If your musical foundations are rooted in Christian rock and hair metal, there’s usually a good story attached. That's the case for Caleb Davis, who grew up listening to worship albums and working at Urban Outfitters before jumping ship to Atlanta and pursuing a career in design at Reach Records.
“I had a full-time job, I was in a serious relationship, I was in woodworking school part-time, I was running my own online vintage store, and trying to get into the movie industry,” Davis recalls. “Basically all Plan-B career options, all at the same time. Needless to say, I had absolutely no time for anything design-related outside of the occasional project for my friend Levi The Poet. But there was a major turning point at the end of 2015. I finished school, my relationship ended, and I realized the vintage thing wasn’t working out the way I hoped, so I decided to throw all that free time into design.”
As we know, with creative careers, there can be no Plan B. Feeling energized, Davis poured his time into his passions, which led to a DM from Alex Medina, the creative director for Reach Records. We all know where that DM took Davis—we’re looking at it every time we press play on a Lecrae album.
“Lecrae is the co-founder and co-owner of Reach Records, so as soon as I was hired, I started working on any Lecrae projects I could get my hands on,” Davis explains. When Lecrae’s new collaborative album with Zaytoven, Let the Trap Say Amen, was brought to Davis’ attention, he eagerly “called dibs.”
Davis’ cover is masterful in its use of juxtaposition to communicate Lecrae’s artistic message. “The core message of the project is to bridge understanding and build community for those underserved neighborhoods often dubbed the trap,” he says. “I wanted to visually represent Lecrae’s message that ‘Everyone in the trap ain’t trappin’.”
DJBooth’s full interview with Caleb Davis, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Starting with the basics, how did you first get into design?
Caleb Davis: I’ve been drawing, painting, creating ever since I can remember, but I started getting into design in high school. I taught myself Photoshop, as well as the drums and joined a band with some friends. I would design all of our show flyers, album covers, and merch. Since I was one of the very few people in that small Albuquerque, NM scene, it lead to a lot of other freelance jobs.
Who were your original influences for cover art and creative direction?
I grew up fairly sheltered. The only records I had access to when I was a kid were mostly Christian rock, '80s hair metal (Stryper), and worship albums. In middle school, I started to explore music outside the Christian bubble I was in, but my folks still had a fairly close eye on what I was listening to. Thankfully, there were Tooth & Nail Records and Solid State Records releasing not only decent music that my mom would approve, but they also had good album packaging. Their designers throughout the years such as Don and Ryan Clark (aka Invisible Creature) and Jordan Butcher had a big influence on me. When I was able to branch out even more musically, I started to discover great designers such as Peter Saville and Storm Thorgerson.
Before this became your full-time gig, where were you working at?
I was working full-time at Urban Outfitters for nearly six years, and I was briefly at a design studio called Submaterial right before I made the move to Atlanta to work with Reach Records.
How did your design career unfurl into you working at Reach Records?
I had a full-time job, I was in a serious relationship, I was in woodworking school part-time, I was running my own online vintage store, and trying to get into the movie industry. Basically all Plan-B career options, all at the same time. Needless to say, I had absolutely no time for anything design related outside of the occasional project for my friend Levi The Poet. But there was a major turning point at the end of 2015. I finished school, my relationship ended, and I realized the vintage thing wasn’t working out the way I hoped, so I decided to throw all that free time into design.
I have a million ideas for personal projects floating in my head at any given moment, but I never had the time to flesh them out. This was the perfect opportunity to do so. Somehow, a few months later, Alex Medina (Creative Director for Reach) found me on Instagram and DM’d me to see if I would be interested in a job. I applied and I was hired a week later. All the work I had produced in that short period of time was the work he saw that led me to Reach.
Scariest moment of your career to date?
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Almost getting married and settling into a career I didn’t want.
You have a history of working with Lecrae, so walk me through that.
Lecrae is the co-founder and co-owner of Reach Records, so as soon as I was hired, I started working on any Lecrae projects I could get my hands on.
How did you come into doing the cover for his latest album with Zaytoven, Let the Trap Say Amen?
As soon as it was decided that Reach would be releasing this record, I called dibs.
The most striking thing about the work is the juxtaposition and the layers, the church stitched to the trap house, full and barren trees, cuban links with prison wire. What’s the messaging there?
The core message of the project is to bridge understanding and build community for those underserved neighborhoods often dubbed the trap. I wanted to visually represent Lecrae’s message that “Everyone in the trap ain’t trappin’.” I think the dichotomy helps accomplish that.
Talk to me about the shots themselves.
The church is an old photo I found. I chose it because it was striking, but also easily recognizable as a church. The house was an original photo my friend Wire shot in Atlanta.
Why the subdued color palette?
I felt that any color might distract or take away from the stark and strong message I wanted to convey.
What does the cover art here say about the sound Lecrae and Zay have crafted?
It’s supposed to represent the hard-hitting soundscape Zaytoven crafted as well as the honest and raw lyrics Lecrae delivers. It’s Atlanta and it’s not playful.
I appreciate how much of your work relies on layers and distortion. How did you arrive at that style?
When a majority of your work is done digitally, you really have to put effort into giving things depth and dimension. I’m naturally drawn to dark and gritty imagery, things with character and a story. It’s always been a big part of my process to incorporate a lot of textures, layers, and photo manipulation. I’m always challenging myself to make things look as raw as they would in real life, and there’s no better way to do that than by getting your textures from real life. My flatbed scanner is one of my most-used tools.
Are there are techniques or risks that you took when you were first starting out that you wish you had the gumption to do again?
I used to incorporate a lot more illustrative and hand-painted elements in my designs. On occasion I still do, but there is a part of me that wishes I had the time to do it more. There’s something beautiful about a completely hand-drawn shirt design or album cover, if only it didn’t take me three times as long.
What’s your best piece of advice to a designer who’s getting bored of their own material?
Stop what you’re doing and try something different. Whether that’s a new technique, a different color palette or style than what you’re used to, or even a completely different medium. For me, it is always refreshing to get back on the drums, work on some physical or fine art pieces, or even put my woodworking skills to use again. They all exercise a different part of my brain and can inspire new ideas.