As the end of the year draws near, the dreaded lists descend. No matter how resistant to taxonomy any of us are, the temptation to valorize the music that has accompanied us throughout the last twelve months often proves too much. Highlighting the finer music that has spilled out of headphones and blared out of soundsystems can be a pointless exercise, a reductive exertion that attempts to enforce an illusory criterion based largely on subjectivity and personal experience. Nevertheless, there are some things we can all agree on. This year has been a monumental fuck up, a repulsive exhibition of ignorance and intolerance. To claim that music has the power to effect or at least cushion the impact of contemporary political events seems like tepid, sentimentalist rhetoric, especially in the face of current adversities. Yet without it, prospects would be unimaginably greyer, and if the poignant departures and subsequent outpourings for David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen prove anything, it’s that sometimes, a song, an album or a career can transcend the grubbier trappings and failures of humanity. Stick on Dirty Mind, Low or Songs From A Room (or fuck it, listen to ‘em all) and the chorus of bullshit recedes, if only for half an hour or so.
One release that has offered a similar sense of temporary refuge in this year’s maelstrom of portentous regression has been Sky Girl, a compilation of ‘folk-pop, new wave and art music micro presses’ curated by Laurent (aka DJ Sundae) and Julien Dechery, and aided in realization by Michael Kucyk of the Efficient Space label. Comprised of rare records spanning thirty years and a myriad of styles, it’s a compilation that weaves a graceful spell of love, loss, remembrance and redemption across the course of fifteen tracks. Drawn from obscure artists most of whom have only experienced a modicum of recognition, it’s an exquisite sequence of touching snapshots that together almost resembles a collection of short stories; vignettes all the more affecting for the ephemerality that largely dictates how the work of these artists is now remembered. Although each track comes from a different voice and a different time, their curation in this instance feels revelatory, as if these tracks were always meant to exist alongside one another. From the ambrosial folkloric overture of Linda Smith through the dolorous third eye mysticism of The Seraphims, to the fumbling drum machine driven outsider pop of Warfield Spillers, the compilation journeys through discrete dreams and secretive visions, finally concluding with the soulful equilibrium of Nora Guthrie (yes, daughter of Woody) and the suspended berceuse sanctity of Once’s ‘Joanna’.
As explained by one of its curators, Laurent, the genesis of the compilation came from the simple impulse to release a collection of songs that had rarely been heard before, and which all possessed a special sonic aura:
‘The original idea was to make a compilation of rare private press records that weren't reissued yet. Then we started to add some tracks from the 60's and some minimal wave songs that share the same kind of magic, fragility & intimacy and little by little something unexpected was taking shape.’
In recent years, private press records have become something of a cult phenomenon. Medico Doktor Vibes’ ‘Liter Thru Doctor Vibes’, Lewis’s ‘L’Amour’ and Otis G Johnson’s ‘Everything - God Is Love 78’ are just some of the records in this regard which have established a certain contemporary allure for the rarefied and for the resolutely non-commercial. Like these artists, Sky Girl’s chosen few never made a career out of pop and polish but their efforts have retained a certain exceptionality that sounds timeless and vital.
Sky Girl owes its formulation to an overarching concept as well as a desire to unearth one-off records, an intent that actively transforms and brings together these discoveries into a unified whole. As well as documentarian research and arrangement there’s an added layer of imaginative musing that distinguishes this from the conventions of many archival compilations. For Laurent this takes the form of a shaded narrative of delicacy and candor that holds a blurring of logical boundaries:
‘We tried to sequence it like a story which could be the imaginary life of Sky Girl…it's all about melancholia, emotion, intimate stories and fragile production; songs that you can't easily categorise in genre and time.’ Yet it’s a narrative that isn’t limited to one specific fictional dimension, they’re songs which float free of finite concerns and can be related to in different ways. For Dechery ‘it's like doing a mixtape for the girl you love (but she doesn't know), to let her know how you feel about her in a subtle and indirect way.’
