“It let them float and drift, break apart and converge. Where they broke away, cracks, rifts, trenches remain; where they collided, ranges of folded mountains appear.” – Hans Cloos
Ambient music’s pink tinted sky has, in less than a decade, increased dramatically in population and traffic. The clean streams that used to contain nothing but sparkling water are now polluted by a thousand labels, stained by half-hearted approaches from artists without number. Music can change the world for the better, but sometimes you get the feeling the industry is solely out to use and abuse. Like anything, it isn’t all doom and gloom and every style has its standouts and slip ups. Saying that, there is no doubt that the ambient climate has changed. The early, innocent days have become distant continents. The classic Music For Airports has long left the terminal to be replaced by overcrowded passengers on silent, emotionless planes. Since 2009, one man and one record label have been setting the ambient scene right.
Above the clouds, a spacious place – reserved for a chosen few – remains, untouched by mediocrity and predictability. Ambient music doesn’t have a destination; the golden sprawl of headlights look like lost halos, shrouded in the smog. Tuned into the music’s frequencies, these artists dare to dream. A large amount of the music leans on atmospheric creation until it reaches the point where the tones ooze with it, and it stays with you like the lingering scent of a lover’s perfume. In many instances, they favour musical sanctity over public attention and mass consumption. Sometimes this results in the music going largely unnoticed, camouflaged behind the scenes of the ambient scene, but it’s there if you look hard enough, like a stealth bomber surfing the night skies with ease. They create the special musical moments we as listeners (and fans) return to again and again.
In the sky, pregnant storms give birth to anvil-weighted drones, thin cirrus clouds breeze past the softly scented ambient scenery while in other areas the music is so relaxed, so transparent and tranquil that it acts as a perfect sedative to a stunning sunset. Only a few put out music that retains the heart and soul of the genre. Ian Hawgood and Home Normal are doing just that; the label is well accepted and largely ahead of the pack. Curator of the label, which celebrated its fifth birthday in March, Hawgood is also in charge of package design, mastering, live shows and web design. His music is heaven sent – he’s the real deal. Hawgood certainly deserves all the credit that comes his way, not only in the ambient scene but the international music industry. The industry has become a beast, dominated by the flow of cash and prevailing issues of sexism and exploitation. And what’s up with auto-tune? Home Normal represent all that is good about music as they fight the good fight. Running a small record label is no doubt a consistent challenge; we say keep it up. Music is nothing without passion, and Ian Hawgood has that in abundance. This is how it started:
“Somewhere in the heavy snow-filled woods overlooking the bay, I decided it would be good to finally work on a long held dream: namely, to start my own record label.”
Hawgood’s passion was there from the start – the dream to start a record label. With both Home Normal (organic minimalism) and Nomadic Kids Republic (electronic maximalism) Ian Hawgood has mightily achieved what some would say is the impossible dream; it’s nothing short of sensational. Home Normal might be known for its organic, minimalist ambient, but the label doesn’t restrict itself to the genre. As with the release of birdt (Place For One Day), gentle folk, silky electronica and even noise all take a walk on the label. It’s interesting to note that, although Place For One Day is technically labelled as folk music, it still has an ambient heart. Home Normal is a gem of a label. Really, in an ideal world, it is everything a label should be but is often unfortunately not; one that cares about the music it releases. It is heart-stirring and heart-warming, and it’s reassuring to know that ambient music is in safe hands.
It started with a big dream that became an even bigger reality; a small independent record label working out of Nakajuku, Tokyo that would go on to turn the ambient scene upside down. Five years on, their philosophy hasn’t changed, and they’ve never fallen to pressurized demands. And yet their output has advanced, innovated instead of stagnated. Ultimately the label’s musical direction comes from Hawgood, who steers the label like a coach of a professional sports team. The beautifully arranged packaging is special, and even their digital releases, which are often afterthoughts, are beautifully presented. The workload of running a label (co-curator Ben Jones actually fired himself because of this) must be incredibly taxing. You get the feeling that it’s also incredibly rewarding.
The above quotation is taken from Continental Drift by Faures, which was released on the label in January 2014. It is a fitting description for ambient music as a whole with its rich tonal valleys and sanctuaries in the sky. Continental Drift’s creativity shines like a beacon in the haze: “Each musician has to come up with two tracks or samples, pass it on to the second musician from the next continent to work on and once that musician is done, he will then pass the tracks on to the third and final musician from another continent who will do the same. The tracks can only be worked on once for each musician.” It’s another example of breaking away from the norm.
2009 was the year Home Normal released their first record, a re-issue of the Library Tapes tour CD ‘Sketches’. This was quickly followed by ‘Engaged Touches’, a work by Celer which went on to sell-out. Both were praised; the label was an instant success. While success can have a way of distorting things, Ian Hawgood continues to stay true to his musical philosophy when many others would sell out.
