Interview with Kosh about the making of the album cover art and packaging for Linda Ronstadt’s Lush Life, a 1984 release on Asylum Records
by Mike Goldstein, Curator, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com
You may recall my recent interview with David Larkham about his long-standing creative collaboration with Elton John and the many album cover projects they worked on together. What I neglected to mention was that there were a number of such partnerships that produced many of our favorite images for record packages (and merchandise, stage sets, music videos, etc.) over the years. Other examples include historic couplings such as Pink Floyd and Hipgnosis, Anton Corbijn and U2, George DuBose and The Ramones, Peter Travers and The Moody Blues, Roger Dean and YES, Cal Schenkel and Frank Zappa, James Marsh and Talk Talk and many others. These examples help illustrate the importance of the establishment of a “shared vision” between a musical act and the person/people entrusted to build a visual identity for that act and, once that synergy has been established, how it can grow into an integral part of how that act is seen – and appreciated – by its fans.
One sterling example of such a relationship is that between recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Linda Ronstadt and the Grammy-winning designer/art director known as “Kosh”. Since the young designer met the singer in the mid-1970s (after her success with her Grammy-winning country-rock masterpiece, 1974’s Heart Like A Wheel, with design by Rod Dyer and photo by her friend Eve Babitz), the two talented artists have joined forces to release two dozen (!!) great albums, with Kosh and his team winning three Grammy Awards for “Best Recording Package” for their work over the years. The third Grammy was awarded in 1985 for Kosh’s cover designs for Lush Life, the second of three albums of big band jazz-era pop standards, with arrangements – and musical bed – provided by bandleader Nelson Riddle.
Released in November, 1984. the immensely popular record quickly became a platinum-seller, with Linda earning a Grammy Award nomination (in 1986) for “Best Pop Vocal Performance – Female” for her rendition of the title song, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” (while she didn’t win for this particular song, Linda did go on to win 11 Grammys during her illustrious career). The first record in the trilogy of recordings dedicated to “the great American songbook” – 1983’s What’s New – established the now-popular practice of rock singers adding their own unique stylings to the classic tunes of a bygone era, with its commercial and critical success proving the viability of such projects to other artists and record labels going forward. The Lush Life record project would again be honored by the Recording Academy when Nelson Riddle, who died in late 1985, was posthumously awarded a 1985 Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying A Vocal” at the 28th Annual Grammy Award ceremony in early 1986 for the title track, “Lush Life”.
With Ms. Ronstadt’s induction into this year’s class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame fresh in our memories, I contacted the still quite-busy Mr. Kosh in his studios in the Los Angeles area to ask him to give us his take on the making of the package for Lush Life, along with his feelings about his team, his creative partnership with Ms. Ronstadt and the general state of music packaging and graphics these days. I think that – quite understandably – this relationship thrived on a mutual sense of admiration of the talents each party brought to the table, as you’ll see evidenced in the following transcript…
Interview with the designer, Kosh (conducted via email April/May, 2014) –
Mike Goldstein, Curator, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – Kosh, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to work with me on this. I know you’re busy, so let’s get to it – Can you tell me how and when you first met Linda Ronstadt? Did you meet her directly, or through her manager or record label? Had you worked with any of them before?
Designer Kosh with artist Linda Ronstadt
Kosh, designer/art director – I met Linda when I first arrived in LA. Her manager was Peter Asher whom I knew well at Apple records, where I was art director. I had been in London, designing album covers and other promo projects for The Beatles at Apple and also with John Lennon and Yoko Ono for their “War Is Over” campaign. In 1974, I’d moved to the U.S. and landed in Los Angeles, where I was exposed – and soon became part of – the West Coast music scene. I met up with Peter again, as he was now managing both James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt from his offices there, and he introduced me to the folks at Linda’s record label, Asylum (Editor’s Note – Asylum was also home to another country-rock act, the Eagles, for whom he’d create the album cover for their Grammy-winning record Hotel California in 1977 – see link for interview about this cover) and then to Linda herself. We discovered a mutual admiration.
Mike G – What impressed you about Linda and, in your opinion, what made her and her music different from other artists in the business at that time?
Kosh – She had a wonderful voice and I had an impressive portfolio so, in 1975, we embarked on Prisoner In Disguise. This was the era of the California Sound and, in my opinion, her artistry rose above all others.
Prisoner in Disguise album cover by Kosh
MG – Can you tell me what the inspiration was for your creative approach to the album package? Did her music or performing style provide you with some inspiration as to how to develop the record’s style? Were you able to hear any of the music that was going to be on that particular record for inspiration?
