SXSW 2017: summary of SXSW Conference session Bella Union at 20

By on Monday, 3rd April 2017 at 11:00 am
 

In the course of its 20-year history, British independent record label Bella Union has become what you might call a “household name”, if your household were made up of musicians, music journalists, promoters, or other industry types. Headed by former Cocteau Twins member Simon Raymonde, Bella Union was originally founded as a vehicle for releasing Cocteau Twins’ own work, but it expanded to new ventures when the band broke up in 1997. Bella Union’s most acclaimed signees include artists like Fleet Foxes, The Flaming Lips, and Father John Misty, as well as TGTF alums The Trouble With Templeton, Midlake, Emmy the Great, and exmagician.

Bella Union internal 2

In celebration of Bella Union’s 20th anniversary, Raymonde was featured as a session panelist at SXSW 2017, along with Midlake frontman Eric Pulido (who also showcased in Austin with supergroup BNQT) and actor Jason Lee. Pulido’s appearance on the panel wasn’t surprising, but Lee was a bit of a question mark in my mind going into the Friday afternoon session. As it turned out, we had to wait a bit to find out what Lee’s role would be in the discussion, because he was delayed trying to find a parking space. Even featured speakers aren’t immune to busy downtown Austin SXSW traffic!

In Lee’s absence, Pulido took on the role of session faciliator, and he led a spontaneous conversation with Raymonde about the guiding philosophy behind Bella Union. As an experienced and successful musician himself, Raymonde emphasised the “gut instinct” aspect of his label’s work, saying that he strives to release music that genuinely strikes a chord with him on first listen. Pulido remarked that Raymonde’s diplomatic criticism often begins with the phrase “I don’t love it”, but doesn’t necessarily shut the door to future endeavours from promising artists. In fact, much of Raymonde’s success with Bella Union hinges on his openness to his artists’ perseverance. Midlake’s 2006 album ‘The Trials of Van Occupanther’ garnered critical accolades, despite Raymonde’s initial reticence about its unwieldy title.

Bella Union internal 1

When Lee arrived to take part in the discussion, he revealed that it was Raymonde who turned him onto Midlake back in 2004, around the band’s also oddly-titled debut LP ‘Bamnan and Silvercork’. Lee was immediately hooked and eventually directed a video for a single from that album called ‘Balloon Maker.’ The video, and Lee’s continuing enthusiasm for promoting the band, led to a more expansive collaboration, the documentary film ‘Midlake: Live in Denton TX.’

[youtube]https://youtu.be/JfFMPY72k_g[/youtube]

Raymonde highlighted the role of artist interaction and fortuitous timing in his discussion of Bella Union’s continued success. He named Midlake’s collaboration with American singer/songwriter John Grant as a prime example. Grant, who was a longtime fan of the Cocteau Twins, had initially contacted Raymonde during his time with The Czars, and though it took some convincing, Raymonde was eventually persuaded to take the production helm on the band’s second album ‘Before…But Longer.’ Raymonde’s dedication kept The Czars afloat until they broke up in 2004, but his relationship with Grant didn’t end there. Midlake’s artistic collaboration on Grant’s debut solo album, 2010’s ‘Queen of Denmark’ brought Grant back to Raymonde’s attention, and Grant’s fruitful partnership with Bella Union was renewed, continuing through 2013 album ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and 2015 release ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’.

One of Bella Union’s more recent protégés, singer/songwriter Holly Macve, also started with stroke of luck on Raymonde’s part. Macve had taken a job in a café in Brighton where Raymonde had set up a basement studio, and he happened to hear her sing at an open mic night. His ear for talent and the aforementioned “gut instinct” immediately drew him to sign her to the label. Macve made her American debut last year at SXSW 2016, garnering accolades from NPR among others, and she returned this year with a stunning debut album, ‘Golden Eagle’, under her belt.

Bella Union co-hosted a 20th Anniversary showcase with TuneIn Studios on the Wednesday night of SXSW, featuring current artists BNQT, Holly Macve, Mammut, Pavo Pavo, Will Stratton and Horse Thief. High-calibre artists like these represent the future of Bella Union as the label moves into its third decade of excellence among independent record labels. Stay tuned to TGTF for our coverage of Holly Macve at the British Music Embassy in our roundup of Thursday night at SXSW 2017.

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