An Interview with

Visual Artist Leo Horton


Text by: Utkan Dora Öncül
Published on April 27 2020

In the midst of a global pandemic, the music industry is still active and one of the key tools musicians still connect with their audiences is album artwork. Leo Horton is an artist who designed an hefty amount of album covers for the emerging artists. I engaged in an online conversation with him to discuss his creation process and the value of album covers today.


UDÖ

I am going to start this interview with a cliche: what is your favorite album?

LH

Favorite album is a super difficult question and really changes with the weather, recently I’d have to say that This is How You Smile by Helado Negro is definitely up there and is stacked with amazing songs. I could also make a case for Six Feet Beneath the Moon by King Krule and Crumbling by Mid Air Thief as albums that really do their thing and have stuck with me.

UDÖ

I saw this title in a recent New York Times podcast: "What’s the point of Album Covers in the Post-Album Era?" Why there is still a need for album covers while they became little icons in a phone screen?

LH

I think the changing role of album covers is a really interesting topic, and is definitely something I’ve thought long about in terms of the work I make. I think the fact that it lives on through our devices and streaming platforms in all these various scales is really fascinating, and that even disconnected from physical vinyls or cohesive albums, we still want visual signifiers and icons for our music. It reminds us what we’re listening to, how it feels, what it means and where it's from. Like a cover to a book or a face to an identity, neither are necessary to hold what’s inside but also tell a lot to someone in passing, and becomes synonymous with what it holds.

UDÖ

You work mainly with emerging artists, what do you think about the power of the album art in representing an artist?

LH

Emerging artists are genuinely ideal because working through record labels is a whole different beast, and emerging artists usually are a lot more hands on and willing to contribute directly to the process rather than let some marketing execs handle it.I think that album art is really important in representing any artist, and is really just another dimension to their expression. It definitely is a major part of building an identity or representation of one’s work, but also demonstrates what they find beautiful, what they look at or how they feel to another degree. I also just think it’s valuable to have something eye-catching to them and that really resonates with the artist and their interests or experiences, just to express what they're looking at and find synonymous with their own music.Many small artists don’t get to a point where they are pressing vinyl or CDs in the beginning, should you design with the primary concern of the streaming platform for emerging musicians?
Personally I go about most of my work as if the final product is the thumbnail on someone’s phone. That is just where I personally interact with album covers the most and notice them.
Usually however if they’re planning on getting physical formats done (Vinyl, CD or Cassette) they’ll have a good guess ahead of time and then I can build towards that format wise. I likewise find that the scales an album cover exists at is super valuable - so the fact that on screens or when printed and in physical formats the resolution and size you are seeing it at literally changes while still staying a perfect square - meaning your artwork exists in wildly different forms and impressions.
It is almost unbounded by scale and that gives it a lot of flexibility and potential for wildly different levels of understanding. Hence I make a lot of paneled scenes and play with scales, hidden detail and orientation when I can.

UDÖ

When you get a new project how do you create connections with the music and the artwork. How does your process look like?

LH

I try to change up my process as much as I can between projects, but generally I only accept commissions from artist’s I already listen to and dig a lot. I’ll usually have a sense of how their music feels and looks to me beforehand, and from there it is a matter of understanding what they were thinking, how they feel and what their headspace is. I’ll ask if there were symbols or people or places they were considering when making the work, and from there it is just a matter of listening to it while sketching and trying to build a shared vision between us. I try to let the “style” be guided by the music as well far more than any plan or expectation of what it should look like if that makes sense.

UDÖ

Lets dive deeper to some of your covers. Your work for James Bambu uses a lot of ambitious imagery like cats, plants birds, some photos even. Where did that come from?

LH

I was going through a really strong tropical phase in those days, observing a ton of nature and incorporating that into my work and thoughts, kind of building a lexicon of imagery from the outdoors. I remember James being particularly keen on cats as a symbol, and we stuck with that and kind of constructed a series of covers in this tropical colorful flat-world. Really wanted it to feel lush and have these various places and temperatures to it.

