Album artwork is a portal into the music, and this year's Juno nominees prove it
Written by Yoav Lai.
Since 1975, the Juno Awards have recognized a role in music that doesn't involve performance ability (or even musical ability): album design.
Over the decades, the album artwork of the year category has celebrated the art directors, designers, illustrators and photographers who work with musicians on their album covers and packaging. Nominated albums are judged on the strength of the design of the whole CD or vinyl package — including the imagery, typography and materials used — and its connection to the music itself.
The category underlines the fundamental, but often overlooked role artwork plays in an album's reception. Album artwork functions not only as a marketing tool in record stores, but also a statement intrinsically tied to the work and an extra dimension in which to appreciate it — a "portal into the music," illustrator Martin Wittfooth tells CBC Music.
Let's take a close look at this year's nominees for album artwork of the year. Click on the album titles to hear the music.
Album: Just Words
Musical artist: Lynne Hanson
Nominees: Jared Barter (art director and designer), Michael Zavacky (art director and illustrator), Maryn Devine and Rémi Thériault (photographers)
Jared Barter and Michael Zavacky are award-winning designers and art directors, having worked on a variety of projects including logos, poster design and global ad campaigns. Zavacky, who had previously served on the jury for this Juno category, was inspired to pursue an ambitious passion project with some of his most talented creatives, as well as singer-songwriter Lynne Hanson. "Right from the start, I was thinking I wanted to do something all-out, something super impressive, because I had seen what it takes to get nominated for a Juno," he told CBC Music.
Building on lyrics from the title track ("Sticks and stones can break your bones/ But words, they shake and shape you"), Barter introduced the sticks and stones imagery as a central concept for the design. Photographer Rémi Thériault and his team spent several hours in the woods to find the perfect stones and sticks for the final composition.
Wanting to "go the extra mile," Zavacky ensured the whole packaging was an experience. The vinyl edition features a minimalist die-cut sleeve, additional photography featuring Hanson, and heavy-duty white vinyl. The team also brought the design concept to a companion book of poetry from Hanson, featuring illustrations from Zavacky alongside the text.
"There's a tactile quality that I like from the experience [...] of opening the vinyl — taking the record out, trying to recapture some of that old-school experience — that luckily seems to be coming back. I find when you just download a song on Spotify, you kind of miss all that cool stuff that used to really get you excited."
Musical artist: Klô Pelgag
Nominees: Julien Hébert (art director), David Beauchemin (designer), Florence Obrecht (illustrator), Marc-Étienne Mongrain (photographer)
While Julien Hébert and David Beauchemin's work in corporate design has been nominated for other awards, their Juno nomination for the design of Klô Pelgag's Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs holds special meaning.
"We almost value it even more than what we usually get in the feedback from the design community," says Beauchemin. "It's also really nice to be part of [...] a category that is not divided by language," adds Hébert.
As frequent collaborators and close friends with Pelgag, Hébert and Beauchemin have both had the chance to dive deep into the album's themes, and found contrast as an inspiration. "In her personal life, she was in a, let's say, deep state of mind," Hébert recalls. "She was pregnant and she just lost her father. It was about loss and hope and like, really this big 'life and death,' like light and dark."
Pelgag had brought the idea of an oil painting featuring anachronistic imagery — what Hébert describes as a "modern spin on a classical painting" to play on the contrast theme. The duo would go on to create a definitive colour palette for the album (deep browns and reds against punchy neon accents) and help direct the photography, improvising additions along the way such as the bright red hoodie. Hébert would also create custom typography based on the Victorian-style Rossdale typeface, stretching it to give a vampiric feel.
For Beauchemin, the inner gatefold image is the one that shows the most symbolism for the album. "There's something magical with this image, [...] the contrast of the flowers that are going to die someday and the baby in her belly that's just going to be born really, really soon.… It's so time-specific, a very particular moment where she wrote these things."
Album: Miss Colombia
Musical artist: Lido Pimienta
Nominees: Lido Pimienta and Orly Anan (art directors), Mat Dunlap (designer), Daniela Murillo (photographer)
From vibrant music videos and album artwork to stunning Grammy performances, it's no surprise that Lido Pimienta's first Juno nomination is for album artwork of the year. Behind the scenes, Pimienta works closely with Colombian art director Orly Anan, forming a strong partnership.
