'I Always Felt Like a Caged Lion': How Visual Art Freed Songwriting Legend Bernie Taupin
Bernie Taupin spent decades penning lyrics for handfuls of pop’s greatest songs, as he traveled the globe with Elton John. But after his “great transient life” of touring gave way to years spent home on a ranch, Taupin turned what had been a racquetball court -- and later a recording studio -- into an art-making laboratory.
That's where you’re most likely to find him these days, masked against the noxious materials he works with, “cranking up the sounds” and getting to work on the rare days he’s at home. The songwriting genius has swapped words for found objects assembled into wall sculptures, which take up familiar ideas about music and Americana.
Billboard caught up with Taupin, in between appearances at Art Basel in Miami Beach in December and Art Palm Springs this weekend.
In the '90s something changed, and you became more interested in creating visual art. What was on your mind as you started to explore this other side of yourself?
I was never going to be somebody who sat on the side of the road with a canvas and an easel, painting pastoral settings. That was never in the cards for me. I wanted somewhere, something. I needed room to prowl and get organic, room to get dirty and get down with the mediums at hand.
In the early stages, I experimented with abstract art -- [German expressionist] Hans Hofmann being the sort of key for me because I loved the fact that he seemed so animalistic in his creative attack of things. There was no standing back and analyzing, he just got down into it.
I started to take notice of people like [Robert] Rauschenberg, Anselm Kiefer, and Antoni Tàpies. I saw what they were doing as the blueprint for where I wanted to go. There was so much found material, and I knew that there was something in there that I could use. But I could also not just emulate. I had to find my own voice within the confines of that kind of work. Then I got to the point of "Okay, I am purloining from other sources -- this isn’t what I want to do." Like every artist, you want to find your own voice.
Were there experiences you had when you were younger that moved you towards the visual arts?
On the East Coast in the early 70s, which is when Elton and I first came to New York, it seemed to be a constant winter in the city. It was cold or quite miserable. At that particular time our financial situation was fairly thin, and I just found myself seeking refuge in places that could stimulate and encourage whatever I was striving for, and those places were museums and certainly the Museum of Modern Art.
You have to understand, where I grew up [in England] was the equivalent of the middle of Idaho. It was a very, very bleak, black-and-white postwar childhood. I shouldn’t say my life was bleak, but if you talk to people of my generation, they always talk about England as being in black and white after the war, and when the '60s arrived, the color came back into it. But by then I was still chomping at the bit to get out of it, and get here.
I am very lucky to say that I had a very inspirational and slightly bohemian mother. I’ve constantly said that she was probably the driving force, the hammer that beat the nail into the creative senses. She was the one that turned me onto books, poetry, to history, to art. It wasn’t necessarily the kind of history or art that I ultimately gravitated to, but she certainly struck the match. She was the catalyst for everything that came after.
It’s easy to feel that the worlds of visual art and music are completely separate. Yet with the whole city as the backdrop, these different worlds are more like overlapping concentric circles. Were you crossing paths with visual artists you admired at the time?
No, I only wish I could say I did! For me, art and music go hand in hand. They are totally cross-connected. That’s why I can never understand [how] it can seem so incongruous that if you’re involved in music, you can’t be involved in art, or vice-versa. They exist in the same vortex. They exist in the same sphere.
I’ve always said if you feel like you want to do something, you should try to do it. You may not excel at it, but it’s a natural thing to do, it’s as natural as the nose on your face.
What are you working on in the studio these days?
Most of what I’m doing now I refer to as wall sculpture because it’s really built as opposed to laid out.
I did a show at KM Fine Art last year which was called "8." Eight pieces, some of which incorporated guitars that’d been deconstructed and charred and burnt. I used a lot of ash and other kinds of found materials within it.
These pieces that I’m doing now are a set of four called “American Guitars,” which all allude to American styles of music -- but they’re all interwoven with the flag also. So it’s a sort of two-pronged attack on musical Americana.
"In the studio" means one thing to a visual art, and a totally different thing for a musician, no?
Yeah, but the difference for me is I like being in one studio, I don’t like being in the other. I never enjoyed recording studios! I loved the process of writing, but I never enjoyed the process of being in the studio. I always felt like a caged lion, I guess because I wasn’t being able to create enough in the studio. Most of my creative input was done outside the studio, then it was taken in the studio. Whereas my studio now, I go in there and create in there.
So it’s sort of the lion’s domain instead of the cage?
In the other one I was the caged animal, in this one I’m the freed animal.