In ‘Place For One Day’, birdt sing of rain coming from the clouds. Likewise, Home Normal continually revitalize the ambient atmosphere. Home Normal is a touchstone, a label for true musicians. They are blessed by a wide array of artistic talent, and although they describe themselves as minimal the varied tones on offer suggest a trove of timbre treasure; Stefano Guzzetti, with his intricate pieces for piano, share the same roof with the serene drones of Celer. As a musician, Hawgood is an ambient angel. Wolven (A Modern Interpretation) was dedicated to his dad and recently received high praise (it featured Aaron Martin, bvdub, Dag Rosenquist, Spheruleus, Pillowdiver, yoto and Hakobune), while his project with Ryo Nakata as Rion (Hibernate) immerses us all in a shower of deep, still drone, inspired by “the magic of low light periods and the quietude of a summer spent in the countryside”. Really, no more needs to be said. The ambient imagery is always incredibly detailed as the music takes you by the hand, with soft offshoots of pure light for company. As part of The Whalers Collective, Hawgood plays the gamelan and double bass as well as working on the sensitive art of tape manipulation. It oozes like slime with fatal curiosity through strange passages that creep with grey-black tentacles, settling on something that borders Lovecraftian horror and Japanese subtlety, with the dissonant notes slithering along the neck of the contrabass clarinet, ukulele and uttered vocal conversations. They take ambient music to exotic, ethereal and previously forbidden places. They use the instruments for the sole purpose of creating a shadow-strewn tapestry where atmosphere is king, presiding over the fog-shrouded ambient throne. It’s strangely captivating, and, yes, unsettling. Ambient music has many alleys, but some are no-go zones. Two years ago, the quartet of Black Elk – of which Hawgood is a part – released ‘Sparks’, which has since cemented itself in ambient history.
His faith has surely been a constant source of hope and inspiration during the long days and longer, sleepless nights, and Hawgood himself is a minister. The piece ‘Jesus Make My Heart Strong’ (Piano Works) is highly personal, and as it comes from the heart it can be called true music. The KOMU label has seen its fair share of beauty, too. Ghosts In The Alleys (Of Our Heart), Tiny Isles and Back To The Sea, which is infused with sunny synths, lush pads and quiet samples, all grace the label. It’s still ambient despite the light, intoxicating beats, and it’s another example of pushing – gently, gently – the genre forward, like stepping stones that lead to better places. Sometimes, stomp boxes and guitars wash away the serene sky with its very own Sahara sand, dirtying the sound with its distortion, but this once again highlights the label’s diversity and desire. The lovely packaging continues – they use aged washi paper, handmade from wheat and rice.
The Tohuku earthquake in 2011 badly damaged his home in North Saitama and wrecked his studio. The response to the disaster was indicative of the character of both Hawgood and his wife. They donated all of the money they had planned for their upcoming wedding celebration to charity, instead choosing to use it to help organisations and others in Fukushima and other affected areas. He then slowed the label down in order to help others in Japan that needed physical help.
“Whilst I did consider closing the label due to events at the time, Jonathan Lees from Hibernate and friends gathered around and supported us in an unbelievable way. By helping to support the work my wife and I were doing in Fukushima, as well as the constant messages of love and support, we were inspired to carry on stronger than ever before. I didn’t like the way I was running on empty and the demands that I had put on myself, and I hated the fact that yet again I was working to fund the label whilst my wonderful wife had to have another holiday cancelled. I disliked the way many distributors behaved, and wanted to bring the label back to its very personable roots, and I wanted to do this with Ben again. So the decision was made to completely slow down and to only release when we were absolutely ready rather than being rushed into it from all sides. We told stores who weren’t about the music to ‘jog on’, and brought the label back to our old friends and ties. As a result, the label is now back to its small, but friendly roots, after quite the journey.”
He is active in his support of charity and his giving is testament to the man. His kindness is refreshing to see; the rest of the industry should take notes. Sometimes, Hawgood records to a multitrack cassette and then onto reels, a process that ditches the laptop and the software. Instead, it goes hand in hand with his preference for organic, natural music. As technology progresses at a searing pace, one wonders if the laptop is just a temporary fix. Computer software has no doubt made it easier to produce music, but has it added to the aforementioned pollution? On the flip side, the more music available, the better the world will be, and with the current state of the world we really need a deluge of music, don’t we?
It also raises another question: if the music is good, then does it really matter if the artist is standing in front of a laptop? Sacrificing stage presence (which surprisingly plays a major role in how a performance is rated by an audience) is risky, but a lot of ambient artists do exactly that. Yet Hawgood’s music consumes the outside and lets the listener drift far, far away. The mountains of the music, the deep incisions and the dips in altitude are all part of ambient music’s journey. Some of it pollutes the air, turning the sky a sickly yellow. But broken suns mend with open lights. Ian Hawgood is trend-setting, breaking away…but, appropriately, doing so in the subtle, hushed ambient way.
“Music is often at its most beautiful when stripped down to its bare bones”.