Blog Post #7 - Making Album Art, Learning to Make Anything
The creation of Revelation from before it was a twinkle in my eye to getting the finished product from the CD and vinyl factory was an organic process. For this reason, I always knew that I was on the right path when I was making it. In all the years that I have created things, from curating art shows, to writing and publishing esoteric essays about art and culture, to making paintings and working with visual artists, I have learned that the most interesting things are the ones that come from authentic passion. When making something comes from a desire to follow a vision, an impulse, time dissolves and the way to create and make your project magically unfolds.
I dont even know how many hours Chris Brown and I spent in the studio, and then out of the studio, thinking, parsing, writing and talking over the year making this. I never noticed the time passing until things began to be completed. I wondered how that many songs had been written, how some songs even were written, how the mixing was completed, how we finally had nine solid recordings.
The creative vision for the way the album looked was pretty much the same. In New York City, I live in midtown Manhattan near the alternative fashion emporium Dover Street Market. DSM is an enclave for alternative fashion, Japanese fashion, small niche designers who are renowned and those on their way to being renowned, specialized edgy visual books, sneaker editions and a handful of New York City’s finest creative minds all thrown together to sell clothes, exchange ideas and eat food.
I love where I live, but midtown Manhattan isn’t known for its overwhelm of cafes and cool restaurants and bars to hang in. It’s mostly sports bars and grocery stores. For me the light in the fray there was the Rose cafe. The exclusive cafe at DSM where I would eat brunch every Sunday and have lunch many days of the week. There is always a fascinating array of people there. One day last year, I sat next to Jean Paul Gaultier, a week before he announced his retirement. I noticed him because he was noticing me was having a loud, bawdy conversation with my friend JP. I was laughing too loud, talking too loud, banging my fist on the table like a sailor in a tavern. It, or maybe it was just me, is always like that there.
Strangers are always looking for ways to interact and spill over into each others interesting moments in New York. DSM is one of those places where that can happen. I could always bring Bettina, my Border Collie, Australian Sheperd mix dog. She was the unofficial mascot. It is a place I go to just hang out with the employees, some of who have become close friends and creative collaborators.
It was here that I met my dear friend and key collaborator for how Revelation looks, Anthony Jamari Thomas. He is a manager there. When I met him a few years ago, I was steeped in a very difficult separation and divorce. I was still in the shock of it and was pretty deeply depressed. Sounds dramatic but looking back that is the truth.
We met because he would help me at the store to buy clothes and we would end up in deep philosophical conversations about art and life and the state of the world. Anthony is a young and upcoming visual artist, a brilliant photographer with a true sensibility for creating beautiful things in a way that’s conceptually clean but messy in the way that life is. To me that is always the sign of a special visual artist. He works from the heart no matter what he is making.
Anthony was born and raised in Brooklyn and still lives there. We have always connected deeply on the New York thing. And the visual thing is what initiated a dialogue that’s been going on now for several years. Before Anthony and I were close friends he would text me out of nowhere if he hadn’t seen me for a few days to check in on me. I didn’t have a lot of friends and definitely didn’t have friends who did that. He had a sense of where I was even when I hadn’t yet told him what was really going on with me.
A couple months into making the album Chris started asking me to think about the concept for the album. I was a little fearful to go there. I think I was fearful because I wondered if I’d find anything if I went to look.
On the long drive back to NYC from Wolfe Island that visit, I realized that of course, Anthony was the person to create the album cover with. I also prefer to work with young people on anything creative where my work is concerned, even just to consult with them. The young know things that the older stop knowing after a certain age. Older people have learned the things the young need to hear so there is a symmetry and exchange.
The young know the edge, they aren’t afraid of it because they don’t know what they have to lose and if they do they usually don’t care. They just feel the world and create without too much second guessing. Its exactly the kind of feeling I want in my work. I like raw and difficult by way of beauty, or exactly that in reverse. So as a co-creator, I trusted Anthony implicitly to create the main images for this project. It ended up taking almost as long to make the images for the album as it did to make the music. On the first shoot we got three of the most significant images, but five photo sessions at my apartment, six months and 500 photographs later, we finally were finished.
Anthony was in the middle of several projects with his friend Theo Constantinopoulos, owner of Paradigm Publishing, when we began shooting. Theo is himself a photographer and creates books of photography but also makes artist’s books. Mine was his first album. He helped finish the look for the album, he chose and framed out the cover image. He and I and his assistant worked closely together to create and work out every nook and cranny of the font, text placement, etc. It was a lot of work, but none of it was squandered. We made a special edition fold-out vinyl album with a poster and a CD. Every detail was pored over and considered. It took forever it seemed but we did it and the final result is one I’m proud of.
I also agonized in the end that there was not a traditionally attractive, or sexy picture of me on the cover. When the project was in production some people felt that it wasn’t going to be well received because of that. I thought about that a lot before finalizing. For me, and Anthony would quote me on this, for me it was very important not to have attractive pictures of me on the cover. It was critical to me in fact. So many times I repeated to him, I don’t want these images to make me look beautiful. I want them to look honest. I needed it to look raw, I needed it to be edgy.
While folk music is one of the main drives of the album, I always say that I also grew up listening to hardcore punk rock, metal, hard rock, etc. There are so many kinds of music that helped create this music. I would have robbed my vision of its acumen had I put a pretty picture of me on the cover. While there is nothing wrong with that, and yes, it does sell albums, and yes, it could help to sell mine, I was always about not making pretty music. I wanted to let my voice do the talking, let my lyrics and melody do the talking and see where the music ends up. Some of it is beautiful, but some of it is difficult to bear. The songs are about loss and endless yearning, abuse, anger and frustration. I had to endure some very dark places to get to these songs. If I had made this about being pretty for the sake of being pretty, I would have lost the essence of the album.
I recall one person argued to me, “But a revelation is about the light.” I argued back but have you read the Book of Revelation in the Bible and what had to be endured to get to the light?” My album is about that part of revelation, the part of the darkness where you start believing it will never end. It’s the part that is hopeless. It is about who I had to realize I was, to become that honest with myself and the history of my life and to let myself get past the numbness and have the courage to feel a lifetime of pain. It’s what the song Revelation is about. It’s about the moment when I realized that love is not the difficult part, love is the easy part. It’s the getting over ourselves to get to love that is complicated, terrifying and difficult. But thank god for the little things in life to be grateful for because they remind us of the simplicity of love. They are the reminders of hope even in the dark.
The collaborations that created this album were all based on trust and care and love. In many ways, just making Revelation, from the music to the images to the final product of the album, was how I healed. I healed from it because I experienced connecting to people and asking them for their help. I could tell they cared about me and they cared about the music. They showed up and I could tell it wasn’t just to see what they could get for themselves but it was to have an experience. They thought I might be able to help give them a good one creating something. That is where Revelation started to become about the light for me.