Bella Union Founder Simon Raymonde Finds Creative Balance with Lost Horizons

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

When we met on a recent video call, Simon Raymonde was in the studio he built in his garden just a few years ago. “It’s my happy place, really,” he says. “It’s a real treat to me to have this place, to be able to come in here and actually make music.” 

Initially, Raymonde was best known as a musician – the longtime bassist for Cocteau Twins, who played on albums like 1986’s The Pink Opaque, 1988’s Blue Bell Knoll and 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas. Following their split, Raymonde continued to make music here and there, but much of his energy went into his label, Bella Union. Since 1997, the indie label has amassed a roster of critically acclaimed artists, releasing music from the likes of Beach House, Father John Misty, Spiritualized, and The Flaming Lips.  

In recent years, though, Raymonde struck a balance between musician life and label life. He teamed up with drummer Richie Thomas, who had been part of Dif Juz and toured with Jesus and Mary Chain, Felt and Cocteau Twins, to form Lost Horizons. They released debut album, Ojalá, in 2017 and the first half of sophomore effort, In Quiet Moments, last December.  The second part of the album is out today, February 26. 

For Raymonde, the music that he creates now in his studio doesn’t necessarily have to be for a project. It can be music that exists solely for himself. “I can’t believe I wasted so much time not making music and missing it so much,” he says, “but now I’m happy.”

Several years ago, when Raymonde was preparing for Bella Union’s 20th anniversary, something was amiss. “I guess I should have been feeling really happy with, proud of, the achievement of making it this far, which I am and was,” he says. After some thought, he realized that it was because he wasn’t making music all that often. 

“I just think I was not managing my time right,” he says. Raymonde also had a change of scenery. After growing frustrated with life in London, he moved to Brighton in 2012. He and his wife now live just outside of the city, where he can see the sea from his window and take his Labrador for walks along the beach twice a day. It’s been a major quality-of-life improvement, he says. 

He says too that he had a “mental block” related to the dissolution of Cocteau Twins. “I needed to grieve that, I think, better than I had,” Raymonde admits. “Once I worked out why that was, I asked myself, ‘What are you going to do?'” Raymonde had wanted to work with Thomas. “I adore his style of playing and I thought it would be fun and I just wanted to have fun, to be honest with you. I didn’t really ever think, ‘I need to make a record.'” 

Lost Horizons’ songs begin with jam sessions between Raymonde and Thomas. From there, Raymonde will tinker with the arrangements and incorporate additional instruments in his studio. Once the instrumentals are at least roughly finished, he’ll start looking for the appropriate guest vocalist. “You’ve got to think about what’s right for this tune,” he says, “and that part of it I really, really, really love.” 

In Quiet Moments clocks in at one hour, 14 minutes, and it’s an eclectic album, stylistically ranging from the groovy title track to the ethereal “Every Beat That Passed,” with Swedish singer Kavi Kwai on vocals, to the dark, noisy rock of “One For Regret,” featuring British band Porridge Radio. Each of the 16 tracks features a different vocalist, including John Grant, Marissa Nadler, Karen Peris of Innocence Mission and many more.

The length and breadth of the album is why it was initially released in two parts. Raymonde explains that a traditional campaign might have confused potential listeners. “I thought the idea of spreading the whole thing out a bit over a longer period, and releasing a lot more tracks during the build up, would give people more of a clue as to what was going,” he says. “Splitting it into two parts was a way of achieving that, so at least people have something at Christmas time to listen to online in one place and then they get everything at the end of February with a full vinyl release.”

One of the standouts is the title track, which features vocals from veteran soul singer Ural Thomas, who had performed with such artists as James Brown and Otis Redding, and now leads Portland-based soul band Ural Thomas & the Pain. Ural Thomas’s collaborators “started sending me bits and pieces of demos of [his] tracks” Raymonde says, and he fell for the music. Meanwhile, he was sitting with a mellow, contemplative instrumental that he and Richie Thomas had recorded for Lost Horizons; it needed a vocal that would add soul and mystery, and “all I could think about was Ural Thomas,” he says. Raymonde reached out to see if there was interest in a collaboration, and of course, the rest is history. “That came so organically and out of the blue,” says Raymonde.

It was the kind of serendipitous collaboration that reflects the balance Raymonde strikes between his A&R ear and his skill as a musician and producer. Says Raymonde, “I’ve been incredibly lucky and very grateful with all the contributions, because it would just be 16 instrumentals without them.”

Follow Lost Horizons on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for ongoing updates.

LIVE REVIEW: Bella Union Label Showcase w/ Marissa Nadler, Mt. Royal, Ballet School & Pins

Pins Live Bella Union

Still a bit SXSW-weary, I ventured out to Baby’s All Right for Bella Union’s stacked showcase this past Wednesday, a chilly Brooklyn rain washing some of the Austin dust from my boots.  At first glance, the artists on the bill seemed pretty disparate, but then again, that’s really the beauty of Bella Union’s curatorial scope.  Though not sonically cohesive, something gelled as I watched sets from Pins, Ballet School, Mt. Royal, and headliner Marissa Nadler, and remembered how Bella Union was born – as a way for Cocteau Twins to release their own material.   When the enigmatic Scottish group disbanded, Simon Raymonde kept the label afloat, signing Dirty Three and other genre-defying bands of high artistic caliber.  And given that history, it’s no wonder that Raymonde is so acutely tuned to picking out female vocalists with innovative approaches, much like his former bandmate, the incomparable Liz Fraser.  Wednesday night’s line-up shone a spotlight on some newer additions to Bella Union’s stellar roster who follow Fraser’s tradition of fearlessly pushing female vocals to new, experimental heights.

