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Music to Their Eyes: Toronto’s Broken Visual Scene

How some artists are keeping innovative album art alive and well in the MP3 age

By Divine Right - Confusion For every audiophile who mourns the death of vinyl, there’s an art lover who looks back longingly on the days when album covers were large, creative and iconic. Glitzy photography and lurid, digitally processed images are now used to browbeat the MTV generation into buying CDs, but a new generation of musicians and artists is looking forward by harking back. They’re aiming to rekindle people’s love of music shopping by the archaic methods of painting and drawing covers, and their efforts are striking a chord with fans.

"One way to counter downloading and the culture of MP3-ness," says Toronto painter and designer Tyler Clark Burke, "is to make a cohesive art project, so people spend the money on the packaging as well." Burke co-founded the Three Gut record label in 2000; focusing on Toronto and Guelph-based acts, it became known as much for its do- it-yourself aesthetic and Burke’s artistic sensibility as for its music. From the outset, Burke’s stark, but colourful and oddly playful album covers for musicians such as Jim Guthrie and Royal City invited the prospective buyer to discover something in the artwork, and hence in the songs. This strategy was to have an important influence on the city’s indie music scene. Labels such as Arts & Crafts, Six Shooter, Aporia and Paper Bag all picked up on Three Gut’s celebration of the intersection between Toronto’s music and visual arts communities, using local artists to present interpretive, rather than representative, covers for their discs.

Interpretive artwork, for Burke, has much to offer: "It speaks to the spirit of allegory, where it’s OK to have an illustration that might represent different parts of your music. If you have a photograph of yourself on the cover, particularly as an indie artist, it seems superficial … Major labels are like, ‘Well, we need to market you. It’s not your music; it’s not your art — you are the product.’"

The idea of painting a faceless person on an album cover would be anathema to most marketers, but 24-year-old Toronto-based artist Martin Wittfooth has drawn praise for just that. His artwork for Discovering the Waterfront, the second album by the Burlington/Oakville emo band Silverstein, is a series of moody paintings depicting a loose narrative about a young man escaping a decaying landscape and heading out to sea. Many of Silverstein’s lyrics, Wittfooth explains, "come down to a singular level where people feel betrayed. That’s why, in the imagery, it’s just one guy versus the entire world. The idea is to make it so that anyone seeing the artwork or listening to the music can relate, because if you put a face on the guy, it becomes more impersonal. You can relate better if you plug yourself in there."

Often, making album artwork can serve as a bridge between artistic interests and commercial necessity. Wittfooth, for instance, supports himself largely by painting images on snowboards, some of which feature combative fantasy images that are much at odds with the more impressionistic and surreal work he exhibits in galleries. James Mejia, whose stately, disquieting and often anatomically influenced art adorns covers and posters by such acts as Greg Keelor and Glen Milchem of Blue Rodeo, Toronto indie-rock legends By Divine Right, and highly-touted electro-rock upstarts Holy Fcuk, makes money working on art projects for commercial film; recently, he drew comic-book artwork that Hilary Duff’s character supposedly created for last year’s The Perfect Man.

While he admits it’s "really cool" to see his art used in a Hollywood film, Mejia finds he has more creative control working with musicians, who consider his work important to their success. "It gives that idea that it’s more music and art rather than just making videos and getting them on MuchMusic," he says. Artists and musicians "recognize the importance of each other — music as an art form rather than just a reason to go out, drink and turn your radio up."

Sometimes, musicians make their own art — Broken Social Scene drummer Justin Peroff, for instance, has created collages and paintings for his band; to him, painting and drawing can be another outlet for restless musicians. The Scene’s latest album, which is self-titled, comes with a booklet featuring 16 drawings by Peroff, singer/guitarist Kevin Drew and artist Chris Mills. Many of these images, including the cover, with its jagged skyscrapers against a fiery sky, have an emotional quality which Peroff feels is reflected in the music. They were drawn while the band was on tour, which he describes as "life boot camp, especially when there’s 12 of us in a submarine on wheels on the highway."

Disputes over the artwork mirrored disputes over the music during the album’s difficult gestation; Peroff recalls arguing with Drew over things as seemingly minor as the difference between colouring the text on the CD red or maroon. All aspects of the band’s aesthetic, the drummer explains, must survive a difficult birth in order to emerge as something unique: "A series of mistakes becomes something that ultimately you feel is really beautiful and something you believe in."

Broken Social Scene, with its endlessly revolving cast of characters, is often seen as emblematic of Toronto’s vibrant musical community, which for Peroff involves artists as well. "Indie rock and good contemporary art are definitely holding hands," he explains.

Transplanted Kingston painter Stewart Jones echoes Peroff’s sentiments: "Now more than ever, you’re finding the visual arts and music really tight. I know artists who are just saying, ‘Put one of my paintings on the front [cover of your album]. I’ll do it for free.’ You can’t fail with it. Your art’s getting mass exposure."

For all the artists’ distrust of corporate marketing strategies, Jones has managed to get a drawing of his on a major-label album: Sarah Harmer’s latest record, I’m a Mountain, released by Universal last year. It’s a stripped-down, folksy record, and its homemade feel is echoed by Jones’s artwork.

"With all that’s going on in this world," he says, "digital TV, computers, and video games, I think people really want that aesthetic of looking at a painting. I go to people’s homes, and they have actual oil paintings. I’m like, ‘No way!’ There was a time when I never saw oil paintings. I think there’s something about that acoustic guitar, or that drum kit, which is the same as painting. You’re banging on it; you’re touching it; you’re dripping it."

Jones is positively evangelical about the prospects for Toronto’s artistic community; he sees a young generation of artists ready to break out in the same way the city’s music scene has become celebrated far beyond its limits.

"Toronto’s always been very conservative," he muses. "That’s gone now. Art is hitting the streets, the cafes, the restaurants; it’s not about going to Yorkville and sipping your wine and talking bullshit about some drippy canvas. I think people these days are buying art because they like it rather than because they think it’ll get them money some day, or because somebody’s name’s on it that’s famous."

Having left the now-defunct Three Gut in 2003, Burke intends to apply the lessons she learned to the art world. She believes it would be "far more beneficial" for the art world to adopt the structure of record labels: "If I sold a painting now for $10, and in two years someone sold it for $30, I would never see any of the money that it had appreciated in that time."

To this end, she’s helping to form a small artist’s collective — think Broken Visual Scene — based on "trying to create a system of royalties and getting paid fairly, even though in the music world, that model is no longer working because everyone’s downloading everything. It is a functional model for the art world; it’s just nobody follows it."

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Jan. 19, 2006

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