Illustrated Tapes: A fortnightly mixtape series combining art and music
Illustrated Tapes is a new and on-going fortnightly mixtape series that brings together creatives, such as illustrators and designers, to curate their own playlist of tracks and provide the accompanying artwork to go with it.
Both the mix itself and the accompanying artwork are designed to communicate different moods and feelings, be representative of a specific theme, or even tell a story. The brains behind this project is London-based illustrator and designer, Sam Ailey, who we caught up with to find out a little bit more about this exciting new venture.
"The idea had actually been floating around in my head for two or three years in a few different forms. For a while I’d thought about running it as a series of DJ mixes with guest artwork, but that felt quite limiting, and potentially more geared towards certain genres". He explains that when Spotify allowed its users to upload custom artwork for their playlists, this provided him with the initiative to work out the practicalities of the project and get the ball rolling.
"Not every album cover needs to be a visual imagining of a record, but when an artist does manage to capture its essence I think that can be pretty special"
With no one main source of inspiration, Ailey combined several areas of interest both in his personal life and professional life: "As a designer and illustrator I’ve always been into well-designed album artwork; designing a record sleeve is often up there in most designer’s dream jobs. In a way the project allows creatives to get in that headspace and have fun exploring the relationship between music and art and design".
Sharing and discovering music through friends is also something he admits he is a fan of. Upon first moving to London, he spent nearly two years sharing a flat with a couple of music graduates. Showing each other new songs and records they had discovered he admits became a bit of a ritual. But while there are certain sounds and genres that he tends to gravitate towards, he mentions that period in his life opened up a lot of new musical avenues: "Hearing what sounds have significance in other people's’ lives is continually fascinating to me. One major plus of the whole project is that I get to discover lots of great new music and connect with new pals all over the map".
Ailey also spends time interviewing the creative recipients, finding out a bit more about why they chose the music they did, what theme they adopted and a bit of background on the artwork they created. But he also digs deeper to unearth any existing album covers that have given them design inspiration either previously, or during the creative process for this particular project: "There have been plenty of occasions where I’ve explored a record or band because a piece of album artwork switched something on in my mind, even if in the end I didn’t end up sticking with the record itself".
While it's not always wise to judge a book by its cover, or rather judge an album by its cover, it certainly helps that a musician/band can package a record with a well-designed sleeve that can either simply provide a complimentary aesthetic, or offer a visual representation of the music inside. Ailey explains that he was at an Alphonse Mucha exhibition in Copenhagen and one of the rooms focused on the art nouveau influence on album artwork in the 60's and 70's: "There’s also something to be said for a sleeve that visually manages to perfectly capture the sounds on the record within... you can really appreciate the importance of a design aesthetic on a musical movement such as psychedelia while taking in some of these mind-bending records sleeves and gig posters all sat next to each other... not every album cover needs to be a visual imagining of a record, but when an artist does manage to capture its essence I think that can be pretty special".
We’re always looking to shine the spotlight on the creatives in the industry, perhaps more so than the music itself. Ailey admits that some of the most interesting visual work being done in the music industry can be seen when a band or musician treats their work as an ongoing project with its own branding and aesthetic. He explains that a great example of this is Brockhampton: "The work going on behind the scenes by art director HK and photographer Ashlan Grey is so key to the success of the group. Brockhampton, the brand, manages to connect to a generation seamlessly due to its presentation and how the artistic visions of its members are brought to life through a collaborative culture that exists at the core of how the group functions", adding: "Brockhampton took a lot of learnings from their predecessor Odd Future which still exists as a creative brand, even though the group broke up three years ago". This, he believes, was only possible through the work of people like designer Chris Burnett, who was able to take Tyler, The Creator’s original ideas and build on them.
Ailey's passion for the creative aspects of the music industry really came to the fore with the Illustrated Tapes projects, but recognises that there are also some fantastic creatives putting together excellent design-led work elsewhere in the industry, which he explains can help to remind us of the value of bespoke art direction for artists, bands, or platforms and music-based brands: "Studio Moross have been cracking out great projects of this nature for artists such as Disclosure, Banks, and Lion Babe for a while now. Joe Prytherch has also been creating some really great stuff for Boiler Room and NTS recently".
Another prime example of visual work being at the forefront of musical projects is Jamie Hewlett’s work for Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, over the past two decades. He also considers, more recently, Frank Ocean’s Endless, which was released as a ‘visual album’, and his follow-up album Blonde, which was released with a 360-page companion magazine: "These are really compelling approaches that put visual artistry on a level playing field with music and force us to engage in a different way. I really hope we see more artists doing this in the future".
Edition 005 of the Illustrated Tapes series is out today, and prior to its release we probed Ailey for as much information as he was allowed to give at that time: "Edition 005 has a real ‘great outdoors’ vibe, so it’s perfectly timed now that the weather feels like it’s finally turning. It’s inspired by the feeling of being on your own two feet out in the big wide world - the perfect soundtrack to mooching through the woods or rambling through the hills".
This instalment was put together by a friend of his who he crossed paths with through an illustration collective last year: "Side projects and group endeavours really are great and I fully encourage all illustrators and designers to get involved in some extra-curricular collaborative work, especially if you’re a recent grad".