universal food—the common denominator in all foods and in all cultures. Maybe not in Asia—maybe it’s more rice. But I would say in eighty percent of all cultures, there’s some kind of bread? I mean, the percentage is not scientific—I’m just guessing. So the bread cultures are really rich—like in western Europe, there are all kinds of gorgeous breads. In Ethiopia, there’s injera, the bread that’s the plate to hold the food. There’s Turkish bread. There’s all kinds of bread.
You’ve said Breadwoman is a not a didactic character, but rather a poetic figure.
Anna Homler: I think with symbols … anything symbolic, you can analyze it to death. You can dissect things and in doing that, you lose the essence of it. Poetry is really a shift. It’s a language shift from the literal to the lyrical—an actual hemispheric shift in the brain. You go from a more analytical side of your brain—which would be your left hemisphere—to your right brain. And right brain is more holistic—more music, poetry, and the arts.
You allow the rhythm to take over the positioning of the language more.
Anna Homler: Right. So I didn’t analyze. I researched, but I was careful not to try to analyze. Part of poetry or the arts is following the image and seeing how it develops. You know—not trying to control it too much? You can shape things after they emerge, but before they emerge, you kill them if you try to control them too much, if that makes sense.
Many reviews have claimed that your language that you employ—which I’ve heard you call ‘the mother tongue’—is a made-up language. Do you put meaning behind the specific sounds, or do you use them to employ the essence of an emotion?
Anna Homler: I use them to imply—it’s really spontaneous. It just comes out of my mouth. I used to say it was an invented language, and now I just say it’s a cellular language. It’s something peeped and sighed, and I think our bodies—our cells—have a lot of knowledge. Our bodies are bodies of knowledge. When we tune into ourselves, and go inside and breathe and connect with our inner images instead of sending our attention out … If we would put our attention in, not in an egoistic way but in a deep biological way, like mediation or active imagination, that we can get a lot of information. A lot bubbles up.
A lot of personal knowledge, too. I feel like people are kind of brainwashed into ignoring the internal—we’re constantly stimulated by the external. I always call it ‘spiritual rot,’ when you don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on inside.
Anna Homler: Now I think that’s true. I agree.
I heard that at one point during your performances, you were unmasked, and you felt like it was a liberating moment where you allowed yourself to perform as just yourself without the bread mask.
Anna Homler: It was actually in a workshop I was taking. I was performing as Breadwoman, and the woman leading the workshop lifted my veil, and I was freaked out because I always felt very safe with the songs being hidden—you know—I wouldn’t say ‘hiding behind a mask,’ but being a character rather than being me singing these songs. That was the decisive moment. I didn’t feel liberated at the time—I was like, freaked out. But I realized I could sing without wearing a costume. At the time in my performances, I never sang. I always used tape music. I would have pre-recorded music that I had done, and I would perform to that. Breadwoman would use gestures to communicate.
What form did the music on this album originally take? Was it the actual music you used for performances?
Anna Homler: The music was first released on an audio series released by High Performance magazine. These were studio recordings done with Steve Moshier. The music was based on chants used in early performances.
Your rhythms—the percussive noises you select to accompany your voice—how do you collect those?
Anna Homler: When I worked with Steve on Breadwoman, he found the sounds. We agreed to use sounds we couldn’t identify—that would be somehow out of time. Not the usual pre-set on a synthesizer. He would find really unusual sounds so you wouldn’t go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a violin.’ We wanted it to be mysterious and unknown. Now I work with improvisers. I play a lot of objects and circuit-bent toys. Once again, I’m using sounds that aren’t expected so much. I collect sounds. I love sounds. I mean, I could do that on the computer, but I really love objects. I love to handle my objects, and I love the visual of the objects. You really don’t know what sound is going to come out of them. I’ve been accused of playing like I’m doing brain surgery. I’m very serious, even though I’m playing whimsical things.
How do you capture sounds that you fall in love with?
Anna Homler: I’ve been recording things on my phone. It’s not the best, but if I hear a squeaky door or something I like, I record it. But normally, I like the object that makes the sounds, so I have a big collection of sound-making objects. Sometimes it can be claustrophobic, but it’s wonderful. When I unpack my toys, I’m always very happy to see them.
Do you go through phases of purging your sound-creating objects?
Anna Homler: I should, but I haven’t. You know what happens? A lot of things are plastic, and they just die.
They just kind of disintegrate into time.
Anna Homler: I don’t have to purge—they disintegrate.
How did you select the breads used for the costuming and masks in your recent European performances?
Anna Homler: There’s a mask [now]. There’s no more putting a bread on the head. But in every place, we had beautiful breads from each location.
Specific to where you were visiting? Almost as if the place was part of the show as well.
Anna Homler: Very definitely.
What was the original mask like?
Anna Homler: The original mask was a loaf of sourdough bread, hollowed out and with eye holes. I made a new mask for each performance. There was a French bakery near where I lived in Venice with many kinds of bread. Eventually I had a mask made. It looked a bit terrifying. It’s pictured on the second Breadwoman cassette and on the RVNG release. When that mask crumbled, I had one that looked like the original loaf of bread made. That’s the one used now in performances. Breadwoman has had many faces.
ANNA HOMLER WITH JORGE MARTIN AND MAYA GINGERY AS BREADWOMAN ON THURS., JUNE 8, AT THE SANTA MONICA LIBRARY, 601 SANTA MONICA BLVD., SANTA MONICA. 7:30 PM / FREE / ALL AGES. MORE INFO HERE! ANNA HOMLER AND STEVE MOSHIER’S BREADWOMAN AND OTHER TALES IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM RVNG INTL. VISIT ANNA HOMLER AT ANNAHOMLER.COM.