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UnCovered: Sarah Hiltz Ventures Behind the Artwork of Her Record ‘Calm Fury’

Sarah Hlitz joins us for an UnCovered to dive deep into the audio-visual project that is her new album, ‘Calm Fury,’ and its brilliant cover artwork.



More than just an album, Sarah Hiltz’s brand new record Calm Fury could be thought of as more of a manifesto. Due out tomorrow, the album was inspired by the Toronto-based singer-songwriter’s research into the ways in which Canadian people experience, express, and repress anger. Part of this research was undertaken while attending a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Banff, Alberta in March of 2019.

The songs that made the final cut are highly ambitious, looking at how anger is processed within our bodies, justified anger, how creativity and anger intersect, as well as the relationship between spirituality and anger. She used a wide range of media and interviews with peers, as inspiration, including the book Anger: Wisdom For Cooling The Flames by the late Thich Nhat Hanh, and even the footage from when Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live.

With Calm Fury being such an audio-visual project, it made perfect sense to speak with Hiltz recently for our latest UnCovered interview. We spoke with her about the album’s brilliant cover artwork, working with the team of artists who help bring it to life, and how the artwork relates to the songs on the record. Make sure to also check out Hiltz’s podcast centred around the album, called The Fury Pod.

What was the inspiration for the album’s cover artwork?

Sarah Hiltz: “The concept came out of a series of workshops that my Creative Director, Josiah Bilagot, and I did together where I shared about the overarching themes of the album, and we both spoke about what each song meant to us personally. Next, Josiah asked me to collect visual references that felt representative of the music and my own journey in making it, and then he took time with all that information and came back with a bunch of his own visual references and we started narrowing in on some central elements that were resonating with both of us.

“From there, Josiah came up with four different approaches we could take with the artwork and we talked through all of them together and landed on the frozen-flowers-on-fire as the idea that best articulated both the themes of the album and my own artistic process. The image speaks to the idea of how anger can be used as a tool to liberate or reveal something, and that it isn’t inherently destructive.”

Tell us more about working with Josiah and how you originally met him.

“Josiah and I met through mutual friends in Toronto a number of years ago. I’ve always admired his approach to design and the way that he is able to create visual work that is imbued with meaning on many levels; it’s never just about what looks good, it’s also about representing a larger idea through a visual medium. I knew I wanted to work with someone like that, who I could trust to really engage with the themes on a deeper level, and that’s why I asked Josiah.

“The rest of the team, Vicky Lam (photographer), Christina Yan (prop stylist), and Yann Gracia (assistant photographer), all came to the project through Josiah’s connections, and I know that even in his choice of who to work with, he was considering how it all tied together with the project themes. That’s another thing I really love about Jo, he carries an idea through to the end; even his font selections linked back to the album themes! That’s the kind of nuance and attention to detail that gets me excited!”

Please elaborate on the medium(s) used when creating the art for Calm Fury. We’d love to know how the artwork was created!

“Once we settled on a concept, the first step was to connect with Vicky Lam. She did an initial test of freezing tulips in ice and setting it on fire to see if it would be possible to photograph it in the way we were envisioning. When her test shots came out ok, we all determined it was worth a go and then Christina Yan was brought on as prop stylist, and the four of us met to discuss what sort of look we wanted, as far as floral varieties, arrangement, and colour palette. Christina then created three different floral arrangements in rectangular bins, covered them over with water and froze them.

“On the day of the shoot, we worked with one arrangement at a time, with Christina both melting and chipping away at the ice to sculpt it into some kind of shape and reveal more of the arrangement. Then she added some fresh flowers to make it appear like they were part of the frozen bouquet, but were being exposed as the ice melted. Then we set the whole thing on fire using various fire starters. Meanwhile, Vicky was photographing the whole time so that each stage was captured, right from the un-sculpted, frosted-over ice blocks to the charred, melted down arrangement.”

What were the partnership’s dynamics like between all of you? For example, was a specific look given, or did you give the team unlimited freedom?

“I definitely didn’t have a specific look in mind, I don’t consider myself much of a visual thinker most of the time. But it was through our multiple workshops and brainstorming sessions that Josiah and I narrowed in on a visual idea together. As the primary artist on this project, I always have veto power, but there are lots of moments when I defer to one of my collaborator’s instincts because I trust that they are the ones best able to guide the project where it needs to go when it comes to their own area of competency. Especially in moments that I don’t have a strong instinct to move in one direction over the other, that’s when I’ll rely on a collaborators’ expertise to help keep things in line with the ultimate vision I’ve shared with them.”

UnCovered: Sarah Hiltz Ventures Behind the Artwork of Her Record ‘Calm Fury’

Would you consider Josiah an additional band member, or perhaps a close collaborator, or someone contracted for just this piece?

