Mighty Mississippi

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The Grit and Gospel of a Portland Record Label

Mississippi Records, tucked away on Mississippi Avenue in the North part of Portland, Oregon, isn’t a typical record store. It opened its doors about a decade ago, as stores dedicated to selling music in physical form were facing mass extinction, and it’s still doing just fine. Its stock consists almost entirely of vinyl LPs and singles, new and old—although there’s also a section devoted to cassette tapes, and a selection of used turntables resting on wooden shelves near the counter. (CDs? Maybe three or four are in the store at any given time, always by local Portland artists.)

But the store’s devotion to vinyl doesn’t stop at stocking records—it also makes them. Mississippi’s in-house record label, founded seven years ago and run by the store’s owner, Eric Isaacson, has released a long string of remarkable LPs, whose sleeves cover the store’s walls. Aside from the occasional release of new or archival recordings by local musicians like Tara Jane O’Neil and Michael Hurley, the label reissues music by singular artists from all over the world—the Scottish punk band Dog Faced Hermans, the early 1970s Malian group Orchestre Regional de Kayes, the Texan oil-drum player George Coleman—as well as a signature series of compilations of gospel, blues, and international music from the prewar era to the present.

Many of Mississippi’s releases—especially those compilations—share a distinct design sensibility, with mysterious, slightly sloppy-looking collages, awkwardly handwritten text often appearing in place of type, and a near-total absence of promotional folderol. They also have the kinds of deluxe physical materials that have been almost totally absent from record manufacturing for decades. All of that reflects Isaacson’s personal sensibility. Most of the handwriting and design are his. The look of Mississippi’s original releases reflects what a guy who has worked in used-record stores for most of his adult life believes great records should look like.

Isaacson is pretty much what you would imagine a Portland cultural visionary to be: smart, wiry, and hyper-enthusiastic, an amateur cartoonist with an encyclopedic knowledge of underground art and a compulsive self-deprecatory streak. The look of Mississippi, he says, is “based on my limitations. I have very limited artistic tools: I’m not very good at drawing. I’m okay at spatial relations. I really like doing collage work, but I’m computer-illiterate, so I can’t rely on that to do sophisticated collage work. I can’t really tell the difference between art I did when I was ten years old and now. The question I asked myself was how to make a great cover with limited tools and no artistic skill, and the answer was the style I came up with for the covers.”

Mississippi started releasing records in 2005. Its first LP was a solo project by Alex Yusimov under the name Duck Duck Gray Duck. (Yusimov now runs the store’s distribution end.) For a while, the label was a collaboration between Isaacson and Warren Hill, who runs a record store of his own in Quebec; the releases that got them some attention from stores and fans outside the owners’ cities were a collection of gospel recordings by Washington Phillips and a blues compilation, Last Kind Words.

Isaacson behind the counter of his record store, Mississippi Records, in Portland, Oregon, where he runs a label of the same name

The first sleeve Isaacson designed, though, was a bit later: Love Is Love, a peculiar but wonderful collection of African pop records from the 1950s and ’60s. It had four handprints on the cover; Hill didn’t like the handprints, so there was a “Canadian edition” in which they were blotted out and turned into polka dots. But the first cover that really reflected Isaacson’s personal aesthetic was Life Is a Problem, a compilation of gospel rarities that Isaacson assembled with Mike McGonigal, a Portland-based music fanatic and the editor of Yeti magazine. “It has a janky-looking collage on it, and charcoal writing,” Isaacson says. “I thought about it for two months and then sat down and did it in an hour, and I was very happy with it. Most people would say, ‘That’s a first try; let’s try it again,’ but I feel like I got my process down.”

McGonigal says he was thrilled by the look of Life Is a Problem. “Eric threw this collage together and did the handwriting for it, and I thought, This is amazing. I gave a copy of it to Hudson, who runs Feature Inc., which I think is the best gallery in the world, and he freaked out. And I gave a copy to Robert Frank, and he said, ‘This cover is beautiful.’ Eric’s work is such a weirdly personal take on this approach to reissuing music that’s been happening for 60 years. He has this really idiosyncratic way of looking at things and collating and editing them. I don’t always agree with it, but it’s just so cool that it’s resonated so well.”

