Not So Secret: The Winding Path Of Preeminent Record-Label Executive Chris Swanson
Picking up a beige landline handset, Midwestern record-label executive Chris Swanson leans back in a desk chair, scratching his head with the pad of his left index finger. He sits in front of shelves upon shelves containing hundreds of CDs and vinyl records at his office in Bloomington, Indiana. He has taken up residence here in an apartment above two local shops which sell comic books and videos, respectively.
“Yep, approved,” he says, thrusting the receiver back into its cradle. “All right. Sorry about that.” Swanson then returns to an anecdote about how he used to sell his own plasma to pay for records, back when he first moved to Bloomington to attend Indiana University. “It was gross. But I’d take the money and go directly to the CD store. I just loved the experience of buying albums. Browsing is half of it. Then buying it, taking it home and poring over it. Everything about it, I love. I just knew I wanted to be part of that process.”
Swanson had long been bewitched by the world of music—its culture and its rapture, culminating in the formation of label Secretly Canadian, which he co-founded in college with his brother, Ben Swanson, and friends Eric Weddle and Jonathan Cargill. At the time, none of them knew what would become of it. “We were all trying to find a way to do something practical with our passion for music. It’s a tough industry,” he says.
Secretly Canadian has since grown into the record-label empire Secretly Group, which now also encompasses labels Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar and Numero Group, as well as publishing company Secretly Publishing.
Artists include some of the most influential artists of our time, among them Bon Iver and Yoko Ono, as well as new voices like Major Lazer, The War on Drugs and Angel Olsen. Secretly Group and affiliated labels also have offices in Bloomington, New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago and London, as well as additional staff in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Denver.
“You can have those more cosmopolitan experiences, but it’s always so nice to come back to Bloomington, where you can recharge your batteries. The quality of life is just so high,” says Swanson. “I love it here. People who are drawn to Bloomington—it’s a different type. When I’m away, I miss it.”
Growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, Swanson remembers going to shows and absorbing the art of local and touring bands at all-ages clubs. Fargo-based noise-rock band godheadSilo comes to mind, which is one of his favorite bands from the early stages of his youth. “I loved going to their shows. They were so cathartic, messy, beautiful and passionate. I remember thinking, ‘Man, they should do a CD.’ This was back when we were in the CD era. That was probably the first time I knew I was watching something important that wasn’t being documented that should have been.” Swanson was onto something—godheadSilo ended up releasing a handful of albums beginning in the early ‘90s.
Several years later in college, Swanson became ensconced in Bloomington’s music scene. He worked as a DJ and eventually became music director of the university’s college radio station, called WIUS at the time. He then began forging connections with professionals in the music industry. “The walls started to break down between who I thought I was and who I thought they were. I discovered we’re all just music people, and maybe I could do what they do,” he says.
“My friends and I started promoting shows locally in Bloomington, and we began connecting the dots. It was then that we thought, ‘We could put out a CD for a band.’”
When Swanson’s brother also came to Bloomington for college in 1996, they began assembling the pieces of their guiding philosophy and what they wanted to create together: tasteful, beautiful music, a mix of established artists with a fan base and those they’d discover together alongside everyone else. “We weren’t ever thinking, ‘We’ll still be doing this in five years, or ten years.’ We were looking one or two years ahead, at most.”
Swanson met Weddle through WIUS, and Cargill ran the dorm cafeteria where Swanson worked. They’d sort silverware, fill milk containers and lay out assortments of baked goods. “We would pass the time talking about records,” Swanson remembers, smiling wryly while pulling at his beard. “Jonathan ran the cafeteria, but he’d come sort silverware with me and we’d get lost talking about albums—bands like The Grifters, Palace Brothers, Mule. A lot of stuff that was either directly coming out of Chicago, or based there.”
A turning point came when Secretly Canadian partnered with Darius Van Arman of Jagjaguwar, a label Van Arman had started in Virginia, in 1998. Van Arman moved to Bloomington in 1999, which opened a new world of possibilities for both labels. Around 2000, the team decided to commit the next five years to creating what would become Secretly Group.
“That was a big step. It was an empowering moment that gave us the courage to really treat it seriously, where we said to ourselves and each other, ‘We are committed to this, together, and we want to do it here, in Bloomington.’ We wanted to keep it a little weird—not just follow in the footsteps of our heroes.
We wanted something more punk rock, very modest and anti-New York, Los Angeles, Nashville—the things we assumed those cities were about. That was really the turning point for us.”
The very first artist they signed was June Panic, a prolific singer-songwriter from North Dakota. Swanson heard him play for the first time back in Fargo at a strip mall, when he’d visited home on a holiday break.
At 78 minutes long, Swanson looks back at their first release with both fondness and amusement, full of the innocence of their early days.
They next signed indie-rock and alt-country singer-songwriter Jason Molina, whom Swanson admittedly ambushed after hearing his music. “I fell in love with the first 45 he put out on Palace Records. I’d listen to it over and over and over. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. A friend mentioned that she knew Jason, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God. Can you introduce me?’”
