When Guitars Aren't Enough: 10 Musicians And Their Visual Arts

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Back in 2005 (Paste 15), we published amazing visual art from some of our favorite musicians. Now we’re sharing it online with you. Enjoy.

“We know that all the arts are brothers,
that each of them illuminates another,
and that a universal light results.”—Voltaire

“Happy is he whom the muses love.”—Hesiod

The creative drive—to take nothingness and fill it—often overwhelms any single outlet. The 10 musicians featured here have all found that the words and music of their songs satisfy only part of their longing to give life to new ideas. Their wells run not only deep, but broad. So, they’ve turned to the visual arts—nine through painting and one through photography—to more fully express themselves.

Rich Robinson (The Black Crowes)

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“My inspiration to paint comes from the possibility of what could be. I love to use oils because they take a while to dry. While I’m painting, it changes as the paint combines, which then influences the content of what I’m painting. For me, the painting process differs from music because of the solitude involved. It starts and stops when I decide. The similarity is the way I’m influenced. With music, it’s the sonics that influence me. A tone can spark a whole song. With painting, it’s the color and textures that influence me. I layer on the paint and as the textures develop, the painting takes shape. The general relationship is different because of the number of senses used. With guitar it’s my ear that dictates the song and moves me. With painting it’s the feel of the paint, the feel of the brush in your hands, the smell of the paint and the depth of what I’m seeing. Music is much more ethereal.”

Rich Robinson, who co-founded the Black Crowes, had been writing songs and playing guitar with his brother, Chris, for 13 years and seven albums before the band went on hiatus in 2002. He spent the early part of 2003 with his side project, Hookah Brown, and is now in the midst of a solo career with the release of Paper in 2004. Robinson made the album mostly alone, writing and producing the whole thing from his Connecticut home studio, under his own Key Hole label. And now—booked for several gigs, including Bonnaroo and Jazzfest in New Orleans—it looks like Robinson and the Crowes are back in action.

Conrad Keely (...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead)

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“This painting was the result of one week of obsessive work. There is a small nick in the upper right corner where I, frustrated by my inability to get the face right, threw the painting across the room and broke my back window.”

Conrad Keely is the co-founder, guitarist, singer and occasional drummer for Austin rock group …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. He and his bandmates grew up in rural Planoe, Texas singing in their choir and entering international vocal ensemble competitions. Their future band’s 1998 debut was released by Trance Syndicate, followed by Madonna   in 1999 after a move to Merge Records. Trail of Dead’s latest release is Worlds Apart on Interscope.

Vic Chesnutt

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“I first started painting on posterboard to illustrate songs for use as visual aids on stage. But when lots of people asked if they could have them, I was encouraged to branch out. I feel like I paint like a little kid. And for the same reasons—because it’s fun. My skill level is like that of a kid, I think. Mostly I paint symbolic figures in action to convey some sort of humor and poetry.

The sensation of painting is different from playing music, but it’s hard to describe. The visual feedback is magical, spreading colors where there was blankness is thrilling to me. Also, I find painting is a kind of muse re-setter. If I’m uninspired, I can sketch out a figure with a sword or fishing rod in its hand and suddenly, my creative spark is clicking again. And where sometimes the pressure to write heavy, moving songs can be sti?ing, painting is free and exhilarating.”

Vic Chesnutt has been writing songs since he was five-years old, and is a former trumpet player and ukulele virtuoso. Chesnutt’s also had his songs covered by the likes of R.E.M., Madonna and Smashing Pumpkins; toured with Victoria Williams, Giant Sand and Soul Asylum; and played a small role in Oscar-winning film, Slingblade. But more importantly, he sang “Whip It” onstage with 30-something cover band Sundance while in high school, and the following year he met Johnny Cash. So he’s got a lot to paint about. [Note: Chesnutt passed away late last year

Alanis Morissette

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“I’ve long considered myself far less easily labeled than the term “singer/songwriter.” While I adore that form of expression more than any (I’ve found that God most palpably comes into the room when lyrics take flight through melody), I consider it merely one among many.

