Thinking Outside the Box: Musicians Explore Other Art Forms

Videos by American Songwriter

WIlco's Pat Sansone snaps a pic.
Wilco's Pat Sansone snaps a picture.

Given Jack White’s notoriously frenetic and easily distracted music career, few were surprised to hear about the Dead Weather, his rock-band-du-jour. Perhaps more unpredictable is the recent announcement of White’s cameo in the upcoming Mutant Swinger From Mars, a sci-fi spin-off to be aired at San Diego’s Comic-Con Film Festival (July 23-26). Though the film rapped over a decade ago, it has taken time for this non-musical incarnation of White to reach the masses.

Musicians do occasionally enjoy applying their creative genius to media other than music. You have probably heard about Bob Dylan’s poetry and artwork selling for thousands at Christie’s. You might have heard about David Byrne designing New York City’s new bike racks or converting an old ferry terminal into a giant instrument. However, you may not have known that David Berman (formerly of Silver Jews) recently produced a book of cartoons called The Portable February, or that Simone Felice (Felice Brothers, The Duke & the King) is an acclaimed novelist, who wrote Goodbye Amelia: Fictions. When musicians are not performing, writing, or recording, they explore their world by other means.

While performing affords songwriters the opportunity to revisit old tunes, the songs themselves are limited by long-standing conventions and impatient audiences. For Felice, fiction is an outlet that is at once personal and permanent, with no restrictions on space or time. In taking a break from his brothers’ band, he told fans, “I’ve been writing a lot this past year, and seeing as my role in the band was always more of a supportive one, I’ve been compelled to find a vehicle that would help me be able to share all these new songs and stories.” Musicians rely on these “vehicles” to remain in motion as artists and as people.

Speaking of vehicles, Neil Young is notorious for his car fetish. When he is off the road, he is likely working on one of his vintage rides. In addition to being a motorhead, Young is an outspoken environmentalist. His most recent record, Fork In The Road, is a concept album about a cross-country road trip in his homemade electric car. It is perhaps most remarkable when artists are able to integrate several media or interests in order to locate a unifying theme.

As constant touring and recording can become almost dehumanizing, taking time to explore from another angle is crucial to any artist’s imaginative growth. An act as simple as checking out the parking lot after a gig can make any music career more meaningful. In Ashes of American Flags, Wilco enthusiasts can catch a glimpse of multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone snapping Polaroids in a deserted lot. Sansone is as enamored with Polaroid as he is with the blue-collar backdrop of his tour. He explains, “It’s been interesting going around the country and going into small towns because a lot of what I like to shoot is little details of old downtowns…capturing these little pieces of a fading America with a fading technology.”

Just as a Polaroid exposure begins to fade soon after it magically appears, so too can an artist’s interest or ability atrophy into disappointment and mediocrity. Flexing other expressive muscles gives a musician a chance to expand or redefine a body of work. While our favorite musicians continue to tinker, some may grow anxious that the glorious music will never return. We can be reassured by a caption under one of David Berman’s new cartoons, “Don’t worry, it’s just a phase.”

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