In the golden era of 60s and 70s music, interesting record sleeve artwork was something that might catch your eye whilst digging through the crates and maybe even turn you on to the music sleeping inside, purely on its visual merit. At the rate in which we consume information in this digital society, that notion has become increasingly relevant – it’s almost imperative to do something to stand out if you want your record to be special.
London based artist Tess Redburn is an up-and-coming talent who recognises this idea. Moving to Bristol after finishing a Graphic Communications degree in Bath, Tess began putting herself and her work out there straight away – meeting and collaborating with other young creatives in Bristol’s bubbling arts scene. This is where she met Peverelist, Kowton and Asusu – the three comprising members of Livity Sound and through this collaboration, fulfilled a childhood ambition in designing record art. Heavily influenced by the cubist masters of the nineteenth century, her work is vibrant, colourful and often features distorted humanistic features. It’s a breath of fresh air from the traditional packaging of Techno, which is traditionally nondescript, minimal and pristine.
We met with Tess in London recently to talk about her go-for-broke attitude towards creativity, thoughts on designing records for a living and making the big leap in packing up her life and moving to the capital, where she has just started training as an agent at The Central Illustration Agency…
I think art was the only thing that really captured my imagination when I was younger. I wanted to do furniture design but realised that I didn’t like the cold dusty studios so I moved into the warm and comfortable medium of graphic design. I did a graphic communication degree in Bath incorporating photography, graphic design and illustration, which was a good foundation. I moved to Bristol in 2012 on the grounds that it’s a good spot to cultivate the early stages of a career in illustration, mainly it’s just cheaper to live there than London. I started working straight away on small projects with friends and it’s been slowly snowballing into working with more interesting clients since.
On Bristol and making the move to London
The great thing about Bristol is that all it’s different scenes are tied together. There are a lot of people doing music and design and everyone congregates in the same places at night and knows each other through that. There’s a massive community of musicians, illustrators, designers and people who work in fashion, run record stores and clothing shops that seem to crossover.
Moving to London obviously has its appeal as a step-up in terms of it being just that bit more intense – I’m looking forward to my work being dragged up by other people around me doing good things. I’ve still got a long way to go in terms of meeting people in London and establishing the kind of connections I had in Bristol. A lot of my friends here are all musicians, it’s going to be nice getting to know more designers and illustrators but it’s all unexplored territory for me.
Inspiration and methods
I’m influenced by a lot of twentieth century paintings. Fernand Léger is probably my favourite artist for his mad shapes, textures and figures. I try to avoid looking at contemporary illustration to stop myself just replicating what everyone else is doing. I prefer to look at fine art and painters like Picasso and Matisse. I went to see the Matisse exhibition when it was at Tate Modern, which was a real eye opener. It’s funny that a lot of the places I look to now for inspiration are the ones I was forced to study at school, but only now as my working practice moves closer to what they do, their work holds more relevance and they suddenly seem so much more interesting.
I work part time behind the scenes at an illustration agency, there are some really old guys on the agency like Mike Wilks for example. There’s such amazing levels of detail in his work, I look at work like that which has taken people so much time, detail and thought, I could never do that, I just don’t have enough patience! I’m probably the opposite of that in the way I work which is very spontaneous. There’s a lot to be said about going with your basic instincts and doing what comes freely to you, my art teachers would hate me saying that. I find that if I labour over something it becomes dull and contrived. I get my thoughts down with paint and a brush and loads of scraps of paper. My desk is usually just covered in paper. I don’t really like using sketchbooks, it enforces too much order.
On Livity Sound
Before I began doing the Livity Sound artwork, the label had another designer working for them. They wanted to move on and work with a different artist for the next series. For the new artwork I decided to be sensitive to the previous design while making it my own by keeping the idea of each record having a character on it. They’re actually not just random shapes, each one has humanistic features: hands, eyes, mouths, but they’ve been deconstructed into a pattern. I like that people can look at my work and see their own images within the shapes. It was quite important for me to keep the paint textures and make it look less like your average Techno record which is all traditionally quite clean and minimal. They were all original 10″ x 10” paintings, I simply chose the ones that worked best for composition. I was really surprised when they first asked me to do it, I’d never considered my work to be ‘Techno’.
I met Pev and Joe (Kowton) from being out in Bristol. Designing records is one of those things you dream of doing when you’re about twelve and you’re first getting into bands and thinking about designing their CD covers. I’d never considered that someone can solely design records for a living but then you look at someone like Will Bankhead and that’s almost all he does, that would be a nice way to make a living but I’m not sure that my work is that adaptable.
On music and the visual element of records
It’s probably only because of friends I made in Bristol that I listen to house and techno, I love it, but I’m honestly not sure that I would have been as into it if I hadn’t met these people. Shanti Celeste is a close friend of mine who’s doing exciting things at the moment as well as Kowton and Tessela. I’m into their music and it makes so much sense when you go out into a club environment but I definitely don’t sit in my room blasting it all day, my own interests are probably more Pop. I listen to artists like Kelela, FKA Twigs, Björk and Kate Bush when I’m doing work.
It’s hard to say with me being a designer myself but I can totally understand that for a lot of diehard music heads, whatever is on the record sleeve probably doesn’t really make much difference to them, it’s what it sounds like that’s important, but I like being able to bring a bit more attention to the visual elements than they might otherwise get. As there’s more disparity between streaming stuff digitally today and people buying more vinyl, people now have to put a lot more effort into making vinyl really beautiful and an object that people want to have. It’s the same with publishing; books have to get more collectable if people are going to keep spending money on them. I think it’s only going to get better in that respect…
Oxjam Dalston 2014 and the future
Tabitha at NTS is a friend of mine, she asked me to design the poster and artwork for this year’s festival. It’s a lot pinker than I would have liked but put that down to the Oxfam branding. Being a charity event, it’s nice to be able to put my skills to use and help out for a good cause; it looks like it’s going to be a good festival. Charity work aside, you constantly see things popping up on Twitter from new fashion brands or emails from companies asking you to do free work for them and saying “oh it’s such good exposure” but you know I’ll get my exposure through doing my own work thank you very much! This expectation that artists can and should be working for free needs to stop. I definitely want to do more music related design work. It’s less restrictive than other commissions I’ve done in the past. Musicians, being creative people themselves, are usually a lot more open to things being a bit more interesting.
As I mentioned earlier I’ve just started working at the Central Illustration Agency. It’s great working for other illustrators who are all miles better than me, I’m learning a lot from them. It’s also good to be able to pay the bills doing something on the side so I have the freedom to only work on the design projects I want to…
For more information about Tess Redburn’s work you can visit her website here
Words: Conor McTernan