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S01E02 | Paul Ryan

New Zealander artist Paul Ryan has been painting American musician Bill Callahan’s album covers for the last five years. He tells us about the role music plays in his art in the second episode of our interview series “Music is my radar”.


How does music influence the work of actors, directors, photographers, designers, chefs, writers or painters? How do the artists who are not producing, playing or writing music themselves use it in their own art? This is what we will try to understand throughout “Music is my radar,” a new series of long interviews that we will post regularly on Blogothèque and – Cliquez sur le drapeau en haut à droite pour la version française –

Afterglow, Thirroul © Paul Ryan (2015) Afterglow, Thirroul © Paul Ryan (2015)


The East-coast of Australia is a precious place to see. A little bit South of Sydney, the immense lands of Northern pines planted by the first British colonists meet the vastness of the Pacific Ocean in different tints of blues and greens. It’s in this area, in the small city of Thirroul, that New-Zealander painter Paul Ryan settled years ago to recreate on canvas the wild beauty of this remote place of the world.

For more than twenty years now, when he’s not surfing, he’s been painting these amazing landscapes while listening to Nick Cave, Antony & The Johnsons, PJ Harvey and Bill Callahan, with whom he developed a long-term creative partnership. Here’s an interview with a painter whose hand and heart seem to be guided by music and who can’t paint without sound.

Capture d'écran de "Paul Ryan, wild colonial boy" / Vimeo Capture d’écran de “Paul Ryan, wild colonial boy” / Vimeo


Can you describe the relationship you have with music?
Without music, there’s no life, is there? You can’t live without music. Music is so enriching and so uplifting to me. It helps me to enjoy the good times and it helps to pick me up in the bad times. And I just love the way it plays with your moods. You can use it that way: it can make you happy, or sometimes, you can wallow in melancholy which is quite good fun too.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Irish actor Cillian Murphy who featured in the first episode of the series but…
Peaky Blinders! I love this TV show! Its music is amazing, the filming is too. Cillian Murphy is such a great actor – my wife and I watched it and we couldn’t take our eyes of him (laughs)! It’s funny because a good friend of mine got a part in this TV show. He’s called Noah Taylor, he’s an Australian actor and he plays the Italian sort-of-villain in the second season.  I’ve been doing a lot of paintings of him because he has a fabulous face!

Noah Taylor © Paul Ryan (2014) Noah Taylor © Paul Ryan (2014)


I had no idea you were linked in some way to Cillian! Back to what he was explaining during the interview, he said that he uses music to get into a particular emotional space that he needs to get into for a part. Does that resonate with you as a painter?
That totally resonates. It makes sense to me as a painter, but as a human being as well. We have to survive in this crazy planet, and to deal with this existential angst, that we all suffer, especially creative people, because we seem to be more in touch with this existential angst, so music is a huge coping tool really. It’s also just a way to enriching life, isn’t it? It enriches my mind, my soul and my art, and it’s visible in my artwork.

The first thing I do when I get into my studio is to connect my phone, turn in my little stereo and put my music on.

In an interview you gave to the Sydney Morning Herald this spring, you said “I literally can’t paint without music”. Can you explain why?
It really is the first thing I do when I get into my studio. I connect my phone, I turn in my little stereo and I put my music on. It puts me into that space so I can start painting. As the music is playing, I’m preparing my paint. I paint with palette knives mainly, sometimes brushes, so I’m preparing everything. Then I’ll do a sketch on the canvas with pencils, and then I’m ready to paint. The music is on and all albums just melt away, and then I have to change the music depending on what mood I want to get into.

I use Spotify a lot now, and iTunes radio. I’m sort of discovering new music as I’m painting as well, but I have to have music on. Today for instance, I was doing a painting and I was listening to something I hadn’t listen to for about twenty five years. It’s a band called Suicidal Tendencies, sort of really hardcore surf-punk rock. I was in this really excited hyped-up mood and I was using the music… It was helping me get the paint to be lively and exciting, and I was having a little nostalgia trip at the same time (laughs).

It’s like I’ve been having a conversation in there for twenty five, thirty years: my artwork is the conversation, and everytime I get back there, the music helps me go back to where I was in the conversation.


