Every record label seems to go through a golden run at some point, a period when literally everything they touch seems to gain a halo of brilliance. During 2015 – pretty much from January’s dark days, to December’s chilly evenings – that run belonged to Bella Union.
“It's one of those years – and this is kind of a cliché – where you don't know where to start,” co-founder Simon Raymonde admits. “I kind of knew at the beginning of the year that it was going to be fun, I knew what was coming.”
Opening with Ezra Furman’s superb full length ‘Perpetual Motion People’ the label enjoyed a breakneck 12 month period, one that contained five star releases from (among others) Father John Misty, John Grant, Mercury Rev and Beach House (twice).
“I think what's been beautiful is seeing these artists develop over the years, and seeing all the work that they've put in come to fruition,” Simon muses. “I've been working with Josh Tillman (Father John Misty) since around about 2007, before he'd even joined Fleet Foxes as the drummer. We've been releasing his solo records and it's been fun. Like John Grant, I guess, things don't always pan out straight away, so when things do start going well a bit later on and you've all been working hard to hang in there it just sort of makes it a bit sweeter when eventually your day comes along.
Father John Misty played a pair of sold out shows at London’s historic Shepherds Bush Empire venue as the year drew to a close, a moment that the label clearly cherished. “The last time Josh played Shepherd's Bush Empire, before the sell out shows there a month or so ago, he lasted ten minutes onstage as a support act and then he went off and I don't think the crowd even knew, they were talking so loud. He was so disillusioned with it all. Fast forward four years and there he is, playing two nights that have sold out six months in advance.”
Speaking to Simon Raymonde, it’s clear that Bella Union is very much a labour of love. The roster is carefully nurtured, while the staff – still only numbering around a half dozen – is very much involved in every aspect of every release. “I think we've done pretty well over the last 18 years or so to get to a certain level,” he says, with a clear relish in his voice. “It's been incredibly hard work, and not all of it fun. We've had some pretty dark days in there.”
“But it's a thrill. It really is,” he insists. “Because at the end of the day I'm just a huge fan of music, I'm not someone who is into the label thing to make money or to have a particular standard of living, I just do it because I'm very passionate about music. I'm an obsessive. I'm a nerd. I'm a total vinyl nerd. I spend my whole life listening to music, I waste away many, many hours on music. That's what I love to do.”
So when Mercury Rev – one of Simon’s favourite bands – personally got in touch to see if Bella Union could release their new record, there could only be one answer. A very special band, 2015’s ‘The Light In You’ had more than a little of their trademark magic in its bewitching, American oscillations. “I can't really say too much about those guys that I haven't said already. Their music is exceptional and their live show is probably better now than it's ever been,” he says. “They are one of the great rock and roll bands, they are so good to watch live. They put on a proper show. And being able to stand there on the side of the stage and soak it all up is just amazing.”
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If such a diverse label as Bella Union could ever be distilled into one signing, though, it’s the figure of John Grant. Debut solo album ‘Queen Of Denmark’ was constructed somewhere between Berlin, London and Reykjavik, and references everything from mental illness and drug abuse to Sigourney Weaver’s role in Alien. It was a hard sell, admittedly, but Bella Union’s sheer passion and perseverance helped it reach a beautifully dedicated audience.
2015’s ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ was a Top Ten album in this country, a stunning success for an artist who could scarcely exist further from the mainstream. “He's been through some awfully dark times in the last five or six years, or longer, but he is one of those people who's come out of it the other side, and see the black humour in it. I think that comes across in his lyrics, obviously. Some of the stuff he talks about is brutal, the stuff he's been through, but he always talks about it with an element of self-deprecation and an element of humour. And I think that's why people love him so much.”
It’s clear that John Grant is a much-loved figure within Bella Union. “He comes across exactly how he is in real life,” Simon continues. “He's so humble, he's so friendly, and he is always charming. He's genuinely interested in people, he's a great conversationalist. He's incredibly talented as a linguist – he speaks so many languages fluently that it's almost embarrassing - yet he's never big headed or a diva about it, he's just a really lovely guy. He's great fun, he's really entertaining, and you can tell that, can't you? Even if you don't know him you'd listen to his records and think: I bet that man's great fun.”
“If there's any success story from the last 20 years that particularly makes me feel proud then it's probably the John Grant story. It eclipses most of them.”
Looking ahead, 2016 promises to be a quite different year for the label. Continually seeking out new music, the upcoming 12 months promise a flurry of releases, but all from unknown artists, from fresh talent, from new voices. “There's lots of very exciting things happening and I see no reason for that to stop,” he says. “I think we'll have good years and we'll have bad years, because that's the nature of the cycle of it all. It's swings and roundabouts. We don't tend to get too excited when things go well, and we don't tend to get too disappointed when things are quiet because that's just how it is.”
Returning to the office, I can’t help but muse on Simon’s words, on the relentless, ever-revolving cycle of new music that plunges through the Clash postbox. On my desk is a fresh package from Bella Union: CDs from Emmy The Great, M. Ward, Wild Nothing, Clarence Clarity, and Promise & The Monster. Best get listening, then.
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Find Bella Union online HERE.