A worldwide acclaimed designer, Jonathan Barnbrook created Bowie’s album covers for Heathen, Reality and the latest The Next Day, which has just earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Album Packaging. We sat in his Soho studio for a conversation with him about working with Bowie and the secrets behind The Next Day artwork.
G: The Next Day: how did the whole concept originate?
J: It came from an image he sent me which was used on the “Where are we now” single, which is a picture of him from Radio City in the 70s and he made some comments about the image and he wanted it to be used for it and he started me thinking about pop-stars and how him or anyone else is shackled by his past, no matter what he does, people always compare it to Ziggy Stardust, and what that means to somebody, cause they can’t go forward without this idea, whatever they do this is gonna happen. So the first thing to do was to subvert that image in some way, the cover is upside down. Actually, it was his idea to put it upside down cause I was playing with it, doing stuff with photoshop on top of it, and it just looked like, cause I was sure it was the album image, it seemed like a cheap CD, and he broke and said, why don’t you just try to put it upside down?, and of course you don’t think of something that simple, cause you have to respect the image. So, that’s how it started really, and I thought, “damn, I couldn’t do that!”, but of course, that’s why he’s known as the creative person. So we started thinking about how to subvert his past, ‘cause we’re living in a time where also in music we’re looking back more than ever before. So I said, this is more than just an album, this is an album package, so I started to play with the old album covers, and the single cover which were really badly designed. I don’t think anything like this has ever been done before, they’ve done greatest hits where they’ve used photos before, like Monty Python took an old old classical music cover and scrabble all over it, but nobody’s taken an old album cover and subverted it. So we started working on Aladdin Sane and practically every cover, and Heroes was the one that worked the best, because of the pose he’s in, he’s young and he’s forward looking, and it’s such an iconic album as well, and we knew it would piss people off. Working with him, some people are obsessed by him, and of course if you’re obsessed by something you have an expectation often, and they expected a nice picture of David Bowie basically. So the title on the square is a subversion of that expaction, you expect the pop-star to have a new image and that is an old image plus this injection. So I knew it would upset people and of course it did, but after a bit of time people get used to it. He’s involved in every stage, he’s not just like any artist where the record company is in the way, he has all the direct conversations, it took 2 months to do that cover, you know, it was very simple, for the first one I started removing stuff, just let the concept come through, and when I sent it to him, it was just this idea of putting the white square on different objects, also like subverting persons, and for once we had an idea like that the recording company carried it through and had enough budget to do that. I don’t if you’ve seen them around (shows on computer the campaign photos). Today a new album is actually a non-tangible event, it’s published digitally in the news and the press and it’s not what it used to be. So I had to consider that, but what I didn’t expect quite as much was how it would be used on social media, really.
Q: How is working with him?
J: It’s a bit stressful, you put stress on yourself cause you know he’s David Bowie, but in every other respect of working with someone, he’s one of the better people cause he’s very generous with his praise, and when he doesn’t like something he’s quite clear about why; he’s very aware of his fan base as well, what would they appreciate or not. He’s very involved in the creative process. I don’t think that design could have happened if it wasn’t for him, I don’t even know what could have happened to that design if the record company had known from the beginning cause the day before it was released, I said to him, “I didn’t hear anything, did you get the cover?” and he went, “Yeah, great” (laughs).
G: Was it hard to keep the secrecy?
J: Not everybody in the studio knew about it. Jonathan, the guy who worked on the website knew about it, but nobody else knew about it. I couldn’t talk about it on the phone in here, the website programmers didn’t know about it until few days before. In this age that fact that nobody found out is incredible, ‘cause one person tells one person, you know what happened to JK Rowling with her book. She wrote under her pen name, and the wife of her lawyer told somebody who’s married to a journalist and that’s how secrets get out. I think that even if you didn’t sigh an NDA, you just wanna keep the secret cause so it’s not so often that somebody’s completed signed off for 10 years and then someday you got the chance to suddenly announce he’s back, when not so long before people were worrying about his health.
G: Yeah, I think maybe if Elvis came back it would have been less surprising…
J: (Laughs) we waited to 5 in the morning to release the website, the album it was on the main news section.
