A veritable institution in this city, Veda Hille has been involved in so many music, theatre and multi-media projects in the past two decades it’s hard to know where to start a conversation. I first came to know her as a singer songwriter in the ’90s and frequently did portraits of her. We always had fun and spent some real time on the process, improvising where necessary. And it’s been great to watch her grow. Veda has proven to be an uncommon talent, determined to speak of person, place and passions in a clear, unsentimental yet often deeply touching way. And somehow she seems to be unique to Vancouver, almost an unofficial city songstress with a keen sense of history and taste for singing beautiful ironies.
As the noughties pressed on, so too did Veda’s career, and in all directions. She began working with NeWorld Theatre, CBC Orchestra, Theatre Replacement, the PuSH Festival and many more. And nearly a decade ago, in the fall of 2007, Melanie Scott did a profile on Veda for Vancouver Review just as her album This Riot Life came out. My accompanying photograph was nominated for both a Western and a National Magazine Award for Best Portrait in 2008. It’s still a favourite of mine and I remember the day fondly. The fun part of that was that my choice from the session did not directly show her face and was shot during a brief break in shooting while we waited for some smoke from a barbecue to clear. But that’s how we rolled. Accept the gift of circumstance! We seemed to have a good thing going when we worked together! But then we lost touch over the last five years or so due to well, life.
Recently, we got back in touch just as she was preparing her new release Love Waves and, in an odd twist of fate, she found herself pairing up with one of my favourite composers of all time, Harold Budd. Harold was in town in February to work with a local publisher, Heavenly Monkey, on the Aurora Teardrops project, a collection of his poems. He was also tapped to perform as part of the PuSh festival and, as it happened, Jane Maru, who was supposed to read Harold’s poems, was unable to make it from California. So Veda was approached to step in. Beforehand, Harold gave a talk at the Burrard Arts Foundation’s space on Broadway where he reminded people that, basically, he’d rather not perform. He’d rather be part of the audience. I had no idea what to expect but whatever it was, I was in for the ride.
I was not expecting much from the performance and felt The Fox Cabaret was absolutely the wrong venue. Nonetheless, despite being at the back of the room, my view blocked by the standing room-only crowd, it was clear something special was happening. I don’t know how many people came due to the sudden buzz, because Pitchfork told them Harold Budd was cool, or because they were long time fans but I did come away wanting to hear it again. And that, as it turns out, may be a thing.
I’ve been familiar with Harold’s (non) poetry for decades. He doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with the term “poetry” to describe his writing. Veda had hardly heard his music. And yet here she was in 2016 reciting so many of his elliptical, fragmentary, evocative pieces that have fed and been nourished by his music over decades. Images of the desert. Coyotes. Lost souls. Real people. All now in an intimately familiar voice. Disconcerting yet completely fitting.
I’d love to wax enthusiastic about Veda’s new album Love Waves because I think it’s perfect. But thankfully, Veda is getting her due in the press these days and my task seems to be to try and offer something less likely to be explored in interviews with her; something hinged on my longtime interest in Harold Budd’s music and poetry and Veda’s fresh discovery of it. We recently spoke of the new alignment with the world of Harold Budd.
Veda: I’d certainly heard of Harold before and I knew of his stature in the world but I’d never listened to much of his music. I’m not much of a minimalist at heart. I think I’ve been actively battling my maximalist tendencies and ended up being a medium…alist! I’m always excited to try playing with someone new and people rarely ask me to be a player on their projects but I love not being in charge. It’s rare for me! It happened that they needed someone to step in when Jane Maru was unable to make the gig. I had about a day’s notice that I was going to be reading 59 poems! I read them over to myself a few times but I only had the material for 24 hours!
Mark: How did you manage?
Veda: I asked how he pronounced “coyote” (kye-otee or kye-oat) and I asked what a “Billy Al” was (painter and long time pal of Harold’s Billy Al Bengston) because I initially read it as Billy A-1! I checked to see whether he wanted titles read and that was about it. But for our first soundcheck I was quite nervous, not knowing exactly what was wanted of me. Getting the sound up and running took an hour before we tried out anything of substance. Then we were ready to give it a shot so Harold and Brad played the keys and I started reading immediately. Harold stopped us cold and said to me “Just wait a few minutes before you start”. So I did, and I relaxed a bit, and took my volume/intensity down. I listened to them for a bit. Then I think I read three lines, really feeling it, and he stopped us cold again. “That’s perfect, that’s enough!” he said. He was clearly pleased, and I understood completely what he wanted from that five minute rehearsal. It felt great. I felt at ease with him right away. He clearly knows when something is right and when not to mess with it … which must be a super crucial part of being Harold Budd.
Mark: Hearing you read the poem that referenced Ruben Garcia was very odd.
Veda: Who is Ruben Garcia?
Mark: The most direct connection people might know is the recording Three Pianos with Harold, Ruben and Daniel Lentz. He also played on Nighthawks with Harold and John Foxx in 2002. I knew of him through my association with Barry Craig in LA (aka A. Produce). There were a lot of personal problems from what I understand. But he recorded some gorgeous piano and synth music over the years that will likely never get much exposure. Barry sent me a two CD-R set he released of Ruben’s music called Maybe Forgotten Forever which is a very Budd-like title. There was certainly kinship there and there are some real beauties on the recording. Then Barry died. Unbelievably sad all around.
