Quinta, Bleeding Heart Narrative, Brassica, Max Bondi - Love your labels: Tartargua

Nick Lewis 22/02/2010

Tartaruga first came to my attention when I reviewed Quinta's release My Sister, Boudicca. I was absolutely captivated, so much so that having awarded it a 5 star rating I then bought the CD from the label's website; despite being in possession of a promo copy. What I received was possibly the most delightful thing ever to fall through my letterbox: hand-stitched, recycled cardboard, screen printed gatefold sleeve with a similarly hand-stitched animated flipbook, a doily with the Tartaruga logo and an origami turtle reflecting the same. All for a tenner.

Going on to listen to all the releases available I discovered an uncompromising roster of musicians who make defiantly artistic, organic and beautiful music. There's nothing that will ever come close to bothering the charts, but that's not through lack of quality. Rather, each album is a strikingly cohesive work sure to carve a special place in the hearts of anyone fortunate enough to come across it.

I've since had the pleasure of interviewing all the artists on the label, including owner Max Bondi, the full texts of which can be read below and here. What is apparent from these interviews is a thoroughly modern label with old fashioned values: exactly the sort of thing that could well thrive in the current industry climate. While major labels flounder (see EMI's looming debt crisis in particular) people are increasingly turning to the output of independent labels like these that release things out of passion and love.

Nowhere have I seen this ethos more pronounced than in the trademark packaging Bondi et al provide - not having the money to pay for printing, but not content with bare-bones digital releases, Bondi learnt screen printing, borrowed a sewing machine and the result is the lovely package that fell through my letterbox. As Quinta puts it: “The cottage industry aspect of it really inspires me…I have fond memories of hand-printing hundreds of miniature doilies…spreading them out across the table to dry while Max hand-stitched my album flip book at a borrowed sewing machine.”

It's not just pretty packaging though. The output of Tartaruga is hand-picked by Bondi from people that he meets (Oli from Bleeding Heart Narrative is his cousin and he met Quinta at a night he was running) seemingly aiming to spread music from enthusiasm rather than profit-seeking. When questioned on Tartaruga's aims, Bondi responds simply: “I'd like to keep putting out music that I love and think deserves to be heard.” It's an admirable attitude not unnoticed by the artists: “I think there is probably more care, attention and depth-of-ideas gone into the few Tartaruga releases than most highly established record label's entire back catalogue” says Brassica.

The same passion is reflected in the musicians' approach: doggedly independent, possible only because of new technology but committed to traditional methods also. Each artist makes studio based music. But each one seems entirely unhappy with the idea of using computer generated sounds. Instead, they use the technology to enhance and assist traditional playing and instruments. According to Quinta: “I use electronics to find new sounds rather than to add polish, and I don't like it when electronics are used to cover up bad writing or lazy harmony…I try to compose…with a kind of collage approach, which is almost tactile, the feel of the instruments…the textures of the sound. I want the music to feel three-dimensional, like you can walk into it.” Bleeding Heart Narrative writes and records the majority of his music at the same time, alone, and plays everything himself: “There's a couple of samples of speech buried here and there that I've sampled from various places but mainly it's just me playing stuff in a room with a mic.” Even Brassica, who makes by far the most electronic music on the label prefers the physical approach: “I used to use nothing but recorded sounds and various DSP [Digital Signal Processing] and basic audio sequencing. I was beginning to lose the feeling I was a musician…Synthesizers seemed to be the perfect balance…”

Just as the music is only possible because of new technology (the cheap availability of studio equipment), the label is possible only because of the opportunities afforded to it by the internet. “I have no idea how I would have started a label without 'the internet'…I was (pleasantly) surprised when I released the first record” says Bondi. “I started receiving orders on the website from around the world…That was our initial mantra 'one fan in each major city'”. The wealth of free publicity and the possibility of releasing downloads alongside a physical product are essential elements for a label Tartaruga's size - limited runs of 200 copies with little to no mainstream media attention just wouldn't have cut it in the pre-download era.

At its heart the label is a traditional cottage industry making use of all the advantages and methods of new and affordable technology. To me it serves as a perfect example of how to utilise new approaches and methods without allowing the end-product to become cheapened as a result (who can honestly say a download is worth as much as a CD or record?) Sure, no one on the label is likely to make a living out of it any time soon, but then again, it's unlikely any of these artists would have, given how art-house their music is. Regardless, although it would be overstating it to declare small, passionate labels like these the 'future of the industry', I have a suspicion they will become more important as time goes by, and the Big Four (Sony, Warner, EMI and Universal) could certainly learn a thing or two from Bondi's approach: “I'm limited by time, money, the usual, so I'll only put something out if I absolutely think it's a stunning record.” Quite right too.

Tartaruga's latest release is a free remix album of Bleeding Heart Narrative's 'Tongue Tangled Hair' entitled 'Lung Mangled Bear'. It can be downloaded at: http://www.tartarugarecords.com/tartaruga/releases/ttrdd007