Friday Playlist: When Visual Artists Make Tunes

People are justifiably skeptical about artists that decide to step outside their known mediums and experiment with something else. Musicians painting, or painters making records, or Kanye West designing fashion, are all often written off as "vanity projects." The reason for this is simple. The idea that someone can be exceptional at more than one discipline seems to strike at the heart of one's inferiority complex: how can one person be blessed with so much talent, and I be left with nothing? It's a near impossible pill to swallow. If you can look outside yourself, however, you should be able to see that true artists get bored working in the same discipline for the entirety of their careers. By their very natures, they feel compelled to experiment, even if that means failure. The refusal to be frightened of failure is the essence of an artist, and by that notion we should celebrate those willing to take a step outside their comfort zones. I forget who said it, but some famous artist of one discipline or another said that all forms of art wish they could be music. Music has the power to physically connects its listeners, which makes it an attractive form to any artist. That is most likely why so many visual artists have decided to make records in one capacity or another, to varying degrees of success.

In many cases, artists that worked in visuals to begin with actually gained notoriety with music before their art. Kim Gordon, now a rock n' roll icon, was actually an aspiring artist and working in the art world when she joined Sonic Youth. Though she is enjoying a newfound interest in her fine art, she is also still making punishing noise rock as one part of duo Body/Head. Performance artist Lydia Lunch found the first avenue for her extreme expression as a member of the no wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Robin Crutchfield, who has showed his art at MoMA and other venues, was first a musician as a member of no wave band DNA and also as the leader of synth punk act Dark Day. Perhaps most notable is Destroy all Monsters, a Detroit noise rock band from the 1970s that took the garage fury of The Stooges and melted the sound down to its noise essence. The leaders of that band were art icons Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw.

Filmmakers, in particular, seem to have a modern day fascination with making music. Perhaps that is because sound is such an essential part of the cinematic experience, that these artists just want to explore this aspect of their processes further. Sometimes it works wonders, especially when the records are made by filmmakers who already have a deep connection to music. David Lynch for instance is extremely involved in the music composition in his films and in Twin Peaks and his collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti is legendary. Perhaps that is why his first solo record, Crazy Clown Time was such an unexpected delight. Jim Jarmusch also has a well-documented fascination with music, and his soundtracks for films like Dead Man, recorded by Neil Young at his most sparsely experimental, and Ghost Dog, recorded by RZA at his headiest, are as iconic as the films they were made for. Jarmusch's musical collaboations with Josef Van Wissem sound like great avant rock, not like a filmmaker just mucking about (Jarmusch also played in no wave band Del-Byzanteens and in Crutchfield's Dark Day as a young man).

There are of course a million other examples of this, but Spotify is coming up short on quite a bit of the tracks I'd like to include. The point is, we shouldn't immediately write off a project because it is made by an artist that is known for making different things, because the most talented artists can express their ideas in myriad ways. That we should celebrate.