fire-lives coverAs a musician and graphic artist, one of my favourite creative pursuits is creating album art for other musicians. There is a unique challenge to take a collection of songs, a title, and try to distill some artwork that is suitable, original, and contributes to the overall package. CD art, I think, is somewhat akin to a wine label: If you haven’t tasted what’s inside you buy based on the packaging. The importance of a cover is becoming somewhat less critical with the popularity of digital music, but still we persist in needing a form of imagery attached to our music, if only as a usability feature. The most recent version of iTunes, for example, now shows a thumbnail of the album art beside an album song list. This gives a quick way to identify one record from the next in a sea of song titles. How many of us take a pass on the wine with the boring or unappealing label? Albums on our shelves and in our playlists are the same; we listen to whatever draws us in at a given moment and it is difficult to analyze just how much of a role the visuals play in that decision. So the importance of creating a relevant aesthetic for an album remains highly important and relevant to the sales of a record. My most recent project in this regard is a now-UK based singer-songwriter who has just released her 3rd full-length album. Miriam Jones is a passionate and talented singer and guitar player who finds ways of stringing memorable melodies through complex chord and rhythm structures (I know, I played session guitar for a concert once a few years ago, and somehow managed to follow her simple sounding songs that turned out to be counted in 15/8 time signatures). Her trustworthy voice is alternately soaring, lilting and then suddenly vulnerable. When we started designing a cover for this latest album, we needed to find a look and feel that spoke to those characters and more. I’ve done the album artwork for all three of her full-length albums, and each one has stepped up the songwriting, lyrics, and production. As a result, I’ve felt compelled to play along and push myself to find a new depth and strength for each one. The latest offering, Fire-lives, is an energetic, savoury album that has melodic hooks on first listen, plenty of depth to explore with a set of headphones, and some really tasty musicianship that makes this kind of music, as a musician, i’d want to play. Just like writing copy for a good wine label, you need to get familiar with the contents of the bottle. To find an aesthetic that truly connects with the music, I break out the headphones and put the music on repeat and let the songs soak into my psyche for a while. For the album artwork, Miriam and I fired ideas back and forth for months in a project that bled through holidays in August until almost December. That’s just what it takes sometimes. We chose in the end some strong textures, trying to give the typography a luminescence that glows from within. Another friend of Miriam’s, Rose Fay, did a series of illustrations for each song that we used in the booklet, and wanted to integrate into the cover. I came to an interesting discovery overlaid them on the Fire-lives text and used the blend palette in Photoshop to get them to appear to be glowing from behind. This is just the sort of figurative ‘burning ember’ that worked philosophically and visually with the music. We also wanted to avoid the typical artsy photo of the singer on the cover, but did want a bit of continuity with past covers and in the end, it is a solo album and people do like to put a face to a name. I found a nice balance by blending a nice photo of her by Micheline Ryckman into the burlap texture that made it present but not too obtrusive. The end result turned out to be quite an interesting palette of colours and textures that is a bit of a departure from my ‘style’ but seems to fit the music well which is, in the end, the goal: to make something that I would want to pull of the shelf, uncork, and savour over the course of a quiet evening like a good bottle of wine. I’ve included some parts of the graphics below. If you want to take a listen to the music, I strongly encourage you to go to and have a taste of her musical merlot. By all accounts, it was a very good year.
fire-lives cover
Front cover
CD art
Art for the CD
Front and back cover, inside flap
Inside flap, cd tray, and credits
Booklet page 1

7 thoughts on “A good vintage sound: the art of album cover design

  1. The description of the process makes the design all the sweeter, Mike. I might have to buy the whole bottle, rather than just taste…

  2. michael,
    thanks for your creative mind and listening musical heart (Aw) that has brought my singing sister to page so well.

  3. Awesome!!!! When it comes time for me, you will definately be the man, if you so chosse of course!

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