Kat von D talks about
Music, Life, Art, and Glenn Gould
Celebrated tattoo artist and TV personality Kat von D is one of the true originals of contemporary popular culture. She has not only built a huge fan base including a vast following on social media, but launched a highly successful cosmetics line, Kat von D Beauty. While many associate her with punk and goth culture, her artistic interests are all-encompassing, starting with her childhood love of classical music, and particularly Beethoven. She is a dedicated vegan, a lover of Old Master painting, and as we discovered, a passionate admirer of Glenn Gould. We caught up with Kat and spoke with her from her home in Los Angeles in a wide-ranging conversation about her life and ideas about music, art and keeping it real in an increasingly consumer-driven world.
Tengo alrededor de 20 versiones diferentes [on vinyl] de esta canción que se llama "Los Piconeros." La versión que más me gusta, tiene que ser la de Amalia Rodrígues grabado en los 1940's. Nunca encontré el sheet-music para esta canción, entonces POR FAVOR perdone mi terrible piano!! Todavía estoy tratando de aprenderlo! Un beso grande a todos mis amigos en este Domingo tan hermoso! 🖤 [i should dedicate this song to the new black heart emoji]
GGF: This is Brian Levine at The Glenn Gould Foundation and I’m very happy to be talking today with Kat von D, tattoo artist, fashion icon, makeup entrepreneur, musician, vegan, social media star, and very accomplished artist in her own right, and also a pianist and admirer of Glenn Gould and Beethoven. That’s a lot to fit in – you must be on the move all the time.
KvD (chuckling): Yeah, and on top of that, I’m a crazy cat lady, so . . .
GGF: How many cats do you have?
KvD: I just have two, but I love them a lot.
GGF: Glenn Gould would have been very happy to hear about that because as you probably know, he was a pretty passionate animal lover himself.
KvD: That’s awesome!
GGF: I think when he was five or six years old, he took his first stab at composing and he created a little kiddie opera in which all the people were extinct, and it was only the cats and dogs that were running things.
KvD: Oh, my god – I gotta get my hands on that! (laughs)
GGF: I understand you still play the piano?
KvD: Yeah, I started playing when I was five years old. My grandmother is a classically trained pianist, and she taught the three of us, my brother, sister and I. I was the only one that really stuck with it, and my first obsession was with classical music, particularly Beethoven. My grandmother herself was a huge fan, and so, I remember every week when we’d go over for piano lessons, she had this book, it was – I don’t know how to describe it – it was kind of a, like a scrapbook of articles and drawings and paintings. She was a painter herself, also, a really good one, and I actually should say she still is because she still paints and plays piano. I used to pore over this book and read everything. Of course it was in Spanish – my family’s from Argentina – there were clippings from the 1930’s and ‘40’s. You could see advertisements from back in the day. And basically my grandmother knew every myth, legend and story about Beethoven as well as all the other greats.
Beethoven’s story obviously was something that just cut to my core; not just the music, I mean, the music alone was enough, but just to hear that sort of physical struggle and to be able to compose and produce such an intense amount of ground-breaking music even with his physical ailments; that’s just something that just proves that human ability.
And when I later on discovered Glenn Gould I felt that same connection. Some of my favourite Beethoven recordings are from Glenn, all of which I collect on vinyl.
GGF: Let’s talk about your early experience learning the piano. What were some of the pieces you remember playing?
KvD: Yeah, well I remember falling in love with piano playing for the first time. I remember when it happened and it wasn’t in the beginning, I had very disciplinary folks. You know, we practiced two hours a day every day, by the clock, and I suffered through it, looking out the window, watching kids have normal lives, playing and whatnot. For us, you know everybody in my family played at least two instruments, so it was something that was nurtured and I look back at that and I’m ever so grateful. I think the best gift I’ve ever been given was those first few years of making me learn. But the first time that I ever did finally fall in love with playing the piano was when I figured out how to play Beethoven’s Sonata in G. It’s not one of his more popular, Romantic pieces, you know, it’s twelve pages of a lot of scales and frilliness. But I think it was more to me, I mean, I didn’t play video games, but I assume it’s kind of the same feeling where you’ve been hacking away at a level for a long time and then you finally win. And then you go onto the next level. That’s the high that I felt and it’s still the high that I chase anytime I’m learning anything whether it’s in my drawing or tattooing or painting or piano playing. I think I was about seven years old, and I just fell madly in love with it. And then without a timer I would practice on my own. And I just wanted to become better and better and better.
My family was quite religious growing up, so aside from classical music it was mainly religious music that was played in the household. Of course the religious stuff didn’t really sink in too much with me, but classical music always did.
