In a lot of ways, it started in basements.
Bloomington, Indiana, sometime in the mid-Nineties. A long-since-lost Billboard article painted the Midwestern college town’s scene as the next Seattle, a promising incubator for up-and-coming bands. But for all the mainstream attention bubbling on the surface, it was the energy humming beneath that beckoned. The romanticism and seemingly-endless possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll thrived, the basements concrete harbors for weirdo, arty kids, young and in love with the idea of what music could be.
Amidst all of this, the seeds for Secretly Canadian were planted.
Chris Swanson met Eric Weddle in 1995 as sophomores at Indiana University. Both were involved with the campus radio station, WIUX, and, more importantly, were record fanatics with an insatiable appetite for crate digging. Swanson soon met Jonathan Cargill, a fellow music obsessee, via a job in the Collins cafeteria on campus. Ben Swanson, the final piece of the SC puzzle, made his way to Bloomington shortly thereafter, leaving the Swansons’ hometown of Fargo, North Dakota for the thriving DIY mecca his older brother had become immersed in.
“We were experiencing this deluge of incredible music all at the same time, at the most appropriate point in life to experience it,” co-founder Ben Swanson remembers. “Being eighteen to twenty-one, when you’re most infatuated with emerging art, and have the most propensity to consume large volumes of it.”
Secretly Canadian, the foursome’s first go at a record label, was founded in 1996. Without any experience, Weddle, Cargill, and the Swansons figured it out as they went, fumbling along the way. At the time there was no infrastructure for labels in Bloomington, or greater Indiana, and the internet was nearly nonexistent. They worked out of the Swansons’ house, and Ben Swanson recalls initially spending three or four months alone on researching how to make a CD.
“Early on, it was micro goals – we wanted to put out an album and sell enough to pay for it, you know?” Chris Swanson says. “We’d set a goal that we wanted to work with more national bands, or bands that had a sales history before working with us. We had an idea of what our roster would look like creatively. A blend of new artists and veteran artists.” He pauses.
“We had the vision, but we didn’t necessarily set financial or business-type goals other than breaking even on records.”
Along with that lack of experience, and the long, slow journey to build out an infrastructure, there was also a tireless dedication – that Midwestern modesty and work ethic – and an ear for earnest, resonant songwriting.
The first official Secretly release came from June Panic, a musician from Grand Forks, North Dakota; the Glory Hole CD offered 28 tracks and a lo-fi collision of folk and punk. But it was the label’s next release, courtesy of Jason Molina, that would mark the beginning of a lasting, definitive creative partnership.
The often-repeated lore begins simply: the Swanson brothers had fallen in love with Molina’s debut “Freedom” 7”, tracked down Molina’s email address, and enthusiastically written to their revered songwriter. To their surprise, Molina wrote back with an offer – if the Swansons attended Molina’s in-store gig at Adult Crash in New York, he would give them masters for the label’s first 7”.
So they got in the car and drove. Fourteen hours later, the Swansons were in Manhattan, meeting, for the first time, the artist who would go on to be a long-defining voice and flagship of their then-fledgling label. In the decades since that prolific artistic partnership began, the Swansons have acknowledged that without Molina, there would be no Secretly Canadian.
Along with Molina’s melancholic, blue-collar work as Songs: Ohia, Secretly Canadian’s other early releases included the Midwestern, gritty rock of Marmoset and Swearing At Motorists. As the roster began to modestly grow, the inner-workings of the label were also shifting: Weddle had struck out on his own (a move Cargill would mirror years later in 2011), while Chris Swanson struck up a friendship with Darius Van Arman, who was building his own indie imprint, Jagjaguwar, in Virginia. With shared admiration for one another’s work, Van Arman offered a partnership. Swanson told Van Arman he’d have to move to Bloomington for it to work – and he did.
