It seems appropriate somehow that, in a year that they celebrate their tenth anniversary, the people of Secretly Canadian are enjoying their high point in terms of critical and commercial success.
The label has a strong history of fostering critically acclaimed talent — most notably its long-standing relationship with Jason Molina — but the stature of Secretly Canadian and its sister label, Jagjaguwar, has been markedly heightened in the past year. Jens Lekman, Black Mountain, Okkervil River, Danielson and, of course, the Mercury Prize-winning Antony & the Johnsons have received, in short order, enough ink (and bandwidth) to place Bloomington, Indiana firmly on the indie-rock map.
It’s the kind of success that likely wasn’t even dreamed of in 1995 when Chris and Ben Swanson, Jonathon Cargill and Eric Weddle first tossed around the idea of starting a label. Originally, the motivation came from the lack of exposure that certain groups from Bloomington were receiving, even from within their own scene.
“There was this amazing other set of bands and artists — like Sway Kiss, Davie Fischoff, Ativin, Intro to Airlift, and the Panoply Academy — that would primarily play basements and house parties,” said Ben Swanson. “These were the bands that — to us, at least — were trying new things, stretching the boundaries of what we understood music to be at the time. Experimenting with tape loops, drones, images, anything really, as long as it wasn’t the tired three-chord Dando-pop that was under the spotlight at the time.”
The label would go on to release work by these artists and many others like them, solidifying Secretly Canadian as a label that was unafraid to work with cutting-edge artists.
One of the earliest — and ultimately most important — relationships that the label forged was with Jagjaguwar founder Darius Van Arman. Based out of Charlottesville, Virginia at the time, Van Arman first came into contact with Secretly Canadian when two of his bands, Curious Digit and Drunk, played a show in Bloomington. Before long, Secretly Canadian was distributing Jagjaguwar’s records due to its more sophisticated infrastructure, and Chris Swanson and Van Arman “would stay up late at night obsessing about music over the phone like long distance lovers,” Ben said.
This business relationship would eventually lead to Chris Swanson becoming co-owner of Jagjaguwar and the label relocating to Bloomington in 1999. The two labels, although they are separate entities, now share office space, employees and resources.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons the label owners have learned through their years of experience is how to improve their efficiency as a business without sacrificing the integrity behind what they do.
“We’re a lot more compartmentalized now, whereas before everyone was doing a bit of everything,” said Ben. “Now we each have our area that we attempt to specialize in.”
Even with this maturation though, the spirit behind the labels remains intact. “Our primary stance from day one has been to be equal partners with our artists,” Ben said. “It’s a model that’s not for everyone, but we put a lot of energy into our releases — as do the bands — and it’s a method that has seemed to work so far.”
If the people behind the two labels are reveling in their newfound success, they aren’t showing any signs of doing so on the outside. Instead, they’re hard at work trying to ensure that their upcoming projects continue the momentum. Look for new albums from Oneida, Swedish pianist Frida Hyvönen, and a special compilation of Secretly Canadian artists covering one another. As always, expect both labels to go the distance for these artists, just as they do with the others on their rosters.
“Everyone wants to live off their music,” said Ben. “It’s our job to help them do that.”
Notable Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar releases:
Simon Joyner: Lost with the Lights On
Songs: Ohia: Didn’t it Rain
Julie Doiron and the Wooden Stars: Julie Doiron and the Wooden Stars
Danielson Famile: Fetch the Compass Kids
Scout Niblett: Sweet Heart Fever
Secretly Canadian Web site: http://www.secretlycanadian.com/
Jagjaguwar Web site: http://www.jagjaguwar.com/