Of late, I’ve been trying to build my memory repertoire, because unfortunately, because I was trained to read, I tend to use that as a crutch. Even when I’m writing my own songs I still get it transcribed and read it, and I’ve been trying to break away from that crutch and just try and build up my memory repertoire.
We really don’t have any more excuses. I think even in my generation – and I still consider myself young – you brought up this idea that being an artist is an unrealistic goal. When I first got into tattooing, same thing. I didn’t go to high school, I dropped out after junior high, ‘cause I started tattooing when I was fourteen, and I remember my parents being shocked, saying, “you have to get your high school diploma” and I remember, “but I’m living the dream! I’m doing what I want.” At times, I was even supporting my family to a certain degree with the money I was making, which was a lot for a sixteen-year-old, by the time I opened my first shop.
So I think that we do live in a world where it doesn’t matter anymore, with the success of the internet and everything else, we really have no excuses to not pursue the things we want to do. And if it means taking a pay cut, why not, you know? We don’t have to work 9 to 5 in a cubicle if we don’t want to, and if we do, that’s cool, too. I feel that part of being human is the amazing ability of making choices. And I feel that, as much as I do share with the world, through social media or Youtube or whatever, or even when I was on television, it was never about the gain of social status, or how many followers you have on Instagram. To me, it was always if I could sneak the medicine into the dessert somehow, and inspire people to actually create with their hands and with their minds and not settle for less, that would be fulfilling enough for me. I feel I’ve done that, in ways, and with music in particular, I’ve always been a fan of spotlighting, bands or musicians that a lot of people aren’t aware of, because I think that’s important because there’s a lot of stuff that’s shoved down our throat on a regular basis, whether it’s through radio, TV, all that stuff. But there’s so many great, amazing talented people that deserve that attention. And that changed my life tremendously, and I want to share that with people and inspire people to think outside the box.
I think that’s one of the reasons I love Glenn’s approach to life, as well, because he was very much about that. We do live in a really great, exciting time: I never in a million years thought I would have a makeup line, let alone be sitting here, talking with you, you know? Having this great opportunity to do this, it’s like, every day is a dream, because my family just came from, basically, a Third World country, where I was born. We came from nothing but I don’t feel I got lucky, I think some things were luck, but a lot of it was just dedication and making the time and also, well I did get luck with parents, who really nurtured music and art.
I think one of the things that bothers me the most is people who say, “oh, I wish I could draw, I can’t draw.” Well, sure you can, you can also play like Glenn Gould, but you’ve got to practice as much as he did! That’s pretty liberating, when you think, like wow! One-plus-one-equals two: all I have to do is input this many hours and time and I could actually play this, or I could actually do this. When I was practicing for this small performance, I got a piano teacher, and she told me a wild story about some wealthy man who had never played any instrument, bit he was totally moved by a classical piece that he heard at a concert and he got on a mission to learn this one song and he trained with her for months just to learn this one song, and when he learned it, he was good, and that was it. But that’s a great example of the fact that we can do anything we want. Just turn off that damn TV! (laughs)
"Music saved my life in so many ways, it’s been my best friend, more-so than drawing. I couldn’t live without playing music – if I had to choose. There have been dark times when music has just got me through, and I’m not the only one. Music has no equal . . .it helps you off that ledge. To me, that’s just so much more ground-breaking than any type of award or legacy or whatever you want to call it, you know.”
GGF: We definitely live in a time that’s given us a lot of tools to make it – it’s always been possible – but let’s say that the barriers to entry have come down in a big way –
KvD: For Sure.
GGF: . . . and the ability to connect instantly with a larger community, obviously is something that never existed. That’s something that Glenn obviously thought and wrote a lot about when he gave up playing in public, but . . .
GGF: . . . but the sort of pressure to conform to what generally is regarded as a successful life . . .
GGF: You know . . . you go through your schooling, you get your university degree, you get out into a profession,
KvD: . . . and you get married and have kids and a house with a white picket fence, but you know, when we realize that that is super-illusionary, it’s quite liberating. I remember telling my Dad “Hey, Dad, I may not be the richest person,” when I was first tattooing, “but you know, I work at a tattoo shop, and that might not be considered quote-unquote a “real job,” but I whistle on the way to work every day when I walk over there.” You know, I’m not working my ass off for something I don’t believe in. And I think that’s just so crucial. And also that, to me, is so realistic.
GGF: You remind of that line from Porgy and Bess: “Folks with plenty of plenty / Got a lock on their door / ‘Fraid somebody’s gonna rob ‘em while they’re out a-makin’ more / What for?”