Pins Live Bella Union

Manchester-based quartet Pins started the whole thing off.  They showed no fatigue despite the fact that it was the group’s third show in a string of NYC appearances, also coming on the heels of SXSW, where I caught them at Music For Listeners’ day party.  These ladies play searing garage rock with dire lyrics, but their penchant for the dramatic narratives belies a decidedly fuzzy approach.  They are a bit reminiscent of early Dum Dum Girls and in fact are scheduled to play shows with Crocodiles upon their return to the UK, so Dee Dee should probably watch her throne.  Frontwoman Faith Holgate sings in a troubled, deep-throated wail, occasionally interjected with spritely yelps.  Lois MacDonald’s back-up howls and distorted guitars lend elements of shoegaze to the froth, while plodding bass from Anna Donagan and Sophie Galpin’s crashing drums allow post-punk to creep in.  Though Bella Union released their debut record Girls Like Us late last year, the gals also run an impeccably curated cassette label of their own called Haus of Pins, no doubt part of the reason Raymonde was so impressed by the British babes.

Ballet School Live Bella Union

It was the first NYC show for Berlin-based Ballet School, who played next.  Of the four acts playing that night, Ballet School bore the closest resemblance to Cocteau Twins, but have updated that sound just enough to elevate it far above retread.  The trio look more metal than they sound, leaning toward shoegaze-tinged new wave pop more than anything else.  Irish chanteuse Rosie Blair has an almost operatic range, her voice trilling gorgeously over extended notes, taking on some of the abstract qualities for which Fraser was renowned.  The vibrations settle easily against the electronic loops and guitar manipulations that Michel Collet provides, his silky black mane falling over his face while Louis McGuire lays down R&B-inspired beats, often opting for a drum machine over pieces of his kit.  Blair’s stage persona is that of tortured wraith or sea-nymph, her pale skin framed by long, white-blonde hair, both set against dark garb which flared dramatically as the singer contorted her otherworldly frame.  Audiences at SXSW were awed by Ballet School’s performances; suffice to say this emerging band could be the next huge thing for Bella Union, who’ve already put out one EP (entitled Boys Again) for the newcomers.

Mt. Royal Live Bella Union

Mt. Royal was, for me, the true standout of the evening.  They’d already made the trek from Baltimore to Brooklyn for a few scattered shows, but this was my first opportunity to catch one of the band’s gigs.  Lead singer Katrina Ford is best known for her work in Celebration, and as with friends Future Islands and Wye Oak, has always had a reputation for putting on a phenomenal live performance.  Not only did Mt. Royal meet all those expectations, it destroyed them; Ford is an engaging performer who gave a powerhouse vocal performance, ululating between sensuous low registers and lilting peaks.  Her movements gave the impression of wrenching that sound from a deep emotional core, and her bandmates built anthemic paeans around it.  Their ferocious energy spread like wildfire around the room, with most of the crowd shimmying as enthusiastically as Ford herself.  The band hopes to put out a full-length in the fall to follow up their excellent six-song self-titled EP.

Marissa Nadler live Bella Union

It was a bit of a shame though, for Marissa Nadler, who had no choice but to take it down several notches in the now very noisy bar.  To her credit, she took it in stride and sounded perfectly ethereal despite having a bit of a sore throat.  Her elegant, moving record July is the fifth studio album the singer has released but a debut on Bella Union, who handles it in the UK while Sacred Bones oversees its US promotion.  Nadler mainly stuck to material from her latest, backed by cellist Janel Leppin, who added  some beautiful atmospherics with reverbed strings.  The less-than-attentive folks in the audience missed out on Nadler’s inspiring versatility – her resolute delivery of the very personal narratives that comprise July was both unflinching and delicately nuanced, indicative of the relentless touring she’s done over the last ten years of her career.  To those that were listening raptly, she had a special treat: closing the set with “Fifty Five Falls” from her first record, Ballads of Living and Dying.  It showed how far she’s come as a songwriter and performer, that there’s far more to her than the wispy caricature so often drawn due to her folksy roots.  As dreamy as her music can sound, it’s never timid, particularly on this last LP.  And it’s that quality that allows her to make a home on a label alongside bands like Pins and Ballet School and Mt. Royal, even if on paper it seems like a bit of a puzzle.

The common thread of the evening, then, was certainly commanding performances from charismatic women.  As Bella Union expands into the States, we can count on them to reliably unearth the most compelling voices in the industry, without rigid preoccupations as to what genre fits or doesn’t fit.  It’s endlessly encouraging to see a label truly invested in such an admirable endeavor.