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'Covering' a Hit Song

girl in front of art exhibit

Lindsay O'Brien with her Senior Honors Exhibition at the Catich Gallery.

View Lindsay's Grad Stories Facebook photo album

May 2017 | by Craig DeVrieze


Lindsay O'Brien can't write a song. Or even sing one, for that matter.

"I'm not a musically talented person," she readily confessed. "I'm tone deaf."

Lindsay can, however, illustrate a song — draw meaning from the marrow of a lyric and melody and create a visual interpretation that adds depth and definition to the music.

A blossoming graphic artist who graduated May 13 with her St. Ambrose University Bachelor of Arts degree in Graphic Design and Art History, O'Brien already has put her skills to work in a high profile manner - designing the cover for Issues, the No. 14-ranked single on the most recent Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Issues marks the Republic Records debut for Julia Michaels, a 23-year-old Davenport native who grew up in Southern California and, since the age of 16, has been writing songs for and with such established artists as Ed Sheeran, John Legend, Gwen Stefani, Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Britney Spears, Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez.

In the interest of full disclosure, Michaels is Lindsay's step-sister, but the SAU alumna wasn't handed the opportunity to design the cover for the hit single as a family favor. The music industry doesn't work that way. She earned the chance in competition with established industry artists and design firms.

"It helped that I knew Julia and I know what kind of path she wants to take," said Lindsay. "She is very artistic so I knew I could push the limits with her. I could give her something that was funkier or more edgy and it would be a path she would be intrigued by."

The design was the result of a two-day photo shoot and several more days of "sister talk," time Lindsay enlisted to search deep for the motivation behind the lyric. "I didn't listen to the music so much, but focused instead on the emotions she was pouring into the music," she said.

Used with permission from Republic Records

The result was a design showing Michaels ripping through a pink foreground covering a brown background, with the song title "Issues'' hand-written multiple times hovering behind and over the artist's head.

"I really wanted to convey a sense of anxiety," Lindsay explained. "That's my handwriting in the background. We blew it out and had it hovering over her head to illustrate in a visual way the emotion of taking anxiety with you everywhere."

Lindsay had some anxious moments waiting to find to learn if her design would prevail.

"It was two weeks before the single was set to come out that I found out my design had won." Lindsay said. "That was kind of surreal. I was up against L.A. designers and designers working for the label. To get my design chosen was really special."

Getting her St. Ambrose degree May 13 in her hometown of Moline, Ill., was pretty special, too, although it's safe to say the self-described "unconventional" student has "issues" about leaving behind the halls of the Galvin Fine Arts Center.

"I wouldn't have got this cover without my time at St. Ambrose," Lindsay said. "We have the most amazing Art Department and that is because our professors are truly gems. Not just my graphic design teachers, but the entire department. They all come together to teach artists what they need to be successful."

Although her grandmother Barbara O'Brien '87 is a proud SAU alumna, Lindsay was considering other college choices when she took a tour of Galvin with her portfolio in hand, and encountered Associate Professor Renee Meyer Ernst.

"This was finals week, right before summer, and I am sure all of the professors were busy," Lindsay remembered. "Renee was in the hallway and she saw me and asked if I'd like to meet with her and go over my portfolio. She sat with me for an hour and a half. No one at any other school did that. That made me feel already at home."

Lindsay said that focused attention never stopped during her SAU career. Neither will her loyalty to the arts at St. Ambrose. "I love that building; I love that program," she said. "If I'm ever a billionaire, I'm going to donate a lot of money to this school just to keep Galvin growing."

Lindsay plans to settle and find work in the Quad Cities, although she also hopes to continue to visit Los Angeles and work for and with Julia and their older sister Jaden, also a musician, as well as others in the entertainment industry.

Meanwhile, as Julia's single climbs the charts - wearing Lindsay's cover design - the younger sister's fame is ascending as well.

"I'm excited to follow her journey, but I would look up to her and Jaden even if they just raked leaves, just did normal person work," she said.

"I do view Julia as a visionary in her craft. She is such an inspiration to me and I value her opinion, so whether I'm making covers for her or we're doodling in chalk on sidewalks, just to create with her is great."

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