by Louise Orchard
I was a precocious child. A C86 fan when my teenybopper contemporaries were into Kylie Minogue and Bananarama (post-Fun Boy Three. The bad years). As time passed, skirts changed to combats, cherry lip balm was swapped out for black mascara and although my tastes in music rapidly expanded, my penchant for majors, shimmering guitars and heart-wrenching melodies remained perfectly intact. So, it’s no surprise that by the early ’90s, I was a Cocteau Twins fan. To this day, I cannot hear Iceblink Luck without stifling sobs as I’m whisked back to my 15-year-old self’s bedroom, adorned with Gustav Klimt posters and overflowing with G.C.S.E. revision notes.
Fast forward 27 years and Simon Raymonde (one of the three members of Cocteau Twins along with Robin Guthrie and chanteuse Liz Frasier) is celebrating his label’s 20th birthday. The indie giant, Bella Union, was created by the band after their less than positive experience of being signed to a major label. This was their attempt to regain control of their art. The tragedy is that Cocteaus wouldn’t survive 6 months beyond the label’s launch. But fortuitously, Simon went on to create a truly alternative stable and one of the finest in UK music history. Creating a global label that is both nuanced, yet hugely appealing is no mean feat.
Two of his earliest signings were Melbourne outfit The Dirty Three and John Grant’s band The Czars. It’s a credit to Simon that he believes in what he signs. John Grant was 42 before he released his first solo record, or saw any kind of major success and it was the Bella Union family that kept him going. I asked the founder to sum up the label’s ethos, “It all stems around having a label that I would like to have been signed to.”
Whizzing through the roster, there is no particular characteristic that ties these groups together, no theme other than Simon Raymonde loves their music and welcomes them into the label’s inner circle (“We no longer sign bands if we don’t like them as people!”). His longstanding love affair with the alternative US scene is clear; Ezra Furman, Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips, Midlake and Fleet Foxes just scratch the surface. And indeed, to date, Fleet Foxes is Bella Union’s biggest selling band. But then there’s the UK and the rest of the world; Baloji, Emmy the Great, Mammut, I Break Horses… it’s an unpredictable, eccentric list of original artists.
Newcastle’s Lanterns On The Lake was one of the first UK bands to sign and has been in the fold ever since. Producer and guitarist, Paul Gregory, is effusive, “They allow their artists to do whatever they feel is the right thing. No meddling, no interference.” He and the rest of Lanterns appreciate the freedom bestowed upon them, “Some of our songs don’t even have choruses!”
Paul produced the debut album by one of Bella Union’s most recent signings, Holly Macve. Golden Eagle dropped in March to a thunder of approval from tastemakers like Lauren Laverne, Cerys Matthews and Steve Lamacq. “She’s a very, very talented person. Just put a microphone in front of her and off she goes…” Holly talks about the experience of recording with Paul with comparable fondness, “It was very chilled-out. We drank lots and lots and lots of tea… it’s a Northern thing.”
So, the label is celebrating in style this year, with anniversary concerts up and down the country. At St George’s, however, we like to do things a little differently and I, personally, am so excited because here the festivities are of a particularly noteworthy affair. To that end, Saturday 14 October sees a complete Bella Union takeover of our gorgeous venue, featuring Lanterns On The Lake with chamber ensemble, plus Holly Macve with full band and head honcho, Simon Raymonde hosting an intimate talk/Q&A ahead of the live music, with a DJ set to close the evening.
I asked him about the line-up, “Sometimes these collaborations in your head are a nice idea, but the reality of getting them on the same bill is incredibly difficult to arrange. It just becomes a logistical nightmare. But in this situation, it’s been just perfect.”
On the night, there will also be an exhibition of Bella Union artwork from across its 20-year history and there will be an extended merchandise point for all the nerding-out one can muster! And Mr Raymonde puts it more succinctly than I ever could, “It’s a beautiful event, both musically and aesthetically. It works on so many levels.”
plus Simon Raymonde Q&A + DJ Set
Saturday 14 October, 7.30pm
£16, £5 Students/U18s (limited availability) (plus fees)
Earlybird offer: £14 (plus fees) if booked by midnight on 31 August