Behind The Scene: The art behind the music with Jeremie Rose, James Everhart, Natalia Navarra and more

Behind The Scene is a new series which attempts to bring focus to the overlooked aspects of the Philadelphia music community. This is a collection of features on subjects whose stories are seldom told but whose contributions allow the Philadelphia music scene to thrive. 

Think of the very first music you fell in love with. Not a song, but an entire body of work, an album, a record, an LP, a CD, a cassette, whatever you want to call it. Now picture the cover. You almost certainly can. You might even be able to reproduce a crude rendering of your own if given a few minutes. You could definitely pick it out of a lineup. The two that stick out for me are The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Counting Crows’ August And Everything After. Musically, the former needs no defending and the latter I will defend with my life, but regardless it is hard to deny how well these album covers define the music they hold within their sleeves and booklets. Abbey Road with it’s subtle, winking irreverence, four cultural behemoths posing as pedestrians, each displaying, with their varied outfits, the kind of boy-band personality cult they helped create. Then there’s August And Everything After with its inkblot emotional nakedness, a page from a journal smudged by the tears of sensitive good-guy rockers everywhere.

So how did these pitch-perfect representations come to life? Who is responsible? Lennon? McCartney? Duritz? Well no, of course not. I know they didn’t, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, at the same time, kind of believe they did. The fact is, when I look at an album, I see one thing, one overarching vision, the music, the presentation, the band, it’s all one package presented as it was always intended. Of course, that is an auteurist myth. No album is made by a band alone, much less a single person. There are names behind each and every memorable album cover, every band t-shirt, every concert poster and tour announcement on instagram. Those names might not be on the cover in bold type, but they are essential contributors nonetheless and, as it turns out, Philadelphia has them in spades.  

Everyone talks about Philadelphia’s thriving underground/independent music scene, but few recognize that the art and design scene is just as robust. Perhaps it should come as no surprise given the unsung nature of the work, but one of the main throughlines I found within this tight-knit community is a desire to collaborate, to be involved in something they respect and admire, and to bring attention to the music any way they can.

“I always felt my real contribution, and my way to not only be a spectator, was to participate through art,” says Philly-based designer Jeremie Rose, whose work has adorned posters and websites by artists from Mannequin Pussy to Allison Crutchfield and the Black Quantum Futurism collective. Rose got her start from a young age, collaging from fashion magazines, making graffiti prints of her friends names, and tracing over the lettering on her parent’s record collection. It wasn’t long till she started driving to Philly to see her favorite pop-punk bands like Algernon Caldwaller and Snowing. It was her desire to communicate the artistic energy she fell in love with at these shows that led her to a career working with musicians. 

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A post shared by Tim Gough / Dirty Hands Studio (@timgough)

Tim Gough, another Philadelphia-based designer who’s worked with bands like Philly Hardcore punks Paint It Black and Welsh pop-punk band Neck Deep, shares a similar journey to working on music-related art and design projects. Having been inspired by everything from skateboarding to the artwork of albums on California-label Lookout Records, to punk zines like Cometbus, Gough always knew he wanted to do something within the underground punk scene. It was during his time studying at Hushin School of Art and Design in Philly and, perhaps more importantly, the hours he spent between classes at contemporary art studio and collective, Space 1026, when he truly got a foothold in the scene. “Being active in those communities, you make those connections and eventually you collaborate with people you know and soon people you don’t know take notice,” says Gough of his formative years in Space 1026 and beyond. 

For Austin Lotz, who’s worked with Philly bands like Slaughter Beach, Dog and Barney Cortez, his foray into music was equal parts inspiration and familial ties. Growing up in Scranton, Lotz found the local scene to be both inviting and inspiring, creating a supportive community that celebrated the kind of grassroots efforts he was drawn to. His true start, however, came with the illustrations he did for his sister Kiley Lotz and her band Petal, eventually leading him to design t-shirts and stickers for the band as well. “It was awesome that the first person I did anything for was also my family,” says Lotz. Few are so lucky as to have a such a ready collaborator under the same roof, but most artists stories begin by working with friends rather than clients, creating a more symbiotic relationship than most collaboration.

Austin Lotz’s designs for Barney Cortez and Petal | courtesy of the artist

There doesn’t appear to be much ego in the world of music art. These are designers and artists happy to defer to the music. But I think that can undersell how big a deal art and design can be to a band, it’s cultural significance, and ultimately it’s legacy. You can make a pretty solid argument that The Rolling Stones are the most popular, ubiquitous rock band of all time. Yet their lasting image is not of Jagger or Keith, but instead a set of red lips with that all-too-familiar tongue jutting out in an expression of screw-you rock n’ roll debauchery. John Pasche doesn’t quite have the name recognition of a Mick Jagger, but it was this young artist and designer who came up with the now undeniable logo which has become a staple of aging boomer wardrobes for decades. The Rolling Stones are killer riffs, rock and roll bombast, and bluesy anthems, but they are also those juicy sets of lips. The association is undeniable. 

