Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Jill Cunniff is a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised. But today the Luscious Jackson frontwoman and founding member is in Los Angeles visiting her brother, who, naturally, works in TV. Like many other Brooklynites (Cunniff currently resides in Park Slope), she’s openly fascinated with the City Of Angels, specifically its sprawling mid-century architecture and seemingly stuck-in-time road signage. She even admits her relocation fantasies.
“There’s something cool about LA,” she muses. “Every time I’ve come here over the last 10 years I’ve been like, ‘Yeah, I could move here.’ For various reasons we never did, but I thought, ‘God, if I was 10 or 20 years younger like didn’t have all this stuff established, I could see myself doing that.'”
New York isn’t just Cunniff’s home — it’s also where she formed alt-pop mainstay Luscious Jackson in the early ’90s. With some help from neighborhood peers the Beastie Boys, who signed the quartet to their label, Grand Royal, Luscious released four critically beloved discs — 1992’s In Search Of Manny EP, 1994’s Natural Ingredients, 1996’s Fever In Fever Out (home to the grooving staple “Naked Eye”), and 1999’s Electric Honey — before splitting in 2000.
After parting ways, Cunniff put out a solo full-length, City Beach (2007), and later reunited with Luscious Jackson in 2011. In two years’ time, they dropped a crowd-funded LP, Magic Hour. It was around then that Cunniff started focusing on visual art — something she’d studied since childhood but never actively pursued as a career.
“After [releasing Magic Hour], I made really big watercolor paintings for some friends,” she says. “For the first time, I felt really excited about my paintings in the same way I had about music. When we finished our first song for In Search Of Manny, ‘Daughters Of The Kaos,’ I remember putting it on my old stereo system and sitting there and going, ‘All right. This is so satisfying, this one’s ready to go out to the world.’ That’s how I felt about these paintings.”
Cunniff’s newfound efforts have paid off: Come September 20, she’ll launch her first exhibition of original artwork, titled Lyric And Word Paintings. And much like her music, Lyric And Word Paintings is heavily inspired by pre-Giuliani New York City, where graffiti, street art, punk, and hip-hop flourished and no one thought to check for ID.
We called up Cunniff for a conversation in which we covered a little bit of everything: her art, what to expect during her exhibition’s opening night (Cunniff has an exclusive acoustic performance planned), what’s next for Luscious Jackson, and getting “a nightclub education” — i.e., club-hopping around early-’80s New York City with the teenage Beastie Boys.
STEREOGUM: I understand that, in addition to being a musician, you’ve done visual art your entire life. What’s your background there?
CUNNIFF: Well, my mom was an artist. Then I went to high school at LaGuardia School Of The Arts in New York, so I started formally training in ninth grade. Then I went on to college, and that was sort of my minor, I guess. So the whole time I was doing music I was doing painting and drawing, and I really didn’t know which was going to be the thing that I would pursue.
After college, I was like, “Should I try to make it in visual arts, or should I try to make it in music?” Just randomly — well, not so randomly — the music thing just started rolling. I had made a demo with Gabby [Glaser], my bandmate. [We] handed it to the Beastie Boys, who were our friends from New York. We’d been hanging out in the music scene so much for so long, and it just started rolling.
So that thing had a life of its own. Then on the side I was just painting, you know? Just small things here and there; I’d give people gifts or just do it for fun. Then, in 2013 we released a crowdsourced Luscious Jackson album. One of the items we were selling was artwork — you could send money and get lyric paintings. That’s where the whole thing came from.
STEREOGUM: How does your growing up in New York City play into your artistic sensibilities, and how did you arrange to put on your first show?
CUNNIFF: I grew up around tons of art. My parents had artist friends and of course always 20th century modern art, so New York City, you know, basically what I grew up with. Museum Of Modern Art and Soho, I grew up in lower Manhattan so the whole Soho ’70s and ’80s galleries. The whole hip-hop culture, all that stuff, Jean-Michel Basquiat when he was coming out.
My music manager, Pat Magnarella, he had an art management company as well called PMM Art Project. He was sort of doing it a lot, and then he tapered off a bit and he’s kind of bringing it back, like perfectly timed with this. So I invited him over and he just really liked all of the art. He was like, “OK, you have a show.”
STEREOGUM: Is there a period of time in New York’s history, visually, that you are particularly drawn to or miss?