KvD: Yeah, that’s true. But you know, I think that is a social dynamic and it happens across the board. It’s not just with wealthy people, I think it happens in every social circle. We tend to be mesmerized by a false sense of what’s important – we tend to get dazzled by these goals . . . like Fool’s Gold, you know? And we treat people differently that way. To me, I find it refreshing when you feel the sincerity in somebody and you have a real conversation versus that feeling of, “what does that person want from me?” I know I’ve been really fortunate to be surrounded by good people. Even as I was becoming more quote-unquote “successful” and bigger and all that stuff, I just always hung out with my friends. I don’t have that many friends, but the ones I do are just solid and amazing – and my family, and I refuse to have yes-men around me. What’s the point of living like that?
GGF: When was the first time you encountered Glenn Gould. What are your memories – do you remember which record it was?
KvD: It’s a funny story because the person who introduced me to Glenn Gould was not somebody you’d think would introduce me to him. At the time I was writing music with Paul B. Cutler. He was the guitarist for a punk-goth band from the eighties called 45 Graves, and one of my favourite people of all time. We really, truly connected on music – not modern music: we loved Gregorian chanting and classical and medieval, you know? We loved the old stuff – not vintage! He knew how much I loved Beethoven, and my favourite Beethoven piece is the Sonata Pathétique. So he said, “have you heard Glenn Gould’s version of it?” and I’m like, “Who’s Glenn Gould?” “You don’t know who Glenn Gould is?” And I remember saying, “I have no idea!” And he was like, “You would love him!” and he introduced Glenn’s personality by describing him. Paul’s such a wizard with words, that I automatically knew I would love this person whoever he was, and so we went on a crazy Youtube binge, watching Glenn’s performances and things like that.
Then I just began obsessively collecting as many records as I could possibly get. One of my favourite things about Glenn, was that every recording was so different. Different variations of the same song but played like – I felt like this was just like, the true spirit of that music. And for me it was so amazing to see somebody that was cool – you know, he was so cool! It’s shocking it’s like a sexy comedian, something you just don’t ever see, you know what I mean?
And the more and more I learned about him as a person, the more it made me love and appreciate his approach to music. I say, man, I have been playing the same pieces from my childhood, you know, these masterpieces by the old Greats, and it never gets old. And isn’t that a trip that you spend your entire life trying to master an instrument, you can end up performing in front of a lot of people and get all kinds of crazy awards, and applause, and you can build a career playing somebody else’s music, whereas if you cover a Beatle’s song, you’re just in a cover band. And I think that’s the tremendous power of that type of music. And I feel that ‘til this day nobody has topped it. Of course, there’s still great music – I mean, the Beatles are great in their own right, too, but I feel nothing’s ever been as ground-breaking as the Beethovens of this world and I don’t foresee anything topping them either, and Glenn really celebrated that. So that was my introduction to Glenn. And it’s also kinda funny that the guy who introduced me is probably the gothiest punk rock guy that ever walked the planet, you know? (laughs)
"It’s a funny story because the person who introduced me to Glenn Gould was not somebody you’d think would introduce me to him. At the time I was writing music with Paul B. Cutler. He was the guitarist for a punk-goth band from the eighties called 45 Graves, and one of my favourite people of all time."
GGF: In some of your interviews, you’ve described yourself as an outsider. And that’s partly expressed through tattoos – the tattoos you have on you, and also the ones you create. But I think that’s something that people see about Gould as well, that he charted his own course. He didn’t crave a traditional style of sociability and social interaction. What everyone said was the successful path for a classical career, spending his life giving concerts and only making records on the side, he basically turned on its ear and you know, he gave his last public concert in L.A.
KvD: Yeah, yeah.
GGF: At the Wilshire Ebel Theatre. KvD: That’s amazing.
GGF: So I think that’s something that you and he share in a way.
KvD: Wow, that’s a great compliment. And I think, it’s natural to feel like an outsider. I mean a lot of people say, “oh, it’s the artist’s way.” But I don’t. I felt like an outsider before I knew what a tattoo was, that’s my own life experience. You can also practice and master anything but I think what makes you different from anyone is your experiences and where you come from, and how that shapes the way you apply it. And that’s also what makes music and art so beautiful and different. I guess my heart responds to the struggle. I can see that in Glenn’s music as well as other artists that I absolutely love, including Beethoven.
GGF: Obviously something else that you and Glenn share is your love of animals which you talked about at the start, and it seems that that special communication or even communion that people have with the animals in their lives, that was very powerful for him and I take it that it’s really super-important in your life, too.
