Interview: Emma Smith (Artist/Designer, Emilou Makes)
One thing I set out to do when I created sideonetrackone was feature interviews with people who are involved in the music world, but not primarily as musicians. It might be kind of old school to care about what goes on behind the scenes, but maybe I am kind of old school, and I know I’m not the only one. Last month, I talked with Nick Mann, editor of A Short Fanzine About Rocking, about the world of print zines, something he’s been doing for over ten years now. This month, it’s the turn of Emma Smith, a London-based artist and designer.
Emma has her fingers in a variety of metaphorical pies; everything from teaching to designing chandeliers. It was her work with Apologies, I Have None, however, (also featured last month) that first caught my eye. A working relationship that has spanned from the band’s very first EP right up until this year’s debut LP ‘London’, she’s designed everything from T-Shirts to album covers, and a lot in between including ceramic necklaces, limited edition maps and cut-out mice. Here, she talks about art, music and how to avoid becoming a crazy cat lady…
Can you give a bit of insight into your background and previous experience in the art world? How have you arrived at the point you’re at today?
I went to Falmouth College of Arts and studied Studio Ceramics, although I soon realised I wasn’t a potter, so to speak. I focused pretty heavily on surface decoration and design rather than making, although all the technical skills I learned gave me a really good grounding in the subject. I spent a while designing textiles, created props and costumes for music videos, and quite a lot of time teaching.
Teaching is something I always find myself coming back to. I’ve taught enamelling, glass jewellery making, ceramics, screen printing, drawing skills – basically if I’ve learned it, I’d like to teach you how to do it. I like the interaction, working together, the theraputic aspect of creative skills.
Today, I spend my time combining all of these things. I love the variety of what I do. It’s taken a long time to get it right, but I’ve now got a great work balance. Working for yourself can be a quite lonely existence, so coupled with workshops and collaborations I get the best of both worlds.
What first made you want to pursue a career in art?
I’m not sure I really ever set out to pursue a career in art, it feels like it just sort of happened. When I was at school, I was far more interested in sports. I did a lot of climbing and kayaking at Scouts and the artistic side of me just kind of took a back seat. When it came to choosing A-Level subjects, my mentality had shifted more towards creative work and I was thinking more about what I wanted to do long-term. I’m lucky that my parents have always been very supportive of me doing whatever I wanted to do, but I can’t really say that I ever had a plan. The turning point for me was finding myself in a job after finishing Uni that wasn’t at all creative. I was completely miserable, and that’s when I started taking it more seriously.
Were there any specific artists or pieces of work that sparked an interest?
I remember doing a project at school on Gustav Klimt (I think everyone does at some point?!), and I loved his work. I found the dreamy nature of his pieces completely fascinating and remember being overwhelmed by the intricate detail.
A lot of your work revolves around nature, or specific animals. How did that interest develop, and what are your favourite animals to draw?
I just really, really like animals. I find all animals fascinating. I’m a sucker for wildlife documentaries and I often have them on while I work. The other day, I was watching a TED talk on animal morality and it had me laughing out loud to myself in an incredibly quiet studio. Birds are my favourite subject though, particularly vultures and magpies: the underdogs. I have a magpie tattooed on my foot which I drew a few years ago.
I think my love for animals was definitely inspired by a neighbour from when I was living at home with my parents. He was an incredible illustrator, using mainly ink and pencil. He spent hours teaching me different techniques, but from what I remember we mainly drew birds. I was pretty little at the time, but I’m sure a lot of what he taught me has stuck with me over the years.
Do you have any favourite pieces of music-related art?
I’m a big fan of Heather Gabel (AFI, Alkaline Trio, Against Me!, My Chemical Romance, etc), but although I appreciate the work she has done for bands, I admire her fine art pieces the most. I’m really drawn to the confidence that’s evident in her work and the simplicity and boldness of her pieces. I like her use of mixed media. It’s something I can relate to and something I strive for in my own work.
When you start a new project, do you tend to approach each piece of work differently and try out new ideas, or do you have methods, materials or techniques you find yourself using again and again?
Both. I think it’s about getting the balance right and looking at each brief as opportunity to create something unique. I definitely have preferred materials and techniques – I love pen and ink, I love detailed illustration but I also like to experiment and have experience in other things. It’s about knowing when and where to take those risks. I’m far more likely to try something new if it’s a personal piece of work. I have lots of ideas, but for me, it’s about making it personal to the client. You need the right opportunity to come along to execute those ideas or it just won’t work.