Back cover comp and finished product
Kosh – Lush Life was going to be her second collaboration with Nelson Riddle & His Orchestra and, since Linda was immersed in the big band period and the fashion of the era, I told her that I was going to put her in a hat box. I then worked with photographer Robert Blakeman and my associate, Ron Larson, to develop the overall concept. I heard all of the final and rough mixes of the album as we were working on expanding our approach to the design.
Record label comp
MG – How did you ultimately choose the talent who would work with you on this effort? Also, can you please clarify who actually did the graphics, photography, lettering, etc.?
Kosh – Ron Larson was – and still is – a brilliant artist who could create the image of the hat box from my initial sketches. Bob Blakeman was a photographer that had such a rapport with Ms. Ronstadt that, even dealing with the difficult dogs for the liner photo – I knew he would have no trouble getting a great shot for us.
MG – How involved was Linda or her management or record label in the process of deciding what you should produce, and did they provide you with any direction? Did they give you enough money and time to do what you wanted to do?
Front cover comps with gold foil call-outs
Kosh – Linda always gave me free reign to do anything I want. Obviously, she’d give me some direction – I want to look “Roaring Twenties” or I want to look “punk”, but our relationship was really smooth and sweet. I can say that, of all my clients, Linda Ronstadt was most pleasant, easy and delightful to work with. Peter Asher, her manager, gave me carte blanch and kept the label at bay while we produced what we knew was going to be a Grammy winning package. At that time money was no issue, but the deadline certainly was. We needed to create 3-D mock-ups for the printers for budgeting and scheduling so the label wouldn’t come down on me like a ton of bricks at the last moment. I was asking for “gold” foil on the lettering, etc., which never happened but we got the requested die cutting. And the Grammy.
MG – How long did it take you to develop the finished package, from concept to final product? Can you recall if there were any special processes, equipment, or other aids used to give us that great set of album images?
Kosh – I would guess that, from approval of final concept, including gathering input from printers and fabricators for the package, a period of two to three weeks from the initial shoot to the delivery of the art and mechanicals would be a close estimate. It was all shot on Ektachrome film with a 2-1/4″ square Hasselblad camera using Balcar strobes & a variety of wide lenses with various diffusions. It was all shot in Blakeman’s studio in downtown Los Angeles.
MG – Any other comments or anecdotes about what your experience was during this project? I’d appreciate any other anecdotal info you’d be willing to provide us…
Inner sleeve comp and finished product
Kosh – It was all hard work and enjoyable work with a great team. Even the dogs were well behaved, thanks to their wrangler. I believe that I forgot to mention that the beautiful dogs on the liner photograph were trained Airedales and that Linda deliberately got wrapped in there leashes for great effect. All of this was shot against a white background so we could strip in the deco/moderne airport scene. Nice pun…
MG – as is customary in my interviews, I’d like to ask you a few more questions about some general topics I’d be interested in getting your opinions on. First off, with the electronic delivery of music products growing at a fast pace, are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm on your clients behalf to invest time and money in packaging that stands out?
Kosh – The enthusiasm is still there, but the budgets are shrinking right along with the delivery formats.
MG – What are your feelings about album artwork and design these days? Are there any designers or musical acts that you think are keeping the field alive or important? Do you think album art matters anymore?
Kosh – Yes, the kids are alright! And imagery is still always important.
MG – How do you think album cover art images help us document human history? Personally, I believe that iconic album cover art in many ways has had a noticeable effect on Pop culture, so I’d like to get your take on this is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??
Kosh – Album cover art has greatly documented and influenced popular culture since Sgt. Pepper’s. It’s been a two way street – Art influences life and life influences art. It could be argued that art helped end wars, and it certainly played a role in smoothing the tension between the races and the sexes in the 60s & 70s as each group sought more equality. And, of course, it influenced trends in fashion.
MG – Finally, can you tell us what happened to the original artwork for this release?
