Behind the Photo

Daniel Caesar's visual brand is carefully planned, but this stunning album art was a stroke of luck

What's going on in this awesome picture? The story behind the Juno-nominated cover art for Freudian.

What's going on in this awesome picture? The story behind the Juno-nominated cover art for Freudian

Daniel Caesar's debut LP Freudian is up for Album Artwork of the Year at the 2018 Junos. (Golden Child)

It's a picture just begging for analysis.

The scene: a lone climber — R&B singer Daniel Caesar, it turns out — ambles up a concrete peak.

Is he 20 feet above the ground or 2,000? It's all a mystery, but wherever he's at, Caesar is halfway up with nothing but a sudden drop waiting at the summit.

That's the photo you'll find on the cover of Freudian, Caesar's debut LP, and the record's competing for Album Artwork of the Year at the Juno Awards later this month.

The cover art for Daniel Caesar's Freudian. (Golden Child)

Half a year since the record's debut — with a few Grammy nominations plus five Juno nods in the interim — you could take that cover image as a metaphor for the R&B singer's rise. Some reviewers did, anyway, but there are less self-congratulatory readings out there, too.

It's an album of love songs, when it comes down to it, told from the POV of a young man who's either falling in or out of it. As Vibe put in their review of the disc: "love is a steep climb. [...] Daniel Caesar gets it."

Sean Brown and Keavan Yazdani say they're pretty OK with either of those interpretations. They're Caesar's creative directors, and two of the artists nominated for that Album Artwork of the Year Juno along with illustrator Eric Lachance.

Working closely with the musician, it's the duo's job to design every visual detail for Caesar's brand.

Videos? They're on it.

What pair of shoes should he wear on James Corden? That's their call, too.

And the collaborators' current focus is the photo show — "Freudian, A Gallery" — that accompanies Daniel Caesar pop-up shops at select stops of his world tour.

Every visual detail is intentional, they say, and all those elements are meant to throw back to what Freudian, the album, is all about.

But the story behind this particular photo? It was, in many ways, a fluke.

The scene

April 2017, Yazdani, 24, and Brown, 32, arrived in Bulgaria with Caesar and their team to shoot the "We Find Love/Blessed" video at a few old Communist attractions, including the remains of the UFO-shaped Buzludzha Monument, a reasonably popular destination for ruin-porn aficionados and pop stars alike. (Please see "Nights With You" by MØ.)

Though you'd be forgiven for mistaking it as the west facade of the Rogers Centre, the site seen of Freudian's cover is actually the 1,300 Years of Bulgaria monument — a concrete, Cubist-inspired behemoth on the Shumen Plateau that can be seen from 30 kilometres away.

"It's a little bit of a tourist spot," says Yazdani. "It's like this little town, Shumen, and then toward the top of the hill there are these monuments. It's open access for tourists" — and, in this case, their permit-toting film crew, too.

Yeah, but why Bulgaria?

According to Yadzani, Freudian's an album about what's going on in Caesar's subconscious, but before the musician landed on that title, the project was originally called Human Sacrifice — so, naturally, he and Brown say they were chasing a Wicker Man vibe for the visuals.

Creative director Sean Brown (foreground) on location with Daniel Caesar and a pair of Kukeri dancers. (Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)

Their research led them to Bulgaria's Kukeri dancers, a pagan-rooted tradition which does not presently involve the ritual murder of Nicolas Cage, but was, nevertheless, on point regarding the project's thematic objectives. And a local family of traditional dancers — kitted out in long-locked goat-hair suits and beaded masks — still appear throughout the album artwork.

Says Yazdani: "We took that original concept and we kind of constructed this fantasy world which is supposed to resemble Danny's subconscious. That's Freudian in a nutshell."

Getting the photo

At some point during the shoot, Caesar started climbing up the side of the monument — and in the moment, Yazdani grabbed a few shots.

Despite appearances, it's no death-defying stunt. "That slope goes rather high, but it comes all the way down to ground level," says Yazdani.

"People definitely looked," he says, "but it wouldn't be something where people would be gasping with awe."

Peek behind the curtain for yourself. From the looks of it on Google Maps, the only barrier to hopping up there is a park bench.

Selecting the cover

Back in Toronto, the duo started developing the film from their half-week tour of Bulgaria.

Says Yazdani: "Truth be told, I looked at [the cover photo] and I loved it, but I didn't really think too much of it when we were trying to do the album cover. But Sean actually saw it and instantly knew."

"The colours, how perfect the composition was — I just knew that would be an iconic cover," says Brown.

Plus, says Yazdani, it seemed to hint at a sort of ongoing narrative between Caesar's previous records. On EPs Praise Break and Pilgrim's Paradise, the singer is seen drowning — "almost baptized," per Yazdani — and falling from the sky. "This third one," says Yazdani, "it's his rise."

Says Brown: "As soon as we got back and saw it, it was just — that. That is the cover. That's the one."

Check out more photos from the Freudian shoot.

(Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)
(Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)
(Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)
(Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)
(Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)
Buzludzha Monument, Bulgaria. (Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)
Buzludzha Monument, Bulgaria. (Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)
(Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)
(Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)
(Courtesy of Keavan Yazdani and Sean Brown)

Watch the Juno Awards Sunday, March 25 on CBC. Visit CBC Music for complete info on how to catch the show.

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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