Surviving as a creative couple in Los Angeles: Drew Melton and Kelsey Zahn

PHOTO CREDIT: JILL DEVRIES

PHOTO CREDIT: JILL DEVRIES


Drew Melton & Kelsey Zahn, Designer & Hair/ Make Up Artist

Los Angeles

Interview by Laura Piety


A Rverie Conversation with husband and wife, Drew Melton and Kelsey Zahn, creative entrepreneurs based in Los Angeles. 

I’ve got to know Drew and Kelsey over the past year since they moved from Grand Rapids in Michigan to the sunny Echo Park hills in the City of Angels. They’re a wonderful creative duo, Drew being quite the letterer and design extraordinaire, and Kelsey a totally on-the-ball stylist with hair and makeup skills to match. Drew’s clients include Nike and Saatchi & Saatchi, while Kelsey's roster features Lexus and countless fashion shoots. Complementing these innate talents are their brilliant personalities and ability to jive with people on a magnetic level.

We sat down at a new lunch spot, Zinc, nestled in the back streets of DTLA (or the Arts District to be more precise) and feasted on fresh fare while talking creative value, process, and balancing personal passion with the need to stick a pay check in your back pocket. 

Being the utter foodies they are, Kelsey and Drew have also thrown out their favorite places to eat and drink in LA, so if you’re looking for new spots to try, just regard this as your bible. Oh, and for the girls out there, Kelsey has shared her Ultimate Product List (capitalization intentional). You’ll be zipping to the closest Sephora in no time. 

The interview purposefully mirrors their conversational style, rife with riffs and run-off sentences, making it an engaging script that communicates how in-tune they are as a couple as well. This is a must-read for anyone negotiating what it means to flex your freelance muscles, be intentional in a new city, and jump off the creative cliff.   

PHOTO CREDIT: TOM VAN SCHELVEN  |  HAIR + MAKE UP: KELSEY ZAHN

PHOTO CREDIT: TOM VAN SCHELVEN  |  HAIR + MAKE UP: KELSEY ZAHN

OK, so if you guys could just introduce yourselves and talk about what you both work on individually.

Kelsey: I’m Kelsey Zahn and I am a freelance hairstylist and makeup artist/creative (because everyone in LA is a slash something).

Drew: I'm Drew Melton and I'm a graphic designer who specializes in lettering and typography.

What kinds of projects do you guys work on on a day-to-day basis?

Drew: For me, it’s usually a mixture of client work and spending time on personal projects. Right now I’m having a bit of a nerd-out obsession with fonts.

Before that I was working on something called the Phraseology Project, which took people's words or phrases and used them to practice lettering. There's also been a bunch of little things in between, I play with a lot of stuff. We’ve also designed t-shirts for fun, which still haven't been printed.

Kelsey: We need to do that. They're so cool.

Drew: Yeah, just really random things. I love personal projects. If I could work on personal projects all the time, that would be most of my day for sure.

Kelsey: My day-to-day is very varied! It depends if I'm on set doing hair, make-up, grooming, whatever.

What time do you normally have to be on set?

Kelsey: Generally 5am until 11pm. It depends if it's a music video, a photo shoot, a wedding, or whatever. I love working with people. Sometimes being around that many people can be draining, but when you work with good people it's very life-giving. I enjoy that element so much, and I think that's why I do what I do.

On the days I'm not on set, I do writing, freelance, and I have my own blog. I also enjoy interviewing people much like yourself. I enjoy hearing their stories. I think stories are one of the most unique, interesting things that connect people, and everybody has one.

You guys do a bunch of things that to some degree ‘pays the bills’ as well as personal stuff that you're really passionate about. How do you balance it?

Drew: For me, they're really connected. I think a lot of people try to separate them. I have a business coach I talk to occasionally. During one of our sessions, which are a lot like therapy, I was telling him about a personal project I was excited about but wasn't paying me any money. Through that conversation I realized that all of my personal projects have got me the big paid ones.

 

Drew Melton Lettering

The phraseology project got me my first project with Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi. From there I worked with clients like Nike, who found me through Pinterest. A lot comes from people pinning or sharing my personal work. It’s interesting, normally they don't pin a logo that I design for a company. People connect with the personal work more.