"It's starting from that idea of [how] Lido would never actually be recognized as 'Miss Colombia' in Colombia, [...] everything is so plastic and superficial," says Anan.
"But Lido is actually our new princess, you know, from the Wayuu indigenous tribe…. For me, she's Miss Colombia for real, because she represents with her voice, with regard to her speech, how much she cares about the country."
The duo shot the cover in their hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia, where Pimienta gave Anan wide room for improvisation. From using fabrics and supplies from the photographer's event-planning mother, to simply asking a family to use their bright turquoise house as a backdrop, Anan drew from elements of the community to build an elaborate set that was part award show and part quinceañera.
In the gatefold photo, Pimienta appears with several local women wielding traditional Colombian machetes. "I love to think that they're kind of escaping their wedding and just rejecting those ideals of how a woman needs [...] to act," Anan says.
"These women [are] outrageous just by not getting married or escaping their wedding on motorcycles — they're already in a state of revolution of not belonging to society. [We] identify with that, with breaking those beauty standards."
Musical artist: Protest the Hero
Nominees: Luke Hoskin (art director), John Meloche (designer), Martin Wittfooth (illustrator)
Martin Wittfooth, a New York-based artist, has strong ties to Canada: he started his art education in Oakville, Ont., and his trademark surreal and detailed animal imagery has also appeared on Tanya Tagaq's album Retribution. But when Protest the Hero reached out to him with their initial concepts for the album Palimpsest, the focus was on commenting on the troubling stories in American history.
"The initial concept that stuck with it was to look at events in American history, but looking at the kind of events that might uphold some kind of illusion that America is just great and powerful and we should just be proud of it," Wittfooth tells CBC Music. "Instead, the album was looking at events that we determined to be disasters or suggestive of the human condition in a culture that isn't all just positive."
The full artwork features a strong chaotic energy, from the large charging bull as a centrepiece to the many other symbolic animals throughout. While the elephant, donkey and monkey with an Uncle Sam hat may be obvious symbols to some, there are also subtle Easter eggs from the album's lyrics to add to the havoc, including the Hindenburg, a purse from actress Peg Entwhistle, and the backdrop itself being the setting of the Boston Molasses Disaster. "I have such a frenetic, crazy composition happening in the first place. I thought any moment I could include something in it, I thought that was a good opportunity to do so."
"It wasn't just an album that had individual songs that all alluded to something broader, but actually all the individual tracks seem to be speaking of a rather cohesive unit of a concept. So, taken as a whole, the painting is attempting the same thing."
Album: Pray for It
Musical artist: July Talk
Nominees: Peter Dreimanis (art director, designer, photographer), Scott Waring (art director, designer), Leah Fay Goldstein (designer), Calm Elliott-Armstrong, Lyle Bell, and Ty Snaden (photographers)
This year, July Talk is nominated for alternative album of the year, potentially their third win in that category. But with lead singers Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay both having backgrounds in cinematography, visual art and performance art, they have also had a hand in the band's distinct aesthetic since the beginning.
"We're over-analyzers for everything that we do, so anything that comes out visually from the band, we've painstakingly thought about it and tried it a million times," says Fay.
With Pray for It's themes stemming from introspection and reflection on the heightened political and cultural tensions around the world, Fay says they "became fascinated with different movements that mean 'surrender' or 'worship' or 'prayer,' not really in any way where we're particularly religious, [...] but just in a way where it's like the world is really scary right now and maybe the only way to deal with it is to surrender and accept needing help."
While on tour, Fay and Dreimanis had begun taking photos of Fay symbolically holding her hands up in different positions. "One of them was Leah leaning over the railing [of a hotel] as if she was about to fall from the balcony," explains Dreimanis. "It wasn't for another year or two that we thought, 'That's the cover of our next record, isn't it?'''
Dreimanis and Fay, alongside photographer Calm Elliott-Armstrong, would ultimately reshoot the photo after they had already posted the original photo to Instagram.
"Instead of looking down upon surrender as a lack of strength, it could actually be said that the only worthwhile conversation occurs when someone makes themselves smaller, when somebody makes themselves vulnerable, when somebody steps down off of the imaginary pedestal and listens," adds Dreimanis.
The 2021 Juno Awards will be broadcast nationwide Sunday, June 6, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBC-TV, CBC Gem, CBC Radio One, CBC Music, CBC Listen, globally on CBCMusic.ca/junos and live streamed on CBC Music's TikTok, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages.