Music Features

A Question of Sound #2

A sleepy, isolated town on the West Cumbrian coast, Whitehaven is probably one of the last places – in England, and possibly the world – where you’d expect to find a thriving indie-pop record label. There are no proper record shops (no, Smith’s and Woolies don’t count) and the only established music venue has, at the time of writing, precisely three gigs booked for 2008. Don’t get me wrong, Whitehaven’s a nice place in many ways – it’s also happens to be my hometown – but I can tell from experience that growing up as a music fan there is pretty tough.

Thanks to the efforts of one man, however, things are changing. Whitehaven may not have a great band to call its own but now, thanks to Gavin Stephenson’s Letterbox Records, it does at least have a great record label. Specialising in classic indie-pop music, Letterbox is rapidly gaining a name for itself on the back of a string of impressive album releases including, most recently, the debut albums from Scotland’s Amateurs and Sweden’s Penny Century. This is the story behind the label’s success.

After graduating from university, Gavin moved to Glasgow on the basis of the city’s “super indie-pop scene”. From here, he made what he describes as his “most ludicrous yet enterprising decision” by applying for an unpaid internship at Shelflife Records in San Francisco. His application was accepted and Gavin packed his bags and crossed the Atlantic to serve a valuable apprenticeship with the label. He explains:

“I applied for this internship so I could 'learn the trade', before creating Letterbox, but I gained some much more from my time at Shelflife, not least a wonderful friendship. After a year, I moved back to the UK, bought and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Upon his return, Gavin returned home to Whitehaven home to set up his label. Despite the town’s location, a draining 320 mile drive from London, the supposed epicentre of the UK music industry, he doesn’t see it as a major disadvantage “thanks to the Internet”.

It’s perhaps indicative of the San Francisco label’s influence on Gavin that his first Letterbox release came from a former Shelflife act, The Arrogants. The band had already released You've Always Known When Best to Say Goodbye themselves stateside when Gavin arranged a deal to handle the UK release and distribution. A similar deal was arranged with another American artist, Aaron Schroeder, but Gavin returned to Scotland (Edinburgh this time) to make a charmingly quirky indie-folk sextet called The Amateurs the label’s first ‘proper’ signing. Although the band’s charismatic Hongu Kongu album is nominally catalogue number LET001, it was actually the last of the label’s 2007 offerings to be released due to a few problems with recording and artwork.

The first Letterbox-signed band to release an album on the label was London-based Anglo-American quintet Morning Bride, whose Lea Valley Delta Blues earned Letterbox its first mainstream press. The Word dubbed the band “The best thing to come out of Hackney since the White Stripes recorded Elephant there”; Plan B and Rock ‘n’ Reel were equally enamoured with the record. Gavin soon found himself on BBC Radio 5 Live talking about indie label success stories!

The highly-rated debut album from Glasgow’s California Snow Story followed. CSS (no, not that one) are another ex-Shelflife band, led by former Camera Obscura guitarist/songwriter David Skirving. While mainstream press has surprisingly eluded the record, CSS’ Close to the Ocean has steadily become Letterbox’s top selling release as the result of blog support and word of mouth throughout the indie-pop community. The band’s Suddenly Everything Happens single topped a poll for Best Single of 2007, beating off such heavyweight challengers as Jens Lekman and the Clientele in the process.

France’s Watoo Watoo was all set to release its second album la fuite elsewhere when disaster struck; their label unexpectedly folded leaving the Bordeaux-based indie-pop duo homeless. David from California Snow Story alerted Gavin to the news and within a couple of weeks the record was released on Letterbox. I haven’t heard the whole album myself (yet) but I can highly recommend the free download-only single Perdu. Comparisons with Stereolab are inevitable due to chanteuse Pascale’s soothing French-language vocals, but the Watoo Watoo sound is jauntier and more pop-based.

Every good indie-pop label needs a classy Swedish act on its roster, and Gavin found his in the beautiful Northern lakeside city of Östersund. I’ve visited the place a few times and I can safely say it’s even more isolated than Whitehaven. Penny Century accidentally deleted Gavin’s first e-mail, mistaking it for spam, but their wires were eventually uncrossed as the Swedes became the newest addition the Letterbox stable. Their accomplished debut Between a Hundred Lies was released in the summer to further acclaim and respectable sales. The band even turned up to play a date in Whitehaven, which must have been an experience for them. Perhaps the most commercial sounding band on the label, Penny Century could well be the one that helps Letterbox break through to a more mainstream audience. I certainly hope so, because both parties certainly deserve that kind of recognition.

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Listen To Letterbox Online:

Penny Century – “Nothing Burns Like Bridges”
Watoo Watoo – “Perdu”
The Amateurs – “Things You Only Know If You Don’t Drive”
Morning Bride – “Stepping Out In Front of Cars”
California Snow Story – “Suddenly Everything Happens”
The Arrogants – “Don’t Be So Cynical”
Aaron Schroeder – “A Movin’ Movin’ Train”

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Please visit for more information about the label and its artists. CDs can be purchased from the label’s online store or iTunes.