An interview with Frances Castle.

Throughout July you can see 'The Art of Clay Pipe Music' in our gallery. The exhibition, which features album sleeve artwork and recent work on a new graphic novel is by illustrator, musician (recording as the excellent Hardy Tree) and label owner Frances Castle. We're big fans of both the music she releases through her label Clay Pipe and the imagery she creates for them, so we thought we'd ask her a few questions which were on our minds!

 Clay Pipe Music Logo - frances Castle.

The name Clay Pipe sends me right back in time to unearthing small, broken clay pipes in the woods around my junior school. How did the name come about?

My boyfriend and I used to go down to the Thames a lot and go mud larking, I was looking for ideas for names and clay pipes are one of the main things you can find on the foreshore, in some spots they are everywhere, it is strange to pick one up and try and imagine who last held it, it just seemed like a good name.

Pastoral, folkloric and hauntological are all terms which are often associated with the musical output of Clay Pipe Music. Was there a conscious effort to develop a Clay Pipe ‘sound’ when you started out or has it developed naturally?

It's actually hard to remember, the label started because I wanted to put out a CD of my own music. I'd made music in the past, but it had always come out on other people’s labels, I thought instead of giving it to someone else, I'd try doing it myself. I'm not sure if at that point I intended to start putting out other people’s music, but I know when I heard Tyneham House (on Myspace I think!) I wanted to release it. Once I decided to start releasing other people’s music, it was clear in what direction I wanted to go, and the right sort of music just kind of fell into my lap. I'm not sure there is a 'sound' as such, but I do think there is something that links all the releases.

Tyneham House LP - Clay Pipe Music - Frances Castle

With coloured vinyl presses, reissues with differing sleeve artwork and beautiful inserts and extras (the fold out Green Line bus still makes us smile), Clay Pipe releases show a wonderful attention to detail. Were there any labels which were an inspiration to you in setting up Clay Pipe?

I guess all the great independent labels that everybody already knows about, but Glen Johnson's label Second Language was a big inspiration when I first started. I loved the music they were releasing and what they were doing with their DIY packaging, we went on to share a couple of releases.

Gilroy Mere - The Green Line. Clay Pipe Music. Frances Castle

Lately releases have included cassette editions and even a Hardy Tree flexi-disc 7” to accompany your new graphic novel Stagdale. Is it fun to work with these formats and do you have to rethink your artwork to accommodate them?

I think the 12" LP is probably the nicest format ever to design for, but with other formats it is really just a matter of designing to a different scale, with cassettes that also have an LP release I'll design the LP first then tweak the artwork to fit on a cassette.

The Hardy Tree 'Theme to Stagdale'. Clay Pipe Music. Frances Catle.

The cover art for the albums you release seem inextricably linked to the music – can you tell us a little about your process in turning sounds into images?

  With some albums I have a clear idea right from the start what the cover will look like, and some are a real battle where I have to do lots of different rough versions until I come up with something that that I'm happy with, it can be a time consuming process. I listen to the music as much as I can while working on the covers and use song titles to help inspire me. Some artist come to me with ideas, though I'd say most probably just let me get on with it. If I'm struggling, I might go back to the artist and say 'what do you think?' the process behind every cover is different.

An array of Clay Pipe Music LPs

Some of your sleeve artwork is graphically bold (Your own ‘Sketches in D Minor’ and Jon Brooks’ ‘Autres Directions’ for example) and others have a much more line drawn, illustrative style (Sharron Krauss, Plinth etc.) – do you have a preferred way of working and is there a favourite sleeve among those you’ve done?

I've try to let the music dictate what direction the artwork goes in, some of the music seemed to require a more abstract approach to the artwork. One of the reasons I started Clay Pipe was to use it as a place where I could experiment with design and illustration, in a way that I can't with the work that I do for clients. I try and not be too limited by what I have done before and be open to different ideas.

The Hardy Tree - Sketches in D Minor. Frances Castle / Clay Pipe Music.

This year we’ve worked with several people whose practice combines music and image. Is it tricky, as a working illustrator who runs a label and produces her own music, to find a balance between the two? If you had to choose one path, which would you choose?

I'm not really a musician, I don't play live and the way I make music feels very similar to the way I make visual art, I piece everything together very slowly! I love doing it and I think with Clay Pipe I've found a way to merge both interests.  Its tricky time wise, and I'm aware that some years I'm able to spend more time on Clay Pipe that other years, recently most of my illustration work has been for children's books, which are long projects, so I tend to do Clay Pipe stuff in the evenings and at weekends. I think doing a lot of different things, keeps me interested and I know doing Clay Pipe has been beneficial to my commercial illustration work. 

Between Worlds; Folktales of Britain and Ireland.  Frances Castle.

Finally, as it is unfair to make someone choose between two things they obviously love, can you tell us what you’ve been listening to lately (we need some new recommendations for our shop playlists!).

Tomita - a Japanese electronic artist, who started in the 60s you can pick his records up really cheap. Snow Flakes are Dancing is a good one.
Joni Mitchell - Hejira. A classic, but new to me.
Steve Haustchildt - Where All is Fled. Beautiful ambient electronica
The new records by Vic Mars and Alison Cotton, both of which will be out on Clay Pipe later in the year!

 'The Art of Clay Pipe' launches on the 5th July and runs through to the 1st August. There will be books, graphics novels, records and, of course, some amazing artwork. So come along, and discover the world of Clay Pipe Music.