Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

From Rod Stewart to Jack White: meet the musicians with bizarre hidden talents

These celebrities have hobbies totally unrelated to music that they are also particularly good at

Unge Beirut could have become a professional footballer. Photo by Bjorn Thorkildsen
Unge Beirut could have become a professional footballer. Photo by Bjorn Thorkildsen

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.

Unge Beirut. Photo by Nico Hagen
Unge Beirut looked likely to forge a career in football. Photo by Nico Hagen

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.

TORONTO, ON - JUNE 9: Musician Jack White in Toronto to play the Budweiser Stage. White made himself available to media earlier in the day prior to the show. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Jack White crafts furniture as well as plays music with the White Stripes. Getty Images

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 was a gifted footballer and had a trial at English club Brentford.

One talented musician who made the switch to sport is violinist Vanessa Mae. She took a sabbatical to ski for Thailand at the 2014 Winter Olympics, but things went downhill soon afterwards when she was banned from the sport for four years after being found guilty of taking part in races that were fixed to help her qualify. While that ban was overturned, the headlines were hurtful.

Vanessa Mae competing in the women's Giant Slalom Alpine Skiing event in the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games in Russia. EPA
Vanessa Mae competing in the women's Giant Slalom Alpine Skiing event in the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games in Russia. EPA

Rapper Beirut still plays amateur football, but mixing music and serious sport proved problematic. “One coach told me, ‘seriously, you have to choose, because you’re clearly not focused at practice’. And he was right,” he says.

Even hugely successful performers can move between creative careers. In 2017, singer Gerard Way suggested his band My Chemical Romance was probably finished due to his success at writing comics. He runs a DC Comics imprint and his creation, The Umbrella Academy, is now a popular Netflix series. But in October, My Chemical Romance announced they had reformed. Like superheroes, bands are rarely dead for long.

Keeping a group intact is a juggling act when your other vocation has become a successful career. Hanne Torfs leads Belgian synth-pop band Fortress, but is also renowned for acting. “I can’t always find the time to work on new songs because of some intense theatre tours,” she explains.

Gerard Way at a signing for one of his 'The Umbrella Academy' comic books. Photo by Christina Radish.
Gerard Way at a signing for one of his 'The Umbrella Academy' comic books. Photo by Christina Radish.

Those talents do cross over – Torfs also composes for theatre – although critics can be snobbish about performers who diversify. She recalls that “someone in the industry once told me: ‘I can immediately tell when a singer is also an actor and it’s very unpleasant to watch those people sing on stage.’ I see it as a strength.”

She says her acting has helped her perform with her band because she almost plays a character. “I can hide my insecurities and stage fright behind that persona and talking to the audience between songs isn’t that awkward to me any more, due to my experience as an actress.”

Many musicians have endured less fulfilling acting experiences, from Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson and Madonna, while those who succeed on screen often shelve their music careers. Carrie Brownstein cofounded US indie band Sleater-Kinney, then comedy sketch show Portlandia. It ran for eight seasons, although the band slept for much of it.

Ava Lake is a multidisciplinary dance-pop singer whose self-directed music videos feature her own comedy characters. Photo by Val Kilborn
Ava Lake is a multidisciplinary dance-pop singer whose self-directed music videos feature her own comedy characters. Photo by Val Kilborn

Perhaps combining everything is the way forward. Ava Lake, from Chicago, is a multidisciplinary dance-pop singer whose self-directed music videos feature her own comedy characters. Her other passions converge, too.

“I recently painted a picture and thought, why don’t I take a photo of each brush stroke and make a stop-motion video, then I can use it as a music video of sorts for one of my songs,” Lake says.

The downside was that it took seven hours to complete that project, although the result is a unique snapshot of an eclectic artist at work.

“Loving the creative process is so important, realising that it’s not just about the end goal, but the journey,” she says. “Personally, all my passions intertwine – they’re all part of the same artistic message. I’m just trying to create my own artistic universe.”

Sometimes, singing is not quite enough for an artist.

Updated: December 3, 2019 10:53 AM

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