Singer-songwriter John Mellencamp has been painting for as long as he’s been making music. And before he broke through as a rock star, he was hoping to be an artist.
Now, after decades building a legendary music career, a collection of his paintings and assemblages are being displayed at the New York Academy of Art. And his latest release — out this week — is a book, titled “John Mellencamp: American Paintings and Assemblages,” of his artwork.
The cover of his latest studio album, “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack,” is also a self-portrait. The album includes several duets with Bruce Springsteen, who he has also painted with.
“He was pretty good, you know,” Mellencamp said about the time he painted a “huge” piece with Springsteen. “And he was really, really enthusiastic. He was really enthusiastic, and he really tried hard. I was proud of him.”
“As a matter of fact, if he came to my house again, it’d be like, ‘Hey Bruce, let’s paint,’ and he’d go, ‘OK.'”
Mellencamp told CBS News he used to watch his mother paint at their Indiana home, and at some point, he started painting on her paintings.
In 1974, he left Indiana – where he was a singer in a cover band – for New York. He looked into taking art classes, but his musical talent caught the attention of record companies.
He quickly landed a record deal, and had a few modest hits under the name Johnny Cougar. His fifth album, “American Fool,” was his breakthrough.
Mellencamp said three songs on the album – “Hurts So Good,” Hand to Hold on To, and “Jack and Diane” – were “hated” by the record company, but went on to become top-10 singles.
“The good thing about that was they never ever bothered me again, ever,” Mellencamp said.
Early on, Mellencamp says, he tried to control his songs, but found that similar to painting, it was better to not second guess himself.
“I learned that well, like with painting, let the painting go where it wants to go. True art is when the artist is surprised himself,” he said.
In the span of Mellencamp’s career, he would go on to chart twenty-eight singles on the Billboard Hot 100. But his love for art would always be in the background and would be his sanctuary.
He called his art studio in Indiana his “favorite place in the world to be.”
“It’s quiet. It’s just me, you know. There is oil paint, and canvases, and cigarettes, and everything I love right there, you know,” Mellencamp said.
As far as what he gets from the act of painting, he said. “You walk up to a canvas and it’s you. You know, you have a problem,” Mellencamp said. “See, everything to me is a problem.”
He said he doesn’t yet know where one piece he recently started is going. “I’ll figure something about,” he said, looking at the painting-in-progress. “I’ll solve this problem.”