Musician and artist Jon Campbell has released his debut single – Francis, which is accompanied by a video that Campbell has created through hand-painted, stop-motion animation.
I caught up with Campbell to talk about queer art as a political statement.
You’ve talked about this track – Francis – being in part about the reconciliation of the musician and painter within you. Does this mean that the song makes most sense when accompanied by the video, or does it stand by itself in terms of a piece of music?
I suppose in some ways the song does make more sense with the video, but at the same time, there could be other videos for Francis that would make just as much sense. The song isn’t about one particular, linear narrative, so the video isn’t a literal illustration of that either. But I do believe the song stands by itself in any case – I certainly hope that it does!
The video of Francis took you six months to create. Why was it important to you to use this process to create the visuals for Francis?
Francis is like a shape-shifter of a song, always playing hide-and-seek with me. Any time that I’ve tried to pin him down and say – “he’s about…” – he morphs into something else. There are different layers to the lyrics, and his identity is transient in nature.
This is also true for my paintings, they’re not about one thing, or one person – not even the portraits. A ‘moving painting’ was the only way I could accurately tell a visual story about Francis that would be true to the song, because it allowed me to blur the lines of identity – quite literally – which film is less likely to do, as any definitive likeness or literal representation would not do the song justice.
You’re expressing your creativity through both art and music – what does one give you that the other doesn’t?
I don’t see the two art forms as separate anymore. In some ways, Francis brought these two worlds together, indefinitely.
I was 13 years old when I started painting, playing guitar, and writing poems every day, which then led to writing songs. The paintings, poems and songs were all coming from the same place, but painting stood out because of the nature of the medium. A painting is designed to draw attention to itself – it’s a signal – more overt and tangible than music.
My songs were kept much more private – they don’t hang on walls, they’re less permanent in some ways. I made demo CDs from ages 18 to 24, and gave them to close friends, and also to the guys I was singing about – like love letters. It wasn’t until Jamie Irrepressible listened to those demos and told me – “you need to be performing these songs” – that I even considered myself seriously as a musician.
It’s like a teacher of mine at art school had said to me – “You’re walking out of the house every morning and turning right. You just need to turn left one day, and you’re already there.”
When I started pursuing music professionally, a lot of people got worried and asked – “But what about painting?” This question was really vexing to me until Francis came along and showed me that the differences between the two art forms are superficial, and rather superfluous.
How does living in Berlin influence your art and music?
Getting here and planting my roots was a matter of following the path of least resistance in terms of economic strain and the path of most abundance in terms of queer life and art. My family moved from Germany to the US when I was 13, and I didn’t feel at home there for the next 10 years.
As soon as I finished art school at 23, I knew I wanted to get back to Europe, and Berlin was and still is a bustling beehive of creative asylum seekers for all types of people from all over the world. I feel more free to be myself here than anywhere else I’ve been. It’s home.
Who are some of your musical heroes or inspirations?
My first musical heroes were Liz Phair, Tori Amos, and Kurt Cobain – but nothing impacted me more than when my aunt gave me Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ for my 15th birthday, which is also the year I came out of the closet – and I don’t know which of those two things was more life-altering!
Later on, I was drawn to Leonard Cohen, Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields, The Beach Boys, and Joanna Newsom, among others, although lately I’ve been skipping over most songs in my digital library that aren’t electronic or hip-hop.
What do you hope people feel when listening to your music?
Queer Visibility is extremely important to me. I learned recently that a young trans girl had written about me in her art school journal – that she appreciates “the radical outward expression of queerness” in my music, and that she sees her own queerness as “an opportunity to continue that radical protest”. That meant everything to me.
When I write overtly gay lyrics, it can feel self-indulgent at the moment I’m writing them – but I’m through with making myself smaller for the convenience of the majority. I remember how I felt when I was 16 and listening to Morrissey’s “Bona Drag” and breathing a huge sigh of relief, like you’re in a shop buying clothes and having a panic attack because nothing fits, and you start to feel like they’re just not made for you, and you’ll probably have to contend with just feeling uncomfortable and anxious trying to fit into someone else’s shape – and then you finally find this shirt that fits, and you look at yourself in the mirror for the first time like – “Oh, OK – I’m not the wrong shape – I’m not alone – I think I’m going to be OK!” This is why we have to write what comes naturally and never hold back – to indulge in our queer identities, to remain visible.
Does that mean my music is exclusively for queer people? Not at all – it means my music is inclusive of queer people. And if it can carry one drop of the emotion that I pour into it and rattle that organ in others – then I’m very grateful to share it with anyone.