Nomy, on the Lamm
In 2003, I interviewed the “fat-ass, bad-ass, Jew dyke amputee” Nomy Lamm for Rockrgrl, the groundbreaking magazine founded by Carla DeSantis. We’d just done a tour together, and she was promoting her electro/accordian/soul album, Effigy. I’d already fallen in love with her music (and the girl herself), but Effigy took my breath away and made my pelvis swing like mad.
While listening to her later band Tricrotic (imagine old world gothic carnies conducting a pagan circle), I decided to reprint the article here. Then I decided I should follow it up by interviewing Nomy in-the-now. Here we go… first a new interview, then the vintage Rockrgrl.
Nomy, you were a solo artist the last time I toured with you, but later formed the band Tricrotic – a band that left me hypnotized. Tricrotic eventually ceased – I don’t think “broke up” would be the right phrase, because the good energy between bandmates seems to be alive – due to your move from Olympia to San Francisco. I’m wondering why you moved to San Francisco, and if you’re back to being a solo artist or have a new band in the works.
I moved to San Francisco because me and my partner at the time wanted to live in a queer mecca. We spent the first year and a half here in a studio in the Tenderloin before we found this gorgeous Victorian flat in the Mission. And my band now is Nomy Lamm & the Whole Wide World, and it means that whoever I play with is in my band. It involves the audience and the different people on stage with me each time I play. I’m really interested in possibilities for super-inclusive musical spaces. My brother saw a show I played last summer and said “Ah, Nomy finally gets to have a congregation!”
Nomy in the Sins Invalid concert, ‘Bird Song.’
Also, Sins Invalid has been really significant in my life in the last few years. It’s a performance project centralizing on queers and people of color with disabilities. They create work around disability, sexuality, social justice, and embodiment.
And I’m also in grad school for creative writing, and writing this collection of interconnected fables about trauma and transformation.
You mentioned in our last interview that ya didn’t expect to become famous. But I’m always amazed at how the “underground” influences those who reach the mainstream. I stumbled upon an interview with The Gossip’s Beth Ditto – another punk-rooted fat queer lady with a soulful voice – where she name-checked you as a major influence. How does that feel?
I love the Gossip. And it’s nice she said that about me, and I’m happy for them. I hope I get to sing with Beth some day! Maybe she will be in Nomy Lamm & the Whole Wide World.
As musicians, much of our world revolves around sound. And yet both of us were gravitating towards the practice of silent meditation when we spoke last. Do you still meditate?
I just went to a week-long queer silent meditation that was so beautiful! Life-changing. I also have my own practice, which is sometimes more consistent than others. I appreciate Buddhism and the Dharma for preserving the possibility of clear-seeing in the world. I wanna know myself and bust out of my own constructions… to know freedom. Judaism, specifically Kabala, has been really useful and meaningful for me, too. And tarot. And I really appreciate the witchy people in my life, and practice my own kind of witchery. And of course, singing is a really big part of my spiritual practice.
Finally, when I last saw ya, you described your prosthetic leg of the time as physically painful, and were talking about the possibility of getting a new one. Did that happen?
I did get a new leg about six years ago, and am now in the process of getting another one. I really like my prosthetist; he’s a sculptor and a meditator, and really fucking cute. The new leg has a really beautiful black shiny socket, and I’ve decided not to put a cover over it – moving away from the doll-image into ergonomic specificity. Heh. It looks hot!
GET TO NOMY!
from Rockrgrl Magazine
“One of the greatest challenges to my self from the universe is to live within fractured identities. There’s not any specific identity that I can stand 100% firmly inside of, and that gives me a deeper perspective to understand things from.”
So says Nomy Lamm, the self-described “Fat-ass bad-ass jew dyke amputee” who’s unclogging our heads of all the filthy ideas we’ve swallowed about ourselves. She’s offering some gorgeous alternatives to those ideas, too.
Nomy’s zines and theatrical lectures on fat oppression (the latter of which finds her dressed in fairy wings and waving a magic wand) got her mad props from Ms. Magazine in 1997, when she was cited as one of their Women of the Year. She’s also rocked it on the Sister Spit spoken word tour, and popped up in everything from indie movies to medicine shows.
