Images by David Black
All good music resembles something. Good music stirs by its mysterious resemblance to the objects & feelings which motivated it.
When artist, poet, playwright and cultural renaissance man Jean Cocteau uttered the above statement in 1918, “music” usually meant the ragtime beats and upbeat lyrics of Irving Berlin or the jazzy stylings of Shelton Brooks. In fact, by the time Jean died in 1963, rock’n’roll was still a baby: Elvis had just conquered mainstream America and the Beatles were barely a blip on the radar. But like all profound truths, his proclamation stands the test of time; great music, like any influential creative expression, evokes and reveals life’s visceral experiences.
Twice yearly, Brooklyn-based illustrator Jess Rotter—under the umbrella of Rotter + Friends—taps into this enigmatic relationship in reverse, creating an object (a graphic t-shirt) motivated by music. Demonstrating a particular affinity for the counter-culture, rock’n’roll movement of the mid-20th century, Jess’s past collections have featured musicians ranging from Captain Beefheart, Jim Ford and Neil Young to Christine McVie and Waylon Wood. This season, she took the symbiotic relationship a step further. Inspired by Lee Hazlewood, Jess collaborated with Light in the Attic Records to release a vinyl, Lee Hazlewood: The LHI Years, in tandem with her Spring 2012 tops featuring the singer-songwriter-producer.
Though best known for his work with Nancy Sinatra on “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” Lee was an acclaimed solo artist and influential record label owner, who latter-day artists like Beck and Sonic Youth looked to for guidance. Stylistically, his era-specific handlebar mustache served as an omnipresent signature. This summer, Jess and Light in the Attic also pay homage to an anthology of Lee’s colleagues, or what Jess calls “a compilation of country boot-cut heroes from 1969-1975,” with a corresponding tee and record. To mark the debut of the Lee Hazlewood project, Jess took a moment to elaborate on her method and muses.
Erin Dixon: Tell us about the path the led you to illustration.
Jess Rotter: Well, I went to college in Syracuse for painting and began my illustration career when I was living in London studying abroad—a long long time ago…ha. It was there I started scribbling for a British line called Birdie and when I moved back to New York City and couldn’t afford a studio for my massive canvases and oil paints, I started to work in “apartment friendly” mediums and garnered work for magazines, brands, stores and band merchandise.
Erin: How did Rotter + Friends come to be and who makes up the “friends” portion?
Jess: Rotter + Friends started in 2007, when I wanted to create a rock t-shirt line that didn’t depict the usual suspects we see over and over again from the 1960s and ’70s. I love Janis Joplin and The Doors, but there are so many other amazing musicians or treasures from the age of denim and flowers. That period of music is an obvious inspiration to my work and I wanted the drawings to act also as a warm discovery forum. If we can turn a person on to the power of Link Wray or Badfinger, that makes us truly beam. Records are our “friends,” right?
Erin: How do you select the artists featured on your tees?
Jess: I have a target list of so many bands I want to pay homage to that is ever changing, like a mood board. Lately our collaborations with Light In The Attic Records have been super rewarding, as the designs are approved directly by the artists’ families (since most of the musicians have passed away by now), and there is a vinyl re-issue as a companion to the piece put out from their label. My best friend Zach Cowie (DJ Turquoise Wisdom) is a major influence on the line, as he has turned me on to a lot of the bands we raise a pencil to through the years.
Erin: Tell us a little about your creative process when it comes to illustrating musicians and capturing music with pictures?
Jess: Well, I go through a really heavy research zone, looking through pictures, reading about the band, talking with friends. I usually spend a week or so not listening to anything else but that band or artist’s records at home with a big bottle of wine and my cell phone turned off. Well, I try to keep the cell phone off at least.
Erin: What is inspiring about Lee Hazlewood in particular?
Jess: Lee Hazlewood, the hunk with the booming baritone… Lee’s songwriting was really beneficial to the culture of the 1960s. What would we do without the song “These Boots Were Made For Walking” or “Summer Wine”? His work is legendary for bridging playboy rebellion, beauty and country class. I love the visual aspect of him as a legend. He wrote and performed memorable lasting jams with an iconic moustache, cigarette permanently hangin’ out of his mouth, two babes on each arm…brilliant. Do check out “My Autumns Done Come” one of my favorite Hazlewood songs…
Erin: Beyond Lee, who will you be listening to this summer and what will you be wearing?
Jess: This summer Light In The Attic is releasing Country Funk, a compilation of classic boot-cut jams from 1969-75. I illustrated the entire project, which includes a 20-page booklet and features tracks by Jim Ford, Bobbie Gentry and Tony Joe White. It’s a project near and dear to the heart. I will be also be listening to “Wild Life” by Wings on repeat, as per usual….