Interview with Shauna and Sarah Dodds, Backstage Design, winners of 2013 Grammy Award for “Best Recording Package” for their work on Reckless Kelly’s Long Night Moon
By Mike Goldstein, Curator, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com
March 21, 2014
While most of the press coverage of the annual Grammy Awards show is focused on the nominees and winners in the dozen or so “major” categories, there’s a lot of talent on display in some of the lesser-promoted award categories that, given some additional attention by the show’s producers, press and music/art fans that might not be aware of them, would serve both to excite those exposed to their works and serve to show just how imaginative, innovative and influential producers of music packaging and imagery remain today.
And while there are those that insist that, due to the swing from retail to digital distribution of music and music products, album cover packaging and album art in general is less important today than other forms of marketing and promotion, I’d like to point to this year’s winning design for “Best Recording Package” – awarded to Shauna and Sarah Dodds of Austin, TX’s Backstage Design – as a great example of just how shallow this train of thought seems to be. In today’s extremely noisy music marketing arena, it takes a well-honed sense of what it takes to rise above the din and deliver a package to an act’s fans – both existing and new – that engages them and gives them a sense of intimacy with the act, it’s music and the people behind “the brand”. I think that, when you take into account the depth and diversity of what the winning design team created for their clients, you’ll agree that they delivered a package that perfectly illustrates what can – and must – be done to keep the art of music packaging relevant and exciting for artists and fans alike.
In the following interview, Shauna and Sarah give us an intimate look into their creative process, the challenging design and production briefs for the project and an unimaginable display of knowledge of lunar maps – enjoy!
Interview with Shauna and Sarah Dodds (interviewed in late February, 2014) –
Mike Goldstein, Curator, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – Thanks to you both for your time today and, once again, congratulations on your Grammy win. Let’s get started with some background questions – How is it that you were first introduced to Reckless Kelly’s music?
Shauna Dodd, Principal, Backstage Design – It was many, many moons ago – pun very much intended – somewhere around ’98, that some friends dragged me out to a show at City Limits in Stephenville, TX. At the time, we didn’t really listen to ‘country’ music, but they insisted that these guys were different and that I’d like it…. They were right, and I was immediately hooked.
Sarah Dodd, Principal, Backstage Design – We both became huge fans of Reckless. I don’t think we missed a single one of their shows at Gruene Hall (Editor’s note – Gruene Hall, in New Braunfels, TX, bills itself as “the oldest continually run dance hall in Texas”) for a few years.
Mike G – In your opinion, what was it that makes Reckless Kelly – and by that, I mean the musical act and their music – different from other artists in their “category” today?
Sarah D – They don’t play by the rules, or try to make their music fit into a what some guy in a suit tells them will sell records. While other country acts are singing about trucks, dirt roads, drinking shiner bock beer and pickin’ up chicks in bars, Reckless is singing about anything BUT trucks, dirt roads, drinking beer……
Shauna D – They’d rather sing about hypocrisy in politics, getting off our cell phones or a lost Irish love than about dance halls.
Mike G – Was there a particular track on the album that served as the inspiration of the package art and design?
Sarah D – Yes! “Long Night Moon”, was not only the title track, but also the inspiration for the entire package. We drew from the lyrics, and let me quote – “Sleepless nights where the stars above are drowned out by the city lights / and I wonder why I keep torturing my soul beneath this urban sky / but in my mind I know I’ll be home soon / surrounded by the winter beneath the Long Night Moon.”
Shauna D – That one set of lyrics really encompasses the overall ‘vibe’ of the entire record – not just the packaging design. Throughout the record, the guys sing of travel, heartache and getting home to the mountains of Idaho. The sequence of the tracks is even reflective of this, opening with “Long Night Moon” and ending with “Idaho.”
Mike G – Were your clients – that is, the band, the label, the band’s management, etc. – actively involved in any or all aspects of the development of this design?
Sarah D – Absolutely. We always work closely with Reckless on their designs. They’re the perfect ‘hands off’ clients with a ‘hands on’ approach. Ha!
Shauna D – They’re always very involved in the whole process, but we also really ‘get’ each other. The second that they tell us what the title of the record is, or what they envision for the style, we know exactly what it will look like… and when we show the first comp they, more often than not, completely agree. There may be a few slight alterations requested, but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a “let’s see something else.”
Sarah D – Which is pretty cool, considering this is our third full record to work on with them.
Mike G – How did you choose the talent who would work with you on this effort? The job looks like it would have included designers, illustrators, typographers, graphic artists, photographers, etc.
