Musicians are known to be creative people, and unsurprisingly, that creativity often extends beyond their music. Specifically, many musicians are also artists beyond their touring and recording obligations.
Music and art are complementary creative pursuits that can help musicians pay the bills, omit production costs (why hire someone for album art and merch when you can do it yourself?) or simply gives their eardrums a break.
We spoke to five musicians that also run successful design companies and exhibit at prestigious shows, in addition to their musical lives. White Zombie’s Sean Yseult designs patterned scarves that sell at Henri Bendel, Sloan’s Jay Ferguson is putting together album art for his upcoming boxset, Singer/songwriter (Get Him to the Greek, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) Dan Bern makes portrait and landscape paintings, songwriter (Ultra Vivd Scene) Kurt Ralske has exhibited his video installations at the Venice Biennale and drummer Liz Degen runs a successful freelance photography business.
We wanted to know about the challenges of a multi-disciplinary creative life. Is it possible to give each creative career the same amount of attention? And, which came first: the music or the art?
While studying at the Parsons School of Design, Yseult co-founded the legendary metal band White Zombie. She currently plays bass in Star & Dagger while running a boutique business for her graphic designed patterned scarves under the moniker Yseult Designs.
[Music and art] have actually been intertwined my entire life. When I was five, I was studying piano but doing intricate designs that look a lot like my scarves today. While attending North Carolina School of the Arts for art and photography, I would sneak off to the music rooms to play piano and compose. Then while studying at Parsons, my fellow art students and I started White Zombie. They are synonymous for me.
So far with music in my life, it has mostly been collaborative. As much as I enjoy that, it is so freeing to create an image and not have to have it be a group decision. There is a certain sense of accomplishment when you have done everything yourself, from beginning to end.
My work has an underlying tone of darkness and beauty, whether haunting, debaucherous, or humorous. I’m drawn to things some people find a bit odd, but the end result is an image I find beautiful. I have photographed everything from the demi-monde to an altar of human skulls—they all have their place of respect in my world.
Ferguson is one-fourth of the band Sloan, a Juno-winning Canadian rock band that formed in 1991. He partakes in designing artwork for albums and both he and bandmate Chris Murphy have put together the art for the just-released box set of the classic Sloan release ‘One Chord To Another’.
I grew up being a big fan of not just music, but LP covers and album design, perhaps due to working in a used record store starting at age 12. In our band, we have two art school students, and I’m not one of them, so it makes sense that we’ve always had an interest in the way we were represented. Not just in album artwork, but videos, posters and advertising as well.
I really think 12" LPs are my favorite platform for art. I love the coupling of music, printed materials, design and photography. The choice of paper stock, cover design, inserts, labels, gatefold—how to combine and link all the elements to create a unified work—all of this is very satisfying especially when you felt you’ve made a great record and would like to create a beautiful package surrounding it.
For our last double LP Commonwealth, I wanted to create a gatefold cover that was an actual 12" x 24" size photographed collage of elements with no “photoshoppery” involved. It was centered around playing cards with illustrations of us by Steve Manale. I took all the pieces and created the collage. Following the “no Photoshop” mandate, I had a button printed that had the LP title and the song titles printed out on paper and attached to a cassette card so that all these details could be added to the actual collage. The album jacket was a pure one-time photograph.
Every bit of the album—music, artwork, photography—should all be treated with the same level of attention and care, but that’s just my preference and opinion! When it all clicks, it really makes for great 20th century artwork.
Bern is a singer/songwriter who has also written songs for an array of movies, including ‘Get Him To The Greek’, ‘Drones,’ and ‘Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’. He’s also an acclaimed painter.
In 1998 I got a chance to paint a hotel room in a really cool artists’ hotel in New York City. I figured I’d stay for a couple weeks, paint something. I stayed eight months and haven’t stopped painting since. It’s every bit as important to me as my music.
I love that it’s outside the realm of words, of language. I love the color, the smell of the paint, the focus, everything. Music is cool in how it’s kind of ineffable, floating in the air. But a painting, when you walk away it’s still sitting there. It’s like a miracle to me when I’m looking at something and it starts appearing on the canvas. I still don’t know how that happens.
Mostly I paint portraits or landscapes. I like looking at something for a long time, coming back to it, seeing something new every time. A few years ago in New Mexico I painted the same old water tower about 100 times. I don’t know if you’d do that with song. Although a lot of my songs are in the key of G, so maybe it’s the same.
Ralske was the voice and songwriter behind 4AD act Ultra Vivid Scene, and continues making music using computers. He is a fine artist that has been exhibited internationally (Venice Biennale, Guggenheim Bilbao) and is the Department Chair at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
I’ve always been obsessed with both music and art. I chose to focus mostly on music when I was quite young, because music gave more immediate gratification. It seemed more direct, more cathartic. Also there were musicians in my family, but no artists.
But making art as a sideline didn’t stop. It was something that happened sporadically, when I needed to do it. As a teen, I would check out galleries and experimental film screenings in New York City, in Soho, the East Village, at MoMA. In my 20s, when my band was on tour, I would always go to museums in whatever city I was in.
When you make a piece of art, it feels like it’s a statement that might last a long time. Music dies as soon as the instrument is put down. Maybe because music is so ephemeral, generally it is not considered with serious thought, the way art is. Another difference between art and music is that making art is usually a solitary pursuit. I think a solitary recording artist can make good music, but truly great music requires a group.
The best thing that music and art can do is to get the viewer to think outside the box. Music or art describes a different way of thinking or way of feeling. It describes a different form of life. The viewer considers these other possibilities, and walks away with a new way of thinking about their actual life.
Maybe these new perspectives change the viewer’s hopes, goals, and values. The music and art that I love does this for me. I’ve aimed to have my music and art do this for other people, though of course, it’s very difficult.
Degen is a Long Island-based drummer that crossed over to the other side of the music business as a freelance and in-house graphic designer. She studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and also tackles web design and photography.
I’ve been an artist my whole life. I played the flute from elementary school to high school. When I was 17, my mother bought a drum kit for my brother and it didn’t take me long to claim it partly for myself. My brother and I started jamming and writing music together, and we eventually formed our own band.
As an Illustration major at FIT, I studied drawing, painting, graphic design, and photography. Once I realized I could actually make my own artwork for the band, my world suddenly got a lot bigger. I started creating t-shirt designs, flyers, and CD artwork not just for my own band, but local bands all over Long Island.
Making art and making music share so much in the ways that we can both create and appreciate it; individually or as a group. My digital and traditional art somehow captures my personality even without me trying. Sometimes it’s the line work, sometimes it’s the bright colors, sometimes it’s the texture.
Music really shaped me as a designer, and I think that regardless of what genre of design I end up falling into, I’ll always find comfort in my rock n’ roll roots.