KvD: Oh it’s a huge part of my life. Most of the time, I don’t want to say that I relate to animals better, but I definitely admire animals a lot more (laughs). You know, I just look at my cats. I’m just in awe of their spirit and their amazing ability to just be. My little cat, Piaf, who I named after Edith Piaf, he was the runt of the litter His mother abandoned him and he wasn’t even supposed to survive. He’s this sweet little baby . . . he looks like a bird to me. I look at him and go, wow, I have a fucked up relationship with my Mom and I’ve had to have therapy over it, and really work on issues, then I think, Piaf was abandoned and somehow has no Mom issues! He’s so enlightened that he doesn’t even need forgiveness; he just is. And I want to be like that. I can’t imagine I’d ever get there, but I admire that for sure.
And I think, too, that the more connected we are to our environment, whether it’s animals, plants or whatever, the dirt, that clear connection of how we are nothing without them, it’s so important and it’s something that we’ve lost and becomes more blurry as time goes on. With technology, there’s great things that come from it but also, there’s such huge distractions. And it’s the same with music: there are great technologies that afford us the opportunity to learn and produce music in different and easier ways, but at the same time, I see fewer kids playing instruments. Even on my Instagram, you know, I always try to post videos of me playing the piano, whether it’s a Cure song or a Beethoven song. And it’s to show people, look, I’m just some chick that came from Mexico and didn’t even go to high school but if I can do this, you can do it, so let’s break it down. I want to live in a world where there’s tons of Glenn Goulds, you know? (laughs) That’s what I want.
GGF: So did he. He said technology would allow more people to become artists. This was an interview I think he gave in 1967. He said, today we have stereo sets in our homes, we can can turn up the bass and treble but that’s nowhere near the power we’ll have in the future. Then we’ll be able to not have guys like me (Glenn) telling people how to listen to Beethoven; they’ll be able to get what he called a “box of takes” from someone else’s recording sessions and create the version that they hear in their own heads, with technology that everyone can afford. And of course, we have that now. But we also have a lot of what I call “background noise” and distractions, and that makes it harder in some ways . . .
KvD: It’s so much harder to focus.
GGF: With the overstimulation, to find those moments of stillness and inward tranquility – what Gould called the solitude that’s the precondition for spiritual enlightenment, which he found in the North. And I sense that you find that in the environment that you’ve created very meticulously and beautifully in your home.
GGF: You call it Kat’s Closet, and you’re surrounded by beautiful handmade things that you’ve assembled.
KvD: Yeah. I’m super particular about conscious living. That’s my ultimate goal, and it hits all aspects of life. Some people from outside look in and say, “oh, she’s neurotic about certain things.” I am strict about what goes in my mind on a conscious level and an unconscious level. You know, I don’t have a television in my house. I do like to watch movies so I can watch them on my laptop. But I try to avoid screens as much as possible. You described it perfectly, it’s a lot of background noise. But I think that also, your surroundings, wherever you spend a lot of time, it’s important to treat every corner of it with intention. Nothing in my house is there by accident. I think when you start taking care of everything that you do, whether it’s how you eat, what you listen to, even.
I’m relaunching some fragrance that I had launched years ago but is back in demand, and I remember that process was so amazing. We had to do all these blind tests where they put all these fragrances in bottles with no labels and I had to tell by nose what fragrances I liked and what I don’t like. And they take all these notes and then they can tell you what kinds of fragrance you actually do like. When I got the results back, you know what?- the perfumes I thought I loved, I actually do love them. Whereas, you know, you look at [names a famous perfume], which is one of that company’s top-selling perfumes, fails the blind test 100% across the board. Nobody likes it when it’s not in the package. But once it’s in the package, they love it. See, when I heard that story, I thought, wow! – I don’t want to be that person that thinks they like something and then realizes that they don’t. Or maybe, sadly enough, never really realize what they truly like and what’s important to them. Like, do you really love the music that you listen to, or is it just that you’ve been hypnotized by what’s forced down your ears? To me that’s really crucial. So I’m a stickler about that, and in the house, I look at every room and say, what’s the intention of that room? I’m not as fancy as people might think, you know, when you look at my house and it’s like, “wow! It’s so beautiful.” And I’m like, “I made that.” I usually try to make stuff. You know, like all the stuff that folks think is fancy, I assembled that. You know like pianos, I collect old, weirdo obscure instruments. I never really had a fancy, nice piano until nine years ago or so when my buddy was low on cash. He had a beautiful baby grand and so I bought it off of him for like a grand. That’s the first time I owned and played a beautiful piano. But it ain’t no Steinway. (laughs)
GGF: Give yourself time – you’ll have a Steinway or a Bosendorfer yet, if you want one.
KvD: I’ve been lucky enough to play those at studios and stuff, but my point is that there’s so many pianos on Craigslist and small pianos, too, that fit in your room that when people say, “oh, I wish I could play,” – dude, get a piano! Couple hundred bucks, man! I know a guy that tunes it for a hundred bucks, and then you’re set!