Sarah D – That’s easy, with the exception of the band photo, we did all of it. We’re a really small design house.
Shauna D – Up until a little over a year ago, it was just the two of us in the 10’x10′ spare bedroom of my apartment…
Mike G – What “guidance” – or specific instructions – did you get from the band that gave you direction on how to create the key parts of your package and any ancillary items – like the web site, the stage props, etc. – that were needing to be worked on that were based on the same design guide?
Shauna D – When we first met with Willy Braun (Editor’s note – the band’s vocalist and guitarist) about this packaging, he said “I want it to glow in the dark.” Sarah and I both laughed…. and then we saw that he was serious! So, we got serious about finding a way to make that work without being psychedelic or cliché.
Mike G – One of the stand-out aspects of this special packaging was all of the bonus content you created that could be “unlocked” by people that purchase the record. Can you give us any insight into some of these materials as well?
Shauna D – I’d be glad to…As an example, here’s a little information on the Long Night Moon, one of the hidden messages on the lunar map insert:
“Since the beginning of time, people have looked to the skies for guidance. In the sun that graced our day, we found a source for life, and in the moon that traveled the night sky, a source with which to measure it. With the setting of each sun, comes the veil of night – a time of darkness and mystery – but only in the darkness can you see the light of the moon and stars. For Native Americans, the moon counted the months and told of the coming season. And so, each full moon was given a name – a name evocative of the season. Spring arrived with the Planter’s Moon and Windy Moon, summer peaked with the Ripe Corn Moon and Mead Moon, while autumn brought the Harvest Moon and Hunter’s Moon. In December, with the coming of winter, days become shorter. And, as the cold begins to clench its fist for the longest and darkest nights of the year, the largest full moon brightens the sky. This moon rises at sunset, rides high in the sky (almost directly overhead by midnight) and sets at sunrise. It is the Bitter Moon, Big Winter Moon, Snow Moon, Big Bear’s Moon . . . and perhaps most aptly, the Long Night Moon.”
Mike G – Very insightful – I’ll be sure to include a bit more about these special sections at the end of this interview*. So, let’s continue – taking into account all of the project coordination, how long did this process take – from start to finished product?
Shauna D – I think we first met about the project in April of last year, and the final print files were sent off in early August, so it was something like four months total.
Sarah D – We spent an insane amount of time on it. We always seem to do this on Reckless records, because we get to get waaay into them.
Mike G – Were there any special tools you used or work processes followed – manual or computer-based – that helped create the finished product? Can you give me any more details of that final aspect of the process? How were you able to oversee the quality of the finished products based on your designs?
Shauna D – Not really. To be honest, we’re still working on finding a work-flow solution that works for us. We tried a few software options, but didn’t care for them… For now, we just dive in, and let the rest of the process organically flow. It might not be the most efficient plan, but it’s worked for us so far.
As far as overseeing the quality of the final product goes, we worked closely with our rep at the manufacturer through email and phone calls – the plant we used is out of state, so we had prints overnighted to us to check over. In the end, that final part of the project was crazy-rushed, so the proofs were more just to let us sleep at night than to be able to make changes – although some were made, on the fly, in a huge rush.
Mike G – When working on a package like this, do you consider your efforts to be works of self-expression, or do you take your lead from your client?
Sarah D – It’s a mix, really. Most of the time, we work toward expressing the design through the eyes of the client. Since it’s their music and we’re merely creating a visual representation of that, we seldom have the luxury of incorporating our own self-expression.
Shauna D – With Reckless, though, the two intersect. Their vision and ours are the same. Where Sarah and I see design concepts through the same lens, so do we with Reckless…. they’re like family.
Mike G – Before we change gears a bit, I’d like to ask you if there is any other anecdotal info about this project you’d be willing to share…every project I’ve ever looked into seems to have something of an “ah-ha moment” or an “OMG moment”, so anything you’d be willing to share would be quite a treat!
Shauna D – when Willy said that he wanted a package that glowed in the dark, my first instinct was that, if we were going to do it, we would need to make the glow NOT just a gimmicky ‘bonus’ but, rather, something that made sense to the design. To accomplish that, we figured that it had to come with a light. Otherwise, the significance would be lost on 99% of the viewers – leaving the glow as a ‘bonus’.
