Rocker Chrissie Hynde finds her time and space as a visual artist at Mass MoCA
NORTH ADAMS — When Chrissie Hynde was writing her memoir, "Reckless: My Life as a Pretender," she found herself reflecting on how often she had moved throughout her career. That got her reminiscing about painting.
"I would always think, 'Oh, this would be a good room to paint in,' or, 'This room has a nice light in it,'" Hynde told The Eagle during a phone interview.
For decades, however, Hynde had been busy leading the Pretenders, not making visual art.
"It was making me feel kind of like a phony," she recalled of her artistic ruminations. "When people talk about ideas, but they don't do them, I find it very frustrating, and I felt like I was starting to do that."
So, once the book was done, Hynde started painting — a lot. When she's not on tour, the London-based Hynde creates at least one piece per day, producing oil-on-canvas works that range from still lifes to portraits to abstract landscapes. A 2018 book, "Adding the Blue," chronicled nearly 200 of those paintings. An exhibition inside the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's Building 6 is displaying 27 of them through the end of August. The show accompanies the Pretenders' concert on Friday night in the museum's Courtyard D. It's the new wave band's only 2019 U.S. performance.
"I always thought I would get into painting, but I got waylaid by rock `n' roll," Hynde says in the description for "Chrissie Hynde: Paintings." "Finally, I thought, `Now's the time.' As soon as I could be alone and paint without any interruptions, I just couldn't stop."
By phone, Hynde was humble about her art, even dismissive.
"You know, I'm not really trying to make my name as a painter," the 67-year-old said.
She understands that a host of other rock stars have used their musical platforms to raise their fine art world stature.
"I'm aware of the fact that, yeah, I've definitely got a great advantage there because a lot of people, for the 40 years that I've been in the band, they've been painting, and I'm very lucky to get a showing, I guess. I wasn't really looking for it, but I'm very grateful for it," said Hynde, who will speak with Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson during a ticketed museum event at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Hynde's paintings feature a bright palette and diverse inspirations, portraits mingling with flowers and psychedelic landscapes. During a 2018 interview at Hynde's London studio, Hynde said that she was an untrained artist.
"But I'm totally untrained as a musician, too," she told Jude Rodgers of The Guardian.
Nobody can argue with the success of her musical approach. If anyone browsing Hynde's paintings is unaware of the Akron, Ohio, native's rock reputation, they need only wander down the hall and round the bend. There, they'll find a photo of the Pretenders amid an engrossing rock 'n' roll photography exhibition, "The Bright and Hollow Sky," that features shots of fellow luminaries Prince, Debbie Harry and Elvis Presley, among many others. In the 1980 Pretenders photograph by Lynn Goldsmith, Hynde stands apart from bandmates Martin Chambers, Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott in New York City. The Second British Invasion band had earned plenty of acclaim by then for its cover of the Kinks' "Stop Your Sobbing." A flurry of early 1980s hits — "Kid," Brass in Pocket," "Talk of the Town," "Message of Love" and "Back on the Chain Gang" — cemented the Pretenders' prominence in rock history. ("Don't Get Me Wrong" and "I'll Stand By You" came later.) The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
"From the outset the Pretenders were an explosive combination of precision and flamboyance," the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's band biography says. "The group mastered the blistering tempos and brute force of punk, but Hynde's writing took them other places as well. Her songs possessed the melodic sheen of well-turned pop yet employed unconventional time signatures (one writer referred to her 'treacherously eccentric meters') and at times blunt, psychosexual lyrics."
Hynde has always been the driving force behind the group; lineup changes have been common since the drug-related deaths of Honeyman-Scott and Farndon in 1982 and 1983, respectively. These days, Hynde has been touring with Chambers, Nick Wilkinson and James Walbourne. They finished a short string of European shows with Fleetwood Mac in June. They've recorded a new album that will be released next year. "It's ready to go," Hynde said.
Working with the aforementioned members on the album is a shift for Hynde, who collaborated with session musicians on the last Pretenders record, 2016's "Alone."
"Everyone's always busy, and the last couple albums, I've made it [with] other people," Hynde said. "It truly is, if anyone has been coming to see our shows in the last few years, this is the band. So, that makes it very exciting for all of us."
The Mass MoCA one-off concert arose from a prior gig at the museum: a performance at a birthday party for Hans Morris, who is the chairman emeritus of Mass MoCA's board of trustees and an owner of New England Newspapers Inc., which includes The Berkshire Eagle. During their visit to Mass MoCA, Hynde and the band agreed to come back for a concert at a later date. Thompson gave them a tour of the museum before their performance, according to Hynde.
"Actually, I didn't really want to go through it because I was so jet-lagged, and I had to do a show. I was like, 'Oh, God!'" Hynde recalled. "But I didn't want to be — the guy was offering, and it was a great offer to take us. And as we walked through it, I thought, 'Wow, this place is amazing.' And I thought, 'I wish I had more time to really explore,' because, as you know, it's massive."
During her second trip to the contemporary art hub, Hynde might check out fellow new wave singer Annie Lennox's art installation, "Now I Let You Go ... ," which opened in May and includes objects from her life buried in an earthen mound.
"I couldn't do that because I get rid of everything," Hynde quipped, noting that she knows Lennox "from way back."
Lennox performed at the museum on May 25. At the Pretenders' show on Friday, audience members can expect to hear many of the group's hits.
"You try to do what turns you on yourself and what you want to do, but if you just do a bunch of songs that no one's heard, it kind of pisses the audience off," Hynde said.
"Stop Your Sobbing" is a likely choice. It's one of the Pretenders' many covers over the years; Hynde enjoys interpreting classics. In September, she is releasing her own "jazz/dub" album full of covers with the "Valve Bone Woe Ensemble." She'll put her voice to tunes such as "I'm a Fool to Want You" and "You Don't Know What Love Is."
"It's just fun to sing melodic songs. I think my personal opinion of modern music is — I think it probably will pass — but it's lacking in melody. A lot of things are very linear, and you hear one line repeated over and over and over," she said.
For "Valve Bone Woe," Hynde picked songs that challenged her to privilege her own artistic interpretation.
"Some of the greatest singers of all time have done the songs that are on this album already, so I don't think I can hold a candle to Nina Simone or Chet Baker or Barbra Streisand," Hynde said, "but I can hold my own candle."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251
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