Secretly Canadian Co-Founder Chris Swanson Looks Back on the Label’s First 25 Years

From its modest beginnings on the campus of Indiana University a quarter century ago, Secretly Canadian has grown into one of the most respected independent labels in the world, having released albums by the War On Drugs, Antony and the Johnsons, Major Lazer, Yoko Ono and Jason Molina. The company, which was founded by brothers Chris and Ben Swanson in 1996 and is still based in Bloomington, will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year via an extended campaign of reissues and new releases, all bolstered by a major hometown charity component. (The label’s name, which is certainly counterintuitive for a company based deep in the heartland of the U.S., is a joke stemming from the brothers’ roots in Canada-bordering North Dakota.)

Just released are the first two tracks from the “SC25 Singles” series of covers and new songs, which will roll out gradually in the months to come. Stella Donnelly covers early Secretly Canadian signee Jens Lekman’s “If I Could Cry (it would feel like this),” while Porridge Radio salutes another formative label artist, Scout Niblett, by reinterpreting her 2001 song “Wet Road.” Chris Swanson tells Variety that Lekman and Niblett remain crucial players in the Secretly Canadian story; Lekman was a young Norwegian artist who began corresponding with the Swansons by mail in the early 2000s, while Niblett was eventually signed to the label on the strength of a demo tape she’d handed to the late Songs: Ohia vocalist/guitarist Jason Molina, whose own self-titled 1997 debut album helped put the nascent Secretly Canadian on the map.

Lekman will also be represented in “SC25 Editions,” encompassing colored vinyl reissues of 12 classic albums from the label’s discography. His 2004 release “When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog” is among the first batch of four reissues, due June 4, and is joined by the War On Drugs’ “Wagonwheel Blues,” comedian Tig Notaro’s “Live” and Whitney’s “Light Upon the Lake.” Additional titles will be released later in the year.

“Jens bought a lot of Secretly Canadian records via mail order, and eventually he started sending us demos of his own songs,” Swanson recalls. “He had this classic, 1960s Greenwich Village-type of voice. We knew he was from Sweden, but we had no idea he was a teenager. His songs just kept getting better and better, so finally we asked if he wanted to work with us. He became a critical part of our family — he came to Indiana for Thanksgiving, he met our families, Ben even managed him for a decade. That’s why his first album is really important to all of us.”

Years before they were headlining festivals and winning the Grammy for best rock album, the War on Drugs were an unassuming rock band from Philadelphia just looking for a record deal. Members of the group Windsor for the Derby sent the Swansons early recordings by War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel, which “hit really deep right away. A song like ‘Arms Like Boulders’ from that first album is a stone-cold classic,” Swanson says. “The Drugs turned into one of those bands on Secretly where every record got bigger and bigger. The band kept growing and finding new fans, and there’s nothing more delightful for us than when a project grows with each subsequent release.”

Tig Notaro marked Secretly Canadian’s first foray into the world of comedy, after the company made a failed attempt to sign Marc Maron. “We also tried to reach out to Tig at that time, and she wasn’t really looking for a label,” Swanson recalls. “A couple of years later, she was open to the idea of making an album. We recorded it live in Bloomington on her 40th birthday in 2011, and then when ‘Live’ came out the following year, it was just a massive, runaway success. It struck so many nerves. We wound up starting a comedy label with Tig, which empowered us to do things we’d never done before.”

As for Whitney’s 2016 album “Light Upon the Lake,” Swanson remembers being blown away by early demos that reminded him of “songs that sounded like they came from [the Band] in the late ’60s. When that record came out, it felt like something people really wanted to hear.”

Bringing the anniversary project full-circle to Secretly Canadian’s Bloomington roots, all proceeds will benefit New Hope for Families, which works to place local homeless individuals and families into stable housing. The label has set a goal of raising $250,000 through the campaign. “We’ve made our lives about celebrating artists and elevating what they do,” Swanson says. “So when we were thinking about celebrating 25 years, we thought, let’s also celebrate Bloomington, which remains the heartbeat of our company. There really wasn’t a better way to do it than to raise money for something in a hyper-local way, and New Hope for Families is doing such great work in the community to address the homelessness crisis, which is not just isolated to big cities on either coast.”

Secretly Canadian’s anniversary is running parallel to its sister label Jagjaguwar’s own 25th birthday. Founded in Charlottesville, Va., by Darius Van Arman, Jagjaguwar joined the Secretly Canadian family in 1999 and has released music by Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, Moses Sumney, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Jamila Woods. “Being able to run these two beautiful things side-by-side for 25 years has been key to our survival,” Swanson says. “I see the two labels as almost like a gallery, and each label is a different room in the gallery. They’re in the same building and curated by the same set of people, but there are slightly different expressions and vibes in one room compared to the other.”

Today, Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar are joined under the Secretly Group umbrella by the Dead Oceans and Numero Group labels, while Secretly Distribution employs more than 70 people in its Bloomington warehouse. Swanson says the company hasn’t finalized its full 2021 release schedule, but is excited for new albums from Faye Webster and Current Joys (Secretly Canadian), Japanese Breakfast and Durand Jones and the Indications (Dead Oceans) and Dinosaur Jr. (Jagjaguwar).

He also gave Variety an update on the status of negotiations with the newly formed Secretly Group Union, which organized staffers last month in the hopes of addressing concerns related to wages, health benefits and race and gender inequality. “We’re very close to wrapping up negotiation on who is in the bargaining unit,” says Swanson, who in tandem with his partners formally recognized the union within a day of its formation last month. “I think we’re within a few days of that being done. Then, we’ll get into the collective bargaining agreement, which will constitute the first contact with our staff. Our staff is incredible. They really believe in and work so hard for the artists that they’re supporting.”


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