Music interview: Tony Morley on the 20th anniverary of the Leaf Label

Leaf Label  Polar Bear. Picture: Steve Gullick
Leaf Label Polar Bear. Picture: Steve Gullick
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Started as a hobby by a record company press officer, the Leaf Label has grown to be one of Leeds’s most distinctive and adventurous record labels, with a catalogue of artists from all over the world.

“It was an idle thing that I fancied doing,” explains Leaf founder Tony Morley of the label’s origins 20 years ago. “It kind of fell into my lap a little bit, really. The first record we did was a Boymerang 12-inch, which was Graham Sutton from Bark Psychosis who I knew along with the guy I set the label up with [Julian Carrera]. He’d just fallen out of a deal with Virgin and was looking for some outlet for some experimental stuff that he was doing. We just offered to do it and it went well and we decided to do it again then it carried on from there.”

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Taking things “one step at a time”, Leaf released eight 12-inch singles over the next two years before stepping up to albums by the likes of The Sons of Silence, Faultline and the Japanese ambient artist Susumu Yokota. In the 2000s they moved to Horsforth in Leeds and became a launchpad for the careers of Caribou, Colleen, Murcof, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Wildbirds & Peacedrums and Efterklang. Last year jazz outfit Polar Bear’s album In Each and Every One was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize.

Of his intention for the label, Morley says: “I always said I wanted to keep people on their toes in terms of the music we released. I’ve always tried not to repeat ourselves. Any artist that we sign is significantly different from any other artist that we’ve signed. I think there’s probably a thread running through it but that’s my aim, just to keep moving the goalposts and changing what we’re doing.

“Arguably it’s not a great commercial decision because you have to start again with everything you do but at the same time it’s probably kept us going because people haven’t got bored of what we’re doing.”

Morley cites the 2002 album by Japanese group Asa-Chang and Junray as one of the label’s most original recordings: “It really doesn’t sound like anything else at all.”

“But most of the stuff I think is hybrids of things that haven’t been done before or haven’t been constructed in the same way,” he adds. “I think the artists that we tend to work with have that sensibility, they tend to have a lot of musical influences rather than being into indie rock or jazz or whatever it is, they’ve all got a fairly broad base of stuff that they’re into and that they draw into the music that they make. That’s what appeals to me, those hybrids and the things that might otherwise fall between the cracks and try to bring those to a wider audience.”

In the next week the Leaf Label marks its 20th anniversary with a series of concerts at Headrow House in Leeds. Tomorrow it’s jazz-punk group Melt Yourself Down, followed by Polar Bear on Wednesday and Matthew Bourne and Tom Rogerson on Thursday.

There’s also a vinyl and CD box set, called Leaf 20, featuring ten of the label’s key releases. Limited to around 200 copies, it can be pre-ordered online at http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/leaf20. “It’s all white vinyl and they’re all in updated versions of the sleeves and then they’ve all got these hand-printed over-wraps on them,” says Morley.

“We’ve got a 20-year-old Japanese larch tree which was felled by the Forestry Commission in Dalby Forest and it’s been cut up into slices and each one of those is going to be used as a stamp which will be used on each one of those records individually, so they’ll all be unique.”

As for whether he thinks the Leaf Label could keep going for another 20 years, he jokes: “I don’t know about another 20, it would be nice if I could retire by then.”

“But I’m certainly optimistic in the short-term,” he adds. “I think the industry has turned a corner and it’s definitely looking a lot better than it was a few years ago. The whole thing bottomed out for us maybe three years ago. 2012 was a pretty tough year, you get to the point where you think ‘Is it even worth continuing doing this? Can we keep making this work?’ and then since then Melt Yourself Down did very well, Polar Bear did very well, we got nominated for a Mercury Prize, things have just turned in the right direction and things like Spotify are becoming quite sustainable now and we can keep going.”

For more information visit http://www.theleaflabel.com/

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