I’ve stopped feeling bad about doing so much personal work because it always adds value to the professional work. I've just had to train myself mentally not to treat it as second rate or as a waste of time, even though it's not giving me a direct paycheck. But it’s paid the bills for sure.

I’ve stopped feeling bad about doing so much personal work because it always adds value to the professional work. I’ve just had to train myself mentally not to treat it as second rate or as a waste of time.

Kelsey: I'm still working on that mentality! Before I started freelancing I was in a salon every day, five to seven days a week, eight to twelve hours a day. You just get in this head space of this is who I am. When we moved to LA I was so burned out by that schedule I didn't want to do it any more. 

Freelance has taught me that I can do what I'm passionate about and have a little more control over it. But it also means that I have to fill the gaps. I'm still finding the things that will get me to the next client or make me feel just as fulfilled, even though they're not financially rewarding.

Drew: There was a famous designer who said, and I’m paraphrasing, "I'm only concerned with creating beautiful work. If there was no client, I'd still make what I make." I think you have to fall in love with the process of creative work, no matter what you do. It's about learning. 

Kelsey: Yes, being open to learning new things is always huge, whether that’s taking a class or talking to peers in the industry, or assisting someone you would otherwise be too busy to assist.

There's a Jon Favreau quote we've been obsessing over.

Drew: Jon Favreau, who wrote and directed the movie Chef…

Kelsey: …Which is a passion project about a passion project.

Drew: He was in a meeting with these people who were supposed to finance his movie and were getting hung up on some details that he didn't want to change and he goes, "You're tripping over dollars to pick up pennies.” 

That's a good one.

Kelsey: Isn't that so good? I often think we get so caught up in "I need this job to give me this much money." At the end of the day, if it's going to give me beautiful creative images, if it's going to be something that I really enjoy doing, if it's a shoot that I've helped put together and the images come out great, it's so satisfying.

The economy of success is different.

Kelsey: I recently did a shoot and at the end of the day I was so thrilled with the results. But literally the next day I did another one and at the end of that day was like, "Ah, whatever. It was fine…” because the people involved didn't feel like they were there to make something beautiful.

That kind of takes the wind out of your sails.

Drew: We try and surround ourselves with people who cultivate a lifestyle around chasing beauty. It’s different than being an idealist or something like that. When you’re freelancers there’s no separation between your job and life, so you have to look for the beauty in your lifestyle generally. 

For example, we hike Griffith Park every weekend.

When you’re freelancers there’s no separation between your job and life, so you have to look for the beauty in your lifestyle generally.

Kelsey: It clears your head and it gives you fresh perspective. It can even give you inspiration.

Drew: It's not just about working. It's not just about being busy. It's not just about doing a lot of shoots or making a lot of money. I feel like there's a reward to pursuing beauty and a healthy lifestyle…

Kelsey: Because we're both work-a-holics at heart who could work all of the time!

Friend time is important. This weekend we were like, "Screw work. These people are in town for the weekend. We're going to be with them." It was the best.

Drew: Maybe this sounds cheesy, but these friends have also chased beauty for, I feel like, their entire lives. It's not that they're romantics, they're just very deliberate about how they live.

PHOTO CREDIT: NEPH TREJO, EIGHT EIGTHY FOUR, FOR  LEXUS  |  HAIR + MAKE UP: KELSEY ZAHN 

PHOTO CREDIT: NEPH TREJO, EIGHT EIGTHY FOUR, FOR  LEXUS  |  HAIR + MAKE UP: KELSEY ZAHN 

So you have a natural kinship with them.

Kelsey: Right. I think that's something that we look for in the people we want in our lives. That resonance. Maybe this seems snotty, but it’s like the curation of self, what you allow people to put into you. People speak into your life everyday whether you realize it or not, so what messages you are allowing to sink in? Is it constantly negative?

Drew: Passive aggressive?

Kelsey: ... Passive aggressive… If it's constantly complaining, it deteriorates who you are and then you do those things. That shows in your work as a creative.

It bleeds out, right? Totally. You mentioned that you moved to LA from Grand Rapids and being here is a very different atmosphere. Can you talk about where you came from and what it's like living here as two creatives?

Kelsey: For me it's very different. Grand Rapids is a great city. It's a little city with a big heart. It's very comfortable. 

It's very easy to get into a rhythm there. Every day I got up, went to the gym, came home, got ready, had breakfast and went to work all day. Then I could get a hold of one of seventy five people and be like, "What's everyone doing tonight?" You could see your friends every day of the week.

Drew: Constantly. 

Kelsey: Constantly, but it was almost a distraction and kept you stunted, because you didn’t need to push yourself any further. You get to this point and you're like, I'm comfortable. Why do I need to go take that class? Why do I need to go pursue this job?

Coming to LA has made realize that my skill set is important and what I continue to pursue and what I want to do has value.

In Grand Rapids I’d get asked "So, what do you do?" I'd be like, "I'm a hairstylist." They'd look at me and go, "Right, but what do you want to do as a career?"

The ‘proper’ job.

Kelsey: Yeah. I'd be like, "No, this is what I'm passionate about. I've done this since I was twelve years old. This is in my soul." People just look at you like you're crazy. But here in LA, the other day, I met this guy and we talked about blow dryers and combs for a solid thirty minutes. It was amazing because he was just as big of a geek about it as I am. 

But it has been hard moving here because you don't have the structure of being able to hit up seventy five people who are five minutes away to socialize with. Here, it’s a Tuesday night, people are exhausted from their jobs, or working random hours, and live an hour away. 

Drew: You have to be more deliberate with your time here, but I think it's taught us abut going back to the people we value and lives we want to live. It makes you more intentional. I like that.

 

That's a great answer.

Drew: Yeah. Just so it doesn’t sound like we're …

Kelsey: Dicks. We're not dicks.

Drew: For me, LA taught me to value myself more than anything. When I lived in Grand Rapids, I paid almost nothing in rent.

Kelsey: It’s so comfortable.

Drew: Therefore I made almost nothing because I would never price myself accordingly. I didn't put much value on my skills or the value I could provide for somebody. Now, I can't afford to take super small projects for friends and give them a deal. It just doesn't add up when you're trying to pay rent out here. Which has made me get better at what I do.

Kelsey: It pushes you.

Drew: It’s kind of like sink or swim. You just have to figure it out. You become truly creative when you're in a tight spot.

The transition to LA pushed me though a lot of things I wouldn't normally have gone through. I also think it's really hard to do something you hate. In a way LA showed me what I didn't realize I wanted.

Kelsey: That's a really good answer. When I speak about my career before, I'm not speaking ill of it. I was happy.

Drew: Oh, so happy.

Kelsey: But now I'm like, "Oh there's more to the world." It gives you scope. LA is now home.

Drew: I feel things a lot deeper. I'm a lot more in touch with who I am being out here.

Kelsey: Yeah. It's made us better.

Drew Melton Ciao

Think about this scenario. There’s a creative individual and trying to make a big life transition, whether that’s quitting a job or diving into what they're passionate about. What tips would you give them?

Kelsey: Read a lot of stuff!

Drew: I had a friend ask me about this. She hates her job and has all these things she wants to do. We're at this stage of life where everyone's starting to say, "Am I going to do what I dreamed about in college? Or am I just going to keep working in this office?”

Anyway, she wanted to quit her job, get a VC behind her and do the thing she wanted to start. What came to mind was what was she doing, or what could she be doing, every single day to make those things a reality, on a small scale? No one's stopping you. If you're a creative and working at job you're not stoked about, you still have weekends, you still have all kinds of options.

 

If you really want it, you can quit and make it work because you're open to new things that can happen. But I think the biggest thing is what are you doing everyday? 

Everyday I wake up and the first thing I do is practice to warm up. Anybody can do that. It's just really hard for us. We think we need permission and we don't. 

You can start learning or doing whatever any time.

Kelsey: People always come up with the reasons you can't do something, whether that’s the need for a steady paycheck or other responsibilities. It goes for everything…

I can't diet because I like food too much, or I can't exercise because I'm not strong

We use these in all different aspects of our lives, but something I was thinking about the other day, and it’s a bit cheesy, is when you look at the word can't, just read it as can! 

What can you do to figure it out? What can a friend do to make that dream a reality today? Even if it's just talking to one person about it can she can meet different people who are already in that industry? Can she work up courage to email someone more experienced for wisdom?

If you have the mentality that people are out of your league, you’ll never go anywhere. 

I came up with this really great analogy the other day… Life is an ocean and Drew is a beautiful orca. He is this force, beautiful, creative and talented. People admire him and think that he’s mystical and amazing. They want to put him in a tank and see the show.

