Cover Stories: Stacey Rozich on Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear
Cover Stories: Stacey Rozich on Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear
by Rob Ribera
Stacey Rozich creates evocative images of life and death, violence and religious iconography, mystery and chaos. Her use of mythology and folklore grounds her work in a long history of imagery used to capture narratives in a single moment—whether that be an instant of sorrow or joy. And so her work is a perfect match for Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. On the new album, Joshua Tillman sings about love and jealousy, materialism and economic turmoil, sex and politics (or any combination of these things).
With Rozich’s album artwork, we see his lyrics and themes transformed into a chaotic bar scene, women swallowed whole, strange beasts, and mysteriously masked figures haunting the edges of the frame. At the center of this chaos is Tillman, transformed into the Christ child, harbinger of peace and love, and perhaps a little debauchery as well. As with Fear Fun, the songs on Honeybear are at turns challenging and sarcastic. His biting humor about American consumerism is paired with a desire to find and define love. We’re not quite sure at the end how Tillman feels, but we cannot doubt the sincerity of his quest. Certainly a challenge for any artist to interpret, Rozich creates a rich tapestry, visualizing the narrative of Tillman’s anxieties and newfound love. Over the last few weeks, Rozich and I emailed back and forth about her previous album designs and music video work, as well as the process of creating the new album art for Honeybear.
You recently moved from Seattle down to L.A.—what prompted the change? How is the L.A. art scene different?
I grew up in Seattle, I am born and raised — besides a few years going to art school in San Francisco — I hadn’t really gotten out of the nest too far. I had visited LA a few times and it really grew on me, and it seemed to be the new beacon for creatives. There is a lot more room to explore and create here, metaphorically because of the general open-mindedness and also the literal expanse of the city. I had originally wanted to move to SF again but the change it’s going through right now dulled some of the shine that I fell in love with, and everyone I knew was making the jump for LA instead. Additionally, my boyfriend Sam who I’d been in a 2 year long distance relationship with agreed that this was the place for us to move together.
The landscapes of L.A. and Seattle and their histories are certainly different–do you find those differences seeping into your art at all?
I do, actually. I’m using so many more plants in my new work. It’s a blend of native species to this area: lots of palms and Birds of Paradise — I actually have a ton outside my apartment window — and dark blues and greens from the Pacific Northwest. Adding all of this flora into my work is a way of adding more context to the scene but it’s also a subconscious need for me to have it in my life since it’s so dry and sparse here. It’s like a hidden postcard to my old life growing up in such a forested area.
Can you talk about your time at California College of the Arts and the Seattle Central Creative Academy? How did your time in school help guide your identity as an artist?
They really are two very different but completely integral two-year expanses in my life that have completely shaped me as an artist. The first two were really foundational years, it was me very young, fresh out of high school living on my own in a new city getting to draw for school. I was in awe of that freedom! I learned watercolor there, among other mediums but watercolor was the most immediate feeling of love I’ve ever felt — it was like boom! The process made so much sense to me, and the restraint was so delicate and delicious while other mediums like acrylic (which I had been messing around with since I was younger) was a total slog. I hated it but didn’t want to admit it. The second two years happened after I dropped out of art school at age 20 — there was an interim of two years of living back in Seattle and “finding myself” which meant getting an art studio and working at a restaurant and partying. Knowing I didn’t want to be waitress for my whole life and understanding I still had a lot of untapped inspiration I enrolled in the design intensive at SCCA in the hopes I could get a real job but still be creative. I learned so much there: a lot of different foundational skills that I still use today but mainly I learned a lot about marketing myself and networking, which is something art school doesn’t really teach you — at least in undergrad. So in a way I got to sample the best of both worlds and tailor it to suit me best.
Was there a particular teacher who influenced your style when you were first starting?
Yes, definitely. Randy Chavez was my illustration 1 teacher my first semester at CCA. The administration messed up and put me in this class with second and third year students while all my other fellow freshman had to take life drawing (you didn’t get to take your major classes until second semester or second year so I was way ahead of the curve). It was the first real art class I had ever taken and Randy was the perfect teacher to guide me; he was gentle and funny and very articulate which was helpful in learning the ropes. He did a demo on watercolor and after he let us all try I painted a dinosaur and he came over and said “So you’ve used this before? Nice work.” I remember turning red and saying it was my first try and he gave me a look of surprise — I’ll never forget that.
