CHANGING THEIR TUNES: MEET THE MUSICIANS WITH ODD HOBBIES AND HIDDEN TALENTS
▶ Si Hawkins discovers that stars such as Rod Stewart and Unge Beirut can turn their talents to more than albums and concerts
The scene: a large concert venue in southern Norway, where a tightly packed front row of young fans eagerly awaits one of the nation’s hottest new rappers, Unge Beirut. Such an atmosphere could be intimidating, but Beirut – whose real name is Elias Tchaba – had some experience of expectant crowds before rap kicked in. For years, he looked likely to pursue a career in football.
“If someone asked me, ‘what is your biggest regret?’, it would probably be that I let music get the better of me,” says Tchaba, after performing at the Sorveiv Festival. “I love music, a lot. But I would choose football any day.”
Such is the price that can be paid when deciding between creative vocations. Tchaba was born in the Lebanese capital – his stage name means “Young Beirut” – then raised in Kristiansand, a city in southern Norway. Football helped him to fit in and he earned a US soccer scholarship. But circumstances changed, he returned home and rap took over.
It went well. Last year his debut album, Hevnen er sot, men jeg tilgir deg, was nominated for the Spellemann Award for Urban Music at Norway’s version of the Grammys.
That riotous show he performed at the Sorveiv Festival in Kristiansand suggests Tchaba made the right decision. “People keep telling me that,” he says, laughing.
This may sound like an enviable embarrassment of riches, but for popular musicians, balancing two creative passions can be complicated. Some talents complement each other, while other vocations clash.
Visual arts tend to mix well with the music lifestyle. For big stars, enviable opportunities can occur. Take the Rolling Stones guitarist, and accomplished artist, Ronnie Wood, who last month partnered with luxury watch brand Bremont to paint 47 watch faces. Each timepiece costs about the same as a new BMW.
For newer musicians, that flair for visuals is useful for record covers and other promotional ventures. Last month, Canadian singer-songwriter Matthew Chaim staged a joint art exhibition and launch party for his album The Mathematics of Nature. A track on the album, Reason, is also accompanied by a jaunty animated video, using Chaim’s distinctive drawing style. Offstage he chills out by using children’s crayons.
“I was doing a tonne of songwriting sessions in LA with producers I’d never worked with before,” Chaim explains. “Something as light as drawing with crayons was a great way to relax into the session and allow something real and true to come out in whatever music we’d create.”
Keeping the drawing and music separate can also be positive, though. He says there are periods “when I’m doing so many writing sessions that it starts to feel like I’m writing the same song every day. Or the business side takes a front seat and writing songs doesn’t feel all that inspired”.
“That’s when turning to another medium can offer a fresh, expansive perspective on things. Drawing has done that for me,” he says.
Unlikely creative pursuits can help to alleviate the pressure of working in the music business. Blues rock hero Jack White has developed a sideline in artisan furniture making, while Rod Stewart raised eyebrows by revealing his long-term hobby: a massive model train set, based on 1940s America. It’s difficult to imagine the rocker tinkering with those tracks, but he also enjoyed a more energetic passion in his younger years, when he
Left, singer Matthew Chaim is also an artist, while Rod Stewart, above, is a model train enthusiast