All photos by Cat Max Photography
The last time Georgia Music checked in on Susan Archie (“Where Music and Art Collide,” Spring 2006), she was riding a sweetly shaped wave of recognition, which included multiple Grammy nominations and awards, and had a full slate of projects on the calendar. Eight years on, the mojo is still running in the same direction for the self-described former “beach-loving surfer girl.”
Widely regarded as one of the most accomplished and innovative designers of specialty album packaging in the music industry, Archie works almost exclusively with independent, avant-garde, curatorial and archival labels. Her clients include Atlanta-based Dust-to-Digital and Table of the Elements, Revenant Records, Dare2 Records, Tompkins Square, and Woody Guthrie Publications. Expertly melding carefully chosen materials with vividly appropriate imagery, Archie creates thoroughly practical, evocatively compelling repositories for essentially ephemeral phenomena.
“I’m drawn first to the music,” Archie says as she putters around the open, bright, art-filled home in Candler Park, which she shares with longtime partner Janet L. Smith whom she met during their sophomore year at Florida State University. “If it doesn’t strike me in the gut, I have a real problem getting inspired no matter what else is involved.”
An Award Magnet
In 2003, Archie received her first Grammy in the category Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package for Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, an encyclopedic survey of the music of the legendary Delta bluesman produced by Revenant Records, the Austin, Texas-based label founded in 1996 by the late American guitar guru John Fahey and Dell attorney Dean Blackwood. Encased in a grass-green colored fabric box with gold title lettering are nine CDs containing Patton’s entire known recorded output. The CD disks are individually sleeved in a notebook-style album—a design homage to the 78 rpm record sets that were so popular from the pre-war period through the 1950s. Also included are voluminous liner notes, lyric transcriptions, and a 112-page book about Patton written by Fahey in 1970.
“The inspiration for Revenant, for both Fahey and myself, has been centered around the creation of objects of permanence—something more akin to a finely bound book,” said Blackwood.
Two years later, Archie oversaw art direction for Goodbye, Babylon, a six-disc compilation of long forgotten gospel music and church sermons produced by Dust-to-Digital, which is run by the husband-and-wife team of Lance and April Ledbetter. Housed in a wooden gift box with an etched, sliding top, Goodbye Babylon received Grammy nominations for Best Historical Album and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package and was awarded the Alex (Steinweiss) Award for Creative Excellence in Entertainment Packaging.
Revenant’s Holy Ghost: Rare and Unissued Recordings (1962-70), which showcases the life and music of mercurial jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler who apparently committed suicide in 1970 at the age of 34, received three Grammy nominations. The contents of Holy Ghost inhabit a black “spirit box,” which was fabricated to resemble hand-carved onyx. In addition to nine CDs of music and interviews, the set includes a full-color hardbound 208-page book of essays by Amiri Baraka, Val Wilmer, and other jazz scholars; previously unpublished photos and “personal” oddments; testimonials by various artists describing their first encounter with Ayler’s music; and a comprehensive chronology of performances and activities.
“I’m trying to create a presence, a physical presence, that will do justice to the music, the musicians and the people who collect and produce these historical recordings,” Archie says.
Success by Design
Archie’s physical presence began in 1959 in West Palm Beach, Florida, “because there was no hospital in Boynton Beach,” which is where she grew up. A curly mopped tomboy who loved watersports, her adolescent and teenage years were consumed by swimming, surfing, skiing and sailing. She graduated from FSU in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in photography.
After college, Archie moved to New York “to be with a rock ’n’ roll band.” She picked up secretarial jobs at a time when computers were coming into vogue, and met her first Macintosh around 1984 at Citibank headquarters in Manhattan. An indefatigable perfectionist, Archie quickly developed her craft, producing annual reports, newsletters and sales collateral for Fortune 500 companies, establishing in the process a reputation for being extraordinarily creative and acutely budget conscious. In 1989, Archie and Smith moved to Atlanta where the latter’s parents lived and the former found abundant design work at major accounting firms, such as Price Waterhouse, Deloitte & Touche, and Ernst & Young.
In addition to employment, Atlanta in the early 1990s offered Archie a vibrant, progressive music scene and thriving arts community, which rivalled any metro area outside of New York or San Francisco. Steve Dollar, then a local music writer who has since moved on to wider stages, introduced Archie to Jeff Hunt, a young entrepreneur with a music label called Table of the Elements, which he ran out of his Midtown warehouse loft.
“It was basically enthusiasm run amok, with interns doing the whole starving artist collaborative thing, which is okay when you’re young and don’t know any better,” Hunt recalls. “We experimented with design concepts, and were always drawn to unusual juxtapositions—we were a tiny group of creative kids in the Deep South putting out a series of recordings by avant-garde guitar players.”
