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The Anti-Courtney 

Melissa Auf der Maur: lucky to be free

Thursday, Jun 3 2004
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Photo by Yelena Yemchuk

It’s one thing for the singer from a successful band to launch a solo career, quite another for the bass player — particularly one who’s stood in the shadow of two larger-than-life rock icons. So for Melissa Auf der Maur — who spent five years next to designer train wreck Courtney Love in Hole, then backed His Baldness Billy Corgan for Smashing Pumpkins’ final tour — the challenge is considerable. Many have been surprised at the strength and personality of her new solo debut, Auf der Maur, but what did we expect? We didn’t really know her till now.

The irony of the waiflike Auf der Maur being tarred with Love’s brush becomes obvious on meeting her: She’s the anti-Courtney, shunning the Hollywood party life (she recently moved back to her native Montreal after eight years in L.A. and New York), putting music before money (she sank her nest egg into recording her debut), and pursuing her greatest joy — artistic expression with like-minded friends, regardless of commercial dividends.

Auf der Maur’s parents instilled the unusual belief that making a living from her passions was both attainable and legitimate. “I’m so lucky!” she enthuses. “I never had to waste energy rebelling — I just did it! My mother was asking me at age 14, ‘What d’you want? D’you want more music? D’you want a camera?’” (Photography is Auf der Maur’s other passion.) “She encouraged me on every level.”

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Her parental legacy is all-encompassing and non-specific: “Both my parents just did exactly what they thought would give meaning to their life, and that’s exactly what I’ve done,” says Auf der Maur, whose mother is a former music journalist now working in theater; her father has been a journalist, has helmed his own TV show and is now a politician.

Auf der Maur realized from the get-go that following your heart rarely reaps financial rewards, so she went in with her wide eyes open. “Although my parents were encouraging me to do whatever I wanted to do, both of them were pretty broke — they were getting by, and happy, and that’s what the point was, and that’s what my goal was. I’m not the best businessperson, because I’ve been in very big bands and I never really made a fortune, and in fact the small fortune I made I spent on this record.”

Even after 10 years around the top, Auf der Maur is fully in touch with her inner amateur. “To me, every penny I ever made is free money: I never should’ve made a penny on music — it doesn’t even make sense. So when I decided to put all my money into the making of this record, it felt totally natural. I’m a living Cinderella story of a music fan — I get to keep playing with my favorite people!”

Auf der Maur is openly distressed at how music’s become more product than passion. “I meet 21-year-old musicians, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we have an agent.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ I mean, it’s amazing how much that’s changed in the past 10 years. In a weird way, musicians are now like these arrogant people who want to be famous. They become musicians because they want to be famous or some ridiculousness.” Ears burning, Courtney?

“I think it’s totally unnatural that there are kids who play in rock bands simply with the goal of being signed. I’m not saying it’s because kids are superficial right now, but the music industry has made itself into this gross, Coca-Cola–inspired business. But within that, the reason why the music industry’s crumbling is because they’re killing the music.”

 

Auf der Maur’s return to Montreal was an effort to recapture the untainted spirit of artistic adventure that she’d relished prior to being plucked from obscurity by Hole in 1994. “When I decided to make this record a few years ago, I went to record my initial demos in Canada. I really wanted to return to the roots after being in structured, successful bands. I literally wanted to deconstruct everything and get back to where I was when I was 20 years old in a rehearsal space in Montreal, with not a thought beyond ‘Hey, maybe we can get a show next week?’”

And then there was the broader picture of Auf der Maur’s discomfort with the political climate in the United States of late, and her latent guilt over living in America when she has an easy option, with passports from both countries, to reside back in Canada.

“The fact is that the political horrificness in this country, especially in the past few years, made it very hard as a Canadian. I feel slightly hypocritical, ’cause I’m benefiting from this country while I’m complaining about it. And I have this other country that I have a lot more in common with in terms of the way they choose to use tax dollars, the way they help the citizens of their country. It’s completely different from the way things are run here, and I sorta felt like a bitchy idiot who was ungrateful, ’cause this country [the U.S.] is incredible, of course it is, all these amazing things it has to offer — I couldn’t have even made this life in music in Canada.”

Indeed, Auf der Maur retains a home in New York and pays U.S. taxes, perhaps aiming to retain a balance between the contrasting joys and opportunities presented by Canadian and American life.

But the nostalgic allure of Montreal is entirely in keeping with Auf der Maur’s love of continuity — musical, personal and spiritual. This is not a gal who gave her less-than-hip hometown and left-behind buddies a gloating finger when fame came calling. A natural collaborator, she has now enlisted musical soul mates she’s met along the way — including her original companions in her pre-Hole outfit, Tinker; Hole’s Eric Erlandson; Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha; and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme — to create a sumptuous and somewhat eclectic album of unexpected muscle and majesty. Auf der Maur remains loyal to old friends and old songs alike, despite her worldwide whirlwind lifestyle: “Real a Lie,” from her new album, was written with Tinker over 10 years ago. “When I left that band, and left that person, and left my family, that song was in that line of people I was leaving. It was like, ‘I’ll be back for you, I promise.’”

Auf der Maur veers from the Led Zep pseudo-orchestral flurries of the single “Followed the Waves” to the almost vaudeville perkiness of “I’ll Be Anything You Want.” Multitiered guitar textures familiar to Pumpkins fans are present, but the overwhelming impression is of front-to-back quality tunes. (It sounds like a disc a decade in the writing.) It’s an authentic statement; hardly challenging rock’s existing borders, it nevertheless certainly establishes its own little fiefdom. Though lead vocals are not yet second nature to Auf der Maur, she carries the album charmingly despite moments of self-conscious overenunciation that conjure images of repeated takes in the vocal booth.

While the album has already been embraced by European punters and pundits, Auf der Maur claims commercial success and critical acclaim are secondary to her game plan. “What I’m looking forward to is establishing my freedom — that’s what I’ve done with this record. That’s the foundation and the spirit of this project, and everything from here on out is kind of in that spirit.

“Being able to create an environment I want: the band members to put this live band together, or the management, or what kind of tour bus — whatever . . . the way I see it, I graduated toward this freedom, and I’m very lucky that so far the studies I had and the work that I put into my commitment to music has resulted in this kind of freedom.”

Flaws and all, Auf der Maur still floors most of its competition, and its author’s genuine talent and gentle conviction indicate that Melissa’s here to stay. “When I decided to make this record, it was the beginning of ‘Have no fear.’ I’ve always known that fear is evil. It’ll drag you down, it’ll stop you from believing in your dreams.”

Reach the writer at progers@laweekly.com

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