Cover Stories: Jocelyn Mackenzie of Pearl and the Beard
By Kelly Ribera
We first met Jocelyn Mackenzie, artist/musician/designer/professional production knitter and crocheter when we filmed Pearl and the Beard, back when Sleepover Shows was just a baby music blog with only a handful of shows to our name. Since then, we’ve followed their music as a band, but also their many side projects as independent artists. Jocelyn finds ways to combine her craft with design, one example we think of first is the giant, three-person sweater she knitted for Pearl and the Beard’s, Killing the Darlings album art.
So, when Jocelyn started her new business, Synesthete Styling, our interest was piqued. We wanted to hear all about her motivation for starting the site, what it does, and what her goals were for the future. Her quest to help musicians marry their visual identity with their sound is at the forefront of this new business. We ask about the giant sweater, Martha Stewart, the bold cover art for Beast and her future now that Pearl and the Beard will be parting ways.
How does a design come together initially? Do you hear the music as you go along, or does a visual idea come first?
Every project starts with deep listening. The music comes first. Music is the core of my passion and the muse of my artistic work, so before I can help a band create a visual accompaniment to their songs, I have to be thoroughly knowledgeable of their sonic patterns and identity. I sit down and deeply focus on their music, listening to albums multiple times from front to back, often sketching ideas as they come. Whether I’m working on fashion styling, props for a stage show, coming up with concepts for a photo shoot, creating album art, or even just designing a custom merch display, I first have to focus intently on the musical content to come up with inspiration. Then follows a consultation with the band in which we talk about what visually excites them, how they ideally see themselves, and how they don’t. Once I have an idea of what all the band members are interested in conveying visually, I put together a variety of look books for the band to consider. Together we collaborate on what’s working and what’s not within each look, and the band picks and chooses what moves ahead into the final stages of execution.
How much was your band involved in the new design work for Beast? Can you talk about your collaborative process with them (from conception to the photo shoot, etc.)
Pearl and the Beard is a truly 100% collaborative entity. Even in the way we write songs, each member contributes an equal 33.3% of the content. This particular design was fueled by Emily’s attraction to high-end European fashion ads, Jeremy’s desire to create a surrealist environment, and my love of bold color. Together, we were able to collectively imagine the design and so compliment each other’s visual aesthetics, rather than compete with one another’s tastes. Once we were settled on the visual idea, I created the props with items found at Home Depot and Party City (my two favorite sources). Our intent for the look was to design a bold, surreal image that we could create in real life without the use of Photoshop, so everything you see in the shot is real. Photographer Shervin Lainez, who we’ve worked with on mostly all of our past photo shoots, set up the studio and shot the pictures of us using the props, and then, with the rest of the band’s input, I did the digital layout to create the cover design you’ll see once the album is released.
Can you tell me more about your other album designs for Pearl and the Beard? How has the image of the band evolved over time and how is this reflected for the album covers?
We’ve tried very hard over the years not to take ourselves too seriously, but as we’ve grown as a band we’ve also wanted our image and sound to mature. From the first piece of album art I did for the band in 2009 to today’s Beast cover, I think we’ve accomplished that and been able to represent visually that our musical tastes and fashion choices have grown with us as we grow as people. We love the idea that people change from a day to day and sometimes minute to minute basis, so we’ve always approached our songwriting and artwork in the same way. We’ve also found that the more we collaborate, the happier we all are with the final result, and the most current music, art, and imagery reflects that process in a way we are all extremely proud of.
On that note, where is that big sweater from Killing the Darlings now? What made you first think of linking all of you in a big sweater?
HA! That sweater is in a bag, in a bin, in my basement. It’s quite wrinkly. That sweater design was born from Jeremy and Emily teasing me when I would knit in the back of the van while we were on tour. At the time I worked as a freelance knitter and crocheter for Lion Brand Yarn, and I would bring my work with me on the road. Emily and Jeremy had this running joke that one day they would open the back of the van and there I would be with this gigantic three-person sweater. We actually even joked about it when we appeared on WNYC’s Soundcheck with John Schaefer, years before the sweater was actually made. When it came time to think about artwork for Killing the Darlings, I asked the guys how they would feel if I actually made the thing, and they agreed. Here’s a little video, courtesy of Lion Brand, that explains all this and the sweater construction a little more thoroughly. Again, it was important to us to create something real, that wasn’t Photoshopped, and then just take visual documentation of that real object. That’s how we approach making sounds, so why not our album art?
How did you come up with the idea to create Synesthete Styling?
Through years of touring with Pearl and the Beard, I have gotten to see scores of different bands all over the country. Some of them have continued to grow and others not, but one thing I’ve noticed keeps the growing bands growing has been a strong visual identity. I thought that between my art education, my personal sense of style, my love of music and musicians, and my experience on the road, I could offer a unique perspective to other bands to help them come up with a visual identity that could help grow their success in their careers. This is about helping bands see themselves as they truly feel and using that vision to help bolster their professionalism. Really, I just love art and music and want to help musicians I believe in succeed.
Do you find it easier to work with other bands to guide them rather than working from within a group, like Pearl and the Beard?
