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'It was a brilliant move, us feeding a machine poetry and then having an artist like Mat reinterpret the images after they’d been spit out by the computer with an interpretation of my body, face and lyrics', says Alison Goldfrapp, whose latest work uses AI.Mat Maitland/Supplied

When Louis Vuitton announced that Pharrell Williams would take over the monogrammed reigns as creative director for the label’s men’s wear line last year, the musician’s new post was passionately debated by fans and critics alike. While Pharrell’s fans saw the Vuitton takeover as a fresh start for the 170-year-old French fashion house, a handful of fashion critics, such as Complex magazine’s Aria Hughes, blasted his cowboy-themed fall/winter debut, declaring the clothes to be more cosplay than runway.

Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: The role of the creative director has made a mark on our collective zeitgeist. What was once seen as an enigmatic, what-does-this-person-even-do type of occupation is now perceived as a vital role that pilots the vision of a brand, a product or a persona.

This has proven to be especially true in the music industry, where creative directors are gaining increasing prominence. Many iconic musicians, past and present – from David Bowie to Nicki Minaj – have acutely relied on stylists, set designers and cinematic talents to help them graduate from pop singer to pop artist. A creative director is the next step, orchestrating this collective talent toward a vision that the musician ultimately fuels. The scroll-heavy, social media era we’re living in has placed greater demands on cultural figures, who must consistently produce and release imagery for a generation that consumes content at a rapid pace.

For Montreal-based DJ, composer, author, illustrator and multimedia performer Kid Koala – whose career spans three decades – every project begins and ends with working alongside his creative director, Ryhna Thompson. The pair have been collaborating since the mid-nineties.

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Montreal-based DJ, composer, author, illustrator and multimedia performer Kid Koala, right, alongside his creative director Ryhna Thompson, with whom every creative project begins and ends.AJ Korkidakis/Supplied

“I’m the designer,” says Kid Koala, whose real name is Eric San, “and Ryhna’s the architect, but we build out the vision together.” Creating Kid Koala’s current live production, The Storyville Mosquito – which will be staged in Montreal’s Place des Arts from Feb. 29 to March 3 – took months of sketches, negotiations and meetings, the duo says.

The spectacle revolves around the story of an insect musician’s quest to become part of an orchestra in a bustling metropolis. Its staging – which features layers of puppetry, live video, musicians and sound effects – is a universe away from that of typical stage tours, which tend to be cookie-cutter and easier to execute.

The Storyville Mosquito is a 100-per-cent live theatre experience and using a cinematic language requires me to have the logistical experience needed to pull it off as well the kind of artistic intimacy I have with Eric,” Thompson says. As one of the few women in Canada to own a thriving production company, Thompson’s international connections to other artists, engineers, set designers and concert halls breathe life into San’s storytelling.

“I went from scanning sketches on a low-fi website in the nineties to having Ryhna find venues in Japan that can deal with innovative technology and fit giant puppets. She has to translate big, impossible ideas that start with these,” San says, pointing to his hands, noting that his initial concepts often come in the form of illustrations (many of which have gone on to live in graphic novels, colouring books, zines and even a game board).

It’s Thompson’s job to bring San’s concepts to life on-stage and on-screen. “I’m constantly looking at materials that are workable, lightweight, modular and not wasteful from sources that have the ability to jump off of Eric’s sketches and translate into a 3-D universe,” she says.

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Kid Koala’s current live production – The Storyville Mosquito – will be staged in Montreal’s Place des Arts from Feb. 29 to March 3.AJ Korkidakis/Supplied

Across the pond, British artist and creative director Mat Maitland has long been a go-to for pop’s brightest stars, including Kylie Minogue, Lana Del Rey, Prince and Michael Jackson. His recent work with electro-pop creator Alison Goldfrapp is an example of his forward thinking. While many in the record industry have spoken out against AI, Maitland and Goldfrapp embraced it to complete the vision for her first solo disc, The Love Invention, released on the eve of her 57th birthday last spring.