One form that began more as a nuisance to others, more than anything else, was my love of taking photographs (‘look over here everybody!’—I’m embarrassed to say that I’m that girl at family gatherings). I’ve collected more than 30,000 photographs in my many iPhoto archives, all of which represent different phases of my life. I’ve had the great blessing of reflective time over the last few weeks to look back at photos of trips I’d long since taken. And in a world where rites of passage and celebratory coming-of-age rituals are greatly forgotten, I find that looking through photographs nudges me to honor the different experiences in my life. I feel blessed and humbled by the miracle of being able to capture a moment in time, and store it on my laptop to share for many millennia (my friends laugh because they say I live my life simply to share stories with my future great-grandchildren, and, well, they’re right!).

As I segue into a less ‘experience junkie’ phase, I find myself tickled, moved and choked up over some of the images that mark my 30 years of this life. These photos were taken in India, January 1998. I traveled there to escape the fishbowl stares after being catapulted into the public eye post-Jagged Little Pill. And I was taken with the profundity of my experience, of having stopped my “productivity” drive in favor of a more reflective, inward journey through many Indian cities. With its people’s unselfconscious, lingering, innocent soul-hello-ing eye contact, and unapologetic prioritization of spirit in the form of altars everywhere, I still consider this one of my favorite countries.”

Alanis Morissette released her first EP in 1985, complete with teased-up hair, and another two full-lengths in ’91 and ’92. However, 1995’s Jagged Little Pill is the contemporary classic that brought Morissette critical and public fame. In fact, Jagged Little Pill has sold well over 13 million copies to date. Since then, Morissette has released three more albums and received seven Grammy awards for her work.

Tom Russell

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“I’ve been painting a year and a half. I like reds and yellows. I like the feel of pushing paint across the rough surface of the canvas. I’ve always felt a link between painting and songwriting. They inform each other. It comes from the same deep urge to “utter” something—some mysterious emotion or story. Willem de Kooning and Dylan are American masters in this regard. De Kooning said the finished painting has a ‘countenance.’ So does the finished song. I recommend the new bio of de Kooning, and also Dylan’s book Chronicles. You come away with a view of what it takes to create art and song in America. They don’t make ’em like these boys anymore.”

Tom Russell might be a renowned songwriter and musician, but he started with a Masters Degree in Criminology from the University of California. It’s the kind thing that comes in handy when you’re outlaw writer Charles Bukowksi’s pen pal. Russell’s songs have been recorded by everyone from Johnny Cash to K.D. Lang. His solo career has spanned two decades and hit a new creative peak with the album Man From God Knows Where. He’s since followed with Borderland in 2001 and Modern Art in 2003.

Joseph Arthur

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“Painting might be impossible to write about
It’s a place beyond words from where it comes
It’s nature showing strange flowers
It’s a drug that obliterates the self
It’s a mirror in the spirit world
It’s where the shadows come out to play
It’s a shared hallucination
It’s dream made material set ablaze in the night
Maybe it goes beyond everything else
Like playing a guitar without strings
It’s a place man meets God and says
What the fuck
I love to paint
It’s where I go to church”

Joseph Arthur was discovered by Peter Gabriel and subsequently signed to Gabriel’s record label, Real World Records. Arthur has since released three more full-lengths, including his latest, Our Shadows Will Remain and the ’99 EP, Vacancy, which received a Grammy nod for Best Recording Package. Arthur has always been a visual artist, specializing in earthy, abstract styles.

Jon Langford (Mekons)

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“I’m a product of the British art-school system—all muscled up on what I didn’t want to do, but with no clue as to what I should do. Like an honorable horde of art students before me, I joined a band and took my revenge on the world in that way instead. Only after moving to Chicago in the early ’90s did I really consider painting again, superficially side-stepping my rigorous fine-arts background to make weird little song-painting icons about my bumpy ride on the record-biz highway and my love/hate relationship with America and its fabulous musical legacy.

I mainly paint from publicity photos of classic ’50s and ’60s honky-tonk singers, but have expanded of late to include spaceships, chickens and trout. These works are nearly all autobiographical in sneaky tangential ways and represent my unease at the widening chasm between popular culture and the realities of the frightening, homogenized post-democratic society we live in.”

Jon Langford’s career began as a founding member of British punk band the Mekons, which was spawned by the Leeds University scene of the mid-to-late ’70s. Since his start, just over 20 years ago, the Mekons have reinvented themselves countless times, and Langford has also been behind the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and frontman of the Waco Brothers. On his latest album, Mayors of the Moon, he explores his eclectic musical tastes with Yep Roc band The Sadies.

