Sam McKinniss -- a surprise Minnesotan! -- on painting Lorde's 'Melodrama' cover, honoring Prince

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Twenty-year-old New Zealander Lorde turned to Minnesotan Sam McKinniss for the cover art to her terrific new album, June's "Melodrama." Sam McKinniss; Lava/Republic

Lorde's exhilarating, effervescent, and emotionally charged Melodrama is the best album of 2017, and a Minnesotan helped complete it. 

Our always active local-connection antennae began quivering while watching Lorde discuss her clandestine onion ring Instagram account on The Tonight Show. After playfully slamming host Jimmy Fallon's "dirty beard," the real-life Ella Yelich-O'Connor gave a shout-out to her friend Sam McKinniss, the 32-year-old Brooklyn artist who painted the cover art for Melodrama.

A quick Google search of his name revealed what every Minnesotan craves: someone of note being from here! Similar to actors Winona Ryder (Winona, duh), Chris Pratt (Virginia), and Jessica Biel (Ely), Northfield's McKinniss bailed on our state as a youngster, but goddamnit we'll count him. 

McKinniss -- whose dreamy work comes from brushing oil paints atop photographs -- chatted with City Pages by email about working with pop's brightest star, turning his Prince grief into art, and the enduring mystery of his home state. 

City Pages: Is Lorde the coolest? She seems like the coolest.

Sam McKinniss: Yes, she is as cool as she seems.

CP: Tell us about her expectations for the Melodrama cover vs. your own personal vision for it.

SM: Ella is totally in charge of her own project. When we met, I was impressed with the level of control she had over every aspect of the production for this record.

She's very self-aware, self-possessed. Obviously she's an incredible lyricist. When we started talking, she laid down a set of moods, descriptors, or color schemes that she was envisioning, as well as the kind of setting. As in, she felt strongly that a bedroom portrait would probably be best, and that it should evoke daybreak after a long night of partying.

Nothing that she described felt foreign to me. Working with her was a real collaboration. I mean, I was a very young adult once, I partied a lot, and I know what first love feels like, as well as first major breakup. My vision was less important than hers, to be honest. It's her record. However, I'm keen on intense, loud, high-contrast color and so is she.

It was important to me that the cover art make her feel confident revealing this new music to her fans and critics. Cover art is immediate, whereas songs take time. I had to paint in a way that matched the world as it unfolds in her songs, so that a listener gets excited and feels ready for Lorde. My vision was something like, "Let's make sure this thing looks iconic."

CP: What has the feedback been like, both from the pop music world and the art world?

SM: Wild, wonderful. Lorde fans are nuts but cool and as far as I can tell, the critics gets it. The art world is divided into people who like pop music and people who don't. The pop music loving section of the art world thinks it's fun that I did this.

CP: What's your capsule review of Melodrama?

SM: Instant classic.

Sam McKinniss [Photo by Dan Allegretto]

CP: Based on the New Yorker piece I read, your brain seems equally marinated in the Bible and pop culture -- tell us how that informs your approach to art.

SM: I received ample religious education growing up and I also watched a lot of VH1 and MTV. Both pursuits were formative and instructive. We could talk about this all day long, but basically, my preferred stance in art is to embrace profane secularity while at the same time hedging that position against divine fear and inspiration. And vice versa.

Like, I relate to secular humanism, consumerism, paganism while at the same time searching for the sublime. I guess this makes me Catholic. I'm not a real carpe diem person. I like pageantry, drama, confusion, and occasional catharsis. The Bible has a lot of good characters in it, but so did MTV when I was younger.

CP: Describe your artistic style in three words.

SM: Tender loving care.

CP: What's your emotional connection to Prince like? Tell us about the life-sized portrait.

SM: That was awful when he died. Prince was the greatest. For various reasons, 2016 was an outrageously stressful year for me, and as well as for probably a lot of people, Prince dying didn't help matters much. Like, on an existential level, every day felt like a losing battle, especially if you read newspapers or have even the slightest awareness of politics. His death was like we lost this singular creative force whose entire life was an event specifically crafted to bring emancipatory pleasure to millions of people.

I was bereft, not because I knew him personally, because I didn't, but because it was inspiring and hopeful to behold this person sequestered unto himself up in Minnesota, devoting all of his time and energy to blowing my mind whenever I play one of his records or watch him perform. A friend of mine put it this way: All Prince songs are about being horny for God. I agree with that. I painted him a couple times as a way to commemorate his passing, and also to put a stamp on the year, like, OK, let's really think about Prince, let's be in awe together, let's consider his heroism and impact.

McKinniss' life-sized painting of 'Purple Rain'-era Prince [Image courtesy of artist]

CP: Let's get real: Like Jessica Biel and Chris Pratt before you, you abandoned Minnesota in your youth. As a baby, or so the story goes. What are your experiences, feelings, and associations with your home state?

SM: Minnesota is a complete mystery to me, which is not a bad thing -- I'm in favor of mystery. My parents lived there for a while and so did my two older brothers, and they have fond memories of Northfield, but I don't because we all moved to Connecticut a year after I was born. I would like to visit. A friend of mine just moved to Minneapolis actually, so I should probably come soon. I'll let you know.

CP: Did you know this guy is also from Minnesota? 

SM: I don't want to know about that.

CP: What's next for Sam "Pride of MN" McKinniss?

SM: Funny you should ask, because I'm working on a massive landscape depicting the northern lights as they appear over Voyageurs National Park near the Canadian border. It's wild. I came across a photograph taken up there that someone posted to Instagram, and I'm completely taken with it. It reminds me of being on ecstasy in a nightclub, which is to say, heaven. Talk about "Green Light." I plan to show it sometime next year at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts.

You can follow McKinniss on Instagram. Take it away, Lorde!


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