Sorting through the folk and blues bin at your local record store, you’ll likely have noticed those mixed media covers of Mississippi Records’ LP reissues. The ones that regularly feature old photographs adorned with hand drawn illustrations and often enigmatic phrases like “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” “Life is a Problem” or “Oh Graveyard, You Can’t Hold Me Always.” It’s not always clear what they are at first, but they’re beautiful, so you pick them up. And therein lies the first bit of genius.
Owner Eric Isaacson has been sharing his love of iconoclastic blues, folk and soul music since taking over the label in 2005. The Mississippi Records catalog is hard to define by genre. It draws more from performances that convey the rawest forms of human emotion across all genres. Take, for example, MR’s release of the unearthly 1931 Skip James sessions, the mystical vocal stylings of Pandit Pran Nath, or the self-described ‘last working Southern black minstrel’ Abner Jay. It’s the kind of label that grants the Ghosts of Musical Outliers Past a second chance.
Located in the mecca of alternative lifestyles, Portland, OR, Mississippi Records operates as both a store and a label. In the store, they’ll make you cassette mix tapes and use pen and paper and a well-worn calculator to ring you up. In similar fashion, the label’s business is run without a website nor any kind of paid advertising. Yet, after more than 200 inspired releases, the success of Mississippi Records is undeniable. How do they do it?
We’re shining our spotlight this week on one of the more eccentric labels out there, speaking with owner Eric Isaacson to get the facts straight.
Hi, Eric. Tell us, what kind of music interests you the most?
Anything I can dance to or cry to and nothin’ in-between. (Maybe a little meditation music too). I listened to nothing but Jimi Hendrix this evening!
What kind of music bothers you the most?
Anything with techno/trip hop beats, soft namby pamby whiney indie rock, overproduced new country, practically every pop record from the 1980′s (Prince, REM and Cindy Lauper get a pass) and anything twee.
Can you tell us a little about how and why Mississippi records got started?
We started as a record store in Portland. Alex Yusimov (who now runs the distribution end of our operation) wanted to self release his solo album “Duck Duck Gray Duck” and was, at the time, a transient – so he used the store’s address as his base of operations and as a kind gesture named the release label after the store. Alex showed me how to make a record and I was pretty enchanted by it. Early on, the label was more an outgrowth of the store’s community – releasing a memorial album for my old business partner, a cassette audio zine about police brutality in Portland put together by Erin Yanke, and a cassette of a punk band with the best guitarist in Portland (Marisa Anderson), the worst drummer in Portland (me) and a 10 year old singer/songwriter.
A year into the store being around, me and my friend Warren Hill (who I knew since I was 15 and who now runs the excellent Little Ax label and still co-produces reissues of the early Mississippi catalog with me) teamed up to start doing reissues of music we loved that was, at the time, woefully unavailable for cheap on vinyl. Alex also got into this game and started contributing punk reissues. We mainly did this to fill the racks of our own and a few friends small record stores and never expected the records to be distributed beyond that.
I heard the label got a jumpstart early on with funds earned from a yard sale score. Can you give us some of the details behind that story?
Warren was at a street sale in Chelsea NY and, for 50 cents, found one of two only known copies of an acetate, cut in studio, containing an alternate version of the Velvet Underground’s first record. He brought it to me to sell for him, which proved to be more difficult than you could imagine. We almost had Light in the Attic on the hook to buy it at one point so they could do a reissue of the material, but the deal fell apart when Moe Tucker’s copy of the same material surfaced on a Japanese bootleg. (I wish now LITA had done it instead of the vastly inferior versions that have come out as bootlegs and official releases since then. Such is life, such is love). We finally, out of desperation, sold it on eBay – at the time it was the most expensive record ever sold on that god damn site and the most watched auction in eBay history.
We did not make a fortune off this and Warren ended up using most of the money to move to South East Asia for awhile and take care of some other business. In the end we started the Mississippi Label by both chipping in $3,000 we managed to saved up over a couple of years. We used this cash to make our first two releases – Washington Phillips and Last Kind Words. At the time, that seemed like an insane amount of money to us…
People (including us) love your guys’ mix tape series. How did that come about? And can you give some tips for making a really good mix tape?
