“Psych folk, acid folk and English folk were my first true loves and will always be my desert island sound”, says Zach Cowie. “For me, a big gateway to that world was researching the artists who were covered on This Mortal Coil records. Plus, when I was a kid, I learned a lot from the tips from amazing record collectors like Steve Krakow (aka Plastic Crimewave), Troy Authement (who made me one of the most important mixtapes) and John Ciba (who managed the first record store I worked at). I could write an entire book about the brilliant people I’ve met since I started collecting – those people are the true stars of my collection.”
His few pronunciations right here draw the perfect image of the man Cowie is: a big vinyl collector – no, a massive vinyl collector – who has been around for years now. Some people might know the fella and hi-fi head as part of Wooden Wisdom – the DJ duo he’s part of joined by Elijah Wood, who he met at an after party in New York and never left sides of ever since. But Cowie has touched on almost every single part within the music area already. From tour manager to music supervisor (of the infamous tv series Master Of None) or reissue producer; Cowie really has done it all. That being said, it should come as no surprise that it’s a huge honour to invite him to the Red Light Radio and Sonos’s Liner Notes series. Hold. Tight.
Words by Melisa Cenik
“I got this one a few months back from my buddy Brandon (one half of Invisible City Sound System). I can’t remember what was written in the description; I think it was something like Fahey meets Cluster? I’ll generally buy anything that’s described that way by a source I trust.” Cowie kicks off with Iverson & Walter’s ‘Naningo’ which was released in the early eighties. The Fahey meets Cluster comparison fits the record perfectly well – ambient meets folk at its best. The record was a collaboration between Thomas Walters, Jon Iverson, Thomas Walters and Steve Card (who actually did the toothpick percussion – no jokes). Their same-titled LP was put out on the California based label Eagle Records, who released some of the stuff of Dean Steiding, Johnny Gall and T.J. Lawrence back in the days. Heavy percussion and mesmerizing, dark synths on this one – hold tight for a proper start.
Sometimes you just jump on to another song; that’s what Cowie must have thought when he put on the romantic-sounding song ‘C’est Normal’, from Areski and Brigitte Fontaine, after his energetic first pick. “Brigitte Fontaine is one of my all-time favourite singers. There isn’t a month that has gone by since I was 19 that I haven’t put on one of her records.” Fontaine was born in 1939 (and is still kicking it), with her first jazzy album being released in 1965. She became one of the most prominent underground singers of her time and represents the sound of a beautiful of folk, jazz, world music, electronica, spoken word and poetry. After she moved to Paris at the age of 17, she became an actress and appeared in several Parisian theatres. It was after her first album that she became the women she is nowadays; a praised singer with a half-dozens of records released. ‘C’est Normal’ marks her collaboration with Areski (Belkacem), who’s a composer, multi-instrumentalist and comedian. Together, they started their Areski-Fontaine project and released many albums and singles. ‘C’est Normal’ is where Arabic vibes meet French vocals. Sounds like a perfect soundtrack for your favourite movie, right?
Again, Cowie grabs back to 1984 with his choice for G.B. Beckers’s ‘Kichina’, part of his album ‘Walkman’. G.B. Beckers, also known as Günther Beckers, makes music where the guitar plays a big roll and the ambient sounds draw the soundscapes. Beckers is not only a musician though; he also studied at the Staatlichen Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf back in 1972-1977, was one of the students of Karl Bobek and did many expositions throughout Germany, Denmark and Finland. Next to his love for art, he recorded five albums over the course of 16 years – one of them was ‘Walkman’, which was put out on Milky-Music (probably his own label, as it only contains music from him). “I picked this one up from Izabel Caligiore of Lullabies For Insomniacs recently - definitely one of my favorite new arrivals. She didn’t have a lot of information about him outside of the fact that he makes giant paintings now and almost recorded something for Windham Hill. Bonus points for a great hand painted cover of this record”, Cowie explains.
Back to the singers within this mix with Kristen Nogues. Nogues was born in Versailles in 1952 and quickly learnt how to speak Breton, play the Celtic harp and became a student of artist Denise Megevand at the young age of 8. It was when she was 21 that she discovered traditional Berton songs with Yann Poens and started – along Patrick Ewen, Gerard Delahaye, Melaine Favennec, Ann Krist and Jacques Pellen – the experience of Nevenoe, which defended the idea of ‘living and working in your homeland’. Quickly after, her first records were released. She went on a European tour and decided to go solo in 1980. Now, years later, she will be remembered as the artist responsible for many albums, children’s music, film soundtracks, music for tales, poems, dance shows and many more whilst she touches on modern and contemporary music, but still is a cocktail of folk, world, rock and country too. ‘Marc’h Gouez’ was her first album in 1976, and ‘Hirness An Devezhiou’ the track on the B2-side. A psaltery (played by Bertrand Floc’h) driven song with her sweet vocals on top. Daydream along.