Would you say that music helps you be creative or that it is just a tool in your creative process?
In a way, it’s a tool. It’s almost like my brain has a muscle memory and the music is a way of tapping into the muscle memory. My painting practice in my studio… it’s like I’ve been having a conversation in there for twenty five, thirty years: my artwork is the conversation, and everytime I get back there, the music helps me go back to where I was in the conversation.

Do you think that’s part of the reason why so many famous painters have a tight relationship with music?
Maybe. I don’t know why it’s like that for other painters, but for me, it’s always been like that as far as I remember. I’m not sure why, though. I suspect music and painting are linked in some way because they both tap into the same part of the brain, the heart and the soul. They feed each other – it’s probably why.

Beneath the pines, Coalcliff © Paul Ryan (2010) Beneath the pines, Coalcliff © Paul Ryan (2010)

Smog – In The Pines

How does the music actually feed the way you paint?
Basically, it’s like a fast-track to get me in that zone. It depends of the type of music I’m listening to, though. For instance, Bill Callahan’s music is deep, thoughtful, mysterious and melancholy at the same time, but also incredibly beautiful, and I think, if I listen to that music, and if my painting can somehow pick up on those flavours in the music, those ideas, those feelings, those emotions, then for me, that’s a success. That’s what I’m trying to do. Sometimes, it’s not just the tone or the feelings of the music, it’s actually the lyrics. I borrow and steal lyrics from musicians, and I use it as the title. For instance, I’m just hearing a line like “In the pines / The sun never shines / And we shiver / When the North wind blows” from Smog’s (Bill Callahan former alias, Ed.) song “In the Pines” and I can relate to that, except I’m in the southern hemisphere so we shiver when the South wind blows (laughs). That whole thing, “In the pines / The sun never shines” makes sense to me because all along the coast here, the early colonizers planted these Norfolk pine trees, and when I go surfing, I sit there in summertime. I so related to the song because I’ve painted these landscapes so many times: the ocean, the mountains, and those pines are always in there. I stole not just the feelings and the emotions from the song, but also its lyrics for a few paintings. The lyrics resonate with me a lot.

Does that mean you couldn’t paint to instrumental music?
Oh no, I do. I’ve got a really good friend called Richard Tognetti who is the lead violinist and the director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. For me, he’s been a great mentor and a teacher to get into classical music. So I do sometimes put classical music on. It takes me to a really special place, but I feel like classical music is also a more work for me. It’s harder for me to get into it, to understand it – it’s taken me many years to be able to get under the skin of classical music and to paint to it. It was like learning a new language, a difficult one, that you don’t understand straight away necessarily.


Is music a language for you?
I think so, yeah. It is a sort of language, yeah. A very mysterious one.

Do you feel like you’re also having a conversation with music when you listen to it, just like you said you had one with your paintings?
Yes. Sometimes, it’s a new conversation when I listen to new music and I’m taken to this whole new place that I’ve never been before, especially when I discover something new that is special. It takes you to a new conversation, a new journey. And sometimes, you want to listen to old music because you want to sort of re-live some old memories. Sometimes, you want to be a little nostalgic I suppose.

Do you have some music you recently discovered and that inspired you for new paintings?
I’m trying to think… I sometimes get stuck to some of my favourite artists, like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and the good thing about them, the one I’ve been playing for a long time, like Nick Cave as well, is that they are still making new albums. Each one is more amazing, if not better than the last one. Antony & The Johnsons is another very special artist to me, and Bill Callahan of course. They aren’t new artists for sure, but their new work is always an inspiration. There are so many new artists out there that I can get a little bit confused. Actually, there’s a really great Australian band called Tame Impala that I love. They’re really good, I was really impressed with those guys.

Tame Impala - Innerspeaker (2010) Tame Impala – Innerspeaker (2010)


Have you seen their albums covers? Yeah, they’re quite trippy. There’s one with a landscape (Innerspeaker, released in 2010, Ed.) – it reverberates and goes back and back and back, I liked it.

