With the dance-ready drums punctuating the voice of lead singer Jessa Graves, the new J. Graves’ Deathbed EP feels like a glorious blend of past and present – as if Florence and the Machine met Siouxie and the Banshees head-on while discovering the Strokes for the first time. Each song on the new EP speaks to the “resurrection” that is Illumin Records, all while the EP asserts itself as a talisman of this womxn-centered label taking aim at the present and future of the music industry.
Graves is a post-punk/dance-pop band out of Portland, Oregon, fronted by Jessa Graves’s incredible voice and guitar. The sounds of Jessa’s singing are intensified by the almost-electronic drums and a buzzing bass. Illumin Records is Jessa Graves’ label. In May 2020, Jessa resurrected the label that her mother, Annie Graves, started in the 1990s as a platform for releasing her own music. In the words of the label, “Illumin redefines the role of the record label for womxn- and gnc-led projects through education, transparency, empowerment, and new deal structures leveraging tokenization and blockchain technology.” Illumin’s “revitalized mission at the intersection of music, tech, and advocacy” couldn’t come at a better time. The label also has support from Women That Rock founder Andie Aronow, who created the WTR platform with a goal of spotlighting and celebrating women musicians.
In its aural, visual, and even tangible qualities, the new Deathbed EP illuminates the deep reverberations among music, film, art, and design. In music videos for Deathbed and Time Travel, each member of the band wears a black utility jumpsuit branded with the J. Graves icon. It’s a simple heart with letters J. G R A V E S in Alte Haas Grotesk typeface (a softened Helvetica-like style created by graphic designer Yann Le Coroller). The jumpsuit design remains consistent across the band’s merch – if you’re a fan (and you should be), you can buy a black t-shirt with that same J. G R A V E S icon, and you can wear it in the form of an enamel badge. Even the “deathbed” itself in the music videos – an old four-poster unmade wooden bed – is emblazoned with the icon.
The band is, of course, so much more than its marketing and design. Yet that marketing and design feel integral to understanding J. Graves and Illumin Records. The care put into the artwork hearkens back to Factory Records – exquisite design of music-oriented objets d’art for the discerning collector. And I suspect J. Graves indeed might be fascinated with the idea of rarity in what their band produces: only 19 copies of the Deathbed EP will be cut by hand to vinyl, and only 10 of those copies will be for sale. Illumin Records has all the markings of greatness.
You’ll love the design work, but for now, back to the music. Each song on Deathbed is part of a four-piece whole, both in sight and resonance. The songs are placed in an order on the EP that begins with Deathbed, but the music videos show that the songs can easily be interchanged to reveal the strange interconnections among experience and sound.
Like the label itself, the films for Deathbed and Time Travel offer viewers and listeners a chance to contemplate how experiences from the past can be resurrected anew, and to consider that songs can reflect the uncanny circularity of time. The chords on each single remain in intense conversation with one another throughout the EP, often as mirrors and sometimes as foils. The pacing in Time Travel speeds up then slows drastically, challenging us to consider what it means to pull from the past while attempting to move forward at the speed of sound. Jessa’s lyrics in Deathbed ultimately reflect the experience of modern existence: “We’re both on this deathbed, only nobody’s dead.”
The J. Graves EP was engineered entirely by women: Elly Swope at Destination Universe! engineered and mixed it, and Amy Dragon at Telegraph Audio mastered it. It’s an amazing collection of songs released by an incredibly exciting new label. You’ve gotta put Illumin Records and J. Graves on your radar if they’re not already there.
Audrey J. Golden is a literature and film professor who lives in New York. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and you can check out her personal website to learn more about her writing and her archive of books, records, and ephemera.