Thus far, The Studio Companion Series has focused on the podcasts that inspire me in my studio practice. This week, for the final installment of The Studio Companion Series, I focus on the music that gets me started in the studio, keeps me going through challenges, and helps me over the finish line!
We all have soundtracks to our lives. Different moments in time are marked by the music we chose to listen to and/or that is around us in our environments. For me, my teenage years are closely intertwined with the music of two Canadian singer-songwriters: Sarah Harmer and Feist.
I remember getting ready for school on sunny spring mornings in the early 2000s while listening to the CD my sister had given me for my birthday, Feist’s Let it Die (2004). I felt very grown-up selecting my jewelry for the day and singing along to songs about adult life (like “Mushaboom”). Just like the art that I was discovering at the time in my high school art history classes, the music of these women ignited a feeling of anticipation and hopefulness both for my life then and for my future. Through lyrics and rhythm, I felt the world opening up.
Like music, painting can be energetic, intuitive, and emotional. Painting in high school, I had a couple of go-to albums including the Garden State soundtrack (2004) and the Bridget Jones’s Diary soundtrack (2001). Listening to these today transports me back to my childhood home playroom where I had set up my little studio. Today, I’m still listening to Sarah Harmer and Feist and have added some new artists to the rotation. I’ve noticed that my music choices in the studio fall into two main categories, one a bit quieter and more reflective, the other, more energetic.
#1. The Rhythm of Reflection
The music that fits into this category is of the personal, comforting kind. It’s here where Sarah Harmer and Feist belong for me. Listening to their albums—You Were Here, I’m A Mountain; Let it Die, The Reminder, respectively—takes me back to a time when I was first really discovering my love of painting. This is the music that I know so well I can describe it as my “background” music; it’s part of my own story present, past, and imagined future.
I listen to this music when I am in the flow of painting: mixing colours on my palette and putting them down on the canvas. Hours can pass and the familiar soundtracks offer rhythms that put me in a calm and reflective mood. I can let my mind wander and connect with my emotions while listening and painting.
The artists I listen to are, in addition to Feist and Sarah Harmer, another long-time favourite, Madeleine Peyroux, and a brand-new discovery, The Weather Station.
Madeleine Peyroux’s album, Half a Perfect World, always feels like just the right soundtrack for the first warm day of spring: a sunny sky with a gentle breeze and fresh flowers (this association probably has something to do with the song, “The Summer Wind”). Peyroux’s warm voice and the jazz instrumentals make any day feel special.
The Weather Station is a Canadian folk band that was recently recommended to me by a friend and has made it into my permanent rotation. Their 2021 album, Ignorance, is described on their website as a “sonic landscape”, a “wilderness of notes”. I couldn’t put it any better than Kitty Empire, who wrote in her Guardian review of the album that it “Trickles out emotion in careful dropperfuls.”
How it helps in the studio: The long-standing connection that I feel towards this music helps ground me in my working flow. I usually feel in a pensive, reflective, or contented state of mind when I’m listening to this music and the emotions swirling around, I can channel into my paintings.
#2. An Energy Boost
The music that is in this energetic category is of the more intense or fast-paced, upbeat variety. Going through my music libraries, I’ve noticed that much more of what I listen to fits into the former category, but that doesn’t mean this category is any less important.
I listen to this music usually when I am finishing a painting and in the last stages. This is the time in my painting process that involves adding highlights and the final touches that make the painting come out stronger as a whole. I follow my intuition, but these stages require boldness and energetic enthusiasm. I don’t want to put the brush down before I really feel that finished “click”.
The artists I like to listen to are, First Aid Kit—folk musicians and sisters from Sweden, ABBA—the Swedish pop-rock legendary band active in the 1970s, and Brandi Carlile, a contemporary American singer-songwriter. The beats and vocals of these musicians keep me on my toes in the studio.
First Aid Kit has songs that fall into both the reflection and the energetic category but when it comes to the music’s role in my painting practice, it’s songs like “Wolf”—with haunting vocals and fast beats—that help me take risks.
ABBA makes me want to dance, which can be hard to do while painting (but not impossible). The instrumental introduction to “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” grabs me every time.
Brandi Carlile’s song, “Carried Me With You” (from the Pixar film Onward) I heard at the beginning of the pandemic. I listened to it again and again and it felt like a sort of lifeline to gratitude in a very uncertain time. More recently, I’ve been listening to her songs “The Story” and “The Joke” for their beautiful lyrics and the power of Carlile’s voice.
How it helps in the studio: the energy of the music gives me energy and boosts my own feeling of confidence. This translates into trusting the bolder brush strokes I make towards the final stages in my work and helps me to keep going until the end. It happens sometimes that I think a painting is finished but realize that this is tiredness or impatience speaking. A finished painting ignites a feeling and energetic music helps me carry on until that point.
The painting process takes many hours and has many phases: from sketching the composition to working on colour values, details, and finishing touches. I go through many emotional shifts ranging from confidence and optimism to frustration and impatience. Over the days and weeks that I am working on a painting, I need both calming and energetic music in the studio.
I love sharing what inspires me and hope that you share a love for some of these musicians or maybe have discovered one or two musicians to look into!
This concludes The Studio Companion Series, the podcasts and music that help me in my studio practice. I’ll be back in two weeks time with a new post on my painting process and inspiration.
Thanks for reading!
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