23 Mar Crafting Album Covers: Method Behind the Madness8 min read
One winter night I found myself fiddling through some old records. I threw on The Best of The Guess Who and laid back and closed my eyes. I found myself sunken into the chair intently listening to the words, then out of my seat swaying along. I love to dance but it wasn’t doing the trick that night. I found myself filled with a strange energy that couldn’t be shaken through my different postures. I saw my sketch book lying there and realized that could be the ticket.
Never before had I tried to draw to a song. I started out literal, with weird twists of whatever came out for each song. As the record progressed and I sunk deeper into another world, I let myself expound on the basics. I increased with weird add-ons that more so expressed the mood than the words I was hearing. I slowly let my not-so-abstract-self begin drawing without having any clue what I was attempting to create.
Sometimes type came out. Sometimes one song image blended into another. Familiar images came out, as well as buses with faces and clocks with plant wings. I mean, it got weird, quick. And I loved it.
The music now had something for me to bite into. Something to connect to each corner of my brain.
Auditory. Emotional. Visual.
Today I saw some incredible album covers from designers like Jacob Escobedo and Robert Beatty and I was rocketed back to that American Woman experiment.
I had only doodled some different songs I’d liked. How much more to evoke a total sense of a complete album in one piece of art? The lyrics, the mood, the flow of the songs. How much more to convey where a band finds itself in its own history, compared to the style and design of all the albums of their past. To create the feelings and mores the artist felt as they created. Their brand in that particular epoch. And to keep a piece of yourself and what you felt in an authentic amalgamation of the two? Sounds dang near impossible.
Let’s take some notes from some of the greats on how they make it happen.
Head of Design at Cartoon Network and Adult Swim’s Creative Group
Album Art for: The Shins, Broken Bells, Danger Mouse, Gnarls Barkley
Varied based on the music/musicians
On one of The Shin’s covers, Escobedo went back and forth with the leader of the band for months with notes and revisions, hell bent on getting it right. One of his mentors overseeing the sketches responded only with, “TRY HARDER.” [Heartworms cover pictured above, far left]
With the Broken Bells, Escobedo remembers sitting with the artists as they were still creating the tracks, rifling through old science fiction novels and French nudes. [After The Disco cover pictured above, second from left]
Other times, one song pointedly stood out and colored the whole of the album art.
In a 2013 interview with Nate Pollard of Verbicide Magazine, Jacob revealed an early memory that sparked his future trajectory:
“Certain albums have defined important stages of my life. Joy Division’s Closer was one of those albums. I grew up in this big Mormon family, and I remember at the age of 12 or 13 going into a Kmart and buying the cassette and listening to it all the way home as the desert rushed past the windows of the van. It was the darkest thing I had ever heard. The visuals of that cover still haunt me. It signified a shift in me…constantly searching for something that puts you in a different space in your head. To me, it has been a natural journey into this field of work. Illustration, animation, design, music, art direction…all of it is one thing for me.”
Nature is another big influence for Escobedo. He enjoys science and space as well as old objects and surreal landscapes. All of these elements can be seen in his work in different degrees and forms.
Musician and Artist
Album Art for: Kesha, Tame Impala, Thee Oh Sees, The Flaming Lips
Experimental and open-ended
The Flaming Lips saw a piece of work by Beatty and decided it was perfect for their cover. [Oczy Mlody cover pictured above, far left] He added the names and voila. The right feeling had already found its way out of Beatty’s brain and onto the screen.
Another cover was influenced by the sway and cadence of the songs within it. [Commissions I cover pictured above, second from left]
“There’s a very simple movement and decay represented in those falling bars,” he says. “In [Lopatin’s] music, there’s often a thread of things building up and then collapsing underneath you. It’s almost like he was composing songs and then disassembling them, like if you had a wall of dominoes and you flick one. It’s trying to convey that feeling through the imagery.”
Tame Impala front man Kevin Parker brought Beatty the starts for their album art. “He came to me with a lot of reference images of fluid dynamics — the way that air or water molecules flow around obstacles in their path” That narrative and lots of trial and error in Adobe was all that was necessary to create the simple yet evocative rippling landscape. Beatty admits he’d hardly even heard a few rough mixes from the album. [Currents cover pictured above, far right]
Robert takes what he loves from the past and make it his own. He enjoys the grotesque and usually starts there, with many artists asking him to take out and edit. He also listed books of Japanese photography, old cartoons, op prints and Czech film posters as some inspirational jump offs.
I chose this subject before I even knew our very own Arin Anderson got her design start creating album covers, band posters, inserts, etc.
She had majored in music and was ministered to by design, so the collaboration of the two was a natural fit. The feature image of this blog [pictured at the top of the page] is a design she created for a single from local singer/songwriter Ryan M. Brewer. Arin gave me a brief rundown of her process and the influences that colored the design.
“Ryan gave me a sample of the song. We talked extensively about where he was at when he wrote it. The song name [City Streets & Tangled Webs] had a double meaning about what was going on in his life and about NYC and the area of Manhattan where he was living at the time.
We landed on the concept of the subway systems and mapping of that area. I left the streets and stations and cut out the actual lines to create the background layer.
The colored circles of the type represented the different colors of the actual subway lines, for example, the A-line was blue, etc. The typography was inspired by the bold lettering found all over the city.”
And I’d thought drawing out a whole album of songs was progressive…
I think we can all agree I’m not ready to craft an album for the next big act. This was never my goal. Not yet, at least. However, I did want to evoke what the artists were saying and what I was feeling. I wanted a fuller picture of the music I was hearing across my senses.
And I wanted to get out of my own, often literal head and do some exploring.
Escobedo and Beatty offer a masters course simply through their collective body of work. Their collective “process” is as varied and unique as the music they pen. However, they know themselves and the variables of life that have shaped them most. They know their influences and that of the bands. They combine feelings from the music or the artist with something meaningful to them. And let their style blend with what they’re hearing.
Most importantly, they aren’t afraid to experiment. To go one way, then another, then another. To push and find strange connections that package the music in new and meaningful ways. Forcing themselves to dig all the way down until they hit rock.
And what comes out is transcendental in its wake.
A perfectly imperfect visual representation of a multitude of emotions, muses and inspirations. A truly special and varied beast. One that allows the music to be viewed and therefore experienced on a much deeper, personal level. All the feels.
I challenge you to go home and let your pen and needle drop in unison. Let images flow from your mind, from your past, from that book on your coffee table. Look all around you for the pieces of this world that light you up. From anything that is truly you.
Then draw, paint, mold, layer, type.
Try, mess up, start again.
Create on one level then mix it with another.
Experiment with mediums you’ve never dreamed of before.
You may not deliver the makings of a cover, but you’ll have that music down nice and deep in your bones, right where it belongs.