Details can transform a great concert into an otherworldly one, a performance that translates the artist’s sonic vision into a sensorial experience. Take, for instance, Solange‘s magical “An Ode To” performance at The Guggenheim or the focused, unapologetic visuals, videos and tour of Charli XCX‘s campaign for her last album, Crash. Behind these larger-than-life shows is creative director Imogene Strauss who weaves together lighting, stage design, choreography and more to bring a sonic world into reality. Most recently, the multi-disciplinary director worked with alt-pop artist Caroline Polachek on The Spiraling tour for her latest album, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You. We spoke with Strauss about designing the tour, the role of creative directors and navigating the industry.
What led you to creative direction?
I started in the art world and then I moved into music management pretty quickly from there. I did music management for six or seven years, and I always kind of knew that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing but it was adjacent to what I wanted to be doing. The artists that I worked with really liked me and trusted me because I paid a lot of attention to detail and really cared about the creative and put that first—which maybe didn’t make me the best manager on the business side. But I did have a business partner who oversaw that side of things. Eventually, my business partner went on to do things in crypto and so I was left to do the whole thing on my own and it really did not work for me. I decided to shut my company down and figure out how I could do the things that I liked about what I was doing in a more specific and focused way, really honed in on creative direction, stage design, live shows.
A creative director typically wears many hats. What does the job mean for you?
There are so many jobs within it. I have friends who are creative directors who come from a graphic design background and they do the art direction, creative direction, graphics, that sort of world. My expertise is more on the live show side of things. I would say that the nice thing about it is that it’s not limiting and I have dipped my toes into other industries, but I definitely focus mostly on music and leading the visual side of campaigns, live shows, music videos and every aspect and detail of an artist’s world—from how social media is perceived to how the merch looks.
How did the partnership with Caroline Polachek come about?
I’ve known Caroline for a really long time, probably like 10 or 11 years, but we only started working together last year for her Coachella show. She is very visionary and specific with her work as you can probably see through everything she does. I only work with her on her live show so everything else she does is like very dialed in by her. She came to me with a bunch of ideas. We loved what we did for Coachella and felt like it hadn’t reached its full potential, as it was an outdoor music festival in the daytime and there are restrictions and limitations to what you can do with that. So we really wanted to expand on it and let it do its full thing on a headlining tour. We spent a long time honing the lighting, the video, special effects aspects, the choreography, how it all came together.
And how did it come together?
We both came with decks of references. There’s not one specific thing that I can point to and be like, “This is where it came from.” I would say it’s definitely a collection of a lot of things morphed together into the world that is Caroline’s universe. Some of those things were an image of a Japanese wood-cut volcano that we zoomed in on a certain aspect of and then made that the focus of a piece of video content or some of the shapes in the set.
How would you describe the stage design and overall world you and Polachek created for the tour?
It’s a multi-dimensional set piece that is volcano-shaped. It’s asymmetrical, off-centered and it also has two additional set pieces that come in front of it that give it layers and depth and dimension so that she can move around it; it’s not just a flat backdrop. It also is something we’ve used a lot to interact with the content and create some interesting illusions from that.
I don’t want to say it’s whimsical because I don’t think it actually speaks to the aesthetic in a full way, but it has elements of that. It has elements of extremely high-fashion concepts. It’s both extremely clean and slick but also extremely detailed and particular. It’s very multi-layered and multifaceted.
Being in the male-dominated touring industry, how do you navigate it as a creative director? What kinds of challenges does this create?
I’ve been doing it since I was 21, so I feel like I’m mostly used to it. I think that it’s been good to have female mentors to an extent or people that I’ve looked up to in the industry who are women who have shown a lot of confidence in me and shown me how they navigate. Having men in my life who are very supportive and have been good about supporting women has been also really key to making it work.
There’s definitely a challenge to it; sometimes I feel like people don’t take me seriously. But I’ve had to push those things to the back of my psyche. I think that there’s a lot of progress being made in that area, especially as it comes to creative production—there are so many amazing female creative directors. I think in stage and live shows there could be more women in general, but I think having the really supportive, great team around me that I do has made it very possible and workable and feels less like a burden.
Images courtesy of Imogene Strauss