Sound and vision Local graphic designer Roberta Landreth’s album covers are music to our eyes
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/11/2021 (563 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
She’s a Juno Award winner whose name appears on dozens of albums.
But Roberta Landreth is not a singer-songwriter, nor is she in a band. “I played flute through high school, then took violin lessons once upon a time for a year,” she says. “I think I was 19 and absolutely horrendously bad.”
She gets music, though. You could say Landreth, 35, is a sought-after Winnipeg graphic designer who specializes in creating the kinds of album covers and gig posters you want to frame, but there’s more to her job than that.
She creates an artist’s visual identity and iconography. She tells the story of the music in shape and colour.
On the cover of Grace Street, the 2017 album from Canadian rock-radio staple Big Wreck, a leaping stallion dissolves into refracted shards of glass. On the cover of local singer-songwriter JP Hoe’s 2015 LP Hideaway, a stylized castle rises up from a craggy, snowy mountain with a secret door. Each of her some 75 projects has its own distinct mood and feel. She lets the artist and a close listen of the music be her guide.
“It’s all about really listening to the client, and making sure that you’re representing their art authentically,” she says, sitting in the cosy living room of her West End home, french press steeping on the coffee table. “And I find the best way to do that is just ask a ton of questions at the onset.
“I like to make a human connection, because most of my clients aren’t from Winnipeg; especially with COVID, you never meet these people face to face. I’ve always had a FaceTime or a Zoom, an initial conversation, just so that they know that I’m a person, and I can see them as a person. And we just talk about the art.”
• • •
There was a time that Landreth, née Hansen, thought she might become a psychologist. She earned a degree in English and psychology from the University of Winnipeg, but realized that she’d have to spend a lot more time with numbers and data before she could spend time with people.
“Then I was like, what am I gonna do with my life?” she says. “I went travelling for a year, got in debt and then was like: OK, get focused, what you want to do?”
She always loved art and, in particular, storytelling through art. So she enrolled in Red River College’s three-year graphic design program, and found the focus and direction she’d been searching for. She gravitated toward projects such as wine labels, book covers, album covers — design meant to get people to see what’s inside.
Landreth got snapped up right after graduation by Honest Agency. “I was working with really awesome designers,” she says. “And they had great clients — they had folk fest and Folklorama and just really fun projects. I spent a couple years there and learned everything I possibly could.
“And then in 2013, my husband formed a band with his brother, and I did their cover art. That was my very first CD project.”
Roberta’s husband is Dave Landreth who, with brother Joey Landreth, makes up the Juno-winning alt-country act the Bros. Landreth. Back then, though, they just needed something to sell at gigs at the Cavern. Roberta made them a cover — a note-perfect, sepia-soaked Prairie scene — that ended up being nominated for a Western Canadian Music Award.
That project grabbed the attention of fêted Christian singer-songwriter Steve Bell, who tapped Landreth to do the design work for Pilgramage, his 25th-anniversary box set. Landreth wasn’t that familiar with his music at the time, but when she saw him perform a show at the Centennial Concert Hall with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the gravity of the ask set in.
“I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is intimidating,’” she says with a laugh. “You’re trusting me to do your 25-year album project? I’ve done exactly one project before. It was so scary. I wanted to do a good job: this roomful of people clearly loves this man, he’s had a 25-year career — I want to do this justice.”
For his part, Bell didn’t know much about Landreth, either, only that he liked the Bros. cover.
“When I went to meet her, I was fully expecting a much older person,” he says with a laugh (Roberta would have been in her late 20s then). “Just because of the maturity of the design that I saw. I met her at a Starbucks and she was young. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, no, this is not the right person.’
“I think she sensed my reservation and she quite calmly just looked at me and said, ‘I can do this.’ Not arrogant at all. It was this sort of confidence, like ‘I am able to do what you’re looking for. I get it.’ There was just something to the tone of her voice. I believed her.”
Landreth got the gig. She was still working at the agency, as well as balancing serving shifts at the Keg, working on the Bell project whenever she could carve out time.