Cowie: “A few years ago, I bought a lot of missing pieces from a folk collector named David Hintz, who had decided to sell off his crazy collection. He had all the grails - it was insane! This record crossed my path because it was one he had listed that I’d never heard of before. I found a short clip on YouTube and it was close enough to what I’m into, so I took a chance on it. It turns out the entire thing is perfect and I play it a lot.”
Cowie moves on to the famous photographer (and one-time producer) that is Steve Hiett. His ‘Down On The Road By The Beach’ LP was released in 1983 on CBS/Sony and is described as ‘smooth jazz’. Well, that is perfectly said we must say. ‘By The Pool’ has Hiett on the guitar, bass, drums and vocals, Toru Okada on the keyboards and Masahiro Takekawa on the violin. “Hiett is a fashion photographer who only made one record. The cover photo caught my eye, and the soundclip sounded sweet, so I went for it. This one got expensive pretty quickly and definitely needs a reissue.” Pick the sand out of your hair and get ready for Hiett’s loving and peaceful beach song.
Photographer Steven Hiett brings Cowie to Portugal based producer, film composer and architect Nuno Canavarro, who was born in 1962. The man himself only made two records, but these two records are marked as legendary already. His first album, ‘Plux Quba’, was released in 1988 on Ama Ramanta and got reissued back in 2015. The record was a strong influence on the sound of many post-modern electronic musicians, including Mouse on Mars and Jim O’Rourke. Nuno Canavarro makes so called ‘fantastical abstraction’: weird sound blips combined with electroacoustics and minimalism make you travel to another world of space and time. Besides his solo project, Canavarro was also part of two bands named Delfins (pop-rock band) and Street Kids (synth-pop band), making completely different music. “This is a desert island disc for me and I’m thrilled that Drag City put the reissue back in print. Everybody should have this record”, Cowie adds to the track. Experimental fascination from Portuguese grounds mostly don’t get any better than this.
“Yesterday’s footprints vanished,
Replaced by smooth rippling wave formations,
A copy of the sea.
No one walking,
Not even the dogs.
A day for the rubbish to dance.”
Robert Wyatt’s album ‘Dondestan’ (Spanish for ‘Where Are They?’) is his fifth studio album, originally released by Rough Trade Records back in 1991. The English musician and founding member of the very influential Canterbury scene band Soft Machine had a long and distinguished solo career on the side as well. He married to English painter and songwriter Alfreda Benge, who made the cover art for this specific album too.
It was in 1966 that Wyatt was asked to join Soft Machine by Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen, wherein he both drummed and shared vocals with Ayers, which seems to be an unusual combination for a stage rock band. After three albums with the band, he released his first solo album and a year later he left the lads. During his career, Wyatt worked together with artists such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Brian Eno and Cristina Donà. ‘The Sight Of Wind’ feels like a powerful poem joined by beautiful instrumentals. Cowie: “Something from Robert Wyatt goes on just about in every mix I make. I guess he’s kind of like my lucky charm. Very few things make me feel so instantly comfortable - his voice is one of these things.
Cowie continues picking mesmerizing records with the next one in his stunning mix from Luciano Cilio’s hands. The Italian multi-instrumentalist and self-taught composer was born in Naples in 1950 and joined university studies within architecture and scenography in music, whilst he collaborated with several non-conventional musicians as Alan Sorrenti and Shawn Phillips in the sixties and seventies. During his career, the talented musician only put out one album – ‘Dialoghi Del Presente’ – before he died in in 1983 at the too young age of 33 by an unexpected suicide. ‘Della Conoscenza’ is that A1-side song that deserves the full spotlights on this folky rock yet experimental release. Cilio is a true multi-instrumentalist on this release by performing on piano, guitar, flute, bass and mandala, and was joined by other musicians as well. Again, there’s a link with Jim O’Rourke here, as the man himself wrote the liner notes to this album. “I bought this reissue on a suggestion while shopping at Honest Jons a few years back”, says Cowie. “’I’ll admit: it sat in my new arrivals bin for far too long before giving it a proper spin. It was love at first listen once I got around to it and it really opened me up to the world of Italian minimal recordings, which I continue to explore.”
Slowly Cowie moves back to the more classical and modern contemporary music with Meredith Monk’s ‘Early Morning Melody’, which is part of her seventh album ‘Book of Days’. The release was put out in 1990 on ECM News Series (also known for releasing records of Steve Reich) and contains the work of many artists including Andrea Goodman, John Eppler and Manfred Eicher. Monk herself was born in New York City and is known as a composer, singer, film maker, pianist, choreographer and director. Ever since she started her career in the sixties, Monk has made dozens of music pieces which were used for many things including film and theatre and her work is often compared to both Steve Reich and Philip Glass. ‘Book of Days’ was the second movie Monk directed, and the soundtrack was recorded right afterwards as ‘a true pleasure for the ears’. Cowie: “I’ve always loved unaccompanied singing, but ever since I bought my first pair of Klipschorns & Tube amps about six years ago, that love has gotten out of control. I can listen to a record like this for days; a great singer and a well recorded record played in a wonderful sounding room.”