When did you settle on watercolor and gauche?
Pretty much then and there.
How much did your father’s work as a chalkboard artist influence you?
It didn’t effect me aesthetically because we are very different in our influences and process. Well, we do love color a lot. What influenced me was his drive and determination to continue working even after you’ve busted ass in a crappy 40 hour work week as a machinist at Boeing, he would spend weekends in the garage creating incredible 8 feet long chalk masterpieces. He’s so positive and self-assured and has always, always been my biggest champion. He told me to draw every day, and I was probably 6 years old when he dropped that wisdom on me!
It’s interesting to think about being a student and then what happens after you leave that system–challenging yourself and finding other places for inspiration as well as guidance.
Absolutely. I think that’s the biggest piece of advice artists need to hear after getting out of the academic sphere of a program — now it’s up to you to make it happen. No instructors are breathing down your neck any more, no big thesis is looming. You’re out of the frying pan and it’s up to you to find that same motivation that propelled you in school to be a success in the real world.
Your work is very connected to mythological and folkloric imagery—what cultures are you drawing from?
The main region I first drew from was the Balkans, which is where my dad’s family is from. From there my interest splintered off into other Eastern Euro cultures and various festivals. I always had an interest in Pacific Northwest Native American tribal art because it was so peripheral to where I grew up. After my interest was piqued it was a flood gate opening to the mask craftsmen in southern Mexico to the Igbo tribes of Nigeria, and beyond.
Do you feel a responsibility to keep faithful to certain traditions? How do you let your own influences come into any given piece?
There are times when I do something that is a homage to a certain costume or festival and I’ll always make sure to cite my sources. Most often, it’s the cherry picking of different pieces from folklores and blending them with artifacts from my own life or upbringing. I understand the reverence these different cultural traditions deserve and it’s my complete awe and respect of them that I incorporate them in my own life. I find that’s how a lot of these grow and become what they are; from different ideas and views from different storytellers. I try to be another storyteller.
Your work has a very tactile quality even with the watercolors in terms of your use of patterns. Can you talk about giving these characters a sense of depth?
What turns people off to the process of watercolor is: too. much. WATER! When you reel it in and use the smallest amount of water, the lack of moisture really makes the paint pop. In this way you can evoke a lot of textural feel to things, the bold saturation of certain shades can give the perfect amount of flatness, and then when you do introduce some water in there it can add a lot of depth in the tonality. The mixing and matching of super matte graphic color working next to a stained glass effect is what really makes the material compelling.
Can you describe your process for sketching out ideas?
It’s very loose and free flowing, it often looks like a bunch of squiggles at a dance party. Somehow I always know what they mean, I can see the composition forming within this cacophony of lines. From there I flesh out certain figures and objects to see how they play off each other and when I am satisfied I move on to the watercolor paper and lay down the lightest pencil sketch of the realized image.
Are you creating stories behind each image, or are they created to reflect more of a theme or mood?
There is always some sort of story, however small, behind each image. When I first started painting I was all about benign imagery — I hated the idea of reading too much into something. I found it very pretentious to have a story getting in the way of the piece! How naive now that I think back on that. What I realized is the symbiotic relationship of the story within the image to that of the viewer’s understanding of it. I always welcome the viewer to create their own storyline for it, but in that I like to leave subtle hints to my own narrative I used to create it, either in visual cues or explanatory titles.
How did your collaboration with the band Goat for their video, “Hide from the Sun” come about?
I have a good relationship with Sub Pop records, and I was contacted to gauge my interest in working with some of their bands on a video — no band was mentioned, just sort of a retainer thing for the future. When I gave a resounding “hell yes” that is when Goat was offered up as a possible project. Sam is a director and has quite a few music videos under his belt so I immediately shared this opportunity with him because we had been trying to work together on something for years. He actually started off buying a painting of mine before he knew me so he has a unique and (literally) intimate understanding of me and my work. I knew he would be the perfect person to handle my aesthetic in this video.
What was it like to see your images transformed into three-dimensional spaces?
