Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Bamba
Photo: Lorne Thomson/Redferns
These Record Labels Are Changing The Way Portland Listens To Music
Home to the most record stores per capita of any U.S. city, Portland proper consideration as a major force in the music scene of the Pacific Northwest. A haven for artists working across genre and medium, the City of Roses' music landscape is rooted in community and inclusivity, a staunch contrast to the gate-keeping and social-climbing structures held onto by larger cities.
The past few years marked a notable stylistic and demographic shift in music from Portland, having come up as a rock-and-roll town. Ethiopian-American rapper Aminé, GRAMMY-winning psych-pop group Portugal. The Man and Latin/Cumbia-influenced artists Y La Bamba and Sávila continue to expand Portland’s music breadth and reach.
Providing the structure, support and dedication to these artists are a growing number of record labels working tirelessly, sometimes invisibly, to bring new local sounds to national audiences. While the idea of starting or running a record label in 2019 might seem daunting, Portland’s label group carry a spirit of fellowship, often turning to one another for advice and inspiration. Below, we’ve highlighted three labels releasing some of the most forward-thinking acts Rip City (and beyond) have to offer. All hail the purveyors of sound.
Tender Loving Empire
Founded by creative power couple Brianne and Jared Mees, Tender Loving Empire has served as a pillar of the Portland arts community for over a decade. Part record label, part boutique offering handmade goods from over 500 local and global independent artists, TLE’s values have remained steadfast since their inception. “Our mission statement is: to empower and support creatives, to enrich and fulfill employees and to delight and inspire patrons. It sort of works as a triangle poem, you can switch it around in any order you want,” Music Manager Chloe Costello tells us.
As a label, TLE have one of the most diverse rosters in town. Regarding their scouting process, Costello says that TLE looks for artists that have “'the duende,' a Spanish term that Jared & Brianne love which means a quality of passion and inspiration."
Between the minimalist experimentalism of Willis Earl Beal, future-pop of Radiation City and refined soul of Ural Thomas, TLE artists most certainly have “the duende,” and then some. TLE casts a wider net than most, taking risks on both up-and-comers and amplifying the voices of their established artists. A visit to one of their now five locations (including one at the airport!) is a must for those traveling to Portland for the first time.
Albums to Start With:
- Mujeres, Y La Bamba
An early signee to TLE,Y La Bamba are led by singer/guitarist Luz Elena Mendoza. Released earlier this year, Mujeres is a brilliant, self-produced album touching upon psych, pop, rock and folk explored through Mendoza’s lens as a first generation Mexican-American woman.
- The Right Time, Ural Thomas & The Pain
At 79-years-old, soul singer Ural Thomas is finally becoming a household name. Thomas, who shared bills with James Brown, the Rolling Stones and other highly acclaimed artists in the ‘60s and ‘70s, recently resurfaced with a new band, The Pain, after numerous years creating music on his own terms. The Right Time is a collection of both back catalogue and new material serving as testament to Ural’s crucial role in Portland’s all-too-often forgotten soul music history.
- Hey Galaxy, Andrea Gibson
Hey Galaxy is TLE’s first collaboration with a spoken word artist. Gibson’s work touches on queer empowerment, race, gender, love, and countless other personal and social issues and connects the label back to their early efforts publishing books and zines. Hey Galaxy is a deep, moving and vital record for our current sociopolitical climate.
Blog-turned-record label Fresh Selects saw its first proper retail release in 2013. Prior to that, label founder Kenny Fresh built an audience via free downloads and original content on his blog highlighting boundary-pushing artists in hip-hop, soul and electronic music. After taking the site offline in 2010 to focus on a Fresh Selects concert series featuring Erykah Badu and Madlib amongst many others, Fresh began to rethink how he could support artists on a more long-term, consistent basis.
Now one of the most exciting labels in the country, the Selects catalogue touches on jazz, indie, R&B and beat tapes from a global roster including Brooklyn’s Reginald Chapman, Aru-2 from Japan and London’s Emmavie. For Fresh, the album reigns supreme.
”We hold the art form of the album in great regard and much of our focus with each release is on making each the most essential, cohesive, detailed and intentional version of itself that can be,” he tells us. With an incredible ear for timeless music with high-replay value, Fresh Selects is one of those labels you know is in it for the long haul.
Albums to start with:
- Breatharian, Mndsgn
The label came out of the gate swinging on their debut release with Breatharian, an otherworldly concept beat tape from Los Angeles experimental hip-hop artist Mndsgn. Piano riffs, sampled strings and heavily chopped/edited vocal samples float atop steady, driving rhythms taking the listener in and out of dreamlike state as the album progresses.
- Seven Sundays, SiR
On the debut LP from Inglewood, Calif., singer/songwriter SiR, R&B takes on new meaning. After many years co-writing for Jill Scott, Robert Glasper and others, SiR teamed up with a production dream-team including Knxwledge (Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly), Chris Dave (Blue Note recording artist, drummer for D'Angelo & Adele), DK The Punisher (Justin Bieber) and more to create a stunning 9-track LP showcasing SiR’s strengths as story-teller and songwriter alike.
- Cleo, Charlotte Dos Santos
Brazilian-Norwegian jazz singer Charlotte Dos Santos teamed up with Fresh Selects to release her first EP in 2017. Cleo is a fine introduction to a versatile artist whose take on electro-soul is mesmerizing. On "Sumer is Icumen In," Santos reimagines a medieval round song from the mid-13th century into a sweltering groove only a master of their craft could pull off.
Mama Bird Recording Co.
Browsing the Mama Bird Recording Co.’s website, one key layout decision stands out. Where most labels would have an “artists” tab, Mama Bird’s roster is listed under "family." There is perhaps no better metaphor for how the label operates. Between their Winter Wassail holiday shows, songwriters in the round events and on-the-nose tour packages, it’s heartening to witness the degree to which Mama Bird artists champion one another.
Founded in 2011 by Vincent Bancheri, early releases centered on traditional-leaning Americana; however, recent additions to the family including Damien Jurado, Haley Henderickx and Matt Dorrien have helped shape Mama Bird into one of the most highly revered labels for singer-songwriters, period. Proudly committed to exceptional songcraft, each subsequent release further exemplifies Mama Bird’s innate love for honest, unprocessed music capable of affecting the masses.
Albums to Start With
- Quite a Feelin’, Barna Howard
Laid back country for fans of Phil Ochs, Waylon Jennings and John Prine. On Howard’s second LP, the Missouri native takes us through the trials, troubles, and tribulations of small-town living through a series of simple, beautiful tunes.
- May Your Kindness Remain, Courtney Marie Andrews
On her second LP for Mama Bird, Andrews draws comparisons to Linda Ronstadt, but her ability to weave soul, pop, and country places her in a league of her own. Despite loneliness being a central theme of the record, Andrews intimate vocal delivery and crafty lyrics leave you feeling anything but.
- I Need to Start a Garden, Haley Heynderickx
It has been an absolutely massive year for Portland songwriter Haley Heynderickx. Her debut LP I Need to Start a Garden is a deeply intimate album demonstrating Heynderickx’s remarkable range as a vocalist, dexterity as a guitarist and a pension for engineering lyrics that have you thinking deeper with every listen.