tearing down musical borders with Hidden Harmony Recordings
This mood talk takes us all the way to Tallinn, Estonia. We spoke with Valentin, a dedicated record collector, globetrotter and driving force behind the recently-launched Hidden Harmony Recordings. The artists featured in the label’s roster so far hail from Canada, Russia and Argentina. A proof that music knows no borders. But Valentin and his team are just getting started, always scouring the fringes in search for one-of-a-kind artists in places most people wouldn’t even think of looking.
How did you get into music?
I’ve always listened to a very broad range of music in every kind of genre: from ambient and early electronics to jazz and soul, all the way to classic psychedelic rock. I have been drawn to music all my life. I simply can’t imagine myself not listening to music daily.
The fascination all began by listening to the big names such as Pink Floyd, The Beatles and Miles Davis. As time went by, I felt the natural need to explore different genres. I also became part of a very tight knit community of friends involved with different fields of art here in Estonia. It’s a fun bunch of musicians, designers and photographers all sharing with each other their love for art and music. This inspired me to do what I do today and it gave me the drive to establish an independent music label.
What’s the inspiration behind Hidden Harmony Recordings?
Together with a good friend in Tallinn, we started a label several years ago called RR Gems . We are both dedicated record collectors and we wanted to create a vinyl-oriented record label that would release musical “rare gems”. Music we considered very special and free of any fixed boundaries. The conceptual idea behind RR Gems was to make releases that we’re proud of and other collectors would like to get their hands on.
My friend’s taste was mostly geared towards jazz music, while mine was more focused on experimental electronic music. We genuinely believed that both styles are essentially rooted in improvisation but just in a different dimension and musical realization. So, the vision was to combine releases of both styles under one label. But eventually and naturally, it gravitated towards a jazz crowd.
We had a couple of successful jazz releases by artists such as Muriel Grossman & Brahja and that just made it more difficult to release non-jazz music in the context of RR Gems. In a way, I felt that some boundaries were created once again and some alternative was needed to fulfill the initial idea and concept.
That’s when I decided it was time to start my own label to really focus on music without borders — both physically and artistically. I envision the label to be a platform where people will know that they’ll encounter interesting non-standard music. This is the main goal for me. I’ve always been a believer that vinyl is a powerful vessel to share music, as it does incorporate musical, visual and tactile components and all these components combined lead to more synergies between different art fields.
The hidden aspect seems very crucial to the label. Can you share with us the mindset behind this?
Hidden Harmony aims to be a platform for hidden artists hailing from the deepest and darkest corners around the world. My role is to shed light on music and art that did not get the proper attention it deserves. To me, I envision Hidden Harmony as a platform where artists will finally receive the well-deserved recognition they might not have gotten before.
Next to the music itself, there are a lot of hidden design elements as well in the vinyl releases. First of all, our logo is embossed and hidden in the artwork. All the releases also have a die-cut window in the outer sleeve front cover, so it reveals merely a hint of what you can expect to find when you pull out the record. The inner sleeve also serves an additional space for visual and graphic expression.
As the visual element plays a very important role for the label, is the artwork design mostly coming from the artist or is it mostly influenced by the label?
For each release, we always ask the artists to propose their preferred designers to work with. We’re very open to this as a label, as we enjoy collaborating with other creatives. Our small team of 3 consists of two designers, who are my good friends Anastassia and Ilja. They both greatly contribute to the label’s design aesthetics.
Regardless of the designer we work with, the process always starts by proposing a few different design options to the artist. The final design is always a compromise in the end, as our ultimate goal is for the artist to be happy. If an artist is not happy with the end result of the vinyl release, they won’t see the release as his or her own “baby”. The latter might sound trivial, but working on a limited-edition vinyl release makes each minor detail matters, especially for the artists.
And how do you find the artists you work with?
Colin had previously released a mesmerizing synth-work album called Seance Works on RR Gems, so we’ve become good friends and always kept in touch. He shared a snippet of Concentration Patterns on his SoundCloud and when I first listened to it, I immediately liked it and felt: “this is it”. I’m a big fan of music that helps with concentration & focus, and I was convinced that it would be the perfect first release for Hidden Harmony.