But even with the vividity of this particular association the compilation could just as well soundtrack the heartbreak of a failed relationship as much as the beginning of a new one.
In many ways Sky Girl is a personal endeavor rather than an urge to emulate obscurity for its own sake, a quality that Julien is keen to emphasize:
‘This is not a compilation for the sake of doing a compilation or displaying digging skills. In this case it’s something much more personal. We put together songs that would compliment each other and really meant something to us, songs we thought would eventually move other people too.’
Just as the content of the songs and the desired effect of listening to them revolves around intimate significance and personal attachment, the act of putting together the compilation is the result not only of extensive, open-minded listening, but of friendship and camaraderie. As Julien recounts, he was aware of Laurent’s taste before they met in person having encountered his posts on the Alain Finkel Krautrock blog:
‘I met Laurent (Sundae) 5 years ago. I went to see my friend Vidal Benjamin DJ in a small Parisian (strip) club and he was booked for the same event. I had been following his posts so I knew we had similar tastes before meeting in the flesh. From there we started to swap a lot of music and a few months later began to work on what was the blueprint for the compilation, the Colette mixtape CD.’
The development of their respective tastes and the roots of their fascination with collecting and discovering new music lie in origin stories which connect and diverge in interesting ways. Laurent grew up in Montpellier in the south of France, an accommodating environment for a devotee of hip hop and jazz making forays into sample based productions of his own:
‘I was producing a bit of music (and looking for samples) so I bought every record that mentioned synthesizers, that's how I got into electronics, experimental stuff like White Noise, Robert Ashley, or French cosmic disco like Arpadys. It took me a few years to appreciate them as records, not just as potential sample material. It was quite easy to get them back then, not a lot of people cared about those records.’
For Julien his route to the desired records of his youth was a little bit more awkward and inconvenient yet the fruits of his search were no less anticipated once he located the right place for his explorations:
‘I grew up in a small countryside town in the middle of France. It was difficult to find music outside of the mainstream but a small press store next to my middle school would occasionally import English magazines like NME or Melody Maker. They got me into stuff like My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Aphex Twin etc, which I’d try to find during trips to Paris and London. My teenage dream was to pay a visit to Rough Trade in London and when it finally happened, I couldn't sleep the previous night!’
Despite varying fates in their musical rites of passage, there are parallels in Laurent and Julien’s taste, similarities which date back to earlier formative years. Both of them cite folk as a key touchstone in their first engagements with music. Laurent singles out an exclusive cast comprised of Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt and Bridget St John as part of his folk education, an education which transitioned and combined with a later appreciation for the Marine Girls, Robert Wyatt, the Young Marble Giants and The Durutti Column. While Julien divulges that his references are similar, his experience of folk music is rooted in some of his earliest childhood memories:
‘My parents didn't have a lot of records at home but my oldest music memories is my mother listening to Simon and Garfunkel, especially 'Scarborough Fair'. This must have had a huge impact on me. My references are very much similar to Laurent - Linda Perhacs, Vashti Bunyan, Jackson C Frank were also very inspiring. I was into Nick Drake and Karen Dalton as a teenager but later discovering these artists really got me obsessed by folk music.’
It’s hard not to hear the influence of these artists throughout Sky Girl. Within many of these songs there’s a kindred sense of profound quietude and hushed benediction. Yet what seems to have catalyzed this reverence into unearthing and unifying a vision of their own is a mentality to reach for the forgotten entities, rather than anything resembling canonical comfort. In Laurent’s case a key facilitator in his appetite for remote discoveries came in the form of his local record shop, a place that encouraged eclecticism:
‘I think my interest for music started at Short Brain, my hometown skate shop almost 20 years ago. They had some decks behind the counter and from time to time they would spin records. This is where I first heard Funkadelic 'Funky Dollar Bill' and Kraftwerk 'Boing Boom Tschak'. They were also embracing the emerging rave scene, so I guess this is also where I first heard about techno. From there I started to buy my own stuff - a lot of hip hop, free jazz and Mo Wax stuff, and started to dig into my parents' disco collection. Years later I moved from hip hop and funk to post punk and "disco-not-disco" with the discovery of bands like Liquid Liquid, ESG or Ministry.’