It’s funny that you mention Tame Impala because they worked with an artist called Robert Beatty who does all their artwork, just like you for Bill Callahan. Can you tell me how your creative partnership with Bill started?
Well, a friend of mine (Ashley Frost, Ed.) started to make a documentary about me. It must be five years ago now, still not finished – I don’t know if it will ever be but it doesn’t matter now (laughs). I told him : “You can film me but you’re going to have to use the music that I listen to in your film.” So I wrote to Drag City (Bill Callahan’s label, Ed.). I sent an email saying “I would love to use Bill’s music, we’ve got no money and I’d be quite happy to offer a painting as a sort of payment to him.” Drag City wrote back to me saying, “Actually, if you do a painting based on the landscape of West Texas and Bill likes it, he might use it for something.” I said, “Sure,” and I went on the Internet to find images of West Texas. I found images of this mountain called Mule Ear Peak, and I thought it was pretty special. I did a couple of paintings based on that. I sent one off, and a couple of days after, an email came saying that Bill loved it and that he was going to use it as the cover for Apocalypse. I was completely chuffed because it was really unexpected.

Bill Callahan - Apocalypse (2011) Bill Callahan – Apocalypse (2011)

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse (2011)


So this first painting you did was inspired by Bill’s music but based on a place you’d never been before?
I’d been to America but I had never been to Texas, so yeah, it was only based on the feeling I got while listening to Bill’s music and the images I found when I googled “West Texas” (laughs)!  It turns out Bill was very happy with the painting because it really fit with the music. There’s a bit of serendipity there, some bit of good luck, I don’t know why it worked, but it just did, and that’s how everything started. A little bit later, Bill emailed me saying he was doing a new album called Dream River and he asked if I would be interested in painting for him again. I said yes of course and I did two paintings that I sent to him. He ended up using one for Dream River, and the other one for Have Fun with God, which is the sort of crazy dub version ep of Dream River.

Bill Callahan - Dream River (2013) Bill Callahan – Dream River (2013)

Bill Callahan – Dream River


Did Bill ever send his new music to you so you could get some inspiration from it?
He actually never sent any new music. He just explained how the music was, what was going on in the album and gave me the title, Dream River, and that was really just it. I just knew there had to be some sort of water element in my painting because of the title, and then he said he maybe wanted a painting with mountains in it, maybe referencing to different seasons. It was a bit tricky – I didn’t quite know what to do. I just did this funny little painting. I sort of smudged it and worked it with rags and with my fingers. It ended up being quite smoky. Were you painting while listening to his old music, though? Absolutely. I had to put his music on to sort of put me in my Bill Callahan frame of mind (laughs).

Bill Callahan - Have Fun With God Bill Callahan – Have Fun With God

Bill Callahan – Have Fun With God


You and Bill met in person for the very first time last spring for a very special occasion…
He played Sydney Opera. It was very special because he asked me if he could use my paintings and show them on a big screen behind the band during the show. Of course I said yes! I reworked some of the images so they could be used on a bigger scale, and I sent it off to his people. He played two concerts at the Opera House, each one for just under three hours – it was amazing, and so special for me. It was the first time I was seeing him live, and he did not disappoint. It was even more amazing that I thought it would be, to have my painting up there behind him.

The two concerts Bill played at the Opera House were almost this full circle, this symbiotic relationship where I’m getting something from him, he’s getting something from me.


Was it just a succession of images of your paintings?
No, for a few paintings, he asked me to do a timelapse. My friend who’s doing the documentary about me came to film me while I was painting, and then he edited me out of these sequences, so the only thing you could see was a painting developing up on the huge screen behind Bill until there was a finished painting there and as the song was playing along. We had five songs like that, and the rest of the time, it was just stills.

Bill Callahan, live au Sydney Opera House


Why do you think the connection between Bill’s music and your art is so powerful and obvious? It works so well – it feels like Bill’s music was made for your paintings, or your paintings were made for his music (Laughs)
I don’t know why it’s like this, but it is powerful. When I posted some videos to Instagram or Facebook after these shows, people said it brought them to tears. When Bill was here and when he was being asked about my paintings, he said that when he looks at my landscapes, he can smell the ocean, he can feel the breeze on his face, he can feel the cold air… When I heard that, I was quite amazed because this is exactly what I’m responding to while painting a landscape to his music. It’s not just a visual thing – it’s all of these other senses that are involved. Having another creative person who gets that was amazing. The two concerts at the Opera House were almost this full circle, this symbiotic relationship where I’m getting something from him, he’s getting something from me. In that moment, the circle was completed.