We also live in a modern world where you can easily communicate and collaborate with people from everywhere around the world. The releases come almost naturally. I find the artists while exploring YouTube, SoundCloud or on mixtapes, and then I just write artists with my vision and ideas for a possible collaboration.
The first release by the Canadian artist Colin Roy Gillespie was very calm and soothing. The second release by the Russian artist Maria Teriaeva is a little bit more percussive and has an upbeat tone. How did the collaboration with Maria come about?
The collaboration with Maria dates a few years back already. Back in 2017, she did her first solo vinyl release, which had a very ambitious conceptual idea on the design. As a collector, I wanted to get a hold of this record for my collection and decided to write Maria a message.
I noticed that the record’s design wasn’t in line with the original ambitions, so I asked her if we at RR Gems could help her in realizing her initial plans. The design she had in mind was very special and in a way it was a sneak peek of what was to come with Hidden Harmony a couple years later on. It also featured a die cut in the front and an inner sleeve with hidden artwork, so it’s closely related to the concept we have now with HHR and it really shows how one idea can influence many others to come, and how natural healthy influencing and networking can be achieved inside an independent musical community.
Since then, I’ve always wanted to work together with Maria again on another project. Her music is really unique and special. Music coming from Russia nowadays is often very nostalgic about the past, but Maria’s music is very modern and very worldly. She creates something entirely new and is not afraid to explore visionary ideas.
Timely enough, when I started Hidden Harmony, she was also looking for a label to release her new work Conservatory of Flowers. That was a very nice coincidence and very glad we did HH02 together.
Do you have any future releases in the pipeline?
We have just released HH03 by Morita Vargas, which I am very excited about. Morita is from Buenos Aires and she painted this really magical world on her new album “8”, using an imaginary made-up language. It’s a beautiful album and unique music from an Argentinian artist, which we believe will be a true find for many vinyl collectors and music lovers.
We have also started to work on two other releases for 2020-2021 with new artists we haven’t worked with before.
Your releases seem to be a reflection of the music you listen to. Can you tell us a bit more about your personal record collection?
My record collection has grown a lot over the years. I believe I started to collect vinyl back in 2013, even without first having a record player to listen to and steadily, the collecting hunger only increased.
One of the pleasures of running a label is that you can trade records with other independent labels. Unfortunately, as I am away from home so often for my work, I rarely have the opportunity to listen to all these new records. So lately, I am mostly listening to music digitally.
If I were to put a number to it though, my collection would be 40% electronic and experimental music, 30% jazz and the remaining 30% is all kinds of world music, indie music, classic rock, psychedelic, indie and what not. The experimental section is growing steadily now.
It seems that you travel the world digitally to find interesting music. Do you also travel a lot in real life?
I’m in the field of aviation. This means I’m often living in a different country a few months at a time. The benefit for the label is that I can always take some records with me and sell them in physical record stores all over. As a new label, this definitely helps us to spread the word around.
Frequent travelling abroad also helps to perceive the world geographically from the independent music standpoint as one tight-knit community. Meeting artists and other labels, going to different venues, and visiting interesting record stores worldwide offer an invaluable opportunity to meet other vinyl aficionados and music enthusiasts. This means and gives a lot.
And what’s next for Hidden Harmony, Valentin?
Currently, we are working on several intriguing projects: an experimental ambient LP by an artist from France, an experimental indie-folk LP infused with electronic elements from an American artist, and a couple of multi-genre 7” single releases.
At the same time, I have been working on one voluminous project for almost two years now. It is a full 2xLP version of conceptual album “OCEAN” made by an experimental Soviet/Estonian avant-garde music pioneer Valentina Goncharova. A deep and philosophically-saturated work of art. This is a big project for us, as it requires not only the restoration of the original master tapes, but also extensive archival study and material gathering.
OCEAN is a very important project for us as a label and for Valentina as an artist. This is the reason why each stage is being given the highest attention to detail. We are close to finalizing the work and the record should be ready by the end of 2020, latest beginning of 2021. For this purpose, we are launching a separate line under HHR called “Hidden Harmony Lost Tapes Series”. This is reserved for special projects and will have an “archival” aesthetic and approach to releases.
Hope this small conclusion acts as a “teaser” for those who are curious about HHR as a vinyl record label and our prospect projects.