UDÖ

What about the cover for the single “Unlucky” by Lunar Vacation, (which is my favorite of the collection), how did that visual come through?

LH

Lunar Vacations are some of the loveliest people I’ve ever worked with, and I spent a ton of time with this cover as they let me just kind of go wild with it. I asked them to send me a ton of images from their camera rolls, and wanted to build these abstracted shapes and natural forms to piece them together and present them. Originally that piece was far bigger and more intricate, like a field scape of little abstracted shapes and plants and symbols framing pictures, and then we looked through them cropping them into little moments. The current cover we left with is just the bottom-left corner of this much larger piece.

UDÖ

If I ask you to start a project right now, what would be your largest inspirations? ( I myself have a book of Ed Ruscha and Basquiat to reach out when feeling lost for instance.)

LH

This is another tough question and again really depends on whatever the weather is and what I’m up to. At the very moment I’m really big into and influenced by Max Ernst, Gerhardt Richter and Paul Klee who are all painters but wildly different. Also big into the aesthetic of artifacts and like Egyptian painting and old Jewish art. In truth though I try to diversify my inspirations as much as possible, and will try to take as much inspiration out of the shapes of clouds and plants as any particular artist. Likewise will also return to my Are.na channels and flip through there when looking for inspiration, which I would probably be lost without.

UDÖ

Do you make many iterations and let the artist select the one they like, or work to reach that one image that clicks with you?

LH

The artist ultimately should always make the final choice, and oftentimes it isn’t quite the same as mine but it’s definitely a back and forth that comes with the terrain. I try not to make or explore anything that I don’t want to or aren’t feeling, so it’s no big deal when the final choice is a little off from my expectations because usually it’s built out of my intentions in the first place. Of course - sometimes there is disagreement but there is no shame in saying no and stepping out from a commission if it no longer represents you.

UDÖ

I feel like you apply a lot of the visual tropes of traditional printmaking to album artwork. It certainly looks amazing but how do convince the musician on your stylistic choices?

LH

Yes! I definitely love to incorporate aspects of printmaking just because I feel like it runs really closely to the themes of reproducibility and simplicity at play in album covers. Also usually I just tell myself that they wouldn’t be working with me if they didn’t want me to do my thing style wise, so never have to do too much convincing - but plenty of explaining.

UDÖ

How do you reach out in the first place? For anyone who wants to design for the music industry, what would be your tips?

LH

Haha, the first step is just listening to a ton of music, so I spend just about all of my time listening to random music and obscure artists and figuring out how to appreciate and become familiar with different genres. Job wise at the beginning (I started when I was 16, I’m 19 now) it took a lot of reaching out to the artists I admire, but if there is anything I’ve learned it is that if anyone out there understands and appreciates visual artists - it is musical ones. They will always want artwork to represent their tunes, and if it comes from someone who likes and appreciates their music all the better. It is also certainly not the most well paying or stable work you can do, but leads to some great conversations and avenues as well as a really broad influence across many people, through fans and other associated musicians, dancers, videographers and artists.
If you’re looking to get into similar work for musicians, it just takes honesty and a lot of time on social media. Most are friendly and nice and down to chat if you aren’t trying to push anything. Don’t go into it expecting or asking to do work for them, just introduce yourself and let them reach out if or when they need something. I also think it is vital to have a practice outside of just doing album covers or design work for musicians, you have to have sources, visuals, ideas and motifs you can draw from and that they can use to understand and vet you.

UDÖ

What would be your dream artist to design album art and the campaign around the album for?

LH

Dream artist would have to be Kanye, just because I feel like I could do anything and any limitations would disappear.

UDÖ

When are you going to make a music video?

LH

Haha I’ve been asked before - would have to spend a while honing my craft but am definitely down to give it a shot once I learn the basics. Might come alongside the album I’m planning…

UDÖ

What are you going to after this interview?

LH

I’ll sit around some more, maybe hopping on zoom and continuing with quarantine.


 

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