It was one of the most incredible experiences. We were so lucky that we both had a bunch of super talented friends who worked out here or had also just moved here and were completely down to jump into production on this. We had a little factory going: creating masks and sewing costumes and building sets — I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. There was a day we were shooting in the Angeles National Forest and I was watching a bunch of our friends in the costumes of my artwork running for the scene and I got this dizzy, happy, overwhelming feeling of “This is real.”
You also did character sketches for the Fleet Foxes for their video “The Shrine/An Argument”. Did they have a definitive idea for the video, or did you adjust your own sketches for them?
It was a mixture of both. There was a loose idea for the song, but it wasn’t fully realized. My art was both a vehicle for it and also a compass for the overall look of the video — I did a lot of sketching and character design which helped dictate the story.
Is music video work something you’d like to explore more often?
Absolutely. I enjoy the process so much of building on my established world I created in my paintings. My influences are changing every day so that sort of flexibility makes working in 3D so exciting. In some ways they inform each other, too which I find very helpful in creating a succinct narrative.
What about filmmaking in general, creating your own narratives and producing a film outside of music?
That’s part of the dream, albeit not fully realized, but it’s in there. Maybe a few years down the line. Ideally I would like to create something first like a few books that establish a certain storyline or environment. Then from there exploring this in a short or feature length film would be incredible, I think that would be the ultimate expression of what I’ve created. I’m getting chills just thinking about it.
Your first album covers, for We Creeling’s, The Curious Mystery and Earth’s Angel of Darkness, Demon of Light came out in close succession—what was it like to get into creating album art so quickly?
It felt really good, and overwhelming. I was up to my eyeballs in the design program at SCCA so I was maybe a little too overworked to realize how special that time was. Looking back on it now, I am proud of myself for executing the artwork for these two wonderful records, all the while trying to be a full time student.
Was the imagery you created for them an extension of your own work, or did they have specific ideas?
It was mostly mine, Shana (Cleveland, the frontwoman of the band) is also an artist so she has a very clear idea of what she likes. We worked well together, it helped she was a fan of my work so she left me do my thing, but she had an overall idea of what would work best for their album.
Can you talk about bridging the gap between commercial projects and gallery shows?
I’m seeing the gap closing because mostly on the commercial end the acceptance of more fine art practices are being embraced. It’s easier being a cross-over artist right now, though to be such a multi-hyphenate artist you do have to establish your style well before you can do both. It’s like, if you stick to your guns on both fronts you can do what you want, most of the time. Of course there are harder clients to work for that want you to channel your work into their more sensitive or corporate brief, but the reason you got the job is because they saw something in your work before, be it in other commercial work or in a gallery or someone’s personal collection.
Is it nice to reach a different audience with some of your album covers and videos? Do you find your audiences crossing over?
It is one of the more satisfying thing about what I do. Reaching a vast audience through my work with music is very humbling because I lack the patience of ever being a musician but it’s such a huge part of my life! So the idea that someone will sit and look at the LP art as they put the record on makes my heart smile. The audience that I’ve done work for is so varied, too. The Earth album art is so far reaching: I’ve gotten e-mails from people in Japan, Malaysia, Iceland and Australia to name a few telling me how much they dig the art.
Do you listen to vinyl?
I do, though since Sam and I moved to LA we haven’t had the right place to set up the record player. I left my collection back at my parent’s house in Seattle, but my young cousin who’s in college right now received a little record player for Christmas so when I was home I went through my stash and picked out a few for her to check out.
Do you have any favorite artists working today?
Marcel Dzama is a major inspiration, mainly because he’s found the perfect way to exhibit his brilliantly bizarre scenarios in paintings, dioramas, ceramics and video works — I like to model myself after that. I have dozens more but he was the first artist I saw doing what he does that really struck me to the core.
Any favorite album covers from the past?
I know this is on everyone’s top list and I’m no different: Sgt. Pepper’s is something to behold. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Traffic’s Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys, Sabbath’s Masters of Reality, The Stones’ Some Girls. Pretty much all of Yes’ surrealist covers from the 70’s and 80’s before they went New Wave minimalist graphic. There are so many to name! More currently I adore Little Dragon’s Machine Dreams cover.
What about music? What are you listening to these days?