The mix tapes were Mississippi Records’ star employee Karen Antunes idea. She kept pestering me saying that if I started mass producing mix tapes, people would be very happy about it. I thought this was a dumb idea – I had no idea there was a market for tapes, especially ones made by a neanderthal like me. One day a friend gave me a duplicating machine and I decided to see what would happen if I got drunk and made 5 mix tapes in one night, duped them, walked to kinkos and xeroxed covers, and put them in the shop the next day and sold them for $3 each. I stayed up all night and by morning had 9 copies of each of the first 5 Mississippi mixes. To my surprise, they all sold out that day. I was really happy with how instantly gratifying this operation was (as opposed to making a record, which takes forever and costs a fortune) and so I started cranking out tapes obsessively. Other members of the stores community started to contribute mixes as well. The tapes ended up being the best way to turn people on to stuff in our store – almost like a radio show featuring the best stuff that has come into Mississippi Records that week. Nowadays Karen manufactures all the tapes in small batches at home and we do our best to keep up with the demand. I’m truly honored that folks listen to them and enjoy them. I’ve been making mix tapes since I was 6 years old – and I never could have imagined a day when thousands of people (thanks to the internet downloads of the tape series) would listen to my work. It’s one of the great joys in my life.
As to tips on how to make a good mix tape….I’d say there are no rules. Do as thy wilt shall be the whole of the law. If you like it, odds are good someone else will like it too.
You don’t have a website and you’ve never paid to advertise for your label. That’s pretty cool, considering your success. At some point do you think either of those will become necessary?
We have been very lucky to have been able to sell records without doing any promotion on the internet or anywhere else. At first, being so illusive was an advantage – it gave us an accidental mystique and made our releases seem more “special.” After the novelty of this wore off, it soon became a hinderance to sales and still is. Still – it is built in as part of our ethic and I’d rather let the company die than change. The whole point of our label was to be a non commercial art project that connected people through music without the aid of the hype machine.
We’ve always relied on the enthusiasm of small record stores and distributors as well as zealous individuals’ word of mouth. If a day comes where these tactics no longer work, than it’s probably time for Mississippi Records to go quietly into that dark night and fade away and radiate. There are so many great companies putting out quality records these days, that I feel like we could go away and the scene would not suffer too bad. If we had to start advertising and hustling to sell product, that would take the fun, joy and beauty out of the project for me. In this one regard, we are fanatical purists.
What makes a great reissue in your opinion? Is it just about making rare material available, or is it about making materials from the past relevant to the present?
A great reissue honors the material. There are lots of ways to do this. You could do in-depth documentation and faithful recreation of the original material, telling the story in full in a way that preserves history. You could repackage the material to be highly listenable to new ears and highlight its strong suits and ignore its weaknesses – historical accuracy be damned. You could make a highly personalized mix – taking old material and using it to express something you think needs to be said. All these techniques can be valid if done with love and genuine reverence for the art in your hands. The most important thing is to be humble and always remember that you are not the sole custodian and arbiter of how this art should be preserved and presented. You are just one of the hands that it will pass through and be mutated through.
Mississippi releases, when most successfully artistic, honor the material and also boldly show our limitations and personality as a label. We do not pretend to be great historians or packaging geniuses. We just make a product that looks and feels like a record we would want to own and enjoy and also honors the songs on it. We’ve fallen short MANY times – but no one can say we don’t try our best. We are of limited time, energy, finances, skill, intelligence and so on – but we keep cranking out product and I am proud of our work despite its severe limitations.
We’d love to hear about upcoming projects. Is there anything new you’re working on that you can share with us?
We have a ton of stuff in the pipe – a record from Mali that was originally only given away free to students at a school for the blind, 2 box sets of unreleased or seldom heard material from the Alan Lomax archive, two great blues compilations, more Ethiopian music, a contemporary gospel LP by Isaiah Owens, more material by label stalwarts Dead Moon and Michael Hurley, an Abner Jay box set (including his unpublished autobiography), modern punk records by Sad Horse and Sun Foot, a killer Greek record (titled “Prison is a fine school”), a new Peter Buck record with a cover by Mingering Mike, reissues of 15 of the best liked Mississippi Records from the past, our favorite Jesse Fuller recording, more classical piano music by Miriam Tsege Gebru and much more. It’ll be a busy year…
– Article by Jonathan Shifflett, LITA intern