Singing Knives. Label Spotlight: Freedom, Revolt, and Love
I have been following the Singing Knives label, with a fervent eagerness over each new release, since I first picked up an LP in the shape of Stephanie Hladowski's "The High High Nest". Each recording since has traversed continents of inspiration and topography of familiar, yet distinctly idiosyncratic properties. Recently Pekko Kappi's LP stirred an insane resonance I hadn't felt since first hearing Ghédalia Tazartès's "Check Point Charlie" record. The gathering storm of UK musicians found a home in Sheffield, that culminated in a throng of wonderment at Singing Knives All Day Event, seemingly many moons ago. For me the label has both inspired, moved and given me a chance to meet and liaise with interesting and dynamic people. It also does that wonderful thing, like Nyoukis's Chocolate Monk label; it's like a personal aid, searching the planet for essential noises.
We started it in 2005 for the simple reason that we wanted to be able to have music publicly available that we were either involved in and/or passionate about that could exist outside of the whims, machinations and overwhelming cynicism of commercial enterprise.
It's a poem by Frank Stanford, a writer from one of the southern states of the USA. He shot himself three times through the heart just before his 30th birthday. He's not massively important to us or significant to the label but we were quite enjoying a few of his poems at the time we were starting the label and looking for a name and it had the obvious reference to music and also the city we had recently moved to, Sheffield - the Steel City, which which, for the best part of the last thousand years, had been world famous for making knives.
Incredible artists like Pekko Kappi, Dylan Nyoukis and, most recently, Mama Baer. Although I guess those three would still get records out and widely available if Singing Knives didn't exist. So maybe people like Shiggajon and Alberorovesciato. Amazing bands making a handful of cassettes, seemingly unbeknown to the width of the world that deserved to hear them. However, we do have ongoing issues with the process of what we're doing. Overall we financially break about even with all our activities so we've no real ethical hangups about being a commercial enterprise but there are other issues of conscience to contend with, ecology for example...
All pervading cultural homogenisation, media monopoly of big business, a public trained to be uninquisitive and passive consumers, the fact that most individuals that have done their best to step outside of this circus ring haven't the monthly pay cheque to support an independent label however much they might like to. Oh and the ongoing cynical privatisation of the British postal system.
An ear, heart and gut for bringing arresting sounds together in original and engaging shapes. Some humanity is important too, but without any fucking melodrama. A distinctive aesthetic and possibly, superficial as it may seem, a good name. There's also the ongoing association to folk forms that gets brought up all the time, in reference to both Singing Knives and our band The Hunter Gracchus, generally in a vague and inconclusive manner. Often the point is made that there is a degree of artifice in our relationship to and use of traditional forms, which we are more than happy to concede. However, I currently see a far greater degree of contrivance and hypocrisy in those musicians who closely mimic the folk revival of their parents or grandparents generation and think they are in the slipstream of some rich and unbroken tradition that goes back for centuries and defines our national identity. I am far more interested in people that play with the form, allow it to grow and develop like all truly living things do, than people hung up on conservative and ultimately false notions of authenticity. Music for us is a form of genuine and individual exploration and expression.
I think we're working with exactly the people we want to. We're thinking of having a World Music branch to the label but we're just assessing what that means in these neo-liberal/globalised times. I'm just about to read a book called Ethnicity, Inc. which is supposed to be an analysis of the rampant modern-day commodification of human identity. Should be a hoot.
We always ask the artist to provide the artwork. I guess most labels do as they're aware that doing so conveys the aesthetic of the artist more resolutely. Publishing houses should do the same thing with living writers. I either want a blank covered book or to see what James Kelman wants people to hold in their hands, not some designer spectacle wearing knob-shank with a degree in Graphic Design and a remit to make the book look like a box of chocolates.
We don't have one. It's all pretty erratic and serendipitous. We're pretty disorganised people so we don't suit being so busy with the day jobs (currently mental nursing and teaching), our own music making with The Hunter Gracchus or solo projects and social/family commitments. Singing Knives is run in the cracks between those things so, for example, the demos we're regularly sent might disappear upon arrival and turn up three months later in the car boot whilst we're off playing a gig somewhere and we end up discovering the treasures on the cdr during the nightime drive back home. Ultimately though we're extremely fucking exacting and on a very tight budget so people shouldn't be disappointed when we don't want to release something they're really proud of. What the fuck do we know anyway?
An lp by Kamran (Harappian Night Recordings) and one by Fiona (Blue Yodel). Both are incredible and nobody has heard them yet other than the three of us. I guess I should pull my finger out and try and make one myself though they've set the bar pretty high and there currently don't seem to be enough hours in the day.
This is going to seem outrageously fucking nepotistic but it is honestly the album Fiona just put together.
At this time of night I can't beat William Burroughs' line - 'Be just and if you can't be just, be arbitrary'.
-- Peter Taylor (3 March, 2010)