“I don’t think of Josiah as a member of the band so much, but that’s probably because I don’t really have a band! As a solo artist, everyone I work with album-to-album is a contracted collaborator. That said, I was very intentional about the people I chose to work with, because I did want it be a collaborative experience that was articulated through more perspectives than just my own. And I would say Josiah’s work as creative director of the visual side of this project was every bit as integral as the wonderful crew of musicians who played on the songs.”

Did Josiah hear the album beforehand? Or, what kind of input did you give him?

“Absolutely! Josiah had access to the finished masters and listened to everything before we had our first creative meeting, so he was coming to the table with his own perspective and experience of the music, and he planned our workshops to reflect that.”

With the increasing popularity of digital music, most fans view artwork as just pixels on a screen. Why did you feel the artwork was important?

“I love it when a when a piece of music, or a photograph, or a painting, or a poem takes me on a journey of some kind, causes me to reflect in a different way, alters my perspective, or just plain makes me feel something. I appreciate that in the artwork of others, whatever it is, and I hope that the things I make can do that for others. And as long as there is any sort of visual component to the work I’m making, I realize I have an opportunity to express what I’m trying to communicate musically through another medium, with the help of the other artists I’m working with.”

Artwork for the album ‘Calm Fury’ by Sarah Hiltz

What are your thoughts and/or the pros and cons about digital art versus non-digital?

“I’m a pretty tactile person, and I think especially after these last couple of years, I have a greater appreciation for any kind of art or creative experience that doesn’t involve a digital screen. I don’t want to sound dismissive or ungrateful for what digital mediums bring to our lives though! They’ve been an absolute lifeline at times through this pandemic when there wasn’t access to anything else.

“I also can’t help but consider the environmental impacts of digital vs. non-digital though, which is anything but a cut-and-dried issue. I think one pro of non-digital art is the control I can have as an artist to ensure that whatever I’m doing or making is being carried out in an environmentally conscious way, at various stages of production. The environmental impacts of digital art are more shrouded though (to me at least), and I don’t feel like I have as much control there. For example, there are no environmentally-conscious streaming services as far as I know.”

Was the album art influenced by any of the themes explored on the album?

“One-hundred percent. Josiah and I mapped out key themes and moods during our workshops, and when it came time to choose between the four different visual directions he brought to the table, we checked back with that list to make sure we were working towards something that would be in line with the themes conveyed in the music.”

How do you think the album art will affect the listener’s perception of Calm Fury?

“I hope that both the image and the music will affect perception of each other. I think the album cover stands alone as a beautiful image, but when it’s informed by the lyrics, it can take on a deeper meaning. At the same time, the music stands alone, but I hope that wrapping it up with an image that is so closely related and tied to the themes of the album will provide listeners with another way think about what they’re hearing in a way they might not have without seeing the artwork.”

When it came time to come up with artwork, did you give offer guidance or was this just a natural brainstorm?

“One of my pre-production practices is to create what I call ‘Song Guides’ for each song I’m going to record and then I share those with all my collaborators. Everyone, from my engineer to the musicians, to the publicist, and creative director had access to those files. Each guide contained lyrics with commentary, any significant excerpts from the readings I did during my research phase, the story or inspiration behind the song and sometimes even passages of my own songwriting journal if it directly pertained to a song. So there was a lot of source material in terms of where I was coming from musically, emotionally and intellectually, and that definitely informed how everyone approached their own roles. But I also tried to leave space, because conveying meaning through visual mediums is not my strength.

“So while I definitely offered feedback on things that I liked or didn’t like, and input into how ideas fit or not with where I was coming from, it was really Josiah’s interpretation of all the material I’d shared through his own particular visual lens that steered us in the direction we went.”

What’s your favourite thing about this album cover?

“I love the fact that it isn’t my face but that it also probably feels more representative of me and what I want to say than any other album cover I’ve had before.”

Did Josiah work on any art for the album besides the cover?

“Yes! Jo also directed my portrait photoshoot for this album. And again, he assembled a great team for that, too (Nick Wong, photographer; Joslyn Panasiuk, assistant photographer; Mark John Tripp, stylist; Richard J, hairstylist; Alanna Fennell, makeup), and made sure there was a level of cohesion between the portraits and the album artwork that I really appreciate.”

Do you have a favourite album cover of all time?

“Ah, I can’t pick just one favourite! But a few I really like are Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz & João Gilberto, Case/Lang/Veirs by Nico Case, KD Lang and Laura Veirs, Bon Iver by Bon Iver, Pleasure by Feist, and Promises by Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders. Some of these are just really beautiful images that I loved, others feel symbolically significant to the music itself in a way I really appreciated.”

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