I was having a bad day, so I'm like… and I'm a krill. Just overpopulated and unoriginal. In the moment I had to laugh about it… I’m not krill. I'm at least a guppy or something. 

If you have the mentality that people are out of your league, you’ll never go anywhere.

Ha!

Kelsey: As creatives, it's easy to be down on ourselves. I've talked to some of the most successful people in different industries and they're like "Oh, I'm the worst. I will never work again."

You're like, "Oh my God, but you're amazing at what you do. You have 2.2 million followers on Instagram!” Not that that equates success, but ...

Drew: … but they have options.

Kelsey: Yeah. It's so easy to lock yourself down in your brain, so I think taking a step away and say OK I can. If I'm having a bad day I can go cook because cooking makes me happy. I can invent a recipe for my blog. I can send a cold email.

Drew: You can get together with somebody or make something.

Kelsey: Meet someone for coffee. 

Drew: The only risk is really in our mind. Obviously there's a reality that bad things that can happen, but a lot of our problems are very abstract and it’s important to bring them to reality and be like, "If I quit this job today, if I whatever, nothing will happen immediately. No one will beat me up. I won’t die."

Yep, like what’s the worse thing that can happen if you take a risk and step outside of your comfort zone? You send an email and you don't get a response… Oh, OK.

Drew: That scares people so much. We get so freaked out. I get freaked out about designing the wrong thing when I'm working with a big client.

Kelsey: Or sending the wrong quote.

Drew: Yeah, pricing something wrong and being like, "I don't know if I should charge this much." 

Ask if you would have someone else charge that amount for the same work. Sometimes it’s easier to think about endorsing someone else's work before your own. 

Just back up. Put things in perspective and then do what you want to do. 

There's no reason not to.

Last couple of questions.

Drew: OK.

A few fun ones. What are your favorite spots in LA? To eat and drink. You guys love food.

Kelsey: Oh man. 

One of our favorite things to do is on Sundays is go to the Trails Café in Griffith Park.

Drew: That's the best.

Kelsey: We get a coffee and go hike. It's the best thing in the world. 

Drew: Yeah.

Kelsey: I love it so much. We're going to have to start going super early though, because it's getting too damn hot.

Drew: Yeah.

Kelsey: We love The Ace Downtown. Handsome just got bought by Blue Bottle so they're not going to be around anymore. 

Drew: They have good people though.

Kelsey: They have great people.

Drew: The people are all still there.

Kelsey: Bar Ama Downtown has banging guacamole and really good cocktails.

Have you ever been to Baco Mercat? Same guy, so both of those are insane. So good.

Drew: Cookbook in Echo Park is the best little place, and then Lassens.

Kelsey: I love Lassens. It's a grocery store. I'm obsessed with it.

Drew: On Monday nights Silverlake Wine has a flight of wine for $12 and they're super deep and delicious. Heirloom LA also parks outside and does the food. it's better than most restaurant experiences.

Then obviously Terroni Downtown.

Kelsey: We love Terroni. And we really like going to movies.

We're nerds. We just found out there's this thing called the movie pass you can buy. It's thirty five dollars.

It's so good. 

Kelsey: We're totally getting it.

I had the equivalent in London and I literally went all the time just because I could.

Drew: Oh yeah.

Kelsey: We're so going to do that. 

Drew: I want to go see terrible movies. I love Godzilla. I love X-Men.

Kelsey: There's so many other good spots. We love going to Echo Park by our house. We love going to Abbot Kinney in Venice and just meandering. 

Drew: Gjelina there is really good.

Kelsey: So good. 

Have you guys been to Salt Air yet?

Drew: Not yet.

You need to go. It is one of my favorite spots on AK.

Kelsey: We need to go there.

Drew: We need to go there and we need to go to Superba.

Superba's so good.

Drew: Have you been there?

There’s Superba on Rose in Venice and then Superba Food and Bread on Lincoln. Both so good.

Kelsey: Have you been to Gracias Madre? It's Café Gratitude's Mexican Restaurant.

Not yet.

Kelsey: It's incredible. Get the empanadas. They'll change your life. Also, Baby Cakes NYC and Go Get Em Tiger in Larchmont.

I love Go Get Em Tiger.

Drew: Both amazing.

Kelsey: Go to Go Get Em Tiger and get a coffee, then go to Baby Cakes and get a gluten free donut. It's amazing.