Back to Japan: Cowie’s next one comes from Inoyama Land. The Japanese artists released their ‘Danzindan-Pojidon’ album in 1983 on Yen Records (the prolific label fronted by Yellow Magic Orchestra bandmates Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono) and shows an experimental meets folk meets electronic sound on this record. ‘Mizue’ was written by Inoue Makato – one half of the Inoyama Land-duo that furthermore exists out of Yasushi Yamashita. Both men are past members of the avant-pop ensemble Hikashu. Their almost completely instrumental and very heavy synth-based album was recorded at a private studio, Kichijogi & Yugaware, from January ’82 to January ’83. It shows the true beauty of simplicity, whilst ‘Danzindan-Pojidan’ feels like floating without having nowhere to go or anything to do. Cowie agrees to that. “Like many of my fellow record collectors, I’ve been bitten hard by the Japanese ambient bug. I read about this one in a Chee Shimizu interview and jumped on a copy pretty quickly once I heard some YouTube-clips. This is exactly what I like to play around the house right now. Anything produced by Hosono is worth hearing.”
Cowie grabs back to his love that is folk and country. Robbie Basho simply makes amazing music accompanied by super sweet lyrics. ‘Smooth singing sunshine, wrap your blanked around me’, Basho sings in his ‘Blue Crystal Fire’, released on Windham Hill Records back in 1978 and as part of his tenth studio album ‘Visions Of The Country’ (rated with a 8.7 on Pitchfork). The American acoustic guitarist was born in 1940 and was orphaned as an infant. He went to college and became friends with fellow students John Fahey, Ed Denson and Max Ochs. It was in 1959 that Basho purchased his first guitar, immersed himself in Asian art and culture and changed his name to Basho in honour of Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. ‘Blue Crystal Fire’ covers the somewhat plain chords combined with the curling voice he’s known for, which creates magic right away. Cowie: “Basho is an old favourite of mine, but I’m not sure what made me pull this record out when making this mix. That’s the rad thing about collecting records— you find things that satisfy a moment, then file them away… Time passes and you pull those old finds out again and they often gain a new meaning.”
“This was the last St. John record I needed for my collection and I finally found it last year.” Bridget St. John – born as Bridget Anne Hobs – is an English singer-songwriter and guitarist with three albums on her name. Her folk meets pop sound has brought her many things, including collaborations with John Martyn and Michael Chapman, which she calls her ‘musical brothers’. St. John grew up in a musical family with her mother and sisters being all accomplished pianists. Her love for the guitar came right after she tried the viola and the trumpet, which became one of the best choices she ever made looking at the fantastic music that came in the years after. ‘Fly High’ was a 7” released on Dandelion Records in 1972 and touches on folk and country again, though Cowie plays the album version within his mix. Cowie adds: “I instantly played this track again once the whole record had ended and realized why after reading the album credits; it’s John Martyn on guitar, another one of my all-time favourite dudes. Weird how I knew he was there’.”
Already the one to last song in Cowie’s Liner Notes mix, and it’s no other than blind composer and keyboardist Pauline Anna Strom’s ‘Gossamer Silk’ he grabbed out his vinyl crates. The San Francisco based self-taught musician released most of her albums up to late of the early eighties. Strom is praised as a synthesist, sound designer of multi-dimensional sonic technology and the composer she is, but she was also remarkable for the way she thought. “I sometimes feel I have been placed in this chaotic, confused present to draw into it the elements from these opposite realms in order that my interpretations of them through sound a music may in some sense benefit our as yet largely incompetent and immature population”, she once said in an interview. ‘Gossamer Silk’ is part of her ‘Trans-Millenia Consort’, which was released in 1982 and is a dreamy new age track full of sweet synths, creating a sci-fi atmosphere for almost six minutes. Cowie himself was introduced to this pearl by a friend. “My friend Kevin put me on this record years ago and I’m glad he did, as it’s tough to find now! This one is a real gem out of the private new age world. I hear that a reissue is on the way; it’ll be very nice for everyone to have this.”
More Japan on Cowie’s last track: Doji Morita closes it off with ‘ふるえているネ’. The singer-songwriter was 20 years old when she was inspired by a friend’s death for her first ever album ‘Good Bye’. It’s something that can be heard in all her albums; a tragic or morbid theme always lives inside her psychedelic folk music. Recognizable by her thick curled wig and big sunglasses, Morita never showed her naked face but played many concerts before she ended her musical career with a final show at Shinjuku Loft back in 1982. Cowie shares his opinion on his last track: “This was a tip from Matt Sullivan at Light In The Attic. I was at their office for a meeting and he either showed it to me and asked if I’d heard it, or he had it playing when I arrived, but I can’t remember which one is correct. Either way, this is a beautiful and heavy record. I need to find out more about her beyond the short, but crazy, Wikipedia entry.” And so do we. A beautiful closing to an even more beautiful mix. Thank you for the music and inspiration, Zach.