I’m happy to be able to introduce you to Jessa Graves, founder of Illumin Records, a record label that’s goal is to lighting the path for women in music, using a disruptive roadmap, a defiant rejection of the status quo, while harnessing new technology with a great backstory.
‘This is not your mother’s record label, but it is founder Jessa Graves’. In the early 90s Annie Graves started Illumin Records to independently release her own music. Twenty-six years later (this year), her daughter Jessa Graves who is the front woman as well as manager, and songwriter for the dance-punk band called J. Graves resurrected the label with a revitalized mission at the intersection of music, tech, and advocacy. Illumin redefines the role of record label for womxn and gnc led projects through education, transparency, empowerment, and new deal structures leveraging tokenization and blockchain technology. She surprised her Mom with that news for Mother’s Day.
Through her journey of self-releasing her band’s debut LP called Marathon in 2019, she identified a ton of knowledge gaps and wanted to help women, and those that are gender non conforming to put music out into the world. Illumin has strategically partnered with Women That Rock (WTR) allowing access and collaboration to high-level artist management, development, marketing, mentorship and support through all channels of WTR; the music discovery platform dedicated to supporting the best up-and-coming womxn in music.
In her free time she says, “I love all things analog and have a really neat early 80s 35mm Nikon L35AF that I take really moody photographs with.” This year she also got into lifting weights and is committed to building strength for herself. “I exercise in the mornings before starting work and love to push beyond what I think I can handle. I’m currently training for a half marathon – I ran a full Marathon in 2018 when I caught the endurance bug”.
How did you get into your industry / What motivated you?
Music is quite literally in my blood. My mom was a recording artist and the first founder of Illumin Records. Nothing has ever felt right in my life except for music and I am grateful to have found my purpose. I started song writing when I was 14 (though I have really early memories of making songs as a kid) and inadvertently, because I had no clue what I was doing at 14, sold the heck out of some band shirts and CDs at school; and had a knack for music marketing and promotion. I self-released my first two EPs before I turned 18 and knew that writing, releasing music, and performing would be my path forward.
Ultimately music has been an integral part of my life before I even existed, it is ingrained in my genetic makeup and passed to me from my mother. To resurrect Illumin Records is to honor her and all the womxn I’d love to help be heard. I’ve been creating and releasing music since I was kid (which is a funny thing to step outside of myself, to realize when looking back – I’ve had strengths and natural tendencies my whole life and no, not everybody has these).
Vinyl as a medium is the preciousness of impermanence, of which is my life’s approach and what makes a physical release so damn special. Each time you drop the needle is one less time you get to hear it. And if that’s not poetry I’m not sure what is. This year has sucked (understatement) and some really cool things have happened too. It hasn’t at all gone to my plan (understatement), and I haven’t done all the things I want to do, and I am just getting started, but I intend to make an impact on and in this industry at whatever scale that happens to be.
What is a day in the life like?
I wake up right around 5:30 AM to squeeze in a little music admin work (outreach, planning, scheduling, progress to goals, answering interview questions for awesome organizations like Women in Vinyl), exercise (super crucial for my mental health!), then hop into my other work. I lead operations for a tech company during business hours. Then depending on the day, it’s practicing my instrument, writing, researching, learning all that I can by whatever means, band practice, and I try to sneak in industry podcasts, webinars, panels, etc. when time allows. Right now I’m doing some learning around lathe cutting and have a webinar coming up on licensing.
What has been your favorite / the coolest thing you’ve worked on?
Over the summer Illumin Records, in partnership with Women That Rock hosted a 4 day livestream event called LISTEN TO WOMXN at a really special venue in Portland called Doug Fir Lounge. We were able to host 4 womxn lead projects from the Northwest from a really important stage and provide these artists with a paid performance opportunity. This was a spinoff of global livestream festival we hosted (LISTEN TO WOMXN FEST) with performers from all over the world. We were featured on the Grammy’s website!
J. Graves also released a very very short run 10” on Illumin as the first release on the label since 1994. We didn’t have this record pressed, it was hand cut here in town and there were only 19 made and 13 sold. This release is inspiring what could be a really cool format for this label / releases to come. This record was completely engineered by women. Elly Swope engineered and mixed the record and mastering was done by Amy Dragon (read back on her interview with WIV here) of Telegraph Mastering.
What has been / is the most difficult part of your job?
