Graphic Designer Kinnat Sóley: Merch Babe// Interview

Merch Babe is the alias of Kinnat Sóley, a graphic designer specializing in the design of music merchandise and publications. Working closely with musicians and artists, she creates their visual worlds and focuses on the production of physical objects: records, zines, cassette tapes, apparel and more.

She produces and fulfills merch for bands as well as working as a merch babe on tour for the synth-punk band Kælan Mikla. She and her longtime friend and collaborator Sólveig Matthildur founded and run Myrkfælni, a magazine and record label featuring artists from the Icelandic underground music scene.

How did you come into making merchandise and making art for musicians and underground artists?

The girls in Kælan Mikla have been my close friends since high school. I had just started studying graphic design so they asked me to design their band logo. I barely knew what a logo was and the design included stars, a mountain, icicles and blue glitter. A year later they asked if I could make a more simple design (good idea girls!) which ended up going on the cover of their first album.

None of us had any money at the time so a few months later they offered to pay me by inviting me on their first tour. Before I knew it I was helping to organise tours and selling merch for them at all of their concerts. Touring with them helped me meet musicians which I would contact and ask if they needed a graphic designer. I also worked for a label making artwork for barely any money to build up my portfolio. After a while it just made sense for me to focus on merchandise design.

What are the most difficult and rewarding parts of running your business?

I decided to rebrand as Merch Babe and I’ve been freelancing for a year and a half now. The most difficult part is definitely making sure you have enough work to pay your rent every month, and the stresses that come with that. I’m a bit impulsive and just like to dive head first into things and see if they work out so I didn’t have savings or anything when I started. 

I had been designing music merchandise for a couple of years and had also gathered lots of practical knowledge of how to produce these items. I had been ordering merch for tours with Kælan Mikla, helped them self release a tape, as well as self releasing music with Sólveig Matthildur. I produced magazines and compilation tapes for Myrkfælni and merch items for various clients. With Merch Babe I wanted to combine all of these skills into one, so artists only have to talk to one person who will design, produce and fulfill their merch. Easy!

I was already fulfilling and shipping merch for bands that I designed for, since It would often be left at my house after tours. I decided to make a simple online shop that I coded myself using the HTML knowledge I learned from running a Neopets fan website when I was 12, and a lot of googling. The shop was all my designs for other bands but I always wanted to design my own merch. A friend of mine lives in a small city in California on the grounds of a t-shirt factory his parents own so when he invited me to use his digital t-shirt printer I jumped on it and designed my own line. Now I sell band merch through Bandcamp and keep my shop just for personal projects.

The most rewarding part of working with artists is bringing their ideas to life and seeing your designs go all over the world. It’s such a cool feeling to bring a big bag of packages to the post office, knowing that people all over will be wearing your shirts and reading your magazines.

How important is branding for the independent musician?

As a graphic designer, I find it very important of course! But that is because it’s the first thing I notice when I discover a new musician or project. I feel like having a strong visual identity helps people remember and recognise you better. This applies both to a concert setting (merch, live visuals, stage outfits etc) and your digital presence. I’m super lucky to work with artists that trust me with creative control over their visual identity, it’s so much fun to create a world around the music.

When I’m making or fulfilling merch of course I prefer it to be my own work and it usually is, but depending on the project I have also taken jobs fulfilling merch, helping self release albums and made shirts with other peoples designs.

You’re also a zinester, could you tell us more about your zine MYRKFÆLNI?

I started MYRKFÆLNI in 2017 with my good friend Sólveig Matthildur. We were both living in Berlin at the time and wanted to show mainland Europe and the rest of the world what was going on in the Icelandic underground music scene. The Icelandic scene is a bit isolated due to it being an island in the middle of the Atlantic, but we knew people were interested in what was happening there just from touring with Kælan Mikla.

We applied for a grant and when we didn’t get it we decided to crowdfund the publication. We got fully funded which was so exciting. Since we were both living in Berlin we had friends review concerts and festivals and interviewed bands over email. We printed 1000 copies of the first issue and sent promotional copies to 50 locations all over the world to people we had met touring or online. After making our second issue a couple months later which included a compilation cassette tape we suddenly became very busy with Kælan Mikla and the third issue stalled a bit.

