From time to time I like to shine light on labels and the people that run them. I am intrigued about their histories, inspiration and what their futures might bring. Ahead of the release of his new album “Falling Backwards” on Home Normal on September 14, this installment is with James Murray of Slowcraft Records. Slowcraft have been around since 2011 taking their time to slowly build a curated catalog. Centering around James and his wife Anne Garner, they have adding other artists to the label. This year alone has seen albums from Alapastel, Anne Garner and Neotropic released. Thanks to James for taking the time to answer my questions.
Slowcraft Records started in 2011. What was your intention in starting the label? Was it primarily to release your own music? Is there an underlying philosophy?
In 2010 we were talking to one of the big UK independent labels about releasing Anne Garner’s Trusting a Twirled World, a short, beautiful album we’d been working on together since meeting in 2006. In the end they suggested we self-release, build a buzz and come back to them for the next record. Starting a label had forever been at the back of my mind and the timing felt right, I guess that was the push I needed. The album was such a labour of love and the desire to tend and present it well, the best of all motivations, was there in abundance.
About a year later I was working on my second solo album for another label when the material took an unexpected shift from ambient techno deep into minimal, electroacoustic territory. The penny dropped that I had in fact already established the perfect platform to release my own music as well, entirely on my own terms. That record was Floods, the first of five solo albums I’ve published on my own label to date. Since then Slowcraft has been home to almost exclusively my work and Anne’s, introducing other artists’ in earnest only as recently as this year’s Slowcraft Presents series.
If there’s a philosophy it’s in the name: tread slow craft with care. In the beginning every aspect of every release was conceived and executed in-house and those who know me know I never rush any stage of a creative project. Each minute of recorded music on Trusting a Twirled World took over a month to produce and every sleeve over thirty minutes to build, which is pretty standard for our packaging even now. I’m still very meticulous and detail orientated, and although I now outsource things like mastering, printing, and have opened the door to productions other than my own, there’s still a careful, attentive and quietly unhurried sense of focus at the heart of the label.
How important to the overall aesthetic is the hand-made aspect of the releases?
The presentation and packaging are crucial. If I had everything professionally printed it just wouldn’t be the same label and I don’t think our followers would get nearly as excited about each upcoming release. I’ve tried variations: Lost Play was fully printed, the Tetherdown album was printed but hand assembled and I made two versions of Heavenly Waters, one with a fully handcrafted sleeve and the other a kind of hybrid. No prizes for guessing which edition sold best. Every project is different so it’s important to be flexible but ultimately we’re all about beautiful physical editions that satisfy as objects in themselves but are never so elaborate that they risk distracting from the music.
How has the scene in which you and label inhabit changed since the beginning – for better or for worse?
Artists and labels are making significant contributions all the time, established figures and new blood coming in, all pushing the dialogue forwards and raising the quality of expression ever higher. The minimal scene has been in a kind of slow motion explosion for a long while now, it feels like there’s more cross-pollination, collaboration and wider cultural appreciation than ever. It’s everywhere, in the mainstream too – especially via film and television – whether people consciously realise it or not. I’m not sure there are many genres that have enjoyed such a vibrant, buoyant time of it as minimal music and its siblings have in recent years.
It’s common knowledge there’s an unstoppable tide of dross being released too. No scene is immune to that. It’s become so easy to release music nowadays compared to how prohibitively difficult it was just a decade ago. Material that would have quite rightly been passed over by A&R or sat on a hard drive or spool of tape awaiting refinement now saturates the market in all genres, particularly on digital platforms.
Competing for exposure in that climate can be frustrating, especially when you consider that the Slowcraft artists spent nine, three and eight years respectively creating the music for our last three releases. But it is what it is, the same developments that made it possible for me to set up the label eight years ago have fuelled this superabundance of content and the fact that the signal-to-noise ratio tends increasingly off-kilter is a reality we just have to deal with. The way the industry as a whole has evolved, or perhaps failed to, makes it harder and harder for deserving artists to find their audience let alone be appropriately remunerated. And it’s increasingly difficult to sift through the constant stream of releases, for the casual listener and established press alike. The challenge then is to find, celebrate and draw attention to artists whose work meaningfully contributes to our understanding and appreciation of what it’s like to navigate the human condition. Which is why I believe curation in the shape of labels and music journalism is even more important now than ever.
Other than yourself, the artist that appears mostly on Slowcraft is Anne Garner. What is your relationship with Anne Garner? Is it Producer, Label boss or Co-creative?
All three of those and husband, first and foremost. Working creatively with your partner is a delicate and risky business, massively rewarding but the deeper the personal relationship the higher the stakes. Any friction and frustration generated by the project is much more likely to spill over into the relationship than it would in a strictly professional context, as anyone in a similar position will know well. And tensions inevitably do run high when you entrust your most intimate creative ideas to another, particularly in the early stages when compositions are raw or untried, or after months of work when the damn thing still doesn’t sound right no matter what you do. When you live and work in the same space, when you’re both dedicated to music – to the same music – it’s a beautiful thing and at the same time a fast track to being either inseparable or separated. Thankfully we’ve been doing this long enough now, and have enough shared, co-operative experience to have developed and maintained a strong and playful working relationship.
You have appeared on Eilean Rec, Home Normal and Ultimae labels. Working with these labels have they influenced your own curation of Slowcraft or inspired different approaches?
I’ve worked with a few other labels besides those and there’s been a real spectrum of experiences. Some have been very hands-on, others have released work as is without question. Some favour elaborate presentation, others like to keep it simple. Some dig into promotion and really know how to court their following, others just put it out and move onto the next release. I guess the important thing to understand is that most are run by one person and the label personality often reflects that of the individual, so it’s really a direct one-on-one relationship and should be approached in that way. I mostly work with friends so there’s usually a healthy thread of fun running through the whole process, but everyone needs to be professional and on top of their side or things can tire quickly. So, as with many things, it’s a balance. I try to treat artists, and supporters for that matter, as I would like to be treated as an artist and supporter myself, and in that sense I’ve learned something from every label I’ve worked with in the past. I hope and expect to learn more from those I work with in the future too.
Can you give us a peek into what the future holds?
Around the time of publishing this interview my new album Falling Backwards will be issued on Ian Hawgood’s Home Normal label. There are two more Slowcraft Presents releases scheduled for the end of this year going into next. Anne Garner’s next album is underway and I’ve another full-length coming soon on Fluid Audio and a number of other solo and collaboration projects approaching fruition. 2019 should be a big year.
SR01 – Anne Garner “Trusting A Twirled World” CD-R/Digital
SR02 – James Murray “Floods” CD-R/Digital
SR03 – Anne Garner “Trusting A Twirled World (Instrumentals)” Digital
SR04 – James Murray “The Land Bridge” CD/Digital
SR05 – James Murray “Land View” CD/Digital
SR06 – Anne Garner “Be Life” CD/Digital
SR07 – Tetherdown “First Flight” CD/Digital
SR08 – Anne Garner “Be Life Relived” Digital
SR09 – James Murray “Floods Returned” CD/Digital
SR10 – James Murray “Heavenly Waters” CD/Digital
SR11 – James Murray “Live at Fluister” Digital
SR12 – Alapastel “Hidden For The Eyes” CD/Digital
SR13S – Neotropic “Your War (+Azamat’s Trilogy Remix)” Digital
SR13 – Neotropic “The Absolute Elsewhere” CD/Digital
SR14S – Anne Garner “Not Home (+ Porya Hatami Remix)” Digital
SR14 – Anne Garner “Lost Play” CD /Digital
You can find out more via Slowcraft.