Bill Callahan, live au Sydney Opera House


To me, Bill’s music is America. Not the hipster, shiny, fantasized and over-the-top kind of America, but the deep, real one. And you seem to relate to that a lot as a painter, right?
I had to think a lot about what Bill’s music was making me feel as a painter. To me, it’s like travelling down a dusty back road of a forgotten America, this other America, the real one – not the Hollywood bullshit plastic America. It’s his personal take on America. I’m a bit of an American fellow: I’m addicted to really great American literature, music and films. I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s exotic. Maybe partly because Australia and America have some sort of similarities: we were both colonies, we both grew from the British, and from people who took over the land of the indigenous people. Both our countries have that connexion, that thing in common, and then we also both became multicultural countries growing out between these beautiful amazing lands. Maybe that’s why I relate to America and its culture.

And both of these countries are all about immensity, something you can also feel in your paintings…
Bill’s music has that feeling of space, doesn’t it? There’s a real sense of space in his music, and I get that very strongly. Maybe that’s another connection between his music and my paintings, yeah.

You’re not only inspired by music. You seemed to be also inspired by musicians themselves – I saw a few portraits of Nick Cave and Mick Jagger on your website. What is your creative process like when you paint a portrait like this?
I do a lot of painting about creative people in general, like actors, writers, filmmakers and musicians of course. For Mick Jagger’s portrait, it was a bit special because I was watching an amazing documentary about The Rolling Stones called Crossfire Hurricane and in that documentary, there’s some footage of the band and Mick Jagger when they were at their peak. They’re performing live and the sexual energy that was coming from Mick Jagger on this footage just blew my mind. Add to this his incredible singing, the incredible music, and the fact that I’m very attracted to painting people with extraordinary faces, and I thought I had to do a portrait of him. The fun thing is that I don’t listen to the Stones a lot these days. For me, they were the band thirty years ago, but I supposed I’ve moved on some other things, but this live footage in the documentary impressed me so much that I had to paint something.

Beautiful Mick II © Paul Ryan (2012) Beautiful Mick II © Paul Ryan (2012)


What’s your favourite type of music to paint to?
There’s a Portuguese word that I love, “saudade“. It’s also a style of Portuguese music from Brazil, and the word means a sort of sadness along for something lost, it’s this kind of undefinable “something lost” – you don’t know what it is, but you have this sort of melancholy for something that’s lost. I relate to that in a way, I like that idea, and so I’d say that my favourite music to paint to is melancholic music. A lot of my landscapes have an emptiness in them, an underlying sadness to them, but to me, it’s a beautiful sadness, not a sort of weepy, whingey, whiny sadness. There’s something beautiful about that sort of melancholy.

Do you have any favourite artist to paint to, apart from Bill?
Nick Cave. I’ve seen a few of his concerts recently; I’ve certainly listened to a lot of his music while I’m painting. His music is so powerful and raw, but also melancholic at the same time. PJ Harvey is also one of my favourites. And Antony & The Johnsons, as I mentioned earlier too. He takes me somewhere no one else does. I saw him at Sydney Opera House – he blew my mind.

Have you ever been so inspired by a show you went to that you had to paint about it straight away once home?
In my younger years, yeah, I did that. But now that I’m 51, I go home and go to bed (laughs). But I’d get up early in the morning and paint, yes.

How does the feeling you get from a show translate into a painting? What’s your creative path in that case
For me, it’s like topping up something inside you. When you go and see something very special, it sort of fills you up. I don’t know what it is – it’s not just inspirational feelings, maybe more of some beautiful ideas that you want to add something to. I get really excited about this. There’s something about being in the presence of something that is very high quality. It feeds my desire to get better and work on something just as special.

I need music to run through me, out my arm.


You say that your body filters the music while you paint, so it influences the way you actually paint. Can you explain that very mysterious process to me? It’s a little bit mysterious to me too! Somehow, it’s not easy to explain. While I’m listening to music, I’m trying to… Wait, I have a better way to explain it: when you refuel your car, you have to put petrol into your car. It’s exactly the same here: I have to put the music into my head. It’s like refuelling. And as I’m fuelling up, something of that music is coming through me and informing the way I’m painting. I always have a general idea of where I’m going but the music surely has a huge bearing on the emotional, mental and spiritual states I’m in while I paint. It’s my way of supercharging that. So I need music to run through me, out my arm, through the paint brush or the palette knife, and into the paint. I fully believe that somehow, it does work that way.


