Photographer David James Swanson caught up with Alison Mosshart to talk about The Kills, painting at her home in Nashville, and her love for muscle cars.
Hey Alison, how are you? How’s London? You’ve been traveling a lot! Alison: Yes, it’s been a really crazy two and a half months, I haven’t been anywhere longer than a week until now. This is day five and I’m feeling pretty good about it. I’m glad we are talking today and not yesterday because yesterday I was just a zombie, I had jetlag so bad this time. The earth is literally sucking my body into the floor and I can’t handle it, I can’t handle being alive. Today was really cool because I slept in till noon; I’ve been waking up at six in the morning or eight and going to bed at three so I’m not sleeping. Last night I slept probably like ten hours. So I think I’m back, it fucking rules!
David: The kid is back!? Alison: Man I’m getting old, five fucking days! I used to never get jetlagged; it’d be like maybe a day, maybe a day of weird and then I’d be all right.
David: Yea, but you’ve been allover the place too: East Coast, West Coast, Mexico, London, you’ve been flying everywhere. Alison: Well Mexico is kind of a cheat because it's the same time zone as Nashville. We can joke and say I had jetlag there but I definitely didn't, I took three planes to get there but still no time change.
David: Well maybe a different schedule too right? Alison: You know what, I kind of never leave my schedule. I always, no matter where I am or what time zone it is, stay up till four in the morning and then wake up at eleven. I think that’s kind of my thing.
David: And you guys are recording? Alison: We are. We’re kind of finishing all the songs for the record first because we don't want to go to a proper studio and record them until we have everything done. We’ve done so many records where we go in and we’re there for so long writing and figuring them out and recording them and it’s just a very long and expensive process. We are trying to be a little bit more prepared.
We’ve been working at this house a bit and then the house became this jumbled music store where you couldn't move. So we took everything out and Jamie (Jamie Hince of The Kills) found this little tiny production study to rent, it’s pretty badass, and got everything set up there. It’s walking distance from the house, which is great. So that's where we’re at right now. And I kind of leave him to his own devises most days and then go in for a couple hours in the afternoon, listen to what he’s doing, and play him something I did. Then go back home and work some more so we’re not in each others way. We found it’s hard to be loud on two different songs in the same room. It’s been good, although, the last few days have been a bit stupid because I don't think I’m speaking English.
David: I can’t wait to hear those songs Alison: Yes, they’re going to be good (laughs). They're going to make a lot of sense; a lot like those Dead Weather songs that we just did. The lyrics are about things like alligators and all sorts of things; I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.
David: You were just in Florida, one of my favorite states. Alison: Yes, it’s an important inspiring place (laughs). My God, I fucking hate that place. When I lived in Miami I was like okay I’m never ever coming back, and then a week later I ended up coming back and it’s just not my jam.
David: You grew up there? Alison: Yes, I wish I were the kind of person who had a soft spot but I just don’t have one. I just felt like I spent my entire childhood fighting with the sun and it’s just the weird moist air and all the bugs and everything’s poisonous and everything pokes you and it’s spiky; the place is spiky. You don't walk outside and think ‘fresh air’, you walk out and you feel like someone is trying to kill you slowly.
David: When you were younger did you stay up till four as well? Alison: Yes I did, my mom is like that too.
David: Does your mom paint as well? Alison: Yes, she paints and makes lots of things; she’s a busy gal for sure. She always has ideas of things she wants to make, she does them and it keeps her pretty busy.
David: Do you think that influenced you? Did you paint when you were younger? Alison: I didn’t really paint too much. I never took painting when I went to art school. I did a lot of collage, drawing, photography, and video classes. I never traditionally got taught how to paint. The first time I painted on canvas was recently, it's a whole new fun adventure for me and I’m learning every time I make a painting.
David: How did you come up with the idea for the remote control car? Alison: I was totally inspired by my car. I don’t know where in the world I got this idea, but I woke up one morning in Nashville and decided I wanted to drive my car over paper with paint. I started talking about it like where to do it and the more I talked about it my brother was like ‘please don't do that to your car’. So that was how the remote control car thing became.
I was like ‘fine Matt (Alison’s brother), I wont, but I still want to do this’, so we drove to a used tire place and bought a tire; I was very excited. I purchased one and put it in the back of my car, drove home, lay plastic on the floor, and did some experiments with it. It totally fucking sucked because there’s no weight in a spare tire that's not attached to a car and it didn't really do what I wanted it to do. It had no feeling of being driven over. Now I just have this used tire sitting in my studio with no purpose.
Since it didn’t work I decided to go to Toys”R”Us at eleven-o-clock at night and see what they had. I started on pieces of small paper and it actually looked really cool and abstract, it had so much movement to it. I realized it needed to be on a bigger surface and the paper went to canvases and then I was using rolls of canvas and laying it on the floor and driving, that's when I felt like alright its good now, It’s cool. I still want to drive my car over something eventually; I just have to figure it out. Maybe I have to use a different kind of paint; its just acrylic though, I don't see what the problem is, I could just wash it off. I think the problem is what goes under the car that I can’t quite get to.
David: Well there are car washes that give an under belly wash Alison: Really? (laughs) Well I’ll really need an ‘underbelly wash’.
David: I’ll tell Matt about that Alison: Yes, tell him that. He’s in town.
The other thing that really inspired it was I really love when people pave roads or paint stripes or when there’s skid marks allover the place. I just love the way they look and always wanted to photograph them and it’s hard to photograph because you’re standing in the middle of traffic. So I’m doing them with paints in a more controlled environment, seems safer.
