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Secretly Canadian

Interview by Katie Gregory
With a roster that includes Antony and the Johnsons, Yeasayer, and War on Drugs, there's nothing really secret (or Canadian) about this label. Co-founder Chris Swanson fills us in on its 16 year history.

What prompted you to start the Secretly Canadian label?

In '96 my friends and I were all involved in college radio in Bloomington. We were all big music fans and we were trying to find a way to get more directly involved with the process of music rather than starting bands ourselves. After being involved with shows and the radio, it seemed like the record label was the most obvious thing to do.

Do you think it would be harder to start a label now since so much music is digitally released, or would that make it easier?

Oh, I think way easier. Not to dismiss how much work goes into new labels, but now you can run an international press campaign right from the computer, whereas we were calling people and sending letters and CDs back in the late '90s.

What do you look for in bands that you want to add to the Secretly Canadian portfolio?

We're attracted to bands that are operating in the now and very of the moment, while also having that balance with a real timelessness. There's a tension in that but I think somewhere in that dynamic there's a distinctive artistic voice. And good songs. That'll do it.

What has been a highlight for you since starting Secretly Canadian?

I think an early really exciting moment was in 2005 when Antony and the Johnsons won the Barclaycard Mercury Prize. That was an exhilarating moment that we never saw happening. He was nominated and that was exciting, but we thought somebody much bigger would end up winning.

What's an average day in the life of Chris Swanson?

A lot of email. I feel like an email jockey. A lot of email and conference calls. But I listen to music all day. I wake up in the morning and I've got music playing at my bedside, then I turn on my turntable and go downstairs, and I get to work and have music playing all the time. I'd be playing music right now if we weren't recording. Just a lot of listening to music, phone calls and email. When I'm on the road there's a lot of hanging out with bands.

How has that differed from what you did when you first started the label?

The sheer quantity of electronic data is uncanny. We have a much bigger team now so I'm not on the front lines as much as I was early on which is different and I love it. We've got a great team here at the label. Early on, the thrill was in the relationship you have with the artist and that's still there, but now there's also a thrill in working with coworkers—really smart, savvy people.

When you start a company you have no idea how long it's going to last. When did you realize that the label was here to stay?

Pretty early, 1999. We started the label in 1996 but 1999 was when we got serious about our distribution company and production company. When we did that and hired our first employee in '99 that felt pretty grown up. It was like, "Okay, we're doing this." We quit our jobs and started doing it.

What are some releases you have coming up in the next year that you'd love to share with everyone?

We've got a debut artist called Cayukas based out of Southern California who we've just started introducing to the world. Kind of beachy pop music. It's pretty special. We've got a new artist Dungeonesse which is Jenn, from Wye Oak. That's her new project, which is also very exciting.

What albums do you think are essential to the Secretly Canadian canon?

Antony and the Johnsons' I Am A Bird Now. Also, this one's a dark horse because not many people have heard it, but an Indiana based group called Marmoset's Record In Red. Whenever someone says "surprise me" that's the record I give them.

What are the best things about Bloomington, Indiana, where your offices are based?

It feels like it's a cultural island; it's just the most progressive town in an otherwise very red state. You get a lot of rad, weird, interesting people—it's a great community. We just fell for it.

We have to ask: What percent Canadian are you and why is it so secret?

None. My brother and I (my partner) grew up in Fargo, so just south of the border but close enough where there's a real affinity and good window into Canada.