Public Library On Constructing the Visual Landscape for Local Natives' Album "Violet Street"
Nada Alic / WNW Member
LA band Local Natives’ latest album Violet Street is markedly different from the band’s decade-spanning body of work. For starters, they spent eight months inside Grammy-award winning producer Shawn Everett’s (Kacey Musgraves, Alabama Shakes, The War on Drugs) warehouse studio in downtown LA—an otherworldly lair bathed in red light and found objects constructed by Everett himself. Known as something of a genius in the industry for his unconventional methods of experimentation during the recording process, Everett had the band running and screaming around a microphone and smashing glass bottles into trash cans to create the beautiful, psychedelic choir heard on the album’s first track: “Vogue.”
The music itself reflected this kind of eerie duality: between the apocalyptic threat of the outside world and the artists’ instinct to metabolize it into something beautiful. In songs like “Megaton Mile,” a party song about the end of the world, and “Garden of Elysian,” a mournful shedding of youth, there exists both dark and light. The band themselves grew up, finding themselves in a vastly different musical climate than when they started; there was a desire to shake things up and see what happens.
As the album’s sonic landscape took shape, the visual component was percolating in the minds of the band. Just as the album itself feels immersive and visceral, the band wanted every touchpoint to communicate the theme, from album artwork and merch to stage design and music videos. The desire for a fully holistic listening experience nearly feels like a throwback in an era of impersonal streaming, but that was the point. They wanted to invoke classic 1970s albums with their analog feel without coming off as too retro. In order to do this, they sought out the expertise of Public Library, a design agency started by Ramon Coronado and Marshall Rake, who’ve worked with the likes of Drake, Mac Miller, Vampire Weekend, and Nike. They liked the idea of working closely with creative collaborators instead of a giant machine. After meeting with Marshall and Ramon, the band felt confident that Public Library was as passionate and invested in the vision of the album as they were.
To begin, they pulled 1970s film, photography, and jazz and rock concert posters from that era for mood boards and from there developed a decidedly bright color palette to contrast the darker thematic tones of the album. Their union felt fated, as Public Library’s office was located near Everett’s studio, making the creative process seamless. It was the first time the band worked with an agency and the experience (as compared with other aspects of the music industry) was surprisingly efficient. Marshall and Ramon would offer several different directions and the band would whittle it down from there. Eventually it culminated into the final product, the band’s fourth and most ambitious record to date: Violet Street. I talked to Public Library about what it was like constructing the Violet Street universe, below.
Tell us about Public Library. How you came together, your design backgrounds, and how you developed the aesthetic and approach of Public Library?
We founded Public-Library in 2011 after spending time on both coasts with different agencies, studios, and brands large and small. Our work is centered around typography, simplicity, and trying to produce outcomes that are as unique as our clients.
What does the process look like when working with artists like Local Natives? In what ways is it different from working with brands?
We've been lucky to work with some of our favorite artists. From Drake and Mac Miller to Vampire Weekend and Local Natives. When we are working with an artist we essentially lock ourselves in the studio, listen to the music on repeat, and make as much stuff as possible. There is so much heart, pain, and joy that the artists go through to create these records; we owe it to them to deliver a pure expression that holds up to what they have spent years agonizing over. Being able to translate what they hear in their heads to what they see on the cover is such an incredible undertaking, and results in a lot of our favorite work.
Can you give us a rundown of the deliverables you were responsible for? It seems like you had your hand in nearly every visual aspect of the album roll-out from the album artwork, set design, graphics, signage, and the billboard truck.
For us, the more we can be involved, the more everything can be connected, the better. Every piece, big and small, adds to the experience of the album. Some people may only interact with the art as a thumbnail on Spotify, while others might buy the deluxe album, merch bundles, watch all the videos, and see the live show; of course, most people fall somewhere in between. We created all the album art (two vinyl versions, a cd version), merch bundles, photography art direction, music video treatment development, motion graphic system and social posts, single art, animated single art, out of home, banner ads, tour admat, tour and promotional posters, Instagram stickers, two Los Angeles launch events, graphics for stage show, and basically anything else we could get our hands on!
Did they give you any direction initially or did they just send you the album and say: run with it!
We had some initial discussions about visuals, but what's most important for us is hearing the album, and hearing the story behind the album. The mood, emotions, and themes that went into writing the album are one and the same for creating the aesthetics around it. In some kind of Los Angeles serendipity, their recording studio for the album was two blocks down from us so we were able to meet frequently and talk with them before and after sessions and really capture the energy of the moment as they were going through the recording process.
What was the evolution of the visuals in terms of iterations? Did you nail it on the first try or was it more of a process of understanding the vision they were going for?
We actually got to the overall world pretty quickly in the process, which allowed us to spend a lot of time developing secondary and tertiary systems. Honing in on color palette and messaging details. Certain pieces definitely had more rounds than others. The concept for the cover was figured out pretty quick, but getting the details perfect, the information we wanted, locking the layout, took a lot of finessing.
How did you come up with the look and feel of the artwork and branding for Violet Street? What were the influences that informed the color scheme, fonts and other visuals?
In our first meeting with the band, our conversation kept coming back to them being this Los Angeles band, five guys playing instruments, and how that has become a rarity in 2019. Local Natives' are also so complex musically, with their iconic harmonies, and just unreal musicianship. We wanted to come up with something that spoke to the layering in their music, but also something that felt like classic LA rock and roll. You can really see that in the cover imagery, color palette, and non-precious use of Helvetica. We wanted to be able to be loud when they wanted to yell, and fall into silence when they wanted to reflect.
Did you come up with the idea for the zine and poster? It feels like a throwback to include those elements as a companion to the vinyl.
When we started working on the packaging, we asked the guys what they most valued when they bought new records, and those were the two that really stood out for everyone. It's such a great opportunity to bring their fans closer to the process, allow a more tangible connection and relationship with the music, and let this album live on their wall or on their coffee table. There really isn't any other feeling like dropping the needle on a new record and flipping through the booklet while you are hearing all these songs for the first time. We wanted to make something that captured the energy of that experience.
How do you strike the balance between serving clients while also staying within the visual universe of Public Library?
For us, the most important thing is to be conceptually aligned. The best way to a successful outcome is by beginning a project from a place of shared design understanding.
Nada Alic is a Los Angeles-based editor, writer and content strategist with 9 years of professional experience. Currently, she's working on a collection of fiction. Previously, Nada was the Editorial Director for e-comm arts platform Society6. Before that, she was agency-side, managing editorial for Gap Inc. properties. She also built Etsy's first Canadian HQ, and has had work featured in VICE, Nasty Gal, Ephemera Mag, Time Out LA, Cool Hunting, and People of Print.