Some artists reflect in their work the world they see around them. Others aim to change the world around them into a futuristic alternative. Over the past three decades, Phoebe Legere has proven herself to be the latter in her work as a singer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and painter.
”You don’t hand a genius drugs. We don’t need drugs. We’re geniuses,” she says, talking about her nonprofit work teaching art to at-risk children in New York City. “I believe that everyone is an artist. I know that everyone is creative; it’s just that our culture doesn’t nurture that. If I were to meet Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci, I couldn’t be more inspired than I am with the creative responses of kids in middle school. They’re geniuses.”
It’s no accident Legere uses the same word — “genius” — to describe the children she teaches as she does for herself. She has a kinship with people who feel an artistic pull at a young age, because she was one of them herself. Her parents encouraged her in the classics; she began playing piano at age 3 and painting with oils at 5.
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The tragedy for geniuses such as Legere is often the tough time they endure adjusting to the straitlaced world around them as they follow their muse. Legere ran away from home and signed with Epic/Sony as a teenager, but she found the major-label model to be restrictive and abusive toward artists like herself. “Basically, what they want you to do is sink to some level below the lowest common denominator of taste and emotion in music. I’m interested in artistic progress. I’m interested in the future. I’m interested in moving American art forward. I’m not interested in copying what has already been done. What a waste of a life.”
Operating in the underground has allowed her the freedom to follow her artistic drives in any and every direction. “That’s where the creativity happens. It cannot happen in the mainstream.” Legere is not only rebelling against the hegemonizing of music, but also fighting to express her identity. “You really can’t be a whole artist unless you have the male and the female. And now because of the progress that has been made in gender work in our society, I feel that I have a free space to express both socially, which is extraordinary to me. I never thought I would see this day.”
Much of that progress in society’s understanding of the fluidity of gender has been the direct result of the work of artists such as Legere, who mold the world around them into the alternate reality they know to be possible. In her stage show, as in her personal life, Legere plays by her own rules. “I play seven instruments, sometimes two at a time.” She remembers learning the technique from a child with autism, with whom she was doing nonprofit work. “I saw him playing two instruments at once. He was playing guitar and piano, and I thought, Wow, that’s a really good idea. So I get my ideas from everywhere, but unlike many of the performers today, I acknowledge that I got them where I got them.”
8 p.m. Thursday, January 12, at Luna Star Cafe, 775 NE 125th St., Miami; 305-799-7123; lunastarcafe.com. Admission is free, but $10 minimum food and drink purchase.