Surprisingly enough, for all of the accusations of content saturation in the internet era – a state of play that often means music without an apparatus to promote itself gets lost in the noise – Julien reveals that it’s the connected world, rather than the material space of a record store, that has given him the most freedom to find new music, a never ending online search he actually finds more compelling than ownership:
‘I think I really started collecting when I had access to internet. This really broadened my horizon on a lot of things that I wouldn't find in French stores. eBay, youtube etc. I was more obsessed with learning and discovering new things all the time than “collecting” and owning records.’
In many ways these incipient encounters and favoured methods laid the foundations for Sky Girl, yet it would take further revelations before the compilation could be fully contemplated and realised. Laurent speaks fervently of one particular record that ignited his attraction to the private press world whilst in the same breath citing Arthur Russell as a figure who had a more general but no less significant impact:
‘I guess the day I discovered the Jeff Phelps LP was a total blast, nearly 10 years ago. I just loved everything about it: the homemade production, the subtle use of the drum machine, all the vocals. More than this, it was my introduction to the world of private press records. Discovering the work of Arthur Russell at that time was really mind blowing also but it's nearly impossible to pick only one record from of his discography. I love everything he did.’
Like Laurent, Julien speaks of new worlds opening up before him when I ask him about the records that have had a similar degree of enduring effect on him. As with Laurent, Julien initially singles out specific examples of visionary artistry yet speaks of them as gateways to overlooked abundancy rather than self-contained essences:
‘They don't have much connection with the compilation but the first ones that come to mind are Selda Bağcan and my first Ilaiyaraaja record. Both were major turning points – they really got me stuck on Indian and oriental music. They were entries into whole new worlds at a time when these things weren't hyped or advertised. They weren't on trend and there was minimal information online.’
It’s clear that uncovering an unprecedented terrain is a prospect that both Laurent and Julien are fascinated by, an obsession that has led to this eventuality. But as Julien divulges, he has had some previous form in the business of releasing records with his involvement in ‘Fire Star’, a retrospective on Tamil film composer Ilaiyaraaja. The same can be said of Laurent who had a hand in the Nirosta Steel reissues (some of which contained unreleased Arthur Russell material) and more recently oversaw the rerelease of Pitch’s rogue art disco anomaly ‘What Am I Gonna Do For Fun?’. Yet with Sky Girl, their collaboration was consolidated into something truly unique by Michael’s contribution. Both Laurent and Julien speak enthusiastically of the artistic license that the Noise In My Head operator granted them; a sense of creative freedom that became necessary, owing to the ambitious scope that came to inform the project. According to Michael, contrary to the antipodean focus of his other compilations on Efficient Space, this was ‘digging on a global scale’.
As repeatedly indicated there’s clearly been a lot of personal investment in the project in a pragmatic sense but also on a more emotional level. Julien is adamant about differentiating the project from his other work:
‘Sky Girl is something way more personal. I think it speaks a lot about me (and Laurent) and in some way is a soundtrack to some of my life's phases’. Similarly, Michael mentions his abiding impressions of working on the project as a ‘special time in my life.’
