Anatomy Of An Album Cover—An Interview With Artist Keith Rankin

By Maria Sokulsky-Dolnycky

When I browse a record store looking for new albums to buy, what are the first things to catch my eye? The albums with the most interesting cover art, no doubt. Since 1938, album covers have been gracing the fronts (and backs) of record sleeves; they are what draw consumers in at first glance, enticing them to pick up a record and be immersed in a work of art both visual and musical. The album cover has gained importance and has become a part of music culture. But not all album covers are created equal; some have made a lasting impact, like The Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, while others have not. Art has the ability to transcend cultural and generational borders and touch the masses. Album artwork can simultaneously be universal as well as very personal, and everyone has their favourite album covers and their own reasons as to why they like them.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Keith Rankin, who does the cover art for artists signed to Orange Milk Records, a Brooklyn-based record label, and I picked his brain to find out his thoughts about album art and its connection to the music inside.

Demo: When/how did you get into art? What is your art background?

Keith Rankin: I got into art at the same time almost everyone does, I think, when they’re just a few years old. Or old enough to make sense of shapes and being inside a physical space, realizing that you can make a mark on a piece of paper or anything else, and being excited by that initial creation. I would say that excitement at creation is a core part of being a human, dating back to the first person who took a stick and made a symbol on the ground and said “this means something.” It’s sad to me when people begrudge their lack of artistic “talent”, or say “I wish I could make something”, because I think “You can!” Everyone has that artistic impulse inside them somewhere, even if it doesn’t comply with current conventions of aesthetic beauty or whatever, if they are curious enough to look inward and explore things, it’s there. So that curiosity fills my background and keeps driving me forward.

D: What is the creative process behind designing album covers? Do you listen to the album and then draw inspiration from the music, or do musicians approach you with their own ideas? How do you connect the musician’s vision to what you create?

KR: I like to listen to the album and try to evoke a similar kind of feeling in the visuals that I get from the sounds. Sometimes artists will have visual requests or a specific style they want to convey, and while I honor those requests, first I have to please myself and make something I find interesting, otherwise it’s pointless and no fun. I look at the process as a collaboration; the musician has made one segment of the art piece, and I’m completing it.

D: How do you think albums and their album covers are tied together? How do you think the art on the front of an album represents the art contained within it?

KR: My favorite cover art usually seems to line up with the audio in a strangely specific way. But then again, a lot of the time the visuals inform and recontextualize the music, and vice versa, so the really important part is that the two mediums are smashed together in the first place to create something new.

D: What, in your opinion, makes a great album cover?

KR: When it’s difficult to separate the audio and the visuals without losing something, then I think you have a successful piece of work.

D: What, in your opinion, are some of the most well-done album covers throughout history, and why do you think they’re so great? What about them has allowed them to withstand the test of time? Why are they effective at representing the music and/or attracting an audience?

KR: There are so many, but I’ll just stick with one example for the sake of time. I love the cover for Glenn Branca’s The Ascension, with what looks like two businessmen in the middle of a fight. I think one of them is supposed to be Branca himself, but I have no idea about the background or the artist who did the piece. All I know is the impression it gives while listening to the music: a kind of fascist, monolithic rigidness mixed with the big power and volume of the guitars. Something almost abstract is captured there, it plays on associations, what we read into just by seeing a person in a suit and tie, our intrinsic awe of power, an inbuilt willingness to believe in status and authority in our society, but then skews all of that by putting the suit and tie in a compromising position. We immediately find it almost unfitting, but that’s the great part, that it exposes the cultural or mental dissonance inside us. I guess that reading could be completely wrong, but the music fits that description too, with the energy of early punk music operating inside the framework of discipline and compositional structure. You could read the whole work as being either totally fascist or totally punk, but it’s not as simple as that, it’s probably both, which if you really think about it is an insane and interesting prospect. I love that the album cover ever begins to suggest that.

This article appeared in Demo‘s January 2014 print issue.



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