Marking a silver jubilee: Signature Sounds celebrates 25 years of making music with new album and livestreamed shows 

  • Signature Sounds is marking its 25th anniversary with a new compilation album that offers 37 tracks from as many artists and bands.

  • Eilen Jewell brings her mix of idiosyncratic rock, folk, and rockabilly to a Jan. 7 livestreamed show that’s part of Signature Sounds’ 25th anniversary concert series.  Image from website

  • Local faves Winterpills will play a livestreamed show from The Parlor Room Jan. 14. Photo by Joanna Chatman

  • Erin McKeown, who made her first full studio record with Signature Sounds in 1999-2000, plays a livestreamed show from The Parlor Room Jan. 21. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 12/15/2020 3:27:01 PM

When Signature Sounds turned 20 years old, the Valley record label and production company celebrated in style: a series of concerts, held over several days at Northampton’s Academy of Music, featuring numerous artists and bands from its roster.

For its 25th anniversary, staff at the label early this year discussed some other possibilities, such as putting together a tour of a small group of Signature artists.

“We didn’t want to do a paler version of what we’d done for the 20th anniversary,” Jim Olsen, Signature’s president, said during a recent phone call. “So we discussed a few other possibilities … the idea of a tour, though, never really got off the ground.”

Then came the pandemic, which made a tour a moot point and moved talk of anniversary projects to the very back of the back burner.

Now, though, the label has returned to the issue with a series of virtual shows dedicated to its artists, such as Heather Maloney, Eilen Jewel, Winterpills and Erin McKeown. Started last month, those concerts will run into spring and will be part of Signature’s overall “Home Sessions” series of virtual shows, which began in March and has raised over $114,000 in donations for musicians and the label.

Signature has also released its largest compilation album, “Golden Age: 25 years of Signature Sounds,” featuring 37 cuts from solo artists and bands. The two-CD collection, Olsen says, offers something of a history of the label’s growth from a platform for mostly regional musicians to one that gave launch to people who went on to attract wider audiences, such as Josh Ritter, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, Lake Street Dive and Erin McKeown.

The album’s opening cut, for instance, is “Me & Jiggs,” a folk-rock tune from Ritter’s first album with Signature, 2001’s “Golden Age of Radio.” Ritter made another album with Signature before moving on to larger labels and winning wide acclaim for his songwriting, with write-ups in major publications, TV appearances and co-billing at concerts with more established artists.

“Around 2000 was kind of a turning point for us,” said Olsen. “We signed Josh and Richard Shindell, Peter Mulvey, Tracy Grammer and Dave Carter, and we started getting a bigger and bigger audience.”

The new compilation album was something his label had planned on doing before the pandemic, he added, though the coronavirus outbreak made production more challenging. He and staff members “spent a lot of time talking about what we wanted this to be. What we didn’t want to do is make it a collection of rarities or live tracks or greatest hits … we wanted it to be a showcase of the artists, just a good listen all the way through.”

“We’ve made 160-something albums in 25 years, so we wanted to try and capture some of that,” said Olsen. “You know, make a thoughtful collection that has some logic to it — something that would really hold together as an album.”

With 37 artists on the two discs, there’s plenty of range here: the gentle folk of Redbirds and Birds of Chicago: the country flavor of Lori McKenna and The Sweetback Sisters; jangly rock from And the Kids and Amy Rigby; and the pop-jazz sound of Lake Street Dive and Twisted Pine.

The album also offers shifting emotional currents, moving in places from stretches of songs with more upbeat rhythms and lyrics to sections with darker inflections, such as Crooked Still’s “Undone in Sorrow,” Jeffrey Foucault’s “Everybody’s Famous,” and Lori McKenna’s “Bible Song.”

Olsen made the final decisions on the album’s selections and their sequencing. “I spent a lot of hours putting this together,” he said with a laugh. “It could have gone a different way.”

Choosing one song to cull from Chris Smither’s songbook, for instance — the veteran folk-blues songwriter has made seven albums with Signature — wasn’t easy, he said.

“There were a lot of tough choices to make,” Olsen noted. “And we couldn’t get everybody who’s made an album with us onto this. But I like what we’ve come up with.”

Livestreaming

The virtual shows of Signature artists that are part of the 25th anniversary celebration have also taken a different tack from the earlier online concerts the label hosted. They’re now being livestreamed from The Parlor Room — at least for those artists who are in the geographical area — rather than from people’s homes.

In addition, the veteran stringband Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem played live from Olson’s backyard patio, in Whately, during a warm day in November. More recently, Smither, Appalachian Still and Heather Maloney did shows from The Parlor Room — without an audience, of course.

“The idea is to make this feel like more of a real performance for the artists and the (online) audience, where we can get a better handle on the sound,” he said.

Like the managers and owners of music clubs everywhere, Olsen has serious worries about what the future holds, given the pandemic’s duration and the impossibility of knowing when musicians will be able to tour again — and when people will feel safe returning to shows. New restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings enacted Dec. 7 by Gov. Charlie Baker have only underlined the uncertainty, Olsen noted.

“We just don’t know what it will take to get back to normal, or even quasi-normal,” he said. Many music clubs and other entertainments venues, such as theaters, are facing permanent closure; Gateway City Arts in Holyoke announced just last week that they had been forced to close. Given that, said Olsen, “We’re just going to have to hang on as best we can.”

That said, he added that he had no idea how Signature Sounds might fare when he started the company 25 years ago with just a tiny staff — basically himself and recording engineer Mark Thayer. “The fact that we’re still here and we’ve been able to grow and adapt — that’s at least one good sign.”

“Golden Age: 25 years of Signature Sounds” is currently available as a digital download at the labels’ website (signaturesounds.com) and as a CD at Signature Sounds/The Parlor Room, 32 Masonic St., Northampton, and at Turn It Up, 5 Pleasant St., also in Northampton. Wider distribution of CDs becomes available in late January 2021.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.




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