But it’s her music that this child of musical theater-gone-punk calls home. Her solo debut Anthem was released in 2000, and – with its mix of revolution-minded themes and haunting, soulful vocals – it instantly became a classic of the Olympia punk scene. She followed it up later that year with The Transfused, a soundtrack to the acclaimed anti-corporate rock musical that she created with the Need.
Now Nomy’s back with a new album. And though she remains every bit the self-created bad-ass diva, things are very different now.
Is that, is that what you are telling me?
You free your mind, you free your effigy?
“Effigy” is the title track of Nomy’s latest. Effigy is also a symbol that is central to the album as a whole, revealing the new spirit from which she’s working these days.
“The effigy is the representation of the self,” she explains. “The album documents a really intense process I was going through of facing my fears about who I was in the world, letting go of the ideas that dictate my behaviors, and just letting myself Be how I am. As a Virgo – with a super analytical, tightly controlled brain – the ‘free your mind’ was really literal for me. I couldn’t function anymore within the rules and assumptions I’d set for myself and been conditioned with. So ‘you free your mind you free your effigy’ is about opening things up inside for new experiences and ways of perceiving the world. It’s about letting go of expectations, so we can learn how to be in the moment and live in a way that feels authentic.”
‘Effigy’ album cover
The album also marks a sharp shift in focus from an external concept of revolution to an internal one. “I pretty much had a nervous breakdown when I finished The Transfused. I had worked myself so hard and completely ignored my body. I was totally dissociated. There was a point where I started having visions of myself falling down the stairs. That was when I realized I needed to get with it or bad shit was gonna go down. I went through a couple really introspective, really magical, painful years, just fuckin delving into it. It helped me understand on a deeper level the effects of industrialization, colonization, brainwashing, patriarchy, and all these other things that I’d been politically analyzing from a dissociated perspective.”
With Effigy, she’s even invented a magic word for the occasion: “Fuckaroo,” which is both the title of a rocking sing-a-long and a word to be said when casting off old ideas and preconceived notions.
As ever, it’s Nomy’s hurricane vocals that take center stage on the new album. God would be telling the angels to take note even if she were singing over a busted kazoo. Still, there’s a huge sonic difference between Anthem’s charred punk operatics and Effigy’s sleek electronica thump.
“What I’m doing now is total disco-pop,” she says, but adds that “It’s still punk because it was created through punk channels using punk ethics.” This is made clear in tracks like “Not A Girl,” which moves wild booty and rebels against societal brainwashing all at once. I’m not a girl the way you want a girl, she sings, I’m not a girl the way you call a girl your home and shelter/I was made for my own pleasure.
“I figure my music will just keep changing depending on who I’m working with and what equipment I have access to,” she says of the new sound. “Programming shit on a drum machine makes it a lot easier to be a one-person band.
And then there’s her accordion, a most unlikely candidate to propel a fierce disco record, but which Nomy pumps through Effigy and rocks the dance floor with live. “Playing the accordion changes what I do a lot. I just got a new one and it’s so beautiful, it brings that whole aspect to another level.”
While drum machines and accordion accompany her during smaller shows, they are only part of her “Effigy Extravaganza,” a full-on production with elaborate costumes, dancers, and set changes that is currently zig-zagging across the coasts. Think Madonna’s Blonde Ambition gone DIY.
Initially, Nomy had reservations about how a show with huge pop-world production values would be received, and was quick to tell potential collaborators that it was not a pop parody. “When I was first conceptualizing this show and trying to explain it to people, I was afraid people would get hung up on the ‘freak show’ aspect of it. ‘Oh, it’s ironic, cuz a fat amputee could never be a superstar.’” But as the team came together she felt less defensive about it, and the fact is that Nomy already is a superstar, and her collaborators know it even when she doesn’t. And in large part she’s made it this far because she’s been singing that “freak show” aspect – the “Bad-ass fat-ass jew dyke amputee” – loudly and proudly since the beginning.
