her smell

How Her Smell Dug Deep for Its ’90s Album Covers With Elisabeth Moss and Amber Heard

Photo: Music Video Collection

During the end credits of Her Smell, director Alex Ross Perry’s blistering drama starring Elisabeth Moss as a drug-addled ’90s rock star, a series of era-appropriate albums scroll by. You might mistake one for a PJ Harvey record, or another for a Sleater-Kinney CD, what with their perfectly grainy graphics, authentic jewel cases, and price tags from stores like The Wall and Amoeba. Except that the artists’ names, however convincingly ’90s sounding, are fictional: Becky Something, Ya-ema, the Akergirls.

Perry and collaborator Teddy Blanks, co-founder of the Brooklyn-based design studio CHIPS, went to impressive lengths to create these albums. They mined their personal CD collections and used-record-store bins to get each and every detail just right, and to stuff in as many musical references and Easter eggs as possible. As fans of the movie, which is slipping into more and more theaters this weekend and next, prepare for the soundtrack to be released on vinyl, Perry and Blanks took Vulture through all 23 of the covers they created and how the fake albums reflect on the arcs of Her Smell’s characters:

Something She’s S/T

Blanks: There’s a Babes in Toyland album called Machine, where the band name is scrawled in scratchy text on the cover, and I wanted to emulate that style for an early Something She release, before the band’s logo was established on their second album, which would become the big breakout.

Perry: Teddy put the reissue sticker on. This had to look like something that was designed by the band in a very DIY style. You see that logo on the shirt that Cara is wearing in Act Two of the movie. That’s their first logo, their first merch — the die-hard fan’s shirt to have from the first tour. The song in the finale, “Breathe,” that’s the hit off their first album that everybody knows the words to.

Something She’s Baby I’m Sick

Blanks: Baby I’m Sick was one of the few album titles referenced in the original script, and because Alex wanted to use it as a prop in the movie itself, it was the first one I designed. It seemed to me that there should be an actual baby on the cover, both to kind of flip the meaning of the title and as a sly nod to Nevermind. If Nirvana’s putting a naked, swimming baby on their cover, Something She is putting a breastfeeding baby on theirs.

Perry: The first thing you see in the movie is that 60-second flashback to a couple of years ago where the band is on the cover of Spin with the headline “Back and Ready to Conquer.” What you can infer from that is that that first album had a hit on it. It wasn’t a total obscure nothing, and then Baby I’m Sick is this much-anticipated, slightly more polished follow-up. Baby I’m Sick goes platinum and the events of the movie follow.

Becky Something’s Something New

Blanks: I thought for Becky’s first solo effort, she would go as far from the Something She aesthetic as possible. There’s this washed-out, ethereal-looking photo. The font is very adult contemporary — it’s elegant and professional-looking. She’s smiling. It’s her sort of poking fun at a kind of self-serious “solo artist” posturing, while also genuinely trying to set herself apart from the band.

Perry: That album is a low point. She’s being sued at that point. She legally couldn’t put out a Something She record, but she’s got ten songs, and Howard needs to pay the bills so that album gets put out. It’s that kind of thing where a band breaks up and then one member tries to have some solo career, like a Chinese Democracy or a Hole album that’s just Courtney Love, like Nobody’s Daughter and America’s Sweetheart. I actually think both of those albums are great.

Baby I’m Sick 33 ⅓

Perry: That book series was really essential to a lot of my work on the movie, but a lot of people don’t know about them. I mean, they’re for nerds only. Reading those books was really influential because, as a writer, what’s really important is the narrative of the music. And you read 33 1/3 and it’s the writing of the album, the recording, the critical response and then the tour, usually. Then Teddy, as an Easter egg — he couldn’t resist — the 33 1/3 is written by Elisabeth’s character who’s a photographer from my movie Listen Up Philip. I think one person has pointed that out so far.

Something She’s The Easy Life

Perry: This one’s a little trickier to place in the Wikipedia page in my head of the band, because you know Something She breaks up and whatever album they’re working on becomes the Becky solo album. The question with The Easy Life is, “Is there some semblance of that having been finished, or is that made after the events of the movie, as a sort of much-anticipated first album in five years?” It’s either something that was salvaged, or it’s the third Something She album that, if you want to believe in that as the future of the band, comes after the movie is over.

Blanks: I used to sing in a band and we had a song called “The Easy Life,” so the title is a nod to my own rock-star ambitions. The layout, font, and black-and-white photo are straight-up Celebrity Skin.

