The Making of Leaf 20 – The Leaf Label’s 20th Anniversary Box Set

Journal · 14th January 2016

When Tony Morley at The Leaf Label asked us to work on their 20th anniversary box set, I had to work pretty hard to contain my excitement. ‘Dream job’ might be pushing it, (though perhaps that’s with the benefit of hindsight knowing the full extent of the challenges we’d face in pulling it off) but it’s probably pretty close, especially given the creative freedom and trust he gave us.

We were briefed to find a way to visualise The Leaf Label at 20 years, to reflect their output and personality – which to us meant trying to capture their mix of experimental edge, integrity and pioneering spirit; dedication to quality, individuality, and that certain something you just can’t tie down.

Tony knew the sort of packaging he wanted – a really nice quality cloth-covered box – and our only other instruction was that the 10 releases would all retain their original artwork, but at the same time to look to find a way to make a really beautiful and special set. Past that, he wanted to see what we’d come up with.

Naturally for Leaf, the final concept he chose was easily the most experimental and ambitious presented, and the one we were most excited about too. The box set would centre around the use of a section taken from a twenty year old tree – with 10 slices specially cut, finished and then used to print directly onto a set of 10 x 200 limited edition outer sleeves, which slip over the original artwork for each of the records in the box.

This image of the tree’s rings would then form the cover to the box, with it’s white and silver colour theme running throughout the Leaf20 material, including onto the white vinyl of the releases. This was combined with a 20th anniversary identity – a ‘take-over’ of the Leaf logo – to be used on the box set, applied to the set of 10 vinyls, also released separately, and to promote the live shows as part of the birthday celebrations.

 

Whose Bright Idea Was This?

 

The process of coming up with an image for Leaf 20 came from delving into Leaf’s 100-album strong back catalogue and trying to find a single, clear image that reflected and interpreted their output – that felt like Leaf across their 20 year history.

Influences ranged from the literal connection to leaves on their very first EP by Boymerang, through to the layered natural lines of the minerals on the covers of AU’s Both Lights and Solid Gold; the patterned circles of Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique; the consistent appearance of a single central circle on artwork across their catalogue (Julia Kent’s Character, Efterklang’s Caravan and the recent Radioland featuring Matthew Bourne, that we were also working on at the same time – to name but a few); or the fine sketched lines built up in the illustrations on Polar Bear’s Peepers or Colleen’s Everyone Alive Wants Answers.

Leaf has always been committed to vinyl, and so the rings of the tree gave a nice visual connection to the rings of a record – albeit a wonky version, which somehow seemed only appropriate: 20 rings for 20 wonderfully off-kilter years.

And given it was Leaf, we also wanted to push the boundaries of what we knew could be done, and create something that we hoped would turn out to be as beautiful and individual as it was experimental.

 

Finding a Tree

 

Of course, this all sounds great in theory when you’re sat in the studio but bringing it into reality we always knew would be slightly trickier!

Our first issue – how on earth do you find a tree that you know will be exactly 20 years old?

After a few weeks of nearly daily phone calls to timber yards, national parks, firewood companies, garden centres and even Christmas tree suppliers, a very sceptical lady at the Forestry Commission finally gave in to my pleading and gave me a number for Graham – a forest manager at Dalby Forest.

After a rather lengthy explanation (“You want to do what?!”) he very kindly agreed to go to great lengths to sustainably source us a suitable tree of the correct age, with exactly 20 rings. After such an effort for what was a very awkward request – and given that without his help we wouldn’t have been able to get any further than the drawing board – I had to smile when he very apologetically told me he’d have to charge us something for it… “Would £20 be ok?”

The relief of finally solving one challenge only gave way to others however – and the process has been experimental at every stage. (Sometimes more than a little scarily so, I have to admit!)

The Print Project

 

Whilst simply cutting some wood into slices and popping them in a printing press might sound simple, the minute tolerances demanded in printing were incredibly difficult to achieve working with wet wood that was constantly moving, warping and splitting. A printer’s typical stable material with 0.1mm tolerance this was not!

After much testing using old Christmas trees, and hours of perseverance by the incredibly talented letterpress printer Nick Loaring at The Print Project, a solution was gradually found to each little challenge presented and a method perfected.

Once sanded down from the cutting, the slices were then burnt with a blow torch. As the rings of wood are more dense than the wood fibres between them, this brings the rings into relief by burning away the material between, giving a raised surface from which to print.

The slices were then brushed, sanded, sealed and finished with oil, before being set into the press using lead spacers (more conventionally used to space lines of type) for each sleeve to then be run through the press individually by hand.

What I’ve loved most about working with the wood on this job is the physicality of it – and the mechanical process only adds to that.  Twenty years ago when Leaf itself was only an idea, our tree was nothing more than a tiny seed in the ground somewhere in North Yorkshire. It’s grown imperceptibly slowly, until now we’re working with these fantastic chunks of wood, printing directly from them and discovering all these little imperfections and the individuality this brings to each impression. It gives the final sleeves a real tangible sense of the time that’s passed, that you can hold right there in your hand.

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The full box sets contain the 10 limited edition reissues on white vinyl sitting alongside a set of 10 CDs of the albums, a limited edition print and a poster of the full back catalogue, printed in silver.

We’re excited to share some images of the very first  complete Leaf Label 20th Anniversary Box Set.  Our thanks to Sara Teresa for these lovely shots.

More importantly though – to find out more and how to get your hands on one of these very limited edition sets, head over to theleaflabel.com.

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Photography by Sara Teresa