They planned a traditional photoshoot, which the pair art-directed together (choosing colour palettes, lighting treatments and clothing) and Maitland captured it all on camera. Then the pair fed the images and lines plucked from The Love Invention through an AI generator. The result hybridized Goldfrapp’s body and recast the singer-songwriter’s hands and wrists as hooves, bouquets of flowers and acid green maggots.

“She saw what I was doing with my own art and wanted to play in that space,” says Maitland, who had previously created collage work and album art for Goldfrapp’s namesake duo with Will Gregory.

“It was a brilliant move, us feeding a machine poetry and then having an artist like Mat reinterpret the images after they’d been spit out by the computer with an interpretation of my body, face and lyrics,” says Goldfrapp, who recently released her second disc, The Love Reinvention, which remixes her debut.

“I’m really over some of the common AI techniques on Instagram. The filters and the touch-ups are all a bit soulless. Imagery should be like clay,” Maitland adds. “We used AI to translate and morph existing photos we’d done but at the end of the day, the artwork is still all me manipulating selects in various programs to find that sweet spot of analogue and digital for the visuals and videos.”

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Mat Maitland worked with electro-pop creator Alison Goldfrapp, using AI on her first solo disc, The Love Invention.Jaja Hargreaves/Supplied

And it’s that human aspect that Maitland says is imperative to producing work that projects the fantasy and mystery that surrounded icons such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

“Creative direction is even much more important than it was years ago because you have to define what world you’re making so it can feel individual and exciting. It’s harder to get that now because there’s so much on our phones and screens,” he says, adding there is an emphasis in popular culture with having “a clone-like face inspired by the world of Kardashians.”

Ultimately, Maitland aims to counter what is common. “My job is about spending time with musicians and discussing references and showing them things that someone hasn’t seen yet, even if people in the industry want something that looks generic.”

For artists, finding the right creative director to work with is key. Canadian musician and vocalist Kamilah Apong unfortunately had to learn this by going through an experience that almost led her to leave the industry altogether. Before joining TUSH – the Toronto-based house and funk music duo she fronts with Jamie Kidd – she was in a group called Mainline, whose repertoire consisted of rare disco covers. While Apong loved the music, she found the environment oppressive – especially for Black and queer people such as herself.

“At one point, I was told, ‘We’re going to all wear fake afros for the show and ask everyone in the crowd to wear them, too,’ ” says Apong, who felt that this ask was not only insensitive to her but the original performers, pioneers who helped advance dance music. “The women in the disco era are not costumes to be worn, nor are they one-dimensional. These people are powerful, who had stories to share, but this racist view of them flattens their legacy.”

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'The collaborative process is a practice of vulnerability', says Canadian musician and vocalist Kamilah Apong.Tiana Smith/Supplied

Apong also went on to create Lil Sis, a grassroots and resource centre focused on young artists. She chose a team of mentors to help up-and-coming artists develop branding and social-media skills independently, so they can feel autonomous and see themselves as what Apong refers to as “more than just the token in the room.”

One of Lil Sis’s main missions is to reduce barriers in the entertainment industry for BIPOC and 2SLGBTQ+ artists by creating safer performance spaces. In addition to educational and developmental workshops, she’s teaching them how to avoid the pitfalls of an exploitative industry. This includes guidance on how to take the lead on their persona creation with music labels

Apong says this doesn’t necessarily mean artists need to take on all the duties of a creative director. At a time when viral social media, streaming and communication strategies determine success, that extra workload can be too much. Instead, Apong believes the skill new musicians need to cultivate most is how to choose respectful artistic partners so they can have more time and energy to write and perform.

“The collaborative process is a practice of vulnerability. If I’m not feeling safe or having a connection with someone, the project or video or photo won’t work. I move at a slow pace that seeks trust,” Apong says, noting that the follow-up to TUSH’s acclaimed current album, Fantast, may not have a release date until 2025.

“With creative direction, people immediately go to branding, art direction and making the mood board, and that’s essentially that,” she continues. “What new artists are looking for is more. We’re looking to experiment, to test, to embrace insecurities and failures and not adhere to a traditional output or jackpot algorithm.”

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