We’ve got music project collaborations on the brain lately as we wade through the amazing Band Together applications we received. While Band Together focuses on music videos, another music-art intersection happens in the form of album art. As LPs continue their hipster resurgence, could a new era of album art be upon us? We talked to Christine Leakey, a multi-disciplinary artist who counts graphic design, music, and visual art among her talents, and even has a shiny new Hamilton Music Award for Album Art, received just last month for her own album, Tapping Trees in a Trinket Box of Treasure, to show for it. She chats with CoBALT about the many creative roles she fills.
You seem to take on a lot of creative roles. You wrote, produced, and did the artwork for your album Tapping Trees in a Trinket Box of Treasure. Can you talk to us about your career trajectory?
And I've done conceptual and production work on some of my own music videos, too!
In life, I live by the simplicity of, If I can think it then I can do it. Sort of like how Forrest Gump went out into the world fearlessly because it can't hurt to try. When I was a baby, I began to whistle tunes at 10 months old, and then at 2, I was already drawing pictures and colouring in the lines, and so when asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” it was always an easy question to answer.
Being adaptable and living by my simple philosophy has enabled me to wear many hats in the arts - my late Grandmaman Desmarais, who was a French milliner in Quebec, would be proud! Some of my hats include:
The French Tam through designing visual solutions for web and print.
The Mucha Headpiece through writing, recording, live performance, and collaboration with the Hamilton Aerial Group.
The Adventurers Hat through media managing the First Circumnavigation of the Globe by Only Human Power in 2005 and '06
The Biltmore Hat by co-producing the 2002 Toronto Fringe Jazz Festival.
Finding a balance doing things I love – and one should love their work – can be compared to tightrope walking a fine line, enduring the bumps and kinks, perseverance and strong time management. Years ago, I graduated from Graphic Design with post-graduate studies in 3D animation, interactive media, sound and video editing, and children's book writing. Graphic and web design has been my bread and butter career, which I love doing.
My career interest is to find a stable job in graphic or web design with a firm or corporation fostering a positive, healthy outlook, and that embraces the rich diversity that I can bring based on years of success and adaptability. In the meantime, I am freelancing for a few clients on some small scope projects.
As for my music: design fuels music. I have an agent in California who has been trying to get my music in film and television, and in the spring, I plan to do a few shows in California with friends and family. [I’d also like to] perform some more shows around here. Music has definitely been my labour of love, though I wouldn't be adverse to financial reward, as I've certainly paid my dues! This week, I’m preparing for a private corporate function performance.
The artwork for Tapping Trees in a Trinket Box of Treasure is very beautiful, subdued, and almost dreamlike. Tell us about the process of creating it.
Thank you, and you are correct in saying dreamlike since the trees growing from roses and floating in the sky and outer-space came to me in a dream!
When designing for clients, coming up with a strong vision happens with ease; however, to design artwork for my own creative project proved to be a much greater challenge.
My concept goes pretty deep and since my music is very personal and lush with a feel from an era lost somewhere in time, I wanted to create artwork which would convey and compliment the complexities and intricacies of the album. When I write a song, I hear arrangements for the music in my mind and I see many visuals and moods – much like a film – to accompany a piece. I tried to incorporate as many of my visions as possible so that the album could tell a story in itself. To not pigeonhole an idea was a challenge I overcame with great time invested in numerous concepts, dreams, ideas, and their implementation.
The final design developed over months of conceptualizing ideas digitally and painting concepts on wood. I collaborated only on the front panel of the album design with Maihyet Burton, whom I shared my vision with. She dressed me in gypsy-inspired garments and photographed me. Two Canadian geese approached me with their heads in a bowed position, so as a gift of thanks to appreciative ears, I curtsied beside them. I suggested the gypsy wagon in the background and created the bunting flags and I photographed the exotic animals while staying at a friend’s ranch in Texas. In choosing fonts, I wanted them to be classic, script-oriented fonts.
I then created the back panel as an extension of this design, again with the script font to give a feel of classic film. Imagine that I’m looking out at what you see on the back panel. There are tree sprouts growing from rose buds, and then mighty trees rooted in fully-bloomed roses lifting off and drifting out into the cosmos. I love nature and animals, and so the artwork is a performance to all creatures of the earth.
I really liked the inside left panel of me at my toy player piano. Of the several concepts I created, that was my runner-up album cover choice. Another photographer friend, Jason McConnie, took the photo of me with my toy piano against a white backdrop, and Friskey Brown did my hair and makeup. I chose my costume from Deja Vu Vintage in Hamilton, and the headdress is one I purchased for the shoot, which another friend in the U.S. handcrafted. I decided it would be my little gypsy wagon stage setting, so I created a little fantasy stage setting from the photo. My thought for the album art story was: this is my performance under the stars for the creatures, while the floating trees continue to resonate out into the far reaches of the universe.
On the CD itself, I designed a slice of tree to show time with a faint cosmos overlay. The lines on a slice of tree remind me of a record. One can only imagine what sounds a tree recording would play if it could share its history and wisdom. The booklet is created with my rose tree vision, and an image of my late Great Aunt Aurore, who soon after the photo was taken, passed away from TB. My thought was to dedicate the album to those little spirits on earth who never had the opportunity to grow old and experience all the beauty their particular life would have continued to offer.
How does having experience in one creative field inform your abilities in other creative fields?
Music can really be inspiring while designing, and so I listen to all sorts of music while working on any corporate or arts-based projects to keep the flow going. And when I have designed for recording artists, I listen to their music exclusively to draw from their musical vision and apply to any given design.
Since my skill set crosses over different abilities, I've been hired for positions where my different hats have been utilized. It was a fabulous opportunity to be part of the FringeJazz Festival, as it married my design skills with my musical interests. When I media-managed the First Circumnavigation of the Globe by Only Human Power, [a project of] Colin and Julie Angus, I obtained title sponsorship (from my employer at the time) for these National Geographic Adventurer of the Year winners. Amongst the many communication tasks for media, I also music supervised and wrote the original score for their award winning documentary based on a poem written by Julie's mother.
Having multiple abilities has saved me and my clients/employer's money at times. It also enabled me to barter with some of the people involved with my album.
What would you say are the biggest challenges facing you as a creative professional?
First, judgement: being pigeonholed based on previous design experience. I have never designed an annual report, but you can bet that I would design one very well. A good designer is adaptable to anything.
Fear: I've encountered some workplaces that are afraid to hire me because I've done too much, and [they think] I may get bored, when really I'm a survivor. I do the best I can with what I've got, and would love to build a healthy, solid working foundation in one company where there can be a mutual respect which will ultimately give even better results.
Globalization: when freelancing, I'm now competing for work with designers who charge unethically [compared to] the typical pay standards here. And on a larger scope, firms also have to compete now on a much more globalized level.
Credibility: companies who choose to cut paid design jobs and replace them with free interns with minimal-to-no experience versus [hiring] seasoned professionals. I find this incredibly underhanded.
Economy and capitalization: during these turbulent economic times, I've definitely felt the impact, and yet, show must go on in marketing, so I don't entirely believe this as a valid reason when I'm faced with it. I have endured pay freezes and watched job cuts occur in my field of work since 2008. There has been a shift in many places that have gone from hiring seniors to get quality, to hiring juniors or interns to make more profit. In the greater spectrum of things, a company will save in the end by hiring a faster, more efficient, talented seasoned professional.
Role shift: being a graphic designer is an artistic skill using the creative right brain. In recent years, I've seen more and more jobs expect graphic designers to also be program developers, [a task] which uses the mathematical left brain. Companies that realize the value in keeping these as two separate careers, which I feel they are meant to be, do so. Surely there are some out there who are great at both, but I feel and know that many are spread thin, and are not producing as great a result since they’re having to do both. I'd rather be great in the visuals rather than having to focus and worry about coding. I've done it before but I [prefer to] leave it to the genius coders of the world.
What are some of your all-time favourite albums in terms of artwork? What draws you to them?
Gosh, I don't really have a favourite. I'm the type of person who can't really pick favourites, as so many things offer their own particular value for whatever reason. I will say though that I love album art that lures me in where I can get lost in the artwork while listening to the music. I often find album art less appealing when it's just someone's portrait with a title; to me, it's not really putting thought into the music, and yet, a pretty face can also sell. I just hope the shot is unforgettable like Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream & Other Delights or Yma Sumac's Mambo.
Christine isn't picking favourites, but she does applaud iconic album covers like this one.
In the digital-download age, is album art still relevant? Why?
Yes, I believe album art will always be relevant for those who desire a tangible copy, and others who wish to seek out more information on a song they stumble on digitally. How many times have we purchased something based on the packaging and marketing? It happens daily. A strong visual statement brings the listening experience to a greater level of appreciation through the lyrics, the liner notes, and slipping into the imagination set by the artwork itself. Beautifully done artwork encourages a broader fanbase which generates more sales. Even still, the music and album art on a whole becomes an artistic statement for its release, so it's always important that any recording artist sets aside a budget to hire a professional designer to create an unforgettable visual brand for the album.
For the recording artist, having great album art is an important selling feature, as the packaging then becomes strong, and in some cases, as important as the music. Look at the strong album designs [such as] The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, designed by Andy Warhol, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band with its cutout moustache, badges, and stand up display. In more recent years, I purchased an album without even hearing its entirety based on the artwork on Bandcamp: Sola Rosa, Get It Together. It comes with a translucent ice-blue vinyl, a silkscreened cover, and insert designed by Dan Stiles, signed and numbered. The music is fantastic, and I trusted it would be based on how they presented the music visually.
With my album, Tapping Trees in a Trinket Box of Treasure, I carefully created beautiful packaging, and took it a passionate step further by handcrafting a limited edition of 100 hand-sewn wood grain fabric sleeves with bunting flag detailing that I stitched to handmade twine. I also created original paintings on balsa wood as an insert, signed and numbered on handmade tissue paper. They sold out within a few months with minimal promotional efforts to people around the globe, and my regular edition copies continue to sell weekly while only having performed three times since the album's early 2012 release.