By Michael Alan Goldberg
Jess Rotter truly racked up the frequent flyer miles this year. The long-time in-house publicist and marketing wiz for Brooklyn-based indie record label Mexican Summer practically lived in airplanes, repeatedly jetting out west and back to handle her duties repping Best Coast--the label's biggest success story to date, as the band crossed over to mainstream fanfare this year on the heels of their second album, The Only Place. Rotter found herself busier and more harried than at any point in her decade-long career inside the music industry.
Up in the air, though, was Rotter's time, and the cabin became her art studio. "I knew I was gonna have six hours of time where I could concentrate--I'd put on my iPod and just draw," she says.
For the past several years, drawing has lifted Rotter to her own ever-growing artistic heights. A phenomenal and increasingly in-demand illustrator with one creative foot firmly rooted in music, Rotter's crafted attention-grabbing album artwork--like The Only Place's back cover/inner sleeve, and the chimerical cover and 20-page accompanying booklet for Country Funk 1969-1975 (Light in the Attic Records), which SPIN just named the year's best reissue CD--as well as work for MTV (check out her recent, stylin' Frank Ocean portrait), Nylon, Japanese Vogue, Dossier, The Gap, and Ace Hotel.
She's also the brains behind the boutique T-shirt line Rotter and Friends--launched in 2007 and run mainly out of Mexican Summer's offices, her nostalgic, dreamy, hand-drawn portraits both pay homage to big names (Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Bob Seger, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, etc.) and evangelize for the underappreciated, obscure, and lost artists of the late-'60s through the '70s: Captain Beefheart, Betty Davis, Roky Erickson, "Swamp Fox" Tony Joe White, Link Wray, and Ya Ho Wha 13 among them. Available only online and in a few boutiques and stores (like Other Music, which has stocked Rotter and Friends shirts since the line's inception), Rotter's designs--of which she makes very small runs--have garnered a sizable cult following.
"The fun part about it is it's been more like a clubhouse than a clothing label," says Rotter. "I never wanted it to be in a huge chain, I always wanted it to be small and have that feeling of being super-limited and special."
It all started for Rotter, a Long Island native, back at Syracuse University, where she majored in painting after nurturing her visual art inclinations since childhood. While in college she started doing music-related T-shirt and sticker designs for the British label Birdie--"I was going to England twice a year to do these hand-drawn prints for them"--and during summers she made inroads toward a career in the music industry by interning at Mo' Wax. After graduating in 2002, she got a job as a publicist at Girlie Action, where she pitched the bands she was working to the press and, on the side, successfully pitched her own artwork--primarily quasi-psychedelic portraits of musicians rendered in curvy inked lines and bright, bold watercolors--to various publications.
As always, it was music that fed her art. "Records are so emotional to me," she says. "Rotter and Friends--my friends are my records, I think music is my friends."
Rotter lets out a laugh. "Well, it's all different things. It's the records. It's my friends passing on music to me that I've never heard before. One of my best friends, when we were first friends, he sent me a mix when I was going through a bad breakup when I was 26. It had Gene Clark, Judee Sill, Waylon Jennings, Mickey Newbury--this crazy mix that he called 'Boot Cuts,' and it was like somebody sent me a bible. I was already in that period of that stuff being an influence on me, but then I was like, 'Look at these songs, look at these artists.'"
"Rotter and Friends sort of erupted shortly thereafter, like, 'People need to know about this music!'" she continues. "So when I'm making a shirt, like I've done of Judee Sill and Gene Clark, the 'Friends' in Rotter and Friends is like, 'My friend has passed this on to me, and now I want to pass this on to you.'"
A few years back, she started teaming up with Light in the Attic to design R&F shirts in conjunction with the label's releases by Lee Hazlewood, the Louvin Brothers, Jim Ford and others (the new Rodriguez shirt is one of R&F's biggest-ever sellers).
Rotter and Friends' big breakthrough came in 2011, when actress Natalie Portman--who'd previously been spotted (and photographed) wearing R&F T-shirts--shouted out Rotter's Captain Beefheart shirt in In Style magazine. "That's a really big marker in my career because I was getting incredible letters from men in their '60s who were so thankful--I was the only place you could get a Captain Beefheart T-shirt--and I was getting letters from young girls who want to be Natalie Portman, like, 'Who is [Beefheart]?' That's kind of where it all came together and the name started getting out there a little bit more, and then the work just started flowing."
"It's now the time where I'm ready to show people what else I can do, that I'm not just a rock and roll portrait artist," she says. But Rotter and Friends still lives on. "It's not a bad thing that people feel comfortable sending me mixes and want to talk about that period of music, because I think it's important and it's still the time period that influences me the most. There's a certain warmth and mystery to it, and the stuff that came out of that era was super lasting, to me. But I don't see a lot of this stuff being written about or talked about. So I still want people to know about all kinds of music that was happening at that time that wasn't Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix."