Living the Dream: From a Career Bucket List to Reality
In the world of careers, it's a rare and exhilarating moment when you can proudly declare that you've not only pursued your passion but also lived your dream. Approximately a decade ago, during the early stages of my design career, I compiled a bucket list of dream jobs and coveted companies I aspired to work with. Among these aspirations lay a particularly farfetched dream: the desire to create an album cover for my all-time favourite artist, Jacob Banks. Fast forward to the early months of 2022, and I found myself standing on the cusp of a dream come true.
Discovering the Artistry of Album Covers
While my childhood memories were filled with hours spent scouring record stores with my father, the format was evolving from vinyl records and cassettes to CDs. Nevertheless, the allure of album covers remained unchanged. It wasn't just about the music; it was about the artistry, the storytelling, and the mood these covers conveyed. I found myself captivated by the beautifully crafted album covers, even if I knew nothing about the content of the music within.
At home, our shelves were a testament to my family's love for music. My parents possessed an extensive collection of CDs, many of which were adorned with remarkable album covers. My father, also a designer, had a discerning eye for exceptional cover art. Albums like The Police's "Message in a Box" and Björk's entire discography left a lasting impression on me. I was surrounded by a wealth of examples showcasing the artistry of album design.
A Journey Rooted in Design and Music
My initial introduction to the world of design was creating a concept album cover for a concept album for Kanye West, for my GCSE graphic design project (a subject in school I would fail miserably in, despite making a career out of it— but this is something I’ll discuss in another post). As I reflect upon those formative years in design, I find myself transported back to the late naughties — the backdrop was the birth of the UK grime scene, and in South London, it seemed like everyone harboured dreams of becoming a Grime MC. However, my talents and aspirations steered clear of the mic, finding their home behind a computer, where I began to craft artwork for singles, mixtapes, and albums.
MySpace was beginning to gain traction, and alongside it, the demand for social assets to complement physical music releases, a prelude to the streaming era. This evolving landscape presented a unique opportunity for designers like me to weave their creative magic.
Delving Deeper into Design History
As my design career evolved, I began to explore the rich history of record sleeve design, including the iconic artists, designers, and agencies. From Peter Saville, Peter Blake, Paula Scher, Why Not Associates, Julian Opie, and Keith Haring, I immersed myself in the works of these creative visionaries. Among these influential figures, one name shone brightly: Jamie Reid. This visionary designer etched his mark in history by creating the iconic cover for the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen." Reid not only left an indelible imprint on the visual aesthetics of punk but also held a special connection to Croydon, his hometown.
A Passion Transformed into Academic Pursuit
My love for music artwork extended beyond mere appreciation—it became the subject of my university dissertation. Titled "Is Album Artwork Still Relevant in the Digital Era?" my research delved into the evolving role of album covers in the age where we were transitioning into the digital era.
As I delved into this captivating subject, I unearthed compelling insights that shed light on the evolving nature of music consumption and the enduring power of visual storytelling. It was a journey that bridged the analog past with the digital future, where pixels and melodies converged in a harmonious dance, painting a vivid picture of the music world's transformation.
Exploring this intersection of technology and creativity was not merely an academic exercise; it was a testament to the resilience and adaptability of art forms in the face of change. Through my dissertation, I was able to grasp the profound impact of design in shaping the way we experience and connect with music—a realisation that would continue to influence my career as a designer
Designing for Emerging Artists
Throughout my freelance career, I had the opportunity to create album covers for emerging musicians. However, my ambitions and dreams reached far beyond that. What I truly aspired to achieve was the opportunity to craft artwork for one of my most cherished artists—a dream that had taken root years ago.
The Love for R&B and Soul Music
As my taste in music developed, I found myself drawn to the soulful sounds of R&B and soul music. For me, great music was defined by its ability to resonate emotionally and evoke profound feelings. Again, referencing back to the emergence of the UK grime scene in London during the mid 2000s left an indelible mark on my musical journey. Grime defied conventional genre boundaries; it was characterised by its raw energy and authentic expression.
