As an artist, when you are told your work has been a visual inspiration for the creation of songs as poetically poignant as the tracks contained on an album like, ‘On The Train Ride Home,’ you really only have two choices: You can graciously say thank you and go about your day, or you can immerse yourself, sinew and soul, into unfamiliar, but tempting territory. Last October, I received a very humble email from a very extraordinary artist. It simply said, ‘My name’s Sam and I play in the Australian band, PaperKites. I wanted to find out if you’d be interested in collaborating on some album art.’
My artistic journey with The Paper Kites began with this modest exchange, wherein I was delighted to discover Sam and I shared a mutual affinity for everything from the Finn Brothers and Johnny Marr, to rain reflected on windowpanes, to that most magical of interpretations – the feeling of being alone in a crowd. Coincidentally, several years ago, I had written a short story involving the characters in some of my paintings, eerily reminiscent of the themes Sam told me were running through his head when he penned the songs on this album. Irony aside, once I had listened to the acoustic rough cuts he sent me, I knew there was no way I would be graciously refusing to work with The Paper Kites. Moreover, after listening to, ‘On The Train Ride Home’ and ‘Standing In The Rain,’ I figured Sam at least owned me a box of Kleenex!
The Paper Kites are Sam Bentley, Christina Lacy, Dave Powys, Josh Bentley and Sam Rasmussen. Formed in Melbourne, Australia in 2010, but having played and recorded together since high school, the group self-released a nascent EP, Bloom, and what began as a word-of-mouth following was swiftly spiraling into massive media attention, and showing no signs of slowing down. The band released two further EP’s, Woodland (2011) and Young North (2012), and their first studio album, States, in 2013, produced by Wayne Connelly.
In 2015, the band’s last LP, Twelvefour, produced by Seattle-based Phil Ek, (Fleet Foxes, Modest Mouse, The Shins, The Black Angels, Mudhoney, et al.) was released to further critical acclaim, launching this talented group of former classmates onto the worldwide stage.
Now signed to Wonderlick Entertainment/SonyMusic, and in the capable hands of Stuart MacQueen and Gregg Donovan, The Paper Kites are touring to sold-out venues across the globe, with millions of fans eagerly anticipating this, their third LP, produced by Sam and Tom Iansek (Big Scary).
Respective commitments and the holidays presented a few obstacles, but working from a distance, Sam and I reached the conclusion that the cover artwork would explore the inner/outer world themes expressed in the heart-wrenching lyrics of the eight songs that comprise this album. As I create to music and Sam uses art, we were confident the collaboration would be a success.
Admittedly, I am not the best team player. Plagued by the provocative proclivities and interpersonal dramas that sometimes subconsciously surface on my canvases, there were a few near misses, as the cover sketches went through several transformations.
Still, Sam held fast to the guileless simplicity of a man on a train. So, attempting to tap into this less is more approach, I put aside the sketches and scratched out the following notes within the lyrics I requested he email me, which incidentally he apologised could not be handwritten!
On the left of the album, a train is in motion, just slightly blurred. It’s night; it’s misty. Rain on a river, falling in the mist. Don’t take shelter, stand in the rain. It’s meant to feel that way.
There is a man on the train looking pensive. (in profile, moody). I was praying on the train ride home. Hiding til you’re numb and you’re grey. There will be a couple windows – just enough bits to identify it as a train.
In the middle, the asphalt is slick with rain. Rising like a flooded street. We break like concrete – There are random colours reflected on parts of the street. Shadows from the street light shades. I’m thinking shades of green made up of water, and red reflected from a train crossing light made up of fire too.
To the right you see the building, additional neon at the top of the building- a cool sign, but not enough to read the whole sign, just subtle and reflecting off the glass of the window where you see a girl in silhouette? Still stay up late and don’t get much sleep. Dream-like. Neither character will be looking at one another. …Dreamland…. He is thinking and she will be a figure out the window. You can hear a further distance in the quiet.
‘On The Train Ride Home’ is full of longing. To me it represents reaching for something and the distance in between – The man on the train – the girl from the window – They aren’t connected, but he wants to be.
The rain is in the way.
Creating in a collaborative sense with musicians very much depends upon one’s ability to translate words into pictures; but it’s always a mistake to overlook subtleties or exaggerate simplicities. I think of this fine counterbalance as perhaps a Buddhist would embrace ‘the middle way.’ In this regard, a collaboration is always a collective endeavour; and with that in mind, our train man underwent a few facial, hair style and wardrobe alterations.
After some final feedback from the band, it was on to the magical part of creating the cover.
Once finished, I turned things over to my photographer and brilliant American-Noir web designer, Robert, who took my painting in its raw form, scanning and sizing it for vinyl, fine-tuning colour saturation, hue, smoothing glare and attending to all things technical; and then it was on to the delivery of what would hopefully be a well-received cover design. Thankfully it was, with the only edit coming in the form of permission for the label graphics team to enhance the violet colours.
For me, this journey had already come full circle at the point I realised what Sam knew all along.
Beautiful, simple, heartfelt and humble…nothing more than that.
Currently, I am balancing other projects and completing a commission, but the headphones are definitely back on; and what will become, ‘On The Corner Where You Live,’ is on the easel. Meanwhile, this gifted Australian band is presently in the States recording this followup LP, with Grammy Award-winning producer, Peter Katis, (Interpol, The National).
Of course, there will be a few surprises I won’t reveal, because, while collaborations are meant to be shared, noir is always better left to the imagination.