Sound Design // Jimmy Turrell Interview

Posted by Paul Weedon on 30.11.17

Jimmy Turrell has produced work for a wide variety of clients, including the likes of Adidas, The V&A and The New York Times to name just a few. He has also worked extensively in the music industry, most recently directing lyric videos for Beck’s singles Wow” and Dear Life” as well as designing the artwork and packaging for his album Colors”.

As a graphic artist and video director, his work combines an eclectic mix of creative mediums, including handmade collage, drawing, painting, and screenprinting, which come together to form an aesthetic that is both striking and wholly unique.

As Jimmy prepares to join us for Sound Design, an evening event by the West of England Design Forum which looks to explore the unique creative relationship between music and graphic design, Paul Weedon caught up with him to discuss his creative output and inspiration.

Tell me a little bit about what you do.

Primarily, I’m a graphic artist and a video director. I’ve always been obsessed with analog techniques and once I realised I could make them move, I was hooked.

So how did you initially come to work in design?

It’s quite strange actually. I studied Graphic Design at both degree and masters levels but I’m pretty lost when it comes to precise typographic grids, kerning fonts etc. My first job in design was as an illustrator for a magazine called Seven – it was the weekly version of Mixmag.

I was pretty much given free rein to do what I wanted there, so I did everything from collage, hand painting and typographic experiments. Maybe my illustration work carries more of a graphic edge because I never actually studied illustration as a subject. I guess I’m better at breaking the grid then conforming to it – that’s what I get most enjoyment out of anyway, especially while using moving image.

What was it that appealed to you most about the prospect of combining music and design?

I guess it’s the same for anybody working in the industry – music is my lifeblood so to get the chance to collaborate with some of the artists whose music you love is a total blessing. I feel very lucky.

Your work combines collage, drawing, screenprinting and painting alongside digital techniques. Do you have one particular approach in mind when you come to a project, or does it tend to be a lot more holistic than that?

It’s definitely a more holistic approach. It totally depends on the feel of the music really. As soon as I hear a piece of music I often instantly visualise the techniques that I’m going to use. Interconnections are made with lyrics or specific sounds that hopefully lead to something that juxtaposes the music and visuals in an exciting way.

You recently worked with Beck on the cover, design and music videos for his album, Colors’. Beck has a reputation for being something of a perfectionist. How would you characterise your experience working with him?

It was great. He was very involved throughout the whole process. Beck’s very design savvy, so from the beginning myself and my design partner, Steve Stacey, collaborated with him on everything from the different components of the deluxe vinyl to typographic spreads for the inner booklets.

Had Beck named the album when you came to work with him? Colors’ was a massive tonal shift compared to Morning Phase. Was that a key creative consideration for you and him?

He already had the Colors” name locked down before commissioning us. The album is ostensibly a big pop extravaganza. The fact that the album is called Colors” definitely influenced the general aesthetic of the whole campaign. He wanted us to clash globular paint-like shapes, simple geometric patterns and stripped back typography to create an artwork that really sums up the melodic, upbeat nature of the album. He’s always been a real musical chameleon from album to album – Morning Phase was much more acoustic and esoteric, so he definitely wanted us to switch things around visually for Colors”.

Do you tend to find that most artists you’ve worked with have been fairly hands on?

It really depends on the artist. For instance, Beck was very involved in the artwork but for the two videos that I directed for the singles Wow” and Dear Life” he was much more hands off. I’ve also just created a new video for Miguel and again, although we initially chatted about a certain feel and specific reference points, he really gave us total freedom to explore.

Beck is signed to a major label, but how did working with him compare to working with other artists where perhaps the label itself might be pushing you in a certain creative direction? Does that happen at all?

To be honest, I’ve been pretty lucky in my career in that I haven’t really had to deal with pushy labels or management. The artist usually has full creative control anyway. I’ve definitely been approached by big artists in the past and then had to politely decline to work with them because I just don’t connect with the track they sent over. I think it would be doing both the artist and myself a disservice to work on something I’m not truly passionate about.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced from a design/​creative perspective in the musical industry?

I guess it’s wanting to create things that aren’t possible within the budget that I’ve been given. I’m pretty ambitious when it comes to concepts/​ideas but sometimes you have to take a step back and accept the limitations that you’re under.

Sometimes those very limitations can be the starting point to other concepts, which you might not have come up with in the first place.

— Jimmy Turrell

Some quick fire questions for you:

1. What was the first album you ever owned?

Stevie Wonder — Fulfillingness Final Finale — on cassette. The first single I bought was Jack Your Body’” by Steve Silk Hurley.

2. What is the single most iconic album covers of all time? 

I’m not sure if it’s the most iconic – maybe that would go to Pink Floyd Animals”, but I’ve always loved Disraeli Gears” by Cream. I remember looking at that in my Dad’s collection as a kid and being totally blown away by the colours and composition. I remember saying to myself I want to do that as a job,” without knowing what the job actually was. Grace Jones’s Island Life” and Nightclubbing” are up there as well. Jean-Paul Goude is a genius. And Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James” album – killer.

3. Favourite music video of all time? 

So many — I mean, Smells Like Teen Spirit is hard to beat – the pure rawness of it. Then I’d go Sabotage, Windowlicker, She’s A Bitch, Around The World. More recently, I loved Kendrick Lamar’s Humble” and Washed Out’s Floating By”. And although it’s a couple of years old, I still love Skepta’s Thats Not Me”.

4. Which musician would you most like to work with, living or dead? 

Too many to name. Missy Elliott, Mad Mike Banks, Murlo, James Brown, Kashif, Frank Ocean, Frank Sinatra, Theo Parrish, Miles Davis, Kelela, Jay‑Z, Sun Ra, OutKast, Donna Summer, Kendrick Lamar, GILA, Wiley, DJ Rashad.

Check out Jimmy’s work at jim​my​tur​rell​.com.