John Mellencamp Talks Music, Art and Painting With Bruce Springsteen: “He Was Pretty Good”

Singer-songwriter John Mellencamp has been painting since he made music. And before breaking through as a rock star, he hoped to be an artist.

Today, after decades of building a legendary musical career, a collection of his paintings and assemblages is on display 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 works.

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, with whom he also painted.

“He was pretty good, you know,” Mellencamp said of when he painted a “huge” room with Springsteen. “And he was really, really enthusiastic. He was really enthusiastic and he really tried hard. I was proud of him.”

“In fact, if he came back to my house, it would be like, ‘Hey Bruce, let’s paint it,’ and he’d be like, ‘OK.'”

Mellencamp told CBS News he used to watch his mother paint in their Indiana home, and at some point he started painting over her paintings.

In 1974, he left Indiana – where he was a singer in a cover band – for New York. He considered taking art classes, but his musical talent caught the attention of record companies.

He soon landed a recording contract and had some modest hits as Johnny Cougar. His fifth album, “American Fool”, was his breakthrough.

Mellencamp said three songs from the album – “Hurts So Good”, Hand to Hold on To and “Jack and Diane” – were “hated” by the record company, but became top 10 singles.

“The good thing about it is they never bothered me again, ever,” Mellencamp said.

At first, says Mellencamp, he tried to control his songs, but found that, like painting, it was better not to question himself.

“I learned well that, as with painting, let the painting go where it wants to go. The real art is when the artist surprises himself,” he said.

During Mellencamp’s career, he went 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.”

“It’s quiet. It’s just me, you know. There’s oil paint, canvas, cigarettes and everything I like there, you know,” Mellencamp said.

As for what he gets out of the act of painting, he says. “You walk into a web and that’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 a play he recently started is going. “I’ll find something about it,” he said, looking at the painting in progress. “I will solve this problem.”

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