Sarah D – The challenge was figuring out how on earth do you get a light into a Digipack without either a) wreaking havoc on the shape of the packaging and, therefore, causing distributors to lose their sh*t on us, or b) adding more additional cost items to the production by including custom die cuts – we were already adding cost by using glow in the dark inks – or c) the lights themselves costing a fortune and, therefore, making the whole idea unaffordable.
Shauna D – You have to remember that this is not a band on a label with an unlimited budget…
Sarah D – We spent hours upon hours scouring the web for pocket-size black lights and kept coming up with solutions that were ‘ok’, but not brilliant.
Shauna D – For example, the manufacturer we were working with found this thing called a “Card-light”, but it was crazy-expensive, and we were limited to certain colors and could only print on one side.
Sarah D – So it was back to spending endless hours scouring the web until somehow, in the wee hours of the morning at the end of the interwebs, we found a manufacturer in China that had what we needed at a fraction of the cost even including the international shipping and customs fees AND we could print on both sides AND pick the exact specific color.
Shauna D – Huzzah!
Mike G – There are always good solutions – you just have to find them! OK, so on to some of the more philosophical questions on some topics I’d like to get your opinion on – First off, with the electronic delivery of music products growing at a fast pace, are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm on the client’s – or artist’s – behalf to invest time and money in packaging that stands out?
Shauna D – Definitely. More and more clients are open to exploring outside the box ideas. More and more are concerned with making the physical package have more value to their fans. And they have to. IF you’re going to bother with the printed package, and you want people to actually buy it… rather than download… you have to make it worth the shelf space.
Sarah D – We’re also looking to do a lot more vinyl record projects. Well, actually, I should say that we’re doing them, period. We didn’t have anyone request that until a couple years ago. And now, practically everyone is doing them.
Shauna D – You have to love it when the way back is the way forward.
Mike G – So, how do you think album cover art help us document human history? Personally, it is my belief that, in many ways, iconic album cover art has had a noticeable effect on Pop Culture. What’s your take on this – is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??
Shauna D – What are album covers if not visual ‘status updates’ for pop culture. But, that’s not to say that they merely reflect the world… Every culture is cyclically-inspired by the art that reflects it. I can tell you, though, that if Kanye’s recent non-cover for Yeezus influences pop culture to stop covering records, I will be livid (laughs)!
Mike G – OK, last question – where do you keep your new Grammy trophy (or where will you once you get it in your hands)?
Sarah D – WHEN we finally get it/them – and we still don’t know whether we share one trophy or get one each – there will be a rotating pedestal at the front of the studio, with a spotlight, it’s own disco ball and a mini fog machine that will go off on the hour… he he he…
* As promised, here’s an overview of the special bonus content that the Backstage Design team put together – folks that buy either/both the CD and/or LP versions of this record will receive a code that will help them unlock a horde of additional content on the web site including (as each section is introduced and described):
Chord Codes – Hidden amongst the Lunar Map ‘swirls’ on the Long Night Moon insert is a secret code for reading the chords on the opposite site. Each symbol represents a different chord which is revealed when you shine the Long Night Moon UV Light on the chart. Little did you know that these symbols weren’t purely the product of our imagination, but rather, pulled from historical materials, and all relate in some way to Long Night Moon.
For your guide to crack the code – so you can strum along to the entire record – buy the record and unlock the bonus content!
The Many Moons of Long Night Moon – You may have pondered as to what all the names, dates, random numbers, and other mumbo-jumbo encircling the moons on the Lunar Map included with the Long Night Moon CD Packaging was all about… Wonder no longer.
Each of the moons encircling the Lunar Map represent a date of relevance to Reckless Kelly and Long Night Moon, with the specific moon that graced the night sky on that very date.
You’ll also notice that many include the Shoshone Indian name for that month’s moon (Editor’s Note – my birth month’s moon is “Gaza-mea” or “Summer”).
Hidden Messages – lyrics to a poem hidden in the Lunar Map…
Glow Guide – Reckon you found everything that there is to find on the Glow In The Dark hidden images and graphics? Just in case you missed anything, here’s your exclusive Long Night Moon Glow Guide.
Bet ya didn’t know . . . that the star formations used in the Long Night Moon packaging are all in their astronomically correct position in the sky. Watch the constellations magically appear in this hidden bonus section….
Secret Number Code – Just when you thought you’d found everything…. you find out that you were wrong. The numbers listed amongst the lunar cycles on the left and right side of the Long Night Moon CD Packaging aren’t random…. they contain yet another secret code for you to decipher!
The secret code is simpler than you think…but we’re not going to reveal it here (sorry!).
