On A Boat
Mama Bird Recording Company started with three men on a boat. This wasn’t some extravagant yacht porting into a remote Caribbean dock with guests sipping champagne and attending endless buffets, but rather a small rowboat on Jamaica Pond in Massachusetts. Vikesh Kapoor, Barna Howard, and Vincent Bancheri were fishing and spit-balling names for the label that would evolve out of the loose collective they’d built among Boston’s folk music aficionados. They had more success with the naming than the fishing, as Howard tells it: “For three hours we sat out there without one bite. It was a windy day as well, and drifting towards the shore every five minutes got a little old. I imagine it must have been pretty funny to watch the three of us trying to keep the rowboat in one spot. I recall Vincent handling most of the rowing.”As the heart and backbone of the Mama Bird label, Bancheri does the steering for the careers of seven distinct artists. It’s not always as simple as rowing. “I’ve been a booking agent when I had to, a manager when I had to, a publicist…” Considering the many hats he wears by necessity, one could understand a show of fatigue, but Bancheri isn’t drifting off, he’s building emphasis: “That’s the role of the label—fill whatever gaps there are. Which is not easy when you’re doing it by yourself.”The straightforward, earnest spirit seems appropriate for the Mama Bird roster. There’s a rugged aesthetic that just feels right for the folky Americana of these artists. The glossy artificiality of pop has no place here, where the focus is on song craft. In addition to Kapoor and Howard, Mama Bird boasts releases by bands Denver, Saintseneca, and Quiet Life as well as solo performers Widower (a.k.a. Kevin Large) and most recently Montreal’s Myriam Gendron.“People have come to expect roots-based songwriting from us but I’m open to keeping things interesting,” Bancheri says. “I could see Mama Bird putting out a soul record if it fit that kind of feeling, that kind of great songwriting. I have pretty wide-ranging tastes. I love great songwriting. I keep coming back to the term song craft, which can be in any genre. I feel most passionate about country Americana folk music, that realm. But there’s a lot of stuff in that realm I hate. Often friends or relatives will say ‘Oh, you would love this!’ Why, because it has a banjo? It’s terrible, I hate this. I’m really picky. There’s always this question of, do I want to stick to a certain genre? Most importantly it’s about great songwriting, lyrically driven records.”
east to west
Bancheri explains that Mama Bird’s beginnings were, in a literal sense, communal. “Vikesh, Barna and I met in Boston 10, 11 years ago. We built this community of folk music enthusiasts, songwriters, artists, performers, and fans. I hate to use the word ‘collective’ because it’s kind of hippie bullshit … but kind of a collective, six or seven of us. We all wrote and played songs but I was always the one getting us press, organizing events, booking venues, all of that stuff already. So I had already become that character. I also realized that not only were they better than me, they were really special. I will always be passionate about playing and writing but I realized this is what I’m good at. This is where I can be of best use, so I made the decision to turn the collective into a label. ‘You guys focus on writing records, I’ll focus on the business side of things.”The missing piece of the puzzle wasn’t a who but a where. While they’d created a scene they enjoyed in Boston, the trio longed for a city that offered more cultural stability, clarifies Bancheri. “At that time Boston was, musically, not that great—it’s too heavily a college town and the turnover of community was too frequent to really build anything. So we started doing research on where we wanted to go. I had visited the northwest with a friend and absolutely loved it. So I went back and said ‘Hey, this is where we’ve got to go.”“We drove out here each in his own car. I was a few hours ahead of them and I remember Barna calling me when he got to the Gorge, saying ‘This is so right, thank you for making me do this!’ It’s been a great move for all of us. We’ve since built that community and found other folks that are really a part of it—the Denver boys, Quiet Life, etc. I’m proud of being based in Portland. It’s a great city, really great people that support independent businesses and are trying to create something.”The decision to relocate to Oregon paid off quickly. Sean Spellman of Quiet Life: “We actually met Vincent the first week he moved to Portland. He and Barna Howard were randomly extras in our video for the song ‘Jim’s Wedding Band’. There is a slow motion shot of them in the video getting into a food fight. I think Vincent gets hit with a loaf of bread.” This was only the beginning. Vincent and company was soon to become a part of a robust and burgeoning community of song.