Here’s a quote from Harold about Ruben: “Something wonderful and magical happens when Ruben meets a piano. It happens to me sometimes; it happens to Ruben all the time.” – Harold Budd, 1999
Veda: I didn’t know who he was until just this second! In the poem, Ruben calls him and is in trouble of some kind and Harold takes the call. It’s very succinct, about someone who is lost. I really recognized that feeling of having a friend going astray and all you can do is try to remain in touch. I’m sure we’ve all had it happen.
Mark: To hear it your voice it reminds of his attitude of doing what you can in a given situation, but very much knowing when to put things down, when nothing more can or should be done.
Veda: I love trying to embody him. I was just in L.A. where we did the show again. I went down five days early because there was talk of maybe doing some recording and maybe some co-writing. I had the time so I went. Harold took me for lunch on the first day and I said: “So you want to do some rehearsing or go mess around with some words?” and he’s like “No!” … so we went to some art galleries instead. He took me out for a meal or two every day and we went to more galleries … and then we did the show. But we talked and talked and talked and I felt that getting to know him better made my connection to the poems much deeper. Understanding who he is really helps so I could secretly call it “rehearsal” for my personal, Germanic list-checking needs!
Mark: What’s he taking from you in all this?
Veda: I don’t think I would dare to say. He seems happily astounded whenever I look over at him and im saying things and I’m able to make him laugh in the show even, so there’s obviously something I’m doing. I’m being a good mirror of some kind, an interesting mirror. So he’s seeing the work afresh when I’m give it back to him.
Mark: So a break from your own song writing after putting out what I think is a perfect album and my favourite of your fully solo works. Is there something in this process with Harold that you see having an impact on your own song writing?
Veda: It’s always great to bow to someone else as a maker and to just try to deliver things. I learned a lot when I did the Buffy St. Marie set with the orchestra about that very thing, about not needing to be personally attached to things in order to have them be powerful. So I always look forward to that. I feel that during the last 10 years of my career I’ve become more and more known as a writer and I’m missing being a performer so it’s nice to be a pure performer. And because we’ve been doing shows in the states and because people love Harold there, my name means nothing … which is fine. I have my name mean enough in the places where it means things. And there’s also the thrill of surprising people because they have no idea who I am or what I can do. It also feels like I’m doing nothing so that’s nice too. The only challenge is remaining present and not trying to be too fancy.
It’s also just great to hang out with someone who’s 80! I’ve been going back through his work and we listened to The Pearl (with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois) the other night and Justin pointed out that Harold was 48 when he made it which is the age I am now. You get a little glimpse of what time is like. It’s so hard to understand.
Mark: I was 16 and doing homework to Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror while also finding time for the Subhumans and all the European post-punk of the day. It stood out as a kind of clearing and another way of listening to music for me at the time. I return to it all the time and would love it to be the last thing I ever hear. What about sonically? What’s may have been exchanged?
Veda: Its interesting because Love Waves is a really synthy record and there are a few moments of acoustic piano but otherwise its all midi and synth and keyboards so to suddenly jump in to working with Harold because the stuff he and Brad Ellis are doing is all synthesized it all feels very timely for me to hear that. We’ve only done it three times and he won’t rehearse so my only experience of it is on stage three times now. But I feel like I’m starting to get a deeper and deeper sense of how it works. When we did it at the Fox I didn’t even know when Harold or Brad was playing, I was just doing it. So who knows? Maybe that’ll be the best time I ever do it. We’ll see. I’ve started to play with singing a little bit between the poems and introducing a little bit of repetition. In LA I was definitely adding a lot more of myself and I wondered if it was too much.
Mark: I was physically uncomfortable at the Fox. It was packed. Lots of people were standing around talking. It’s still a bar in many ways and that was essentially a concert designed for a relaxed, comfortable, receptive state. I got a good impression but that it needed performing in a more appropriate venue. I’d love to have the option of listening to a recording.
Veda: My idea for the record – if we ever get to make it – is to get him and Brad Ellis up here and book Mushroom/Afterlife for two nights and do a live performance for a very small audience. So we’d have a couple of shots at it and everyone can actually be lying down if they want. I feel like we need to have people to deliver it to in order to stay focused and I think that would be a real nice way for an audience to experience that piece. We’re also hoping to tour but it’s all a little vague in the Budd Camp.
It’s so expensive making records now and you can’t be sure your going to sell them even if you’re Harold Budd. I like paying people and I like taking time to mix. I guess it wouldn’t have to be mixed too hard but it would be nice if we went in and mixed it properly, which would take about 6 days. So it’s a minimum of ten grand to make a record and if you want to do vinyl you can add another five grand to that. I’d like to forget vinyl but people like it so much and these days it doesn’t feel like an album comes out properly unless it’s on vinyl. I haven’t put Love Waves out on vinyl in part because it’s 60 minutes long so it would be a double vinyl release and I’d have to generate another side! But we listen to a lot of vinyl at our house and it’s really nice.
Mark: Do you have any special takeaway memories of your time at “Camp Budd”?
Veda: It’s so nice hanging out with someone who says “coolness”. It’s like he’s got all this great hangover language from the ’50s. I know he’s conscious of using it but it’s still very charming. After all, he was there. He was playing bebop in the ’50s! He was telling me about his time in the army and the band he played in with Albert Ayler and stuff like that. And we had some great times looking at art which I felt I hadn’t done for awhile. I hadn’t really gone to galleries with someone in a long time.
Mark Mushet for Vancouver Review Media
Love Waves can be ordered through http://vedahille.com/ And while you’re at it, poke around the site and explore!