Something She’s The Rhapsody Sessions

Blanks: This is one of the last covers I did and it was designed specifically to accommodate this “import” sticker that Alex found on one of his old CDs.

Perry: You can infer it’s clearly some weird kind of thing — demos that never came out, songs that were never finished. I suppose there is even a version of those demos that become The Easy Life, once they’re finally finished.

Something She Unplugged

Perry: For contractual reasons, it’s just “unplugged” as a general phrase. It’s important to situate the scope of Something She’s place in the world — they’re not selling 10 million records [at this point], but they’re big enough to do an unplugged or have a B-sides collection.

Blanks: Yeah, this is definitely not supposed to be from a specific television station’s branded series of unplugged albums, which is why the sticker from the defunct record store chain The Wall is covering up any logo.

Something She’s In Motion

Perry: I sent Teddy a frantic text message 24 hours before we locked the credits and said, “Red alert. We need a Something She music-video collection VHS.” They’re not the biggest band in the world but they have the video collection. I loved those, like Beastie Boys’ Skills to Pay the Bills VHS. The label is like, “We had someone follow them on tour for two weeks and shoot footage, so let’s cut it up and put a music video every 10 minutes and then interviews and the live performance and then we’ll sell it.”

Something She’s 20th Century Masters

Perry: We couldn’t legally clear putting this in the credits. Someone can keep making money off of this band’s three records, so they’re going to keep repackaging them in different configurations. Nobody wants those beyond the crazy superfans.

Blanks: It’s too bad we couldn’t put it in the movie. I think it helps to remind you how huge this band really was.

Paragon Records Sampler

Paragon is Something She’s record label, headed up by Eric Stoltz’s character, Howard Goodman.

Blanks: I got really excited when I found a shrink-wrapped CD in a used bin with a mostly white cover, because I knew I could easily Photoshop out the text on the cover and retain most of the details of the wrap. It was clear that the record-label sampler belonged on this case, because it’s just the kind of thing that might remain unopened, sitting somewhere near the bottom of a pile of CDs at a college radio station.

Perry: Having a sampler was really important for Eric Stoltz’s title card. The bands on that sampler are the bands that you see advertised on other concert posters throughout the movie. I view Paragon as a Matador/Sub Pop–type record label that, to me as a teenager, is like the highest level you could hope for. The Paragon 20th celebration at the end of the movie came from watching videos of Liz Phair at the Matador 21 event, just the idea that it’s the thing hatchets are buried for, to come and put on shows for the guy who was always there for you. That’s the emotional purity Howard represents for these people.

Ali and Roy’s Self-Titled Album

Ali van der Wolff, played by Gayle Rankin, is Something She’s drummer. The most sober and responsible of the trio, she’s the first to quit the band, leaving while they’re recording the follow-up to Baby I’m Sick.

Blanks: I wanted this to look like Ali and Roy had designed the cover themselves. Not in a grungy DIY kind of way, but more “we went to the woods for six weeks and recorded this very stripped-down and heartfelt album, so the cover should be in our own handwriting.”

Perry: By design, it’s meant to show Ali is not playing rock music anymore. It’s like that album Hawk that Isobel Campbell put out with Mark Lanegan after she left Belle and Sebastian. It’s a little bit more rootsy and experimental, but people like it. We scanned my Best of Björk CD that I have from the Repo Records that was in Bryn Mawr. It was a beautiful, tiny little store that had new and used CDs, and I got everything there.

The Akergirls’ Wombat Rock and Born to Stink 7-inch

The Akergirls — Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula, and Cara Delevingne — are the up-and-coming punk trio signed to Paragon by Howard. When Something She breaks up, they’re enlisted to help Becky finish her next album.

Blanks: I wanted to set the Akergirls apart aesthetically — more riot grrrl than grunge — so their covers have a kind of punk-zine aesthetic. Born to Stink is almost exactly the cover of Bikini Kill’s Peel Sessions. And Wombat Rock, well, I had to find a drawing of a wombat.

Perry: This was a way of situating them as, like, a real group of young 20-something DIY girls who are not in a position to press an album but they make a hundred cassettes and 500 7-inches, like the Vivian Girls. Born to Stink has the same graphic logo that Cara’s character has tattooed on her arm. I always love when bands do that. The plastic sleeve on the 7-inch, that’s the original sticker from a CD I bought at Amoeba. That becomes a collector’s item, for sure.

The Akergirls’ Like Lightning

Blanks: This one doesn’t have a specific analogue. It was my attempt to imagine what an Akergirls album cover would look like once they had some money and a team behind them. The tilted type says, “We’re still kind of punk,” but the elegant white letterboxing and inset photo says, “We’re growing up and we spent real money on this record.”