With regard to doing work for bands, do you approach that differently to other projects?
When I do something for a band, it feels more like a collaborative effort than most of the other work I do, so I have to approach it differently. I’m usually dealing with more than one person, so it’s important to get a feel for what the band wants as a whole before looking at the specifics.
Most bands think they know what they want, but the reality is that there are multiple, conflicting opinions within the group and as soon as I’m involved, there’s another opinion in the mix, so I end up spending as much time doing research and preparation as I do the actual artwork. It’s always useful to see examples of artwork or packaging that they like, as well as stuff they don’t like. If anything, it’s the stuff they don’t like that’s way more valuable to me.
Once I’ve formulated a plan, I tend to keep the progression of the work to myself. The artwork is usually about 80% finished before I dare to show anyone, partly because I’m a bit of a control freak, and partly due to the ways I like to put the artwork together. It’s not always easy to visualise where I’m going with something when I work with a multi-layered piece, so to avoid any confusion or panic – “What is this girl doing?”/”What have we done?” – I hold off until I’m most of the way there.
You’ve done a lot of work with Apologies, I Have None. What is it that keeps you coming back to work with them?
I’ve known Dan and Josh since I was thirteen, so we’ve all known each other a long time. Dan is also my boyfriend, so I guess in the very beginning I seemed like an obvious choice when they needed artwork for the first EP, “Two Sticks and Six Strings”, and it grew from there.
I imagine some people must think it’s purely convenience that keeps us working together, but I can assure it’s anything but convenient! We don’t really have very many boundaries so at times it can get heated and it’s very hard to leave work at work, and to not take constructive criticism personally. On the flip side of that, obviously they trust me to create something that represents them and their music well, which gives me a lot of freedom to experiment. I really admire the guys for their hard work and determination to do what they love, and I really appreciate being a part of that process.
The work you did for them on the ‘London’ LP really interests me. I won’t ask too much about it as you give quite a detailed account on your website, but I do have a few questions about it. Firstly, I think it looks great. How do you feel about it looking back? Is there anything you’d have done differently, or any ideas you weren’t quite able to use?
I’d been listening to the record for a good few months before I started to put anything down. Seeing it slowly come together over a few years before that – through demos and from being at so many of their shows – meant I already knew the route we’d take. I was aware it needed to feel darker than anything we’d done before.
The way I feel about the record has definitely influenced how it looks. I still struggle to see it as whole, to be honest. I still see all the elements as references to a specific memory or time. I don’t think I’d do anything differently if I did it again.
It seems like there was a staggering amount of attention to detail that has gone into the finished product. I’m struggling to find a way to word this that isn’t completely loaded, but for me the art on the ‘London’ LP really hammers home just how creative you can be with the packaging on a vinyl release. Do you have any thoughts on that either way?
For me, pushing the artwork as far as it can go is really important. The packaging is an integral part of the whole release. We’d looked through dozens of CD and LP samples and decided the matte finish really complimented what we were trying to achieve.
I had to re-jig the artwork for the CD release as it was a three panel fold rather than a gatefold. Rather than just dragging it all over, I spent a good few hours re-composing it, so that the landscape worked both as a twofold panel when you open the case, and again when you fold it out into it’s full length. As well as that, we used different lyrics for either format. It’s that kind of attention to detail that makes me so satisfied with the end result. It probably took about ten days to pull it all together, including edits and artworking for print.
I’m not sure if there are any excuses for shoddy artwork. There are plenty of people out there who are looking for an opportunity to create something incredible for a band. Things like this do take time and thought, so you do need to be prepared to be patient.
Throughout the work you’ve done with AIHN, there are a few examples of interactive art, specifically the ‘Sat in Vicky Park’ 7″ with the cutout animals and the limited edition map of ‘London’ for the LP. How did those ideas come about?
The idea to make the artwork more interactive grew from my love of making things. If you can make something beautiful that has a purpose, I think it’s worth the effort. I also find that a lot of band merch is quite limited, but while I understand that bands need to be sure that what they are investing in as merch will actually sell, I do like it when bands offer something unique, something pretty or shirts that actually fit people properly.
I was intrigued to read that although you say every piece you’ve done for AIHN has it’s own story and identity, that they do tend to overlap and intertwine. In what way did you mean that?