The music is obviously the driving force behind any band’s success, but a memorable piece of art or design can be key to truly pushing an artist into the stratosphere. Designer and musician James Everhart leads Philly band Cosmic Guilt when not working as a freelance graphic designer, and he has always been hyper aware of what a grand vision can do for a band. “I’ve been obsessed with art direction my whole life, I just didn’t know it,” says Everhart.  He goes on to cite The White Stripes as an example of what a comprehensive branding strategy – in their case the use of exclusively black, white, and red palettes at all times – can do for a band’s overall brand. Catching a recent Cosmic Guilt show at Sunflower Philly, it’s hard not to notice Everhart implementing that credo into his own work.  Everyone of the band’s nine-odd members don the same black, gold-fringed western jackets, creating a cohesive vision you could never hope to achieve with the flannel and jean combo most bands present.

Though you could certainly make an argument that the age of streaming and social media might diminish the impact of both album art and concert posters, there are opportunities that these new mediums present. I am almost shocked at my own ignorance when Rose mentions the fact that she has designed several artists’ Bandcamp pages. I’ve seen literally hundreds of these pages and yet I’d never really considered how their layout comes together. Rose cites one her earliest Bandcamp designs, for the now-dissolved emo band Modern Baseball, as an intriguing learning experience. “It’s always a challenge working in a new space,” says Rose. “but the way I approach web is really rooted in my beginnings of collage work.

These types of brand presentation methods might be some of the less-considered artistic decisions a band might make, but things like merch, concert posters, and, of course, album covers, are equally as important in creating an image for a band or artist. In recent weeks, my social media feeds have been absolutely flooded with concert and tour announcements, so what better way to separate yourselves from the deluge than to make a poster that pops, something that cuts through the Instagram feed and begs to be looked at? Corrine Dodenhoff, who’s worked extensively promoting shows at World Cafe Live along with working with countless bands and musicians, got her start in 2016 shortly after the election of President Trump, making posters for the dozens of benefit concerts that Trump’s shocking election brought about. “The goal for me is always to catch the viewer’s eye while also communicating the overall vibe of the show,” says Dodenhoff of her experiences creating the most effective concert artwork.

All these artists, as well as others I spoke to, talk gushingly about the collaborative nature of their work, excited to cite the work they’ve done not out of ego but because of their genuine love for the music itself, and their pleasure to be involved. None more than Natalia Navarra, which is perhaps why she has done so much work doing animation for music videos, a medium where the art and music are inextricably linked. Navarra first fell in love with art in high school, eventually moving on to Rowan University where she studied Art and Design. Navarra’s first forays into music art were modest but her tendency to say yes to nearly every opportunity led her to quickly establish herself within the Philly indie-rock world. “It’s kind of like fishing, you know,” says Navarra of her early days. “You are kind of just putting your art out there and hoping someone reaches out and wants you to do something with them.” Recently that had led Navarra to work with both The Districts and Buddie on animated music videos which implement both her graphic design and illustrative skills, creating something wholly unique. 

In the case of Navarra’s work with The Districts, she says their laid back approach was more focused on letting her do what she wanted, rather than giving her strict parameters. This isn’t always the case, but from what I gather the musician/artist relationship is not typically a strained one. Regardless, the first step when working on anything an artist might need – album cover, poster, t-shirt, etc. –  for each artist I talked with is to fully immerse themselves in the musician’s work. From there, the process can take a few different paths. For Everhart, he wants to pinpoint why exactly a band or musician selected him to do the work, what work of his really caught their eye. He also tries to establish a mood they want to capture. This can be as simple as making Pinterest mood boards or having them select a few of their favorite album covers from other bands.

Lotz, on the other hand, digs in deep into a record’s lyrics, trying to find something he can use to create something specific to their vision. If they’re up for it, he even likes to discuss the meaning behind some of the lyrics, rather than just the literal meaning of the words themselves. He shares a story of working with a band on an album cover layout and how his more one-to-one depiction – in this case, a horse in a field of lightning – didn’t work as well as the artist’s intention behind those same lyrics, which were more focused on the idea of risk and gambling. “That changed the whole visual language for everything we did,” says Lotz. “Having those up-front conversations and working with them first hand and seeing their thought process and their ideation and songwriting really helps influence that visual story you can tell.”

This brings into focus one of the main contradictions in the world of artists who work with musicians. These are inherently independent artists, illustrators and designers. Just like the artists they work with, they have their own vision and style, but, at the same time, they are collaborators working to shape their work around the ideas of others. Some musicians, Rose explains, come with very specific imagery and her job consists more of rendering their vision into a reality using, of course, the skills they hired her to use.

While this, in some cases, may stifle some of the more free-flowing ideas an artist may have about what they want to do with a given piece, Gough finds the act of interpretation as an exciting partnership. “I enjoy the collaboration because they are putting something out that is a reflection of their thoughts or ideas or feelings and you’re helping bring that to life,” says Gough. “But they are also asking you to bring your expressive thoughts or feelings to their work and make a new creative work out of it.”

As with any form of collaboration, it seems there is a balance to be met and communication is key for both parties. For people like Navarra it’s all about the connections you make through this collaboration. “Working with other individuals, especially within my city, is so phenomenal,” says Navarra. “It’s just such an inspiring thing to be a part of.”

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