I don’t think there has been a label that has influenced my listening quite like Home Normal. I came across the label relatively early on and have been following them since eagerly picking up their quality releases. Label boss Ian Hawgood took time out of his busy schedule to kindly answered my questions.
In March it will be 9 years since the label started. Over those years a number of labels have shut their doors (or just gone to digital only eg: Line). In that time the label has moved from the UK to Japan, back to the UK and now based in Poland (with a presence in the previous homes). Its quite an achievement to last this long. What propels you to keep going in this ever changing environment ?
Home Normal actually started when I was living in Japan, and I fully restarted the label when we moved to Poland again after a little bit of a break while my wife studied in the UK. Home Normal was founded on the idea of what ‘home’ and ‘normality’ meant and sounded like whilst living in a country other than where I grew up in the UK, so it has always made more sense and been inspired by my experiences living in homes beyond. Without a shadow of a doubt, the move to Poland and my constant contact in Japan (where we are still mostly distributed and based), have kept things fresh and alive in this vein. Music that connects to me deeply and makes wherever I am at that moment ‘home’ is truly inspirational on a spiritual / auditory level.
The other side are the people involved, notably the artists right now. They are all friends, supporters, and we have a bit of a family now with the work we do together. Working on a physical package together really is a joy, and seeing an end product that you can hold in your hands makes all the work worth it. I do understand labels closing or going digital, and we are constantly on the edge really as we don’t break even on most releases. So we produce work very carefully. The simple truth is that certain small things can happen that can deeply impact the funding of a label, and we have to be aware of that. I would never go digital only for Home Normal as it just wouldn’t be worth it at all as it would be too limited and limiting without any physical end product or reason. I love physical formats and that has to be the end of the creative path as it has a permanence to it. And I love the idea that when the digital age passes, when things are lost and forgotten, someone will come across this disc of music they’ve never come across before wherever that may be, and it connects to them as it does to me each and every day. That’s what keeps me going. Discovery.
You have become an in-demand mastering engineer with your credits appearing on numerous releases. As well as running a label and mastering how do you combat listening fatigue?
That’s a really good question. I’ve been doing sound engineering and mastering for 20 years now, so before I started the labels. The labels were in some way a reaction to some of the work I did in the past that was commercial and quite tiring to work on each day. I’m lucky in that I can pick and choose my projects now, and that the label and mastering are not my day to day work. However, I found myself feeling incredibly exhausted listening to almost any music earlier in the year, as if I had finally peaked and my ears couldn’t take anymore. I started meditating and minimising the flow of my life in Warsaw, and when flying (which I do a lot for work) I chose to not listen to music nor watch films, but instead quietly read books or just relax / meditate. That might sound weird, but I learnt how to slow down my life when not switched ‘on’ for the label and engineering works. I now no longer listen to anything outside the studio or my home, no headphones on the go, and I have come to massively enjoy walking slowly and absorbing my surroundings. The listening fatigue I felt kind of saved me really, as I never feel rushed or tired, and I come at music in a fresh way each time as a result. I enjoy the mastering I do so much now as well because of this.
Beyond the music I work on in whatever capacity, I’ve also taken to really enjoying my old records and cassettes again. I listen to mostly old Folkways recordings and old Blues music. The music keeps me connected to something real when I listen to quite a lot of digitised work, and keeps my ears fresh in a way. It sometimes feels like I am giving my ears a sound bath when listening to some crackly old harmonica record for example.
How mindful are you when selecting music to release? Does being aware of musical trends and the sudden influx of music such as the Modern Classical resurgence influence your decision making?
Not at all. If the music has soul, is true and connects, that is all I need. Whilst we are very careful in our scheduling, we’ve released a wider variety of genres than many people seem aware. The one connection to each album is a sense of identity and self; something organic and timeless. Trends are too limited to a certain time, and I have no energy for the modern trend of music artists and labels that seem solely focused on getting on playlists through any means necessary, and ignoring the art they should really be creating with their undoubted talent.
From the outside the label appears to foster a family approach with a regular roster of artists (as well as newer artists) and collaborators such as art and design. How important are the relationships to the success and longevity of the label?
