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Work / Graphic Design

Creative director Scott King on the John Grant album artwork he likens to “producing a piece of mini-theatre”

Towards the close of 2017, American singer-songwriter John Grant contacted creative director Scott King to ask whether he’d be interested in doing the artwork for his new album, Love is Magic. “He really liked the Saint Etienne Home Counties sleeve I’d just done, and said he ‘loved’ the Roisin Murphy Overpowered campaign that I did many years ago. He was very complimentary, so I was easily won over,” Scott tells It’s Nice That. “It’s been a very long job, almost a year from the initial discussions to the album release, and we had quite a few false starts, but it was an enjoyable process.”

But those false starts were far from dull: “We had American muscle cars, close-ups of crotches, a Praying Mantis, John as a Praying Mantis and John as Ernest Hemingway, but in blue eye shadow. Almost all of these ideas would have worked, but they weren’t brilliant – they were just good record sleeves and we both felt that we needed something ‘more’ – a BIG idea.” And that “big idea” came to John and Scott on their first in-studio meeting: “I’d only met him in public places before and he was just dressed normally – almost anonymously – but in the studio he was wearing a baseball cap, a faux fur coat, tight denim shorts and these big sort of rigger boots. He explained to me that he liked to try out various costumes in the studio and that sometimes the outfit he wore affected his performance… a bit like ‘method acting’, he saw it as ‘method recording’. This immediately struck me as being a much better sleeve concept than anything else we’d be working on.”

Scott describes how his mind then “raced with a backlog of musical mythology”: “Brian Wilson recording Beach Boys songs in a sandpit to get the correct good vibrations; Martin Hannett forcing Joy Division’s Stephen Morris to record his drums on the studio roof; the madness of Phil Spector, all these insane producers coming up with ‘methods’ to capture the perfect sound.” So they tapped into that mythology: “John was already doing it, we just encouraged him to really embrace this ‘method recording’ approach, which he did wholeheartedly – he even hired a ‘mood advisor’, Kitty Walker.” Once they’d worked out the plan, Scott had “only one photographer in mind”, Jonathan de Villiers. “I knew that he’d completely get the idea, and that he could make it into something theatrical and beautiful," Scott tells It’s Nice That. “We then started to look at performance art and political street theatre from the 1960s and 70s. There are direct reference to people like Charlotte Moorman, the New York cellist who was associated with Fluxus, Yoko Ono, John Cage and worked regularly with Nam June Paik – she made great work with him, things like TV Bra For Living Sculpture,” he elaborates. "We also looked at people like Jeff Nuttall, who wrote Bomb Culture and was involved with all sorts of post-Dadaist street ‘actions’. We saw what John was doing as part of a lineage of a particular kind of performance art.”

Scott and Jonathan had experience collaborating. “We just bicker – he thinks I’m an imbecile and I think he’s a public nuisance. It was great to work with him again – he goes to extraordinary lengths to get things right," says Scott. “Kitty Walker was also essential to the project, she found some amazing props for John to wear – and I don’t think he made it easy for her – texting her in the middle of the night to complain about the density of the polythene sheet he was going to wear.” The polythene sheets were the least of it, with John and Kitty figuring out outfits that would enhance or affect each song he was recording; and Scott planning “genuinely terrifying” compositions: “I had some scribbles, some very clear ideas – like for the paddling pool image, where John is stood in six inches of water with his electric guitar plugged in… I thought it was important that we do this for real, that it was a genuinely terrifying thing to do. He recorded a version of the song ‘Tempest’ while he was stood in the pool, and says it was by far the fastest version of it he’d ever done. We called that image ‘Malicious Reconstitution and Remembering the Accident’ – we came up with the title before he stood in the pool, just in case he died.”

Returning to the “Charlotte Moorman style” polythene – a “mournful image… with motorcycle gloves” – despite the density complaints, this portrait, Scott tells us, was one that John really took control of, including its title Cell Phone Bill Arrives. The portrait with the harp, “was us really not adding too much to what John was already doing,” says Scott. “He’d been recording some harp pieces while lying on his back and playing the instrument with his toes, I think Kitty added the kimono. That one is called ‘Day of The Triffids’, which is another of John’s titles.” The album’s cover, “which is where it started”, was “just an exaggerated version of what John had been doing in the studio”: “Our version is really a tribute to Jeff Nuttall – though John was already recording some songs in his underpants.”

In contrast with the portraiture, the design of the record sleeve is bookish in tone: “The story is really in the images and we wanted it all to be very ‘adult’ – not quite austere, but soberly presented, and Bella Union were a great help, letting us use heavy card and full gloss UV for the images,” Scott explains. Scott approached it as if designing a “well-designed art book, where the images are just presented and the design is in support of them – hence all the space and centring of the images”. The special edition of the vinyl release of Love is Magic has a few extra details. There’s a sort-of “hymn book”, which “contains all the lyrics and is printed on bible paper – this was graphic designer Rhys Atkinson’s idea, who works with me sometimes", and a postcard with a diagram titled The Structures of Interpersonal Alienation, from the book The Structures of Awareness. “It’s by a man called Thomas C Oden. He was an American United Methodist theologian and either a genius or a terrifying lunatic, it’s hard to tell. But I found this diagram and sent it to John; he immediately loved it. I think he saw it as a bit of a self-portrait, I’m only guessing, but that’s the impression I got,” Scott tells It’s Nice That. In the final part of the album’s creative puzzle, Fraser Muggeridge studio got on board to design the logotype: “The whole thing was very much a collaborative effort, bringing lots of people together. It was like producing a mini piece of theatre, really.”

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John Grant, Love is Magic: Art direction and design by Scott King, photography by Jonathan de Villiers, mood consultation by Kitty Walker, logotype design by Fraser Muggeridge studio and additional design by Rhys Atkinson

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John Grant, Love is Magic: Art direction and design by Scott King, photography by Jonathan de Villiers, mood consultation by Kitty Walker, logotype design by Fraser Muggeridge studio and additional design by Rhys Atkinson

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John Grant, Love is Magic: Art direction and design by Scott King, photography by Jonathan de Villiers, mood consultation by Kitty Walker, logotype design by Fraser Muggeridge studio and additional design by Rhys Atkinson

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John Grant, Love is Magic: Art direction and design by Scott King, photography by Jonathan de Villiers, mood consultation by Kitty Walker, logotype design by Fraser Muggeridge studio and additional design by Rhys Atkinson

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John Grant, Love is Magic: Art direction and design by Scott King, photography by Jonathan de Villiers, mood consultation by Kitty Walker, logotype design by Fraser Muggeridge studio and additional design by Rhys Atkinson