17 Artists Share the Music That Inspires Them

Scott Indrisek
Jun 27, 2018 4:36PM

The artist’s life involves a lot of time spent in the company of one’s own thoughts. And while some may undoubtedly prefer the sound of silence (or a podcast), it’s nearly impossible to imagine a long day in the studio without a proper musical soundtrack, whether that’s Top 40 hip-hop or Bob Dylan singing gospel. We asked some of our favorite artists what they’ve been listening to while they paint, sculpt, draw, or weld—and wait for inspiration to strike.

Ellen Berkenblit

Louis Armstrong, Louis and the Good Book, 1958

“This album feels like home,” said Ellen Berkenblit, known for paintings that mix cartoonish figurative elements with bursts of abstract shape and color. “It came out in 1958, the year I was born. My mother and I played it constantly, and sang along to it. It’s sometimes too emotional for me to actually play it in the studio, so I sing it in my head.” The artist currently has a show at the Drawing Center (which includes a new film) on view through August 12th, and an exhibition spanning 40 years of her work will open at Anton Kern Gallery in New York on September 12th.

Lonnie Holley

Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life, 1976

Bob Dylan, Trouble No More, 1979–1981

Lonnie Holley is renowned for his raw, found-object assemblages, but he’s also an accomplished musician; this fall, the indie label Jagjaguwar will release his latest album. “Hearing Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life opened up doors of inspiration in my brain,” Holley said. “I started making art a few years later and my art came from the same spiritual realm as Stevie’s; I always wanted to help others. Stevie and I are almost the same age. He could not see what was around him, but I couldn’t understand the things I could see. Stevie’s music helped me see the world differently. He always sang to help humans see.

“Lately, I’ve [also] been really digging Bob Dylan. My friend Matt Arnett turned me onto his music as we’ve been riding up and down the roads of life. I can’t stop listening to Trouble No More, the live recordings of his gospel era. I listened to the two albums non-stop, then learned there was a deluxe edition, which has six more CDs. Man, did that make me happy. I love that so many of the same songs are replayed, over and over, and each time they are different—like the way I make music. It’s like it changed according to the needs of the time.”

David Černý

Various albums, depending on mood

David Černý is one of the Czech Republic’s most visible contemporary artists, making over-the-top work that often catches the eye of the international press: a giant sculpture of a floating hand, its middle finger aloft; a series of creepy babies with smashed-in faces scaling Prague’s unmissable Žižkov Television Tower. He also runs MeetFactory, an industrial space in the city that combines a concert venue with galleries and artist studios. So what does this irreverent multi-tasker listen to? “When grinding and welding, the perfect choice would be Einstürzende Neubauten’s Tabula Rasa,” he said. “When working on the computer: Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon. When screwing…probably Moby.”

Rose Eken

Iceage, Beyondless, 2018

“As a teenager, while working as a technician for different punk rock bands in Copenhagen, I developed a fascination with concert venues and the debris left behind after the gig,” said Rose Eken, whose sculptural work involves lovable recreations of everything from guitar amplifiers to plates of oysters. “This fascination still informs my artistic practice today and music is of course still very much where I draw inspiration and energy.” (Anyone eager for a broader look at Eken’s practice should head to the Horsens Art Museum in Denmark, where she’ll open a show in September.)

Recently, in advance of the release of the Danish band Iceage’s latest album, Eken was asked to create an art piece that related to the lyrics; that work later traveled with the band as part of a roving installation. “I’ve listened to Iceage since their first album, New Brigade, came out in 2011,” Eken explained. “Beyondless is an absolutely amazing, grandiose, poetic, don’t-give-a-damn album—that for sure will pick you up on a gloomy day.”

Summer Wheat

The Legendary Pink Dots, Nemesis Online, 1998

“I kept this CD in my car for several years,” said Summer Wheat, whose next exhibition opens September 8th at Shulamit Nazarian gallery in Los Angeles. “All my friends made fun of it—they called it my ‘gargoyle’ music. It’s a mixture of psychedelic and dark industrial. My now-husband, during one of our first encounters, went along for a drive with me and the album was playing, as it always was, but at low volume. He turned it up and wanted to know what it was…which no one ever did. He loved it, and we drove around for hours listening to it. It made me realize I had met a person as weird as me. The album was the backdrop for me falling in love, traveling to many different countries, and [also played in my] studio for many years. I still listen to the songs ‘As long as it’s Purple and Green’ and ‘Zoo’ from time to time.”