And then she won a Juno for it.
• • •
The 2015 Juno Awards in Hamilton were big ones for people named Landreth. The same year Roberta won a Juno for Recording Package of the Year, the Bros. Landreth picked up a trophy for Roots/Traditional album for their debut, Let It Lie — which, of course, features Roberta’s artwork.
“It was such a fun thing,” she says, smiling. We’ve moved to her sun-soaked, plant-filled home office so she can show off some new work she’s doing for the Fretless. Neither Roberta nor Dave was expecting to be nominated, let alone win, so to have that moment together was special.
Roberta has won many awards for her work since, including, most recently, a 2021 Western Canadian Music Award for Excellence in Visual Design. “I think the reason for that is quantity,” she demurs. “Like, most artists get to release one album a year. I’m releasing, like, 20 or 30.” She laughs. “The odds are in my favour.”
Roberta and Dave grew up a street apart in West Kildonan, but they officially met at Branigan’s, where Roberta, then 17, was a hostess.
When he came up to her to ask for payment, “I thought he looked like my friend Tanya’s boyfriend, Marco. So, I said, ‘Marco?,’ he said ‘Polo,’ and from there we went on a date.”
Their love story was interrupted, however, when Roberta’s crush — “for, like, two years” — finally asked her out. But Dave and Roberta found their way to each other again in 2010.
Now, they’ve embarked on a new chapter together: parenthood. Their son, Finlay, was born right before the pandemic.
“Honestly, it was kind of sweet,” she says of the timing of his arrival. “I think our situation is very unique in that my husband was, at the height of it, traveling 250 days a year. We got to introduce him to everyone we know, and then the world stopped and we got to be a family. Obviously, there’s hard parts like not seeing family or having those support networks during lockdown, but just to be together was special and sweet.”
• • •
Roberta Landreth is pretty sure she hasn’t listened to a physical CD in, oh, 10 years.
“It’s so weird — even when I first started doing this, it was like, ‘Oh, CDs are out, my job has a time limit’ but I’m still, to this day, designing CDs,” she says. “I think people like having a tangible thing. But even with digital stuff, you still have to have artwork — it just takes a different shape. You’re doing socials, people are depending more on merch.
“But, the cool thing is, the people who are printing CDs and LPs are making deluxe things. I get to design with foil and cutouts and, because they maybe will only get 500 printed, they’re very special.”
Landreth has been working on non-music projects as well, most recently a beer can for Torque Brewing — an art deco-styled label for a Nellie McClung-inspired collaboration called Whoa Nellie — and illustrating a children’s book, a first for her.
You Came From My Heart, written by Brenlee Coates, aims to expand the definition of family by telling a story about one with two moms — which is Coates’ story. She and her wife Amanda Karpinsky welcomed her daughter, Lark, earlier this year.
Coates and Landreth became fast friends a few years ago and became mothers around the same time, so Landreth was a natural choice. What stood out to Coates was the amount of “painstaking detail” Landreth brought to the process.
“She’s like, ‘Is it OK if this is what Amanda is wearing at this time?’ and wanted so many details on every page to be so personal to us,” Coates says. It was an honour, Coates says, to work with someone who was just as committed to making something meaningful as she was.
Bell would likely co-sign that sentiment.
“(Roberta’s) got a beautiful soul,” he says, “There’s just something about her that is gracious. She’s hospitable, she’s humble. She’s also confident. She really, really, really listens to the material. I could tell when the first designs came that she was really, deeply listening. I was being heard.”
Landreth is being choosier about her projects these days, and trying to find balance between those frenzied times where she’s so busy she can’t breathe, and those anxiety-provoking slow times, “where it’s like, ‘I’m never gonna get another job.’”
Like many driven, self-employed creatives, Landreth finds it difficult to enjoy her success.
“Maybe that’s the next thing to work on,” she says. “This career is viable, it’s working — now is the time to just enjoy it. Kind of, like, realizing what you have instead of worrying about the next thing.”
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Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.