A Celebration of Music’s Most Reclusive Artists

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Musicians are, almost by definition, exhibitionist types — given to loud costumes, flashy spectacles, well-publicized romances, and various publicity stunts. But how about the exceptions that prove the rule, those recluses who have always made their music in seclusion, shied away from performing, or retreated to a shack in the middle of nowhere after years of fame? You may question what’s driven them away from the adoration of millions, but in the end, you also have to respect them for refusing to cash in and feed tabloid culture.

In fact, December has been a big month for these mysterious iconoclasts, what with Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum showing up to perform a set in Brooklyn and Lauryn Hill announcing a string of tour dates. After the jump, we take a look at the careers of some of music’s most reclusive artists, from Syd Barrett and Scott Walker to Hill and Mangum.

Syd Barrett

Unless your parents are really awesome, the Pink Floyd music they love so much probably involves lots of guitar solos and overwrought lyrical metaphors. Things were not always this way. In the band’s earliest years, they played odd, wonderful psychedelic music, the best of which appears on their 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. But then Barrett, who was doing a lot of acid, got really weird, and started pulling weird stunts onstage. He was out of the band by the time Pink Floyd’s sophomore release, A Saucerful of Secrets, dropped the next year.

Barrett hung on for a short solo career, putting out two albums comprised mostly of unreleased material from the mid-’60s while beginning his retreat from public life. The first of these, 1970’s palpably paranoid and idiosyncratic The Madcap Laughs, is an object of worship for Barrett’s cultish fans.

After a few more fits, starts, and failed bands, Barrett fled to Cambridge to live with his mother. Aside from a short-lived stint in London, he stayed there until his death in 2006. Although he stopped releasing new material in the ’70s and fell ill in later life, the media and obsessive fans stalked Barrett mercilessly as he tried to go about his quiet life of making art and gardening. Experts and amateurs alike continue to debate whether or not he was schizophrenic, bipolar, or afflicted by some other mental illness.

Scott Walker

Originally a member of ’60s boy band The Walker Brothers, Scott Walker has had one of music’s strangest career trajectories. By 1967, he was releasing solo albums full of murky, throaty takes on classic songs, especially those of Jacques Brel. Soon enough, Walker was writing his own material.

In the mid-’70s, Walker reunited with “brothers” (the band members weren’t actually related) and steered them into darker waters, too. But since returning to his solo career, he’s released only three albums — and every one of them is fantastic: 1984’s Climate of Hunter, 1995’s Tilt, and 2006’s The Drift. During that time, Walker has also done some soundtrack work and written classical music. He absolutely refuses to perform live, although he did produce a multi-night tribute concert back in 2008, in which fans like Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker took on tracks from his most recent albums.

Luckily, those looking to get to know Walker better can watch Stephen Kijak’s fantastic Scott Walker: 30th Century Man, a 2006 documentary that combines conversations with and studio footage of the artist with analyses of his work by high-profile admirers from David Bowie and Brian Eno to Goldfrapp and Johnny Marr.

Sly Stone

As Greil Marcus notes in Mystery Train , anyone who followed Sly & the Family Stone from their early anthems of party-loving diversity to the post-’60s meltdown of 1971’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On could trace Stone’s descent into madness. Torn between commercial considerations and his political allegiance to the Black Panther Party, and steeped in drug abuse, the funk legend detached from his band and started missing performances.

Stone’s subsequent solo career never really ignited, and aside from a few guest spots and one-off singles in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he hasn’t released any new material since 1982. By 1987, he had stopped performing and didn’t get onstage again until 2006, when he appeared with most of the original Family Stone lineup for a tribute at the Grammys — and even then, he exited before the song was over. In the years since, he has popped up from time to time, sometimes taking the stage for a single song, and other times making it through an entire short set. A new album is supposedly forthcoming, but we’re not holding our breath.

As for the years between 1987 and 2006, it’s unclear what Stone was up to during that time. While some say he lives in Beverly Hills with assistants and a home studio, others say that his ex-manager, Jerry Goldstein, took him for everything he had and that Stone was living on welfare.

Jandek

Some reclusive musicians stop releasing new work. Then there’s Jandek, who’s put out roughly two albums a year since 1978. Although he’s never had mainstream success, his unusual, experimental brand of folk and roots music has won him an enthusiastic cult following. Intrigued by his mysterious identity (fans have hypothesized, but never confirmed, that he’s 65-year-old Sterling Richard Smith) and past, fans order his albums via his own Corwood Industries record label. And if you want a catalog, you have to write to Jandek’s Houston P.O. box. Over the course of his 30-year career, the artist has done a grand total of two interviews.

But Jandek has finally begun performing in public. He played his first live show in October 2004, at Glasgow’s Instal 04 music festival. About a year later, he made his U.S. debut in Austin. Since then, he’s done a handful of shows every year. His next takes place January 8th at UC Irvine, where he’ll be joined onstage by Mike Watt and HEALTH’s BJ Miller.

Jeff Mangum

What do you do when you’ve written perhaps the most beautiful album in the history of indie rock? If you’re Jeff Mangum, Neutral Milk Hotel mastermind, core member of Athens’s Elephant 6 collective, and idol to sensitive 20-somethings the world over, you get the hell out of the public eye. After touring NMH’s visionary, Anne Frank-inspired second album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mangum did the unthinkable and broke up the band.

In the years immediately after that, Mangum released field recordings from a Bulgarian folk festival and collaborated with his E6 buddies on 2001’s supremely bizarre and wonderful Major Organ and the Adding Machine project. Since then, he has played small, backing parts on friends’ albums and turning up to nervously sing along at Olivia Tremor Control gigs and as part of Elephant 6’s 2008 Holiday Surprise Tour. In all those years, he didn’t perform a single NMH tune.

Lately, though, Mangum has been making his first tentative steps back to the stage. In May, he played a short set, including NMH favorites “Oh Comely” and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” at a benefit. And earlier this month, Mangum did six songs for a crowd of about 75 people at an unpublicized loft show in Bushwick. These are both good signs — as is the news that another Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour is planned for early 2011.

Lauryn Hill

Hill was a mere 18 years old when she released her first album with the Fugees. Rocketed to fame a few years later when their cover of “Killing Me Softy” dominated the pop charts and the album it was on, 1996’s The Score, sold millions of copies. Hill went solo in 1998, with her masterpiece, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a gorgeous and inspired album that fused rap with R&B, and her own life and loves with political and social criticism.

Although she embarked on a number of projects, from a screenplay about Bob Marley to a clothing line. But in the early 2000s, after renewing her commitment to religion under the influence of a “spiritual adviser,” she seemed desperate to show audiences the real Lauryn. Hill put out MTV Unplugged No. 2, a live record of mostly new, original material that reflected the shift — and while some critics loved it, others outright panned it. Around that time, she disappeared from public life, surfacing again in the mid-’00s for a short-lived Fugees reunion that ended with Hill at odds with her band mates.

Since last year, Hill has been performing every now and then, at music festivals like Rock the Bells, in addition to a few solo dates. She’s also supposedly working on a new album — and has been for at least five years. Much of this new material has already made its way to the public via bootlegs and leaks. Recently, it was announced that Hill has scheduled five performances, in New York, Boston, and Miami late this month and early next month. Hopefully that means this new record may finally see the light of day in the near future.