However personal and special the compilation has become in the estimations of its creators, like many archival undertakings it wasn’t without difficulty. As Michael recounts, locating an artist and attaining approval for a prized track can prove a daunting task in itself:
‘The release probably would have eventuated sooner had Warfield Spillers, one of Sky Girl's cornerstones, been easier to locate. The label credits don't give away much and online information was scarce. I got in touch with everyone I knew who had copies - Ariel Pink, Peanut Butter Wolf, Andy Noble - hoping they acquired theirs direct from the source or could at least tell us what state they were from so I could narrow the country wide search. Through this we heard an LA collector had been in touch with one of them years back, only he was proving as hard to find until Suzanne Kraft connected us. An early tracklisting featured a Maryland folk band called The Stratfords. I found an address for one of the members in the White Pages and mailed a proposal to no reply. Seasons passed and the three of us discussed the possibility of using the track anyway. It's common for compilations to do this after exhausting every avenue to contact the artist and keep the respective royalties in holding in case they later surfaced, but this just didn't feel right. Eventually we found his daughter who passed on our details. It turned out that he did receive the original letter, wasn't interested and couldn't be convinced. We really dodged a bullet pursuing it further. Imagine waking up one day to find out that a track you recorded 50 years ago was suddenly available against your will?’
Despite obstacles like these, the purchase of deadstock copies and hours of procrastination and lurking on ebay listings, the trio found most of the artists they were looking for and sourced a remarkable collection of tracks which once you hear them you wonder how you’ve done without them for this long. The subsequent reactions to their correspondence and their efforts on Sky Girl have been met with positive responses and even, in the case of Nini Raviolette, a connection that has revealed a convivial affinity that defies the usual hurdles of a generational divide:
‘(Laurent) Julien and I helped Michael to locate a few of them. Even when we didn't speak to them directly, we learnt interesting things about them - where they're based now, if they're still doing music etc. It was very emotional to see their positive reactions… The only person that I met was Nini Raviolette who came to the recent Sky Girl release party. A very gentle person. That was special for us. (Julien) The first time I met with Nini was mostly to talk about the compilation and video interview project. We'd briefly discuss music before switching to more personal and funny subjects. I found similarities between us as I got to know her. I don't know the other artists on the compilation but I'm wondering if they also are a bit like us.’ Michael was somewhat surprised by the warmth of the reaction they’ve received: ‘I wasn't sure how they were all going to take it given that it's a concept compilation - none of the artists share direct connections and we excluded track by track biographical notes to maintain some mystery, but so far they've all responded exceptionally well. Scott Seskind often writes for updates.’
The established notion that artists who don’t attain widespread recognition simply fade into an immaterial obscurity is a romantic idea, but it’s one that’s often not rooted in reality, something frequently peddled in the reissue world to convey a poetic aura of authenticity. For the artists of Sky Girl their stories continued beyond these now eternally capsuled moments and as Michael reveals many of them are still involved in music, while others have moved into writing and painting:
‘Gary Davenport was recording a new album when we reached out, Some Of My Best Friends Are Canadians' Phil Thornton now makes new age and healing music, Angel's John Hamilton runs a studio and Nora Guthrie is the caretaker of her father Woody's archives. Joe Tossini just self-published his autobiography, Scott Seskind works in a nursing home supporting people with mental illnesses, and Linda Smith paints.’
Despite the continuing activities of many, some of the artists present on Sky Girl are tragically no longer with us. Bertrand Mérino-Péris (Hugo Weris) and The Seraphims' Diane Rice passed away while the compilation was being finalized. Sky Girl is dedicated to their memory.
Such a dedication adds another layer of poignancy to a compilation already steeped in melancholia, innocence and sensitivity. But the way that formative inspiration, teenage fanaticism, and a resolute, intrepid verve for the underappreciated converges on Sky Girl ensures that it’s a fitting posthumous tribute; a genuine expression of affection, for the tracks themselves, for the artists who made them and for the flights their work inevitably invokes. More broadly it can be interpreted as an inspired testament to the value of receptive, exploratory record collecting and the power of careful sequencing and imaginative conceptualism. For Julien, Laurent and Michael future projects for Idle Press, Efficient Space and Sessùn await. For the moment their advice on the ideal setting for appreciating Sky Girl:
‘(Laurent) On the road, definitely. (Julien) With the ones you love.’
It’s exactly the answer you’d expect from the authors of a tender fifty one minute reverie that wanders as much as it coalesces, blending together songs about leaving and songs about home.