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Niall McCormack

Tell us about your background in design and how you got started.

I was fascinated by music from an early age and took a particular interest in the design of record sleeves and labels. I remember being drawn to the design of 2 Tone and Stiff Records covers. I went on to study at the National College of Art & Design, Dublin, in the early nineties and left college with a vague plan/dream of combining my twin passions for music and art.

I worked briefly in the art department of the NME in 1994 and returned home to Dublin to start the band Jubilee Allstars with two of my brothers and a friend of ours. We recorded three LPs, a Peel Session, some EPs and singles before public indifference finally sunk in around 2002 and we called it a day. I designed all of the packaging for our releases and went on to design many more sleeves for small indies in Ireland.

Once I had a good handle on the production side of design and a half-decent portfolio I started approaching bigger labels with a view to working with them. Ace Records was at the top of my list, its vast catalogue covers so much of my favourite music, so I was thrilled when I got my first Ace commission ("Blame It On The Dogg: The Swamp Dogg Anthology 1968-1978" CDKEND 293)

Which musical genres do you specialise in?

The majority of my music packaging work is now reissues and I find it suits my design sensibilities. I'm a big fan of rhythm & blues and soul in all their forms but I also like girl groups, garage, beat, instrumentals, rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, cajun and so on.

I enjoy working on contemporary releases when I get the chance. The approach tends to be different to working on reissues and you are much more likely to deal directly with the artist in question.

I also have obsessions of varying degrees with gospel and Jamaican music and have a growing interest in latin sounds but I haven't had the opportunity to package these genres yet.

Work by Niall McCormack

What are your creative influences and interests?

Some of my favourite sleeve designers include Barney Bubbles, Alex Steinweiss, Jim Flora, Ben Shahn, Andy Warhol, Erik Nitsche, Ian Swift, Ian Anderson and Art Chantry.

Barney Bubbles' sleeve designs, for Hawkwind and Elvis Costello in particular, were without compare, beautifully conceived, meticulously crafted and loaded with wit. He designed some sleeves for Chiswick, including the Johnny Moped LP, so it's nice to know there is an Ace connection. Most, subsequent British sleeve designers of note have borrowed heavily from Barney Bubbles approach.

One of my favourite designers working in the reissue field is Lewis Heriz. His work for Soundway, Sofrito and Strut is always vibrant and appealing, capturing the mood of the music perfectly.

What tools do you use in your design work.

The computer is my main tool but I like to incorporate organic elements like hand lettering; pen, brush and ink drawing; rubber-stamps and linocuts whenever possible.

Which Ace releases are you most proud of working on.

There are a lot of Ace projects that I'm proud of working on because I've been a fan of the artist for a long time, for instance:

Eddy Giles – "Southern Soul Brother" (CDKEND 401)
Sugar Pie DeSanto – "Go Go Power" (CDKEND 317)
Cosimo Matassa productions – "Cracking the Cosimo Code" (CDTOP 1402)
Richard Berry – "Louie Louie" (HIQLP 017)
John Lee Hooker – "Boogie with John Lee Hooker" (HIQLP 026)

In purely design terms, the covers I'm most proud of are some of the ones where I've had to start from a blank canvas. While most Ace cover briefs include an archival photo on which to base the design, sometimes a photographic approach doesn't fit the project. These tend to be more of a challenge but the results can be very satisfying when it goes right. A few I'm particularly proud of are:

"Come Spy with Us" (CDCHD 1392)
"Greatest Hits From Outer Space" (CDCHD 1371)
Dana Gillespie – "Cat's Meow" (CDCHD 1404)
Pied Piper 7" labels and company bag

Ace releases worked on by Niall McCormack

What advice would you give to someone trying to get into the industry?

The best place to start is to work with bands or musicians in your social circle. The budgets, if any, may be low but you will get a lot of creative freedom and the opportunity to explore the production end of music packaging. Building a portfolio of real life releases is crucial if any label is going to seriously consider using your services, so it is important to get a couple of good projects under your belt. The industry has changed considerably in the last two decades but there are now opportunities to work on good quality self-released projects.

What are you working on at the moment?

I've just completed artwork for a second volume of Spanish sixties female singers for Vampisoul and the debut album by The Drays, a band fronted by ex-Stars of Heaven singer Stephen Ryan. I'm beginning work on a new album by bluesy Londoner Sean Taylor and also a new album by Mundy which he recorded with Youth in Spain last year. For Ace I'm working on a double CD of previously unreleased Jackie Wilson recordings from New York in the mid-sixties.

What is your favourite album/single of all time.

Impossible to choose but these are up there:

Cedric 'Im' Brooks – "Im Flash Forward" (Studio One)

A collection of tenor saxophonist Brooks playing haunting melodies over some of the best rhythm tracks from the legendary Studio One.

Niall McCormack's record collection

The Soul Sisters – "Think About the Good Times" (Sue)

A propulsive soul rave-up with highly emotional gospel-tinged dual lead vocals. The tambourine at the beginning sounds like glass being smashed and the intensity builds from there.

The Soul Sisters - Sue Records

In terms of Ace releases my favourite LP could well be The Damned – "Machine Gun Etiquette" (Chiswick) and single is probably Little Willie John – 'I'm Shakin' (Kent)


Niall McCormack