The Akergirls’ Ride on to the Fast Age

Perry: This is when they’re getting like a little poppier. I didn’t even realize but Teddy completely leans right into Sleater-Kinney’s All Hands on the Bad One album for that. That’s maybe the most identical album in the entire package here. I didn’t even get it until we were done with the movie and I saw that album in a store. At that point, the Akergirls are so big they don’t have to put their face on the front.

Blanks: Even the title itself, I was just trying to come up with something with the same structure and amount of syllables as the Sleater-Kinney album.

The Akergirls’ Scars

Blanks: The vintage family photo with covered-up eyes, the colorful border, the rub-on letters on a slip of white paper — it’s Bikini Kill’s Reject All American.

Perry: That import album is like Wombat Rock, the 7-inch, and some other early stuff, like when a band has a ten-track, 25-minute debut album but then you buy it on a CD later and it has like their first two releases, like Green Day’s 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours.

Zelda E. Zekiel’s Red Coal

Amber Heard’s Zelda E. Zekiel is a solo artist who got her start as Something She’s opening act. Now a huge star, she tries to return the favor by having the trio open for her on an upcoming tour, a proposition that disgusts Becky.

Perry: This is clearly Zelda’s early album — very straightforward, before she took control of her image like Kate Bush and decided every element of her albums has to be a piece of art. That’s a used-CD sticker from Kim’s, where I worked. It would have the date that the CD was brought in, 0306. Putting a Kim’s sticker in there was very necessary for my honoring where I come from.

Zelda E. Zekiel’s The Element

Blanks: This is a mashup of the covers of PJ Harvey’s Uh Huh Her and Dry. Part of the challenge of making these covers was I could only work with either stuff that was clearly in the public domain, royalty-free stock, or on-set photography. We decided early on that like PJ Harvey, Zelda would have her own face on every cover. But in the movie she only wears two different outfits, and of course you wouldn’t want her to be wearing the same outfit on more than one album cover. So I had to get around this with creative cropping. Luckily Harvey had Dry, whose cover is just a color Xerox of her mouth. I took one of the photos of Amber Heard, zoomed in very far on her mouth, and gave it those copy machine lines.

Zelda E. Zekiel’s Fragments of an Evening and Z to Z

Blanks: Fragments of an Evening is supposed to be like PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The photo on the cover jumped out at me because it seemed to capture a candid moment but was also very mysterious and chic. From the beginning, Alex had the idea of Zelda having put out an ambitious double-CD entitled Z to Z, a very late-’90s thing to do.

Perry: It’s worth noting that Cara Delevingne took that [Fragments] photo. Now Zelda is branching out of just the typical jewel case — the CD is in a cardboard sleeve. Z to Z is the kind of conceptual double album that’s advertised with a sticker that says, “Comes with a booklet, poster and lyrics …”

Zelda E. Zekiel’s She Waits

Blanks: One thing a lot of PJ Harvey’s album covers have in common is tiny, sans serif type. So this is definitely Rid of Me but also a little Four Track Demos.

Dirtbag Danny’s Dirty Hits Vol. 1

Dan Steven’s character Danny Something is Becky’s ex and the father of her child. By the start of the movie, he’s cleaned up and left his old radio DJ persona, Dirtbag Danny, behind.

Perry: He’s a DJ with enough of a personality that he can put out a compilation. Maybe some of those tracks are from when a band stops by and plays a song. My modern-rock station in Philadelphia was called Y100, and they had this thing called the Sonic Sessions where like Weezer would come in and do a four-song set and there would be the Sonic Sessions compilation with one song from 20 different acts. I wanted Danny to be the Sonic Sessions guy.

Ya-ema’s The Journey of Purity

Ya-ema, portrayed by Eka Darville, is Becky’s spiritual adviser, guiding her through arcane rituals that she believes helps her with life and her career in spite of her heavy drug use. Note the $3 price tag on his album cover.

Perry: That’s a story that we came up with, where obviously at some point Becky pays for this New Age throat-singing album that she, for whatever reason, supports or is duped into supporting. It stops just shy of having her name on the cover.

Blanks: We wanted each actor in the film to have an album cover matched to their title card. Ya-ema doesn’t perform music in the movie, but it seemed totally believable that he would try to release a New Age album and that it wouldn’t do very well, hence it landing in the bargain bin.

The Story Behind the Fake Her Smell ’90s Album Covers