Drew: There’s also a great juice bar Downtown, on Seventh and Spring. Juice Crafters.

Kelsey: We're so California now. We're like, "Let's go get a juice. Let's get a coconut water. Let's do yoga." I simultaneously love and hate it!"

Drew: I love it. I'm just embracing it.

Just go with it right? You have to go with it.

Kelsey: Full embrace.

Drew: Then obviously Poketo. Everyone knows about Poketo. I teach classes there.

Yeah, I just stayed at The Line in Koreatown where they have their second store. Pot, the restaurant at The Line, was unbelievable.

Kelsey: What else? The Varnish is fun.

Drew: The Varnish is amazing but the best one is the old school, downtown, Italian place.

Kelsey: Oh, Colori. It's like a hole in the wall mom and pop place.

Drew: I fucking love that place. It's so janky and weird and not cool and I love it.

Kelsey: So good. It's one of our favorites. So weird.

Drew: El Prado's a great bar.

Drew: OK, I think you’ve got a list.

Kelsey: There’s just so many.

Drew: The interview transcriber’s fingers are bleeding right now. 

Yeah, poor guy. Last question for you Kelsey.

Kelsey: Yes.

For the women out there, what are some of your favorite products?

Kelsey: Oh man. Do you want skin or hair or both?

I want both.

Kelsey: OK. I'm obsessed with Batiste dry shampoo. I only wash my hair about twice a week, so I live in dry shampoo. Batiste is incredible but get a good brush to brush it through with. Cheap as all get out. You can get it at the drug store. 

I'm really into this skincare a friend of mine makes. It's called January Labs. I use her day and night cream and my skin's never been better. 

Rodin Olio Lusso… and the Stila liquid eye pen if you wear liquid eyeliner, is incredible. Laura Mercier translucent powder and tinted moisturizer are amazing. 

I actually have that translucent powder on now.

Kelsey: It's the best thing in the world. Oh man, there are so many things. I am a Bumble & Bumble hair junkie. I love their products. They and Oribe are like just the best things in the world. Bumble's Sea Salt Spray is really good for summer hair. They have one called dry spun if you look the disheveled look. If you like to be a little more shiny and textured, city swept is amazing.

I could just go forever.

You could.

Kelsey: The trick is investing in a good styling tools and skincare. They are the base of everything, your shampoo and conditioner are huge because they’re what’s immediately touching your hair. What you style your hair with is super important too. How you finish it matters, but not as much as what you prepare it with. It's like your skin. If you don't use good preparatory products your makeup is going to melt off your face.

Invest in a good shampoo and conditioner. I am a huge fan of both Bumbles and Oribe's shampoos and conditioners. Bumble's about half the price.

More skincare. If you are a sensory person go for the Rodin or I like Caudalie, a French company that’s more natural. I tend towards more natural things for skin, but I also use Cetaphil on my face because it's gentle. Every acne blog will tell you just to use Cetaphil as face wash. 

One of my biggest tips for women is to go get a gel manicure if you have a job interview or big thing coming up. You’ll look twenty five times more professional.

So true.

Kelsey: It's one of those weird things that I'm obsessed with.

Perfect. I heard back from Kelsey a little later. True to form she'd been obsessing over the product list I asked her about (that girl is such a pro) and nailed her faves, with a few extras thrown in for good measure!

Laura Mercier- translucent setting powder (my obsession!) and of course the powder puff to go with it. 

Kevyn Aucoin- Precision brow pencil (the dreamiest).

An affordable addiction, Mario Badescu Facial Spray with Aloe, herbs and rosewater (brightens refreshes and awakens the skin).

Batiste Dry Shampoo... I live in this stuff. 

January Labs Day and Night Cream, will change how your skin looks and feels incredibly fast. 

Tom Ford- Black Orchid (my current scent)  Androgynous and sexy as hell.

Dior Addict Lip Gloss It's just real nice and shiny for those days when you need a little somethin' something'.

Mason Pearson Brush

Essie Polish- This is Meet Me At Sunset, the perfect orange/red for summer. 

 

For more information visit Drew Melton: http://yourjustlucky.com

Kelsey Zahn: http://kelseyzahn.com | http://www.the-curated-life.com

 

Uncredited images courtesy of Drew and  Kelsey Melton