Wearing Your Art on Your Sleeve: Interview with Jay Pee
Jay Pee a.k.a Johnny Packham is an artist and illustrator based in Leeds, who bears a distinctive, often grotesque style. I caught up with him to discuss album artwork, the process of working alongside musicians to create covers, and how the success of an album can hang on its aesthetic value.
“Hi, I saw your work and I dig it, will you do me a cover for my next release?” are the words with which Jay Pee tells me most of his working relationships begin. He illustrates for many small, Leeds-based bands and rappers; his most recent being a cover for hardcore band, ‘We, The Defined’. However, most interest in his artwork is generated online, therefore he says that the musicians he works for “can be based almost anywhere”.
Currently though, he is working on a piece for successful underground London Hip Hop label High Focus, whom he offered up his artistic skills to through his passion for “what they’re doing as a label”. The interest was mutual. Now they have been collaborating for almost a year and Jay is working on his third release with them: Fliptrix’s album ‘Polyhymnia’. He says: “I like to make sure I keep good working relationships with my clients because that way you get passed around and normally more things come out of it.” He believes the most well- known artist to have a Jay Pee- created cover is Lunar C, who became famous through the rap battle YouTube show ‘Don’t Flop’.
I ask him to tell me a little about one of his favourite cover creations. He replies: “My favourite? I’m not sure I have a definitive favourite because each one has a story and a life circumstance attached to it. I like to improve on what I have already done so normally the newest thing I’m working on is my favourite piece of work.” Though if pushed to admit a favourite, he says it would have to be his cover for High Focus signed Ramson Badbonez’s “A Year In The Life of Oscar The Slouch”, as it was the first time his art was printed as a 12” record. He comments that “it was a nice feeling to know as I looked at the products that I had made these things become a reality”.
For Jay, the benchmark for any good cover is artist ARYZ’s cover for Aesop Rock’s ‘Skelethon’, which he describes as a “mind-blowing” combination of oil painting, graphic design and hand drawing. Through this, he creates “something that feels whole but is really vibrant and dynamic.” He himself aspires one day to create a hand painted cover alike to it.
Jay’s own illustrative style is highly distinctive; behind it there is a powerfully creative mind that has the ability to draw inspiration from “everywhere”. He believes he will never stop being inspired as “bits of conversation, films, books, nature, people, food and objects” and so on are all creative stimuli to him. The birth of his style really began, he discloses, in his days as a student at Leeds College of Art: “I’ve always loved art, but when I went there I was exposed to so much amazing art that was very new to me at the time. Graffiti and street art were some of them, as well as pop surrealism like Jeff Soto and Charlie Immer. All these disciplines meld together and I think that elements of all three bleed into my work.”
As Jay puts his illustrations into many different forms, such as street art, canvas prints and T-Shirt designs, I ask how these compare to album artwork. He replies: “album art is a very systematic, client-lead way of working and quite often I don’t get a lot of creative control. It’s more about how I make my style work with the musician’s ideas so the two things meet in the middle and create a kind of fusion.” Though he likes this process of working with a musician’s concept, he admits that his own painting and inking, which “is a lot looser and the concept is fully (his) own” is a whole different ball game. Album artwork is much more restricted for the artist, as Jay Pee comments that “album artwork has to say what the whole album is about visually”, meaning that the creation of the piece is meticulous, as every tiny detail must be right. He says: “I like to have album art as a job because it’s fun and imaginative – and I like to take time off from that with painting so I can loosen up a bit and make art that is just pure expression.”
I’m curious about the process of communication with the musician and how this proceeds into the creation of the art work. Jay tells me: “the artwork process normally starts with a brief were the client and I agree on a rough concept and path that the artwork is going to take. This normally includes a mood board of inspiration images and a verbal description from the musician. From there, I would sketch an initial idea out to see how the client feels about it. Once that is agreed on, I’ll take that into the computer and start digitally drawing into that sketch – depending on how much control the client is willing to give me there is a back and forth getting things like colour, composition and visual elements that convey the album correctly. The final stage is putting the artwork into its final form and adding depth, backgrounds or any text and then if it is going to print, putting it on the template for final approval. Depending on the client it can take anywhere from a day to 6 months!”
Impressive and intriguing album artwork has the power to capture the imagination of the music consumer, as it is assumed that the art reflects the sound and philosophy of the musician. I’m fascinated to hear what Jay has to say about the importance that an album cover holds for the image and appeal of a music artist. I find that he places absolute importance upon it: “Image is everything to a lot of people and this is probably the most important thing I have to consider as an artist when I am making album art. I think musicians have to be selective when they decide to have album artwork made, because the artist they choose is representing them visually to the masses.” He adds that “the artwork on a cover is massively important to the success of an album. Often people will decide to make the purchase of an album based on its cover. If it’s no good, they can just download it. I’d say album artwork has the power to make or break physical albums these days where the consumption of digital music is so prevalent.” He does, however, happily acknowledge the renewed popularity of physical album copies such as vinyl as “great news” for artists such as himself.
Finally, I ask if he sees himself making an increasing business out of album art work in the future. He replies: “I’d like to think I have a future in album artwork. It’s a great privilege to be asked to do it by musicians and one day I’d love to be creating artwork for my favourite musicians of all time. I think the more of it I do, the more of a chance I have to keep doing it. So really I just have to keep doing what I’m doing and hoping people dig it.”