Owen Ashworth on Songwriting, San Francisco, and Running One of Indie Rock's Best Labels

Owen Ashworth on Songwriting, San Francisco, and Running One of Indie Rock's Best Labels
Photo by Jeff Marini

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Owen Ashworth is a name familiar to anyone who has been invested in indie rock over the last 30 years. The indie-pop he's made as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and Advance Base has been as influential as it has been singular (when I first heard Perfume Genius' music, Casiotone was the first thing I thought of), and over the last decade his Orindal label has become a low-key powerhouse for breaking some of indie rock's most crucial and exciting artists, from Wednesday and Julie Byrne to Clare Cronin and Gia Margaret. I've wanted him to do the newsletter for a minute now, and in late 2023 we finally hopped on a call as he unspooled some straightforward wisdom from his home in Illinois:

Here's my favorite question to ask artists who live in the Midwest: What do you think it is about the Midwestern mindset that leads to people being creative?
I think the cost of living has a lot to do with it. When the rent is lower, people are afforded more free time to create. Boredom is possibly a factor. It's less and less so with the accelerated connectivity of internet life, but I feel like there was a strong, regional identity from city to city at a point. Groups of friends were inspiring and challening each other in these local, supportive bubbles of creativity. In Chicago, I see so much of that. There's just this really strong local music scene that people are so inspired by, from the other musicians in town to the people they're playing with regularly.

When Casiotone for the Painfully Alone was first becoming a public concern, what did community mean to you as a musician?
I was in San Francisco in the late '90s, which was a super vibrant time for music. It was a time for indie-pop. Henry's Dress became the Aislers Set, Rocketship and Pound Sign, Mates of State started playing shows a couple of years after I started doing Casiotone. There were great songwriters like Cass McCombs, Papercuts, and Glenn Donaldson. There was all this experimental, jazz-influenced hardcore that leaned into performance art—John Dwyer was going strong, there were bands like Erase Errata.

I'd see four-or-five band bills where it was all kinds of different music. Flying Luttenbachers would be playing with doom metal bands. There was so much music going on, it was really inspiring. I felt the freedom to do anything. I was young, I was in my early 20s and I was going out to see live music probably three or four nights a week, consuming so much performance.

Glenn Donaldson was on the newsletter some time in the past year. We talked a lot about the Bay Area around that time, too.
He stuck it out! Whenever I go back and play shows and see close mutual friends...we just played a show together last spring, it was the first time we'd been on the same bill in about 15 years. It was a lot of fun.

One reason why I wanted to talk to you for the newsletter, beyond the fact that I've been listening to your music since you've been releasing it, is that Orindal—am I pronouncing it right?
It's a made-up word, so there's no rules. Orinda is a town in the East Bay Area that my parents went to high school in, so I just put an "l" on the end. "Orindal" meaning "of Orinda."

One thing I've noticed about the label over the last decade is that I'm always relying it for left-of-center indie that I know I'm going to be into on some level. And some of the acts who you've released on the label have gotten really successful! I remember hearing the first Wednesday record when you sent it over to me and I was like, "Wow, another hit from this label." You've built up one of the best reputations, in my opinion, when it comes to indie labels. Tell me about starting the label and how you brought it to where it is now.
I started Orindal in 2011 or 2012. Initially, it was just meant to be an outlet for my own music and my brother Gordon, who hasn't been as active of a musician in recent years, but he ran Mississippi Records for some years and has his own reissue label called Olvido. He lives in Portland, Oregon now. Initially, that was the plan—we were just gonna put out our own stuff. For years, I'd worked with Tomlab and a handful of other indie labels, and I felt like I was always the annoying guy asking too many questions about the process. I just wanted to be really involved with the day-to-day of running a label.

When I ended Casiotone in 2010, I knew I wanted to do new music, but I had a very different idea for what Advance Base was gonna be versus what it turned into. I just wanted a fresh start, and with that I wanted to try to learn how to put out records and be more self-sufficient. The first release was a split 7" between my brother and myself. I put out a couple of Advance Base tapes and started reissuing some Casiotone stuff.

Julie Byrne was a musician I knew in town, we played some shows together, and she had a few cassette releases that local friends had copies of, and they went out of print really quickly. Once I built up the infrastructure and had relationships with pressing plants and my mail order running, I asked Julie if she wanted to collect the tapes she released onto a single LP that would stay in print, instead of people waiting for the next edition of the tape that may or may not come. That LP did really well, it had a really warm response, and Julie was doing a lot of touring and selling records out of her car.