Swanson notified Ben, and they drove 15 hours from Bloomington to New York to see Molina play. “It blew my mind. I couldn’t believe how good he was,” says Swanson, who was 21 years old at the time. “He gave us a cassette, and we put it out. It was one of the first things we were able to hold in our hands that we’d made. It sold out within a couple of months.” They would go on to put out 17 records in total by Molina, including the acclaimed “Songs: Ohia” and Molina’s last full-length album, “Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go.”
“You’ve got to listen to this song, ‘Hold On Magnolia.’ It’s really something. I’ll send you a link,” says Swanson, typing wildly. Its beauty warrants every bit of dramatic keyboard-typing Swanson offers, as Molina sings, “Hold on Magnolia, I hear that station bell ring/ You might be holding the last light I see/ Before the dark finally gets a hold of me.” “Some of his songs have a real Bob Seger working-class, blue-collar vibe. He also had love songs about his wife, Darcie. We just wanted to do right by him. He was doing so well. We learned so much from putting out music with him.”
Molina’s success unbarred the potential for something much larger, requiring what Swanson calls 500 60-hour work weeks in a row. “That was the first 10 years,” he says.
At first, each co-founder touched every record and every process until they were able to streamline and make additional hires. “We each needed to find our lane and take it up a notch. We started to get more comfortable with the positions we were creating and the people we were bringing on. It’s been the last ten years—or maybe even the last five—during which we discovered that we don’t really have to be in charge of everything.”
In an emotional space of nostalgia, Swanson pulls up the first email he ever received from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, now a Grammy Award-winning artist. In the email, Vernon was following up to see if Swanson had received the demo he had mailed over, which had gotten misplaced in the pile of demos they’d begun receiving from artists. Consumed by the email chain of the past, Swanson pulls at his mustache and beard while intently sorting through his inbox, reliving the correspondence that began ten years ago.
“Sorry, I’m getting lost in this. This is so funny. Anyway—one of the first Bon Iver songs I ever heard was ‘Blindsided.’ The lyrics, the texture—we just fell under the spell. He was not well-known at that point at all. They were just great songs.”
They’d become skilled at connecting artists to audiences. But the scale of Vernon’s success was unprecedented. In the process of writing the first album, Vernon had contracted a debilitating case of mono, broken up with his girlfriend and hit yet another dead end in the labyrinthine road to professional musicianship. He spent a winter isolated in a cabin in Wisconsin, where he wrote his debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” released on Jagjaguwar in 2007. In 2011, Vernon released “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” which won Best Alternative Music Album at the 2012 Grammy Awards and garnered Vernon the award for best new artist.
“We try to have artists reach as wide an audience as possible without compromising their values. When Justin put out his record, we knew it was going to be good. But we had underestimated how many people it would resonate with. People trusted his voice,” says Swanson.
Swanson has developed a closeness with artists and their respective processes over the years, and has observed that the intense dedication and focus required to make music gets spent on not only the art, but the musicians as well, with painful, acute self-scrutinizing. Perhaps few know this better than artist and musician Yoko Ono, whose record re-releases appear on the Secretly Canadian label, and who also happens to be one of Swanson’s favorite artists.
“I’ve been a big, big, big fan of Yoko’s for 20-plus years,” he says. He calls her the original auteur, DIY rebel girl, commenting on the confounded, harsh anger that came at her from much of the free world and seemed only to intensify as time went on. “The world was not ready for Yoko,” says Swanson in admiration, citing his favorite Yoko Ono song of all time, called “Why.” The song is a cacophony of bizarre, possibly genius, uninterrupted caterwauling. After nearly a decade of labor, Secretly Canadian crafted an artful re-release of her music from the years of 1968 to 1985, in 2017. To discuss details, Swanson met her at her apartment—located in The Dakota in Manhattan, on the west side of Central Park—the same apartment where she lived with John Lennon.
“When we were putting together art for the re-release, we were looking at original Polaroids of her that he’d taken. It’s insane. It’s been a dream,” he says. The trajectory has also been rife with challenges. Jason Molina, who had released what would be his last albumin 2006, had been suffering from the deteriorative effects of late-stage alcoholism. After several attempts at rehab and sobriety, Molina had stopped touring and performing. “He was a terrible alcoholic, and eventually succumbed to it. His body just gave out,” Swanson remembers. On March 16, 2013, Molina was found dead in his apartment in Indianapolis. The cause of death was ruled organ failure brought on by alcoholism.
“It was crushing, when it happened. But honestly, it was more difficult watching him in those last years of his life. He was in rough shape. We tried to help him, and he tried to quit—he just wasn’t able to. Sometimes it felt like it could happen, but he was never able to sustain it,” says Swanson, who remembers so much more than Molina’s inner demons. “He had a darker side, but he was also the funniest person.” Secretly Canadian released a statement, which contained the sentence, “Without him, there would be no us—plain and simple.” Swanson, who has spent innumerable hours tracking down original vinyl, going to shows and frenetically discussing music at every turn, still draws upon the same fascination with what was once an impenetrable world fed by the college kid who sold his own plasma to pay for records.
Every time he finally found an original and held it, it felt like he was holding high art. “Once you hold the artwork, it all makes sense.”
This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 1, 2018. Purchase Issue 1 and become an ALIVE subscriber.
Photo credit: Attilio D’Agostino.