This is hard for me to hone in on a couple because my taste has always been so wacky and all over the board. D’angelo’s new album, Jagwar Ma, Dum Dum Girls, The Allah-Las, Townes Van Zandt, Kanye, Father John Misty of course. The Wayne’s World soundtrack for the Crucial Taunt.
How did you first get connected with Joshua Tillman? Was it through your work for Fleet Foxes?
It actually wasn’t through the Fleet Foxes video, though I think he had seen it. He did mention to me when we spoke for the first time that he saw that my work had grown and changed, which I think was because the art in the video back in 2011 was a lot different: more directly based in folklore. When his Fear Fun album came out I had it on constantly, and the lyrics were so evocative of some strange stuff which I took and painted a piece for myself based off of “Only Son of a Ladie’s Man”, this was in early 2013 sometime. I actually sold it pretty quickly after I painted it so I mostly forgot about it until last spring of 2014. I put the image of it up on my Instagram again and pretty quickly Sasha who works at Sub Pop asked me if he could send it to Josh directly. A day later I got an e-mail from Josh and the rest unfolded from there.
I love that song–and the image you created really combines the complicated relationship between the singer and his subject, this self-awareness and a lament.
Thank you. That is what I love about his music, there’s so much fraught tension and so much humor which speaks to how I work as well. I wanted to communicate the central figure as a sad lover man, groupies in tow wailing in the background while he gets his brains blown out. But somehow he still looks happy, like he had a life well lived.
Was the lining up of the cop’s gun and the celebrating cowboy intentional? It’s definitely a mix of the violent and the sexual.
It wasn’t intentional, but I’m sure subconsciously I knew what I was doing. That happens to me: spacial compositions sometimes end up being really funny in the end or disturbing. My brain has a sneaky way of adding things in like that!
For I Love you, Honeybear, how was the experience different from you other album art commissions?
The scale was the most different, and the freedom. I get commissions that can have pretty clear constraints but this one was very free and there was a lot of space to work with for the cover and the interior gatefold, which was to be broken into different layers for a diorama pop-up. I had never done a pop-up before but I had always wanted to.
How involved was Joshua with the overall design?
Somewhat, he was specific about the characters but he stipulated he wanted the interior to be a bar scene — which is a nod to the “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Damn Thirsty Crow”, and the Surrealist brass cat bar was something he gave me in a bunch of reference images. I couldn’t not use that one!
Can you remember any of the other reference images and what he was thinking about?
He gave me a few images to get the wheels turning. They were a wide range from surrealist furniture like the cat bar, Iconographic imagery of the Virgin Mary, Hindu folklore, and other darker images that had some folkloric vibes to them. I could tell the work he was referencing was either full of light and reverence or dark and unnerving, with shadowy demonic figures holding women in poses of sexual submission.
Did you listen to the music first before creating the design?
Josh invited me to the recording studio when he was in Seattle, so I got to meet him for the first time and his wife Emma. I was kind of nervous, just sitting there on the couch as he played the songs — which no one had heard yet —trying to figure out what to do with myself. I went from listening to his last album in the privacy of my apartment to listening to the new tracks with the artist himself and his wife and friends. I think my head wanted to explode. A few months later he gave me a mostly-mastered CD with most of the tracks which I played in my car right after I moved to LA, so when I hear the album now it’s permanently intertwined with driving around my new city.
You mentioned that you’ll oftentimes sketch out doodles at parties, were you drawing while in the studio at all?
I did not, I was probably too nervous to draw. I brought my stuff in case but I just sat and listened. I might have taken a few notes when Josh and Emma were brainstorming different ways to utilize my work but I kept the drawing until I had the music on my own.
Are the characters on the cover connected to specific lyrics on the album?
A few of the characters are, some of them are ideas Josh had about himself and the FJM persona — the woman-eating beast and obviously the Josh baby on the cover in the woman’s arms. I put in the Mariachi guys per the “Chateau Lobby” track — I immediately saw them when I heard it. The rest were my ideas not entirely based on the lyrics, but more whom I saw living out these vignettes he creates.
It’s interesting to think of these characters as defined by their American qualities, as these issues come up a lot in the album.
