The Songwriter & The Graphic Designer Behind Nashville's Coolest Brand Development Studio
A look into their career journey and light-filled office.
Not everyone follows a linear career path. Especially with the possibilities of our connected world, people from a variety of backgrounds can come together to create companies that bring a whole new perspective to a field. Often times, these unique experiences lead to amazing results. One success story? Mary Hooper and Amy Stroup's brand development studio Milkglass Creative.
With Hooper's design background and Stroup's songwriting skills, the Nashville-based pair has been able to create amazing work from album covers to Google commercials to music. While they may seem like an unlikely pair, the co-founders have spent eight years doing work they love and producing amazing results.
Read ahead to take a tour of their gorgeous light-filled studio and learn about their unique and creative careers.
Lonny: What were each of your jobs before starting Milkglass Creative?
Mary Hooper: I worked for a corporate design group for a few years right out of college. We designed annual reports and magazines and I learned that I loved publication design. My favorite client was the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in the first few years after it opened. It was a really fun time with so much excitement for the new facility. I then moved on to a position as art director at Harper Collins based here in Nashville. I learned so much from my team and time there. I still design a number of book covers for them each year and hope to continue to do so.
Amy Stroup: After studying business and marketing in college, I was getting by fairly well by writing songs, playing shows and working a couple of freelance jobs to make ends meet. I had made a record with Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift) and had been offered a record deal, but was trying to figure out if I could stay independent and release music myself.
How did you decide to start your company?
MH: Easiest decision of my life! Truly. I knew that corporate living wasn’t going to be a good fit for me long-term. I knew that I wanted to have more say in how I was spending my time and what projects I was investing in. Amy and I had been friends for a few years. She was trying to grow her artist career to full-time status and I was trying to get the guts to cut ties with my corporate salary. We started collaborating on songwriting and on album art for her music. We had some early licensing success with those songs and we just worked really well together. It came so easily from the start (not without a lot of hard work and the occasional temper tantrum, but easy-ish). I had an entirely different company planned with some other friends but it never materialized. I’m so glad it all panned out the way it did.
AS: We were asked to speak at a conference in Australia on the film we made in Guatemala and to talk about our work, respectively, on the project — music and design. Once the trip over, we basically started talking about how great it was to collaborate on the project and began asking the question could we create a business model neither of us had quite heard of before. Could we form a creative company that released music and housed a branding company?
After the trip we put together a business plan and Mary went to part time as the art director at the book publisher and we worked on writing a new record. At the same time, a couple of the songs we had co-written ended up on some major network TV shows as well as a couple of major brand TV commercials. We both — I don’t think — have never experienced that type of green-light success, so we decided to move forward and see if we could make it work. We started out by renting a large loft beside our favorite taco bar in Nashville and formed Milkglass Creative’s first basecamp.
A songwriter and a graphic designer aren't usually seen as the common creative pairing for brand development. How do you mix your skills to create your work?
MH: It’s true. We spent a lot of years trying to explain why it works. For a long time we would say that Nashville was one of the few places this collaboration would even make sense. If you’re in the business — music or design — it’s not too hard to see the value in the partnership. Every designer I know has either a background in music, or at the very minimum, a well-curated playlist. Branding is so important for a performing artist. Music should look the way it sounds and sound the way it looks. Right?
But to answer your question, I edit Amy’s emails for improper grammar and design all visual aspects of her life. She also regularly brings me in to co-write. I think we both love the variety of it all. She encourages me to take risks and often serves as the tie breaker in creative decisions. Ultimately, when it comes to judging a final mix of a new song, I trust her judgement. When I think an album cover needs a pop of fuschia she may give me a questioning look but tells me to go ahead. There’s a great balance to it.
AS: We both are problem solvers. Music is about solving a sound question of communicating and connecting, and design solves visual problems asking almost the same questions. We bonded over this as well as a strong work ethic and similar life values.
As a songwriter and recording artist, the biggest need I had was “looking” like I was a legit recording artist. I had the ability to record music with my friends who happened to be making some of the best music in Nashville, but I wanted to be able to position myself visually online and in social media like a major label artist. I had studied marketing in college and it seemed like the branding and design of a product could actually make or break it. That is where I knew design came in.
These days, everyone is making music and the big question becomes, “So What?” How do you get thumbs scrolling through Instagram to stop, look, and say, “What is she doing?,” or “I want to listen to that song,” or “That cover looks awesome, maybe I’ll look it up on Spotify.” That is where the design and visual side come in. The album cover is place that starts the story of the record. Therefore we always say, music should look like it sounds. More and more major labels are coming to us for their artists now to help with the visual side of things.