Attention to Detail
The Table of the Elements guitarist pantheon includes Derek Bailey, Loren Mazzacone Connors, Rhys Chatham, Davey Williams, and John Fahey. The latter’s Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites, recorded in 1997 at the Horizon Theater in Little Five Points, is the only authorized recording of Fahey playing electric guitar. Archie is largely responsible for the album’s cover art (released as a CD and limited edition double-LP), which recalls the medieval woodcut imagery that distinguishes the signature vinyl sides released by Fahey in the 1960s for his own Takoma label.
“I don’t see myself as a fine artist in the traditional sense, and I’m not the greatest illustrator or painter,” Archie says. “My strength is understanding how and why certain things work together.”
That keen understanding spawned more Grammy nods. Fonotone Records Frederick, Maryland (1956-1969), a collaborative effort involving Dust-to-Digital and Athens-based publisher (Chunklet) and concert promoter Henry Owings, was nominated for Best Box or Limited Special Edition honors. Culled from the famously obscure catalog produced by Joe Bussard, whose collection of 78 rpm records is acknowledged as one of the largest and finest on the planet, Fonotone… houses its contents in a cigar-box the inside cover of which is adorned with a simulated woodcut of Bussard’s visage by rock album and poster artist Chris Bilheimer, a former Athens resident now based in Austin, Texas.
Archie was art director for Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 (Woody Guthrie Productions), which won a Grammy in 2008 for Best Historical Album. The following year, a Dust-to-Digital project, Art of Field Recording Vol. 1: 50 Years of Traditional American Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum, garnered a Grammy for Best Historical Album. In 2009 came a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album for Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette, a Tompkins Square release featuring tracks derived from Edison cylinders made in 1909 for which Archie designed the album packaging.
“No one is more attentive to detail and more inspired than Susan when it comes to producing historical collections of music,” says Christopher King, owner of Long Gone Sound Productions.
A ‘Cabinet of Wonders’
King should know. As a key member of an all-star team, which included Archie in the role of production designer, he served as master of 78 rpm transfers on The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, Volume 1, a monumental co-production by Revenant and Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville released at the end of 2013.
From 1917 until the company’s demise in 1935, Grafton, Wisconsin-based Paramount Records released thousands of 78 rpm disks marketed as “race records,” a designation for music made by black artists for black Americans. The vast Paramount “race” catalog contains the work of blues and jazz musicians with names as familiar as Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Louis Armstrong, and as obscure as Ivy Smith, Rabbit Foots Williams, and Perry Bradford. Additionally, the Paramount catalog encompassed every genre and idiom of early twentieth-century Americana from minstrel, vaudeville, and jug-band ditties to spiritual hymns, hillbilly hoedowns, Broadway show tunes and kazoo troupe novelty songs.
For inclusion in The Rise and Fall… King meticulously re-conditioned some 800 individual Paramount sides sourced from rare, original 78-rpm disks. All 800 tracks are stored for convenient retrieval on a flash drive housed in a metal disk, which resembles the receptacle of an old-timey phonograph needle.
The Rise and Fall… has been likened to a “cabinet of wonders,” a reference to the practice by European elites beginning in the 16th century of assembling collections of related items deemed historically or scientifically significant, such as butterflies, rocks, manuscripts or medical instruments, for display in ornate cabinets or specially appointed rooms. Like pieces of a three-dimensional puzzle, the myriad parts of The Rise and Fall… are contained in a richly grained quarter-sawn oak box designed to mimic a portable Victrola-era phonograph.
Included in the treasure trove are a 256-page clothbound chronicle of Paramount Records penned by Blackwood’s brother, Scott, complemented by magnificently reproduced art plates of newspaper ads, posters, labels, and promotional materials; facsimiles of Paramount’s 1924 and 1927 sales catalogs; and a “Field Manual” containing detailed biographical and session notes. Most spectacularly, an 87-track sampling from the flash drive has been captured on six 180-gram vinyl records. Impregnated with a rich, swirling chestnut and black pigmentation, the disks look like perfectly round slices of burled wood, which are held in a sleeved folio crafted from a single sheet of laser-etched white birch.
Archie spent the better part of the last three years working on the Paramount project, tracking down special fabrics and other materials, designing layouts, and supervising the output of a gaggle of illustrators, writers, printers and procurement agents in the U.S. and China. In typical self-deprecating fashion, Archie sums up her involvement in the process by insisting that, “for the most part, my deal was compressing things down as small as possible and arranging everything for shipping and storage.”
Today, even as work on the second volume of The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932 (slated for release later this year) continues apace, Archie has found time for other music packaging escapades. For Long Gone Sound she designed a triple-gatefold LP, Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928, which features a cover drawing by famed cartoonist and 78 rpm collector Robert Crumb.
“The magic of working with Susan is that we produce these incredibly well-tuned collections,” says King. “Everything comes out balanced, proportioned, sublime, and moving. Our exchanges back and forth, our working together, results in a splendidly harmonious expression in a physical package.”
By transcending the momentary rush triggered by initial consumption, Archie’s designs foster an indelible bond between the beholder and the beheld while elevating the art of music packaging to the level of an alchemical miracle.