Would you say that the music gives some movement to your painting? Your landscapes are not frozen at all – they are very lively…
Absolutely. There’s something about the music that helps me to move while I paint. And I sort of do crazy dances when I’m working in the studio. I do crazy jumps (laughs). Music gets me so excited when I’m painting, and it’s also almost like meditation. Time disappears when I’m painting and listening to music. There’s nothing else: it’s just me, the painting, and the music. I feel very lucky because it brings me to some amazing place. It’s like a performance really, and music is such a huge part of fuelling the performance. Then two hours have gone, and you stand back and there’s a painting in front of you. It might be finished, it might need a few more touches here and there, but it’s all been this great sort of whirlwind of movement, of music, of painting. And then you’re exhausted in a way.

Just like a musician after his show?
Yeah, I think so. You know, I might only paint for three or four hours in a day, but at the end of it, I’m just looking forward to a glass of wine or a nice cold beer, to sit back, put some more music to relax, look at what I’ve done, and enjoy it.

Do you sometimes use music to concentrate, to get focused, not only to get in a special state of mind?
It’s interesting that you ask this because I’ve always used music to concentrate as well. When I was at school, I had to have music on to do my homework. Same when I was reading a book. I remember reading Lord of the Rings when I was younger while listening to the early Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin works. Some of Led Zeppelin work is inspired by Lord of the Rings so I guess I started to understand that different forms of art could be inspired by each other very early on (laughs)!

Magpie © Paul Ryan (2015) Magpie © Paul Ryan (2015)


Are you familiar with the concept of chromesthesia, when some people’s brains associate notes with colors? I was wondering if, as a painter, music has a colour or a range of colour for you?
Well, you know, the Russian composer Shostakovich wrote a lot of his music during the time of Stalin, when it was very dark and heavy. Well, his music is dark to me, it’s black, it’s brown, there’s no bright colour here. Lighter and bubbly music, or reggae – they are colourful. Music does have colours for sure.

What colour is Bill’s music?
Oh, wow… It’s not fluorescent (laughs). Well, you know I think that if I read Cormac McCarthy’s books and his beautiful descriptions of the landscape of West Texas, which is the landscapes that Bill is into – it’s like these distant grey-blue mountains and sort of pale blue skies, dusty tracks, and sort of greys and browns – it describes the colours of Bill’s music.

And it also describes a lot of your paintings…
Yeah it does.

Shining Bird - Leisure Coast (2013) Shining Bird – Leisure Coast (2013)


Do you have a dream collaboration? I think Bill was my dream collaboration. I’ve already gone there (laughs)! I’m always open to suggestions, though. I did an album cover for a young Australian band called Shining Bird some time ago. They live close to where I live, they’re great and they’re signed on Spunk Records, the label who look after Bill Callahan when he’s in Australia. Their music has been described as a bit like The Beach Boys on Valium (laughs). It’s kind of cool, so I’ve done a couple of covers for those guys.

Did you know their music before?
No, their album wasn’t even out at the time. They gave me a disk with some unfinished music on it. I brought it to the studio and I quite liked it so I ran it over and over again, and painted with their music. It’s really nice to connect with this generation of musicians as well, and to see that they enjoy my work and they want it to be part of what they do.

This is my last question: who should I interview next for the series?
Actually, the Australian actor I told you about, Noah Taylor, he is a good friend of Nick Cave and he has actually even played for him. He’s also a visual artist – he does painting as well. I think he could be good. He’s quite a character, and he has enigmatic tastes in music. He was into Egyptian pop music for a while (laughs).

A big thank you to Paul of course.  You can visit his official website here, his Instagram account, and see/buy his work on Olsen Irwin gallery‘s website.   Thank you very much also to Ashley Frost for letting us use some of his unreleased documentary footage about Paul. Ash is also a visual artist – go see his work on his website.

Thank you to Lauren McCracken for helping out like a pro on transcribing this interview.

Read Music is my radar S01E01 – Cillian Murphy here