The monochromatic photo on the cover of 2015’s Sprained Ankle, shot by Jake Cunningham, hinted at the minimalist, melancholy nature of Julien Baker’s debut, but it didn’t quite prepare you for the raw emotional intensity of her songwriting. (Before it was picked up by 6131 Records, Baker originally uploaded the album on Bandcamp with a cover she designed with a friend, which you’d have to dig into the deepest corners of Tumblr to find any traces of.) One critic described the quaint expression captured on the cover as a “Mona Lisa smile awash in cool shades of blue,” while Ian Cohen’s review for Pitchfork opened with the sentence, “If Julien Baker wasn’t cracking something close to a smile on the cover of Sprained Ankle, I wouldn’t be certain that it was meant for public consumption.”
A similar kind of ambiguity can be found in the cover of Baker’s latest album, Little Oblivions – though she was absent in Ryan Rado’s impressionistic cover painting for her 2017 sophomore LP Turn Out the Lights, here her likeness is placed front and center, but her features are obscured as if to underscore the dissolving sense of self that runs through the music. The painting, centered between the scribbled lyrics “There’s no glory in love/ Only the gore of our hearts” from the song ‘Bloodshot’, was created by the oil painter Wylee Rysso, who evokes an elusive mental state both through his portrayal of Baker’s figure as well as the ominous, dreamlike space it seems to occupy, as if slowly receding into the background of her own mind.
We talked to Wylee Risso about the process of painting the cover for Julien Baker’s Little Oblivions for the latest edition of our Behind the Artwork series.
How did you get into oil painting? I read that you’re self-taught?
I’ve always drawn – I used to be really into doing comic books and more illustrative things when I was a kid. I got to a point where I felt like I wanted to do more, and so I started dabbling with acrylic paint, just kind of messing around. And then I just kind of threw myself into oil painting. From that point on, I’ve just been obsessed. I think it’s been five years of getting to the point where I’m at now. It’s purely just been practice and just trying things out and seeing what doesn’t work, what does work. I’m still learning, and that’s the thing – I feel like I’ll never not be learning.
From what I understand, this is the first time you’ve worked on an album cover?
I think so, yeah. At least to this magnitude.
What kind of music-related artwork had you done before?
I don’t think oil painting-wise; I’ve done drawing for friends’ bands or T-shirt designs for friends, but I don’t think I was as serious about artwork when that was a thing. And then the last couple years it’s become more like, “Oh, this is like a serious thing I do.” So when I did the Julian Baker cover it, I mean, it was surreal, because I love her music immensely and I’ve listened to Julian Baker for a long time. So it’s kind of a melding of two worlds that I really love.
Do you remember your first encounter with Julian Baker’s music?
I think it was her debut album, when she was on 6131. I remember hearing it and, at the time, that wasn’t really music I was super interested in. I was a little ignorant in terms of what I liked to listen to, I didn’t really explore that much. I was very into punk, but knowing Julien kind of came from a similar world, that interested me. And then, you know, it’s just deeply emotional and sonically beautiful, and it resonated with me 100%. I had a little bit of time when that first album came out where I was obsessed, and then she went on to do stuff with boygenius and that started playing everywhere.
How did this collaboration come about?
So, I met her manager, Sean [Patrick Rhorer], like five years ago. I met him when I was on tour with a band. I followed him for those years, never really staying in contact, but like, I remembered him. It was back in April of 2020 when he emailed me out of the blue, and was just like, “Hey, it’s Sean, I don’t know if you remember me at all, but I’m Julien’s manager and she’s gonna be coming out with a new album, just wondering if you would want to do a painting, because you know I love your work.” And I was absolutely down, you know, like ‘no questions asked’ type thing. And through talking to him, he kind of made it sound like there were other painters that they were looking at and then they settled on me. I guess because of that music background – he grew up very much in the punk and hardcore scene, so have I, so did Julien. And so I think he didn’t want someone who didn’t care about a music scene or didn’t have roots there to do the artwork, or it felt a little more important to the both of them to ask someone who could kind of relate.
Digital sketches by Wylee Risso
Where did it go from there? Do you remember any conversations about what the artwork should look like?
