Top illustrators on designing vinyl cover art and bringing a new look to old classics from the likes of Joe Hisaishi and Elliott Smith.
The resurgence of vinyl has not only been a boon to the music world, but to the art scene, too. With CD artwork dying a slow death in the face of streaming services, it's been the vinyl format that's seen a resuscitation of the virtually lost art of illustrating for music. The so-called 'vinyl revival' has led to regular events like Secret 7, which sees 100 new 7-inch covers created by the best illustrators out there, and a similar wealth of talent upping their game to nab a Best Art Vinyl award.
Opportunities in designing for vinyl cover art therefore can come as much from rare one-off collectibles as they do from new releases in the indie and alternative sphere; a surprising other alternative though comes in the form of designing for reissued music of yesteryear. While illustrators probably won't be giving their own take on a mass-produced Bowie oldie anytime soon, the rather ephemeral nature of the archival music landscape means some record labels have had to get creative when reintroducing lost classics to a modern audience.
One stellar example of a publisher putting modern art to rediscovered obscurities is Lag Records, a UK label that's launched onto the scene with repressings of 1980s-era music from Japan. The first LP dusted off and reissued by the label was an early album by none other than Joe Hisaishi, the masterful composer behind all your favourite Studio Ghibli soundtracks. His Kisshō Tennyo album from 1984 is a shining but forgotten example of the composer's electronic work prior to working for Ghibli; fitting then that the original artwork for such a relatively obscure release also remains off the grid - so off the grid, it couldn't be used by Lag Records for the reissue. Based on a manga series on which Hisaishi's music used as inspiration, the book's Japanese publisher was contacted for use of the illustration shared by both book and record in what turned out to be a fruitless endeavour.
"There seemed to be a bit of confusion as to who actually owned the artwork," explains Lag founder Todd Marriott in conversation with DA. "I guess after thirty-odd years maybe it's a little bit harder to figure that all out."
Stepping in to save the day was London-based Portuguese artist Luna Monogatari, who Todd asked to whip up a new cover for the reissue last year. With a background in editorial and art prints, Luna had yet to make her mark on record design, but it was a challenge she took on with great relish.
"I'm a hardcore fan of Studio Ghibli, and with Joe Hisaishi being the main composer for most of Hayao Miyazaki's films, this project was very special and unique to me," she tells me via email. "Both Todd and I knew we wanted the sleeve to remain faithful to the original concept art of both the manga and the vinyl released at the time, so our research didn't involve a lot outside of these elements; it was all we needed and the result was great."
The original concept art with its enigmatic figure in school uniform (below) proved instrumental in inspiring the new sleeve, with Luna and the label feeling they had to honour it. "Because the entire soundtrack was produced specifically for the manga, and since the original cover had the main character on it, we tried to create our own interpretation of the character," she explains. "You can see the similarities between both sleeves."
A comparable nod to history can be seen on a more recent Lag release, the upcoming A Dream Sails Out To Sea (Get At The Wave), originally recorded in 1987 by Takashi Kokubo. While less older than the Hisaishi release, new artwork had to be commissioned - but this time the reasons weren't due to a lack of clarity on copyright.
"Takashi Kokubo's release was a little different," Todd explains. "We had the pleasure of working with his team directly and that made the whole process a little bit easier. Originally this LP was a promo release for tech giant Sanyo, so we were advised that securing the original artwork may be quite difficult. Plus, there's a slight difference in the tracklist from the original to our version so it made perfect sense to go with something new."
Doing the honours on this release was Glaswegian illustrator Ella Mclean, who lent her soft, pastoral style to the new edition, replacing yet also respecting the photographic beach-scape of the original (below).
"I went to Ella with ideas for all the artwork," Todd says. "I wanted a tropical beach scene, waves, surf; inspired heavily by the original but with Ella's personal style."
"I did feel like I needed to honour the artwork, which is beautiful and a great fit to the record," Ella explains about the project. "So the challenge was how? Some of the early designs where more obviously influenced by the original, but it developed and grew into its own thing. Still, some of the essence of the original artwork is present in my design."
