Meet Leif Podhajský, Today's Coolest Album Art Designer

Courtesy of Leif Podhajský
Leif Podhajský

In artist Leif Podhajský’s East London studio, stacks and stacks of colorful vinyl testify to his near decade-long love affair with album artwork. Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations as a child growing up in Byron Bay, Australia, Podhajský grew fascinated with the fantastical album covers of Roger Dean (Yes) and the Hipgnosis collective (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin).

Now, the 35-year-old is a master of the medium, producing dozens of covers during the past seven years.

In 2009, Tame Impala’s manager emailed Podhajský, who specializes in mixed media, to take a crack at the group’s debut LP, Innerspeaker. It was a “dream job” for Podhajský, who had once snuck into one of the band’s sold-out gigs in Melbourne. "It was a band I loved and offered a great outlet for my new work,” he says, recalling the powerful connection between himself and the band’s frontman Kevin Parker. “Kevin always had a vision with the artwork ,and I was his visual linguist so to speak, translating them into pieces which fit the group’s masterplan.” 

After relocating to London in 2011, Podhajský took on clients like Lykke Li and Kelis, and his psychedelic-leaning style became a go-to for labels Sub Pop, Modular and Warp Records. “My work seemed to coincide with a renaissance of weird, psychedelic and experimental music that started to cross more and more on people’s radars,” he explains. “It almost felt synchronistic." 

In his work, Podhajsky explores themes of connectedness, the relevance of nature and the psychedelic experience, hoping to realign viewers with themselves and their surroundings. Color also features heavily in Podhajský’s work, thanks to his having synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon where he sees color in sounds. “They say the drugs of the time define the music,” he says. “But there has been a huge revival of people exploring consciousness, and my artwork really fit that style of music.”

His most recent project saw him take on the role of creative director for British pop trio London Grammar’s new album Truth Is A Beautiful Thing, which he describes as having a sense of "raw emotion and darkness." The goal for the visuals was to delve into the human condition as seen through natural landscapes, a place set between dreams and reality.

“I’ve always been a huge admirer of the German romantic painter Casper David Friedrich and his depictions of landscapes featuring humans being dwarfed by the power of nature,” Leif explains of the visuals, which were shot in the Californian desert by photographer Elliot Lee Hazel. "They were amongst enormous dunes and sun drenched expanses which had a dreamy almost otherworldly feel.”

For Podhajský, the magic of album artwork remains in the spiritual connection he shares with the music. “I’ve always felt music and visual art go hand in hand, lifting each other to form this formidable combination that incites imagination and understanding,” he says. “I’ve always been drawn to that connection."

But the most interesting part for the artist is creating something that encapsulates the entirety of an album. "Communicating its ideas, emotion and power in a single frame, but leaving enough room for interpretation and intrigue," he summarizes as his album-art goals. "For me, setting the tone is just as important as conveying the message. [Ernest] Hemingway did something similar in the way he wrote using words with a direct and simple structure to transmit emotion, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imagination." 

After offering his designs to Nike, Ballatine’s Whiskey and the Sydney Opera House, Podhajský will launch a line of silk scarves in August, and a virtual-reality experience called “Horizons” for Google’s Daydream platform, with the launch scene to feature music from Bonobo: “I try and keep pushing myself to new levels, and keep learning as I go.”

While his portfolio continues to grow, Podhajský remains steadfast that music has the capacity to touch people in a way that not many other mediums do. "[Album art work] helps form this story just enough to let the mind wander into [the musician's] world, searching for clues in the lyrics, photos or linear notes to try and pry some hidden message appeals to dreamers like myself," he explains. "Many album covers later I’m still here pursuing that same feeling."  

This article originally appeared in the June 17 issue of Billboard.