That’s an interesting theory. I never really attach a national identity to my figures but there are so many American themes in this album that I could see how it’s projected onto the artwork. I’d like to think of them living in their own alternate universe than to the one we live in, maybe they’re bizarro 4th dimension Americans.
Watercolor can be a little bit unforgiving for mistakes. Did you get this all done in one shot?
Actually, contrary to popular belief, watercolor can be somewhat forgiving. If you work medium to light enough, you can water something down and wipe it away. I did do it all in one shot, I try and always create something as one big sysinct piece. And if I do mess up, I just make it look like I meant it.
Was the image of Joshua as the child Christ figure here a conscious callback to the cover to Fear Fun?
I’m thinking it’s a reference to his character, that he is some sort of spiritual leader/snake oil salesman with a lot of parishioners. In the Fear Fun record that Dima created he is the main attraction, the exalted figure looming larger than life. In this album he wanted to speak to the duality of his character and the pitfalls of keeping up that facade and the need to be comforted with the desire to be a good man to his love, his wife. The fact he’s a child (with an adult head like in a lot of pre-Renaissance artwork) at the bare breast of a beautiful Virgin Mary-life figure speaks volumes of this new era in his life, I think.
What’s interesting about that as well is that only those two figures are not wearing masks–all the other characters, are hiding their identities. Even the woman seated at the bar, we don’t see her face.
Exactly. I rarely ever paint faces‚ which is interesting to me because I was only into painting and drawing people growing up, but the subversion of gender and identity is why I paint masks and costumes. There is something so fascinating to me about how cultures all over the world have a history of art and performance that hide one’s true self — to become something new or to recall an ancient spirit. Personally, I like the idea of creating something to cover yourself as armor that can shield you from the judgements and hang-ups of society. The two figures on the album are totally and fully up front for you to look into their faces and lay your expectations on to. The other figures are more complicated, you need to make your own story for them because they’re a blank slate, as it were.
Tillman has an acerbic wit about the state of things in the United States at the moment—did that influence your own work here?
I like to keep my work mostly in my own world, it can be informed by current events sometimes but for the most part, it’s closed off. For this particular album it is packed with a lot of biting commentary and I worked it in in many ways, but there is so much to read into I would probably need a billboard sized space to get it all.
Tillman wrote in his original press release that part of this album was, “learning how to love and be loved; see and be seen.” How do you see that in this work, and do you see any of that in your art?
I see that duality in the makeup of the whole scene. The loving mother-wife figure squarely in the front with her beloved who is a naked child, so he is inherently vulnerable. Seated all around him are predators: demon bats above, a dog hyena with a snake below. These qualities of being loved and being seen as who I am are always being worked out in my work, every piece. They are literal extensions of my psychological self, even when I bury it in metaphor under Doritos bags and Nike shoes it’s in there hiding.
Who are these black-masked figures who frame the piece?
Sentinels of doom, the shadows that lurk in all of us.
That bar scene is also rather chaotic–fire, bloodshed, all while some characters are trying to impress the woman at the bar.
That’s the dark heart of the album. You open the cover which has lush plant life and confetti and a joyous Mariachi band all set against washes of pink or sherbert color (depending on if you bought the Deluxe) and then the inside is the gloomy dank bar which is all going to hell.
Were there any alternate designs that you created before settling on this one?
Strangely no, actually. I usually work with a few options, but after showing Josh a few preliminary sketches of different characters I went right to it. I was nervous to only have one image but he loved it immediately, which was a huge sigh of relief.
What is it like to see your artwork on a t-shirt? It’s listed as “Breakfast Girl”—did you come up with that name?
I’ve seen my work on t-shirts before and it’s always cool. I had no idea I was Breakfast Girl! I’ll have to ask where the hell that one came from, and if that’s me.
What are you working on now?
I’m gearing up to create a massive 36’ x 8’ mural for a new bar of which my friend is opening in Seattle — her empire is expanding and I’m so stoked to have my artwork along for the ride. I’m also working on a great children’s book with an amazing writer/illustrator that I can’t talk about yet, but it’s incredibly fun to stretch myself for this project. That and the usual round up of personal commissions from buyers. I’m never not scheming new ways to build my world.
You can see more of Stacey’s work at her website.
You can order the new Father John Misty album at the Sub Pop Mega Mart.