Truly, madly, deeply dippy

Fifteen years after she formed Dead Can Dance, Lisa Gerrard is used to being called doolally.
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The Independent Culture
Bullrushes obscure Lisa Gerrard's feet as she approaches the ruined abbey on the tiny island of Quivy. Her green velvet robe billowing behind her, this latter-day Lady of Shalott seems - just for a moment - to be floating. "It's so beautiful here?" she says with that upward inflection Australians love, and takes off her wellingtons.

We're in Belturbet, 70 miles from Dublin on the border of Eire and Northern Ireland, and over the river is the converted Protestant church where Gerrard and collaborator Brendan Perry record the evocative music of Dead Can Dance: sounds that fuse times and cultures and sell by the million.

The Anglo-Irish duo met during Melbourne's post-punk explosion 15 years ago, and have been creating "sound palaces" ever since. Their instruments span a multitude of ethnic origins, from uillean pipes to Indian elephant bells, with Gerrard's dramatic vocals lending Dead Can Dance its trademark other-worldly quality. Live shows feature Gerrard - all translucent skin and Renaissance cheekbones - standing motionless, high priestess-style, behind a lectern. Fans seek them out at their homes with disciple-like zeal, leaving gifts of jewellery and paintings and, most recently, a tea- chest full of leaves inscribed with lyrics from all eight albums.

Since separating after a decade as lovers, they now live on opposite sides of the globe (Perry in Belturbet and Gerrard in Australia's Snowy Mountains), coming together each year to mix styles and influences. There was a stage when each wished the other under a bus. "But the work, you see," sighs 34-year-old Gerrard. "The things we can achieve through this are more important than anything else. What we do is nourishing. It convinces the other man to come into contact with his deeper feelings and gives him a sense of repose."

This, she says, applies equally to her classically-informed solo project, The Mirror Pool, so called "because it's a way out of the world". Employing the wordless "mantra" language ("The one I was born with, not the spoken word I learned later"), Gerrard, backed by the Victoria Philharmonic Orchestra and her ancient Chinese dulcimer, swoops and soars across an internal landscape as abstract as it is personal.

Titles such as "Gloradin" and "Nileshna" were chosen for their ability to capture an essence: "the passage of light that travels on the water" and "the word of the love machine". By tapping into primal sound-shapes, Gerrard feels she can arrive at an illuminating absolute. Gazing across the still waters of Lake Quivy, it's easy to believe her. And when she says she stopped doing interviews for years because she was misconstrued as downright doolally, it's easy to believe that too.

Earlier, driving Perry's battered Volvo - and stalling the vehicle on every bend - Gerrard talked happily about diets, motherhood (she has a three-year-old daughter by her American husband, Jack), her fondness for Guinness and the differences between Ireland and Australia. Her Irish father migrated to the Greek-Turkish Melbourne suburb of Prahran in 1957, and young Lisa grew up with "Mediterranean music blaring out of the houses". These days, she prefers living in the mountains, although she admits to being distracted by the beauty. "Look at this countryside," she says. "It's so easy to look at. Not like the Australian bush. That watches you." She feels it's less necessary for her to work in Australia: "Geographically speaking, people are in contact with nature. There's an incredible ability to see clearly there."

Faced with a dictaphone and asked to speak about The Mirror Pool, she talks of the forest spirits at her home recording studio, and the body as furniture. "When you sit in the lounge-room and there's a dead body there, you don't even notice it. It's like one of the chairs." She assumes a faraway look and disconcerting, disjointed accent when she states: "This is the story of Lisa. It's a direct link with nature, because when you put this seed into the mind of the other man, he stays in contact with his story. You do this work because to maintain sanity and perspective you must. If I give it up, what am I going to do - shop? No, I'm here."

Gerrard confesses to losing the ability to form conventional words "when things are really important". Nevertheless, she maintains that her work is an essential antidote to Europe's increasingly cynical urban malaise. "It's one of the few positive things left," she says. "People are too disconnected. They need to be given strength."