Louie Perez (Los Lobos)

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“When I sat down to write songs for the album Kiko in the spring of 1991, I was spending my down time painting like crazy in the basement of the house I was living in at the time in Whittier, Calif. It was no coincidence that a lot of that musical and lyrical info made its way into the pictures I was making. I’ve painted and drawn all my life, well before my mom bought me my first guitar at a local music store in East L.A. So it’s hard to say what comes first, the song ideas or the art. They seem to ebb and ?ow with whatever of the two I happen to be doing. ‘Kiko’s Cat’ was done during the late nights after recording, when I was way too worked up to get to sleep. I can say for sure that the songwriting comes from a visual place, substituting the paint and pencils with words and music. The songs live in my head as images before they ever become music. Sometimes they never make it into songs, and if time and luck are my friends, those ideas will become paintings instead. My wife, Mary, says both propositions make me cranky.”

Louie Perez, guitarist and vocalist for legendary latin rockers Los Lobos, has been friends with bandmate David Hidalgo since they met in the back of art class while attending East L.A.’s Garfield High School. It’s been a 30-year ride in Los Lobos for the two friends, and in the ’90s the pair also formed successful side project The Latin Playboys. Perez, also a painter, has passed his passion for art and music to his children. “All our kids are real creative,” Perez told Paste in issue #10, “they all play music, they paint and they write.”

Robyn Hitchcock

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“I was drawing long before I was able to play music. I could do a passable drawing of a helicopter exploding or Jesus with a gun while I was still hitting my grandma’s piano like an angry penguin, wondering why the result didn’t sound like “She Loves You.” Come adolescence, all my characters replaced the weapons in their hands with guitars. Spinning LPs and drawing my way through the late ’60s, my creations began to sprout roots from their toes, and their hair grew into dripping candles. Dylan, Love, The Doors and the Incredible String Band were all great to draw to, but my favorite was Captain Beefheart, himself a painter. Gradually I learned guitar chords and would increasingly put down my pencil and strum along to the music that was playing on my portable stereo. Eventually, the inevitable happened, and I started writing songs: misshapen, word-heavy ditties that made the Spruce Goose seem like a Grumman Avenger in comparison. Meanwhile I had a spell at art school, which left me with a basic training for all the pictures I’ve made since. For the last 30 years I’ve thought of myself as a musician; but whenever the guitar (or my grandma’s piano, now downstairs) has nothing new to show me, I pull out the pencil, the canvas and the brush, to see what comes. It’s a truism to say art and music are related; like saying Australia is near New Zealand. In my experience, drawing and painting helps me resolve ideas in my brain; composing or playing music is an emotional necessity, releasing elusive ideas and feelings, exorcising what’s really in your heart. I’m lucky I can do either, but I still can’t dance.”

Robyn Hitchcock’s storied resume began in 1970 when he wrote “Baby” with a school friend and formed his first band “The Beatles,” a year after the real Beatles broke up. Hitchcock formed other groups throughout his career including The Soft Boys in the late ’70s and Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians in the late ’80s plus an on-again, off-again solo career. He also runs his own label, editionsPAF!. Hitchcock was featured in the film Storefront Hitchcock, has starred in a TV adaptation of Tony Parsons’ book, Man And Boy, and as a “sinister operative” in The Manchurian Candidate.

Sam Prekop (The Sea and Cake)

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“I paint automatically, each picture a collection of habits, trademarks and signatures, organized to be static for split seconds. Assemblages of landscape becoming architectural. Structure for color, windows at every part of the day. I’m looking for a particular beauty that shouldn’t be there.

The music, always ?eeting. Strikes sporadically, but I can’t help it. It’s also like painting automatically, and the work comes with figuring out what I couldn’t hear any other way. I miss painting when I’m making music and vice versa.”

Sam Prekop first garnered public attention as leader of the band Shrimp Boat. In 1999, he released his self-titled debut and followed with two full-length CDs from his band The Sea and Cake, as well as a solo EP. Prekop has also been making his name as a painter and photographer. His paintings have been shown in galleries from New York to Paris. Who’s Your New Professor is his first solo LP in five years.

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