By Megan Walters
For more than three decades, singer/songwriter Chris Connelly has had a prolific output of work with many notable bands and projects, stretching from The Fini Tribe in his early days in Edinburgh, to legendary Chicago industrial groups Ministry and RevCo, to his career-spanning and highly personal solo albums. It was my absolute pleasure to interview Chris in the honour of his sixteenth solo album Art & Gender; we got in-depth about what it was like to write this album, women as artists, song meanings, literature, and some Tom Verlaine…
- What does “Art and Gender” mean to you?
It is a complex discussion, and a complex relationship — but to maybe simplify, there are a few factors at play. At the most obvious level, I am questioning the acceptance (or un-acceptance) of much art based upon the gender of its creator, and how — like many things — it can be a very male-dominated area, troublesome to me in that the art cannot be accepted simply on its own merits, that it is generated by a female somehow adds a novelty value to something. I am not saying that art is genderless — of course, there is much art that absolutely is a product of the gender that produced it, but it all needs to be recognized for the work, not the artist.
I consider my own work to be of both genders, and it certainly does not confuse me; rather I find it to have broadened my palette and allowed more empathy perhaps to inform my work. The cover of the new album is a drawing from a very androgynous photograph of myself. It’s also a photograph that was taken a long time ago — maybe 25 years ago — so it’s very much a statement, what was perhaps an easier visual statement to make when I was a lot younger is now kept within the corridors, rooms and panoramas of song.
- What is your songwriting process like? Did it differ for this album compared to any previous ones? How/why?
The songwriting process is always different to greater and lesser degrees. For Art & Gender, it started as a sort of visceral exercise in writing. I know how my guitar feels cradled in my arms, and I can feel the fingers moving towards and upon the fretboard, and without thinking about it, I allowed myself to compose these asymmetrical melodies. The trick was to not think about it — which is not hard for me, as I never analyze my work whilst I am doing the work — so in many ways what I did was more of a physical process than a thought process. Then the words followed suit, an outpouring which I then loosely corralled into a vague verse form. By not thinking about the words, they become more of a collection of physical shapes than a narrative, but that’s not to say they are without meaning: the meaning is already there by virtue of the fact that I am a living, breathing, functional human with relationships, joys, and hardships like anybody else. The words’ relationship with the music creates the abstract landscapes, still lifes, and tableaus that a huge part of me exists within and travels through.
There are many different consciousnesses alive within Art & Gender. I liken them to the supporting cast you might see in a Dali or a Bacon painting. One of the things I love in paintings is not necessarily the object but the environment it exists in, and it’s important for me that this exists in my songs. I don’t go out of my way to create such environments, but if it is not there, I feel it, and the song is not finished yet.
- Was there an intentional theme for this album? I can hear many references to paintings, art and books in this new body of work. Are there any books, films, pieces of art in particular influencing you for Art & Gender?
I think something of major impetus at the genesis of my writing was the extreme political landscape. All of a sudden, we are facing a situation where our identities are threatened, where our creativity has gone beyond being marginalized, and we can finally see sexuality and expression becoming illegal: Art & Gender! I came of age in an environment where being gay, transgender, deviant, or just different was accepted and celebrated, and I was able to relax. That’s no longer there, or at least it is slipping away, and I can see much negative energy coming forth from people who have decided it’s time to say what they really mean. It’s everywhere and it’s horrifying and it’s breaking my heart. After the initial shock of the political earthquake, I became resolute to celebrate and encourage what I love and admire, what I feel defines me. I think Art & Gender is not an easy album. I think it’s uncompromising in the way that I feel art should be, it does not want to be anything but what it is: art. So, it is without message in a way, rather it is the message, it is the abstract painting, the sculpture, the experimental film, and I think that through this, it has the beauty of its own defiance. At least, that is the intention. There are too many real cases through history of artists being imprisoned, and I think there will be an increase: more prison camps for homosexuals like in Chechnya, witch burning, witch hunts.
