The Decemberists’ Artwork:Or “An Evening with Carson Ellis”

Carson Ellis
Next up in my series of wonderful band artwork is fan-favorite, Carson Ellis! This lovely lass has been responsible for putting Mr. Meloy’s haunting anthems onto paper. From the cover work, to the linear notes all the way to the website pictures and set design in Picaresque, this lady has had her hand in it all.

Decemberists fans everywhere have come to idolize her because, in a way, her pictures are as much a part of The Decemberists as the songs themselves. She was kind enough to agree to this interview and I’d like to thank her for that. Also, if you have the time, there is more beautiful artwork at her website. But before I get started, a fun fact. Did you know Carson and Colin were roommates in college? Nor did I. Did you know that they share the same birthday? Nor did I. I love coincidences almost as I much as I love wonderful music coupled with beautiful art.

“Music’s really important to me. More important than visual art in a way because I’m more moved by it. So it’s always seemed sort of unfair that I wasn’t born a musician.” – Carson Ellis

Q. Sort of a Chicken and the Egg question here. Which comes first, the artwork or the album? I noticed that some of your art that was used as Decemberists covers have different titles and earlier dates. Were they later selected as “fitting” the album?

I think they have earlier dates because all the album art and design has to be done well before the CD’s release date. For the most part, the album precedes the artwork by months and months. It’s all been custom made to illustrate the music, which is typically recorded before we even start thinking about the album art and often written long before that. The cover of Castaways and Cutouts was a little different because it served a dual purpose: I’d promised my friend Zefrey that I would make him a painting of a ghost ship but had been putting it off for a year. The cover of Castaways was going be this really pretty but bleak photograph of a broken down pier but it was just too depressing so Colin convinced me to make Zefrey the ghost ship painting so we could use it for the cover.

Q. I’ve viewed some of your non-Decemberists’ artwork on your website, and I couldn’t help but notice that earth tones and greys seem to play an important role (such as in Russian Village, and Petersburgers). Does this stem from the earthy qualities of the subjects or is it just an interesting coincidence?

Just an interesting coincidence, I think. I’m really shy about color. I’ve always drawn with pencils and pen and ink but I didn’t start painting until I was in my twenties so I had an awful time getting used to the idea of making things colorful. I still do. It’s actually sort of a hang-up.

Q. You and Colin Meloy both seem to have a fixation with a time that has passed. Was it just serendipity that you both became artists in different mediums with the same subject?

No, I don’t think it was serendipity. Loving the same sorts of things was a big part of what made us friends. And we get interested in things together and influence each other a lot.

Q. What was it like to design the sets for the photographs in Picaresque rather than using paintings? You’ve done a wonderful job, but did it feel weird at all?

Thanks! Yes, it felt very weird. I’d never done any kind of set design before and it was a lot more work than I thought it would be. The backdrops are 20′ x 13′ and I’d never painted anything a fraction of that size. My original idea for the phonebooth for the Bagman’s Gambit photo was to make it out of a refridgerator box until I realized that it would probably just collapse. So I made it out of wood but I built it so big that it wouldn’t fit through the door. I was on the verge of tears when my friend Jesse came in and sawed the whole thing in half so we could get it out of the building. It was a debacle at times. And the band was on tour all the while so I felt sort of…directionless. I would call Colin and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” and he’d say, “That’s fine. They’re supposed to look like community theatre sets built by teenagers. They SHOULD look stupid.” And that was idea’s saving grace. A ton of people helped too, including a Decemberists fan named Shanna who came all the way from Seattle to be my assistant for a couple of days and Chris Funk’s girlfriend, Seann, who, among lots of other things, made Funk’s tree costume with me. In fact, she made those branches he’s holding in the photographs out of sticks, paper, tape, and paint. And including the six (yes, six!) people who helped me get the backdrop for The Bus Mall photo done the last two days before the photo shoot. It was incredibly fun, though. It made me realize how rad my friends are and how thankless the lot of a set designer can be; to do so much work only to have too few people notice what’s behind the actors.

Q. Lots of bands seem to become identified by their artists’ work over time. For example, Stanley Donwood’s art has now become unseperable from Radiohead. After doing all three LPs, The Tain and the EP, fans seem to have latched onto you in a similar way. Does this make you feel more uncomfortable or excited?

Excited. Music’s really important to me. More important than visual art in a way because I’m more moved by it. So it’s always seemed sort of unfair that I wasn’t born a musician. I’ve spent my life trying to hang around with them though and it seems right that such a big part of what I do would revolve around music, especially around a band that I love so much.

2 thoughts on “The Decemberists’ Artwork:Or “An Evening with Carson Ellis””

  1. i can’t believe nobody commented on this. great job! the “castaways and cutouts” cover is one of my all-time faves.

    i missed this before. i’ve got to start reading this site everyday!

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