Jess Rotter's Nostalgic Illustrations Commemorate Music's Golden Age

Illustrator, muralist, and all around awesome music fan Jess Rotter has some big news to announce this week. After doing album art for indie rocker Best Coast, folk singer Linda Perhacs, and a Country Funk compilation for the Light in the Attic, as well as T-shirt design for a little band you may have heard of called The Grateful Dead, Rotter's artful doodles are gracing a cool kids' package called This Record Belongs To _____. This Record is a collab between Rotter, DJ Zach Cowie, Light in the Attic, and Jack White's Third Man Records and it exposes future vinyl collectors (and the young at heart) to a curated batch of killer music from Shel Silverstein, Kermit the Frog, Harry Nilsson, Nina Simone, and more (no "boy bands, princesses, or purple dinosaurs" here). It comes with a cute booklet designed by Rotter and populated by the ebullient, personified creatures you often find in her work and on her Instagram feed.

The move into a different side of music merch is natural for this LA-based music publicist turned in-demand illustrator. Her loving portraits and minimalist landscapes grace tote bags, hotel lobbies, and clothing lines for Urban Outfitters, The Gap, and Target as well as her own Rotter & Friends. Her work has a warm, nostalgic glow, harkening back to time in art, music, and comics when simple line drawings and a splash of color could express so much.

We are huge fans of Rotter's work and were very excited to learn a little more about her process and her projects. 

How did you first get into illustration? Were you a doodler as a kid?

I dove into drawing at a pretty early age, always seemed to have a pencil in tow since the beginning. Doodlin’, making stories, and creating worlds was always the means of my visual daydreaming.

How has your style emerged and developed over the years?

I think the spirit in a weird way has always stayed the same. I’m 35 and still drawing animals in top hats, but the drawing itself and compositions have become more skilled as time passes. I always loved this massive oil painting series I worked on in college. Sometimes wish I could go back to that time of drive and hope, as it showed completely in the work. When you get older, your artistic knowledge rises, but those darn adult realities creep in. You just gotta learn to never shut out the sillies and imagination.

Images courtesy of Jess Rotter & Light in the Attic

Images courtesy of Jess Rotter & Light in the Attic

Who has been a big influence on you (artists, musicians, whomever)?

I always loved the magic of Philip Guston, The Fabulous Freak Brothers, Archie, The Muppet Show, Henry Diltz, Neil Young, Ralph Bakshi, John Martyn, Robert Crumb, and Chris Ware. The list rolls on…

What inspired you to start Rotter & Friends? And what awesome things have come out of starting your musician-focused T-shirt line?

I started Rotter and Friend nine years ago because I wanted to bring dialogue and appreciation to rare albums and bands of the 1960’s and ‘70s. Records were always my “friends” and a lot of the music we payed tribute to were huge influences. They saved my life many times.

It was a real honor to finally do an official shirt for The Grateful Dead, but I think my favorite part of the line has been a combination of the positive responses from younger kids, (who have discovered the music) and the older customers, (who were there when these records came out).

I just love talking about music, so using visuals to bring that out was always a dream.

Have any of the musicians you've illustrated reached out to you after seeing your work?

Definitely! For most of my shirts, they are officially approved by the artists we pay homage to. The coolest was by Lee Hazlewood’s widow who said he would have approved the shirts with a great smile. Also, seeing Jody Stephens of Big Star wearing the shirt and loving it really made me faint on the floor.

What are some of the commissions you've been most proud of? I know you've done murals for retail and hotel spots around the country.

I had a lot of fun doing the mural at my best friend Susannah’s shop “Freda” in Marfa and the Ace Hotel in NYC. I remember both processes fondly, which contained good talks, wine, and jams into the late night while I was contorting my body every five minutes to paint a different spot. 

What would your dream collaboration be?

Elton John! I need to work with him on something. Oh, and if Paul Williams could compose music for an animated piece I scribble I would be a heart melt on rye!

How has creating album art affected your appreciation of music and how it's packaged?

I think creating album art was the full circle, because if my teenage self could see it hopefully she’d approve. It was such a far out dream to do covers, yet stressful because that is such a visual voice of experiencing a record. I am so influenced by album art and comics as they really take you places if you let them. So, being a part of that is important to me because you can’t live life without giving yourself little trippy escapes.

Have you worked in the digital art world at all? Any experiments there?

I actually just bought a Wacom tablet last month to take a stab at digital art in hopes of branching out into some more animation. I haven’t got the hang of it yet, but have to practice with patience. 

What are you working on next?

A special project that just got announced is This Record Belongs To ___, which is a record compiled by my other BFF, Mr. Zach Cowie. It’s a collection of songs for kids (and adults) ranging from Kermit The Frog, Carole King, Harry Nilsson, Nina Simone, and more! I illustrated the cover and co-wrote/scribbled the storybook that comes with it via the great Light In The Attic records. We got to partner up with Third Man Records, who are putting out a kid’s turntable to have them available as a combo. That project is super important to my heart.

What artists do you follow?

I love hearing what Fran Lebowitz has to say about the current state of culture. The James Turrell exhibit last year in LA was incredible. On the daily, its always inspiring seeing what my photographer buddies David Black, Autumn De Wilde, and Lauren Duckoff are up to. Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte are beyond magical people who have taught me so much about art.  There’s a nice scene here in LA where people are doing great things.

Anything else folks should know about you?

I primarily listen to old radio shows from the 1970’s while working, as it feels like true time travel. Beam me up, man.

Follow Jess Rotter on her website, Rotter & Friends page, and on Instagram.