Apart from this unavoidable political stance on this record, I find the references (not necessarily direct influences, I don’t know, that’s for the listener to decide) are all things I have referenced before in my work — old favourites! James Lasdun, the writer, has his work name-checked twice, but he is an important one. Also Harold Pinter, but I may as well have put Mike Leigh in there instead — the reference is a little interchangeable in a way. “A Distant Black Spring” has quite a few layers, the first being the reference to Hermes (“Hermes couldn’t put it better”) and his siring of Hermaphroditus with Aphrodite, so the first line on the album addresses the transgender question in the form of a positive. The “Distant Black Spring” is an image in the distance — possibly in the background of a landscape painting — an object that could be a coiled spring or a snake, coiled suggesting potential energy rather than it being latent or idling. There is definitely a phallic suggestion in that, and as the serpent moves underground later in the song, it suggests a hidden shame. The last line has a picture slammed into a book. This refers to the writer (me): I have several scribblings, drawings. and writings that are kept in books — hidden, yet not quite — and they go back decades. I have always kept pictures and writing this way, since I was a child. It keeps them flat and undisturbed, but I have forgotten about most of them; on the occasion of perhaps pulling out a book to look at, something from 20 years ago might fall out.
- Your writing process seems very personal but your lyrics could be interpreted in many ways. Do you get anything out of learning how other people interpret your work, or do you think “that was NOT what I meant”? Is the meaning behind your song lyrics or poetry something you are interested in sharing with your listeners or do you like to keep it to yourself and let people determine their own understanding?
Well, I can’t be on hand (except now!) to discuss or explain, and I think many lyricists will back off explaining, and that isn’t a cop out. That conduit between the soul and the outside world is often fickle and difficult to translate, with me (and many others) it is always going to be impressionistic. The writing is almost always immediate, so you have perhaps the subject, the initial inspiration, which immediately gets flanked by the peripheral, and sometimes you get the peripheral view first, and the subject is generated by that. This might appear to you as convoluted, but one has to learn to kind of lie back and let the song write itself, to not question what is appearing in front of you, which is the way I approach, although I think it has taken a lot of songs to get to that point.
I have never really said “that’s not what I meant”. People can take what they will from what I write. I think the word impressionism needs to apply to the beholder as well as the artist. People keep listening to me for their own reasons; if they don’t, then they stop listening. Of course, hearing what other people think is always enlightening and really quite wonderful, otherwise I would not make my art public. If it becomes a conversation, then I believe I have achieved something good.
The lyrics on Art & Gender appeared very quickly, and it is very rare that I will labour over songs — not unheard of though, but mostly this has to do with chord structure and not lyric — and most of the time what comes out first is what will remain. I can’t scrape the paint off the canvas! I think a good example of this is perhaps “Stampede Weather”, which started when I heard distant thunder one day, and it sounded like it could have been a stampede. So immediately there is this duality stampede/weather, and the idea of a colloquialism sprang to mind (like “good fishing weather” or something), and from that I immediately went back to this fake prairie from another time, maybe the merest spectre of Tennessee Williams, and a definite bow to Gershwin in there. So these are the lenses I am looking through as I watch a fictitious ghost-herd of buffalo from a forgotten time, but it’s almost conversational to me, the lyric is a polite soliloquy from one to another.
“Slim Volume” is inspired in a very abstract way by two writers I love: James Lasdun and Hugo Wilcken. Hugo is actually a friend of mine and we have admired each other’s work for some years. When I wrote “Slim Volume” I had just finished his novel, “The Reflection”, and the last section — basically the finale — was in a style of writing that I found incredibly breathtaking. It was like looking at a vast number of black and white street scenes from an old New York, all super-imposed on top of each other. In one way it reminded me of what I sometimes arrive at: images on top of each other rather than side by side — in another way, it reminded be of the lyrics to Television’s Marquee Moon which is one of the towering monoliths of lyrical beauty rarely challenged — which is what you get in “Slim Volume”. (The title refers to a “slim volume of poetry”.) Loosely speaking, the song is about a character frozen in fear but exposed to a light of knowledge that, in melting him, erodes his shape and ultimately vaporizes him. The song is a collection of memories, good and bad, evaporating one after the other until there is nothing, a wire worn to try and record is lost as well, at the end of the song we are left with nothing but an animal howl as the protagonist disappears. It is kind of set up as a noir fiction; Hugo and I have shared many noir book recommendations, and many of them are slim volumes, as existential as they come.
“Art & Gender” — This is kind of the M.C. Escher lyric in a sense. It starts with the painting of a torrential downpour being left out in a torrential downpour, which of course ultimately destroys the painting. (In Johnathan Lethem’s magnificent “Motherless Brooklyn”, the protagonist is a detective with Tourette syndrome. At various points in the book he describes aspects of it and at one point tries to illustrate what may be an act of futility or just a mental process by talking about “calling someone on the phone to talk about phones”. This appealed to my sense of humour, drawing a picture of a pencil with a pencil, etc.) This is me reflecting on how, perhaps, in my career, I have made some bad decisions and shot myself in the foot. It is certainly the most personal song on the album — “I never was a painter, but I could always draw my blood” and “I never was a writer, but I could always write you off” — which is me talking to me, the frustrated novelist/painter settling for music. But I often cannot believe how dissatisfied with my gift I can get. I think it has mostly to do with my poor associations in the past through the music business. “Art & Gender” is both about me shifting gender in song and melody, and also a statement about women being accepted for their art as artists and not women. (Although I have said this before, no harm in saying it twice.) “The life model stance” is me again: before I moved to the States, my last job was that of a life model at Edinburgh College of Art, which was pure torture but it taught me a discipline and it was when I think I started to allow myself (or rather I was forced) to actually become the art.
- Your work seems to differ greatly from one release to the next. Some of your songs and albums have a very traditional pop or folk sound to them whereas some others like Art & Gender feel much more asymmetrical, like an abstract “impressionist” kind of feeling. Is there a deliberate shift in your process or intent from one album to the next? What do you personally get out or writing one kind of song versus another?
No, I cannot predict what will happen next. I remember when Bill Rieflin and I started work on “Largo”, we had talked about making something that was really “poppy”, and about half way through we were laughing because, as you know, it could not have strayed farther from that (ridiculous) intention. Then again, with material that was happening around about the same time, there was definitely a lean towards a pop sound: songs like “Candyman Collapse” or “Julie Delpy”. I love writing a good melody and I will go wherever it takes me. In a sense, the writer (me) is at his most vulnerable when in this creative moment. The end result will always be a mystery until it is done, but it is still a product of what is going on in my mind, maybe consciously but usually subconsciously; none more so than on Art & Gender songs like “A Distant Black Spring”, which came out spontaneously. Same goes for “Seven Lies…” — they have no symmetry except for their own symmetry, if that makes any sense. But I am not about to go back in and shape the songs into a predictable pattern. Maybe on the next record.
Impressionism still has the impression of the person or object it is depicting very clearly, however seen through the artist’s particular filter, and that’s what makes impressionism so important to me. Often it is not the actual painting — a lot of it is not necessarily to my aesthetic — but, the fact that it happened that way, to me, is the essence of the creative spirit, and that should give us all faith to move forward.
- The song “Union Canal Blues” has a connection to your novel Ed Royal in it. Do you like to reference your own work and does that ever lead to revisiting older works? Would you ever read your own book or listen to a past album for reference, inspiration or nostalgia?
The Union Canal, which travels through Edinburgh, is one of the most important places in my life. It is something that has been there since day one and has had differing levels of importance to me, both good and bad, but I spent a lot of time there and it keeps coming back. Funnily enough, I sent the song to the Scottish film director David MacKenzie, who made the film Young Adam, which is based around the canal — he loved it. He is also a fan of Ed Royal.
I do not often listen to my own records, but sometimes, for nostalgia. I listened to Shipwreck recently because I was re-learning the songs and it was strange — it was very emotional. I really love that record but it can be hard to listen to. But, as you mentioned earlier, my work is kind of all over the place, so generally listening to older stuff is a bit baffling and I wonder how I ended up at that point. For me, it’s like alien abduction — it is kind of erased from your memory as soon as they are done prodding you and putting you back in your bed. I don’t think listening to my old records is particularly inspiring — no, that’s not where inspiration comes from. Inspiration definitely has a sell-by date and it has to be fairly fresh to work. I usually will only listen to my oldies when I have had a couple of drinks, and I never work when I drink!
- I have heard you mention once before that you started making your own music because no one else was making the kind of music you wanted to hear. Is this still true? Is there anyone else making music you like to hear lately?
I am sure there are great things out there. Most of the stuff that turns me on is the work of my friends, whether written word, film, or music. I am very lucky to have a lot of friends who are far more talented than I am, and I am continually excited by their work.
Yes, I make the records I want to hear, moreso nowadays. When I was done with Art & Gender, I realized that I had made not only an album, but an album that I wanted to hear, and I was very proud of that moment. I had not intended to make an album and I was so, so deep in the writing process — it was like waking up with a souvenir from a dream. (If you will allow the Tom Verlaine reference!)