EASY peasy. This is how Harry Israelson describes his working relationship with Chaz Bear (aka Toro y Moi).
These kindred artistic spirits have been working together since Toro y Moi’s 2013 album Anything In Return, and the relationship has been mutually beneficial.
“I think we’ve learned a lot from each other over the years,” Harry tells us over email from his home studio in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighbourhood.
On the eighth and most recent Toro y Moi record, Outer Peace, Harry and Chaz worked towards a complete artistic vision that’s consistent across video and cover art.
The stylised video for ‘Freelance’, for example, was shot at the same studio sessions as the cover for Outer Peace. It wasn’t just about efficiency, says Harry, but making both pieces seem like they’re part of the same world.
“It’s as though you can stick your head into the cover itself and have a look around,” he explains.
Beyond his work with Chaz – which includes Live From Trona, a concert film shot in the desert – Harry has worked on campaigns for Levi’s, Beats and Budweiser; a film clip for Kurt Vile; a short film, Love-40, starring Lola Kirke; and a body wash commercial starring Ludacris.
When we make contact with Harry he’s finishing off the edit for a TV pilot he’s working on. “It’s new territory for me as a director,” he explains.
You’ve worked across a variety of mediums – is there a thread or aesthetic that ties your work together?
Funny enough it took me a while to realise that I have “a thing” and to actually find comfort in it. I started in film and music video, then moved into photo because it was far less obstacle oriented. This eventually progressed into creative direction with musicians that I admire. I guess what ties everything together is my sense of colour and composition. I’m not a chaotic person – I find comfort in organisation and most of my work reflects this. The ‘Freelance’ video, for example, is super strange. It’s one shot after another, very systematic, each very intentional and composed, with strong pops of colour.
When did you first meet Chaz? And what were your first impressions?
I was working with a partner at the time and we had made a small fashion film for a Japanese brand that went up on Hypebeast. Chaz saw the video, reached out and asked us to do a video for his record Anything in Return. So having never made a music video, we flew to San Francisco and spent a few days driving around Marin county in a rental car making the video for ‘Say That’. I had never met anyone like Chaz – still to this day – and we immediately had a connection.
What makes Chaz a great artist and collaborator?
He’s always open minded to working with new people and has impeccable vision. He was able to see something in me before I had realised it, I guess. I think we’ve learned a lot from each other over the years.
What is your working relationship with Chaz like?
What story do you want the image for Outer Peace to tell?
Outer Peace is largely an electronic record with lots of lush synthesisers, so I looked to “producer-first” album art from artists like Eumir Deodato and Isao Tomita as early inspiration. I also looked to the original poster for Spielberg’s Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] as a reference for the type of blue glow I wanted to emanate from the screen. My first inclination was a skeleton surrounded by synthesisers, implying that this producer character died doing what he loved. This eventually turned into some alternate artwork and a limited-edition poster that comes with the pre-order vinyl.
"It’s as though you can stick your head into the cover itself and have a look around."
Were there alternative covers?
The deluxe vinyl package actually comes with a limited-edition poster of the skeleton sitting at the desk instead of Chaz. I have the poster framed in my living room.
Any easter eggs you’d like to reveal or stories you can tell behind some of the props on the cover?
We wanted Chaz to look comfortable, so he’s sitting on an ergonomic yoga ball, and although you can’t tell in the photo, the mousepad actually has one of those gel pads for his wrist. There’s a bird because Chaz mentioned that flying was a theme present in the record. There’s sand in the hourglass on the cover with Chaz, and conversely none left in the version with the skeleton. Take from that what you will.
Tell us about your decision to connect the video for ‘Freelance’ with the artwork for the album? Often these things are happening in separate spaces.
As with everything we do together, Chaz and I wanted to present a complete visual package; a cover and video that pointed to each other and felt consistent and intentional. Music videos and album art are most often conceived separately at different stages in the process. I personally love listening to a record with the cover in hand. In this case we wanted to give listeners the chance to disappear into the album art – to be present during the cover art photo session. It’s as though you can stick your head into the cover itself and have a look around.
What was the biggest challenge for this shoot? I imagine it would’ve been pretty hard to achieve the backlit monitor glow on Chaz’s face.
Jeff Leeds Cohn took the cover photo and was also the cinematographer on the ‘Freelance’ video. He rigged the computer monitor with a paper-thin LED panel to emit the glow. Jeff came up with a great lighting plan, rigging 10 Arri SkyPanels along the back CYC [cyclorama] wall to shape the gradient to our palette. I’d say the trickiest part was getting the overhead shot, so we needed to find a shooting studio that had high enough ceilings.
Was the ‘Freelance’ video and the album cover for Outer Peace achieved in the same shoot?
Yes. That was the idea from the very beginning. Efficiency!
What other record covers have you worked on?
I took the photo for [Toro y Moi’s 2017 album] Boo Boo, and also concepted with Chaz on the Live From Trona film and corresponding album.
What are some of your favourite album covers?
Neil Young’s On The Beach by the late, great Gary Burden.
What makes a great album cover?
Something simple and iconic. Most importantly it needs to feel like a visual representation of the record itself. I feel like we got that right on Outer Peace.
Follow Harry on Instagram @PrimaryColorss.