G: What’s the concept you had in mind for Heathen, because it’s one of these covers that really strike.
J: I find most of the records covers boring nowadays, there are some good ones, but the edge of the record cover was 70s and 80s really. It’s very difficult to do something which surprises people. With Heathen, I found the image of a vandalised painting and I thought it’s both beautiful and and violent at the same time, it’s a Rembrandt, which I got here (shows me the file on computer). We wanted to use that painting for the cover but the museum wouldn’t let us which is a real shame. The name Heathen is somebody who’s anti-religious, but it’s more about the interpretation of it. It’s this destruction of something beautiful, the duality in the image. Reality I think was less interesting, it was much more directed by him, I didn’t really want to go for the comic, I didn’t think it was that interesting, but he’s the boss, so.
G: How about the latest Grammy nomination? How do you feel about it?
J: It’s different because it’s not just about graphic design, it’s actually mainstream, so it’d mean a lot if people voted for it. I have no idea.
G: Back to The Next Day…
J: As a symbol it worked very well, it had to be an event not just a physical cover (shows the reaction on social networks with fans’ selfies with the white square). The big thing for me was first it has to be pure and it was because being direct with him, and we kept all the crap off (shows the inside of TND CD). They wanted the compact disc logo, and this logo and that logo… no!, this is a moment of stillness that’s what music is about in the end.
G: Looking at the photo inside the CD layout he looks serious but also ironic, don’t you think?
J: That’s your reading of it, it’s very interesting (laughs). He’s at ease with himself, if you know what I mean, he’s got to be in conflict to be creative, but he’s happy with who he is which I think he wasn’t in the past. It’s good for creativity. TND is simplistic, Heathen and Reality were quite complex covers, the work is much more towards that. We did a new cover for The Clockwork Orange book (shows the book), it’s a very brave publisher not to put the full title. It’s the same concept of TND cover.
G: Before working with, did you ever find inspiration in Bowie as a creative artist?
J: I think the period I loved and I still love most is the Berlin stuff like Heroes and Low. I feel like he was honest. Cause he went on a psychological journey to Berlin, he was a troubled person at that time, he was being influenced by a lot of stuff going around, and he looked amazing at that time on the outside, and the film The Man Who Fell To Earth is just brilliant. I designed the Berlin part of the V&A Exhibition. We did the exhibition identity. The Berlin period is a myth. The V&A they tried to do something that wasn’t like the Hard Rock Cafe where you have a guitar and the walls. This has to be an experience and an artistic interpretation as well. I think it’s interesting walking around, you don’t feel disconnected from the exhibition. Of course he’s not there, which is what you’re not supposed to notice. It was quite a lot of trouble before you know, selling it around. People were a bit scared of David Bowie, which is bizarre, you think museums they really want to have it. It’s in Canada at the moment, then in Brazil and Chicago. And it’s gonna go to Berlin and that should be great ‘cause the venue is quite small but it’s close to the studios where the album was recorded.
G: If you could choose your favourite album cover in music history?
J: Well, I wouldn’t say about music, it’s a thing about graphic design first. And the person I was obsessed by when I was younger was a guy called John Fox. I worked with him quite a lot. It’s a connection between the features and the music, how does that relationship work. I still don’t understand it, but something fantastic happens when both are good together. Best albums covers, mmh (thinks about it). I can say, definitely would be one by Vaughn Oliver who did all the 4AD stuff. Especially when I was a student he’s one who said the artist is not gonna be on the front. It was quite radical at that time, you can have something which is about the emotional atmosphere of the music. It sounds quite obvious now but then he mixed images on top in such a unique beautiful way. So, I’d say genuinely his work. The album cover is a physical thing, you know, it’s probably about the process and the concept.
G: Was TND Extra box set your concept?
J: Yes (opens one). You know, the blank booklet, yes, it’s about your relationship with the artist, when you’re obsessed with an artist, the relationship is with yourself not with them. It’s called The Next DayExtra, and the images inside are extruded. It was a lot of work. It was kept quite severe. In the end, I think he actually cares more about the music.