Joe Simpson Interview: ‘Musician Portraits’ Exhibition, Soho – 30/10/11

Visual Artist Joe Simpson has a passion for music and allows this to come through beautifully in his artwork. One of his previous projects, ‘Almost There’ featured paintings that corresponded to tracks by less-established acts. For his newest venture, Joe set himself the challenge of getting the bigger musicians on board for his ‘Musician Portraits’ project. He set about to paint his favourite musicians, taking him to the intimate settings of their homes and studios, to venues and even to Vegas! There’s a nice mix of musicians from Paloma Faith to Scroobius Pip to Sam Beam (Iron and Wine). Each one is so realistic and intricate, the photos of them (below) do not do them enough justice, in the flesh they are even more amazing.

Visiting the pop-up collection in an empty shop space in Soho on the last day of the exhibition’s two week stint, I spoke to Joe about how the development of this project, musical tastes and that trip to Vegas…

So, where did the idea for this project come from?

Well, basically before that I was doing a lot of big commercial commissions for P&O. They built a new ferry and I was doing these massive New York style paintings and I spent a month on each one. It wasn’t for me and it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it paid quite well and it meant that I did then have a bit of time to start a project for myself. I thought about doing a series of portraits, trying to get some well-known names and something I could do for myself with some smaller pieces and more of them. I came up with musicians in the end because I am a huge music fan. I thought it would be a really nice way to meet people who I’m a fan of and it would be a good subject, interesting faces and interesting people, so I started doing it.

So when did this project actually start?

I think I did the Liam Frost one in about July last year, 2010. Then I was kind of working on other things at the time and it wasn’t until i moved to London in October, that I worked full time on it. I think a year is probably accurate in how long it all took.

How did you manage to get the big names on board?

Just Google basically, I looked at the management and made a wish list of people that I wanted. I did one of Liam Frost first, who’s a Manchester singer and I know him, so I sent that one around as an example of what I wanted. Hopefully it was an unusual enough request that people were kind of up for it more so than if it was just photographs of something.

So, where abouts in the Country or the World did it take you?

A lot around England and I went to Vegas to meet Brandon Flowers, which was really cool.

What was that like?

It was awesome, yeah I made a bit of a holiday out of it. I went to LA and then went to Vegas for a few days and went to his house and did that whole thing, so it was great. Also, I went to Manchester to see Faithless, they were playing at the MEN arena. So I went backstage at some big stadium gigs and to people’s houses and things like that.

How did it work, did you do sittings with them?

Basically, I met up with them and took original photos of them to work from because it was often hard to get half an hour with some people and some I had more time with than others. So I took a little blank portable flash and I didn’t give them that much direction, I just let them act in front of the camera how they do to let their personalities come through. Then I took the original pictures home and worked them in the studio in to a painting.

Did you feel at all starstruck when you met these people?

A little bit, it was all people that I choose who I was a fan of and liked. So I was excited to meet people. I got a lot of free gig tickets, so I got to see them live, which was really good and saw lots of them. I think I was definitely nervous going into it because I’m not a photographer as well so I’ve got a short amount of time to get good photographs. So I think it was a nervous situation a lot of times because it was a short amount of time, a little bit starstruck and something that I’m not incredibly confident in doing.

Did you just paint the pictures at home?

Yeah I’ve got a studio in Brixton, so I’ll start off with just fine pencil drawing, line drawing and then I’ll block colour it in and put the darker tones in and then work it up from dark to light from there.

Were there any musicians that you couldn’t get that you wanted?

Yeah I think so, obviously i made a big list and sometimes it’s hard to know whether that was management of not. Sometimes management would just say we can’t fit that in or there’s not enough time and you don’t know if that’s just asking them or the musicians have said no. There was people who I would have liked to have done, but i think I got some good names that I’m happy with. I got much much more than i expected.

You’ve got a nice mix as well.

Yes totally. I could have done with more girls but I think because it was a short amount of time and meeting them somewhere, they need more prep. But I did try and address the sex balance but it didn’t really work.

The music industry is quite male dominated anyway.

Yes that’s true, more to choose from, more blokes.

Who are you favourite musicians at the minute, who are you listening to?

It swings around really. (looks at his recently played) I like James Blake a lot at the moment and I’m a massive Ryan Adams fan, Ryan not Bryan and he’s just got a new album out. I’m enjoying The Miserable Rich, who are a small band who I really like. And I’m always a fan of Sufjan Stevens and things like that.

Have you got any plans to take this projects anywhere else in the country?

Possibly, somewhere next year.

Did you just come across this place?

Well I looked for a long time to try and find the best way to do it and I wanted to put it on myself and do it that way. But it was really hard and expensive to hire a lot of galleries; some were charging four grand a week. I thought if i could get a place that wasn’t being used and I managed to find out about this place though another guy who had done a pop-up and then they went on a paper trail trying to find who owned it. Then I eventually persuaded them to let me use it. It wasn’t easy.

It’s a good central location as well.

Yeah I’ve done shows in the past where they’re a bit more tucked away down an alley and it’s hard to get people in to galleries anyway. So i really wanted a good location anyway, because I’ve spent so long on this. I did commit to find somewhere that was central and easy to get to and all those things.

Have you got any future projects in mind?

I’ve got a show coming up in January that’s totally different stuff; it’s called ‘Everything Is Electrified.’ There’s lots of mixed media, pylons and sunsets. It’s entirely different, a lot less pressure and a lot less time put in to it, but it’ll be cool to do something like that. I’ve got some commissions to take me up until the end of January, and then I’ll hopefully start working on a new project that I haven’t figured out yet at all, but we’ll see. It’s kind of a given that I’m still very much in this mode at the moment, I’m not sure that I’m ready to move on yet!

The Gallery in Soho..

Paloma Faith.

Mark Ronson.

Justin Young (The Vaccines).

I asked Justin what he thought of the painting:
“It’s unbelievable, I haven’t been down to the exhibition but I’ve seen the painting. It just looks like a photo, it’s amazing. He came down when we played the Electric Ballroom and yeah it’s just amazing. I didn’t think it would be that good, then I saw that and the other pictures and they’re just so good!”

Brandon Flowers.

Thanks Joe!
For more examples and info, have a look at:


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