Naama Tsabar

Fever Ray, Plunge, 2017

Israel-born artist Naama Tsabar is renowned for sculptures and performances that engage with sound, often corralling large groups of musicians together to create experiential installations that are both cerebral and moving. (Her Composition 21, 2017, was a personal favorite at the Prospect.4 triennial; East Coast audiences can catch her next solo show, opening July 13th, at The Fireplace Project in East Hampton, New York.)  

“Fever Ray’s Plunge is really a special creation, an inspiring mixture of literal content and an abstract, sonic experience,” Tsabar said. “It really stretches the definition of pop songs—with political, queer content sometimes floating over, and sometimes woven into, its musical landscape. It makes me want to move, which is really important in the studio. ‘To The Moon and Back,’ specifically, is a perfect song for a studio dancing session: sexual, unapologetic, dark, and uplifting.”

Rachel Libeskind

Nina Simone, To Love Somebody, 1969

Rachel Libeskind’s practice is wholly interdisciplinary—a 2017 project, The Day The Father Died, included a live element in which a performer splashed ink on a wall of portraits of Joseph Stalin, all to violin accompaniment. (Her next solo show opens at the end of September at 14a in Hamburg, Germany.) So it’s little surprise that her studio playlist is rather eclectic.

“I had a hard time choosing a single album,” she admitted, noting that other contenders included MF Doom’s Operation: Doomsday; Odetta’s Odetta Sings Dylan; and Mozart’s Requiem. But Simone’s To Love Somebody “makes me dance, cry, laugh, focus—sometimes all at once,” she said. “It makes me think.”

Libeskind is especially fond of the cover versions on the album, with Simone lending her voice to songs by the Byrds, Bob Dylan, the Bee Gees, and others. But Simone’s original contributions are just as strong. “This album encapsulates the power of the female voice, the power of the feminine, and the mystique of her narrative quality of music,” Libeskind added. “The lyrics to every single song are powerful calls to action and are deeply political. It is truly an inspiring collection that, as a whole, will lift you up: not full of empty air, but authentic energy.”

Jon Rafman

The Rippingtons, Tourist in Paradise, 1989 (slowed down to half-speed)

New media pioneer Jon Rafman directed us to a YouTube stream of this album, but specifically suggested we alter the playback settings to half-speed (“or .75, if you don’t want to feel too mellow”). We can attest that the resulting experience is somehow simultaneously soothing and discomfiting—especially by the time the first saxophone solo hits.

“When I’m searching for solitude and peace of mind, I head over to the nearest big hotel chain,” explained Rafman. “I especially like the Radisson because they play muzak in their elevators. Easy-listening background music puts my mind at ease. I can endlessly ride up and down the elevator listening to smooth jazz. Honestly, this is one of the few things that helps keep me productive and sane while I’m working towards a stressful deadline.”

For proof of how elevator music can help spur creativity, check out Rafman’s work in “I was raised on the Internet,” on view now at MCA Chicago; or at the next Sharjah Biennal, opening in 2019.

Brie Ruais

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, F♯ A♯ ∞, 1997

Brie Ruais’s sculptural work with ceramics—much of it showing the evidence of her own physical exertions—finds a dramatic match in this classic 1997 album from the Montreal post-rock outfit. “This is a late-night studio, speakers up, clock face-down, phone off, things-falling-apart-and-coming-together-in-a-spiraling-energetic-mess kind of album,” she said. “It’s been in my rotation for 18 years. Deploy within a creative headspace—not for casual working.”

Torkwase Dyson

MF Doom, Mm..Food, 2004

“I listen because of MF Doom’s ambition, composition, melody, non-linear narrative, discipline, imagination, improvisation, ideas, research, and audio collage,” said Torkwase Dyson, whose powerful paintings and sculpture imbue abstraction with a surprising energy. (A survey of her new work is on view at the Graham Foundation in Chicago through July 28.) “I think MF Doom is a genius writer. You can tell he’s a rigorous listener, ambivalent toward categorizations. It helps keep me focused.”

Despina Stokou

Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy, 2018

Greek-born, Los Angeles-based artist Despina Stokou credits hip-hop with indirectly inspiring her turn to the sort of raw, wild, text-focused painting she’s now known for. While she says that Cardi B isn’t an “all-time favorite,” she does have a real appreciation for the artist (including her recent impressive performance while pregnant at Coachella).

Certain lyrics, as well, apply directly to “all of us art-strippers everywhere,” Stokou said, citing the song “Bodak Yellow”: “Look, I don’t dance now / I make money moves / Say I don’t gotta dance / I make money move / If I see you and I don’t speak / That means I don’t fuck with you / I’m a boss, you a worker bitch / I make bloody moves.”

