Jimmy Fallon sat behind his desk, like he often does before announcing the evening’s musical guest on “The Tonight Show,” and held up the cover art for Julia Michael’s first hit, called “Issues.”
The camera zoomed in on the cover, made to look as if Michaels was clawing through light pink wallpaper and away from a backdrop covered with handwritten variations of the word “Issues.” And then Michaels began singing. It was her TV debut.
It all happened in about 18 seconds on a Tuesday night in March 2017. Lindsay O’Brien remembers those 18 seconds well.
It was her TV debut, too. The Quad-Citian designed the cover art for “Issues.”
O’Brien, who was a senior graphic design major at St. Ambrose University at the time, still gets chills thinking it.
“Jimmy Fallon held up something I made on my couch in my pajamas,” O’Brien, who is 25, said. “I have no words.”
That spotlight moment was the first of many for Michaels, a Davenport native who has penned songs for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Britney Spears and released her first E.P. called “Nervous System” via Republic Records last July.
O’Brien has created all of the artwork accompanying Michaels’ songs, as seen when listeners stream her hits on Spotify or buy her CD or album on vinyl.
How did that happen?
Some of it has to do with O’Brien and Michaels being step-sisters and best friends (Michaels was a bridesmaid in O’Brien’s August wedding). A lot of it also has to do with O’Brien creating art that embodies the heart of Michaels’ songs; in the process, she has beat out top Los Angeles-based designers with pieces she created after pulling all-nighters in her Davenport home.
Of the cover for “Issues,” O’Brien said, “It’s one of the things I have made that I am most proud of.”
And that’s not necessarily because so many people -- millions of people -- have seen it. And not only because it has opened doors for O’Brien.
It’s also because O’Brien connected to that song.
“I have severe anxiety, it’s almost crippling sometimes. And that’s what the song is about. It’s about a relationship between two people, but the core of it is about anxiety,” she said. “So, I was illustrating what it would be like to have an anxiety attack and to feel out of control. And I think a lot of people really got that.”
Always passionate about art
During a visit to her home last week, O’Brien showed off her cozy and colorful studio space where the freelance artist spends most of her days working, either on cover art or social media branding for musicians or on her personal illustrations, which are growing in popularity (more on that later).
“It’s such a beautiful time to be an artist,” she said. “Musicians are realizing how important that visual component is and they are finding visual artists to help them. Cover art draws people in. For me, if the cover art isn’t good, I’m not going to stop and listen to a new song.”
When she works, O’Brien sits in a big pink chair, and a cup of coffee and at least one of her three dogs often is nearby.
She and her husband recently moved into this new house and it’s just a short walk from John F. Kennedy Catholic School, where O’Brien went to kindergarten, and it brings up a memory to her mind.
“I can vividly remember we all got 30 minutes every day to do whatever we wanted,” she said. “Everyone else in kindergarten was playing with each other or playing games. And I was always at this table in the corner with the crayons and scraps of paper making something.”
In middle school, she taught herself how to code so she could have one-of-a-kind backgrounds on her MySpace profile. She started upcycling clothes and took nearly every art class offered at Moline High School. At 19, O’Brien opened a store in Rock Island called Good Karma, where she sold clothes and artwork and hula hoops she made.
Three years later, at 22, O’Brien enrolled at St. Ambrose University where she worked toward being a graphic designer and showing her art in galleries. In her spare time, O’Brien would draw made-up sayings, what she calls diary entries, in a sketchbook or on her tablet.
'A form of therapy'
About a year ago, she posted one of those colorful illustrations on her Instagram page, Artist Called Lo, for the first time which included the quote, “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to smash the patriarchy with me.”
That “rambling,” as O’Brien calls it, was inspired by a conversation she had with her then-fiance about how she wouldn’t want to change her last name when they got married.
“I told him I wouldn’t want to change it, because I feel like it’s part of me,” she said. “And I asked him, ‘Would you want to change yours?’ And he said no, because he feels like his last name is a part of his identity. And that’s when he got it. And he kind of understood for a second what it's like to be a woman.”
The illustration was shared enough that it caught the attention of Teen Vogue and Glamour. Both publications featured O’Brien on their websites.
Since then, O’Brien has put out several more illustrations featuring her own words, which are drawn from her own life or stories her friends tell her. They range from lighthearted: “Sometimes you just need a fancy charcuterie board night with your BFF (best friend forever),” to the “very relatable,”: “Ya know, I almost picked up the phone” to the more poignant: “I used to feel like a good person. Now I just feel like a person.”
“I make them as a form of therapy,” she said. “And I know that people can relate to them more than a traditional form or art.”
O’Brien is working on a book, featuring her illustrations, short stories and essays. She hopes to put it out in 2019.
Quad-Cities is home
For her work with Michaels and other musicians, O’Brien travels to Los Angeles about once per month.
But she says she can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“My heart is truly here,” she said.
She has seen plenty of other Quad-Citians move away to pursue their art or careers.
And she wants people to know they don’t have to do that, saying, “You can make a name for yourself here.”
“Instead of moving away for an art scene, I want to create the art scene here that I would move away for,” she said. “If I moved away, I would be part of the problem. You can’t help your community by leaving.”
A lot has changed for her since that episode of “The Tonight Show” aired last March.
But O’Brien’s goals haven’t changed: To create real art that is honest and that people connect with.
“My art is all about being my authentic self, and that means showing good days and hot mess days” she said. “And maybe that will inspire others to let their freak, weird, unconventional flags fly.”