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sights & sounds: carson ellis + the decemberists

by Rachael

Hi everyone! Today, I am thrilled to welcome new D*S guest writer Rachael Maddux! Rachael was an editor at Paste magazine until its recent print closing and I was delighted to discover that she is equally passionate about music and design. So today she’s joining us for a guest column called “Sights & Sounds” that focuses on the relationships between musicians and visual artists. Rachael is kicking things off with one of my favorite bands and artists: The Decemberists and Carson Ellis. I’ll let Rachael take it away from here. xo, grace

Photo credit: James Hill

Even if you don’t know her name, if you’ve ever picked up an album by Portland-based folk-rock band The Decemberists, you’re likely familiar with Carson Ellis‘ work. She’s been the group’s “illustrator in residence” for nearly a decade now, working closely with Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy (who also happens to be her husband) to scheme up fantastical, intricate illustrations not only for the band’s record covers, but also show posters, merchandise and even larger-than-life backdrops for their live shows. Ellis has lent her darkly whimsical paintings and delicate pen-and-ink illustrations to album artwork for a handful of other artists, too. And of course, this is all in addition to her main line of work: illustrating children’s books. Her colorful, more-than-slightly-mischievious work has graced the pages of Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society series and, most recently, Florence Parry Heide’s Dilweed’s Revenge (originally intended for Edward Gorey).

Tell me a little bit about how you got started ― both as an artist in general and working with folks in the music world in particular.

Carson Ellis: The Decemberists were playing their first shows when I moved to Portland from San Francisco in 2001 and their singer, Colin, was my close friend and old college roommate from the University of Montana. Now we’re married but then we were friends and I had made flyers for his college band, Tarkio, when we’d lived in Missoula. He put me promptly to work on all things Decemberists when I moved here. I made album art, flyers, t-shirt designs, website illustrations. I also seized every opportunity to be in a group show or to draw pictures for a zine or to make a flyer for a band. Portland is small city — even more so then — so I easily met lots of artists and musicians. There seemed to be no end of arty projects to get involved in. I was working as a bartender and was in my late twenties when people — mostly art directors who found me through my work for The Decemberists — started contacting me about actual paying illustration jobs. I quit my job the moment I could swing it and have been working full time as an artist since.

It seems like the packaging and design for The Decemberists’ records have grown more elaborate and intricate over time. How has your process for working on those projects changed? How closely do you work with Colin on those pieces?

Carson Ellis: Our budget for album packaging has grown a lot over the past 10 years and I guess some of the ideas have gotten bigger along with it, for better and for worse. The first two albums, the first two EPs and the first few singles were done with little or no money. I drew or painted the pictures and we then cajoled a friend — Chad Crouch of Hush Records, or our old designer friend, Brady Clark — into laying it all out in exchange for . . . I don’t remember what. Beer? Pizza? Eternal gratitude? (If you guys are out there, we’re still grateful.)

Colin and I have always worked closely on the album cover concepts, sometimes designing them in our heads before an album was even recorded. When we scored some extra money for album art we used it to hire designers — first to pay the people who were laying it all out and later to hire people who would help us conceptualize, also. Inevitably, these designers have ended up sort of out-of-the-loop as Colin and I are thinking and talking about album art at home, around the clock. We change our minds about important things in the wee hours, spring our brainstorms on designers at the last minute, are often creatively at odds with each other and the designer. I think we might be hard to work with. Though, for what it’s worth, we’re working on album art for a new record right now, along with the packaging for its various editions, and I think it’s going great. It’s a collaboration between a bunch of people — Autumn de Wilde, who took a ton of photos, Jeri Heiden who’s designing, Colin and I — and it’s looking beautiful.

CLICK HERE for the rest of Carson’s interview + listen to music from The Decemberists!

How did you connect with the other bands you’ve created art for? Do many musicians approach you about doing work for them, and how do you decide which of those projects to take on?

