Lindsay Katt is a force of nature.
After recording and releasing music for years, she was inspired to do something different, something unique, something that would stretch every facet of her creativity. That project was The Avant Gardener, a film comprised of 10 videos for 10 songs sung by Katt. As a viewer, I was taken by the cohesion within the diversity of each song’s treatment; how each vignette added both a layer of realness to the story and depth to the complicated whimsy of Katt’s protagonist. From dancing office workers to giant puppets, from animated butterflies to paintings come to life, the film is an endless stream of color and inventiveness.
I caught up with Katt to talk about what led her to create such a sterling piece of art and get some insight into the mind of an artist who leads with her heart.
Ryan: What was the first song/performance you remember making an impact on you and signaling that this is something you’d want to do with your life?
Lindsay: There was a moment when I was about 18 years old, driving in the heavy rain, listening to a radio station that was playing an eclectic mix of songs all with “rain” themes. The song “Rainy Night House” by Joni Mitchell came on and it completely captivated me. I pulled the car over, and started writing down lyrics, waiting, and hoping that they would say the name of the artist. (They did.) I remember turning the radio off and just listening to the rain on the window. I immediately drove to Best Buy and bought every Joni Mitchell record they had for sale. I realized then that I had already fallen in love with her song “Case of You” years before. (Before I really paid much attention to the artist’s names or album titles) That was the moment when I started really paying attention, not just to songs and records, but to the artists themselves. I noticed that that when I found artists or groups who had released consistently well written songs and strong material, that they all seemed to share a familial integrity in their work, as well as in their identity as artists. I could feel the care they had invested, and the resulting intimacy that was its byproduct. I wanted that. The artists and their work seemed to blur together and transform into something else, a truth that I wasn’t only allowed to peer into, but also participate in. As I continued to fall in love with David Bowie, Joan Armatrading, Prince, and the Beatles, I started recognizing myself in them and them in me. I began to see how my artistic expression belonged to this strange art continuum and what it could mean. I think that’s when I really began to process my growing understanding of the privilege of this work and what motivated me to keep moving forward with it.
At what point did you know you wanted to pursue performing as a vocation as opposed to a hobby?
I think that as soon as I was old enough to learn that “rock star,” “artist,” “songwriter,” and “musician,” were all jobs that people could have, I wanted in! I loved the idea of adults valuing things like emotions, expression, dress up, and play, and I remember being drawn to the human connection element. To work in the arts felt like an endless sea of possibilities and I quickly decided that creative expression was how I wanted to prioritize my time. Basically, I wanted to hang out with those weirdos, the ones who made me feel things.
You’ve released albums before but this project is much more than a collection of songs. Where did the concept for the The Avant-Gardener originate?
I was working on an advertisement pitch when I began thinking about how much of my music had been used as a sort of garnish to visual media or as part of a “soundtrack” to film or TV programming. I thought about why we seem to default to certain models of art production and consumption and what could happen if those defaults were disrupted. Why not produce a “film track” to a record instead of a soundtrack to a film? This concept got me immediately excited and I started reimagining how different kinds of media could cooperate together and become something new—like puzzle pieces interlocking or something with a pulse and a tangibility that crossed genres and typical mediums. I thought about the fearless innovation that I grew up with: Pink Floyd, Monty Python, Jim Henson, and The Beatles. I thought about the role of humor, rock and roll, and a fearless approach to engaging with concept art. I wrote the concept, and initial draft of the script that night.
So you knew you had a concept. How did it then evolve to become the film you have today?
The process of making this film involved a lot of “hurry up and wait.” It was a long, challenging and painstaking process to say the least. I am proud to say, I never compromised the vision, for the sake of time, money, or obstacles. It was an incredible thing to watch, as every perceived miniature “disaster” then grew into the fabric of the work and added to its uniqueness.
There is an anecdote that I have come to love, about the instructions received for the care and watering of a newly acquired cactus. The person says, “Look…you are going to want to water this cactus. Don’t. Never water it. Sometimes, the activity is restraint!” Sometimes I felt like my film was that cactus and the activity was restraint. In the three and a half years it took to complete The Avant-Gardener, it was those moments of restraint and waiting that allowed all of the pieces to eventually grow into place and give us the time necessary to let the work develop and breathe.
These surprise blessings, included the hiring of the extremely talented editor/producer Daniel Madoff, who’s endless patience, work, and commitment really allowed the potential of this work to be fully realized. When I think about the key elements that helped lock this film into place, I think of him and all of the other artists and crew who gave their talents, time, and love to this work.
I know all the concepts in the film hold a special place in your heart, but was there one that challenged you as an artist more than the others?
It was important for me that the Main Character be allowed to save herself, and be her own hero. I received a lot of feedback from people in the edit saying things like “you know it seems like she ended up alone at the end right?” and I remember thinking, first of all, we all die alone. Secondly, I think it speaks to the fact that this character’s journey, was hers, and hers alone. I wanted her to have permission to be flawed, afraid, challenged, free, and human.
I feel like too often in films/media we have become accustomed to seeing women play certain characters tropes and ones that often don’t represent full comprehensive people, especially when it comes to what “winning” looks like. I think I really had to challenge some of my own internal programming, and look harder at my own story conditioning to get there. At the end of the day, I wanted to write an honest story, about the human experience, that anyone could see themselves in, especially those individuals who are creatively minded.
What did you learn about yourself as a person over the period of time making the film?
Sometimes I feel like I experienced my own sort of “coming of age” during the process of making this film. In many ways, this film is the biggest canvas I’ve used to express myself, and is the most vulnerable I’ve been as an artist. I think the process of asking and answering hard questions—both in the content and in the functional elements of making things really—motivated growth in me that I couldn’t have predicted.
I learned that I should never limit my potential, or capability, to a lack of experience. Only when I allow myself to be fueled by interest and learning, can I begin to see what is really possible; that being vulnerable and honest about my limitations and my strengths is an empowering practice that has only served me in this creative work. That for me, it isn’t just the final product that feels critical, but the experience of the artists and participants making it along the way. “The doing of the thing, is the thing.”
How are you different today than you were when you started filming and recording?
Sometimes I feel like I have lived 100 other lifetimes since I began this process. In many ways, it feels like I really stepped into adulthood in a new way through this film. It changed the way I work with, love and trust people, and how I make decisions. I am a much stronger leader, and less in conflict with my ego than in the past. I feel a new sense of gratitude for my work, as well as the reassurance that comes with the “evidence” of an achieved goal. When you have a dream, and then you get to live that dream, I don’t know any better feeling than that. It is something that inspires great hope in me about the future, and something I hope I never take for granted.
The film has won awards around the country on the festival circuit. Winning awards means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?
For me, it means that people will approach the work differently. That they will go in with the expectation that this film has been given external validation and credibility; that people will take us seriously.
I also think on a more personal level, it has been important for me to learn how to stop and take a moment to celebrate with my creative team. I think it’s very easy for life to become a series of never-ending tasks and lists waiting to be checked off. I never want to forget how to stop, and celebrate the work of this moment, before charging on to the next one.