GGF: I know, plus it’s the best piece of furniture you could ever have
GGF: If you have a picture or a piece of sculpture, stick it on a piano!
KvD: Yeah, sure (laughs).
GGF: But it strikes me that you have a real feel for things that are hand-made, that people have put their soul into, and that’s a kind of connection between you and William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.
KvD: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of hand-made things. There’s a certain quality that just cannot be replaced with the digital era. Photography is a perfect example of that. These digital cameras are amazing, that can capture something with such clarity, but . . . there’s a certain sentiment, I guess, a feel, a quality, that just can’t and won’t compare with film. That’s because there’s a human imprint on it. Etsy’s one of my favourite places to shop, to discover new Indie designers, because this is the voice of the people. When you look at huge corporations it’s not the voice of the people, it’s the voices of a marketing team interpreting what the people want – or think they want. There’s a certain magic that you lose. I do clearly see that difference and to me, when you hold something in your hand and think of another human being’s part to do with it, it’s an amazing thing. It’s a gem, it’s a treasure.
GGF: There’s a connection between you and the maker that somehow transcends stuff made out of plastic and stamped out of a plastic extrusion machine.
KvD: Yeah, most definitely. And I think, too, even on a subconscious level, people understand it as well, when they see something that’s hand made by an artisan. I always love when you don’t have a big corporation or a corporate approach, the freedom of creativity is still intact. That’s what I love about all these little independent designers is that, oh man! – this is so much more fulfilled than playing it safe. I wrote an album that I never released. When I sat down with my friends to write it, we just closed the doors and just turned everything off, and just played. We didn’t time it, oh, it’s gotta be under three minutes to get radio, and hey, we gotta add a hook . . . we said, let’s just create for the sake of creating, and it’s something that I can be proud of. That’s how it should be. That’s how Beethoven did it, and that’s how a lot of modern-day musicians that I love do it as well. I think there’s something liberating in that.
GGF: Absolutely . . . plus there’s a connection. You know, when you touch a hand-made object I feel like my hand is touching the artist’s hand. It’s not perfect in the sense that it came out of a mold – it’s perfect in the sense that it came out of someone’s heart.
KvD: Sure. My biggest gripe with humanity, I guess, is that we live in a world where a majority of people are just constantly taking. You take and take and take from the planet, from each other. And the more time that passes, the less it seems that people are actually producing and giving anything back. That’s why I think art is one of humanity’s most redeeming qualities, it’s the least we can do. When there’s more people like that, to me, that’s the hero quality. It’s not about ego, I resent these people who say, “I wanna be a legend, I wanna leave a mark.” You know, when you’re dead, you’re fuckin’ dead, it doesn’t matter what you did. And if climate change goes any further – which it will – and our entire environment collapses, none of this will have mattered. But during the time that you were here, what did you bring to the table? Or did you just take? I resent this very selfish way of living, it’s just not something that I admire. In fact, that’s something I love about animals, they do it by default – what they take, they put back. (laughs)
GGF: You’re right. And I think you can describe it as selfish, but maybe it’s more of an illusion. A lot of Eastern religions see things in this way. We’re aware that we’re going to die, we can’t really deal with that, so we create the illusion of an eternity perspective, you know?
KvD: Yeah. It’s the one thing we’ve never experienced yet.
GGF: Well, all it’ll take is a great comet strike and that’ll settle that issue once and for all!
KvD: Yeah, sure.
"You can also practice and master anything but I think what makes you different from anyone is your experiences and where you come from, and how that shapes the way you apply it. And that’s also what makes music and art so beautiful and different. I guess my heart responds to the struggle. I can see that in Glenn’s music as well as other artists that I absolutely love, including Beethoven."
GGF: We were just talking about the artist and eternity. A lot of the received wisdom, if you like, is that artists create a legacy, you know, vita brevis, ars longa – life is short, art is long or eternal. But your canvas is the human body. As much as the people who receive your tattoos may cherish them, they won’t survive them, except maybe in photographs.
GGF: Have you thought about that?
KvD: Of course! I remember the first time learning of a client dying. Tattooing isn’t the only medium I work with, so I understand the difference, obviously. There’s ups and downs to it. First of all, I could never take credit for any tattoo I’ve ever done, because it’s always going to be a collaboration . . . always. Never what I want to do - it’s actually what the client wants. And then using your skills and abilities, the goal is to surpass their vision, and create beautiful things that they’ll enjoy. I see it more as an exchange. Once I’m done, it’s gone . . . it’s not even mine anymore. I don’t even see my name on it. If you were to look at it on a trademark level, the person has more ownership over it than I do. So I think it’s kind of cool that there’s no attachment to it. Whereas a painting that has been protected for centuries can live for as long as possible on the walls of a museum and we can admire it forever, or for as long as we’re alive. It’s kind of like my album in a sense: I can write something and give it all I’ve got and be super-proud of it and then I can share it and it can live on, or I can just keep it to myself and it becomes almost more sacred.