In my formative years, my parents often played music by artists like Marvin Gaye, Sade, Erykah Badu, and later, Amy Winehouse. These soulful melodies became an integral part of my musical DNA. Kanye West, in particular, stood out as an artist who masterfully incorporated soul samples into his music, drawing inspiration from legends like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. His early works resonated deeply with me, infusing soulfulness into his compositions. I remember his first UK tour in 2005, at the Hammersmith Apollo, Kanye dedicated a section of his set, to just playing iconic soul records. He had made these old records my parents listened to cool. And I fell in love.
Fast forward to the early 2010's, I would be in search for new-era soul musicians. Plan-B, who had come from a grime/rap background released an entire soul album (being one of my favourite records of all time) and I would discover the likes of Leon Bridges, Michael Kiwanuka and Maverick Sabre. But one artist really stood out for me.
The Allure of Jacob Banks
Jacob Banks a Nigerian born, UK Soul and R&B singer would release his first major project — “The Monologue”. I fell in love with his sound and his voice instantly. The tones of his voice were the definition of soul. There was pain and depth to his voice. The subject matter was relevant. And he would write these records that had a blend of traditional soul, and contemporary R&B, Jacob's songwriting skilfully combined traditional soul with contemporary R&B, delivering lyrics that spoke the language of my generation.
I became an huge fan, attending his concerts at venues ranging from the illustrious Royal Albert Hall to smaller intimate gigs, such as a show in Shoreditch I would share with my mother.
A Visual Feast: Jacob Banks' Album Covers
Jacob Banks didn't just excel in music; he was a visual artist as well. His album covers were beautifully crafted, often featuring beautiful paintings complemented by thoughtful typography. Even his tour merchandise was brilliantly executed. Jacob's music videos, cinematic masterpieces that defied clichés. Every aspect of his artistic expression resonated with me.
A Unique Opportunity
As the pandemic began to recede, and social interactions gradually returned to normalcy, fate intervened in the most extraordinary way. A close friend of mine, the well-known stand-up comedian Kae Kurd, invited me to join his group of friends for 5-a-side football in Shoreditch. I knew that Kae and Jacob Banks were friends, and I was aware of Jacob's involvement in their football group. This was an opportunity I couldn't afford to miss—after all, it's not every day that one gets to meet their favourite artist, let alone play football with them.
I'm not ashamed to say I was a nervous wreck. I tried to play it cool and not say anything, but Kae, being a comedian (and a big wind-up) made it be known to Jacob. I'd then have the pleasure of playing football on a regular basis, which would lead to regular online gaming with Jacob, and build a friendship with the man I had gone to see in concert and constantly listen to his music for over a decade.
Question Marque: A New Beginning
In mid-2021, I established Question Marque, however, this new venture was marked by a profound personal loss—my father's sudden passing at the end of 2021. As 2022 dawned, I gradually began to regain my footing after an extended time off away from the business. Work started to flow in, exposing me to working with renowned entities like Google and working with an array of international clients.
A Dream Come True
One day, I would get a text from Jacob. 'Random. You do graphic design right?' My heart stopped. I couldn't believe it. Jacob had recently released a single. Trying not to lose composure, I replied— in which he followed 'do you think you can design a vinyl album and CD sleeve?'. This was it. A moment I literally dreamed of for years. My career going full circle. This was life-changing for me. I couldn't contain myself. I told everyone I knew that listened to his music. It was incredible.
He'd later introduce me to his manager, Jordan (great guy) and work got started almost immediately. I put together a presentation, with various options and directions. And explored how the album could extend into single covers, merch and live tour assets. I would present the work, in a small Costa before playing football the following Sunday. As I do, I presented the story of my workings and shared the various concepts, leaving my favourite until last. 'That's the one', he would say. 'This is the one we're going with'. I would re-present the work with his management and team and would further develop the cover and inner art.
The Trust of an Idol
They often say, "Don't work with your idols," but my experience has proved otherwise. Jacob's unwavering belief and trust in me have been unparalleled. As a proactive worker with a penchant for innovative thinking, I shared my ideas with Jacob, and he embraced them wholeheartedly. This partnership led to a broader collaboration, including the redesign of Jacob's website and the development of an extended campaign identity for his upcoming tour.
A Journey of Gratitude and Sorrow
The honour of working on Jacob's album and the trust he placed in me to contribute my ideas and experience are gifts I will forever treasure. It has been a privilege beyond measure, a transformative experience that has left an indelible mark on my career.