Carson Ellis: I haven’t actually worked with that many other bands. I did an album cover for Weezer five or six years ago, somewhat randomly as I had no connection to them. I was hired by their art director. I did an album cover for Vanessa Morrison, my good college friend; for Laura Veirs, also a good friend; for the band Beat Circus in Boston; and for a Led Zeppelin tribute record recently released by Jealous Butcher Records, a small label here in Portland. I used to get approached a lot to do album art but not as much these days. Maybe in part because I’ve turned down almost all of the requests I’ve gotten since the beginning. The first LP I painted a cover for was Castaways and Cutouts and it was a record that meant a lot to me. It set the bar very high. Since then, with only a few exceptions, I’ve only taken on a project if I’ve had a special connection to it — either to the music or to the musician or both.

Your main work is illustrating kids’ books. How does creating art for a book compare to doing album art?

Carson Ellis: They’re mostly just totally different. Working on album art has, in most cases, involved a close collaboration with a musician, whereas I’m rarely in contact with the authors of the books I illustrate. Also, figuring out a good visual counterpart to a record is an abstract process. You start from nothing but your impression of the music and the musician’s idea of what they’re conveying through it. From there you have an infinite number of directions to move in. Illustrating a book, with some exceptions, isn’t such a conceptual thing. It’s pretty literal. You read through a manuscript and typically illustrate the parts that conjure images in your head. It might be as simple as a picture of a monkey climbing a tree on a page that says, “The monkey climbed a tree.” Some books for kids are easier to illustrate than others and even within a very illustratable story there are still a million choices to make — choices about color and mood and style and, of course, which moments to illustrate. So, the statements you make in book illustration tend to be subtler ones. I love both things equally, though — they gratify different creative instincts.

What is your workspace like? Do you need to be there to get stuff done, or is your creativity more portable?

Carson Ellis: Colin and I converted our two-story garage into studio spaces. I’m upstairs and my studio is like a treehouse. It has a dormer with a big window and skylights and out of every window I can see trees and a million shades of green. I heat it with a pellet stove and it’s bright and cozy, especially in the throes of Portland’s misty, rainy autumn. I do most of my work there and I prefer to work there but my work is portable. If I’m on a deadline and I have to keep an eye on my four-year-old, I’ll move to the dining room table of my house. I also sketched a whole picture book in the south of France once, mostly from a lawn chair on a terrace, and that was pretty great. And I’ve worked on tour with The Decemberists before, but it’s challenging. Doing an illustration job on a tour bus is like working from a studio apartment that you share with ten people. I’m too easily distracted to get much done. I love to sketch on tour but I’m a mom and it’s not as easy to draw when I’m traveling as it used to be. My creativity is endlessly portable but I get a lot more work done in my studio.

Do you listen to music while you work? What’s been in rotation recently?

Carson Ellis: Yes, lots of music. Last week, Armchair Boogie by Michael Hurley was in heavy rotation. Man, that record’s good. I’ve been drawing to a lot of the same music since I was 15: After The Goldrush, Aoxomoxoa, Bringing It All Back Home, the first Led Zeppelin record. And mostly everything new I discover lately seems to be a variation on that classic rock or folk theme. I also love old blues and gospel and British folkies like Bert Jansch and John Renbourne.

What kinds of projects are you working on right now?

Carson Ellis: I’m working on the art for the new Decemberists record. I’m also working on a novel for kids called Wildwood, the first in a series of books written by Colin and illustrated by me. I’m super, super excited about them. The first is due out next fall from HarperCollins.

What are some of your big dream projects, either music- or book-related? Who would you love to work with that you haven’t yet?

Carson Ellis: I would love to do album art for Bill Callahan, tUnE-yArDs, Karen Dalton, Erik Satie, Anne Briggs, The Staples Singers. Book-wise, if I illustrated The Brothers Karamazov, I could die happy (though I probably could regardless). Ultimately, I’d love to write and illustrate my own book too, though I’m still waiting for a spark of inspiration toward that end.

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