Immigrant: interview

For some artists, packaging a record is a real labour of love. We've already spoken to THESIS label boss Gregory Euclide and rave innovator Rian Treanor, and now it's the turn of perennial Norman fave Immigrant.

We’re fond of so many musicians here at Norman Records, but few are more dear to us than Immigrant.

The project of singer-songwriter Graeme McNab, Immigrant has released a steady stream of albums since the early 2000s, largely through McNab’s own Unmei imprint but sometimes via other labels. Immigrant’s music is a warm brand of folk that also incorporates field recordings and the occasional synthesiser. Comparisons to fellow Scotsman King Creosote come easily, as do ones with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Bill Callahan.

Part of the appeal of McNab’s music is the close bond he creates between himself and you as a listener. Immigrant songs tend to be spare, hushed things - you get the feeling that McNab is letting you in on a secret when he sings these words to you. The sense of intimacy is only heightened when you realise that you’ll have little luck trying to find any of Immigrant’s music online - bar the odd track thrown up for streaming, Immigrant albums are physical-only affairs.

Those IRL records are unfailingly lovely things. The albums that McNab has issued himself are packaged with incredible care. Releasing his LPs in tiny runs allows McNab to give great attention to each individual edition. Hand-crafting everything, McNab will sign and number copies himself as well as cutting sleeves, painting the covers, crafting cloth bags and generally just going the extra mile to make sure his CDs are beautifully housed.

The fact that every Immigrant album is unique means that those who are lucky enough to get their hands on one now have a truly special thing in their possession. As such, we can think of few artists better equipped for talking to us about how the packaging of a record can elevate the music inside.

High Valley Home 1/17 Early Paintings 2015-2019 2/17 Great Holker Lime 3/17 The Empress 4/17 Meadow Soul 5/17 Nation of Immigrants 6/17 Queen of Angels 7/17 Immigrant 8/17 Son of Immigrant 9/17 Creatureland 10/17 A Nowhere Place 11/17 Heart Leaps and Women Folk 12/17 Jao 13/17 Christos Moon 14/17 No Refuge 15/17 So Pachinko 16/17 Mother Tongue 17/17

Q. You clearly put great stock by the way that your music is presented – both your many self-released albums and the records that you’ve done with other labels (‘No Claim’ on Brian Records, ‘Wounded Healer’ on oscarson) have come in lovely packaging. Do you feel that packaging a record in a unique way enhances the experience of the music for the listener?

A. The likes of Brian Records and oscarson, who take great care in going the extra mile with their releases, do a tremendous service for recording artists such as myself. I basically live for this stuff, so anything that helps to showcase the album as an art form, as its own entity, is to be cherished. I’ve no doubt their bespoke releases bring a special kind of pleasure to whoever buys them.

As for my own editions, I get a lot of pleasure sending them out into the world, so hopefully they find happy homes. It’ll differ from person to person, but in the age of downloads and streaming and playlists, creating a tactile experience for the listener hopefully does make the investment that bit more special. On the flip side, if the packaging is the main attraction, the music could get overlooked, but I have to believe it gets a spin!

Q. Your music strikes me as quite tender and careful, and to me there is also evident care in the fact that you package your records so lovingly. Do you think that there is a strong relationship between the way you package your records and the kind of music that you make?

Up until this point, there hasn’t really been a clear connection between the music and how it's been packaged - maybe I need to give that some thought! I suppose The Empress special editions tie in, with references to the natural world in some of the songs, but I think that was more through luck than judgment. Usually by the time I come to think of artwork and packaging I'm no longer living whatever inspired me to write the songs, which is maybe one reason why the music and the packaging don't necessarily correlate. And also, I think I see in these editions an opportunity to explore passions that perhaps wouldn't, on their own, work as subjects for songs. Things that elevate me, like animals, trees, mountains, skies, actors, darts. I find I'm much happier painting things I like, that I want to spend time with. The songs, by contrast, are a catharsis and once they're done, I'm happy to leave them behind.

Q. Do any of the records in your catalogue stand out as particularly special to you on account of their packaging? For instance, do you have any particularly fond memories of making the packaging for a specific record, is there any special inspiration behind any of your album artwork and so on?

Yes, the Creatureland special edition, which was the first I put together, holds especially fond memories. Just getting up in the morning, deciding which Brian Eno album to put on, then working on it through till lunch. I loved every minute.

