ACL 2021 ~ The Year’s Best Labels

Lawrence English’s Room40 has landed an amazing five releases on our year-end charts, spread across three genres.  The Australian imprint is our Label of the Year, followed by Temporary Residence and PAN, who each land three.  All three labels are new to this year-end feature!

By any barometer, Room40 has had a stellar year, releasing dozens of albums in the midst of a global pandemic.  Now well into its third decade, the label (which is also home to Something Good and A Guide to Saints) continues to be a leader in forward-thinking music, willing to take risks in order to expand musical horizons.  Ambient, drone, electronic, experimental and field recordings all feature strongly on the site, represented well by English himself, who somehow still finds the time to record his own productions.  We reviewed over half a dozen Room40 releases in 2021, but it didn’t feel like enough; there was always another fantastic release right around the corner.  We introduced a dozen in our Fall Music Preview, and more kept coming; in fact, the label has already announced a slew of releases for 2022, proving that it is on top of its game.

On a personal note, I can attest to the fact that orders often arrive before release date, even if ordered from the other side of the world.  The first Room40 album I can recall purchasing was English’s own Transit, the latest the new meditation from Ian Wellman.  As for favorites, the compilation On Isolation stands out as prescient, arriving eight years before the pandemic; Thembi Sodell’s Love Songs is a standout, as well as (no spoilers!) some of 2021’s releases.  The label has a soft spot not only for winter music, but for music that recognizes the seasons with gentle grace.  Nature is a continuing theme.  And while much of the music is on the quiet side, some new releases veer all the way to distortion, proving that there’s no predicting the Room40 sound.  Congratulations to the entire 2021 roster and to Lawrence English for running the finest record label around!


Congratulations on being named ACL’s Label of the Year!  My first question is simple: somehow in the middle of a pandemic, you kicked your label into high gear, with more releases in a short period of time than we can ever recall.  At the same time, you continued to release recordings of your own.  How in the world did you do this?

Honestly, the very simple answer is not touring.

I like to say almost everything is a gift, I talk about that a bit in the Young Person’s Guide To Hustling In Music And The arts, and what this pandemic has given me is one location to be in, and time to really dedicate to the work of others. As much as I have enjoyed performance and travelling over the past decade, that approach to life isn’t exactly conducive to getting a lot done.

For a while there, in the earlier days of touring, I would try to bring work along to do – music or something else that would be a gesture towards ‘productivity’. The thing I realised about that was it always felt stilted and was at time frustrating. More importantly it also took away from being somewhere, in the moment. It was as if I was existing some other place to where I was, trying to service something from there and not actually be attentive to what was around me. At some point I had to be honest with myself and say that touring is a process of being present to the moments as they present themselves, and to being flexible and open to whatever might unfold.

It’s also a time where I see my friends and the social aspect of travel has been so very important for me. So many of my dearest friends are not in Australia and I have missed them a great deal this past couple of years. If you’re reading this dear friends, know I think of you often.

Is there a 2021 release of which you are most proud, and why?  Is there one in the entire Room40 discography of which you are most proud to have released?

That’s an impossibly brutal question haha! I think the simple answer is probably no, but in saying that so many of the releases have very personal and deep connections for me. Aki Onda’s cassette from this year was uncovered when I was looking for old interviews I had done in the late 1990s with Blues folks like R.L. Burnside, in the process of searching for them I found that recording, and a number of others.

Working with Hyunhye Seo on her debut was another very personal project, I think there’s a huge responsibility to people’s vision when you sign on to assist them in realising work. That role a producer plays can really operate in two directions and my preference is to empower artists to reach the ideas they have in their mind’s ear and for them to be fearless in that pursuit. Being able to support artists like Tim Barnes through his duet editions with Jeph Jerman was also something I felt strongly about during the year. That kind of communal energy that comes to the fore when people need each other is something I really try to champion.

On a personal note the two CD/Book editions I realised – A Mirror Holds and Sky and Breathing Spirit Forms with Akio Suzuki and David Toop were completely satisfying projects. Both of them needed time to be realised and this period of the pandemic really helped to unlock them and firm them into something that I felt spoke to the experiences of how, and where, the pieces were realised. The book that David and Akio contributed too I know will be something I treasure going forward in my life. Memories of a time and a place realised through someone else’s sensing of shared moments. It’s rare and generous gift I suppose.

Microsound, nature and the seasons have always featured strongly in Room40 releases.  What other themes are you attracted to, and what makes a release stand out to you to the extent that you publish a composer’s work?

When I started Room40, part of the reason I settled on that name was recognising what that facility at Bletchley Park represented in some way. Room40 was a code breaking facility, but what made it remarkable is who it brought together to break those codes. It didn’t just have scientists or linguists, but it also involved bakers, crossword puzzlers and other esoteric folks. It asked each of them to meditate on the same questions and problems and through doing that created this wonderful mesh of perspectives that ultimately unlocked the enigma code.

