The Whole Storey

She’s the creative drive behind the cover art for Tegan and Sara’s latest album, “Sainthood.” Now, Emy Storey opens up about her design style, her fans and the visual concept behind the new album.

Although you can’t judge a book by its cover, a good cover certainly leaves a lasting impression. Therefore, when designer Emy Storey of directs the visual presentation of musicians such as Tegan and Sara or Melissa Ferrick, she understands that an unforgettable album cover or website is crucial for success. But as a socially conscious artist, she is also aware that a clever design can be a powerful tool in the promotion of a political movement. Storey elaborates on her appetency for justice and textures, her forays into fashion and book design and her intimate connection to music.

How would you describe your design style?
I would probably describe my style as multi-media craft-graphics. It’s hard to say sometimes because I love so many mediums. I love textures and colors. My clients tend to encourage me or seek me out to do things that have a handmade kind of look, but I’m very capable of doing “sleek” work as well.

You have created album covers, merchandise and websites for various musicians. Did you ever expect your career to be so closely linked to music?
No, I really didn’t, but I couldn’t be happier with this path. Most people don’t think about the fact that design is client-based. This means that the finished product is almost always a compromise or selection by the client. Album art works this way too, but it’s not as immediately commercial as a lot of other design work, and therefore I usually get to be very creative with it. It feels a lot like doing commissioned art. It’s also exciting to translate sounds into visuals. I feel really lucky to have been able to get into this business.

One result of your connection to various musicians is that you have accumulated an impressive fan base. Some fans even sport tattoos of your art. What is it like, as an artist, to have fans?
It’s really fun. It’s amazing to get so much feedback from the people who experience my work that way. Most of my fan base grew out of all the work I’ve done for Tegan and Sara, and because I toured with them for years selling the merchandise I designed. I used to make elaborate merchandise displays and really go crazy with all that. The fans quickly learned that I was the designer, so they connected to me that way. I really value the kindness and appreciation all those people continue to show me.

You have a very distinct style that Tegan and Sara fans in particular have come to love ever since your work on the album So Jealous, and again with the album The Con and their latest release Sainthood. How much of the actual art is inspired by the music or the musician, and how much by your own personal vision?
Each project is quite different. I do art direction for Tegan and Sara, which means that I control most of their visual output. I love working this way because I am obsessed with concepts and I’m a control freak.

The art for The Con was very much about theme. When we named the record, we were thinking a lot about the messages of deception, fraud, death and misdirection that were found in the music, so that, and the literary sound of the title, is reflected in the art.
Ever since So Jealous, I’ve been really intimately connected to Tegan and Sara’s music and have heard each song in every stage of its development, so I’m very familiar with their intent. Sometimes, with other bands, I haven’t even heard the music before I make the art! Unless a musician specifically tells me that they envision me using kittens or something very specific on the cover, it’s generally up to me to come up with ideas. I do love having a concept and therefore try to make the art as relevant as possible to the message of the musician.

How would you describe the visual concept behind Tegan and Sara’s new album Sainthood?
I knew I wanted to use a photo for the album cover of Sainthood, so I started to brainstorm around the themes of the album in order to come up with some cool art direction for the photo shoot. One of the concepts was to use those cut outs that you might find at a carnival where you stick your own head through the cut out head hole of a totally crazy body. I thought to do this in order to play into the idea of archetypes, facades and falsities. So I made a bunch of these giant cardboard cut out things and worked with Pamela Littky, our amazing photographer, to develop the idea. When we were shooting it, I didn’t know that those images were going to be so perfect for the cover, but once I saw them I had a feeling right away, and it was the first and only idea I worked on for the album art. The rest of the artwork surrounding the album is inspired by concepts drawn from the title Sainthood, so I play off of religious frescos and such, but it all comes off totally secular.

Coinciding with the release of Sainthood is the release of the three-part Tegan and Sara book series ON, IN, AT. As creative director of this project, what can you tell us about the books?
The ON, IN, AT book project was incredible, and one that took about half a year of work. Essentially, my role was to turn this fabulous idea that Tegan had to make a series of photo journals into a book set. Photographer Lindsey Byrnes toured with Tegan and Sara in the United States and Australia, documenting life on the road. So we had a collection of images, and a collection of written content, journal entries, scrapbook-style odds and ends, and we needed to turn everything into a narrative.

For the first book, ON, I decided to keep it pretty straight ahead with photos and writing split up into different categories about touring life—sound check, show, backstage and then everything else such as eating, packing, moving, and sleeping.

The second book, IN, was about a co-writing experience Tegan and Sara had in New Orleans that was photo-documented by Ryan Russell. The photos has this beautiful eerie, black and white, distinctly New Orleans look to them so I decided to make the whole book a bit eerie and created a framework around the idea that it was all a big experiment. So, the written content is “directed” by these “psychologists” who make Tegan and Sara answer personality tests, write journal entries about their feelings, examine Rorschach ink blots and transcribe their conversations, as if they are being watched from behind one way glass.