Massively. I wanted the label to release works by new artists, and we’ve tried to keep this up for the past 9 years, I think fairly successfully. But the simply truth is that a label has to have an identity and group of people that keep it going, and financially and energy-wise, you can’t keep releasing new artists. There are so many people who I am personally connected to, so whatever the storm (not many to be honest), we survive and thrive based on this. Jeremy Bible and Christian Roth are still friends who are always there for me, Ben Jones is still my best friend and sounding-board for the label. My friends in Japan always help whenever I need to step away for a bit, and this keeps me sane. Hitoshi Ishihara and Eirik Holmøyvik are amazing photographers and always there to support, constantly appearing on the label. And then the artists…I am in regular contact with people like Stefano Guzzetti, James Murray, Giulio Aldinucci, Danny Norbury, Stijn Huwels, Federico Durand, Moritz Leppers (Altars Altars ) and many more, so it is enjoyable to work on artistic projects with them. It is collaborative and inspiring, and this is so fundamental to running a label I feel, and without this I wouldn’t have carried on far as long as I have.
You have dabbled with vinyl for the Pimmon and Fabio Orsi & Sontag Shogun and Moskitoo releases. Is this a format that we will see more releases on HN?
Sadly not. In Japan we just can’t sell vinyl really, and less people buy it than you’d think outside, no matter what the press say. We put everything into the former release, and only the CD edition we sold ourselves saved the label, as we never received anything for the vinyl sadly. It was just a bit of a nightmare, despite being such an amazing release. We actually had to put the label on hold for a long time just to make up for the losses. The Sontag Shogun and Moskitoo release was a 7″ and was made by the group themselves. We just helped to release it with them really as I’m a big fan of Jeremy Young’s various projects, and even then people didn’t grab it from us, with quite a few people asking why we didn’t put it out on CD. So I’m content in the knowledge that we are set-up as a CD label now, and that seems to be the best thing for us for better or for worse.
I still mostly buy vinyl myself though, and I have been working on a vinyl and cassette label for a few years now which should see light of day later this year. It is only for the odd reissue, and these are mostly just Japanese classics that many people outside Japan might not know. I’m mostly doing this because I want to own the vinyl of these amazing albums, so this is really for my own benefit really!
The Tokyo Droning and Nomadic Kids Republic labels have been quiet for a while. Will we see them revived at some point? 2017 and 2018 has seen you release on the label. Will we see more collaborative releases between yourself and others?
Tokyo Droning was based on using local paper and objects from where we lived in rural Saitama (Japan). The paper company closed down after the Tohoku earthquake so we stopped the label sadly. NKR was always supposed to be limited to a set of ‘polaroid’ style releases which we stopped in 2012. However, whilst TD focused on more experimental sound design, NKR was always intended to release works from various artists we have come across on our travels and lives around the world. We were supposed to re-open NKR last year but have been mapping out the best way to do this with friends in Japan as I don’t have time alongside my own work. Both labels should be re-opening this year as digital labels with the odd physical releases, and these will help to finance the future of the Home Normal physical packages and promotion in turn which is good.
In terms of collaborations, yes we will release more. I had been working on a bunch of collaborations over the years that I stopped working on a couple of years ago due to some personal stuff. After releasing some piano sketches last year in ‘Love Retained’ (my first solo album in 4 years by that point), it somehow cleared a path to return to these great collaborations and I realised just how special they were. It brought me back to music-making after a long hiatus, and I now have some secret projects coming out this year on amazing labels and some really great collaborations on HN and some other labels. The first of these will be my collaborations with Danny Norbury and Giulio Aldinucci respectively. I’m also currently tying up a monolithic work/s with James Murray. Our work together is ongoing now on a daily basis and is a huge surprise in how perfect it is coming together really.
What does the future hold with the decade anniversary not too far away?
A decade…phew. I’ve been asked this a number of times but the simple truth is I can’t think in those terms really as I am just enjoying the day to day creativity of working with friends. We’ve got very special packages coming out by Stefano Guzzetti and Federico Durand in the first half of the year, then a whole series of collaborations featuring Stijn Hüwels, a new Chronovalve, a reissue of my favourite Altars Altars album, a couple of other collaborations between various artist friends…and a lot more going up to 2020 at least. All I can really say is I am so excited to be releasing some truly special, subtle, magical works over the next year before we reach our ten year anniversary. Once we get there, I’ll probably just invite some artists and friends over for a road trip, go to a mountain, climb to the peak, and feel at peace in the quietude of these friendships I’ve made, and the amazing people they are…then climb down the mountain, go home, and start on with the next musical package to send out into the world. That would be a pretty fitting.