As a label curator, what attracts me to people’s work is an over-riding sense of their voice interrogating a relationship with sound and music. I hope that as we keep working together, the label and the artists, that I can provide a space for them where they can deepen those approaches and further develop the questions they want to ask of the work they do.

What were your hopes and dreams when you founded the label?  Did you ever expect to achieve such success and longevity?

When Room40 started in 2000, it rose out of the ashes of another label I had been working on and its arrival spoke to some shifts that were going on with me at that time. The label originally set out to support work from artists I felt were not necessarily finding ways in which they could have their music made available. People like Zane Trow, to whom I am forever grateful for getting me started as a curator and organiser more generally, were part of that early waves of artists and in recent years he has had an amazing return to form.

The label was also about making connections between communities. Back then, as hard as it might be to imagine now, Australia and especially Brisbane felt a long way away. But through reaching out to folks like Scanner, David Shea, DJ Olive and David Toop in the early years, their support and encouragement really galvanised my determination to work on Room40 and to make it meaningful to other people. There support was instrumental and without it I do wonder what might have come of this undertaking.

In terms of the success and longevity, I appreciate you think of the label as successful. Strangely from the inside looking out I don’t necessarily see that, or at least that’s not how I think about the label an an entity. If I am honest the label has been and continues to be a labour of love and I think the day to day actions and requirements keep me from dwelling too much on success or failure. I still do almost everything for the label, if you order an LP from us, I’ll have packed that for you, I create the production masters for the LPs and CDs, and I do all of the back end tasks that need doing. I’d like to think my relationship to the label is functional and driven by the needs of the folks we are working with. It’s a friends and family label and I am very dedicated to those people we have the opportunity to support.

What is your favorite instrumental release of 2021 that is not on your label?

Yikes….that’s also a tough one….this past month I have really enjoyed these gems:

Giuseppe Ielasi ~ its appearance, reflected by three copies (901 Editions)
Hiro Kone ~ Silvercoat the Throng (Dais)
loscil ~ LUX Refractions (Hemlock Printers)
Annea Lockwood ~ Becoming Air (Black Truffle)
jim o’rourke ~ steamroom 57 (Steamroom)
amby downs ~ liminal (Self-Released)

Tell us a bit about your plans for 2022 ~ we see you already have a wide array of releases up for pre-order!

Yes, I am excited for 2022. I don’t think I’ll be touring for a while yet, partly because I need to finish off a new record that picks up where Cruel Optimism left off. I am a bit overdue for that and I am thinking I might have to make some time to work on that and perhaps slow the schedule of releases just a bit.

There’s a lot of amazing projects that are brewing away. I had the pleasure to work with the Saint Abdullah folks this year and that work they have created is just so utterly beautiful. I have also been working with Lydian Dunbar from Tralala Blip, helping him to realise some amazing new abstract work he’s been toying around with. There’s some really massive projects resolving just now too, with new works from Zimoun, a colossal archival project from Phauss, a publication from Jace Clayton (aka DJ/rupture), the re-issue project of Steve Roden’s in-between noise works and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The year is already super dense and exciting.

Once again, thanks and congratulations!

Thanks to you for the interest and support! If I can take this moment to just thank all the amazing folks who are part of this label…I owe so much to people like John Chantler and Steve Alexander who were so important when this project started out. In recent years nothing would have been possible without the amazing work of Traianos Pakioufakis who does so much design for the label and Ed at Dense who is such a treasure. Also I wanted to thank all the folks who support us and listen to the work. Without them this past few years would have been so utterly testing, I feel lucky to have been in touch with some many people who have found solace in the music we champion. Thanks all, the generosity and interest is deeply appreciated.

Honorable Mentions

Temporary Residence Ltd.
We only reviewed one out of twenty submissions we received in 2021, but we reviewed almost everything released by Brooklyn’s Temporary Residence Ltd.  How can this be?  It’s easy: the label has amassed an incredible stable of flagship artists, who are prone to release spectacular albums.  Many of these land in post-rock, but the label is also home to pianist Bruno Bavota, ambient artist Eluvium, and many others who buck the trend.  The A.A. Milne thank you that arrives with every physical purchase is another endearing factor.  Now an amazing 25 years into its existence, the label continues to go from strength to strength, and with a roster so strong (and still expanding) we continue to look forward to everything they release.  The label’s free 2021 sampler is below!

With a high proportion of female and experimental artists, Berlin’s PAN is both culturally awake and forward thinking.  The label’s music leans strongly toward the electronic realm, but the type of electronic music it releases is consistently original, intricate, and in most cases, dark.  This year we reviewed PAN releases in three genres, demonstrating the diversity of the label.  Freshly into their second decade, they have become a force to be reckoned with: the sort of label that forces others to listen in order to gauge what’s next; but by then, PAN has moved on.  2022 is already looking bright, as evidenced by the first single from new signee Marina Herlop, streaming below.

Richard Allen

One comment

  1. Pingback: 2021 Best of Lists from Around the Web: Part IV – Avant Music News

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