I’m not knocking either approach because you can always toy with the idea of releasing it and it’s a different fulfilling feeling when you share, but at the end, like I said, when you die, you die. Like Caravaggio, I was always so tickled by stories of him having such a crazy temper and he didn’t leave a massive amount of work compared to Rembrandt and Michelangelo – he would get a bad critique and burn a painting, you know? And I just thought, how cool is that? He doesn’t give a fuck, you know what I mean? Because then the act of creating is even more at its truest form, like what you think of creating. Not to say that that’s what everyone should do, ‘cause that would be so sad if paintings got burned, but I feel that when people are driven by this idea of legacy, it’s really kind of distracting to the ultimate purpose of art, in a way. But that’s just my personal opinion. I think what’s more interesting and more important, like with Glenn for example, like his legacy – it isn’t even his music? The ability to inspire others, in that capacity is just so much more powerful, I think. Beethoven, exact same thing.
Music saved my life in so many ways, it’s been my best friend, moreso than drawing. I couldn’t live without playing music – if I had to choose. There have been dark times when music has just got me through, and I’m not the only one. Music has no equal . . .it helps you off that ledge. To me, that’s just so much more ground-breaking than any type of award or legacy or whatever you want to call it, you know.
GGF: Yes, because it’s a purely inner state.. You know, Gould in one interview was asked why he never played Scarlatti, since he played so much Bach, who was also a baroque composer, and he said, there’s more “spiritual nourishment” in any one of the preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier than there is in all 500 of Scarlatti’s sonatas.
KvD: I love that.
GGF: That phrase, “spiritual nourishment” – that’s what it’s all about.
KvD: – Yeah, Yeah!
GGF: I think there’s a lot to that. One of the things that strikes me – you call yourself “outsider” – I like the 19th century term “free spirit” in the sense that your view of the world isn’t shaped by the collective “wisdom” around you. So, in that collective wisdom, punk, metal, the world of tattooing, and alternative cultures of various kinds – and classical music: these things do not together go. But in your life they really go together harmoniously and in a seamless way.
KvD: But I think they actually do go together. You wouldn’t have Slayer without Bach. When you break down heavy metal, play heavy metal, the musical structure is, these guitar licks are the exact same scales played in the exact same tempo . . . it is classical music, whether or not heavy metal has the lifespan of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart or whatever. And you look at tattooing, regardless of all the stigmas that surround that culture or subculture, you wouldn’t have tattooing without the early engravings of the 1500’s, because that’s where it comes from. I mean, that’s where the machine came from. A tattoo machine was first patented at the turn of the 20th century and it was an engraving machine. And you look at . . . as the tattoo medium actually evolved we’re at a place where the tools themselves haven’t changed. It’s barbaric – they have the same structure as an old antique doorbell that was later patented byThomas Edison. Nothing’s really changed– maybe the pigments and formulations have. But not the technique. And now we’re able to do straight-up master reproductions on skin. I think these arts need each other. So whether or not people make that connection and actually fall in love with these different genres, it’s all really the same thing. I just got lucky being raised with parents that found importance in introducing the roots of all of it to us at an early age. I wonder what, nowadays, parents teach their kids. Again, my family’s from Argentina, we were born in Mexico and we didn’t have the luxury of money. We did have the basics, which are really the fundamentals of what makes me who I am today. I wouldn’t be able to write music the way I write now without all those years of playing classical music. And I also wouldn’t be able to draw at my level without having the inspiration of the Old Masters. And I don’t think that that’s ever going to change. You look at all the real painters today, their influences probably fall in line with the same greats.
GGF: There’s a lot of wisdom in that. So many of these things get “diverted” – by, social associations and pressures. Music is really interesting because the kind of music you listen to, for a lot of people, not only conjures up the music itself, which is just the notes themselves and how they’re performed, but also a whole set of peer group associations, social associations, value associations . . . KvD: Sure. GGF: You know you think of jazz and it’s so cool, in a skeezy dive with a lot of substances getting traded back and forth around the bar and a lot of smoke . . .
GGF: You think about Goth, and certain kinds of people are into it
GGF: And you think you know what they’re like because they listen to that music. . . . . . and then you think about classical music, and for a lot of people the image is Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera: some dowager in a tiara with a big string of pearls, unbelievably stuffy, and un-cool and obsessed with all sorts of social conventions. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the music. The music is just the notes that Beethoven wrote and how they’re played . . .
