BY MIN CHEN
In April 2017, when Josh Tillman, a.k.a. singer-songwriter Father John Misty, needed a sleeve designed for his soon-to-be-released album Pure Comedy—his sardonic meditation on contemporary life—he called on an illustrator with a similar grasp of tragicomedy: Edward Steed. For the past four years, Steed’s cartoons have littered The New Yorker with succinct, oblique humor, and with characters and situations that lay bare life’s many follies. His uncanny aesthetic is on full display in the album’s cover design—a sprawling, scrupulously detailed canvas populated with odd figures and bizarre takes on modern-day rituals, from romance to advertising. Below, Steed explains how the project came to be.
How did you come to work with Father John Misty for Pure Comedy? Were you familiar with his work before this?
I didn’t know his music, but he sent me his old record, I Love You Honeybear, and the first track from Pure Comedy. He had seen my cartoons in The New Yorker, and wrote me an email saying he liked my work, and thought that my style would suit the new record. There were some similarities in our worldview, and I didn’t have to adjust my style to suit him.
Did you have a brief for the album cover? What were your own intentions for it?
He had this idea of four different-colored skies, and just asked for a drawing to go [with] that. I sketched lots of small scenes—sort of satirical in tone but not literally referring to the lyrics—and then arranged them on a landscape. I suppose the unifying theme is the absurdity of human life on earth. Mostly, I was just trying to make something that’s good for people to look at while listening to the record. I just drew the type of album cover I would want if I made an album, which I never will.
What was the process of creating this intricate artwork?
I spent a few weeks sketching ideas for individual scenes and characters. This was similar to the way I usually work doing single-panel magazine cartoons. Arranging them in a context of a large landscape took a while. I’d never drawn anything at that size before, and to do the final drawings took about a week. It’s all in ink, and I used a metal-nib pen, the kind you dip in ink.
The sleeve carries overtones of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. What references served as inspiration for this cover?
At the start of the project, I went to the library most days and took out all their Bosch books, and looked at lots of medieval and classical paintings. Also, religious art, hell paintings, funny stuff like that. The boat in the bottom right corner [of the front cover] was based on Bosch’s “Ship of Fools.”
Are there any other scenes that stand out for you?
I like the funeral scene in the top right corner. We also made a set of cards featuring the same characters from the cover, which will help explain some of the scenes.
Since this was the first album cover you’ve illustrated, did this process change any ideas you initially had about album design?
I’m not really a proper illustrator; I just do what I do and I’m not very good at taking directions. Josh was easy and fun to work with, so he was a perfect collaborator. It was exhausting making such a big drawing. I was naive about how long it would take, but I think it turned out pretty nice. My eyes and hands hurt afterwards.
What’s your favorite album cover?
Kevin Coyne’s In Living Black And White. It’s quite funny—the joke is on the back cover. It seems charming at first then gets a bit sinister when you look closely. And I think he looks like the kind of people I draw.
This article was first published on surfacemag.com in September 2017 as “Father John Misty’s Album Cover Makes Fun of Everything.” It has been edited here for timeliness.