Once, Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway was one of the biggest dockyards in the country, employing thousands of men and women to make boats for the Royal Navy. Closed in 1984, the dockyard has since been converted into a museum; its silent acres filled with industrial skeletons in the form of cranes, anti-aircraft guns, wooden figureheads, rusting anchors and long corridors of warehouses. Above one such warehouse, up a fire escape next to a naval bookshop, you will find the painting studio of Billy Childish, musician, artist, writer and poet.
This large, square room was once used to make rope. Now it’s lined with canvases, stacked against the walls six deep. There’s a battered sofa, a small selection of art books and a trestle table piled with neatly arranged photographs of possible subjects for future paintings. Against one wall is a half-finished landscape of a cypress swamp, a favoured theme for Childish. The artist, wearing a beret and brown overalls bearing the logo of his Hangman record label, has a show coming up in Berlin. With no time to waste, he paints throughout our interview, adding dabs of browns, greys and greens before filling the top half with bright orange blossom.
Childish first worked at Chatham in the 1970s as an apprentice stonemason, sketching co-workers and dreaming of punk rock. In that sense, not much has changed. Although his paintings are in great demand, Childish still spends an implausible amount of time making music. He’s recorded 17 albums in the past 18 months – including three volumes of The New And Improved Bob Dylan, which features a coruscating series of Dylan covers by Childish’s latest venture, the folk-rock William Loveday Intention.
“It’s not a homage and it’s not a parody,” he explains. “I am getting into the soul of what the songs are about, taking it seriously, absolutely, but then making a joke about how serious I’m taking it. Everything for me is like getting home from school and deciding what game to play. This game was let’s play at being Bob Dylan. But if you are playing a game as a kid, the more seriously you take it the better it will be. That’s probably something that Dylan guy realises. It’s all nonsense, but you take the joke seriously.”