The road less traveled

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Andy Friedman advises show bookers not to describe what he does as “spoken word.” He also cautions against publicizing him as a “poet” or a “storyteller.” Friedman has learned through experience that nobody will show up to see that kind of performance. But he also says it is not a good idea to call his performances “avant-garde” or “conceptual.” The problem here is the type of crowd that will show up.

For the past few years, the Brooklyn-based artist has been traveling the country, telling witty tales, spoken and sung, set to a lullaby of strumming. He also runs a slideshow of images — his photos, drawings and paintings — that work with the lyrics (and sometimes don’t). How to describe such a show? It’s pretty easy, just as he sings. No matter if you see Andy Friedman & the Other Failures at a bar or a bookstore, you’ll feel like you are at home in an old living room that’s been redecorated. Metro Times recently spoke to him about how his project came together.

Metro Times: Do you tour so you can have something to write about?

Andy Friedman: I got into this by accident. I always knew I could draw and paint. Therein lies my chops. But the question was what to do with it? I’m not Andrés Segovia; I mean I can barely play rhythm guitar. And my voice is something like Townes Van Zandt before he died. But it’s my desire to look viewers in the eye and give them something of an experience that I’ve experienced.

MT: You say you’re not a musician but you know about music. Do you listen while you’re painting or drawing?

Friedman: Oh my god, 100 percent. But honestly, 60 percent of my life has a sound track — in the car, on the kitchen radio and now with the iPod. Anything from Jackson Browne to Reverend Gary Davis to Loretta Lynn to Rickie Lee Jones to Willie Nelson. It’s like having a therapist there all the time. It’s survival.

MT: How do the different elements of music and visual art end up coming together in your shows?

Friedman: It’s like this: I’ll walk outside, stub my toe and mutter something to myself. Then that becomes a metaphor. Out comes this perfect line. I write it down, not knowing what to do with it until I’m somewhere in central California. I pull over at a rest stop, get out of my car and there it is: this picture. I don’t know what it is, but I know it as if I’m looking at myself in the mirror. I take the picture. Then, a few days later, when I’m somewhere in Oregon, let’s say I stub my toe again and that reminds me of the line, and the image suddenly seems to fit. That unfolds with more words and images. Slap a title on it, and there you go.

MT: Is it a challenge to be oriented to small things and also able to build them into something bigger?

Friedman: This method of working came together for me while I was working as a cartoonist at The New Yorker, doing those one-liners. It’s really demanding. You might sell one a month, but if you are not sending in 15 new ideas a week, regardless of whether they sell or not, you are not going to get looked at. That intensity forces you to keep a notebook in your pocket. A lot of cartoonists go home and think. But I let the world do it for me. If I’m in one of these raw food bars on my block in Brooklyn, chances are I’ll hear some line that’s perfect. I walk around with big nets catching everything. Whether you are a career artist or not, if you wrote down every time you were inspired or took a picture of everything that moves you, everyone would have what they call an “oeuvre.”

MT: Has anything ever come from dreams?

Friedman: Oh, god yeah. One night in Montana, last November, I had two days off so I got a cabin. The place was unbelievable, cheaper than a Motel 6 in the middle of nowhere. It was $60 for a full cabin with a fireplace and amenities, overlooking a lake, with elk outside. I did a lot of writing in those two days. One night I dreamt a full song, complete with rhymes and where to put solos. I woke up at four in the morning, and continued it in the notebook. It was called Willing to Lose, about how I owed everything to my wife Tara. Before I met her, I felt like I never had enough time to paint. You know those types? They can never go out to dinner because “tonight’s studio night.” When I met her, I was able to laugh when my pencils were mad at me. I’d tell them, “Fuck you. Me and Tara are going out to the movies.” And then, my drawings became better. This whole crazy idea to travel would have never happened if I was still relying on my art, and the success of it, to be the anchor.

MT: Do you feel your ideas are limited by one medium?

Friedman: Sure. In contemporary painting from the 20th century onward, you can contain all your ideas in one medium because paintings are about painting itself. But the problem is they are not about life lessons. If that stuff exists, it is an allegory, or something well-hidden in the background. And what I’m proposing is like a new Baroque era, where we turn the lens inward, but now that we are equipped with more than just one way of working, we can combine concepts and put it to good accessible use.

Let’s start talking about stuff that we all care about. Painting needs rock ’n’ roll. Music and art have always fed off each other, but music in the 20th century took off on a whole other level. It turned into a confessional art form. The concepts, philosophies and theories about music are all there, but they’re second place to what’s being said.

MT: Do you think fine art now is more about how to make something, rather than what is being made?

Friedman: Yes — or why. I’m very inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s decision to sign a urinal and put it in a gallery, but not when I am lonely. Sure, it stimulates my cunning and my dare, and it is profound. But at 3 in the morning, I have never cracked open a bottle of wine and looked through a Donald Judd book. I’ll listen to old Hank Williams records and that satisfies me intellectually — because of the way he plays guitar — and it gives me a common denominator.

MT: In the Future Blues book of words and images you put out, there’s a photo spread featuring a small town street scene, with a building called the Sports Shop. It evokes a beautiful sense of nostalgia. It seems like your shows have the same tone. What is that vibe that comes off of one of your performances that makes people feel so at home?

Friedman: Let me explain why that picture is in the book in the first place. There’s a song by Antonio Carlos Jobim that Frank Sinatra sang, called Meditation. The lyrics go something like this: “The thought of you makes my loneliness disappear. Though you are far away, I’ll wait for you. What else can I do? I’ll wait for you, meditating.” I put those lyrics in Future Blues, and that picture seemed to go with it. For everyone, there is this thing that we want, but don’t have, whether it’s a place, a person, a lover, a job or a situation. Art, for me, is the meditation. It is enough. It fills the potholes and makes for a smooth ride. That’s the coziness you are feeling — somebody else filling that void for you, inspiring you to do the same.


Andy Friedman & the Other Failures perform at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 21, at the College for Creative Studies, 201 E. Kirby, Detroit.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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