1. ye vag murphy beds

Smith's creative design is daring, reverent

Jesse Smith's nuanced eye is at work in many trad posters and album covers.

By Daniel Neely

Walk into a place like the Druid pub in Cambridge and one of the more striking elements of its decor are the several vintage posters from the Lisdoonvarna Festival that line the wall facing the bar. They’re interesting not just because of the impressive musicians who played there each year, but because they also look cool. The drawings, the colors and the layout of these posters all just come together in appealing ways. Although of the time, these posters have great style and are well designed, which make them as interesting now as when they were originally printed. That’s the hardest thing to achieve, but it’s also an important reason why the Druid still has them hanging.

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Presentation is important and the first step in attracting an audience. For example, how many times have you decided to go into a pub – or not – because of how it looked from the outside? What about music? Did an album cover ever influence a purchase? How many readers out there remember how distinctive Planxty or the Bothy Band’s first LPs looked? Or De Danann’s “Star Spangled Molly”? A well designed album cover or gig poster can sometimes be the difference between success and disappointment

Back in April, I noticed on Twitter a poster image announcing a Murphy Beds / Ye Vagabonds tour that reminded me of this kind of “throwback” approach to presentation. The design was simple but iconic and it made me excited to see one of the shows. At the time I’d asked around to find out who the artist was, but it wasn’t until last week that I found out that it was Jesse Smith (who for some time did his design under the pseudonym “J. MacGabhann”) because he shared some of his work – including this poster – on his Facebook page. I was familiar with virtually every image he’d posted and yet just didn’t know it was all his.

Originally from Maryland but now living on Arranmore Island in Donegal, Smith graduated from the Baltimore School for the Arts in 1995 and quickly became one of the music’s premiere fiddle players. His path began in the late 1990s as a member of Danu and has continued through many other truly excellent releases, including “The Tap Room Trio” with Harry Bradley and John Blake, “The Ewe With a Crooked Horn” with Colm Gannon and John Blake, “The Rookery” with Emmett Gill, “At My Grandmother's Knee” with Mick O’Grady and John Blake, and “Music from the Lost Continent” with Sean Gavin and John Blake, just to name a few. I enjoy writing about all of Smith’s musical endeavors because he maintains a very consistent and very high standard.

Smith’s design and illustration work is every bit as impressive as his playing. Going through his portfolio, what struck me was how much of a fan of his work I already was. I knew I loved the covers of his own albums, but was impressed to learn that his nuanced eye and creative design were behind the distinctive-looking albums of James Carty, Fergus McGorman, The Truckly Howl, Dan Brouder & Angelina Carberry, Leonard Barry, Aoife Ní Chaoimh & Paudie O’Connor, and several others.

As he describes it, his work “incorporates digital technology with traditional media such as typography, photography, drawing and collage as essential parts of the creative process.” It’s a fine way of describing his approach, but it doesn’t exactly convey the spirit of his creativity. His work is different and distinctive but also rooted – it’s the sort of thing I’ve found just sticks in your head once the music’s over.

Trad music’s history is rife with poorly done or just simply boring graphic design. Smith’s approach is different. With strong sense of personal style and a keen understanding of how traditional music has been visually presented over the decades – LPs, CDs, posters and the like – his work is both daring and reverent and it hits its viewers in unexpected but I find lasting (and perhaps timeless) ways. It’s not often that this sort of visual innovation comes out of trad music, but it does happen and Smith is a perfect ambassador. Definitely worth checking his work out.

Bands looking for design work for an album or a tour poster should contact Smith. To learn more, visit blackroguedesign.com.