CUNNIFF: For sure — I think most people have that period. I think it’s late childhood to teenage [years] where your mind, eyes, and ears absorb everything around you and it forms your aesthetic. You can change it a little bit, you can go on and add to it and take away. But for me there’s certain sounds, images, and visuals that’s just the core. So it’s definitely New York City in the ’70s and ’80s. My school was on 136th Street, so I would take the train [there] every day.
That’s when the trains were covered in those piles of writing, and that is a part of my thinking. It’s kind of a chaotic sensibility. And the layers and layers of posters, which I find to be absolutely gorgeous when some are peeled away, placed on top all of those side streets when you see the wooden panel … they’re still there, like the paneling that they’d be building something and people would start piling the posters. There were people I knew who did that for a living.
My paintings are a combination of my own lyrics, from all my songs, and stream-of-consciousness writing. I don’t use commercialized fonts at all, it’s all handwritten. So I don’t have any of that like, Pop Art sensibility in terms of using advertisements. This is much more organic looking, for me.
Now, you know, [New York] is very cleaned up. I can’t say I hate it — it’s just really different, you know? There’s no graffiti on any trains, I don’t know how they do it. But I like all that stuff. Like on the side of Prospect Park there’s this wall where scraped names have been scraped in it for like 100 years on Prospect Park West. So you can sit there and you could see people’s names scraped in and they’ll be like [from] 1944. I love that kind of stuff, I love history. I love layers. So that’s probably the biggest aesthetic influence.
STEREOGUM: New York is this city that evolves so quickly. Sometimes it can feel way too easy to romanticize the past and shake your fist at the changes. Especially if you spent your formative years there.
CUNNIFF: Yeah, it is, and I try not to spin and get super-nostalgic. I feel like that was a time, but it also had its negatives. It wasn’t very safe. There was a lot of violence. I know my childhood, not my early years but maybe middle school on, I definitely had violent things happen. My school was very dangerous and lots of people had knives. I have kids, and they haven’t seen anything like what we saw. I think aesthetically [New York] was probably more interesting back then, and I’d say because the cost of living was lower, people could live there and be artists. My brother and I have a thing where we send each other YouTube videos from New York in the ’70s and ’80s, and we just talk about it like, “Oh my God, remember this? Remember that?”
STEREOGUM: Do you think New York is still a viable place to be an artist?
CUNNIFF: Yeah, I think New York is still really vibrant and it’s still full of young artists and that’s why people go there. There’s always gonna be that. There’s always gonna be a New York energy. There’s always gonna be people moving at a certain pace at a certain frequency and it inspires — it can inspire you and it can kick your ass into gear. So for me that’s always been part of why I live there and stay.
STEREOGUM: When I moved to LA, I immediately realized the starkest difference between cities: In New York, people boast about how busy and overworked they are. In LA, people boast about how much self-care they’ve done.
CUNNIFF: Yeah, we’ve been walking around [LA] and the population is so… it’s actually quite different. Politically there might be similarities in terms of voting trends, and there are so many New Yorkers in LA, people going back and forth. But the amount of plastic surgery here is so much higher, so it’s like … that’s probably the most shocking thing for my daughters and myself when we come is, like, people of all ages with facial surgery, you know? It’s super obvious. You don’t see that as much in New York… The rents have gone up here, too, as I understand.
STEREOGUM: They have. It’s because people keep moving here from other cities — New York, especially.
CUNNIFF: Did guys read the New York Times article?
STEREOGUM: The New York-To-Los Angeles-Mass-Exodus one?
CUNNIFF: Yes. I remember looking at that and going, “I wonder if this is gonna happen now?”
STEREOGUM: Let’s chat a bit about your current relationship with Luscious Jackson. To what extent are you still involved these days?
CUNNIFF: We’re still in touch. We still exist as a band. Everyone is very busy, so that’s been sort of hard for us, ’cause we all have very big, busy lives and Kate [Schellenbach], our drummer, lives on the West Coast. So that’s probably been the biggest hurdle. She works for the James Corden Late Late Show.
So anyway, Kate will come out and do shows. We were trying to do one show a year in New York, but I don’t think she can even do this year. So it still exists, and we were working on some music, and there [could] be more music coming at some point. Right now the art is having a lot of appeal, and I have opportunities with it, so I am gonna perform at the opening.
