Interview: Craftsbury’s Dave Bett wins Grammy Award

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Dave Bett, design director at Columbia Records, sits in his Craftsbury home with his new Grammy award. Photos by Natalie Hormilla

copyright the chronicle July 11, 2012

by Natalie Hormilla

CRAFTSBURY — The public library here will have a special speaker on Wednesday night, July 11. Dave Bett, design director at Columbia Records in New York City, will give an informal presentation on the Bruce Springsteen box set The Promise:  The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, for which Mr. Bett won a Grammy Award earlier this year.

He won the award along with his colleague, Michelle Holme, for the box set’s design. They won in the category Best Boxed/Special Limited Edition Package. The Grammy was a first for both designers.

Mr. Bett said that work on the box set took about three years to complete.
“A lot of it is research, anthropology, detective work, to find all the pieces that make the artist come alive,” he said.

The box set includes three CDs of music: one is the original 1978 Bruce Springsteen album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the other two consist of songs that didn’t make it on to that album. The set also includes three DVDs: one disc chronicles the making of the 1978 album, using footage shot by a friend of Mr. Springsteen’s at that time mixed with some new footage, and the other two discs are of live performances — one in 1978 in Houston, Texas, and another in 2009 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The CDs and DVDs are housed in a facsimile of a blue, spiral bound Eagle Line notebook Mr. Springsteen kept while working on his fourth album leading up to its 1978 release, which is where Mr. Bett’s work really shines.

Mr. Bett and Ms. Holme created a sort of scrapbook of words by and images of Mr. Springsteen. They used snapshots, stills from videos, and copies of the many pages of lyrics, notes, lists and random thoughts Mr. Springsteen kept in the blue notebook while working on Darkness on the Edge of Town, his first album in three years after the 1975 hit Born to Run.

“This whole thing became about making an album, the creative process,” Mr. Bett said.
The box set version of the notebook looks a lot like the real notebook kept by Mr. Springsteen. It includes his scribbly handwriting, and realistic touches like the brown stains and random rips found in the pages of the original.

Mr. Bett said that real fans of The Boss will notice certain details in Mr. Springsteen’s notes, like lyrics that were moved to other songs in their recorded versions or that are missing entirely. There are also voting tallies of which songs should be in the album, and lists Mr. Springsteen kept of which songs and artists he was listening to at the time (Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Elvis). These notes and lists are interspersed with photographs of Mr. Springsteen, chosen by Mr. Bett and Ms. Holme because they were either never used or seldom seen. Some of them are outtakes, and some of them are even stills from video footage, so that the images themselves did not even exist until the art directors at Columbia Records plucked them from old reels.

Pictured is a section of the Grammy-winning Bruce Springsteen box set The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story. On the left page is a list Mr. Springsteen kept while working on his 1978 album, of songs that he was listening to at the time. On the right page is a working version of the lyrics to Badlands. The pages are part of a facsimile of the original notebook Mr. Springsteen kept, designed by Dave Bett and Michelle Holme of Columbia Records.

“I sat and watched maybe two full days of video from those days,” Mr. Bett said, “and saying ‘oop, keep that frame, keep that frame.’”

The box set is something meant to be pored over by Mr. Springsteen’s biggest fans, to leaf through and learn from. Mr. Bett said that, in designing the box set, he asked himself, ‘what would a fan want to see?’

“The funny thing about doing Springsteen stuff is being from New Jersey,” said Mr. Bett, who is a native of the Red Bank, New Jersey area, near the heart of Mr. Springsteen’s original Jersey fan base. “I can remember hearing about him playing at a high school gym, and everybody wanted to see him.” Mr. Bett was in seventh grade at the time, and was told he was not old enough to go.

He said his mother played pinochle with the mother of a kid in Mr. Springsteen’s band at that time, a connection Mr. Bett told Mr. Springsteen about while working together.
Over the years, Mr. Bett said, he has worked on four or five Springsteen projects through Columbia, some with Ms. Holme.

So what does it mean to be a design director for a record company? “All of the artwork for Columbia’s artists — the packaging — goes through me in some form,” Mr. Bett said, whether he assigns the work to someone else or not.

“Say if Columbia has a project, and we need to get a box set design for it, I’ll either say, ‘I’ll do it,’ or I’ll assign it to another art director.”

Mr. Bett said that each project begins with some sort of direction from the artist.
“Usually it means you talk to the artist about the title, what they might want to see — either a picture of themselves, or a cool illustration, or maybe they have no idea at all — then you find a direction that fits the music. Then you have to find the right photographer, the right people….”

Mr. Bett said that his job involves a lot of coordinating between people. “It’s about building the right creative team and overseeing that.”

Mr. Bett was nominated for a Grammy once before, in the same category, for his work on Tori Amos’ 2003 Scarlet’s Walk.

He lives in Long Island, New York, with his wife, Kate Bernhard. Ms. Bernhard’s mother, Nan Murdoch, owned the cottage near Craftsbury Common that Mr. Bett and Ms. Bernhard visit. They have been coming to Craftsbury since 1981.  “We feel like part of the community,” he said.

When they’re in Craftsbury, Mr. Bett said that he and his wife read a lot, and visit Caspian Lake in Greensboro and Bread and Puppet in Glover.

Mr. Bett also volunteers at the Craftsbury Public Library, where he’ll give his talk on July 11 at 7 p.m. He brought along his Grammy and an edition of the box set for the night.

contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected]

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