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Lend Me Your Ear

It began in a pub in Greenwich. Me, an unsettled illustrator nursing a pint at 2pm, new to the big city and escaping the cabin fever of working from my bedroom.

An art director friend, now also freelance, mirroring me. Just a little sunlight coming through from the market square and hitting the dusty table. One other bloke in the corner.

As had now become customary on each visit here, I raised a finger to point at Jarvis, one hand covering a side of his face. I said how much I loved the photograph and how I’d like to apply my hand lettering style, new at the time, to music photography. The friend slid his phone across the table, landing in the sunlight.

“It’s Cotterill mate. He did a load of stuff for us at The Big Issue.

On the screen is the number for Andrew Cotterill, the photographer behind the images on the wall.

A voicemail and a returned phone call later, I’m in the pub during the day again, facing Andy, an East Londoner who’s been taking music photographs for a couple of decades. He’s curious. We get on. Finishing up the beer, we head round to his house where he gives me a USB drive full of images I like to have a play with. Most photographers wouldn’t do this, too precious to even dream of letting someone with ink near their goods. But he does.

I paint over Ian Brown, Damon Albarn, Keith Flint, send them back and return to the pub. He likes it, says he enjoys the way I have tapped into each one’s essence, considering what these extreme characters mean to those who they inspire, and remained sympathetic to the image without overwhelming it.

So we say let’s see what happens and Andy gives me more images.

This is how it started.

What it became is Lend Me Your Ear.

Initially simply a love letter to a few musicians we liked, but then something deeper than that. A celebration of strong identity and self-expression in many forms: from the mesmerizing dance of FKA Twigs right through to the unbridled rage of John Lydon.

The truth is, Andy wasn’t an arbitrary choice of photographer. What endeared his images to me in the pub was their humanity, the way he seemed to have drawn something intimate from his subjects, how they were not over-edited or stylized beyond recognition.

No, it was the raw honesty that made them complete. That fit with my organic, freeform mark making techniques, an aesthetic that was a reflection of my character and the more time I spent with Andy, it was clear to see it was the same for him too.

Then his brilliant stories, how he had to sit Kanye on the toilet to escape his incessant make up, hair and assorted entourage on the entire floor of a classy hotel he’d hired for press. The way Keith Flint turned and glared at his crowd, hungry for his menacing mystique, red light making him look like the devil himself. How he told Pink he thought she’d be a pain in the arse, but wasn’t, in fact she was lovely. She laughed at that and they had a great chat. We shared an appreciation of the individuality of every person selected to use in our project. Even the abrasive ones; the Mark E Smiths of the world, a type of character that Andy adored. It was my challenge to convey the unique traits of every musician through lyrics, quotes and the energy in the way I approached the additional art on the photography.

The momentum gathered, then ebbed and flowed again as real life and commercial work happened, but as we took our time to do something with the collaboration, our friendship matured like whisky in a barrel and a mutual sensitivity emerged. So we began to understand what all of this meant to us. We admitted that creativity had helped us process the world, equipped us with a voice and express the way we felt. For those who had never had that, we wanted to help in some way.  So we brought Young Urban Arts Foundation and CALM on board with the project.

By the time I rolled up at Andy’s with my suitcase, ready to set up the exhibition at Stance in Covent Garden, there’d been another death of a young person in the news.

 

Young Urban Arts Foundation use creativity to empower young people who may not have had the best start in life, to help them get a sense of who they are, where they might head and the things they could be good at. It broke our hearts that so many youth services have been cut and the results are easy enough to see. It was sport, music and art that set me on a course to identity, the means to build a life that I am happy with, with purpose. Not too many people know who they are at an early age, so they are vulnerable and gangs know how to exploit their weaknesses. Kerry O’Brien inspired me when she shared her story, so we felt we could help in our small way.

Damon Albarn, the Gallagher brothers and Jarvis had made me want to find my thing in the 90s, which turned out to be drawing and writing. For Andy, hip-hop, jungle, reggae and countless other genres gave him something at which he could point his camera and own as only he could. If the range of 40 images we curated for the London launch exhibition could help do the same for a passer by, then we have won.

At the launch we talked to Charlie Dark (Run Dem Crew), Mac Ferrari (BikeStormz) and introduced them to Kerry from YUAF, all people doing incredible, pure work for good. What I feel is undeniable is that when you create from the heart, with a message that is real, it attracts opportunities and positivity. What Stance represent fit right in with the five years of working together on Lend Me Your Ear and as we launched, very quickly a bigger picture opened up in front of us, where the critical link between creativity and human happiness might yet gather the attention it so desperately needs in today’s world. Let’s hope so.

Words and illustration by Ben Tallon, photography by Andrew Cotterill.

Lend Me Your Ear is on at Stance, 3 Neal Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9PU until 6th June. Andy will be in week commencing 27th May, Ben week commencing 3rd June.

See the work at http://lendmeyourearart.com