It’s not too often you get an email, and then a phone call, from someone who’s claiming to be Paul Simon’s manager. In fact, it’s so rare that when it happened to designer and illustrator Mark Pernice earlier this year, he thought the whole thing was a scam. But, a scam it was not. Pernice, along with Elana Schlenker, his partner at New York-based studio Out Of Office (their site is launching soon), ended up working on vinyl sleeve design, CD design, and a T-shirt for the starry musician’s In the Blue Light album, released in September this year.
The pair went on “a little road trip” around six months back to Connecticut to meet him at his house (NBD), and the rest is, well, design history. The design concept is pretty simple: a layered version of a portrait in a gloriously vibrant, Yves Klein-ish blue, alongside the typeface Ogg by Lucas Sharp at Sharp Type. “We wanted something that looked sort of classic but also really contemporary,” says Schlenker. “It had to be a quiet thing—something understated that also said a lot.”
For Pernice, this was the first music design project he’d worked on since around 2008 when working with Stefan Sagmeister on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s Everything that Happens… designs. “We still have the couch that David Byrne sat on,” he reveals, after I squeal a lot about my lifelong Talking Heads obsession. “I’ve slept on it a bunch of times,” adds Schlenker. “Lou Reed’s slept on it as well,” says Pernice, who reveals Sagmeister passed out on said hallowed couch when he was renovating his apartment.
Moving off the couch, we caught up with the duo to talk about how their Paul Simon project came to be, and what it was really like working with one of the most famous singers in the world.
How did the commission come about in the first place?
Mark Pernice: I’m also an illustrator, and the story goes that [Paul Simon] saw a piece of mine in the New York Times and liked it enough to have his manager call me. It was a heavy piece: the head of the Muslim brotherhood was writing from solitary confinement in a prison in Egypt, basically saying ‘I’m not a terrorist.’ I guess [Simon] saw that and liked it; maybe he liked the atmospheric quality.
His manager emailed, then two seconds later called and I didn’t pick up. I usually screen my calls. When I read the email, it said “Paul Simon management”—I thought it was just some random rep company. I didn’t put it together that it was his management. I was like, “Who’s this guy Paul Simon soliciting at 9pm on a Tuesday?”
Elana Schlenker: He called me and said, “Am I getting spammed?!”
I guess it’s not every day you get hit up by Paul Simon.
MP: Then it clicked. I was sitting on the couch like, “Holy shit I think Paul Simon’s manager called me about doing the art!” I didn’t even know he had an album.
ES: It’s his last album, too, allegedly. He said that when I met him…
MP: You never know!
I was like, “Who’s this guy Paul Simon soliciting at 9pm on a Tuesday?”
So how did you realize it was legit?
MP: Just by calling [the manager] back, and then recognizing the hoops I had to jump through to get to her. They don’t just take calls from anybody, and the receptionist knew my name.
Are you guys Paul Simon fans?
ES: It’s hard not to know and appreciate Paul Simon. My whole family loves him—all my aunts, and my dad was a huge fan. It was probably one of the first things I’ve done that my family understands and is proud about.
MP: They’re living it up now!
What was the initial brief like?
MP: There was no brief, really. I spoke to Paul on the phone first, and we talked about what inspired him to revisit these songs, since the album is him rearranging songs he felt were deserving to be revisited. They became almost completely different songs, and the title comes from one specific song on the record, where he was talking about being in a hotel in New York and seeing this neon blue light emanating. He was pretty loose, like, “Just show me some ideas.” But he had full trust in us from the start which was great.
ES: He was surprisingly easy to work with. Mark did a smart thing by setting out in the initial agreement that we’d speak to Paul directly and not always go through Sony, but Sony actually helped us out a lot.
Was there anything that struck you when you first met Paul? Any big surprises?
ES: I was surprised about how nice he was, but also how much he respected us as creative people and was interested in talking to us on that level. I don’t know if he’s actually insecure, but he seemed to have the same insecurities that any creative has. We dicked about in the studio for a bit before we sat down to show him our ideas, and he said, “I have to ask you what you think of the album.” I was like, “You care what I think?!” That was really charming and reassuring, and that really struck me.
MP: My girlfriend, who is a superfan told me, “Don’t mention Art Garfunkel!” I watched a lot of interviews before meeting him, and I think anyone who’s an icon like that doesn’t love doing interviews. I wondered if he would be really quiet, but he had asked us in, so we were on the same level—it wasn’t like we were soliciting for the project.
He showed us all these rare instruments and started playing them, and showed us the recording studio. That broke the ice. When we showed the first presentation, he was really articulate and confident; he definitely knows what he likes.
ES: We showed four or five ideas, and he basically was like “Love it, love it, love it. That looks like a church album, otherwise, love it.” It was shockingly simple. The hardest part was when we showed sketches and then refined the sketches and he said he liked it before. We had to explain why it had to evolve.
It’s a striking image that you used for the final design, that blue is so vibrant. What was the thinking behind that image?
MP: Thank you! That’s all solid Pantones for the blue.
ES: I think the hardest part was navigating the limits of the production budget; that’s where the most back and forth was.
MP: Budgets aren’t what they used to be!
ES: The budget for the CD was better than the vinyl, which was odd. But maybe that’s his audience, I don’t know.
MP: We knew we wanted to do vibrant blue, but it was a question of what needs to be blue. I didn’t want to do an easy neon hotel room thing. There’s something about the music, the idea behind him re-recording and revisiting his past, and his heritage and pedigree—I wanted something kind of nebulous. A lot of his other covers have him on it, but I didn’t want to just do a photo. I wanted something that felt like his aura that was in his songs.
ES: We explored light on hands and mirrors, but we thought “Let’s try one with him.” It felt like a thing we had to do. But it felt unanimously like the thing we liked the best. Except my aunts! Otherwise everyone liked that one.
We showed four or five ideas, and he basically was like, “Love it, love it, love it. That looks like a church album, otherwise, love it.”
Elana, do you always run your designs past your aunts?
ES: No! But they live outside of New York and I passed by my hometown on my way to and from [Simon’s studio]. So after the meeting I had to go home and have the download dinner with my entire family, so that’s what went down. They were just so excited.
Tell me a bit more about the portrait image you used.
MP: It wasn’t that exciting. We didn’t go to some Paul Simon library and open dusty folders, it was just a Google search. We knew we wanted something that felt not-vintage. I think this was taken in an airport in the ’60s. It was with Art, I think, but he was cut out.
The way an old image is reused for a new album reminds me a bit of what Barnbrook did with the Bowie album The Next Day, reworking the portrait for Heroes for something new. Were you looking to much historical artwork in the design process?
MP: I got a book by Storm Thorgersson, who did everything.
ES: Mark kept texting me pictures and saying, “Look how much money they spent on this!” They don’t have these budgets any more! It made him sad.
I didn’t want to listen to any interviews, as I didn’t want to think about how famous [Simon] was. One of my favorite sleeves is Milton Glaser’s designs for There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, so I didn’t want to think about it too much.
MP: You just get too distracted.