John Lurie Excels at Music, Watercolors and Wisdom on HBO’s ‘Painting With John’

When John Lurie was in his mid-teens, his sister gave his older brother a harmonica for his birthday. That, combined with the acquisition of a Little Walter record, had the two brothers obsessed with both the idea of the instrument and making music together. Lurie, who today stars in the HBO television show Painting With John, which debuts its second season on Friday (February 18), practiced on the harmonica obsessively. In high school, he and his brother started a band called Crud in which he played and sang. Not long after, he jammed with Mississippi Fred McDowell and Canned Heat with John Lee Hooker. Thus, a career in the arts was born.

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“Then I started playing guitar,” Lurie tells American Songwriter. “I studied it; I studied other guitar players.”

But that work quickly led to his entry into playing the saxophone next. At the time, still a young man, Lurie, who is set to turn 70 this year, knew he wanted to approach the sax differently than he had the guitar. When he got his first sax, he didn’t look into theory or even learn how the fingering properly went. Instead, he just started blowing into the thing.

“There was something deeply soulful about the act of playing it,” Lurie says of the sax “Because of the breath, I suppose. I found myself through the saxophone, in some ways.”

Lurie, who was born in Minneapolis, later split time between New Orleans and Worcester, Massachusetts. But he rose to fame in New York City in the ’70s. In some ways, he’s synonymous with the Big Apple—at least, some of its most prominent decades in the latter half of the 20th century. Lurie, who now lives in the Caribbean where he’s shot both seasons of his critically-acclaimed HBO show, became a well-known artist due in part to his work with the jazz group The Lounge Lizards. At the time, he and his brother were making amateur movies on their Super 8 camera on the Lower East Side. Then the opportunity with the band came about. He got together with his brother and a few other artists for a one-time gig that quickly took off into a multi-decade career. (He’s since written a book about those years: The History of Bones).

“The band came together by accident,” Lurie says of The Lounge Lizards.

During his career, Lurie composed music for films. He was nominated for a Grammy for his work on Get Shorty, starring John Travolta and Danny DeVito. He also composed the theme song for the Conan O’Brien late-night talk show, among others. In this way, Lurie is a modern-day Renaissance Man—it’s that personality that comes through in spades in his television show. Painting With John highlights his musicianship, painting prowess, and general wisdom, which Lurie displays to viewers as he puts his watercolors to canvas. In season two of the series, Lurie composed all of the songs that play during the segments and interstitials. For the first season, he did the theme song, but not nearly as much musical composition as he did for the follow-up.

“I hadn’t really composed for other musicians for a long time,” Lurie says. “I got Lyme Disease and my health prevented me from doing music. This is the first time I wrote music for other musicians [in a while]. Because the loss of music was so painful, I kind of blocked that part of my brain off. But writing music [for the second season], the floodgates opened.”

Lurie, who contracted an advanced form of Lyme Disease decades ago and has been dealing with its consequences ever since, says he was able to write a lot of music for the show last year upon the series’ renewal. In fact, he says, he wrote “way too much” and he couldn’t record nearly all of it. While some of the tunes required a number of musicians to play the parts, other songs he was able to compose and record on his own, using a computer, GarageBand, and his banjo—a practice that’s also become more the norm for people in general, these days.  

“I get asked to score movies [these days],” Lurie says. “It’s just like, ‘We’ll give you $30,000.’ Man, if you get into the studio with 10 musicians, that’s never going to pay for it. So, I guess, most people who compose do it in their living room and they do everything on computers.”

It’s a sign of the changing world. Even New York City, Lurie says, has changed majorly. The City That Never Sleeps has become the City That Can Be Hard To Recognize for him. It’s so much different today, he says, then the place he arrived at some decades ago. Today, though, in the Caribbean, Lurie continues to make a new home for himself. And in so doing, his HBO show, in a way, fell into his lap.

“Season one came about, really, by accident,” he says.

Living in the Caribbean, he threw himself into painting. Doing so, he says, he found new techniques but, at the same time, those could be too easily forgotten. So, his assistant, Nesrin Wolf, set up a cell phone camera to record his work. In the videos, along with painting, the two would begin to tease each other in a friendly way. It was around that time another person, Erik Mockus, had reached out to Lurie about working together on something. Lurie invited him down to film the painting. At first, the idea was to put the little videos on Instagram to promote Lurie’s artwork. Those led to a podcast interview with Matt Dwyer, who got to see Lurie’s painting videos, liked them, and eventually sent them to famed director Adam McKay, who sent them to HBO.

“Can’t say no to that kind of opportunity,” Lurie says.

When HBO green-lit a second season, Lurie and Mockus wanted to figure out how to evolve the show, which included incorporating Wolf more and also another assistant of Lurie’s, Ann Mary Gludd James. Together, they appear in the new season dressed as cowboys, racing through cartoon-painted backgrounds, often painted by Lurie. The idea was to get a bit further away from Lurie talking at his table while painting, to give a fresh bit of content to viewers.

“We maybe went a little too far,” Lurie says.

Nevertheless, the experience is grand. The show surprises its viewers while showing them remarkable paintings, thoughtful ideas, and playful antics. It’s a palate cleanser in a world of explosions and too much bad news. It’s also the result of a lot of work. And now with it set to drop this week, Lurie says he’s going to take a bit of a break from his travails. In about 12 months, he’s produced two seasons of the show, written a memoir, and worked on new music. It’s time for a deep breath.

“I’m going to just stop everything for a minute and see where I am,” he says. “I got a lot of ideas bubbling but I’m pushing them down. I need to stop. I work too hard.”

Indeed, he often does. But that’s because good, hard work helps the human spirit. In fact, that’s largely what Lurie likes about music, he says. It was an early creative love and today it maintains an elevated status to him, despite his long break from it.

“When it’s really right,” Lurie says. “When it all falls into place, you just go Ah! It’s a little chunk of soul that just comes through.”

All photos courtesy HBO and Warner Media

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