“How many people can say they know a composer, steward of the environment, musician, poet, playwright, lecturer, champion for underserved children, artist and inventor, and oh, yes, they are all one person? That’s Phoebe Legere,” wrote her best friend and business partner Susan Rakowski ’76.
She encapsulated the self-styled “transmedia” artist Phoebe Legere ’77/’81, who returned near her alma mater on Saturday, April 16, 2016, to play a show with her Bon Appétit Band at the Rosendale Cafe in Rosendale, NY.
Among her many talents and accomplishments, Legere plays seven instruments, has sung at Lincoln Center, wrote three musicals (with a fourth one on the way), conducted the New York Film Orchestra and opened for David Bowie and sang with Joni Mitchell. She rode through the Rockies on Beat journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s motorcycle, sang with a village shaman atop a sacred Buddhist mountain on a National Geographic expedition in Tibet, helped invent both an eagle-topped and pedal-powered six-person bicycle made of reclaimed metal called the Shamancycle and shoes for disabled children that play music called Sneakers of Samo thrace, and founded the New York Underground Museum to serve under-represented female, disabled, gay and Native American artists.
This absolutely dizzying artistic versatility may sound exaggerated, but she has successfully undertaken all of these astounding endeavors and more. As Rakowski stated, “Phoebe Legere has always lived her life with complete and total integrity. She was, and is, authentic and independent; these characteristics have set her on a path of groundbreaking experiences in art, music, writing and more.”
Legere’s artistic career took off during the 1980s after graduating from Vassar and from subsequent studies at the Juilliard School and New York University, and it has been evolving ever since. However, when Rakowski first met her at Vassar, Legere was primarily a painter. Inspired in part by a Reginald Marsh drawing she saw at the Loeb Art Center, for example, Legere adopted the nude as a common theme in her visual arts as a way to reclaim sexuality and give power to the female figure.
Vassar, however, was not always compatible with Legere’s tireless creativity. “My interdisciplinary, multi-talented personality,” she wrote, “was not appreciated by my teachers … I was treated so harshly by the Classical Music Department that I ran to Jazz where I met ‘my people.’”
Her “people” congregated mostly in the underground music scene of New York City, where she was finally able to fully explore all the facets of her artistry. This musical background is reminiscent of the early careers of Madonna and Lady Gaga, to whom she has been compared numerous times. In fact, as the story goes, Madonna’s management once approached Legere and tried to convince her to drop her band for a solo act with back-up dancers, their vision of the future of musical acts. Legere staunchly refused.
This sense of loyalty and community is indicative not only of Legere’s personality, but also her family history. Her parents were painters and her grandparents musicians, but her artistic roots go even deeper than this.
According to Legere, “My music celebrates the North American experience. The music of my band Bon Appétit is rooted in the musical, shamanic, philosophic and aesthetic traditions here in the northeast of Turtle Island [an indigenous name for North America].”.
In her art, she explores her many identities, singing in French, English and Abenaki and often combining influences from Abenaki and Acadian music. By reclaiming these cultures, Legere has always adopted a forward-thinking attitude, one combining deep roots in the past with a resilience to constantly reinvent for the future. Legere is excited that interdisciplinary art, like her own, is becoming more and more widely accepted.
Legere has a positive attitude about the death of the industry. “Industrialized, corporatized, globalized, standardized, capitalist, sexist, druggist music is dying a natural death,” she wrote. An early proponent of democratizing music, she even visited Bell Labs multiple times to learn about emerging MP3 technology. “The way is clear for a new music, a new beauty,” she continued. “Artists have a moral duty to resist, question and smash the art agendas of corporations.”
All in all, Phoebe Legere is a wealth of contradictions—rooted in her personal history yet committed to the spiritual interconnectedness of the universe, a near-cult figure inseparable from her collaborators.
These contradictions complement her attitude toward art, shunning the compartmentalization of genres and emphasizing her personal and spiritual connections. “My brush is an extension of my brain,” she wrote, “my music is the music of the torque of my heart, the pulse of my blood, my poetry is the poetry of rivers, mountains and imagined lovers that glow in my inner eye.”
Legere’s eclectic style and creative impulses are nearly impossible to pin down, but her untiring pursuits of authenticity, exploration and versatility are inspiring no matter the field. “Create your own playbook,” Rakowski offered as a lesson everyone can learn from her best friend. “And if you are brave enough, like Phoebe Legere, live it.”