In 2019 we were offered to host a showcase at the synth/darkwave festival Kalabalik på Tyrolen in Sweden. We figured it was a great time to release the third issue but decided to change the format a bit. People had loved the cassette compilation that came with the second issue, so we decided to focus on that. The third issue came in a VHS-style box, with the compilation tape and a mini-magazine that features the artists on the tape.

This year we released the fourth issue in the same format, but extended the mini-magazine a bit, asking the artists to share their process of creating, composing and recording their featured song. I’m very happy with how the magazine has evolved and felt like on the fourth issue I perfected what I wanted the publication to be.

In 2020 we also decided to turn Myrkfælni into a label. We have thought about it for a while and Sólveig ran a label before with Kælan Mikla bassist Maggý. One of our favorite bands contacted us to release their album so we decided to just go for it! In our first issue of Myrkfælni we featured seven underground labels, from which only one is still operating. There seemed to be a need for another label, artists started contacting us and we ended up releasing three tapes in three months (four if you count the compilation). It was a bit hectic but I don’t regret anything, sometimes you just gotta do it!

Screen Printing or heat transfer vinyl?

In my opinion the two aren’t really comparable! Screen printing uses ink and actually prints on the shirt, HTV is more like cutting out stickers that you attach to your shirts.

I bought my vinyl cutter and heat press because it allows you to make merch in very small quantities without the startup costs of screen printing. It can be a bit hard when you’re a small band wanting to make merch, but have to shell out lots of money, and then you maybe don’t sell everything. Being able to make shirts to order, one at a time, is definitely a pro.

Working with vinyl you can only do colored shapes and no gradients, this could be a “con” but I like designing things with the output method in mind already, and focus on what special things I can achieve with the method I am using, like using reflective or fuzzy vinyl or something like that!

Other techniques I’ve used are DTG (direct to garment) printing, which is basically like an inkjet printer that prints directly on shirts. It also shares the pro of being able to easily just print one shirt.

Screen printing is definitely still the highest quality of t-shirt printing and really makes sense for anything in higher quantities. I just like having all the options!

How can you create such rad tapes?

In my opinion tapes are such a great merch item since they are cheap to produce and buy. Vinyl will of course always be the highest quality and nicest artwork, but since CD’s are kind of dead (in my opinion, many people will disagree!) tapes are a nice alternative to buy at shows when you want something from the band but don’t have 20€ for a record. 

The other thing that drew me towards them is exactly what you mentioned, that you can choose from so many crazy colors and styles! I order the tapes with the music on them online at a tape manufacturer, but I like to print the artwork, booklets and stickers myself so I can decide exactly what I want! It’s a bit of work folding and inserting everything but the outcome is more special than the standard things you can get from a tape manufacturer. 

In a previous interview they told us Leipzig is a creative place, is this true?

There’s definitely a lot of creative people here, I feel like most people I meet are doing some crazy creative project. With both a great art and music school, and rent being relatively cheap, it attracts a lot of interesting people.

I mentioned before that I just quit my job and started freelancing without having a real plan or savings account, this was only possible because the cost of living is low here. So it’s possible for smaller creatives to live from their work, which is really cool. I also like that it’s a smaller city so everything is close by, I have a printer, riso printer, embroiderer and a screen printing place in a 10 min distance from my house.

This year has of course been weird and with much less stuff going on than usual, but in normal times there are so many concerts happening in the city. This year I started renting an office space in my friend Sophie’s art gallery, nyg west leipzig, and together we decided to create a zine featuring the artists from the music scene. Our goal is not to be an overview of everything that is happening, rather we try to document a small part in each issue, creating a little time capsule of what is happening.

One evening we did an interview that was more like a reality TV show of us just walking between people and talking, and that’s where the name Reality Zine was first coined. Visually I wanted to make something completely different from Myrkfælni, and the songs we got sent for the compilation tape created a really nice weird-electronic-pop-summertime vibe to me, so Reality Zine is really neon and colorful with lots of white.

We celebrated the first issue release in October with an exhibition at the gallery where we painted big neon green murals with quotes and pictures from the magazine. Next time we hope to be able to have live music at the release show, but surprisingly listening to the tape on repeat for three days did not get tiring.

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