David: Well I think it’s thrilling. I mean when I was there the other night and you were driving around everywhere with this remote control car it was a blast; It was absolutely hilarious. We just did that red color, we didn't get to do other colors but I cant wait to see other colors. Alison: It’s funny, I haven’t done another color on it because it sat there for a couple days and I fell in love with it. I don’t know if I ever will; it’s so cool. It looks cool just red and white.
David: I love when the car goes flying off the canvas. Alison: I can’t imagine what anyone walking into my studio would think with these tire tracks allover the fucking carpet. One day that carpet will be so beautiful when I’m done with it.
David: It already is! Alison: I don’t know if the car paintings are for everyone. I mean, for me I live on tour, I love muscle cars, highways, and that sense of movement so much and everything to do with it. For me it’s incredibly meaningful. Its exciting to me but not all people are car people or travel people; I have a weird job for sure.
David: Your car is the Challenger? And it’s got a Hemi? Alison: Yes, I really miss it. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m in England, carless. I think we might go out to LA to record later and I’m seriously considering shipping my car out there because I can’t really live without it till the middle of the year; I’ll freak out. It’s like my child. It's the hardest part about living in London for me.
I went so long without a car and in time I was like I can get one now and I’m going to buy a house so I have a place to put the car. I waited 15 fucking years.
David: Why Nashville? Alison: Well I kind of fell in love with Nashville. It was the American city. I ended up spending the most time in Nashville because there was a two year block where I was doing Dead Weather there: recording, rehearsing, touring out of there. There’s nowhere I’ve gotten to spend that much time in recently.
It kind of coincided with feeling like ‘ok I’m an American and I’ve been living in London forever and the game plan was never to be here for the rest of my life’. I just wanted an American house so bad and Nashville made perfect sense: Its affordable, it’s beautiful, and I could work from there. I just loved it. I really love it.
David: Yea I love Nashville. You have a lot of space. Your studio is huge! Alison: That's the other thing besides the car: the space, I like space, I crave big open space so I can work and do things. Your ideas become bigger. You live in London and everything needs to be pocket size, same with New York, unless you have a lot of money to have a studio space, shit’s small.
Not only that, if you make something big you have no way of getting it anywhere. You’re walking for hours with it above your head. So yea, it’s just so appealing to me to work in such a big space, to be able to get stuff done and have a car to move things, it’s total independence. If I’m in London I’m relying on a million people a day to do the smallest tasks because it’s impossible to do them myself. So there’s a lot of reasons why Nashville, I’m really happy there.
David: Does it feel like home? Or does London because you were there for so long? Alison: It’s funny, I’m kind of like a slut, when I’m in London I’m like okay this is home but when I’m in Nashville I quickly forget about London, two seconds and that's home. It’s just really born in me from touring all these years, if you don't have that thing in you where you can turn any place into your home then your always feeling you’re in the wrong place. It’s agony to be homesick so I’m not homesick for anywhere. I don't feel like I could tell you where I live, I could only tell you where I own buildings. I don't really have that affinity to it. I come back and everything is always brand new and exciting and I try to find a rhythm and I might not get it till three days before I have to leave again. I can’t be that precious about anywhere.
David: Yea that's the nature of touring and you've been doing it for so long. Alison: Yea, but not only touring, everything else I do. I feel like no matter what, I might not be touring, but I’ll be working somewhere; it’s just endless. I haven’t been touring for months and yet I haven’t been off a plane, it’s just nonstop. Touring is pretty stable comparatively.
David: Well there’s an agenda. But when you're here in Nashville do you go out? Are there places you go to or are you kind of a homebody? Alison: I’m kind of a homebody but I like going out. I feel like I go out when people from out of town come, I feel the same with London too. I rarely leave my studio; I mean, there are dive bars I go to write. I like being around chaos and working, when I have too many days in the studio and I’m literally not seeing a soul I’m ready to go sit somewhere the polar opposite and write. I’ll write for like four hours and then go home until I get that feeling again.
David: Do you write stories or anything like that or do you mostly write lyrics for songs? Alison: I just write, but lyrics come out of it. I’m just writing about whatever I’m thinking about, whatever I’m trying to figure out, what I’ve been doing, anything. I’ve always kept journals since I was kid. I have hundreds of them at this point. I draw in them, stick things in them, lots of different books that I use for different things. I don't really go to bars to write lyrics. I kind of write lyrics straight out of my mouth into a microphone but I’ll write poems and stuff and those become starting points for songs.
David: Yea I guess songs have to have some kind of structure. Alison: Yea and everything has to rhyme and everything is metered so you’re just chopping off loads of stuff and rearranging loads of things and trying to make it fit. I say rock-n-roll lyrics are never going to be that; it’s not like literary genius you know, it’s like okay you have to scream this or now we need two parts for this. You’re just kind of locked into that thing but that's okay, I don't want to be in that totally experimental, makes no sense, talking my way through it band either: I want it to be musical.
David: It’s all coming from you. It’s all elements of you and your experiences and what you’re thinking about. Alison: Yea, it is, I don’t know if it always makes sense but I remember why I said certain things or how they fit into songs. They always remind me of those times in my life and the people I’m singing about, people that inspire certain things.
David: Do you paint while you’re on tour? Alison: I do backstage usually after sound check till gig time. That's my schedule. I’ll paint for a couple hours and eat some dinner.
David: And then you’re prepared? Alison: It’s easy when I’m just touring with Jamie; it’s just the two of us so we usually have some space. I never did that with Dead Weather. It was just a whole gang of us everywhere. It’s kind of rude when you start throwing paint around the room and you have paper drying allover the floor.
David: Four is different than two. Plus when there are more people you’re always coming up with things to go do or see. Alison: Yea, which was awesome. I loved it. It’s nice to have an activity or a game plan. Jamie and I are a bit more wondrous, a little less planned out.