KvD: Sure. Well . . . do you know who Ali Helnwein is?
GGF: No, tell me.
KvD: Oh, my gosh. Well, Ali Helnwein is my favourite modern day composer he’s my age, but he’s a composer and plays all instruments and actually he comes from a family of artists and I got introduced to him after being a fan of his father who’s quite the Renaissance man, painter, photographer,– his names is Gottfried Helnwein. When you Google him your mind will be blown. When I first met Ali I was so taken aback because I had heard his music and to me he was like if Tom Waits and Bach had a baby, you know? (laughs!) I highly recommend you look him up . . . I keep telling Ali, you’ve got to start releasing more music. He’ll press vinyl for me ‘cause he knows how much I love his stuff. He’s managed to make classical music cool again. He has a cult following and the people that listen to him . . . they’re just like me. I don’t know if it’s in the melancholy melodies or just the choice of instruments, or just the compositions themselves, but he just has a cool way of composing and I absolutely love it. He’s one of those people who, I’m always, like, “I’m so grateful that you live! That you exist, that you consecrate this.” Anyway I’m just a huge fan of his.
GGF: You appear on a bunch to TV talk shows, nominally you’re in the world of celebrity culture which everyone naturally assumes is a vacuous world for vacuous people,
GGF: but it’s pretty obvious that you’re not that – that you’re a person really confronting the quest for meaning and beauty every day in your life and in your work.
KvD: Thank you.
GGF: Which is one reason why I believe Glenn probably would have really liked you. And by the way, just a tip of the hat to that beautiful drawing of Glenn that you did.
KvD: Oh thank you!
GGF: I’d seen the picture you had taken of your self on the Foundation’s Glenn Gould “park bench sculpture” . . .
KvD: Yeah! There’s actually a funny story about that because with my makeup line it takes me everywhere all over the world and . . some people would call me a workaholic. I’m always very disciplined: “OK, we fly in, we have a completely packed day, there’s no down time at the end of it – we either get the flight back or spend one night and fly back early in the morning.” But the last time I was in Toronto, it was the first time ever that I had asked my team, “hey, I know I never asked before, but is it OK if we make one personal stop?” And they were just so curious, like, “where does she want to go?” And I said, “It’s not what you think. . . you guys won’t understand, it’s fine.” And so we go there and this was like the first time I ever was like, “hey, will you take a picture of me with this, real quick?” Yeah, it was on my To-Do list, you know? So that was kind of a funny moment, my team was just laughing about it. But it made sense, because I had named an eyeliner “Gould”. It was this gold eyeliner and they didn’t know, like that all my shade names are music-related stuff, like the inspirations behind the shade names. Then it made sense to them, and I made them watch a clip from that, “on the road” documentary where he’s playing with his dog, and I said, “you guys have to watch this, it isn’t even human!” So I’m trying to explain to them why this guy is . . .this hero! And they were all blown away. So that was just a special little moment . . .I know it probably looked cheesy, but to me it was a big deal.
GGF: Not cheesy at all. You know a lot of people come from all over the world to get their picture taken, sitting beside Glenn Gould on that bench.
KvD: Oh, for sure!
GGF: And I don’t know if you know this, but when you were there on that park bench, which really isn’t a park bench, ‘cause it’s bronze, but you were about a hundred feet away from the piano that Gould was playing in that scene with his dog.
KvD: Really!!!! Ah, that’s so awesome!
GGF: Next time you come to Toronto, we’ll take you to Glenn Gould studio . . .
KvD: I wanted to go in so badly, but they just made that little pit stop for me. And then, funny enough, it was as a conference for Sephora and there’s a brand – it’s a Canadian brand called Bite Beauty – they make lipstick that’s from edible ingredients – a really, really great company. And I was talking to them . . .you know, anytime I ever meet anybody from Toronto, the first thing I say is, “oh, wow, you’re so cool, you live in Gould-town.”And if they don’t know who it is, they’re like, “uh-who?” But this lady, who was one of the heads of Bite Beauty, she said, “Wait! You know who Glenn Gould is?” And I said, “Yeahhhhh, of course! I named an eyeliner after him!” And she tells me she’s somehow related to him. And I said, “you just became the coolest person everrrr!” I got so excited.
GGF: I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s a beautiful - it was just last year, graphic novel about Glenn Gould.
KvD: Or really?
GGF: Spectacular, yes. And it was artist from France named Sandrine Revel, and it’s called “Glenn Gould: Une vie à contretemps.” And it’s now been published in a Korean edition, an Italian edition and the English just came out.
