Expanding musical corners with Ali Safi
Meet Marionette: a Toronto-based label run by Ali Safi that is consistently surprising, yet surprisingly consistent in output.
Going through the label’s catalogue is like stumbling on a bottomless treasure trove. Every release is a world of its own. Charming, elaborate, and disparate, but together they form a coherent whole.
As it is impossible to miss the level of care and detail that goes into every Marionette release, we couldn’t help but ask Ali to give us a small peep behind the scenes. He takes us through the label’s past and excitedly shares with us a few glimpses of what’s yet to come.
How would you describe the sound of Marionette to someone who’s never listened to your releases?
The commonality in some of the releases is the interplay between organic acoustic and electronic synthesized sounds and often not knowing which is which. I’m utterly fascinated by this interplay and I’m drawn to the experimental state of mind related to the making of this kind of music. I’m always on the lookout for artists whose ways of working inspire me to the point where I’m compelled to connect and invite them to contribute to the label.
What inspired you to start Marionette?
I see Marionette as a way for me to express my passion for music and my discoveries, and also to connect with people and have experiences I would not have had otherwise. It’s sort of an extension to all the other facets that come with the excitement of discovering music for me, like reading and writing about it, learning about the inspiration and context, and finding a visual language around it. It evolved from my dream of wanting to DJ when I was younger. A part of me still does. Beats, techno, and the afterhours were my gateway.
I made a bold decision quite early on to pursue all the dream artists on my list without waiting until I was more established. I’ve come a long way and grown with every release and artist. I have to give credit where it’s due to Kilchhofer for guiding me and teaching me things from the lens of a true artist. His contributions to the label far exceed the album covers and his releases. Also to Laurine Frost and Marco Papiro who continue to encourage and challenge me on a daily basis.
I always personally invite the artists I work with, yet I never really know what the outcome is. I like to be surprised. The artists are much more imaginative than I’ll ever be. I also enjoy looking for unlikely collaborations. With Regression for example, I found out through some digging that Razen were about to collaborate with the Australian percussionist Will Guthrie. Coincidentally, I was in touch with both Guthrie and Brecht on separate occasions for a potential project, so it just made sense and felt natural to release it together. I think the same of Sulla Pelle with Valentina Magaletti and Julian Sartorius and also with Viridescens by Francesco Cavaliere and Tomoko Sauvage.
I always viewed myself as an amateur running a label, but I’ve come to learn that I don’t think there is any particular skill involved other than knowing how to inspire artists and giving them the space to express themselves. That and also doing all the administration, shipping, promotions, and building meaningful relationships along the way. I sometimes wish I could focus on the curating bit and working with the artists only, but I guess I’m too much of a control freak to let the other things go.
Your releases always feel and sound very coherent, even though the artists you work with often come from very different backgrounds.
All of the artists are very engrossed in their own peculiar worlds. They are on a quest to search for sound and meaning. It’s somehow very intimate and personal, and I think that also shows in how the releases end up being presented.
I see the trajectory of the label like a hike on an uncharted trail. As if with every release I’m setting markers along this imaginary map of music. But this map is just a part of a much bigger map and somehow I feel like I’m a part of this conversation or at least that I have something to contribute.
I also feel like the label has reached a point where it can inspire artists to contribute something to it.
There’s something primal about the releases, as well.
I think that the music is very primal because it’s accessing inner emotion, or giving you a window into someone’s soul somehow. Once you get a sense of that, you’re able to tell when artists are tapping into that, and that really draws me in.
The most difficult part for me is building a language around their work. How can I put the artists’ visions into words? As I write the release texts, I get a deeper sense of that.
It must be very intimate and personal to write all the texts yourself.
I must confess that I’ve gotten a lot of help along the way, initially from Kilchhofer and sometimes from the artists themselves. I often send questions like an informal interview to guide the text. But for the last little while, I’ve been mostly writing them myself and gotten a lot more confident.
Apart from the music and the artwork, the release texts hold a great importance for the label. It helps in capturing the intent and thought behind a release.
I’ve also realized how writing has made me experience music in a more profound way, and I try to drop some of that understanding into the texts. Maybe there are some phrases about people, events, or movements that someone might have not been aware of, and through reading they can start their own search.
I like to challenge myself daily, in that regard. I like to listen to new things, in a way where I’m actually discovering someone or an album that I did not know about or maybe even vaguely knew something about. I enjoy learning about the historical significance of a particular artist or genre.
That sounds like a great daily habit.
Music is such an interesting medium for me. Unlike books or films, I find that you can play a record on repeat for a good while before you move on, while simultaneously learning about it.
Hybridizing sounds that don’t necessarily conform to any particular category or genre always gets me excited. I feel like every record released so far touches on a corner of music in some way and I want to expand on that, rather than continue to build on one corner only.
How involved are you in the production of the albums?
Stitching an album together is probably one of the parts I love the most. More than just the track selection itself, selecting the order of the tracks is actually a very important part of the process. What goes on the A-side? Which track are we starting with? How will the album end?
I try to imagine how the music will be perceived and how the imaginary audience would experience it. I usually know exactly how I feel about the music when I hear it within seconds. Although in some instances I’ve revisited albums which I initially overlooked that I then came to love.
Do you sometimes feel like you aren’t able to find new music anymore?
Oh absolutely! Sometimes I find myself in a rut and the way I would break out of it is to start listening to more pop or hip hop or dance music. In doing that, I would slowly start hearing the elements that get me curious about music and it often triggers my need to go on an experimental deep dive once more.
The other thing is that lately I have so many upcoming releases that I’m always listening to and I try to balance how much label material I am listening to versus discovering new music. I want to be aware of what’s going on but that’s not so easy nowadays.
You started Marionette in 2013. What have you learned along the way that you would maybe do differently or perhaps want to share with your younger self?
The pursuit is endless. It’s always a work in progress. Once you accept that, your way of perceiving and experiencing that pursuit will dramatically change. Maybe I didn’t realize that back when I started. I always had more finite goals that I wanted to reach. Being able to still feel inspired after all these years is something I value greatly and don’t take for granted.
Looking ahead, what are you most excited about in the years to come?
The anticipation of putting a record out is what keeps me going to the next. I’ve got around seven releases lined up after Max Loderbauer’s Petrichor—which is a catalogue milestone—and I know how the next two to three years look for Marionette.
The first release of 2023 will be from Brussels-based Roxanne Métayer. Roxane transforms conventional instruments and creates quite an intimate space where folk, drone, ambient and experimental music intersect.
There’s also going to be a new MinaeMinae 2LP album coming up next year. Bastian sent me dozens of tracks and I’ve just been listening to them obsessively, over and over again, going through the cycles of selecting and reselecting and ordering and reordering, and we finally nailed it down to an album that I have high expectations for.
There’s also Delphine Dora with a piano-not-just-piano album that’s cosmic, dreamy, and quite different to her previous works. I’m equally excited about that too. And then there’s a mysterious release which I will keep under wraps for now, that one is a bit of a banger.
There are many other things that are still in their early phases, but the seeds have been planted, so it’s just about waiting and taking it one release at a time as always.
Seems like you’re all set for the foreseeable future. Any big plans for the next decade to come?
I’ll obviously start getting hungry for what comes after the next three years, and I’ll probably be reformulating how to keep it compelling. I’d like to believe that I will be doing it in a way that keeps me inspired and driven. I would also like to share music more consistently via other means, such as in a live setting and a monthly radio show. There are also plans for a couple of label showcases in the near future.