Pop Politics and Paddling Pools: Talking Image with Kate Head and Lauren Eva

Kate Head is from Stoked PR (Taylor Swift) and Lauren Eva is a fashion stylist and art director who has worked with Robbie Williams, Disclosure and Emeli Sandé to name a few. The panellists were interviewed by BA (Hons) Popular Music Journalism student Ben Hindle.

 

Last week, Southampton played host to the sixth annual SMILE festival, a city wide celebration of music, organised by students and staff at Southampton Solent University. Alongside its impressive roster of acts, which in previous years has seen Reverend and the Makers, Foreign Beggars, and Sean McGowan, the festival also gives students a chance to discuss issues of the music industry with some of its most influential figures, at the SMILEfest Conference.

Alongside Kerrang! Editor James McMahon, legendary A&R James Endeacott, and Marcus Russell, manager of Oasis, this year’s panellists included Kate Head, Lauren Eva and WIZ, discussing the importance of artists’ image. We caught up with Kate Head, the woman behind Stoked PR (who handle Taylor Swift) and former head of Sony Music’s PR division, and Lauren Eva (stylist to the likes of Robbie Williams and Emeli Sandé), to discover the highs and lows of the image world.

What is the most fun, outlandish thing you’ve been involved in when creating an artist’s image?

Lauren Eva: I had to dress Bat For Lashes for last year’s Brits, and the brief that she gave me, as she was really ’90s influenced at the time, was that she wanted to look like a hippy Courtney Love. We ended up getting this big, crazy outfit together and inevitably everything ends up changing last minute as she decided that ‘oh actually it’s a bit too over the top’. You’ve got to be comfortable, so she ended up just going in the most simple dress. It was the same big dress that we were gonna use, but we got rid of the really oversized ripped leather jacket, the tiara, the veil, the big boots and everything – she went in these little vintage dance heels in the end. But that was fun because it was just having a drink and dressing up in her bedroom. It’s those little personal things that make it more fun, as opposed to being in a studio on a photo shoot.

Kate Head: I worked very early on with Kasabian, and it was very fun when we did the first photo shoot. Tom Craig, a friend from my university days, had been working with The Independent a lot, going and covering war zones. He’d won a few Photographer of the Year prizes, but he was not in any way involved in fashion or music; I mean it was hardcore what he did. With this brief of rebellion, revolt, hooliganism – these words that kept coming up when describing the visual side of Kasabian’s identity – I thought it might be quite interesting to have him take the pictures as opposed to going down a normal photography route. He brought lots of props, including a flare, and we went up to the farm that Kasabian all lived on together in the outskirts of Leicester. I remember them showing Tom and I a game that they used to play. They used to wrap up in cellophane and run in circles inside this paddling pool. It was really dangerous and really pointless, but Tom was like ‘let’s just shoot it’. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much in my whole career. I literally had pains in my tummy and diaphragm the next day, like you have pains in your quads after the gym.

 

Have you ever had an artist completely reject an idea you’ve come up with?

LE: Well yeah it does happen as part of the process. If you’re talking about a music video for example, you might come up with a different concept of how you think something’s going to work. It’s not always the artist, it might be the director; me and WIZ have had many arguments back and forth over the phone: ‘no they should wear pink’, ‘no it should be boys’, ‘no it should be girls’… so in that sense you do always get knock backs, but it’s just a process of elimination. In terms of a one off single slap round the face kind of thing, the Kings Of Leon video that I did, was one of the most difficult videos in terms of atmosphere. It was very much an ‘America versus England’ kind of thing. They came over as camp America, and they were shooting it in England and all the crew were English. It’s quite a different work ethic. I think English crews just get stuck in and get it done, like they’re all there to work together… that’s how I feel anyway; but camp America were very much what they say goes, what the artist wants they get. I got given the brief to source outfits for the boys and the cast, to fit in with the treatment of the video. That was done and I’d sourced all of this stuff, but from the word go they just didn’t want to know, they were just like ‘we know what we’re wearing’ and that was it, there was very little room for movement at all. That was a very big blow at the absolute 11th hour you know, it wasn’t like they’d told us beforehand so we could change some of the aesthetics.