“My art, activism, and writing came out of a community that focused a lot on identity politics, and I found that it was powerful and got people’s attention to list identities like that. It’s funny the different ways people will respond sometimes… they’re like ‘Oh, don’t say that bad stuff about yourself’ and I have to try to explain that it’s just a description, that none of those terms imply a value judgment to me. So if they have a negative reaction to those words, that’s their issue to deal with. Sometimes I think it would be nice to just be knows as a ‘musician’ or ‘writer,’ but I also think the title helps me reach a lot of people who I wouldn’t otherwise – people outside the punk or alternative scene… disabled queers and Jewish lesbians and fat activists….”
In fact, at this point the only thing that contains Nomy’s fame to a particular scene is exposure, as no one who witnesses her in motion can ever forget her.
While she’s actively claimed all parts of herself, in the years leading up to Effigy Nomy found that her self-searching will often bring her back to Judaism. Though she’s inspired by a wide range of spiritual practices (from Buddhism to “the mystical arts”), Judaism is one that she’s known her whole life.
“My Jewishness is an ethnicity, culture, spiritual heritage, community, and political framework. In many ways it has been a source of strength and belonging for me in the world. It’s also been a source of pain and alienation. I was the only Jew in my entire elementary school, I’ve been the victim of anti-Jewish hate crimes, and I grew up with the pain of the holocaust hanging over my head. At the same time, I was raised in a very white community with access to a lot of privilege, where Jewishness was spoken of as a religion and wasn’t particularly racialized. I was taught a lot of middle class white liberal values about being ‘accepting’ and ‘celebrating diversity.’ This kind of conditioning is cool in some ways, but can be false when you’re operating in the context of a predominantly white community and living on colonized land.”
This is why today Nomy identifies as a “white girl Jew,” claiming both a white and minority identity in a punk scene that, like her birth community, constantly checks itself around issues of race and racism, but is challenged when it comes to actually integrating people of color (“You may be the first person of color I’ve ever heard really commend white punks for the work they’ve done around race,” she tells me at one point. “It’s a nice thing to hear.”) The hope is that as she learns to balance seeming contradictions within herself, the integration process will spill over into her work and inspire us to do the same. Effigy brilliantly lays the groundwork.
“There’s so much work that I want to do to bring together different pieces of my life – the Jewish history, and what it means to survive intense persecution and keep a purpose that has to do with healing and transformation… With my queer understanding of sexuality and gender and identity, mixed with the complications of disability in an industrialized age. Plus there’s just all the internal work of being in a body and living in a world that is not conducive to healthy living, trying to untangle the threads of hypocrisy and preconceptions so that I can make clear choices every moment and live with love.”
Integration is the key these days. On the road, she even integrates her personal life with her life in the spotlight, interrupting a show to whip out a cell phone and call her sweetheart from the stage. “I’ve got a birthday song for you,” she says, and then to the audience, “Can y’all make some noise?” One song and some wild applause later, she’s saying into the receiver, “Aw thanks, I love you too! But I have to go now cuz, y’know, I’m in the middle of a concert…” Even the drunk frat boy – who’s been trying to seduce her by yelling “Hey, Baby!” from the front row – seems touched (“You’re gonna be fun tonight, I can just tell,” she’d said to him earlier with a sly smile. By the end of the show he’s watching her with an awe-struck respect).
Somebody once said that if you hear Nomy Lamm’s coming, it’s worth it to go see her even if all she’s gonna do is just sit there. It’s a magnetic power she’s got, and she’s gonna need it the more her work bubbles up from the underground and into the masses.
“I have these ideas about the impact I want to have on the world,” she says, “ and things I want to be able to do before I leave it. A lot of that shit is kinda crazy and maybe delusional. But a lot of it has already come true, and it’s helped me do a lot in my life. Yeah, I know I want a lot. I always want a lot. But I usually find what I need, and so I have faith that I will get it when I’m ready.”
And when she does, the world is in for a treat.
For more Nomy, peep http://www.nomylamm.com