John Cale's prolific album FEAR, released in 1974 draws the listener in with the flawless originality of his music along with the ingenuity of his lyrics. Poised with mysticism and spectacle, Cale plunges the listener leagues down to the darker realms of human nature. Through allegorical storytelling, he transforms these dark spaces into shards of light and sound. The listener resurfaces from each song renewed with Cale's light.
Inspired by the rich and allegorical imagery of his lyrics, Mandi Morgan visually interprets each song from Cale's FEAR album with illustration. Morgan illustrates Cale's world in miniatures as an attempt to emulate the intricately rich and captivating imagination of his lyrical storytelling. The detailed illustrations reflect the crepuscular moods of Cale's songwriting and transposes them into small universes of light and beauty.
An interview with Mandi:
When did you first hear John Cale's FEAR?
My late composer friend Hector Zazou introduced me to John Cale’s solo work when I first moved to Montreal. I did not know anyone so I spent a lot of time on the 4th floor at the BANQ discovering new music. I explored his collection there. Years later, I fortunately found myself in a basement full of records. The owner was giving them away. I pilfered through his collection and found the John Cale Fear record. I remember walking home with it tucked beneath my coat.
What is your connection to him and how has his music inspired your artwork?
What draws me to John Cale’s music is the ingenuity of the lyrics. For me, Cale does not reveal a narrative at face value. His lyrics are expressed allegorically. The listener must speculate what Cale sings of. This is inspiring because it provides the listener with the autonomy to decipher meaning. The subjectivity of his lyrics encourages the imagination to interpret the essence of his storytelling. This is why Cale inspires my artwork. It provides an introspective and intimate space to process its meaning both as an artist and a listener.
I am also captivated by Cale’s work because of its sincerity. Cale does not sing of symmetry and perfection. He strips through the shallow surface to get to the authentic source. For me, Cale’s storytelling is comparable to a broken carousel. Its rotation is slightly off and the animals’ hooves erode with rust. Yet, despite its tragedy, the monument still stands carrying the evidence of both its triumph and its decline. It maintains its integrity. Because of this,we see and feel its history and therefore develop a sense of compassion. Cale’s music is much the same. Through allegory, he moves the listener beyond the surface and into deeper contexts of emotion. We see this in his song Buffalo Ballet. Abilene is a little town that is peaceful on the surface, however, Cale gently exposes the underbelly of the 20c by revealing Abilene’s legacy as a victim tof 20c development, capitalism and avarice. Cale reaches into the darker corners of human nature and exhumes what is forgotten, and transforms it into light and story. His work reveals that truth resides just below the surface, where we find beauty.
What drew you to base your work specifically on this album?
It is strange—as people experience unexplainable chemistry with each other, I felt a similar chemistry towards this album. The first time I heard it, I knew it was going to be with me for life. It holds the capacity to open my heart time and time again.
Fear immerses us into the darker shadows of human behavior. Whether it be through orgy in Cale’s, The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy, or murder in his song Gun, we are introduced to an eccentric spectacle of nameless characters who are vulnerable within their environments and circumstances. The ocean is referenced in many of the songs as the place of parting or demise. Two lovers say goodbye at the ocean in his song, Emily. There is a woman drowning, sinking in a funny way in his song Barracuda. His lyrical storytelling promises ominous endings. However, as the listener is carried through the music, he/she resurfaces from these dark places renewed by Cale’s light and ingenuity. I was quite taken by the somber moods of this album. Because of this, I was inspired to explore the darker elements of this album and visually transpose them into allegorical light.
In this exhibit, I attempt to express how intricate, vibrant and brilliant Cale's peculiar worlds are with visual interpretation. I fit the pieces of his music together to create a visually cohesive expression. Because the music is rich and condensed with fantastical and allegorical visuals, I illustrated the songs as miniatures because one small sheet of paper is not large enough to illustrate the power of his storytelling.
Did you think that one day it would be displayed in conjunction with one of his shows?
No and I am very grateful and honoured for this opportunity!
On average, how long does it take you to complete one piece and what are your techniques?
It is difficult to gauge how long one piece takes to complete because I do not pay attention. On average, I would say each Cale piece took between 25 and 40 hours to complete.
My art practice is an ascetic one. Being an illustrator and animator is challenging because many hours are spent in isolation. I go hours without eating or even realizing that I am hungry. Yet, I love being in this space because everything else falls away, including time.
With regards to the techniques, I do not plan the illustrations in advance. The illustrations serendipitously unfold into meaning and visual allegory. This is one reason why I am connected to Cale’s music. The illustration tools I use are simple. I work a lot with .005 archival pens and graphic markers. They are very fine and provide a fragile environment for the subjects to exist in. It appears as though the detailed environments are enmeshed together with fine thread that could unravel at any moment. I feel that the materials reflect a similar tension we experience when listening to Cale's Fear album. Worlds fall apart and come back to us again.