Text & Interview: Alec Coiro
All Images Courtesy of the Jack Early and Mulier-Mulier Gallery
The full story of Jack Early’s upcoming show in Belgium spans (almost) the entirety of Early’s solo career to date. The essence of the show is a winsome fairytale musical about a brother and a sister facing off against a wicked witch. This sweet, beautiful creation first came to life during what was probably the most turbulent time for Early, the aftermath of the split up of Pruitt-Early. After the breakup (as he explains in greater detail below), Early began to explore music with his band Happy Jack. However, it wasn’t until he struck upon the idea for Rainbow that he found a way to incorporate music fully with his sensibilities as an artist. Once he struck on the idea, work on the musical and the visual artwork that accompanies it continued from the inception in the 90s until the very end of 2017.
The incorporation of the music with Early’s visual arts is now fully realized in Early’s show at Mulier-Mulier, which makes the musical part of an immersive installation that takes the visitor back to a prelapsarian fairyland of pure hippy innocence. We’ve seen ements of the installation in previous Early shows: the sculptural pillow technique, the incorporation of music, the exploration of Early’s childhood. Early has been cultivating these elements and now brings them together in what feels like a culmination.
Personally, however, I hope this is not the last we’ve seen of Rainbow. I still have the original recordings Jack made back in the day on my iTunes and their play count is high. I’d love to see it up on stage, hopefully with drag royalty Lady Bunny reprising her role as the witch.
I think it’s important for people to understand how much energy you’ve put into this show over a long period of time. Can you take us back to when you first began writing the musical and give us a sense of how the project evolved from then until now?
Late 90’s. Oasis and Blur records on the turntable. Cans of El Presidente littered the hallway. Parkas draped over large speakers and Vespas pulling up to the apartment on Houston and Ave B. A group of us shared the apartment. We were all best of friends, artist types, and all of us had our own bands.
I was the front guy for my band Happy Jack; perfect for me because I’ve never played an instrument. I was good with melodies and lyrics and that’s how Happy Jack made our songs.
The other guys were playing out already but Happy Jack practiced for three years before we had our first show. That night the crowd loved us but we broke up the next morning.
I could hardly believe it, and I felt cursed. My earlier art career had imploded a few years before and now Happy Jack just broke up. I just wanted to do something all by myself for a bit, and I sat in the Houston Street apartment kitchen for days and days with nothing but oatmeal, coffee, and a pencil, and I wrote Rainbow a fairytale musical.
I knew it was good, but I had no way to really hear it except in my head, so I called Lizzy Lee Vincent the guitar player from Happy Jack. He and I had remained friends. I told him about the fairytale musical and he brought over his guitar. It was a bit like a fairytale the way we laid it down, too. Me humming rough melodies in bits and pieces into Lizzy’s big ears while Lizzy and his magic guitar spun Rainbow into gold.
There is a witch, a crystal ball, a brother and a sister and a spider, and I got my friends to sing all the parts. I wanted flutes and cellos and violins but no one played that type of thing, so I’d introduce myself to musicians outside of music schools even found a few in the subway. Donuts, coffee, and beer was all I could pay them, but we all had a blast. It took about two years to record all the musicians and friends I had coming over to do there bits. Lizzy mixed it on an old six track thrown out by Lou Reed. The goal was just to put it on a CD and pass it out to friends.
Somebody gave a CD to somebody at Disney and I got a call. They said the musical was the most charming thing they had ever heard and a meeting was arranged. They offered me an eight o’clock television special on the Disney channel or something for the stage. I agreed to the animation because I wanted to work on the drawings. We all shook hands and they said they would call me on Monday. They didn’t. And they didn’t call Tuesday or Wednesday either. Thursday I called them but they would not take it and so Friday I went in but they would not see me. I ran out of there quick and down to have Rainbow copyrighted. It sucked and I stuck Rainbow in a drawer with the copyright papers and kept it shut for years.
But I pulled it out from time to time, I guess, and I’ve continued to do drawings now and then to the story and I’ve even gone back and tweaked the lyrics here and there. But it was just this year that I knew I wanted to breathe new life into the fairytale and re-record the whole musical and make sculptures and paintings around Rainbow for an art show.
One new thing about Rainbow that differs from the original is the drawings you made originally were pure illustrations, but now you’ve collaged in a photograph of yourself from childhood for the character Brother. For me, this choice gives this new show a cool continuity with your last show at Fergus McCaffrey which focused a lot on your childhood. Can you tell us what was behind this choice? (And also ask if it’s safe to assume the photo of Rainbow is your sister?)
The original illustrations were watercolor and pencil. I continued to tweak the drawings just like I’m forever tweaking the lyrics. I suppose I’ll keep on experimenting with these things around Rainbow. It’s a big story. Now I’m having visions of how I want the movie to be. And I’m figuring this out about my work as I go along, It all sort of grows out of my 5-year-old self. I realized the brother and the sister in the story were actually me and my sister. So I worked on the new collages in the same way I have been making recent soft sculpture works, by using old family photographs.
I just wanted to do something all by myself for a bit and I sat in the Houston Street apartment kitchen for days and days with nothing but oatmeal, coffee, and a pencil, and I wrote Rainbow a fairytale musical.
The rainbow-colored raindrops are so beautiful and so inventive. What inspired the idea to incorporate the musical into an installation?
Finding out I could actually write songs later in my life was a really nice surprise. Just having a melody or two bouncing around up there kept me going through a lot of hard times. And I know it was my music that brought me back to seeing myself as an artist again. I like including my music in my art now for that reason. When Mulier-Mulier Gallery in Belgium asked me to have a show with them this year I immediately thought of Rainbow. Alec Spiegelman had recorded and produced “Jack Early’s Life Story In Just Under 20 Minutes” and I was so happy with the way it sounded. So Alec and I spent this year re-recording Rainbow and I spent the year in my studio making paintings and sculptures and connecting the art to the music like a big colorful carousel in my head.
I wanted to build the work like Pinocchio’s Geppetto might. The paintings are on wood and just painted with a brush and jars of paint. The sculptural raindrops are just burlap stuffed and stitched and painted. I made the balls out of paper mache.
I guess I was sorta feeling like the old shoe cobbler. I figured I would make this work look as if I had fallen asleep and woken to works made by elves.
Tell us about working with Lady Bunny!
I always loved when a TV Special would announce “And staring Charles Nelson Reilly as the Old Pirate” or Charlotte’s Web movie credits rolled “And Debbie Reynolds as Charlotte”.
I knew Lady Bunny as the witch in Rainbow would be just like that.
It was a real lesson in show business watching Bunny work. I have never seen anyone take a line and focus on it so seriously and then deliver it in an instant so full of nuance and improvisation. She was like working with fireworks.
In the collages, I made her crystal ball with the face of Paul Lynde. So now Rainbow is starring Lady Bunny and Paul Lynde! Art is amazing that way.
Some of my old friends came back to reprise their original roles. Erica Habarta sounds more beautiful than ever as Rainbow.
This is definitely not a musical in the style of Andrew Lloyd Weber or Stephen Sondheim. Rather your music is so uniquely expressive of who you are as an individual. How would you describe the style and who are the musicians that influenced?
I think it was the car radio. You had to absorb what they dished out. I think that’s it. I mean I still find myself humming “I Want to Kiss You All Over” by Exile. That’s just is not a problem anymore.
Here are a few favorite tracks that helped inspire the musical.