Design July 28, 2014
Growing up we had only two records in our home: Mario Lanza’s Christmas album and Shirley Temple’s Greatest Hits. I knew every inch of those covers, like they were fan magazines or uncovered secrets about the music and the people.
Album graphics are essential to any music package — they should speak to you about the music inside and the people that created it, a memorable visual aid of some reference. When approaching a new music package, every art director and designer wants to create that iconic, classic album cover. The one you’ve held on to since it first came out. This can happen in many different ways — a genius concept, an epic photo, or a happy accident.
Portraits of a Journey
When I first met Matthew Johnson, co-founder and president of Fat Possum Records, it impressed me how much he loved this music and wanted to share it with the world through the Mississippi Blues Series. Most people know the Oxford, Mississippi of literature and Ole Miss stature, but Johnson wanted to go down under the radar to find these unique characters writing and singing the blues.
There were three albums recorded and ready, all produced by New York Times music critic Robert Palmer. First releases were Junior Kimbrough’s All Night Long, R.L. Burnside’s Too Bad Jim and David Thompson’s Little Dave and Big Love. I planned to create beautiful portraits of these men in their world. I chose my favorite photographer Ron Keith for the trip down south. I knew he would capture their spirit in an honest, respectful way. He could gain their trust and get those beautiful shots we needed.
The images were so beautiful, they just had to be framed on the page. The title and name had to be on the front cover somewhere but it would compromise my design. To solve that problem, I had the name and title run up the side of the clear tray and had the printer make an extra print on a special photo paper that slipped in front of the cd booklet so it could be taken out and framed. We added a sticker on the outside shrink-wrap to satisfy the sales department. The thinking behind the whole series was buy one and you’ll want to buy them all.
Once this was established I called on designer Gina Binkley of Altar Ego to follow through with the layout and design of the packages. The series won the Best Art Direction, Album Series Packaging at the Nashville Music Awards.
Taking a Step Back
Because Syd was the only woman signed during my time at Capricorn Records, I was thrilled to work on this project. Syd was a literate, quirky, cult favorite. I loved her music could not wait to see what she was cooking up for us.
The result was ‘War and Peace,’ so named for a brief and unhappy romance. I met with Syd and her manager and listened to some rough mixes to get a taste and it helped me visualize what I wanted to do.
I think this is one of the few times I knew I had it and presented only that one design to the client.
I thought by releasing an album with such an epic title, she needed the royal treatment. I got the budget approved that I needed and called Norman Jean Roy. I knew he would be able to take classic images and add his special magic. Lucky for us he was available and we flew to Chicago for the shoot. The wardrobe and stylists were exceptional; I sent them shopping with Syd and they found some fantastic period and modern combinations for our 5 set/ 10 hour shoot.
We had a grand time shooting in a loft in the industrial part of town and the rough facades of the brick buildings on the streets below. The results were magnificent. After the edit, we had more than enough gorgeous images to work with.
I started on a large canvas pulling in the best cover choices and adding different fonts and treatments until I was happy with my rough mix. Each one had a different feeling, a different side of Syd. Then a funny thing happened. As I moved back from the screen to get a different perspective, the four covers I was playing with became the four quarters of one cover. I removed all the text, and pulled them together. It worked! I tweaked the image proportions, then set about adjusting the text I originally had on a five inch image to fit on one quarter, representing all four. I worked it until it was right. I think this is one of the few times I knew I had it and presented only that one design to the client. They loved it, and it was approved by all departments and then I was left to have lots of fun with the rest of the package, subsequent singles and marketing materials. Using as many images as I could, I played with type and chose a color palette to pull them all together, celebrating the eclectic nature of the artist and her music.
‘Another Black Feather’ was the second of five covers I designed for Dayna Kurtz and Kismet Records, an independent label in Brooklyn. I was already a fan of Dayna’s music; she’s a real poet, and this album was so rich with beautiful tunes I could not wait to get started.
Dayna has lots of artist friends and during her travels she might ask them to come up with something for her music. This is how ‘Another Black Feather’ got started. Artist Karen Portaleo created this beautiful piece and shot it on a vintage wallpaper that fit with the sculpture and the soulful sounds that would be inside. She also shot a few additional images of bones and earth that I used on the tray card.
Dayna chose photographer Deirdre McGaw to shoot her portraits, though we never used one image of Dayna on the package. We saved that for a big sexy poster. I asked Deirdre to shoot a selection of objects from my collection, some Deirdre had around her studio, or Karen had sent to use throughout the package.
Listening to each song, I opened myself up to the words and the music and made the art I felt matched that spirit.
All the photos were lovely and I had lots to work with. First, for the cover, I did not want to cover up the artwork so I worked the title into the banner that hung from the frame and left Dayna’s name off. At the time, only at an independent label could I get away with this idea. We believed the art could stand on its own and entice someone to look deeper.
I then had to decide what images to use on which panels. The feather image was a given for the back and an image of a fan of feathers would be duplicated and retouched to become a four-color flower on the disc. I then decided the tiny grave photo would be best as a surprise printed on the tray under the cd. It soon became apparent that I needed to make a new specific piece of art for each song. That would require a twelve-page booklet which is quite extravagant for a solo artist on an indie label. Luckily Dayna and Kismet agreed and I got to work with Photoshop, adding layer upon layer, using the new images and finding textures and patterns from antique fabric and old metal frames.
Listening to each song, I opened myself up to the words and the music and made the art I felt matched that spirit. We were all very happy when this package was presented the Best Album Package Design by the Independent Music Awards.
Diane is a Principal and Creative Director at Design Diseno New York, a digital production and design studio she founded with designer Naxieli Gomez.