Given that Martin Creed – the Glasgow-bred, London-based Turner Prize winner known for his quirky, whimsical, witty artworks – is devoting much of his creative time these days to making, releasing and performing music, it would be remiss not to ask him about his favourite music.
Turns out, somewhat unexpectedly, that he is a big fan of outlaw country singers Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson and their domestic melodramas about drinkin’, lovin’, sufferin’ and drinkin’ some more.
But why not? Creed is a gleefully independent thinker and punk player. It is not as if he would deliberately desire to follow in the footsteps of other artists, even if he could. He might as well be into Bulgarian folk choirs for all the direct influence they would have on the short, simple, repetitive, charming, insidious, lo-fi nuggets of wisdom he has released over the last couple of years.
Having said that, there are glimmers of familiarity when he mentions one of his all-time favourite albums, Lou Reed’s notoriously perverse live recording, Take No Prisoners.
“He does some of the famous songs but in really weird extended versions with ranting in the middle of them about this, that and the other,” says Creed. “It’s almost like weird improvised jazz, you know?”
Banish the jazz, tone down the ranting and forget about the famous, and this is not a million miles away from how Creed explains his Words and Music residency for the EIF – a solo date with Creed, his guitar, some visuals as a backdrop and a fair chunk of unscripted chat between songs, to inject a touch a peril to proceedings.
“Otherwise, it’s like going out with people and deciding what you’re going to say beforehand – totally ridiculous, you’d never do that,” says Creed. “So I think of this thing as trying to think out loud. It’s about trying to communicate directly, trying to make onstage the same as offstage. I think about that in all the work I do.”
Creed’s artworks are, in the main, straightforward, accessible, superficially simple and playfully punk rock. And, like punk, prone to bewilder and divide opinion. When he won the Turner Prize in 2001 with his literally titled Work No. 227: The Lights Going On And Off, the mutters of “but I could do that” reverberated around the Tate Gallery for months.
Bucking the seeming disposability of works in blu-tack and shredded or crumpled paper, Creed has carved a place in Edinburgh civic life with a couple of permanent installations – his Everything Is Going To Be Alright neon sign outside the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the immaculate restoration of The Scotsman Steps between North Bridge and Market Street, with each step clad in a different type of marble.
Creed’s original idea for the steps was to trigger ascending/descending musical scales, a concept he applied instead to a lift in the Fruitmarket Gallery across the road. So music has always been part of his artistic mix. He formed the trio Owada as a vehicle for his songs in the late 1990s, and composed and choreographed Ballet Work No. 1020 for Sadler’s Wells in 2009, which has since been revived a number of times.
“The reason I got into doing the music was because of what I thought was a failing in the sculptures and visual works that I was making,” says Creed. “When I looked at the finished works, I couldn’t see the story of how it all happened, and I thought the story was important. It was like the sediment at the bottom of a glass – there’s the evidence that something happened but you can’t enjoy the glass of wine.”
Over the past five years, Creed has worked with the likes of Franz Ferdinand guitarist Nick McCarthy and John McEntire of cult Chicago pop experimentalists Tortoise to produce the albums Love to You, Mind Trap and Thoughts Lined Up plus a number of eminently flippable double A-side singles, including F*** Off/Die and Let Them In/Border Control, the latter in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Far from trading in heavy-handed rhetoric, Creed’s distinctive style is to create plaintive rhythmic chants or make basic linguistic juxtapositions with enough space for the listener to make their own connections or head off on their own tangents. His latest stuttering utterance is the naïvely philosophical What the F*** Am I Doing? accompanied by a cleverly calibrated video of Creed walking the streets around his Brick Lane home reflected in a selection of mirrors.
“A lot of the songs start in my head while I’m walking,” he says. “It’s like a little mantra-type thing I do when I’m walking along. I feel you can keep words more in your head, tunes have to be sung out. Maybe that’s why it starts with the words because those are the things that keep bloody coming into my head.
“I’ve found that if I write music on an instrument then I can only write what I’m able to play. It can end up being conventional because you play what’s easy to play, and so that’s a reason to try and write off the instrument and you write in a different way, more to do with ideas.”
Creed is keen to keep that spontaneity running through Words and Music. The danger with any kind of residency is the inevitable temptation to fall back on a pattern, whereas one of the pleasures of interviewing Creed is that his random ramblings are wholly engaging.
“I don’t know how you can be fresh and new with material that’s old,” he says. “In the last six months I’ve been trying to get back to basics so I’ve been working at home a lot on my own. I don’t know how healthy that is – in fact, I’m starting to think it’s quite unhealthy... But there’s too many levels of polishing or thinking about it or putting up a front.
“If I feel fake then that’s a terrible feeling. I’d rather die onstage trying to be true than put up a front.”
• Martin Creed’s Words and Music is at The Studio, until 27 August, 10:30pm