Musician and artist Phoebe Legere reflects on her Merrimack Valley roots and her mission to bring art to children.
Last September at the Bread & Roses Heritage Festival in Lawrence, performer Phoebe Legere stood at the microphone and clutched lyrics to a song she’d just written. “Take it slow,” she told the band before launching into a dark, impassioned story-song about Carmela Teoli, a young girl “from the old country,” who, in 1911, was working in a cotton mill when her hair became entangled in a twisting machine, resulting in serious scalp injuries.
Legere sings this song to honor textile workers, and also her great-grandmother, who at 11 years old worked in a Lowell cotton mill. “Many of the great industrial fortunes were built on the backs of tiny little kids,” says the artist, who now sings songs of love or about the displaced and persecuted.
In the early 1980s, when she was a young runaway, Legere desperately tried to break into the music business. New York City’s East Village welcomed runaways and junkies, along with beat generation poets, cross-dressers and just about anyone who had an artistic vision. Her trademarks became her big blond hair, corsets and a soft, sexy voice. Soon she moved in circles with Andy Warhol and Hunter S. Thompson. She appeared in Playboy magazine and the campy Toxic Avenger movies, playing a blind bimbo. Onstage, she was pure genius, performing her own songs, playing seven instruments and singing in a 4½-octave range. At age 16, she debuted at Carnegie Hall and signed with Epic Records.
Today, she still lives in New York City but doesn’t care that much about the big spotlight. Rather, she enjoys smaller venues and events, such as the Bread & Roses Heritage Festival, where she can play the jawbone of an ass and sing in Abenaki, the tribe of her great-grandfather, or play her accordion and sing in French about her Acadian ancestors, driven out of Canada and resettled in Louisiana.
Legere grew up in Lexington, Mass. Her mother was the art director for The Harvard Coop bookstore, and her father was a painter who studied under Karl Zerbe, one of the key figures in the Boston expressionist art movement. “I learned to draw when I was 5 years old, and my father gave me the complete Karl Zerbe training in perspective, glazing and egg tempera,” she says. “I consider myself a child of the Boston expressionists.” She continues to paint and exhibits her work at her concerts.
In 2016, she started the nonprofit Foundation for New American Art to “nurture the visionary artists of the future.” “I bring art and music to low-income children at risk in New York City,” she says. Art and music, she believes, are key to the health of the mind and body.
Moving forward, all the money Legere earns — from performances and from the sale of her art and music — will go to her foundation. Currently, she’s on the road, cruising the country in her “visionary van.” This is more than just a promotional tour for her new CD of down-home folk songs, “Heart of Love.” She also brings music and art supplies to children in low-income and underserved communities, engaging them in fanciful art projects, such as the ShamanCycle, a giant rideable eagle sculpture and multiperson bicycle.
“Color is good medicine. … Rhythm is good medicine. Singing is good for everyone,” Legere says. “Some teachers will tell kids that they can’t sing, and that’s so unfair. When we all sing together, it sounds really beautiful.”
To learn more about Phoebe Legere, visit phoebelegere.org.