MEDIALINE - October 2004

Attention to Detail Redux

by Catherine Applefold-Olsen
There's the uninspired, plastic-coated CD packaging of the masses. And then there's the work of Grammy-winning designer Susan Archie.

A self-described amalgam of art director, historian and museum curator, Archie has a bent for using unconventional packaging materials and a zest for painstakingly compiling artifacts and other story-telling totems to augment a retrospective set. To her these things aren't extras; they're essentials.

As such, her Atlanta-based design empire the World of anArchie has spawned some of the most comprehensive -- and heaviest -- collectible music sets in history.

Archie's work for Dust to Digital's Goodbye, Babylon was recognized with the Best CD Boxed Set award at the Entertainment Packaging "Alex" Awards, co-sponsored by Medialine and the International Recording Media Association, Sept. 1 in Los Angeles.

"My work is primarily reissue material -- revisiting worthy artists and great music that needs to be heard," Archie says. "There is so much mediocre music being put out that fits some formula and all sounds the same. I believe it's really important for music fans to go back and listen to the truly astounding music of the past."

Archie's "old," slightly eccentric musical soul was a perfect fit with Austin, Texas-based Revenant Records, a boutique among boutique labels. Co-founded by the late John Fahey, whose guitar excursions into blues and spiritual music are legendary, Revenant's roster spans the careers of avant-garde blues shouter Captain Beefheart, rockabilly dynamo Charlie Feathers, banjo great Dock Boggs and improv pianist Cecil Taylor.

The meeting of creative spirits arose when fellow Atlantan Jeff Hunt -- who'd enlisted Archie in 1995 to assist on design schemes for his Table of the Elements avant-garde label -- was contacted by Revenant to help guide its own design direction.

"I'm the person who dragged Susan into CDs," Hunt says, reminiscing about an Archie-conceived package for German group Faust that presented bold, wordless, shiny silver surfaces and entirely spoken-word credits on the CD.

"She is enjoying her success completely on her terms, and I think that's reflected in the people she chooses to work with," Hunt says. "If she wanted to go sit in an office in New York or L.A., she could have her pick of any major label, but she doesn't want to do that sort of work." [That's not all true, I just don't want to be a factory churning out product. I'd love a special project from one of the majors. -sea]

In the most public recognition of the Archie-Revenant chemistry, the label walked off with a triple crown at the 45th Grammy Awards in 2003 for Screamin' and Hollerin' The Blues: The Worlds Of Charley Patton. The anthology tips the scale at more than six pounds of substance and took statuettes for Best Boxed Set, Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album.

Archie's latest Revenant collaboration is a retrospective of the work of legendary saxophonist Albert Ayler, a father of the "free jazz" movement, for which she created what's essentially a portable library of the work of great jazz photographers.

"It's another museum in a box," Archie says. "I am so lucky to work for Revenant. They do so much front-end leg-work, combing the world over for collector's relics and coming up with so much awesome stuff to include. It makes my job easy when there is so much excellent material to work with."

Aside from designing around a wealth of traditional print material, Archie has to incorporate non-traditional forms into packaging as well for her Revenant work. Each copy of the Ayler set includes an actual dried dogwood flower -- an industry first.

"The art director, Noel Waggener, called for a dried dogwood flower to represent the religious fervor and beauty of Albert Ayler. I searched far and wide to find a supplier of dogwoods -- we were really lucky that I have a good friend who's a floral arranger and that we were in production in the springtime," she says. "We robbed the scented potpourri vaults of Alabama to make this happen."

The Albert Ayler: Holy Ghost set, spanning nine CDs of rare and reissued recordings, debuts Oct. 5.

"Susan is the ultimate team player -- she's willing to do whatever Revenant's all-knowing powers-that-be ask of her," says Revenant co-founder Dean Blackwood. "On the Charley Patton set, she was the vision and the execution. On the Ayler set, she played more of a production design and execution role, to Noel's crazed vision for the box. She is a consummate professional who loves her work and that love and care and attention to detail is reflected in everything she does."

Archie's name is again being bandied about in connection with the Grammy's as her peers begin to ingest the full scope of Goodbye Babylon, her new collaboration with Lance Ledbetter's Dust-to-Digital label. The six-disc collection of American pre-war gospel music and sermons is already being pegged for a golden gramophone. Archie describes the package as a simple, one-color job that's "packed full of chewy goodness."

In fact, the set -- packaged in a cedar box with natural cotton (a tactile theme that runs across the CD sleeves) -- includes a 200-page book that took nearly 18 months to complete. At least one page of text and photos is devoted to each of the 160 songs.

Ledbetter, who met Archie when he was working with Hunt at Table of the Elements in the mid '90s, says she was the only one he considered when it came to designing Goodbye, Babylon.

"She's a great person to collaborate with," he says. "Her attention to detail is incredible, and any idea I would come up with always looked better after it filtered through her head and she'd had time to do her work on it."