Simon Raymonde

Bella Union

Bella Union is an independent record label that was started in 1997 by a successful group of musicians who had become disenfranchised by the monopoly of record labels over their artists. The musicians of this story were an extremely talented trio called the Cocteau Twins. Eventually they broke up but what remained is the progressive Bella Union label, led by Simon Raymonde, former bass player, writer and arranger for the Cocteau Twins.

Prior to the digital age and the boom of the internet, the choice of what album to purchase was based on radio listening, written music reviews, and the visual effect that an album sleeve could have in catching the eye of a possible listener.

The artwork of an album cover always played a big role as a treat before the enjoyment of the songs, and created the opportunity for listeners to engage with music on a visual level. Today, streaming with Spotify, YouTube and Sound Cloud has changed the role of cover artwork in the world of music. We speak with Simon about the internet age in the music business and to discover what drives the artwork behind his label, while taking  a peek (and a listen, in some cases) at some of the historic covers of Bella Union.

If we can help an artist relax and forget about the unimportant stuff we feel sure they’ll blossom here.

On a deeper and more profound level we are, when needed, people who nurture, cajole, encourage and support our artists in their development.

We are big fans of Bella Union and the talent that you guys have nurtured over the years, could you give us a small explanation of what Bella Union is, in its practices and philosophy?

I guess it’s more like a sanctuary than a record label at times! Being in a band in 2015 is both exhilarating and terrifying. It certainly sorts the wheat from the chaff. I suppose on the surface we are doing what all record labels do, putting out new music and trying to get it to the public’s attention. On a deeper and more profound level we are, when needed, people who nurture, cajole, encourage and support our artists in their development. We believe in them all & we yet don’t expect them all to grow at the same rate. The rest of our philosophy if there is one is about being real and honest with them. I may now be “the boss” but basically I’m just like them, or rather I HAVE been – a confused uncertain musician who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on at times. If we can help an artist relax and forget about the unimportant stuff we feel sure they’ll blossom here. Ultimately we care about our bands and within our limited resources aim to help them achieve what they want.

Does Bella Union have a say on the choice of the artwork for the album covers? Os it a process that is left for the band to take care of?

In many cases ideas of artwork come directly from the bands, I think many Bella Union bands have quite a clear idea of what they want to achieve with artwork, and I also believe this is when things work best.

What is the connection between art – which could be a cover artwork, a music video, nowadays the design of a website – and music? Do you believe images help the listener get closer to the meaning of an album or a song?

It’s an interesting question and i don’t feel there’s one satisfactory answer as every Artist will look at things differently but I think there is a growing importance in the visual aids connected to our music & that isn’t always helping.

Vaughan Oliver designed some of the most influential record sleeves in music history, some of which were made for the Cocteau Twins and for This Mortal Coil … was Simon involved in their making?

Yes of course. We all took a very active role in the visual side of the band, giving our opinions and while V23 did some CT sleeves they didn’t do them all. Genius though he is, we didn’t always see eye to eye with the direction he was pushing for. For Blue Bell Knoll, HOLV onwards we probably had far more creative input as we CHOSE the designers rather than having the director chosen for us but regardless Vaughan Oliver’s vision WAS the signature card for 4AD and has had more influence on graphic design in publishing (books as well as records) than any artist since Peter Saville.

I don’t think many artists write the song for the video that follows. They write their song and then someone generally unknown to the band writes a video treatment maybe wholly unaware of the true meaning of the song. If you don’t care how people come to your music or what they take from it, I’m sure a powerful visual no matter what relevance it has to the song itself, can provide a huge feedback and acknowledgement of the song, to those watching it enhances the experience. For other artists, someone else’s narrative to their song may be too much to bear and that’s probably when you end up with a performance video, the artist unwilling to marry his particular story to another’s interpretation.

As far as artwork goes, unless we are talking major label acts who may not even get to approve their own art, generally bands will curate the front cover art closely, with an art director or their label and it is here you may find more relevant clues as to some of themes behind the music. Or not. Because this isn’t an exact science. I’m sure some artists are only too grateful for the visual imagery someone else has unwittingly given their dull, drab band to help them create an identity, a personality they hitherto didn’t have!

I guess it’s more like a sanctuary than a record label at times! Being in a band in 2015 is both exhilarating and terrifying

Did the record sleeves that were made for the Cocteau Twins by Vaughan have any influence on the aesthetic choices of Bella Union’s covers?

No certainly not consciously! Although he has designed several sleeves FOR Bella Union, including my own band’s album – SNOWBIRD “moon” (2013). I think BU’s art echoes nicely the diversity of the music we sign.

Do you feel that the internet, the fact that any record could be streamed before seeing the album in a record store, has ruined the beauty of an album cover, with it not really acting as the ‘cover’ anymore, the first thing that one is meant to see before listening to the music?

No quite the contrary I think for a lot of people like me, who collect vinyl, the importance of cover art has returned in a big way. For years with the cd, the whole miniaturisation of art and info, certainly for those like me old enough to have been spoilt by the size of LP covers in our youth, rendered it less an art form and more just a plastic box to keep the cd in. Reading lyrics in a cd book? Come on.

Now with the resurgence of vinyl so we see awards popping up from companies like Art Vinyl etc and that can only be a good thing for all artist, visual or musical. 

To me a soundcloud link to listen to a track before it’s out is not greatly different to hearing the record on the radio or having a pre release promo. Ideally it just gets you more excited about getting that vinyl into your hands and seeing what imagery this new band you love have come up with.

And yet for all that, most people really don’t give a crap. They listen on Spotify on headphones while playing candy crush or texting on What’s App. The album art is probably more for real music fans like you and me.

Have there been any cover artworks that stood out and created a lot of response from the public? Any controversial ones?

The most recent, and probably best, example I can think of is the recent artwork for the Father John Misty ‘I Love You, Honeybear’. I believe Josh worked closely with artists Stacey Rozich, Alia Penne, and designer Sasha Barr, to create a two-layered pop-up gatefold sleeve complete with ‘bar scene’ that upon opening played the title track I Love You, Honeybear through a midi-player connected to the sleeve. It was quite the package! And one that caused quite a stir… It’s an exciting prospect to work on something completely new like this, something that has never been done before.

Berlin, Bears and Refugees