The artist is showing new work—and, hopefully, making some money move—at an August exhibition with Dio Horia in Mykonos, followed by a solo show at Derek Eller Gallery in New York this October.

Liam Gillick

New Order, Technique, 1989

Liam Gillick is more than just a superfan of the band that formed from the ashes of Joy Division—he also collaborated on a high-tech set design for New Order. “I’ve been working on a series of concerts with the band that started at the Manchester International Festival last year, and moved on to Turin and Vienna this spring,” he explained. “Technique came out just after I left art school, and while it touched me a little at the time, I was too busy to pay attention. That changed a year ago and I now recommend putting this record on under the following circumstances: 1) Things going badly. 2) Things going well. 3) About to go out. 4) Just came home.”

Tal R

Leonard Cohen, Recent Songs, 1979

Copenhagen-based painter Tal R—whose work is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit through July 29th—has a special place in his heart for the song “Came So Far for Beauty,” a prime example of the late Leonard Cohen’s earnest, poetic vision. “It’s a song about a man who gives everything away for beauty,” Tal R explained. “He dyes his hair a new color. Changes his suit from black to silver. Falls down the stairs in every possible way for the beast, beauty.”

Guy Richards Smit

Sparks, Propaganda, 1974

Guy Richards Smit is something of an art-world chameleon: a biting satirist; an occasional stand-up comedian; a watercolor painter in love with skulls, the New York Times, and life’s moments of everyday absurdity. But even he occasionally finds himself creatively blocked. “If, you, like me, are often at wits’ end in the studio—stuck in a rut, staring deeply into the middle distance—then I have one great piece of advice for you,” he counseled. “Get this Sparks album. Get any Sparks album! I only choose this one because there are about 25 and that seems an awful lot to suggest hardly knowing each other as we do, so let’s just ease in with Propaganda. If you don’t know Sparks, then suffice it to say they equal the Velvet Underground in influence, without any of the acclaim. The inventiveness of any given song puts pretty much everyone else to shame. Follow [Sparks co-founder] Ron Mael’s rule that any idea at all is worth turning into something gloriously imaginative—and get back to work.”

Trenton Doyle Hancock

18 Carat Affair, Adventures in Schizophrenia, 2014; Life of Vice, 2011; and 60/40, 2011

Trenton Doyle Hancock hails these three “genre-defining” recordings—each so brief that, he explained, they “sort of add up to one album.”

“These synthwave/vaporwave experiences are collections of 1- to 2-minute-long microsongs that are marked by overlays of familiar sounds from the 1980s,” the artist said. “It becomes a game to figure out where each of the sounds is sourced from. These melancholic and broken sounds mirror the attitude of my toy collection—part of which is now on view at Temple Contemporary—which also consists of objects scavenged from the 1980s.” The exhibition he mentioned, “Moundverse Infants,” is an idiosyncratic outing that pairs both found and self-created dolls; it’s on view in Philadelphia through July 27th.

Andrew Sendor

Alvin Lucier, I Am Sitting in a Room, 1981

A real painter’s painter, Andrew Sendor combines intense photorealistic chops with an eye for surrealistic compositions. “I Am Sitting in a Room consists of [Alvin] Lucier recording himself reading a 105-word-long text that describes the piece itself,” Sendor said, explaining the rather heady album. “He then plays this first recording, and records the rerecording. He repeats this process 32 times for a total duration of 45 minutes and 21 seconds. Lucier’s spoken words gradually disintegrate after each generation of recording, until the words are eventually unintelligible and morph into pure sound, or as Lucier describes, ‘the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech.’ While much of the discourse surrounding Lucier’s influential piece is of a conceptual nature, I also find that it has an uncanny otherworldly presence.

“When I am sitting in a room (my studio) in my normal solitary state after midnight, working on whatever it is that I am working on, and witnessing the acoustic phenomena of Lucier’s voice transforming into tonal melodic fragments, I feel as though there is a teleportation-like transfer of that which occupied the space in his room, into my own.”

Eddie Martinez

Grace Jones, Warm Leatherette, 1980

“It’s kind of a gross album title, but it works,” asserted Eddie Martinez, who’ll be showing a series of new paintings in “White Outs,” opening November 14th at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. “Her version of ‘Breakdown’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is a real heartbreaker. The album, like Grace Jones, is bold to the core, confident, and unapologetic. It’s great.”

Scott Indrisek