KvD: Oh, gosh, you have to keep me posted on that.
"...Anytime I ever meet anybody from Toronto, the first thing I say is, “oh, wow, you’re so cool, you live in Gould-town.” And if they don’t know who it is, they’re like, “uh-who?"
GGF: Your drawing (of Gould) which is extremely beautiful,
Kvd: Aw, thanks!
GGF: It reminds me to ask you, are you a completely self-taught visual artist?
KvD: Yeah, I mean, I definitely didn’t have training – I didn’t go to art school. And when I did go to school, like junior high, I failed my art classes, mainly because I had a hard time . . . I really don’t like people telling me what to think. Especially with art. I think the schools tend to want to teach you all the history and certain genres of art that I could care less about . . . I’ve always been a huge fan of realism. Again, a huge fan of Rembrandt, and I don’t really give a fuck about cubism and whatever. I mean it’s alright if people like that stuff, I just didn’t care to waste my time on it. So I got, maybe a C-minus on all the art projects, but I think I would be lying if I said I was self-taught because I learn from people – everybody I work with. You know, lately I’ve been really struggling to learn how to paint, doing workshops with painters I admire – their style and design and aesthetics. So, in my own way – in my own ghetto way – I was self-taught, but not without absorbing the influence of the artists I have around me, and I’m fortunate to have a lot. And I’m my friends’ biggest fan, so of course, I would probably soak some of that up. I don’t think I’m sure that, if taken under a microscopic look, my drawing’s probably not at a level, you know, I don’t draw flawlessly, but I just draw the way I feel. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but I like it that way.
GGF: Well, that’s your own special style. It shouldn’t be anything other than what it is. What are your preferred media?
KvD: I absolutely love graphite . . . that’s something I’ve always, it just feels intuitive to me. But I’m not anti-charcoal or anything like that. I’ll draw with a mechanical pencil I find on the floor. You know, give me a pencil and paper and I’ll figure it out. (laughs)
GGF: And that gets you to Rembrandt and chiaroscuro and the illusion of depth in a flat medium. But you work in a three-dimensional medium, because if you’re tattooing somebody’s arm . . .
KvD: Yeah, it’s not a flat piece of paper.
GGF: Does that prove to be a bit of a drafting challenge for you?
KvD: Yeah, sure. It’s always the case, and especially when you’re looking at a portrait, I’m always looking for the flattest surface on a body to avoid distortion. But there are little tricks you can use to compensate for that, and whatnot.
GGF: Perspective must be a bit of a special challenge in the sense that if, let’s say, someone flexes their bicep and it changes shape, your vanishing point goes out of kilter.
KvD: Yeah, (laughs), it’s probably a wise move not to place an eyeball at the centre of someone’s triceps – you know, that’s gonna cause distortion. But I think when you’re in a neutral position, as long as it looks nice and even, you’re good. Sure – where there’s a will there’s a way. (giggles)
GGF: I’ve been meaning to ask you. You’ve got a beautiful Beethoven portrait on your right thigh. Would you ever consider having a Glenn on you?
KvD: Yeah! I’ve actually considered it. Like Glenn was just, ah, shockingly beautiful. (laughs) Yeah, I would definitely love to explore that. More than anything, I love pictures of hands, and he obviously had so many great photographs of his hands. And I did toy with the idea of getting a portrait of his hands, or something like that.
GGF: You know, classical music has its challenges, especially the forms that are more expensive to maintain, like the symphony orchestras. Have you ever thought of conducting an orchestra, or would you ever be interested in curating and programming an orchestral concert?
KvD: I would never flatter myself in conducting, just because I wouldn’t be that presumptuous, but I mentioned my friend Ali Helnwein, and hearing a piece come to life, and performing it live, and I remember when he was working on a violin concerto that I was able to commission, and that made me happy – to be able to fund something and not just to get classical music fans but the youth – young people who might not necessarily know anything about music, to come down and be a witness to that. I feel like I could be a good patron in that sense.
GGF: You can be a great advocate . . .
KvD: I would love that. Next time I come out to Toronto, I’ll ring you up and you can show me around.
GGF: You are absolutely guaranteed a guided tour
KvD: Awesome, man, thank you so much.
GGF: You’ve been so generous with your time . . .
KvD: No, you have.
GGF: Absolutely. OK, I don’t want to make you late, but I had so many other questions I wanted to ask you.
KvD: I could talk to you forever!
GGF: If you’re game for a Chapter 2, happy to do that anytime.
Interview conducted by Brian Levine, Executive Director of The Glenn Gould Foundation on September 1st, 2016 by telephone.
Photo credits: Kat von D
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