The third book is probably the most fun, and it is all about a Tegan and Sara tour in Australia. On the tour, everyone in the band kept a journal and kept things like receipts and tickets and Polaroid photos, so I decided to set the whole thing up like a newspaper where everybody was a journalist. This left lots of room for funny headlines, anecdotes, photos…it’s an entertaining read. I loved working on this project and I can’t wait for the fans to have it because it’s a very special package.

The Con and Sainthood were produced by Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie, and you created the album cover for his band’s latest release. Tegan has collaborated with Melissa Ferrick and Rachael Cantu, and you have designed artwork for both of these artists. The same can be said of Sara’s collaboration with the Reason, and of collaborations with Vivek Shraya. Has your association with Tegan and Sara led to more clients for you, or are you a music matchmaker for Tegan and Sara?
My association with Tegan and Sara has led to a lot of work for me with other artists. Rachel Cantu was the only musician that connected to Tegan and Sara through me. I think it’s hard for people to find a good designer, kind of like finding a good mechanic, so word of mouth and referrals are a great way to get work.

Do you think the decline in physical CD sales will lead to the death of album artwork? Is the visual presentation of a band or an album more challenging in this digital age?
I do think that the decline of physical CD sales is leading to a lack of interest in album art, but it’s still absolutely imperative to have cover art for your album because you need to be able to market the music, whether it’s digital marketing or print advertising. Everything in between doesn’t get noticed as much anymore, but I think that people have been saying that since the turn away from vinyl. Regardless, there is clearly a lot of sharing and passing around of MP3s without any attachment to visuals. I think that as long as album art is beautiful and creative, people will have an interest in the tangible version.

As the Minister of Tegan and Sara Culture, you have also recently moved beyond album covers and gig T-shirts, and have designed a limited release Tegan and Sara shoe for DC Shoes.
[Laughs] “Minister of Tegan and Sara culture,” I love that! The shoe was a great project. We based the design on a pair of vintage no-name kicks that Sara had, and I even got to design the box. They are quite limited-edition collector’s items at this point.

You were also involved in designing Tegan and Sara’s shoes for Macbeth Footwear.
Yes, I designed those shoes as well. It was very fun working with the Macbeth people. Both Tegan and Sara had special requests for their shoes, so I pretty much designed them to order.

As a child, you wrote a book entitled Attack of the Killer Barbie, so you were obviously both artistic and political at an early age. What first inspired you to become an artist?
My dad was a creative inspiration when I was a kid. He worked as a graphic designer but did all sorts of woodworking, sewed me dresses, built a strip cedar canoe, rebuilt a TR3—his resourcefulness and do-it-yourself attitude really rubbed off on me. Also, I was always obsessed with materials and used to collect scraps of everything. I loved to draw and make elaborate seasonal displays in my room. I also used to read a lot of craft books. The Attack of the Killer Barbie book, I wrote in the fourth grade and it was the first thing I made that received attention, outside my family. As a little tomboy it was an obvious topic to address in an illustrated novella; nobody told me at the time that it was a feminist statement. Regardless, the whole experience really encouraged me to be clever in my work.

What some of the political and nonprofit endeavors that you have used your artistic gifts to promote.
While attending design school at Concordia University in Montreal, there was some focus on being a conscious designer, which I think was some kind of encouragement for us students to not all sell out in the future. It was sort of this abstract idea for a lot of people, like if you weren’t doing ads for an eco-friendly product, there were no other options. It was through my political organizing work and not really through my design education that I learned how design is a crucial element of any political movement, just as it is crucial to the success of a product in the marketplace. When I’m doing organizing work with a group of people, it’s really exciting to be able to share these skills. For example, when I moved to Montreal I started learning about the Black Panthers, political prisoners, prisoner justice issues and antiracism. This was interesting because I was basically learning about the U.S. “(in)justice” system from Canada. I hooked up with a group of people at and designed calendars to support the struggles of political prisoners. I also did design work and skills sharing at an incredible organization in Montreal called the Immigrant Workers Center, and I’ve worked with a transsexual and transgender health organization called ASTT(e)Q. We put out a series of pamphlets on trans health, where the whole theme was trans superheroes, so the art was very comic book-esque. Lately I’ve been doing lots of odds and ends design for a LGBTTIQ youth advocacy and support center called Project 10 at, and I’m also on their Board of Directors.

Do you have an all-time favorite album cover?
Basically this is a trip through my parents’ record collection. I was fascinated by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by the full record art of the Who’s Quadrophenia and by all the Led Zeppelin art, to name a few. I also tend to love the covers for the Blue Note recordings.

What’s next for you?
I just finished a thing for Soundscreen Design called the Artist Music Journal Series. It’s so exciting to be a part of this project.

Now that most of the Tegan and Sara stuff is done, I’m going to finally have some time this winter to work on my own projects such as totally redoing my online store and website, making new art and expanding some ideas I’ve only been able to half work on for a very long time. It’s time to regroup, build skills and hopefully be more creative and effective than ever.