getting down to business
For many labels, the challenge is in finding artists that embody the ideals of the founders. With Kapoor and Howard already in place, Mama Bird’s main hurdle was technical: how exactly do you successfully promote and release records? Bancheri spend his first year in Portland researching the business of music: reading books and interviewing the right people.“I went to the library, I went to Powell’s… I spoke to a few people who run record labels here in town and picked their brains a little. Jared Mees from Tender Loving Empire was a tremendous help, and still is. They’ve been really supportive. Portia who runs Kill Rock Stars, as well. A lot of these folks who run labels come from the same place we did. They wanted to do it so they just tried it and somehow or other kept it going.” I wanted to do everything right from the beginning. It was expensive. You end up spending a lot of money right off the get-go. But it was all really helpful. I went to conferences. I read. The rest of it is fake it until you make it. You make mistakes but you learn from them.”
finding the music
Without making light of the creative process of the artists, the music seems to be the easy part for a small independent like Mama Bird. The label has established itself as a home for thoughtful, lyrically driven folk. Just as like-minded people found him in Boston, artists send music to Bancheri hoping to release their work on his label. “The first release was the Saintseneca record Last—our first record was called Last!” Bancheri relates, laughing at the thought. Like many aspects of the Mama Bird story, Saintseneca came to the label in a completely organic, person-to-person way. “We met Vincent in 2009 when he and Vikesh lived in Boston,” explains Saintseneca’s Zac Little. “They would have these events—they called them ‘hoots’—where people would get together and play songs around a theme, old folk songs and stuff like that. They used to have kind of a speakeasy bar in the attic [laughter]. That was when we became friends. That’s what the scene and vibe was.”“So we all eventually moved to Portland and around that time, Mama Bird became a label proper.” Zac remembers, “We had already done a few releases by that point,” Little elaborates. “Last was our first full-length record but it wasn’t our first release with a label. We were ready to try something different and there wasn’t really a template saying ‘this is how we do it’ with Vince. He was still figuring out how he was structuring things, as were we. Since we had that relationship everyone was excited about making it happen. There was never any apprehension. We were all small fry at that point, and still are to some extent [laughter]. It was a natural, organic thing to happen. We hung out, he’d help us set up shows, that’s how it all started.”Bancheri concurs. “They’re great performers and sweethearts. They made a lasting impression on me. They reached out when they heard we were starting a label. They had a record ready and I listened to it and thought, ‘I want this to be our first release.’ Barna’s debut was our second release; Vikesh’s was our 6th. It’s been awesome growing with them, watching them just be artists.”
analog meets digital
The flexibility of the new music economy means that artists can release an album on different formats with different labels—or, as was the case initially with Widower, who had no label. Before signing with Mama Bird he’d already released his record FOOL MOON digitally on Soundcloud, so Bancheri later issued a CD. The variety of formats offers advantages and challenges to a label, particularly when deciding where and how to distribute music. Streaming services have a part to play in the grand scheme but like most independents, Bancheri isn’t 100% sold on their industry savior status. “I don’t put a whole album on Soundcloud or Bandcamp. I still believe in the album, especially for what we’re doing.”However, that doesn’t mean he’s dismissive of the reach of freemium or paid subscription services. “If it’s a great record that will show. For as much music is out there, every time there’s an opportunity to be heard you want to take it. If someone works to seek you out, even if it’s Spotify search, if they can’t find you… too often they might just leave it at that. But if you can get them on the hook, enough people on the hook, it might lead to something.” It’s a strange sort of relationship that must exist between technology and a label such as Mama Bird, which places such emphasis on songwriting and performing that feels so personal, so human. As for his individual listening preferences, Bancheri is upfront about using digital services when convenient. “I listen to Spotify at work, sure,” he says, but all things being equal he—like most music lovers—has a preference. “Vinyl’s just one of those things. I love it.” Worth noting is the label’s accessible pricing on vinyl. Current market conditions push the price of some vinyl releases into the $30+ column per title, yet Bancheri keeps most Mama Bird albums in the $15 range. If nothing else he recognizes the importance of meeting listeners on their own turf, whether digital or analog.
full steam ahead
Bancheri’s role has evolved and grown over the years. 2014 was the best year yet for Mama Bird, due in large part to the efforts of the man with his hand on the rudder. It’s no longer a rowboat he’s paddling, but a boat big enough to carry all of Mama Bird’s musicians, all with careers on the upswing. 2015 promises to be a breakthrough: Vikesh Kapoor is playing to larger and larger audiences and Barna Howard’s sophomore release Quite A Feelin’ got rapturous reviews. Howard’s showcase shows in France and England proved that Folk Americana has appeal well beyond our borders, and Mama Bird’s roster is poised to deliver songwriting that grows that appreciation.“I’ve had dreams of starting a label for a long time and the situation was just right. Here were these artists that deserved to be heard,” says Bancheri, pausing for a moment. “Whether you buy or stream it, just spend a little time with our songs. I hope they consistently hit you as hard as they hit me.”