When I first started out on Fence Records, the label's DIY ethos meant that artists had to design their own covers. That was my introduction to the artwork side of things, and I found it pretty daunting to begin with. I did eventually find a way, cutting and pasting blocks of oil colour to form some kind of cover image, but I was always absolutely clear in my mind that I would never have it in me to do any actual painting, and never dared attempt it. So, when it came to designing the animal-themed boxes for Creatureland I just planned to continue with the tried and true. And that went fine, until I came to the horse. With that one, there was just no getting around the fact that in order for it to work, I'd have to put in some shading, which would involve actual brush strokes. I danced around it for days before finally biting the bullet. I just remember holding that brush, petrified, and having to re-position myself so that the sweat pouring off me wouldn't land on the box. It was just a few simple strokes but I found it so confronting. Overcoming that block was a bit of a breakthrough because it freed me up to explore painting on future editions, and also made me less afraid to try other things, like origami, photography, working with fabric etc.

Reissue of Creatureland, in card case. 1/1

Q. Your self-released records are notable for having very short runs – often only around twenty or thirty, sometimes as low as ten – and your music is not particularly easy to find online. What do you think is gained by there being a certain exclusivity about each individual copy of one of your records?

For me, it’s not so much about seeking exclusivity as it is a question of time constraints and varying demand. From album to album I really have no idea what the level of interest will be and I need to believe that my time isn't being wasted making things that won't sell. Some editions have done OK, while others have totally stiffed. So, I've brought the runs down to numbers that seem realistic, which also allows me to spend more time on the music.

My back catalogue has been rather neglected in recent years, partly because all I can hear on those albums are mistakes and I don't want to think about it, but also because I'm often in places where I can't get CD cases, or guarantee safe delivery. I did release some card-case editions of old albums a while back but it took an age to put together and I just don't have the time to keep doing that.

Q. I’m particularly intrigued about Nation Of Immigrants, the album that you recorded while in rural Cambodia. Could you tell us a little about that record?

Nation of Immigrants 1/1

That’s not an album I have much fondness for, for all kinds of reasons, but I’m heartened that it caught your attention.

When I pitched up in Cambodia in 2012, I only had a guitar and a mic, so I was left with no option but to strip things back. My previous album Talisman had died a quick and horrible death, so I was actually quite into the idea of abandoning the layered approach for something less time-consuming. It was the hottest time of year, just absolutely sweltering. When I came to record the guitar, I had to close the windows and switch off the fan, to cut down on noise. I’d just sit there in puddles of sweat, cursing my lack of ability. Thematically, it's a reality check album. When I left Thailand the rose-tinted spectacles came off, revealing delusion on an epic scale.

My Dad died suddenly, just days after it was completed, so it came out as little more than an afterthought. I didn't have any appetite to promote it, even by my own dismal standards. My mind was elsewhere and I soured on it very quickly. Even now it just reminds me of that time.

When I did the reissues recently, I was forced to listen back, and was appalled. It’s so badly recorded, and so badly mixed. I cleaned it up as best I could but I'd need to access the original files to sort out the major issues. It's a bit frustrating because there are songs in there somewhere.

Q. While you’ve done albums for labels like King Creosote’s Fence Records, Brian and oscarson, you have tended to self-release your music. Do you have any plans to return to working with other labels or do you intend to carry on self-releasing in the foreseeable future?

It would be nice to do a bit of both. I’ll no doubt keep on with the special editions, but I’ll always be up for working with other labels. There are a lot of passionate, talented folk out there, doing a fantastic job of presenting their releases. It's a great way to collaborate, and labels, in stark contrast to myself, usually know how to market their products!

Q. 2019 was quite a prolific year for Immigrant releases. Can we expect more from you in 2020?

My workload throughout 2018 and 2019 was insane and I paid a heavy price. Hopefully the penny has now dropped that even though I love doing this, I don't have to do it morning, noon and night, 365 days a year. I can take a day off, I can do other things. I'm quite far into the next album, Tell, and with this one I've been able to pace myself and not set ridiculous deadlines. It'll definitely see the light of day this year, but I'm not in any hurry. I haven’t given too much thought yet as to the artwork but I do have half a mind to include an individually framed painting with each edition. If I can hunt down some interesting frames, that might be a fun way to make each edition unique. How I package the actual music is anyone’s guess!

After this album, I'd like to work on instrumental pieces, and take a break from the guitar and vocals. I feel like it's heading that way.