If you follow Taiwan’s indie music scene, you’re probably familiar with Xiao Qing-yang’s (蕭青陽) work, even if you don’t recognize his name. Over the past 26 years, the prolific designer has created nearly 1,000 album covers. On Sunday Xiao will find out if he wins a Grammy Award for the packaging of Story Island (故事島), an instrumental album by composer Lee Cin-cin (李欣芸).
This is the fourth time Xiao has been nominated for the Best Recording Package award. But Xiao was still effusive during an interview at his New Taipei City studio last month as he talked about his upcoming trip to the US, the continuing relevance of CD packaging in an era of music downloads, and the concept behind Story Island.
Xiao is known for creating simple but graphically striking covers, like Wang Yan-meng’s (王雁盟) The Wandering Accordion (飄浮手風琴) (for which Xiao received his first Grammy nomination) and Matzka’s (瑪斯卡) latest self-titled release.
But Story Island’s package takes a uniquely tactile and visually low-key approach. Xiao began conceptualizing the artwork, which took two years to complete, before it was attached to Lee’s album. The CD’s cover and 11 separate images packaged within are made from white, laser-cut paper; you have to take the insert out and flip through it page by page to to see the designs.
Insect-eaten leaves that Xiao collected from a park near his home inspired the cover’s lace-like pattern. Upon closer inspection, each “bite mark” reveals itself as a country. Xiao rearranged the world map in seemingly random order, with only Taiwan standing apart to the left.
Some of the other images are dark and unsettling, while others are idealistic. Delicate plumes of smoke envelop a human skull and animal skeletons in one, while another is based on a photo of villagers fleeing from their homes during Typhoon Morakot. Another features a close-up of Amis Aboriginal singer Difang’s (郭英男) hands carefully wrapping betel nuts. Xiao’s inspiration came from life in Taiwan, but he says his artwork’s message is universal: Each person is a steward of the planet.
Taipei Times: Consumers have changed the way they shop for music since you began your career. Now that many people download tracks, what role does packaging play in marketing an album?
Xiao Qing-yang: I think that having an eye-catching cover has gotten more important since 2000, when music marketing began to enter the Internet era. The last time I visited New York City, LA and San Francisco, a lot of the brick-and-mortar CD stores had already closed down. I wanted to go to the Virgin Records Megastore while I was in New York, but when I got there, I was so disappointed. There was only a neon sign left. But it was only a few years ago [in 2005] that my work was first noticed by the Grammy Awards. That was a reminder that even though everyone is now downloading their music, people still pay attention to packaging.
TT: Story Island is different from most CDs because the design is low profile. You have to open the packaging and take out the insert to see the laser cut images. Why did you go with this concept?
XQY: I earned my third Grammy nomination for Poems and Songs (詩．歌) [by Wu Sheng (吳晟)]. The packaging for that was made from wood. The reason I like using unusual materials is because I want people to understand that when you listen to a record, the experience is not just for your ears, but also for your eyes, your hands and all the rest of your senses.