Lyrics – the complete lyrics for each song on the record.
About the interviewees – Shauna and Sarah Dodds (as told by Shauna Dodds) –
We grew up in the tiny community of Indian Creek, Texas, population – 20, on a good year. Attended school in the equally small town of Brookesmith – a rural, 1-A Six-Man-Football establishment and soooo very small that many years there weren’t enough fellas to suit up for football, so we’d coerce girls onto the field to fill the roster. Sarah and I, each at 6′ tall (myself, actually taller) and, athletically inclined in our early years, found ourselves at home on the basketball court. My senior year, by sheer will and determination, our team made it to the state tournament, beating out teams that were twice our size and with better facilities and longer-running championship traditions. In the end, we didn’t win the tournament, but we got to step onto the court at UT and play. They called us “the little train that could” then, too.
We both earned full basketball scholarships to two universities a couple hours apart – both in the Texas Hill Country. Though we had both been artistically driven from the time we were able to grasp our little fingers around a crayon, we weren’t raised to think that that was something to look at as a profession. Our school’s guidance counselor told us there was no way to make a living with ‘art.’ “Go into psychology” or “Go into business” we were told…
So, I entered Schreiner University in 1997 in the psychology department, but quickly discovered that I had NO business being in that department and switched to English. After a couple years, I found myself with an extra elective and decided to treat myself to an art class. We weren’t a full two weeks into the semester when the professor pulled me aside and asked why the hell I wasn’t in the Graphic Design program (a new department at the university – which is now, incidentally, the largest department on campus). I almost laughed at her – what was I going to do with a graphic design degree? I explained that there was no way my parents would be OK with me going into ‘art’, but she convinced me and then contacted my parents to convince them, as well. Sarah was entering Southwest Texas University (now, Texas State), and following in my footsteps, decided to enter their Communication Design Department and their highly-competitive graphic design program.
When I graduated and started looking for work in late 2002/early 2003, there weren’t any Graphic Design jobs to be had. Those that were available seemed to have applicants with 10x the experience lined up for miles, so I picked up a bar-tending job in our hometown. The bar had live music on weekends, and I started picking up projects here and there from the bands that came through town. Around that time, Sarah had moved into an apartment next door to Brady Black, who had just joined the little, then unknown, Randy Rogers Band. They became close friends, and when it came time for them to put out their Rollercoaster record, Brady left her a voice-mail asking her to pitch something for the cover. She worked over the weekend on a concept and left it on his front doorstep, and that was the cover concept they chose.
From there, it was only natural for us to join forces and, seeing as so much of our early client relationships were forged on backstage introductions – and since designs for the music industry are front and center (on stage) for all to see, while we, ourselves, are behind the scenes (backstage), we felt that “Backstage Design Studio” was a fitting enough name for our business. In 2005, I quit the bar-tending job and moved to Austin with $700 in the bank and no job, working only with the belief that we could make Backstage Design Studio into a full-time gig. We spent years attending every single show in town, and while we were never very good at ‘schmoozing,’ we were really good at making friends. And make friends we did – every handshake or introduction lead to a project of some sort, and every project then seemed to lead to another. Since then, we’ve worked with somewhere around 150 acts – on well over 100 record covers – and have had the honor of including in our client roster the likes of Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson. We recently counted our record packaging designs and discovered that Reckless Kelly’s Long Night Moon was our 100th cover. How crazy is that?
Up until a little over a year ago, even after our first Grammy Award nomination, we were still working out of the 10′ x 10′ spare bedroom of my little South Austin apartment. Now, we’re in a studio downtown, and are building up our in-house staff.
What a wonderful world it is to be able to work with one of your favorite people, doing what you love for your heroes. As I like to say, let what you love be what you do…
Interesting tidbit: THE Bucket of Crayons referenced in our Grammy acceptance speech is a real thing.. and still exists. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot. We spent our formative years literally living in a double-wide trailer that, unfortunately, burned to the ground (as mobile homes do), after which we lived in a travel trailer for many, many months and, later, a ‘single-wide’ mobile home. Even when we hardly had money for food, our parents always fostered our creativity – with no pretense that they were fostering a future career – they just knew that it was important to us.
To find out more about Sarah and Shauna Dodds and the Backstage Design Studio, please visit their web site at http://backstagedesigns.com/
Except as noted, all images featured in this story are Copyright 2013 – 2014, Backstage Designs – All rights reserved – and are used by the artist’s permission. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2014 – Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) & RockPoP Productions – All rights reserved.