The very first piece of work I did for the band was a T-shirt design; a tree intertwined with various references to the lyrics from their first EP. We followed that up for ‘Two Sticks and Six Strings’ by illustrating the roots of the tree. That record was darker than it’s predecessor, so the roots spreading underground brought with it some heavier tones and more dense illustration. The moon from this artwork was used again in the ‘Fists’ shirt design that we printed for Fest 8. The foldout mice from the 7″ artwork featured on a very small number of shirts that I hand screened, and we also screened the owl and the magpie for a very small number of shirts too. You can trace certain elements back through most of the pieces I’ve done for the band, although some of those details are just for my own satisfaction.
I notice you talk about Photoshop when the ‘London’ artwork was being put together. Do you use technology like that a lot, or do you generally prefer to use traditional methods?
I absolutely love using traditional methods – I’m a traditional craft geek. I work by hand wherever possible. I like to get messy, and I like the variety I get from the materials and methods. That said, Photoshop does allow you to push the results further. I only really use programmes like that during the latter stages of a project. Photoshop definitely has it’s uses but if I had to choose, I’d go traditional all the way.
What do you think software like Photoshop has done for the wider art community?
I think it means that disciplines overlap more than they used to. Generally I think this is a positive thing. I taught an A Level art class for a year, and although I focused quite heavily on ceramic and illustration techniques with them, Photoshop enabled them to push their ideas further and keep things flowing forward. The impact it had on their work was positive because it allowed them to achieve more professional results.
I’ve read that when you’re doing work for a band, you like to listen to their music in order to get a feel of the direction of your art. What is it that you’re looking for when you do that?
I don’t think I know exactly what I’m looking for. Just something that springs out at me. It might be a particular lyric that forms an image in my mind, like the first few lines of a book that set the scene, or it can also be more of a feeling; how do I feel when I listen to their music? Some records form a narrative from start to finish, so I look for ways that I can recreate that with my artwork.
I try to give the listener a clue as to what they can expect from the music. It might even be particular details that I reference or recreate. Most people sing about things that they are passionate about, so I feel like I need to get what they’re trying to say when I listen to their music.
You’ve worked on everthing from record sleeves to chandeliers – have there been any projects that have stood out to you as being the most enjoyable, challenging or rewarding?
It’s hard to single anything out. Once I get into something, I live and breathe it until it’s done. The work I have done with Apologies is great though because it’s constantly changing and it gives me a lot of freedom to try out new ideas.
I spent a month in Eastern Slovakia last year on a traditional Slovak textiles course, which was such an eye opening experience. I stayed in an old boarding school with seven others and we were taught in Slovak by local women. Despite our limited vocabulary, we learnt crochet, hand sewn lace, bobbin lace, weaving and frivolite. It was massively liberating to be so isolated, and to be so completely focused on learning new skills without the day to day hassles. I’ve never eaten so much fried cheese and battered cauliflower in my life though. I’m itching to use the skills I picked up. I’d love to create some textiles-based album art, prefereably sewn or bobbin lace, but I’m waiting for the right opportunity to come along. If anyone out there wants a particularly crafty album cover… I’m your girl!
Would you have any advice for people looking to start out in the art world?
I spent way too many years thinking I couldn’t make a living doing this and I was so wrong. I realise now that the excuses I made for not doing it were just that – excuses. I thought I’d trained in the wrong subject and really doubted my abilities, probably because I was scared it would all go wrong. In the end I quit my job a week before Christmas with no plan and no income. It was complete madness but it gave me no other option but to make it work. I’m not saying it was easy by any means but it was so worth it.
What would you have been if you hadn’t ended up doing what you do?
A crazy cat lady. I’m almost there.
Finally, what does the rest of 2012 hold for you?
Lots of things. I have a few tattoo commissions and artwork for bands in progress at the moment. Later in the month, I’ll be in Sheffield painting lifesize pheasants over the walls of Silversmiths restaurant, and there will be new Apologies merch to coincide with their next video later in the year. I’m planning a new range of illustrated ceramics based around fairytales (think dark and twisted). So the rest of the year is looking busy for me, but that’s just how I like it.
WEBSITE – www.emiloumakes.co.uk
TWITTER – @emiloumakes
FACEBOOK – http://www.facebook.com/pages/EmilouMakes/115864298487815