That’s a great question. As unsatisfying as this sounds, it’s just a different experience. Pearl has a really unique, built-in communication system that we’ve been using for years, so there’s a comfort level and ease there, as it goes with family. We work hard to always respect each other’s desires, likes, and dislikes. However, since I’m still in the group, it’s important for me to separate my role as a collaborator from my role as an artist executing the ideas, and I try not to impose my own views on Jeremy and Emily. Working with bands that are not my own means I get to help guide them, and the result is that the band itself can feel a sense of relief that their best interest is being taken care of by someone else. But in both instances, I love helping other bands see their visions through, and I feel tremendous gratitude to Jeremy and Emily for letting me have a creative visual outlet through the music we make together.
Can you talk a little about your journey as an artist from before art school to now and how that informs your designs?
My mother is a seamstress and my father is an experimental musician, so there was always art and music around my house growing up. From the time I was seven years old, I knew I wanted to be a musician. However, I always knew I wouldn’t need to go to a conservatory to learn how to make the music I wanted to make, so I focused my attention on studying art and building a good portfolio so that I could attend art school and hopefully someday do both. For me, art and music are like languages. They’re a means for me to express who I am and put myself into the world. Mostly, I’ve found inspiration from things that already exist, so rather than having an isolated vision and trying to create that, I look around and ask, “What materials do I have at my disposal and what can I make out of them?” This process has definitely helped aid in my work with musicians and bringing those two passions together. It’s helped me be resourceful and attentive to detail.
Did you have a moment of clarity when you knew that you had to find a way to merge your textile work with your music?
I will never forget it. It was early in my senior year of college at MICA, and my mentor Annet Couwenberg asked what I wanted to do for my senior thesis. I was studying Fiber (textiles), so I’d been trying to come up with thesis ideas that would revolve around yarn or costumes or knitting, but nothing really stuck that made me truly excited. Finally one day I sheepishly told her that what I REALLY wanted was to make an album. She nearly jumped out of her seat and said, “Now THAT’S what I wanted to hear… what you REALLY want! Let’s find a way for you to do it!” She unconditionally gave me support and encouragement to create my music, and told me that I could find a way to fit fiber in some how. What resulted was a four song demo and costumes for two music videos which I directed, edited, produced, and starred in. She never said “You have to chose between your two passions,” instead she helped me to find a way to make both work together. I’ve tried to hold that ideal with me in all my creative endeavors since, and I really have her to thank for both my music and artistic careers.
What do you think about the current revival of album art and an interest in vinyl?
Yes! Yes! Wonderful! I’m so thrilled that more people are embracing the album as a concept and delving back into music as a listening experience rather than a disposable commodity. Artists and musicians work their asses off to go from song concept to the album on your shelf, and I’m very grateful on both a personal and cultural level that more non-musicians are coming to understand and support that. It’s wonderful that people are reigniting their respect of vinyl as a physical art piece.
Do you have any favorite artists working on album design today?
There’s no one specific album artist I could name, as I think a lot of my favorite looks come from within the bands themselves, which gives you a feel for their personalities visually. On that note, I’m really inspired by Tune-Yards‘ visual aesthetic. It’s so MUCH, but it always leaves me wanting more! As far as fine artists go, these days I’m really inspired by Wayne White, a painter / sculptor / musician who did set design for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. His new documentary Beauty is Embarrassing is stunning and inspiring! I just really love bold, bright, iconic, shameless artists.
What are some of your favorite album cover designs?
I love anything that makes me look twice or leaves a spring of curiosity in my mind that makes me want to investigate it further, because that’s what makes me want to keep listening to the album. Skeptic Goodbye by You Won’t is one of my favorite covers, and one of my favorite albums. I could stare at the BACK of Talking Heads’ Little Creatures for hours, just looking over the patterns in their outfits. Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs is another favorite, it’s so simple and straightforward, but he just looks so sweet and vulnerable. I can tell you my LEAST favorite album cover: Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. It used to terrify me as a kid and still does, but the album is great.
What was it like to see Martha Stewart wearing a scarf you designed?
I’m not gonna lie, I cried a little. I’m a huge fan of hers. At the time, I was working for Lion Brand Yarn, and they had just released a line of yarns in conjunction with Martha Stewart Crafts. I was commissioned to make a sample in the new wool for the catalog, and although I wasn’t present at the photo shoot, I heard through a co-worker that she’d selected my scarf out of a pile of other samples to take home for her personal collection. When I saw the photos of her wearing it to a public event not long afterward, I almost wet myself. If there’s anyone that makes me completely and shamelessly starstruck, it’s Martha.
Can you touch a bit on your work with Fellow Creatures? How did you ultimately get to that great shot of them in the wide open space?