I started getting demo submissions like crazy. Based off the success of that Julie Byrne record, any money that comes into the Orindal space went back into the label. I started with friends or other musicians who didn't have a home for their new album, or friends with dream projects that I knew I wanted to release on Orindal, like my friend Nicholas Krgovich. who had done this super lushly orchestrated pop record through crazy grants from the Canadian government. I heard him play the songs solo with a Rhodes during a show, and I was like, "That's the record I want. Would you be interested in recording a more stripped-down version of the songs?" So I released it on Orindal.

That's how the label started—once for myself, and then I realized that I was in a position to help people put out records that may have not existed otherwise. I was reaching out to friends, and as more demo submissions came in, the label grew faster than I ever anticipated. But this was not the original plan—to have a roster of 25 or 30 artists. I just found that I really enjoyed building a nice community, and seeing the way the artists on Orindal were supporting each other was really satisfying. It was something worth growing and building momentum with.

How much of your own taste or aesthetic preference is reflected in the label's releases? What makes your ears perk up when it comes to checking out new acts that you might end up wanting to do a release with?
It's 100% my taste. I'm the only person deciding what's gonna come out on Orindal. It's so much work and so much equity that goes into every release. I do everything myself, I run the label on my own, so I really have to believe in everything that comes through. I also have to really believe in the people I'm working with.

It's pretty rare that I'll work with a straight-up stranger. It's usually people I've played shows with, or someone that other artists on the label have personally vouched for. That's important to me, too. I just want to make sure that anyone involved with Orindal is going to be supportive of the greater thing and believe in working together. I feel like there's something really gross about people using the word "family" in this situation, but it needs to be a community, and people need to support each other for it to work.

Tell me about the business end of things—the nitty-gritty of working in the music industry, for lack of a better way of putting it. What are the risks and rewards? Have there been any significant struggles you've faced?
It really feels like more of an art project than a business to me. As a business, it's an abject failure. All the label money that comes in goes back to the label. I try to be really smart about keeping costs low and having realistic expectations for what I'm able to manage on my own, and I've also made the decision to keep things really independent. I've had offers to be absorbed by larger umbrella labels that have taken on percentages and offered exclusive distro arrangements, but I've opted to keep as much of the operations in-house as possible. I'm not a businessperson, and that's not what I got into this for.

But we've had some great success with a bunch of things—Wednesday, Gia Margaret, Julie Byrne—that has helped fund a lot of the other releases that haven't found as large of an audience. But it's a struggle. I got into this as someone who was very suspicious of the record industry. I wanted to do it myself because there was a lot of people I didn't want to work with. If there wasn't so much great music coming my way that I felt a real obligation to help, I wouldn't keep doing it—and you wouldn't believe the stuff I have to say "no" to, because doing everything myself means there's a real cap on what I can manage. I have to be really careful not to take on too many projects. Choosing who I'm gonna work with makes a big difference. It's about making sure I'm gonna have a fruitful and respectful relationship with the artists I'm working with, which is really crucial.

I was gonna ask you if you'd fielded offers from larger indies, because I figured you had. But you did have these indies earlier in the 2010s putting out tons of records. Jonathan Rado was recently saying to me that the stuff you could put out back then you couldn't get released now in the same way. You've been doing this for a long time yourself, and I'm curious to hear you talk about how things have changed on the business end for you over time.
The trend towards streaming has been a big change—the lessened focus on physical media, the race to the bottom with Spotify's business model, which is really distressing. I've made it my personal focus to make physical media the ideal, which is very old-fashioned, and with inflation and the cost of vinyl rising steadily in recent years, I've accepted that Orindal is gonna have to be a boutique and old-fashioned label by prioritizing vinyl and cassette releases as the platonic ideal of presentation.

There's something stubbornly old-fashioned about what Orindal is doing. I haven't made an effort to keep up with recent trends. I'll get involved with the digital side as much as artists want to, but some artists have just opted not to have their music on streaming services, which is fine by me. I want to give everyone I work with as much of a fair shake to get their music heard. I work with a boutique digital distributor to handle the algorithmic stuff that, honestly, I just can't stomach. [Laughs] It's out there and available on all the platforms that are consuming music, but I can't say I'm chasing it in a very savvy way.

The thing that's broken my heart in recent years is vinyl becoming a luxury commodity. The price of manufacturing has gotten so crazy. I see new records selling for $35 or $40. It's not affordable for music buyers. I don't blame people for turning to streaming, because it's not affordable to collect records anymore. I really make an effort to keep Orindal's prices as affordable as possible, and by cutting out a lot of middlemen and keeping production costs low, I'm able to sell records for $20 or less when I see labels selling stuff for double that price.

