© Adrian Korte

Feature
Artists

What songs do contemporary artists listen to while they work? Tune in to our Spotify playlist to find out

and

From Joni Mitchell to Radiohead and Sun Ra, Michael Armitage, Jenny Saville, Chantal Joffe and Rashid Johnson reveal their favourite tracks

Our new podcast series A brush with… explores the life and work of four artists—Michael Armitage, Jenny Saville, Chantal Joffe and Rashid Johnson—through in-depth conversations about their cultural experiences. As well as discussing the art, film, books and other culture that inspires them, we ask what music they listen to in their studio and explore what role it plays in their practices. The responses of the four artists in series one, sponsored by Cork Street Galleries, are hugely diverse, with music from across genres used to different effect as they create their work. Such is the richness of the sounds they have encouraged us to listen to, we thought we would create a playlist on Spotify with examples of the tracks and artists hailed by our guests. Read on to discover the different ways they inspired the four artists, and you can hear the full interviews and subscribe to A brush withhere.

Michael Armitage

Michael Armitage © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

Franco & Le TPOK Jazz

Layile and Massu

“When I was thinking about formal aspects of building up a painting—colour, narrative, subject interests—the biggest influence I had was probably Soukous music from Congo,” Armitage says. “And one particular musician who I was listening to a lot at the time was this guy called Franco and his group was Le TPOK Jazz. There is something in these endless 15-minute pop songs that is just entrancing and beautiful. You just can't get enough and you have a huge sense of place, which is interesting because there's such a variety of places in the history of that music, whether it's South America, the Caribbean, whether it's Congo. But I kept having these really strong, vivid images of being where the music is from, somewhere like Kinshasa, which I've never been to. And not only that, when you listen to it, and you're like me and you don't understand the words, you are just in the abstract beauty of the melody, when you find out what he's singing about… it’s like the most horrific situations and completely challenging social norms: really brave, really courageous subjects to be taking on, given the risk that it would mean to such a public figure. For me that that made me think: ‘Can I do that in painting?’ And, of course, there are examples that I could then go to in painting, where people do use language in a similar way. But it felt like it was more contradictory, because in painting often you talk to somebody about a difficult dark subject, and they talk about dark paintings. It isn’t like using beauty in the same way as they were doing in Franco’s music. It's stuck with me for a long time and has affected decisions I've made in my paintings continuously.”

Helle Melange and Ufer by Cluster

“Sometimes, I get stuck on something,” Armitage says, and he listens to music on repeat over long periods. One example was the album Curiosum by the German electronica duo Cluster, on which these two tracks appear. He adds that listening to albums repeatedly “does help put you in a certain frame of mind. And it also gives you a physical energy.”

Jenny Saville

Jenny Saville Photo courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

4 Impromptus Op.90, D.899: No.4 in Ab Major by Franz Schubert

“I’m pretty ruthless with music,” Saville says. “I use music as a way to get in the right mood for what I want. I listen to things on repeat. So it's very annoying; if anybody were in my studio, they would just be going completely crazy, because I can listen to one single piece of music for the whole duration of an artwork, or even for a show. So Schubert's Impromptu Opus 90 D.899. is seven minutes long. And I listened to that on repeat for the whole of a piece of work called In the Voice of the Shuttle. And I've never really listened to the piece since; every time I listen to it I think of the moment I was working.”

Weird Fishes/Arpeggi by Radiohead

One of the highlights from Radiohead’s masterpiece In Rainbows, which, Saville says, “I listened to on repeat when I was making the Mother and Child drawings (late 2000s). You may or may not think that that goes together but actually the repetitions of sounds and the layerings were a good companion for me at that time. And there's an urgency in the music that I liked.”

Facades by Philip Glass

Goldberg Variations, BWV988 by Johann Sebastian Bach

Although she listens to a huge variety of music—not included in this playlist are other artists she mentions including Nirvana and Jay-Z (“I like to listen to hip hop at night, for some reason,” she says)—Saville is “actually not very kind to music because I don't give the credit that it deserves”, she suggests. “I used to listen to Philip Glass a lot when I was mixing colours,” she explains. And she has recently been listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Both also attest to her enthusiasm for layering and repetition.

4st 7lb by Manic Street Preachers

The coiling, gnarled, tragic song at the heart of arguably the finest album of the Manics’ glittering catalogue, The Holy Bible (1994), for which Saville’s Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) is the cover art. Like most of the songs on the album, the lyric was written by Richey Edwards, who disappeared in February 1995 and is presumed to have died by suicide. “I knew the band when I first did it, but it was actually talking to Richey on the telephone. He faxed me the lyrics… I was in Glasgow, and they started coming out of my fax machine. And so I was reading them upside down. And it was a song called 4st 7lb about anorexia and [Edwards’s] weight. And they were so profound; the lyrics of that whole album are just amazing. That's what prompted me to do it.” Saville and the Manics worked together again on the 2009 album Journal for Plague Lovers, with Saville’s dramatic portrait Stare (2005) on the cover. “It was a real pleasure to reunite with them for the next album. So I immediately said yes, I thought it was a sort of beautiful shape to the work. And actually [Manics bassist and lyricist] Nicky Wire sent me a text message the other day as he saw my new painting online and so we've kept a relationship going, which is really lovely.”