On the music side, as in branding and advertising, the power of words is so important. Mary had been a part of a band in college and was an amazing performer and writer, so she had some music know how. Also, she is listening to podcasts and music all day as she is designing. So naturally she is constantly discovering great songs and artist and is expanding my horizon of new music. She has co-written some of my most successful songs. It is definitely an out-of-the-box combo, but it has worked well for over eight years now.
What have been some of your favorite projects you have worked on together?
MH: Anytime we get to do an in-house project, whether it be Amy’s record or a self-promo piece for the business, we feel so lucky to get to create from our own inspiration. We have really amazing clients too, so anytime we’re able to help them find their visual voice and we see them thrive in it, we feel a lot of gratitude. Chris Stapleton’s Traveller album has been a particularly impactful project. He and Morgane had such a distinct style and I’m proud of the way we were able to capture that in the design of the record. It felt really true to him and to the music. What an unexpected ride it’s been to watch his career take off. Stapleton’s team sent us our first triple-platinum record plaque last month. Pinch me.
AS: Besides co-writing my own records, we’ve had a lot of fun and our work has literally taken us to some amazing places stateside and abroad. I’d say, art directing Miranda Lambert’s Pistol Annies “Takin Pills” music video in my basement was tons of fun, collaborating on Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” branding and design, and building out and creating our own design studio. I’d also say leading a mountain climbing adventure a couple of years ago in collaboration with a dinner series we did for a year called Unlikely Bunch Expedition.
Can you tell me about your studio design?
MH: It’s minimal and bright. Neither one of us live there so we’re able to keep it clear and free of clutter and distraction. We frequently travel to the west coast for work and I’d definitely say our aesthetic has been influenced by the breezy, bright style we encounter in L.A. We had an office in a one-room loft above a Mexican restaurant for six years before finishing out and moving into our new spot. Two years later, it still feels like a dream to have space (and walls!) and enough room to host our clients and friends.
AS: We bought a space in the up-and-coming area of Nashville called Wedgewood Houston. Our city had recently named this area Nashville’s Design & Arts district and we liked the idea of being a part of the design community instead of the more traditional music zip code. When we bought the space, it was just concrete and the wood framing. We got to build out our space from scratch with flooring treatment, walls, kitchen details, bathrooms, work rooms, etc. After we moved over here, we found other music artists were doing the same. Kings of Leon’s studio is up the road as well as the Black Keys and Jack White’s Third Man Records. It makes sense as we all are “of-the-row” kind of artists.
As far as the interiors, we have decorated it with small loves from our travels as well as some of our favorite modern furniture pieces. For instance, a small handmade wooden bowl from Hawaii, purchased on a recent writing trip, is in our living room, our lithograph print of “Night Sky Reverse” by Vija Celmins spotted in Marfa, Texas, or our gjusta goods ceramics mugs purchased before a co-write in LA. I love that these small pieces are reminders of days well spent doing work we love.
What is your favorite part of the studio?
MH: The rooftop deck. We have an amazing view of our Wedgwood Houston neighborhood and of downtown. It’s a great place to escape our computers for a Vitamin-D break during the day, or have clients over for happy hour. We even host a sunrise yoga session once a month when the weather is nice. I’d say it’s really enhanced our sense of community and hospitality while offering us an escape from our everyday craziness.
AS: It’s nice to actually have a space outside of my house to create in. I need discipline, so I treat my “creating” like a job and keep regular hours at our studio. I’ve found I’m much more creative and productive when I do that. Also, I am sensitive to light, color, organization, and other makeups of surroundings. So I feel totally blessed to have been able to build a beautiful space where we can work and have our team come work with us as well. It’s nice to be able to host clients, co-writers, and people we love in the space.
How do you hope to see Milkglass Creative grow in the coming years?
MH: I hope we’d continue to adapt and change along with our clients’ needs and as our interests evolve. The gift of being your own boss is owning the power to shift the company to make it what you want and need it to be. I fully anticipate our business will take on new life as we continue to grow as people. If I had to guess, I’d say the future will include more mentoring and sharing what we’ve learned. I hope our team grows in such a way that we stay small, but have an increased bandwidth and tool kit to help our clients in more and more holistic ways. The opportunity and need is definitely there!
AS: I think as we have found success in the unexpected collaboration of music and design, we would love to help develop younger artists to be able to do the same. We were able to create not only a collaboration, but also a business model that has worked. We’d love to consult and do the same for other young (especially women) entrepreneurs with their ideas. I think overall problem solving is something we love working on together, whether that is tackling a song or a client’s need. We bring different points of view on the world and I think the diversity is our strength.