Fellow Creatures is my new favorite band. I met Sam McCormally when PATB played our first show in DC back in 2009 where we were paired on a bill with his former band Ugly Purple Sweater. It was musical love at first listen and we’ve been dear friends ever since! Since then, Sam and PATB have collaborated on a number of projects musically, so it was an obvious match in terms of bringing that collaborative spirit over to the visual aspect of music-making. In starting this new project Fellow Creatures, he and partner Will McKindley-Ward (also formerly of UPS) wanted to “hit the ground running” and have a complete, cohesive look established before releasing any music. They’re smart guys. Since they’re based in DC, Will did all of the location scouting for the shoot locally, and then I came up with ideas for visual shots, props and fashion styling at home before traveling to DC to help execute the shoot. What we produced together was essentially a large-scale, site specific installation with the band members as the art, based entirely on their music. It truly was a collaborative endeavor, but Will gets all the credit for taking the lead on finding the perfect locations and for the initial fashion inspiration. When we arrived to shoot Sam and Will at that surreal, martian-esque hill, photographer Mike Snyder suggested they climb up to get this incredible, other-worldly shot. That particular shot was completely Mike’s idea! The boys were total troopers and Sam even carried “The Tube” all the way up the hill, without falling or breaking any limbs.
What do you enjoy about art direction vs. actually creating the images?
Every part of the process has a uniquely fulfilling aspect for me. As an art director, I love the challenge of figuring out how to execute a visual idea in real life. Since I’m not a photographer, I love working with talented photographers and seeing how an image I may have thought of initially translates through their aesthetic… I’m always so stunned when the idea becomes real! The deep listening to the music I’m working with is the part of the process I’m most passionate about, but physically creating the props and getting my hands dirty is definitely the most fun. I get to be at home in my jammies making art for bands I love… it’s awesome. But I also love the interpersonal, social aspect of consulting with the bands prior to coming up with any imagery. It’s always so rewarding and wonderful to have really involved, personal, intimate conversations with musicians about their work and what they hope to achieve in their careers. When I was working with Jesus on the Mainline, we had a blast just sitting over a couple beers and getting excited about the potential of working together. When you can get a bunch of musicians really enthusiastic about what they’re doing, that energy carries with them to the stage, and that then flows over into how much fun the audience has. It’s a simple concept that a new outfit can translate directly to an audience’s experience, but I’ve found it to be 100% true.
Why the monochromatic blue for the cover of Beast?
We all like blue! We have very varied taste between the three of us and rarely all like the same thing, so when we found it, we didn’t fight it. Also, the idea of one bold color representing an album can leave a lasting impression on a listener’s mind, so we wanted the album to have an association with a color that we really liked, too.
How does the bold blue cover correspond with the choice of a muted B&W photo of the band for the back? Are the images related for you in any way? Fashion choices, etc.?
We wanted something iconic for the front and classic for the back. The bold blue was the only color we all really loved, and the fashion choices for the back were meant to convey uniformity and the same clean aesthetic as the cover. So in both cases, we were reaching into the past for inspiration.
I like how the geometrically shaped rings bring in the color red (along with the nails!) and white for contrast with the blue, is this purely for style or is there some other significance?
With any monochromatic frame, a pop of a contrasting color is a fun way to punctuate the visual landscape. The red and orange fingernails and white and red rings were just little visual ornaments meant to draw in the eye and make the viewer more curious as to what is actually being depicted. In other words, there’s no significance it’s just a core composition rule!
Are there any specific surreal images or artists that inspired this image, or is it entirely the band’s own?
We were inspired by surrealist modern Italian shoe advertisements. It was important for the image to be bold and evocative, to sell the story of the album and intrigue a viewer before he or she could even hear the material. We wanted to entice people and invite them into the story, and following the aesthetic of ads seemed to be a proactive way to make that happen!
How did you get to that cereal image of the hands reaching out from the bowl, etc? Why hands?
The band really wanted something bold and memorable, but totally surreal. We toyed with the idea for awhile about appearing in person on the cover, but since our identity as a band revolves so much around the three of us as a unit and the whole being more powerful than the sum of its parts, we thought that would be better expressed by showing our body parts rather than our faces. We also thought a lot about what made the album during our writing process… at times the “Beast” seemed to eat us alive (in a good way). That played a huge part in inspiring the cannibalistic imagery. We thought, “What would a Beast eat?”
Assuming there is no connection (or is there?), but it reminded me of that last section of Beetlejuice when the shrimp become hands.
I’m not sure you know how big of a compliment that is. I am honored and floored! Shrimp hands FTW yussss! There was no prior meditation on that connection but now that you mention it, you are not wrong, my friend. But when we were thinking about the album artwork, we were asking ourselves, “This album is a Beast, what would a Beast eat?” We created this Beast and then it ate us alive in a very real way, but I’m really glad that the album artwork conveys that.
With this being, sadly, Pearl and the Beard’s last album, are you hoping to take on more design work as you change gears to focus on your individual music career? Are there any upcoming projects that you are excited about?
It’s so rewarding for me to use my artwork to help other musicians express their songs visually that I hope to get the opportunity to work with other bands very soon. I’ve already been developing some aesthetic and visual ideas for my upcoming solo project, and can’t wait to set that loose on the world. Currently I’m focusing on preparing to volunteer at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girlslate summer and can’t wait to work with young musicians and artists and see how that inspires my own work! I’m focusing on expanding my clientele at SynStyling. I want to get my hands as dirty as possible.