Chantal Joffe

Chantal Joffe © Isabelle Young

People Ain’t No Good by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Both Sides Now, A Case of You and Little Green by Joni Mitchell

Chantal Joffe’s studio life is haunted by these two great songwriters. “I've got a very old CD player and my daughter always groans because it’s either Joni Mitchell or Nick Cave, almost exclusively, and, like, two CDs. You know, so I'll be sort of droning away—People They Ain't No Good, or something—and she’ll be, like, ‘I can't listen to that ever again’, though she loves Nick Cave. But I have no ear for music. And even though I've been listening to Joni Mitchell for 30-odd years, I still don't know the words to the songs—which is quite an achievement.” Joffe says of her painting process: “When I sit down to paint, it's like immediately switching on a radio in my head. I can hear my own thoughts in a way that I can't without the brush in my hand [...] In a funny way, the actual image of what I'm painting is weirdly the least important thing. It's the access to the thoughts I’m after.” And music, she explains, “helps the kind of turning-on-the-thoughts bit for me. If I'm quite stuck, I will often turn on the CD player. But then I can literally play the same CD maybe 20 times. I think a lot of people who really love music could not listen to a badly scratched CD 20 to 30 times a day and not find it annoying… I would say I was not a connoisseur of music.”

Rashid Johnson

Rashid Johnson © Rashid Johnson. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Axel Dupeux

Microphone Fiend by Eric B and Rakim

Johnson says that Rakim, the MC in this seminal hip-hop duo, was the first artist he loved. “There's a line in particular in Microphone Fiend which has been kind of a guiding light for me and my project. He suggests that he's at the park and they won't let him use the microphone because they say he’s too small or something. And he says: ‘Cool, because I don't get upset, I kick a hole in the speaker, pull the plug, then I jet.’ Meaning: if he wasn't going to get his opportunity to speak, to be creative, to amplify his voice, to be heard, he was going to destroy the opportunity for everybody else. And I remember thinking: ‘Wow, what is this commitment?’ Like, what and how did this guy find something that was so important to him that he was willing to, at all costs, invest in it and explore it? And that, to me, is still a guiding light and a principle.”

Steps by Cecil Taylor

Lonely Woman by Ornette Coleman

Ja by Art Ensemble of Chicago

Taylor, Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago are among the many jazz artists that provide a soundtrack to Johnson’s studio life. “I’ve always had a real interest in improvisation and avant-garde jazz,” he says. “So you'll hear a lot of Cecil Taylor in my studio, you’ll hear a lot of Ornette Coleman, you'll hear a lot of Art Ensemble of Chicago, some stuff that people would imagine as noise, some music that people may even be quite frustrated by. So I don't have a big team that works with me but when we do have someone new come in, they have to be indoctrinated into the fact that I play some things that can be tough on the ears for certain people, if it's not something to which they are accustomed.”

Cosmic Slop by Funkadelic

Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker) by Parliament

The two elements of George Clinton’s P-Funk project have a distinct role in Johnson’s working life. “There's a lot of Parliament-Funkadelic that I've listened to at more celebratory moments. Oftentimes, when I'm finished with something, I'll put on Parliament-Funkadelic. And I like it as witnessing music: as music that I can look at the work around.” Asked if it is as if he is inviting Clinton into the studio to come and observe his work with him, he responds: “That would be the best thing that could ever happen… I would love to just get a crit from George. He’s amazing, him and Bootsy [Collins, the Parliament-Funkadelic bassist].”

Space is the Place by Sun Ra

Much of Johnson’s early work connects with Afrofuturism, of which Sun Ra is the most celebrated musical purveyor. “When I was a younger artist, I found Afrofuturism to be a fantastic space to explore. I still think it's really interesting. I'm not sure right now, in my project, I have the kind of investment in Afrofuturist narratives that I once had. I'm not suggesting that that's a young man's or young artist's position to explore. But it's definitely a space that I continue to be interested in and it's definitely music that I continue to be interested in. I listen to Sun Ra quite often and I love the message. Some aspects of it I like more than when I was a little bit younger: the escapist aspects of his work are some of the things that continue to be really present in my work. The fact that Sun Ra believed himself to actually be from Mars and that he had become, for whatever reason, so disillusioned by the world that we inhabit here and its limitations that he created a parallel universe for himself. Within or outside the Afrofuturist narrative, that, conceptually, is fascinating to me.”