A Behind-The-Scenes Look at Musician Lauren Lee’s Branding & Album Art Portrait Session
Sitting down for my initial consultation with jazz virtuoso Lauren Lee went a little differently than most of my consults. Lauren was a thousand miles away in Jamaica, Queens, NY. And thus I, like any sensible businesswoman, was excited to wear pajama bottoms for our Facetime meeting. Greeting me with a big, shy smile, Lauren bubbled with excitement as she shared details of her music career, life in New York, and her dreams of being photographed for a huge project that she had been working on. Lauren had just finished recording a new album.
In explaining the backstory behind the title of her new album, Windowsill, she recalled how she combated the loneliness and boredom of her childhood in rural Illinois. Once Lauren described her childhood daydreams to me, I knew that I wanted to work with her on this project. She remembered sitting and looking out her window and imagining that she was anywhere else. Immediately, I saw myself in her place, looking out past my backyard and into the cornfields that surrounded my childhood home. We had that in common. The feelings of wanderlust began early, and as soon as she was old enough to move, she went to New York and spent the next decade laying down new roots. It was there that Lauren began developing her sound.
As Lauren longed to put distance between the days of her past and the streets she walked daily around Queens to her musical tutoring jobs, her performing career was taking her overseas. The daydreams were coming to life.
After accepting an Artist in Residence appointment in the Alps, the inspiration for new music soon poured out of her and onto the page. Song after song, the words reminiscent of Queens and Brooklyn, mixed with new surroundings, the melodies matching the mountain peaks surrounding her in Switzerland and the rhythm of the New York City streets… Her heart was full. Lauren spent the next few weeks touring across Europe, visiting Bormio, Milan, and eventually Berlin. The album was born.
In preparation for her session, Lauren sent me a pre-release copy of the album so that I could get a feel for what I needed to create in the photographs. This meant sitting down with headphones and a notebook and writing down my own first impressions, track by track. I wanted to close my eyes and see the music and what it evoked. I pressed “play” and was instantly transported, a passenger on Lauren’s transcontinental journey.
“X-Berg”, (one of my favorite tracks) floats on the inspiration of walking around Berlin’s trendy neighborhood, akin to Bushwick and Williamsburg in NYC.
“Get Off Me”, is Lauren’s second single release, reminiscent of a jazzy Amanda Palmer feminist anthem, but in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It’s so uniquely Lauren, and fresh.
“So Long” was written about Lauren’s fiance, Andrea. “I have everything I’ve ever wanted right here in front of me, I know how lovely life can be“– she sings. It was effortless to picture the two of them holding hands in the street in a montage of beautiful moments, with “So Long” playing in the background.
“She likes the song and she’s been serenaded,” Lauren quipped.
So much of the album felt wild and full of possibility. With every song that passed, I shared in experiencing Lauren’s wanderlust, feeling the heartbeat of the city, the breathtaking glory of the Alps, the love of her relationships, and the strength and defiance of daring to be a queer woman in an industry and a culture that can seem so vastly unwelcoming.
After consulting on the feel for the photographs and matching up the vision with the sounds of her music, Lauren and I created a mood board for her session to inspire us and keep us creatively on track.
Lauren looked at examples of my work and pointed out the facets that she loved most– the greens, the nature, the dreamy attributes, the power poses. To this mood board, I added wardrobe choices that Lauren loved, already owned or could purchase local to her.
Lauren’s branding needed the delicate balance of intentional variety with a cohesive tone. We wanted to showcase the duality of her provocative, bewitching power as a woman, but also the androgynous fashion of being cloaked in menswear-inspired long coats. She needed headshots and portraits that captured the genius behind songwriting. The captivating strength behind performing and leading a band. The gracefulness and beauty of nature, inspired by her travels, but also a snapshot of the bustling city that started it all. And we had to capture all of this in the Midwestern city of St. Louis, Missouri.
The day of Lauren’s session was seamless. She’d flown in to St. Louis a few days earlier to prepare for a gig she was playing that weekend and we spent extra time looking at the locations I’d chosen that fit the aesthetic she desired. She was thrilled. The weather was cold but everything was planned out perfectly.
When I looked at Lauren’s wardrobe, one specific piece jumped out at me– a bateau-neck, plunging-back, black velvet jumpsuit from the now-defunct American Apparel. Lauren was open to my suggestions, trusting my vision, and when I asked if she’d humor me and try the jumpsuit on backward, she didn’t hesitate. The plunging-V now in front, she channeled the ghost of David Bowie or Freddie Mercury. These ended up being some of her favorite portraits.
Sometimes, the creative process leads artists to choose different images for album artwork than they had originally intended– but Lauren was very deliberate in her choice. We set out to create one specific image to be used as her album cover, and thus the creation of the image was that much more involved. To create a vast landscape, I instructed Lauren to hold her pose as I photographed the scene around her. The resulting image was therefore created out of a composite of 35 full-sized photographic captures, giving Lauren and her label the ability to print a billboard-sized image with unparalleled clarity. A piece of this scale takes planning, communication, and trust. I am so thrilled that Lauren put her faith in me and I was able to create the album artwork that she dreamed of.
Working on Lauren’s album artwork has given me a renewed appreciation of the work behind the creation and production of an artist’s music before it ever hits the airwaves. Lauren and I stayed in contact regularly over production updates and deadlines, which enabled me to keep creating content that was relevant to her vision and needs. It’s not often that we get to see behind the curtain– that music we hear and love was sometimes created years before releasing it was even conceived of. Lauren began writing the songs in 2017 and finally sat down to begin recording in her Brooklyn-based studio in August of 2018. Once tracks were finalized, we began planning her session. While I was culling and editing Lauren’s portraits, she was busy getting signed to Ears&Eyes Records, a label based in Chicago, run by creative Matthew Golombisky.
Today you can find Lauren playing gigs around New York with her bandmates Brad Mulholland, Marcos Varela , and Andy O’Neill and preparing to travel across the country on a tour promoting Windowsill.
To hear Lauren closer to home (St. Louis), Lauren will be performing December 4th at The Dark Room.
Pick up a copy of Windowsill on Apple Music, and be sure to follow her Facebook for upcoming gigs.
Do you have a story that you want to share, or a project that you’re working on that needs creative images? Head to Contact now to send me a message and begin planning the session of your dreams.
I want to take a moment to credit everyone involved in the production of Windowsill,
as well as Lauren’s photoshoot:
Photography, Retouching, and Creative Consultation by Gwendolyn Mercer (Hi there!)
Hair and Makeup provided by Alyssa Jean Jordon
All Music composed and arranged by Lauren Lee (BMI)
Performed by Lauren Lee (piano, Rhodes, voice)
Brad Mulholland (alto sax, clarinet, flute)
Marcos Varela (acoustic bass)
Andy O’Neill (drums)
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Chris Bentham at Big Orange Sheep in Brooklyn, NY.
Album layout by Matthew Golombisky
Album released by indie label Ears&Eyes Records