What is the Footfalls Records story? How did the label get its start, and how long has it been around?
We released Footfalls 001—the Tashi Dorji/Marisa Anderson split—in November 2015, but our plans for the label date back to 2013. I had recently finished my PhD qualifying exams and was reading tons of books and articles on the history of sound recording technologies in preparation for my dissertation. I had become really obsessed with the material production of tangible musical artifacts, and I wanted to do something with that beyond my studies. It seemed pretty natural for us: James and I both love music. I mean, it defines our lives in so many ways and is how we got together in the first place. We thought it would be nice to have the freedom to say “You know what would be a killer record? If ______ and _______ got together.” And once we decided to do it, the follow-through was easy. We’ve both been working in the music industry in some capacity for nearly two decades, and we already had a network in place to get started: we knew a lot of musicians, distros, and PR people, and there was a record pressing plant an hour away from our house in Kentucky. The hardest part was deciding what the first release should be!
You identify yourself as a Northern Kentucky label. Where are you located specifically, and what effects do your surroundings have on your aesthetic as a label?
Are we still a Northern Kentucky label? We should really change that on the website—ha! We were in Lexington, Kentucky, but we’ve been in Richmond, VA for about 10 months now. But yeah, I would say that our surroundings were pretty important in the beginning. Lexington is not a big city, but it is centrally located, being about 80 miles from Louisville, 83 miles from Cincinnati, and 375 miles from Chicago. It’s a natural tour route for many bands, so we were always seeing friends from all over the US and western Europe play in town. Lexington also has a very inspiring local scene with lots of talented musicians. So if nothing else, we were endlessly immersed in a rich blend of music running the gamut from bluegrass to plugged-in rock to fiery free jazz. The eclecticism of the scene certainly inspired our interests. But the first musical event we attended after moving to Richmond consisted of a trio featuring a throat singer, a trombonist, and a percussionist getting a lovely sound from bouncing a rubber ball around the room. Inspiration is everywhere, huh?
Footfalls just released And the Birds Flew Overhead by Elysse Thebner and Mary Lattimore. You say on your website that the idea for this record was born at the Three Lobed Sweet 16 show in Raleigh last year. Is the album an actual live recording of that performance? What steps were involved in the process to get from that performance to the vinyl release?
We were lucky in that NYC Taper recorded the show, so we were able to procure the master directly from them. Their meticulous attention to detail is well known among tape traders, so we knew the recording would be perfect. Our mastering guy Patrick Klem made some additional adjustments for the vinyl transfer that just made it sparkle. What you hear is more or less the performance as it went down, live, with a few tweaks here and there.
I was there for the Sweet 16 show last year and was blown away by all the artists who performed. Any one of them could have warranted a record. Of all the great musicians that day, how did you decide that Elysse and Mary were the ones for the next Footfalls release?
James and I had been trying to determine what Footfalls 002 was going to be and finally decided to table the discussion because there are so many wonderful artists out there and very little time to hear them all. James was at the Sweet 16 show, and I was at home in Kentucky listening over WXDU. When Elysse and Mary began playing, I had to stop what I was doing and listen to it; it was THAT good.
But also, as a woman working in two industries—academia and music—that, let’s be honest, favor men, I feel compelled to do what I can to show the world that inspiring women are out there making challenging and/or interesting music, and Elysse and Mary (and Marisa, for that matter), are damned impressive and inspiring. I also like to think of both Footfalls releases as tiny but important cultural narratives we’ve injected into the so-called mainstream: there are boardroom-conceived commercial hits, but there are also less commercial, driven artistic explorations that push boundaries and challenge listeners. Obviously we’ll never attain the former, but I like to think of the latter as a slight displacement, like a tiny but palpable earthquake that shakes things up a little. I think it’s essential to provide exposure to a full range of artistic endeavors, not just those that rake in big bucks. As unfashionable as it may be, I see a difference between art and entertainment. I like being entertained, but art is what sustains me in many ways, and I would imagine James agrees.
The first record from Footfalls was a collaboration between Tashi Dorji and Marisa Anderson. How does And the Birds Flew Overhead complement that first release? Do you look at the two records as independent releases, or do you have more of a portfolio approach?
I think we’ve lucked upon some degree of thematic unity, given the visual aesthetic of the label, as well as the idea of the “duo,” whether in collaboration or in the sharing of sides of an LP. James is really into labels with strong visual identities—ECM, Impulse!, Windham Hill—so that probably influenced to some degree the idea of having consistent look. But mostly these things were happy accidents. Our art director Scott Caligan seems to “get” our aesthetic without us having to really tell him anything; he’s crucial to the visual aesthetic of Footfalls. The aesthetic is also artist driven: Marisa picked out the image on the cover of the split she did with Tashi, and Elysse chose an old family photo as the image for the Elysse/Mary LP.
It looks like the Dorji/Anderson record sold out. Do you plan to do another pressing?
No. Once a Footfalls LP sells out of its initial run, total ownership of the music reverts back to the artists, who can then sell the music digitally in perpetuity. This seems only fair; we are not interested in owning masters or back catalogues. We view ourselves as intermediaries, just raising awareness of the music. Ideally, we will sell enough copies of any given LP to allow us to continue releasing records. It is absolutely a ‘hand to mouth’ operation, though, which is also the reason we can’t release all the things we would like to. We regularly get some really terrific demos.
You mention on your website that one goal of Footfalls is to create a home for artists making avant garde music. At the same time, another goal is to "remind modern listeners" that music is meant to be "populist." I love that you strive to do both, but it seems that those goals could often be at odds with one another. How do you achieve both objectives?
Great question! I’m going to have to show my roots as a literary modernist to answer it. I like to trace the avant garde back to the Italian Futurists, who shook up the art world in the early twentieth century by saying, basically, “down with Bach and Beethoven; let’s go out into the streets to find the music that defines our century!” And they shook things up, for sure, and there are a lot of problems with some of what they were saying, but it was nothing if not populist. Luigi Russolo made all these crazy instruments to sound like car horns and airplane motors, and he put them in the concert hall. It is both populist and radical to say that the cab driver out in the street—having had no musical training whatsoever—is a better musician than a learned pianist.
Also, let’s say you invited Tashi Dorji to share his music with a classroom full of second graders. The kids would be psyched because they wouldn’t have enough life experience to identify what he was playing as “strange” or “weird.” Our sense of what’s normal is conditioned by life experience, and at some point we’ve started cordoning off the so-called experimental from the normal. What if Matana Roberts opened for Beyonce, or some kids performed a Beckett play in the town square? I mean, John Cage was on a game show in 1960.
Other than And the Birds Flew Overhead, what other records (new or old) are you psyched about these days?
I’m cautiously optimistic about the new Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham record, for starters, and we’ve been listening to Daniel Lanois’s album Belladonna a lot. My work commute is pretty long, so I’ve also been catching up on some classics: lots of Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen, Public Enemy, Joni Mitchell, Kraftwerk, Stooges, Neurosis, Beefheart, you name it! I’ve been particularly obsessed with Mississippi John Hurt’s album Today! I could probably sing the whole thing to you from memory by now—ha! A very smart and savvy student recently got me into Max Richter’s homage to Virginia Woolf (Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works), and the new Six Organs of Admittance (Burning the Threshold) has gotten constant play around the house.