There are a handful of historical antecedents for the look of Mississippi’s releases, most obviously the classic American folk and blues label Folkways Records. “They were the masters of the slapdash cover,” Isaacson says. “I don’t think Ronald Clyne, their main designer, heard most of the records he made covers for. He worked with such limited tools—it was just one- or two-color printing they could do—but he’d make these bold, absolutely beautiful covers.”

Some of the early Mississippi LPs took cues from Folkways in their physical materials as well as their design. They had leatherette-covered cardboard sleeves with tipped-in wraparound artwork, a signature of Folkways’ releases. “Early on, the idea was that we’d be as local and self-sufficient in manufacturing as we possibly could be,” Isaacson says. “The early releases were all done in a factory that friends of mine built with hand-jigs and glue. I would come up with crazy ideas, and my friends would scramble and try to do it, because everybody needs jobs in Portland. ‘Anybody who can replicate this sleeve and make me 1,000 copies of it gets the job!’ And everybody would take the job and burn out, and go, ‘This is the worst. I can’t believe it. This is horrible.’ And they’d hand the gear to somebody else.”

There’s still a roll of leatherette in the store’s basement, which also serves as the label’s office and warehouse. Mississippi’s most successful releases have sold up to 6,000 or so copies; for the past few years, most of them have been manufactured elsewhere, although Isaacson still prefers to use the more expensive, old-fashioned tip-in sleeves, with two pieces of board rather than one. But he says that he’s planning to move the label back toward records with more handmade elements: “pressings of 300 copies, hand printing, a boxed set of African music that will come in a pinewood box with a print attached to it. When we were doing mass productions and records weren’t selling as well, I realized I had to get back to having fun with it instead of doing big runs and trying to get them all over the world and make them cheap.”

The one part of Mississippi’s discography where the make-it-cheap principle ru
les is the rack next to the store’s cash register, where visitors can find the store’s series of $3 mix tapes. There are 86 different titles, at last count, most of them with photocopied inserts bearing Isaacson’s unmistakable scrawl. That project got its start in 2008, when somebody gave Isaacson a tape duplicator, and he challenged himself to make “the five best tapes I could ever make, in one night.” For a few years, he duplicated the mixes himself, while watching movies on his days off. The employee who first suggested that the store could sell cheap mix tapes now handles the duplication.

As far as cassette design goes, Isaacson traces his style—and much of his love for D.I.Y. culture—to the sui generis Texan singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. “When I was a youngster in Los Angeles, around 1987,” Isaacson says, “I used to haunt this record store, and Daniel Johnston’s manager sent them a complete set of his tapes. The staff thought they were terrible, of course. They were joking and laughing at me, and they said, ‘This is what music would sound like if that kid made it!’ Like a dis. And they handed me this big pile of tapes, and I took them home and put them on, and they were my favorite thing ever. It was the first time I understood that I, with my limited tools, might be able to make art one day.”

Isaacson’s cassette designs

Those limitations are part of the mystique of Mississippi. When the label’s early records first started turning up outside the store, there was something powerful and alien about them. The music was fantastic, but the indicators of a particular time that usually go along with reissues—contemporary graphics, most glaringly—were absent. It wasn’t clear who’d made these compilations or why, where, and even when. For music collectors, that was kind of thrilling.

“All my decisions were made in the interest of what seemed graphically strong,” Isaacson insists. “I stripped away all the things that are distracting to the music in the graphics. Somebody once showed me a message board where people were going back and forth on whether we were true primitive artists of some kind, or charlatans pretending to be primitive. I really was doing, and still am doing, the best I can possibly do on graphics. There’s no moment where I think, ‘Oh, I gotta dumb this down. I gotta make this look more janky.’ And I know at this point I should be able to hire a quote-unquote real artist, but that’s the most fun part of the process! I’m a kid who always wanted to be an artist and never had a place to do that, and I’ve suddenly been given one. What I always wanted to do is draw stuff.” ▪

Douglas Wolk, a contributing editor for Print, writes about pop music and comic books for The New York Times, Time, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. He is the author of Live at the Apollo and Reading Comics, and is a 2011 USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellow. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Photographs by Liz Devine