How does this all compare to the days when you were still doing Casiotone?
My kids make fun of me for being like "Those were the days..." like an old man, so I'm treading very lightly here. But when I started making music in the late '90s, there was no web presence. Getting local press was huge—just the fact that strangers were aware you were going to be playing a show was big. I just felt like having a social life was such a key part of being a musician. You'd go to shows, you'd meet people, you'd build your community. It was all physical media—having a new release, a physical object you're putting in peoples' hands or selling in stores. To go on tour, you'd feel like you'd be entering this different type of community.

I remember the first time tagging along on someone's tour from Los Angeles to Portland, it felt like being brought into this whole new world of people. I love touring and being exposed to new music. My musical world was so localized—the local bands I would see and the touring acts who would come through who were mostly friends of the bands I'd go to see locally. Just the interconnectivity, the fact that everything is immediate and virtual, sets a different sense of community. It's amazing that there are people consuming Orindal stuff in the UK, New Zealand, across Europe, Japan. It gives you such a different scope on who is connecting with this music.

There's a weird anonymity to that as well. It gets abstracted. I appreciate the leveled playing field that comes with the digital consumption of music. There's something really beautiful about that, too. But it's just so removed from the human connection.

As someone who's written songs for a while, I'm curious to hear you talk about how you think your songwriting has evolved over the years.
The way I write songs is so different now. When I was a younger person writing those Casiotone songs, I felt like I had all the time in the world. I spent so much time recording, writing, and fucking around with whatever equipment I could get my hands on. It felt like such a natural part of my daily routine. With running a label now, I really have to make time to work on my own music.

It feels like a much more selfish endeavor than it used to. I really have to carve time away from my work and family to go sit and play piano for a while. I am still trying to figure out the workflow that feels as immediate as what I was doing when I was a young person with no kids and responsibilities. At any time, I could put down what I was doing and go work on music. Music has become a meditative thing for me. If I have an hour, I will just go play. It's such a pleasure for me now. It feels such like an escape.

I think my music has taken on a more meditative and dreamy quality. The songs are still super sad, and there's a lot of grief processing in the way I write, but there's also so much joy in terms of getting to have time to do it that there's a different energy running through it. It feels sacred in a way I'm not used to. I was taking it for granted because I had the time for it I don't have now. It's still my favorite thing to do, but unfortunately I have less and less time for it. I basically go in this weird dream state when I'm writing at this point. I try to trust and follow my subconscious in a way that I don't think I did when I was younger.

I learn a lot about myself in terms of what comes out of the songs, and it's a really valuable part of my emotional life—just to see where the songs lead me. I'm working through personal stuff, but it has this real deep value in my life that nothing else has. I don't meditate, I don't do yoga, I don't go to church. Music is the thing that I do that is so purely for myself.

Younger people today who want to go it alone and start their own label—what advice would you give them?
Oh my God, this is so tough. I get emails from kids asking for advice, and I so rarely feel like I'm in a position to lead by example. The thing that's really valuable for me is the community coming out of it, and the ability to be supported by other artists I can commiserate with and share those rare wins. It's kind of like having a little writers' circle. My mom is a poet, and she's always talking about reading for her poetry group, and Orindal feels like my version of that. It's just so great to have a space with other artists I really admire where we can get to know each other as people and just help each other where we can.

It took years of figuring out the economics of record label stuff, and I feel like so much of that technology is obsolete at this point. I learned so much about vinyl pressing and recording to tape, and when I started touring it was phone calls and Mapquest printouts. But what I learned that is still valuable is work ethic. You find people you can trust and believe in. Find your people and do the hard work. There are no real shortcuts. That means playing a lot of shows, doing a lot of touring, and writing a lot of bad songs before you write good songs. I don't know how someone in their 20s starting a label in 2023 would do. So much of it would be focused on streaming and social media, which is the part that I begrudgingly participate in to begin with.

There's so much good music, and I get so many demos from people who are amazing that I know I'll never afford to take on their projects. I can't believe how many people have come to Orindal over the last decade, and it's really inspiring to see how many people are making art for art's sake, and looking to build a community out of music. The people I work with in Orindal are the closest people in my life outside of my family. It's a beautiful thing.

I think it's really easy to talk about the really hard, really discouraging aspects of doing this, but I do love to hear people talking about the good parts of it all.
The part that lifts me up is having conversations with the artists I'm working with, planning a release, and building something together that we're all excited about. That's the part of my life that I've been able to be the most useful in. I've been doing this for long enough that I've learned a few things, and I'm grateful that it has some sort of practical application.

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Jamie Larson