Take Five with the Yellow Bird Project

My friend Vanessa Rhinesmith, who is much more in tune with all things fashion than I am, recently dropped a reference to the Yellow Bird Project, an initiative focused on awesome t-shirts and great music. As a fan of both, I was intrigued.

The Montreal-based organization, which launched in 2006, partners with indie rock musicians who design t-shirts, the sales of which benefit charities of their choosing. Devendra Banhart was their first recruit to the cause, and everything built up from there. Participating artists now include The Shins, Of Montreal, the National, Elvis Perkins, New Pornographers and many more. Coming soon is a design by Andrew Bird.

Charities benefiting from the Project include Free Arts for Abused Children, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Whale Museum and the Teenage Cancer Trust. To date, the YBP has raised $80,000 for these and other charities.

Yellow Bird Project has also published the The Indie Rock Coloring Book, blending the combination of art and music with a healthy helping of childhood whimsy. Proceeds from the sale of the coloring book benefit YBP directly. And recently, The Tallest Man of Earth composed a theme song for the project:

I corresponded with YBP co-founder Casey Cohen about the initiative:

How did you get Devendra Banhart on board to kick off the effort? What tactics did you use to reach out to musicians?

A lot of ruthless emailing, hoping to get lucky. And we did, with Devendra… Knowing that he himself is an illustrator who studied art and designs his own album covers, we really wanted him to be involved. We contacted one of his label reps, and then eventually heard back from him directly. He was really enthusiatic about contributing, which is remarkable, seeing as how we didn’t even have a website or anything like that set up. At that point it was just an idea, and I guess he had faith in our idea.

The shirts are personal in that proceeds from each shirt benefit a charity of the musician’s choice, often one local or personally meaningful to them. What communications do you have with the charities, and what are their responses to this initiative?

The charities which we have spoken to directly are, for the most, part very appreciative. Last year [co-founder] Matt [Stotland] visited the Interval House women’s shelter in Toronto [the recipient of a donation from the sale of a t-shirt designed by Bon Iver], and they gave him a tour of the premises. We had just given them an $8000 donation, and so they were really thankful that we were able to help make a difference. They told us that our initiative will help them reach a new demographic, letting young women know that there is somewhere to go if they are experiencing abuse. So that was truly satisfying; knowing that we would be helping to raise awareness for their organization.

Art and fashion — especially when it comes to the hipster t-shirt aesthetic — are big aspects of the indie music scene. Why are they so intertwined?

I suppose it’s because musicians, just like any other artists, are very expressive. Fashion can be a way for you to express who you are and how you feel, just like music, or painting. If you look at the way Devendra, or Of Montreal dresses, all wild crazy and shirtless, you can see that it really suits their act. For indie music fans, wearing band t-shirts are a way for them to make a statement which expresses their love of music and for certain bands.

How did the coloring book come about and how has that been received?

We’re always eager to collaborate with artists that we admire, and so when illustrator Andy J. Miller reached out to us, we decided to put him to work at doing what he does best. We asked him to create one colouring book page for every band that has been involved with YBP. We thought it would be a great way to spread the word about our bands and about the work that we are doing. Fortunately, Chronicle Books agreed, and they gave us a publishing deal.

It has been very well received… We’ve sold over 20,000 copies worldwide, and Time Magazine named it as one of their best holiday gift ideas of last year.

We supported the book with an interactive group drawing game, called Color Me Indie. That was a lot of fun. And now we’re working with Andy and Chronicle on a follow up book. Something bigger, with lots more colour!

What was the most interesting response you got from a band that become a part of the project?

When we approached The Dears to do a design, they asked if they could mail it to us through the post, which is unconventional as normally people send it via email. When we received it, we saw that it was a drawn by their four year old daughter, Neptune, on a tattered piece of brown paper. We later got to meet Neptune, the artist herself, at our Montreal book launch, where Murray Lightburn performed a few songs.

Some of the t-shirts promote the name of the band, but it seems that most of them are simply artistic statements. Why do you think this is?

That’s because we don’t want these t-shirts to be “band t-shirts”. We want them to stand out on their own. If all of our t-shirts had band names written on them, then it would sort of detract the attention away from the project and the charities which are involved. It also seems a lot less contrived, when the musicians are free to design whatever they want, whatever comes to mind.

Which t-shirt is your favorite and why?

Our newest t-shirt is always my favourite t-shirt, just because I’m always excited about welcoming new bands to the project. Our newest t-shirt now, by a band called Whispertown 2000, has a diagram of a halibut, which to me is very cool.

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