"The original artwork was so connected to A Dream Sails Out To Sea in my mind, but I wanted to simultaneously approach it with a fresh perspective, and also nod to the original. For a while I couldn’t decide if I wanted to design something completely different or to do something that echoes it. In the end I think it felt right settling somewhere in-between."
The art of reimagining vinyl cover art can also extend to smaller releases, not just albums of the 12-inch sort. Case in point - the 7-inch re-release of 1994 single Shytown, a collaboration between the late Elliot Smith and ex-Hazel guitarist Pete Krebs. Originally released with artwork by Chanda Helzer, the 2018 re-release by label Suicide Squeeze sees this new sleeve from famed cover artist Jesse LeDoux.
Since the 90s, Oregon-based Jesse has produced single and album artwork for the likes of The Shins, Jimmy Eat World, Hot Hot Heat and many, many more. For the Shytown project, the artist was obviously called in for his very recognisable look, but there was a more pressing reason at work, too.
"The original artwork couldn’t be found," Jesse explains via email. "Even if I were to recreate it, there would be enough minor differences that it wouldn’t be exact. Plus, the music was to be remastered. So why not create a record that not only sounds different, but looks different too?"
Like the illustrators for Lag, Jesse found his muse in the original artwork.
"My cover was absolutely inspired by Chanda Helzer's original one (below)," he writes. "I first saw her work on a poster for a Hazel/Heatmiser/Crackerbash show I went to in 1993 and have been a huge fan ever since. When David Dickenson from Suicide Squeeze told me he would be re-releasing the single, and wanted new art for it, I urged him to hire Chanda for the re-release. Not only did I love her original cover, I was excited to see what she would do 20-plus years later. Unfortunately, I’m told she had a lot on her plate, so I stepped in to ensure it would release on time."
"Fortunately, by this point, I didn’t have time to overthink things which otherwise would have been very easy to do. Creating artwork to follow up an artist whom I totally respect for a record by two musicians who I completely adore is typically a very intimidating endeavour. I designed the cover for Elliott Smith’s last release before his death; Pete Krebs played at my wedding. I saw both of their bands (Heatmiser and Hazel) play in Portland countless times. This was my chance to do something for both of them together, while creating an homage to an artist whose work I love. I cannot understate how meaningful this record is to me. Hopefully I did it justice."
The final piece comes from both a place of respect, but also a personal insight into the lives of both muscicians.
"At one point in the early ‘90s, I remember reading an article in one of the newsprint papers or zines you’d find at record stores in Portland about how Pete and Elliott had day jobs installing drywall," Jesse recounts. "The thought of them building walls in the day and playing music at night stuck with me and became the concept behind the art. On the cover, the two musicians appear to oppose each other. But when you flip the jacket over, you see they’re building a wall together. The brick motif and hand-cut lettering ties in with Chanda’s artwork on the original pressing. And the stripes on their shirts reference the layers of importance each musician has had in my life."
The personal touch given by Jesse perfectly suits the intimate and collaborative nature of both tracks on the single, showing that the music plays as much a part as the older artwork when inspiring these artists. Discussing her artwork for Kisshō Tennyo, Luna says that the two invariably go hand in hand.
"If the manga didn't exist and I had not seen or heard the original vinyl before I worked on it, I'd probably have gone a lot crazier with the background and colours, but the music itself is so calm, I understood that a minimal approach that was closer to the vintage manga style we see on the original work was the best approach."
"I definitely wanted the sound and feel of the music to carry in to the artwork," Ella agrees. "The vintage nature of A Dream Sails Out To Sea almost subconsciously influenced the artwork. I felt like it quite naturally suited my work, but I had to resist the temptation to overwork it and try keep the ambient, serene and slightly magical feeling of the music."
Such an approach, honouring the original both musically and visually, seems to the best bet then when illustrating for reissued classics. The listener has a package that ticks the vintage feel that drives a lot of vinyl collecting, whilst the artist has expressed their voice enough without losing everything that defined the original designs. In other words, exactly what the labels behind such endeavours are looking for.
"I feel both artists did an amazing job in creating something new and interesting whilst retaining the essence and the feel of the original art," Todd says with pride. "Both packages are very different but I'm so happy with these records."