How do you celebrate the life and music of Gord Downie? The making of Introduce Yerself's album art

Artist Jenn Kitagawa shares the story behind the record's simple but uplifting design.

Artist Jenn Kitagawa shares the story behind the record's simple but uplifting design

Toronto-based artist Jenn Kitagawa designed the album art for Gord Downie's final record, Introduce Yerself. (Arts & Crafts)

Gord Downie never stopped making music, something his family affirmed when the Tragically Hip frontman passed away — and later this week, the world gets to hear some of Downie's final recordings when his solo album, Introduce Yerself, arrives Friday, Oct. 27.

Even now, the information that's out there is slim, beyond a few basics that the record label (Arts & Crafts) announced last month. It's a double album featuring 23 tracks, for one. And it was recorded with Secret Path producer Kevin Drew over two four-day bursts in January 2016 and February 2017. 

One of the most compelling details, though, is something Downie revealed in a short video promo directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Penicer. "Each song is about a person," he says in the clip, suggesting Introduce Yerself is something of a musical letter to the important people in his life.

And we also have the album art, which might be our biggest clue to what's waiting on the record. Revealed back in late September, it's a Matisse-ish collage of an open hand that was designed by Jenn Kitagawa, an Edmonton-raised artist now based in Toronto.

The goal was really to celebrate Gord as a person, as a musician.- Jenn Kitagawa, artist

Her illustrations have appeared in TheWalrus and The Globe and Mail — and CBC Arts. (She was an Exhibitionist in Residence on Season 2 of Exhibitionists.) A musician herself (Eyeballs), she's created album art for several other Arts & Crafts acts, including Lowell, Zeus and Downie, too. (She did the layout for his 2014 record, Gord Downie, The Sadies, and the Conquering Sun.)

"Gord Downie, to me, is a beacon of what it is to be Canadian in a way," Kitagawa tells CBC Arts. During the making of the record, she didn't have direct contact with the musician — everything was mediated through his team — but she says the project was an honour.

"The Hip was always on the radio growing up," she says. "This was definitely the soundtrack to parts of my life."

CBC Arts reached Kitagawa to talk about the project. Our conversation took place a couple weeks before Downie's death.

Here, she breaks down the ideas behind the album cover.

Gord Downie has announced an upcoming solo project Introduce Yerself, a double-album of twenty-three new songs about the people in his life. It will be released Oct. 27, 2017. (Arts & Crafts)

The concept

In the late summer of 2016, when Downie's team and art director Jonathan Shedletzky approached Kitagawa for the job, she says that everyone on board had one idea in mind.

"The goal was really to celebrate Gord as a person, as a musician — and, you know, for the cover to be eye-catching and very positive and uplifting. That was really our main goal. We want to celebrate this music."

I would say this is definitely a pop record, as poppy as Gord is, I suppose. And I think the colour and the tone of the visuals very much represent that.- Jenn Kitagawa, artist

The music

Kitagawa's careful not to discuss the record itself, but she says she was given some private access to the recordings so she'd have some inspiration for the design. There's never any one particular thing she's listening for when designing an album, she says — but after spending some time with Introduce Yerself, she took away some influential impressions.

"I would say this is definitely a pop record, as poppy as Gord is, I suppose," she says. "And I think the colour and the tone of the visuals very much represent that."

"I tend to use colours that would be considered more feminine," says Kitagawa, and the final version of the album art is a palette of blush pink and salmon with cheerfully contrasting blue and yellow.

"I guess with this one, we kind of wanted some stuff that was soft but playful — and also positive at the same time."

The inspiration

What you see on the album cover isn't just about the music. It's meant to reflect what Downie was like as a songwriter.

Those rough-edged abstract shapes? They're torn paper.

"He makes a lot of notes," she says, talking about Downie's writing process of scribbling thoughts and lyrics on small scraps of paper.

It's an endearing bit of trivia that's been referenced in past album artwork, and there are plenty of stories about it, too. (In this CBC Music article from 2016, By Divine Right's Jose Miguel Contreras shares an an anecdote about envelopes stuffed with song ideas.)

Struck by the stories, Kitagawa knew she had her design.

"I literally ripped up a bunch of piece of paper and laid them out to create the hand silhouette," she says. The final illustration is her digitized version of that original image.

Scans of Gord Downie's handwriting appear throughout the album artwork for Introduce Yerself. (Facebook/Gord Downie)

Gord is 'all over' this artwork

In the design work that's been revealed so far, you won't find a single picture Downie — not even a hint of his feathered hat. But a person is not defined by what they look like; they're defined by what they do. And Downie wrote songs.

As a nod to that, Kitagawa scanned Downie's actual handwriting to create every typographical element you'll see in the package. There's nothing more signature than, well, a signature, and he touches every bit of the album artwork — from the cover to the liner notes.

Almost from the beginning of the project, Kitagawa says that she and the art director were set on that approach. (She's run with a similar idea on a previous album cover, too — Kevin Drew's record, Darlings.)

It's an assertive choice here, as well.

"We were really liking the idea of using Gord's actual writing throughout the album art and I think him as a writer, as a songwriter, is really important and to be able to visually incorporate that throughout the packaging," she says.

"When the rest of the artwork's revealed you'll see that his writing's all over it."

Gord Downie, Introduce Yerself. Out Friday, Oct. 27. Available on vinyl Dec. 1.

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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