STEREOGUM: Yes, what are you planning to do at the opening?
CUNNIFF: I’m gonna have someone perform with me. I’m trying to get some other guests, we’ll see. We’re gonna do — I don’t know how many songs, but various songs from Luscious Jackson and maybe Kostars, which is a side project I had in the ’90s.
I think because of the time we’re in, touring [with Lucious Jackson] is almost impossible. We did it in 2014, we had some festivals and some shows but the logistics of it is just so hard right now. I mean, we love doing it, we love each other. It’s so much fun to go back and be in the band again after not doing it. It’s like, “oh my God, it’s still here,” you know? It’s magic in that way that you could come back and everybody’s still there and wants to see you play.
We talk all the time. I’m going to hang out with Kate while we’re [in LA]. We’re still looking, watching the music industry and how it’s shifting and how it’s working. We use TuneCore, which is a direct-to-band, artist-to-fan system to sell your music, which meant we didn’t need a label. We’re watching streaming grow. But you know, I think if you’re a mid-sized band, the monetary aspect of it is still really hard in terms of getting rewarded for your strengths.
If you don’t have millions and millions and billions of streams, the income part doesn’t really pay back the cost of making the music. But when Gabby and I met when we were like 14, we said we’re gonna be friends forever. We’re gonna be old ladies with purple hair and we’re still gonna be friends. So last time that we all got together I was like, “I could see this being something we do for a long time.” If everyone’s still healthy. How cool would that be to be touring? You see people like Patti Smith do it. I’m friends with Emmylou Harris who’s still touring. So as long you’re healthy you can continue doing this thing.
So at the moment I feel like everybody’s very busy. We have kids, we have jobs. I could see down the line that we could come back to it in a fuller way, but at the moment it’s logistically very hard. Gabby and I live in Brooklyn so we get together periodically and come up with music. We have some things written and recorded and probably need to regroup, maybe in the winter, and look at it again. So that’s where it’s at. It’s ongoing, it’s just taking a nap at the moment.
STEREOGUM: A nap, that’s a good way of putting it.
CUNNIFF: Taking a little nap. But it will always be there, we all get along great.
STEREOGUM: Do you still have a relationship with Mike D and Ad-Rock?
CUNNIFF: I do. Not extensively, but yes, we’re in touch. We don’t go to each others’ houses for dinner all the time and whatnot, but yes we are in touch. Mike is West Coast and Adam has been East Coast, although he has been out west a bit too. They also have families and kids in schools and so they’re fairly stationary. I think that Mike is a DJ on Apple Music now. Adam and I — we were in like fifth grade together. That’s what’s so funny. I met Mike when I was like 14 at a club called the UK Club, as I recall. So we had a whole posse of kids growing up at clubs, and then one night a whole bunch of us all met and it was like, now here’s our posse.
Back then they really didn’t care how old you were, or they thought we were cute or funny and no one bothered about IDs. In other words, the authorities weren’t cracking down on IDs. So that was really the education that we all shared was New York City nightclubs. So CBGB, we caught the tail end of Max’s Kansas City within the David Bowie glam bender, and Warhol and all that. We kinda caught the tail end of that right into the punk rock scene and the Bad Brains, and that whole evolution. Then straight into hip-hop.
So that was all first-row seats, you know? That’s why we all came out with the music we came out with. We just saw all this music kind of over, even just a seven-year period, blend and transform, and it was really exciting to be able to see all that stuff and at that age when it just poured into us. That’s an unusual thing that happened in terms of our ages and amount of stuff that we got to see. I see with my kids it’s like, they keep asking me, “How come we don’t get to see this?” ‘Cause they’re at that age now.
STEREOGUM: So what do you tell your kids when they harp on you for clubbing as a teenager?
CUNNIFF: Yes. It’s hard, I haven’t bragged about it extensively, but they know. I try to keep a lid on it, ’cause I know that it was really fun and it would be upsetting to them ’cause they don’t have it.
STEREOGUM: It’s also a different time.
CUNNIFF: Yeah, it’s a different time, but there are things — there are parties in Williamsburg that have music, and I was like, just wait. There’s one in particular who’s into music, my younger one. I’m like, just wait a minute and you’re gonna find out where these things are going on, who’s doing it. If you wanna find out, you’re gonna find out, and you’re gonna go find the music you wanna find. New York, it’s there.