“We’ve always found that giving the collaborators a lot of freedom, and not too much direction, really helps produce creative and original things.”—Matt Stotland

Matt Stotland + Casey Cohen: Co-Founders, Yellow Bird Project

“we’ve always found that giving the collaborators a lot of freedom, and not too much direction, really helps produce creative and original things.”—matt stotland

What is the link between indie philanthropy and collaboration?
Matt: Collaboration is what made YBP possible. We’ve collaborated with some designers who could be million-dollar enterprises if they had the network, but because of their reach, were more small-scale and willing to work with us. However, when we combine our resources with theirs, it snowballs and enables small-time folks like us to have great reach and do cool things.

How does the Yellow Bird Project benefit visual artists, indie musicians, and charities?
Matt: They are all pretty dependent on each other, although a lot of the time the musicians themselves are also visual artists. Our collaboration with Andy J. Miller on the Indie Rock Coloring Book and Indie Rock Poster Book are great examples everyone’s skills layering. Andy had all of these amazing ideas, we had the fans and reach and marketing skills, and Chronicle Books had the distribution; we were able to take this passion project and turn it into a commercial success that made an impact.

Sharon Van Etten

courtesy of ybp

What is the Yellow Bird Project process for collaborating with musicians?
Casey: The selection process is fairly arbitrary—we just go after our favorite bands. Not everyone gets to choose who they work with, but we do. That’s one of the perks. Every one of our t-shirts has a different story behind it—from how the design was made, to what it represents. Once we’ve chosen a band, our first job is to marry them with a designer or illustrator whose style fits with the band’s overall aesthetic. That is, if there isn’t a band member who can already design the t-shirt by themselves. Often they do.

For example, the Dry the River t-shirt was designed collaboratively between the lead singer/guitarist, Peter Liddle, and Jonathan Lindley, our Art Director at the time. In an email, Liddle said, “I really like the idea of using old books to say something about the weight of history and how we all labour underneath that…I feel like maybe we’re all balancing history books on our heads, in that we’re carrying the weight around with us, the burden of responsibility.” On that basis, Lindley and Liddle organized a photoshoot at Turton Towers, which is a historic building halfway between Bolton and Darwen. The design, which came from a photograph taken by Lindley, shows the silhouette of a boy facing forward, balancing history books on his head. The image is based on their song “History Book” and depicts a Victorian technique which was used in schools in order to correct children’s posture. The boy sitting on the chair is actually the band’s guitar player, Matt Taylor, so it truly was a collaborative effort on all accounts.

Rilo Kiley

courtesy of ybp

How did you get started?
Matt: We met in high school, in Montreal, at LCC (Lower Canada College). After graduation, we spent a summer together in London, where we got into all sorts of music and started going to concerts together. The Montreal music scene was really blowing up and getting international recognition, so there was a certain amount of pride for us. We thought of combining all of our concert and band shirt passions into one, and YBP is what came of that. Giving back, working with our favorite musicians, and producing a product that we would buy ourselves.

How does design/art inspire peer collaboration?
Casey: We believe that the best creative work is generated and proliferated in the most collaborative environments, so we aim to facilitate that as much as possible by working closely with our designers and inspiring them in meaningful ways. We’ve worked with a rotating cast of designers and illustrators from various artistic communities around the world. A great example is The Indie Rock Poster Book, which comprises of 30 different poster designs from artists around the world, each inspired by indie rock songs that we provided.

Amanda Palmer

courtesy of ybp

The Indie Rock Poster Book Courtesy of YBP

courtesy of ybp

Can you talk about how the YBD community grew?
Matt: Devendra Banhart was the first musician to agree, and it spiraled out from there. So we owe him thanks because getting that first band is always the hardest. Although truth be told, it hasn’t gotten that much easier.

Casey: We began with only six bands, who really took a leap of faith with us, by submitting their t-shirt design before our project even existed. Since then, the project has grown to include over 50 bands, including Bon Iver, The National, The Shins, and Hot Chip. Each band gets to choose their own charity to support, which means that we’ve been actively fundraising for dozens of charities over the past 8 years, including Greenpeace, The Teenage Cancer Trust, Partners in Health, and The Elliott Smith Memorial Fund. Our latest collaboration, and our most ambitious one to date, is a feature length documentary film that we’re producing about Kathryn Calder (of The New Pornographers) and her mother’s battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Our hope is that the film, which comes out next year, will help raise awareness and bring attention to the disease around the world.

Matt: We’re really a rotating cast of characters with some constants over the years.

What do you learn from working with different musicians?
Matt: They are slow! They are all amazing to work with and all quite different. We give them very high-level guidelines in terms of what is possible to print on a t-shirt and try to impose as few restrictions as possible. We found that we’re pretty much always impressed and surprised with the outcome.

Can you describe The Yellow Bird Project studio environment?
Matt: Our studio is the internet. We’ve always been a global organization, and I think that is one reason for our success. Casey lives in London, and I live in Montreal. Our photographers live all over the world. Our developers and graphic artists also live all around. We’ve never restricted ourselves from working on a cool collaboration with creative folks based on where they are from. I actually think this is beneficial to the artists because they get to work on their turf, in their environment, and don’t need to conform to any physical standards.

Keaton Henson

courtesy of ybp

What traits make collaboratives effective?
Matt: Be upfront and make sure everything is as clear as possible before the project starts. Otherwise, you take the chance of having a disagreement that can’t be resolved. We’ve always found that giving the collaborators a lot of freedom, and not too much direction, really helps produce creative and original things.