Kosh – It probably ended up over the fireplace of some record executive’s home. Who knows at this point…
A small sample of works from Kosh’s album cover portfolio
About the artist, Kosh –
Notable album cover work examples include – The Eagles – Hotel California and The Long Run; Linda Rondstadt – Simple Dreams, Lush Life and Get Closer (all Grammy winners), The Beatles – Abbey Road and Let It Be; The Who – Who’s Next?; ELO – Out of the Blue and A New World Record; T. Rex – Tanx, Zinc Alloy & The Hidden Riders of Tomorrow and Bolan’s Zip Gun; King Crimson – Red; Rod Stewart – Atlantic Crossing; Humble Pie – Smokin‘; REO Speedwagon – High Infidelity; James Taylor – Greatest Hits and JT
This winner of three Grammy Awards (with seven total nominations) for “Best Recording Package” met The Beatles in the 60’s and joined them as the creative director for Apple Records after working earlier that decade with the Royal Ballet, the Royal Opera and as art director for Art & Artists Magazine. His iconic designs for the band – he was responsible for design, promotion and publicity – led to additional work creating memorable images for artists such as James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Electric Light Orchestra, T-Rex, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and many others (including Spinal Tap’s Break Like The Wind!). He was also the art director for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous “War Is Over” campaign, making him a fixture in the London art underground.
Kosh became well known in the London avant-garde art scene, designing and producing exhibitions, posters and books. After garnering several awards with the London Design & Art Directors Club, he was elected to the British Art Directors’ Jury before moving to Los Angeles in 1974 where he served as faculty member of Otis Parson’s Institute of Art and on the Board of Governors of the National Recording Academy.
More samples of Kosh’s music industry work
Kosh’s client roster has included Capitol Records, Tri-Star, Disney Studios, Fox Television, CNN, MCA, MGM, NFL (he designed the Super Bowl XXI logo), Disney, Sony Records and Warner Bros., Records. An extended list of artist clients include Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles (including Hotel California – voted #6 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Best Album Covers of All Time”), Humble Pie, Randy Newman, Pointer Sisters, Bob Seger, Ringo Starr, 10,000 Maniacs, The Who and many others. A display of his more prominent graphics was exhibited at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum.
Susan Shearer and Kosh formed Ten Worlds Productions in 1995. Ten Worlds achieved critical acclaim for their work on The Last Days of Kennedy and King for TBS and the ten hour documentary 100 Years -100 Movies for the American Film Institute and CBS. In 2006, Ten Worlds produced and directed DECLASSIFIED: The Rise and Fall of the Wall, which shed new light on the Berlin Wall for The History Channel.
Ten Worlds also produced a 13-part series of DECLASSIFIED documentaries on subjects such as John Lennon, Fidel Castro, the Tet Offensive, Charles Lindbergh, Joseph Stalin and World War 1 for The History Channel, with Kosh directing. Aimed at younger audiences, these shows combine interviews with U.S. presidents, top echelon politicians and rarely seen archival footage, overlaid with innovative graphics and searing rock soundtracks. Kosh and his cohorts are presently developing a “rock doc” feature on Apple Records and 2 animated series – one with comedian Lewis Black and the other with Tea & Chesse from the UK. Recently, Ten Worlds reached a deal with SPS and Nomad to create and develop projects with and around Robin Petgrave and his Tomorrow Aeronautical Museum.
From his L.A. offices – formerly used by another talented Englishman, director Alfred Hitchcock – Kosh and Ten Worlds continue to work on projects with a wide roster of clients.
Kosh/Ronstadt collaborations –
Prisoner in Disguise, released in 1975;
Hasten Down The Wind, released in 1976;
Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, released in 1976;
Simple Dreams (photo by Jim Shea), released in 1977; Grammy winner (note- Kosh was also nominated in the same category that year for his album cover design for Melissa Manchester’s Singin’)
Living In The U.S.A., released in 1978;
Mad Love, released in 1980;
Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, released in 1980;
Get Closer (with designer Ron Larson), released in 1982; Grammy winner
What’s New, released in 1983;
Lush Life (with designer Ron Larson), released in 1984; Grammy winner
For Sentimental Reasons, released in 1986;
Round Midnight with Nelson Riddle & His Orchestra, released in 1986;
Canciones de mi Padre, released in 1987;
Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind, released in 1989;
Mas Canciones, released in 1990;
Frenesi, released in 1992;
Winter Light, released in 1994;
Feels Like Home, released in 1995;
Dedicated To The One I Love (design and cover photo), released in 1996;
The Linda Ronstadt Box Set, released in 1999;
A Merry Little Christmas, released in 2000;
3 For 1, released in 2000;
Original Album Series, released in 2010;
Duets, released in 2014
About this AlbumCoverHallofFame.com interview –
Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
In each interview feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.
Except as noted, all images featured in this story are Copyright 1968 – 2014, John Kosh/Tenworlds – All rights reserved – and are used by the artist’s permission.
The terms “Grammy” and “Grammy Award” are © 2014 – The Recording Academy – All rights reserved. The term “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame” is © 2014 – The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation – All rights reserved.
Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2014 – Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) & RockPoP Productions – All rights reserved.