The early 2000s yielded reissues of new wave/krautrock Seventies British outfit Swell Maps; more reissues from frontman Nikki Sudden’s solo catalog; and New Jersey’s Christian, eclectic, and sonically-challenging Danielson. Damien Jurado, the Seattle singer-songwriter who wrote work with a solemn, crushing timber and simplicity, made his way to Secretly Canadian in 2002. Two years later, Jens Lekman’s delightful, buoyant pop laced with sharp, observational lyrics joined the label’s roster, too. The sonic spectrum of Secretly Canadian’s catalog sprawled even further.
“We were a label of three-legged dogs,” Ben Swanson says, quoting Anohni, who had lovingly referred to Secretly Canadian this way.
Anohni’s stunning work also served as an important catalyst for the label. Formerly known as Antony and the Johnsons earlier in her career, Anohni has longtime been a genre-breaking artist, steadfast in a strong, unwavering sound. The Swanson brothers became enamored with Antony and the Johnsons’ self-titled debut from 2000, particularly the “Blue Angel” track. Determined to sign her, they chased for years, even as the album was polarizing amongst friends: confident, distinctive, unyielding, and radical.
“We try to take chances on brave voices. We believe in bold voices,” Chris Swanson explains. “When we first signed Antony and the Johnsons, it didn’t feel like there was a place for Anohni in the musical landscape. It very much felt outside of any sort of band at the time, but we believed in that kind of immutable voice – not just the vocal voice, but the artistic voice of Anohni.”
Antony and the Johnsons’ first record with Secretly Canadian, I Am a Bird Now, released in 2005, sold 100,000 copies in the first two months, a landmark moment in Secretly Canadian’s history – the sort of record release that blew the doors off of the limits of the label’s possibilities.
Between their successes with Molina and Anohni, the Swansons had gotten good at the chase, something they’d use to their advantage as the label grew. Years of patience and pursuit yielded a partnership with Chimera Records in the form of Yoko Ono’s reissues beginning in 2016, and the debut release from the pioneer of color photography, William Eggleston, in 2017.
“At the end of the day, we’re patient,” Ben Swanson says. “It’s really fun to sell records right out of the gate, but it’s more rewarding to keep it slow and steady and build it over time – that discovery process is really important. When people feel like they’ve discovered an artist or record on their own, they go deeper with it, it feels more personal.”
That philosophy also appeared as a through-line with the War on Drugs, the Philadelphia-based band whose third record, Lost in the Dream, struck as both a critical and commercial success in 2014. By music industry norms, breaking on the third record is an anomaly – a miracle, maybe – but the War on Drug’s slow-and-steady pace would yield yet another milestone in the Secretly Canadian lineage.
Today, Secretly Canadian’s roster is a mix of old and new. The unhinged, feminist skuzz of wunderkinds Cherry Glazerr; the dreamy singularity of Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake; Alex Cameron’s sinister synth-pop reflecting on the darkness of the world; Anohni’s crushing, sprawling protest song delivered via dance music; Joey Dosik’s charming jazz infused with a love of basketball; Stella Donnelly’s soaring voice; serpentwithfeet’s emotive, stunning blend of gospel and pop.
“We were always striving for a timeless sound we wanted to put records that, when discovered in the bins twenty, thirty years from now, they’d sound even better, or cooler than they did upon being released,” Chris Swanson says. “I feel like we’re still doing that.”
Despite the growth of Secretly Canadian over the years – the addition of Dead Oceans and the formation of Secretly Group in 2007, the partnership with Numero Group in 2015, and an expanding global presence – much remains the same. The headquarters is still in Bloomington, amongst the basements, the thriving college kids, not far from the house Secretly Canadian was originally based out of. Songs: Ohia album artwork hangs next to the main entrance, the first greeting in the sunlit office.
And, in the end, it’s still helmed by its founding brothers, two idealistic music lovers who hurtled across the Midwest in a car, driving toward New York City and the possibilities of a man with a devastating voice.