Yeah, that was a lot of the process, because originally, he was like, “Hey, can you have this done in a month?” Which is a tall order, especially for an oil painting, that’s really hard. So I was like, “Okay, I need to start right now.” And we probably didn’t settle on a design for another two months. I don’t think I actually started doing what is now the album cover until June. Because I was doing a lot of digital sketches just to make sure, like, “Okay, what are we looking for?” So they’d send reference material and I would work from that reference material and then they’d be like, “Oh, we like it, but this isn’t what we’re looking for,” you know, so there’s a lot of trying to find that right composition and the right elements and the overall feeling, that took me took a couple of months.
Was there a moment where you realized you had a pretty good idea of what you were going to do with the painting?
Yeah, I remember we got on Zoom – we were corresponding through email, and it was just really hard to kind of process all this information without actually just talking about it. They were talking about, you know, Julien had gone through some stuff, which I don’t know if it’s my place to really say what, exactly –
She has been pretty open about a lot of it in recent interviews.
Yeah, cool. I just didn’t want to say something I shouldn’t be talking about. I remember we were talking about, like, group therapy, rehabilitation, things like that, and that kind of gave me a little more steam, because I wanted to do something that obviously is related to the album. And so, I kind of got this mental image of a group therapy session, my immediate mind was in, like, a gymnasium. And everything became kind of abstracted – like, I didn’t do a painting of a gymnasium or anything, but with spotlights coming down and very rooted in a dark mental state. But it took having those conversations to kind of get a better idea of what I was supposed to do. Because you could tell me to paint someone, but there’s a million ways to paint somebody, you know, they could be happy, they could be sad.
And one of the interesting things about the painting is Julien’s ambiguous expression. I noticed that there’s a similar pattern in some of your other work – was that decision something that was based on your style?
They had sent me some screenshots of paintings I’ve done, and they would be like, not fully detailed faces or features wouldn’t be fully detailed. So I already knew that they kind of want that ambiguity, and it felt like that worked well with the subject. Because, not to get into a lot of my own stuff, but I paint a lot for my mental health, and I’ve done self-portraits where I’m not in a good place mentally. And so, obscuring certain features or things like that, it feels… I don’t know.
Reflective of that state?
Yeah. Or just, like, confused.
I think that definitely comes through. To what extent can you talk about the significance of the items in the artwork, specifically the ashtray and the abacus? Is the wolf a reference to the song ‘Crying Wolf’?
It could have been, at the time though I didn’t really have the information on songs or anything like that. But I remember Julien had a notebook where she did a drawing of a wolf, and so they had an idea of like, “Oh, what if we put a wolf in there?” And then the abacus, I think there was a reference photo they had sent me and there was an abacus on a shelf in the background, and they were talking about how they really liked that abacus and wanted to include it in the painting. We ended up not using that reference photo and went on to do what we did what the painting is now, but they still wanted that abacus. I think the wolf makes sense because it’s like a lurking creature in the background, and I think the ashtray is a similar thing – it may be not true, but smoking feels healing, in a way, like less stress-inducing.
Yeah, like a coping mechanism.
Single artwork for ‘Faith Healer’, ‘Hardline’, and ‘Favor’, (Paintings by Wylee Risso)
Together, these details almost have a surreal effect, which leads me to the way you’ve depicted Julien’s posture. It has a kind of disorienting effect as well. What was the intention behind that?
There was talk of like, “We want her in a pose, and we want her fist kind of clenched, and legs kind of spread.” And I was like, “Cool, I need a picture of her sitting like that.” And it took weeks, so I took a photo of myself in this position that they said she wanted. [laughs] And obviously, it’s not it anymore – when I did a painting of myself and then put her head on it, it looked all screwed up. It did not look right at all. But they eventually were like, “Okay, we’ll get you a reference photo.” And I’m sure maybe that had something to do with it. I mean, it does look surreal, in a way. I think just the perspective and the point of view, it almost kind of messes with your brain in a tiny way. Because the background’s pretty abstracted, you don’t have a good idea of space.
When you reflect on this experience as a whole, what’s one thing that comes to mind that you feel will stay with you?
I remember the whole time through I felt very close to Julien, even though her and I have no relationship – which is fine, you know, but I felt very close to her. It felt like a very personal relationship, because I’m kind of having to delve into her as a person and the things she’s gone through and her experiences and then tried to do a painting and portray these things. Which is very weird, ‘cause I’ve never talked to her more than, like, a couple of texts. When the album came out, obviously it’s cool that I see my artwork places or see people posting it, but there’s like a deeper emotional thing there that is kind of hard to pinpoint.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Find more work by Wylee Risso here.