KH: I had this artist once who asked me if he could change the font of Dazed & Confused Magazine. I don’t know why, but he got to see the piece before it went to press; now that’s normally something that’s reserved for superstars with lots of legal forms surrounding them, but he was a new artist. He said ‘that’s great Kate but I need you to change the font and then it’s approved’. He didn’t like the font, he thought it didn’t suit his identity – it really annoyed me. And I did have an artist once who complained after the event, which was not very helpful. They did a front cover of a men’s magazine, and their dad went mental when it hit the shelves. The artist was like: ‘they said that they wouldn’t use that one, that it was only a test shot’, and I was like: ‘well they didn’t’, but they sacked their management anyway.

 

How would you rate the importance of an artist’s brand against the quality of their music?

KH: That’s really hard, because music’s very subjective. When I was a teenager I had a very narrow minded opinion of music, what was good and what was bad. I had the palette that my parents had developed, from just looking through their record collection and hearing what they played, and then I had my own drum & bass obsessive palette, and outside of that, everything was rubbish. If it was songs with words, and the words weren’t as clever as Bob Dylan then they were awful songwriters and not worth thinking about; and if their beats weren’t as sophisticated as drum & bass beats, then they should go back in the studio. But as I have got older my tastes have broadened. I don’t know if that’s because I work in music, and because I worked at a major record label and had to put lots of different hats on, and hear the merit in a Bruce Springsteen album and then a Beyonce album and then a Killa Kela album, or whether that’s just getting older and being more broad minded and open to things.

LE: I know what you mean, I also think that it works in reverse as well though. When you’re younger, and you’re narrow minded, and you haven’t been exposed to everything in the world, or you might not have as music savvy parents as you or I did; I think that’s when the music that isn’t as good can be polished and packaged and manufactured into something better.

KH: I have an aversion to X-factor, but there has been a Leona Lewis song or two that has touched me. And I think ‘Leave Right Now’ by Will Young, is a genius song and he’s a reality TV product. I hate Morrissey’s voice, I hate The Smiths, and a lot of people are like ‘well you can’t say that Kate’, but I prefer t.A.T.u.’s cover of one of Morrisey’s songs than The Smiths original version, because his voice does something to me… it’s a very personal thing. But I would never say The Smiths are rubbish, and I don’t think it’s fair to say t.A.T.u. are either, because they’re a pop act that can only cover The Smith’s songs.

LE: There’s so many aspects to that as well, because it doesn’t just necessarily come from the artists themselves, it’s everybody around them, the producers, the label. If you’ve got dreadful music there are other people around you to make it better, and then it’s not just your music anymore, it’s this collaborative thing.

KH: If music touches someone it’s good. Who’s to judge that what touches the 86-year-old down the road is better than what touches the 14-year-old? It’s about connecting. I think that the visual side of things, and the imaging side of things, help someone connect on a more extensive level.

 

What are your impressions of Solent and SMILEfest?

KH: I think it’s really good, the panellists they’ve got together. I think that the programme for this day has a great range of topics and there’s a fantastic range of people talking about them. As for the festival as a whole, I think it’s great. From what I understand, the students have booked the artists and the musicians that are playing, and I think there’s a great range of artists and bands involved. Hats off to the students for putting that together.

LE: I think it’s a nice, chilled out vibe as well. I didn’t feel like I was sat up on a pedestal when I was up there talking to the students, we were just on the sofa chilling out. I think it seems like it’s a much more personal thing, as opposed to going to a huge lecture hall and being quite spaced far away from the people that you’re trying to learn from and listen to. I think the way that it’s been set up is really beneficial to the students.

Interview by Ben Hindle
Photography by Jodie-Mae Finch