Sketching Sawyer’s music: How a German artist became the singer-songwriter’s album illustrator

Sawyer Fredericks performs in January in the Palace Sessions series on YouTube. Inset: Artist Nina Pfeiffer and her cover illustrations for Fredericks' two most recent albums. (Inset photos courtesy of Nina Pfeiffer)
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Sawyer Fredericks performs in January in the Palace Sessions series on YouTube. Inset: Artist Nina Pfeiffer and her cover illustrations for Fredericks' two most recent albums. (Inset photos courtesy of Nina Pfeiffer)

It all started with a YouTube video of Sawyer Fredericks singing.

“I was blown away,” said Nina Pfeiffer, an illustrator who lives in Hamburg, Germany. “His music is very melancholic, but somehow it resonates with me.”

In 2015, Sawyer Fredericks, a singer/songwriter/guitarist from Glen won “The Voice,” an American singing competition on national television. At 15, he was the youngest winner in the show’s eight-year history. He would go on to release multiple albums, make at least one 49-city U.S. tour and have his music top the Billboard Folk charts.

But in 2017, he put one of his singles, “Hide Your Ghost,” on YouTube, which is what Pfeiffer heard. Inspired, Pfeiffer posted a sketch of how the song affected her on Instagram and tweeted how much she loved his music.

“None of my friends had heard of him,” she said.

On Instagram, she tagged Fredericks, who saw the drawing.

“She’d created perfectly how the song went,” Fredericks said.

Fredericks and his then manager, his mother, Kirsten, contacted Pfeiffer and asked if she’d be interested in doing an album.

“I jumped out of bed, I was so excited,” Pfeiffer said.

The album, “Hide Your Ghost,” changed her career.

“I’ve always drawn. I was really good by 11,” she said. “I copied everything, especially still life of foods and vegetables. It was a refuge for me — a safe place.”

Born in Germany, she also played violin and at 16 was a member of a 10-piece orchestra that toured high schools in New Jersey. Although she went on to obtain an art apprenticeship in Hamburg, she’d become interested in nutrition and got degrees in Germany and Australia. She’s still working on her master’s degree from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Along the way she learned English — mostly self-taught, she said. In 2011, at age 23, she decided to also become a self-employed graphic artist and, until Fredericks’ call, she’d done mostly print work such as brochures and announcements.

The call from him was especially thrilling because she’s a fan of his music.

“It’s amazing to work with people you really admire and to be able to add something of your own to their success,” she said.

The first thing was to listen to the songs that would be recorded.

“His music is dark and sometimes depressing, but my sketches are colorful and optimistic. But I like his dark side,” she said. “The drawings express what I feel in his music.”

She sent six sketches that would reflect the theme Fredericks had in mind of having water and fire coming together. The sketch chosen for the CD cover has swirls of lines around a female figure that culminate over her head in a fantasy garden of burnt leaves. The other five sketches went into a booklet that has the lyrics to each of the songs and each song has a sketch attached to it, something Fredericks asked for.

Some of the sketches reflected Fredericks’ concerns at the time, which included the election of a new president and environmental issues, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, his mother said. The booklet has a female figure in a fetal position on its cover with a dark dripping mass that could be construed as oil. Inside are drawings of barren trees, a faun-like figure, and other fantastical images.

Fredericks said he was pleased with the result.

“She took words of a song and put them in her artwork,” he said, adding with a laugh that he got his inspirations not from reading sci-fi but sometimes from watching fantasy films.

Pfeiffer’s methods

The methods that Pfeiffer used in her work included making the image that would be on the album cover in Adobe Photoshop, which allowed for more color and manipulation; and for the other sketches to be paper and pen or watercolor.

The entire process took six weeks and was the first experience for both — the first album for her to illustrate, and for him the first time he’d used artwork.

“I used photography for my first two albums: ‘Sawyer Fredericks’ (2015) and ‘A Good Storm’ (2016),” he said. “I loved working with Nina.”

The next album, “Flowers for You,” which was released in 2019, took more than two months to complete.

“I was picky on this CD,” Fredericks said with a laugh. “I went through a lot of drawings and back and forth. I had a vision of a person hunkered down clawing at the ground like planting seeds over something in reds and golds in the artwork. I purposefully didn’t want it male or female. And I wanted tons of flowers like the ones that grow at the family farm: sunflowers, morning glories. And honey dripping. I wanted each drawing to embody the spirit of the song.”

The androgynous figure seems to have grass growing out of its back as it digs near a stream. Flowers border that stream with beehives, bees and butterflies flitting about. The booklet has a female figure on the cover in a fetal position with gold honey dripping below and inside are a kneeling figure with long hair and sunflowers growing out its back, twisting branches with globs of honey, a hand from which butterflies spring.

Pfeiffer said the androgynous figure was “a bit scary. It’s a new kind of creature.”

But she loved the process despite its length.

“He had a lot of ideas and wanted them incorporated. It was an elaborate result,” she said.

“It’s been really, really cool working with Nina,” Fredericks said. “I wished I’d done it before [on the other albums]. I’m somewhat of a perfectionist and want a style going on.”

Currently, he said he has no plans for another album, because he doesn’t have enough new material.

“But when I do, I plan to work with Nina,” he said.

“Hide Your Ghost” and “Flowers for You” are available at www.sawyerfredericks.com. Previous albums and some live recordings from his tours are at www.Amazon.com and local music stores.

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, Art, Entertainment

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