Ambiguity and uncertainty is the most difficult thing for a lot of folks right now and certainly for me. I’ve been planning the this last release since my first release in 2019 (and how it would be Illumin’s triumphant return) and had to pivot from my plan as we got further away from the idea of Covid resolving in any kind of short term. I started Illumin Records with a strong vision based on a landscape that has been permanently affected – the shape of the industry is changing and there’s no playbook for launching an anything in a pandemic.
Everything feels so incredibly saturated in the digital space and the physicality of music is going to be even more crucial than it was before.
I won’t pretend to have solutions for this, yet, but mark my words I’m trying! On a far more personal note, I worked tirelessly the first half of the year pouring myself into this project and my music. I burnt myself out and have been struggling with my mental health recently and getting back to baseline. Trying to be gentle over here! It’s much harder than it sounds.
If you aren’t a vinyl collector yourself, what drew you to the industry?
One night, just before I turned 16, my best friend and I snuck out to go see the Dandy Warhols at the Crystal Ballroom in downtown Portland. By the time we arrived the show had sold out. Disappointed, we went looking for a consolation prize and hopped across the street to a music store called Everyday Music. I wandered over to the vinyl section – I had my parents’ turntable they bought in the mid 80s set up in my room. I had some used records that I had thrifted, nothing really important to me. So when I found Interpol’s Antics 4 LP remix release, I was incredibly excited to have found something that was relevant and special to me. It nearly CRIED out to me from the shelf, and in that moment I bought my first new record, still wrapped in the plastic, 180 grams of amazing, riding in a paper bag, waiting for me to sneak back in through the garage door to finally have a listen. When settled in, I plugged in my monitoring headphones to the receiver to keep from waking my parents. I set the needle down and heard “Public Pervert” on vinyl for the first time I wept. The sound consumed me. From that point I knew I wanted to be a part of something that could make me feel that way, and I promised myself I would press my own records, that I would hold and hear my own music in that same way.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into pursuing what you’re doing?
When anyone ever asks me for advice on a release or musical endeavor or a work project or an anything I like to start at the top. What’s your goal and how are you going to measure your success? With my band we typically use an OKR framework (objectives and key results), when I was conceptualizing the label I used a LEAN business model exercise. Goals and KPIs are to relevant to anything you’re working on ever, especially now when successes might not feel like successes or you’ve had to pivot… or suddenly there’s a pandemic and everything is different. And this is to say that goals can be adjusted and priorities can change and it takes awareness and bravery to realize when something that was important just isn’t important anymore.
The other piece to this is avoiding burnout. I “lost”, this is a fallacy, we had a great Q3 and lots of cool stuff happened, what felt like a whole quarter just trying to recover from a hyper-focused six months. I’m building in downtime, I’m allowing for “unproductive” days where I don’t regular clothes on and don’t follow a schedule – and it’s hard, and there’s still friction because that doesn’t feel right, but I make the rules. YOU make the rules. Be gentle, have fun, work hard.
There are no rules.
What types of things are happening in your industry / with vinyl that you’re excited or worried about? i.e. innovation, or trends you’re seeing.
I was in a Target the other day and I saw a vinyl section. If you would have told me there would be vinyl in a box store 10 years ago I would have laughed. Which is to say I have a little fear around the magic being ruined, ya know, something to the effect of your favorite band getting discovered and then their ethos changes and it’s just not the same. But, I’m also a proponent for accessibility…
…and if Target is going to inspire a future label head, or pressing plant QA engineer, or sound engineer, or head of A&R then I’m here for it. Let them have vinyl!
During this time we’re currently in, what message do you have for music and vinyl fans? How can we support you, the industry?
If you love a band, if you love a label, buy their merch, buy their records. Bandcamp does a Bandcamp day (historically on every first Friday of the month) wherein all but the processing fees go to the artist / label, buy direct. Like, comment, share posts (on social media). Tell your friends, send people records as gifts, start a record club (like a book club, but a different kind of cool), send your favorite labels and bands love notes, check out a labels roster and find new music. We love you back and all of this kind of support is incredible.
Tell me what you’re listening to right now.
One of the last shows I was able to catch was a really neat post-punk bill at a spot in town (Portland) called The Firkin Tavern. There was a mesmerizing touring band called Gustaf that I think are going to get a ton of attention. They are putting out a 7″ on Royal Mountain Records and just dropped a single I’m excited about.
J. Graves: @jgraves.xyz
Illumin Records: @illuminrecords
J. Graves: @jgraves.xyz
Illumin Records: @illuminrecords