Exploring Outsider Music - An Interview with Irwin Chusid

Photo credit: flickr

Some musicians deliberately attempt to distinguish themselves from the masses—this is the goal they bear in mind while creating. In some ways, it’s an understandable aim. Nowadays, our ears are oversaturated with songs due to the Internet. Therefore, the circumstances under which a unique and stand-alone sound can be created are difficult to fathom.

That’s where ‘outsider music’ comes in. Outsider music is defined on Wikipedia as ‘music created by self-taught or naïve musicians’. The term is usually applied to musicians outside the music establishment or those who ‘exhibit childlike qualities, especially those who suffer from intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses'. Irwin Chusid—a radio personality, journalist, author, and record producer—who coined the term for the genre, describes it as ‘crackpot and visionary music, where all trails lead essentially one place: over the edge’. He has contributed to helping outsider musicians, as described and categorised by him, to gain recognition and a solid platform, and has done the same for other genres and artists, such as Jandek, R. Stevie Moore, and The Langley Schools Music Project, which later inspired the film School of Rock. Chusid isn’t the first to have used the ‘outsider’ idea, though; ‘outsider art’ (Roger Cardinal), or even earlier ‘art brut’ (Jean Philippe Arthur Dubuffet), are concepts that have been referred to since the early twentieth century.

Despite its somewhat negative public perception, the raw authenticity of 'outsider' pieces is commendable rather than being ridiculed or viewed as trivial. The creation of a separate genre should be seen as an enabling platform rather than something which shoves these artists away from the mainstream. Nevertheless, dubbing this movement as ‘outsider’ indicates that it may still be perceived as kitsch—an item of curiosity, rather than something you may see in a museum or playlist alongside more ‘mainstream’ art. It seems as though there is still a certain marginalisation. It’s one thing to praise someone’s art for being raw, genuine, and honest, but it’s another to insinuate and assume that this is a result of their inability to be or produce otherwise. Obstacles such as mental illness and a lack of economic resources do not determine one’s talent or potential, and do not confine these artists to solely one genre. Furthermore, with streaming platforms such as Spotify, SoundCloud, and YouTube, automated recommendations send all kinds of artists our way, without necessarily providing background context.

I reached out to Irwin Chusid in order to gain a different perspective and clearer understanding of what he intended the genre to encompass and how he perceives it today.

Honestly, I was initially a bit unsettled about the term ‘outsider’ being applied to musicians with mental issues or those lacking economic means to create music of high production value; it’s a term which often has negative connotations and I felt that it was somewhat dismissive. However, as I’ve read more about your work, your support for these musicians has become very obvious to me. I was wondering whether you could clarify how exactly you define(d) the term ‘outsider’.

Chusid: On a musical level, I define 'outsider' as artists who people with mainstream tastes would consider “wrong,” “inept,” or perhaps woefully “naive.” Outsider music (and outsider art in general) is created by people whose intentions are sincere and who often lack rudimentary self-awareness of how removed from convention their efforts appear. These musicians are often self-taught. In the best cases, their work has a strikingly distinct identity (although not all categorical 'outsider music' is interesting; much of it is deservedly marginal). Mental illness may or may not be a factor. There is no universal profile. That said, I have explained many times that the phrase 'outsider music' is essentially meaningless, even gratuitous. The category is a journalistic marketing convenience. Performers so categorized are, simply put, musicians, artists, entertainers. No one sets out to be an outsider musician. The label has to be applied externally. It’s a handle, a road map, to navigate a field of artists with common characteristics.

In your opinion, has 'outsider music' changed over the years?

Chusid: I wouldn’t say so. New artists, new sounds, but the definition/phenomenon remains the same.

Do you think that ‘outsider music’ is still an easily applicable and relevant classification in the present day, when music technology is so much more widely and easily accessible and there’s been such a huge upsurge in lo-fi music?

Chusid: Interest in lo-fi music goes back decades. It’s nothing new. (Listen to “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen from 1963.) The category remains as vibrant today as it was when I wrote the book (20 years ago). I still discover artists who exhibit the qualities. Technology has nothing to do with it, except insofar as the internet has made it easier to find and track such artists.

A friend of mine and I recently discussed how insiders in music seem to be the most interested in ‘outsider’ musicians (eg. Kurt Cobain’s Daniel Johnston T-shirt sparking Johnston’s career). Do you think that there is a particular audience for outsider music, or is there no such thing since streaming platforms have eliminated a lot of search boundaries for many listeners?

Chusid: I’ll go out on a limb and say that people who most enjoy outsider music are those who feel like outsiders a bit themselves. I’ve been drawn to marginal self-expression since my mid-teens. It’s my “inner outsider.” Although I can’t claim to exhibit the personal or artistic characteristics of the outsiders I’ve chronicled—and no one would call me an “outsider” because I’m very functional and self-aware—I’ve long felt distanced from much of mainstream culture. Never felt like I fit in with crowds, mass movements, or popular trends.

As a teacher wrote on my second grade report card, “Irwin is a good student, but he tends to wander away from the group.”

There are countless reasons why the abstract, naive, and minimalist art you see in museums is popular; not only does it provide an insight into something new, but once you read a description, it is often easier to connect with the artist. Despite not typically being as well-known, outsider artists lend a uniqueness to their pieces and to the art scene in general, and can serve to work against more generalised discrimination within society by granting a sort of inkling into their lives or ideas. I do wonder, though, whether the concept of an outcast in the art world is still a relevant and applicable concept, and, if so, who resides there, and why.

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor