Through our new series of stories, Visual Arts X Music, we aim to present you with visual artists for whom music plays an essential role, in both their artistic approach, and their lives.
What’s the first album that had a profound impact on the artist known as Pony? Gabrielle Laïla Tittley was 10 when she bought – with her own money! – Jay-Z’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998).
Why did it have such an impact on her? ‘Cause it’s Jay-Z (obviously), but also because one of her childhood’s favourite movies – the musical Annie (1982) – is set in an orphanage during the Great Depression, and her mother is an orphan, which establishes a kind of link: As you may remember, the rapper sampled the movie’s “It’s a Hard Knock Life” ditty for his own “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).”
“A major part of my artistic approach is rooted in that song,” says Tittley, whose pre-teen enthusiasm remains intact. “There’s a magical combination of contrasts between the dude who comes from a tough background and says, ‘Here’s my reality, I sell drugs,’ and then you move on to the super up-beat chorus. There’s a resemblance with what I do: I want to talk about real shit, but with happy colours.”
What’s the place of music in Tittley’s life? “I’m like the Robin to the person I aspire to be,” she explains with a laugh, comparing herself to Batman’s sidekick. What does that mean, exactly? Gabrielle’s analogy means that she has already dreamed of herself as a rock star, ruling a compacted and screaming crowd. But since it’s often wiser not to go against the talents life has bestowed on us, Pony instead became, right in high school (in Gatineau), the ally of choice of her musician friends – their Robin! – for whom she’s been designing posters, flyers, and other promotional materials since the age of 16.
Whereas, at that time, it was the pop-punk stylings of Blink-182, Sum 41, and The Offspring, or even the hardcore of Poison the Well, that rocked Tittley’s headphones, it’s the incendiary rock of Le Nombre that was the soundtrack of her arrival in Montréal when she turned 18. “I was completely ob-ses-sive about Le Nombre,” she says, clearly separating the adjective’s syllables.
She scours her fuzzy memory to try to remember some paintings directly inspired by the organized chaos of Le Nombre’s recordings. “They were huge paintings,” says Tittley. “There was one with an orange Marshall amp.. the amp was open and inside it were… organs? I can’t remember what lyric it was referring to. There was another one with a zebra-headed human. That was a reference to “Tous ceux de ma race.”
Around that time, the painter began writing down the title of the song that was the soundtrack to the long birth of a painting – “When I’m really into a song, I’ll listen to nothing else for days,” she says.
It was only a matter of time before she started getting commissions for album cover art, and she immediately embraced this stimulating exercise for the likes of Brixton Robbers, Travelling Headcase, Le Husky, L’Indice, and Bravofunken. The illustration she imagined in 2013 for Ultrapterodactyl’s Quand une mascotte saigne EP couldn’t better summarize Pony’s vision of the world. It’s both jovial and violent, childlike and tragic: on the right side of the image, a blond girl holds the head of a dinosaur mascot, while on the left side of the image, the dinosaur mascot stands, decapitated and bleeding profusely. The rabbit on the cover of Manger du bois (2012) by Canailles deserves to be examined closely: each of its hairs rests on a distinct lead pencil stroke.
In 2016, Pony received the Lucien award for the Album Cover of the Year for Le temps f33l by CRABE, and in 2020, she was nominated at the Gala de l’ADISQ in the same category for Robert Nelson’s Nul n’est roé en son royaume. The first season of the series Résiste ! (which she hosts on TV5) sees her meeting with different musicians, including the Montréal-based rapper Nate Husser, for whom she’ll soon direct a music video.
During one episode of her own series of shows L’amour passe à travers le linge (whose goal is the feature the work of some of her illustrator peers through the creation of t-shirts sold for the benefit of various charitable organizations) Tittley briefly realized her rock-star ambition and stepped on stage with the band Groovy Aardvark.
“Vincent [Peake] knew that “Ingurgitus” is my all-time favourite song of theirs,” she says. “When he invited me up, everyone was screaming like there was a murder going on, I couldn’t understand what was happening. It was the dream of all my friends, we’re all Groovy fans. Normally I’m super-shy on stage, but that night I gave it my all.”
Does she have a fantasy collaboration with a musician? “I’d love to direct a music video for an old Jean Leloup song,” she says, “maybe ‘Fashion Victim,’ but, like, a thousand years later. Creatively, he’s one of the people I admire the most. I’ve always loved stuff that is out of the ordinary and fucks with standards.”