Self-Portrait: Music In Exile

The idea for Music In Exile had been simmering in the mind of label boss Joe Alexander’s for some time before it became a reality. After 10 years of running his DIY imprint Bedroom Sucks Records, Joe wanted to find a way of using the label to support musicians who might not have access to resources or connections within the industry.

Following a call out, the response was such that the idea became its own fully fledged not-for-profit initiative: Music In Exile. Based out of Melbourne, the label’s aim is to provide a space for artists working in culturally or linguistically diverse communities around the country. Driven by the artists, Joe and his team’s role is simply to support, listen and collaborate with the artists when they needed, helping to grow and develop their careers within Australia.

Since their inception they’ve worked with artists like Gordon Koang, Elsy Wameyo, Mindy Meng Wang and Ausecuma Beats; most of whom are included in Music In Exile’s Self-Portrait mix, which gathers forthcoming material from their ever-growing family of musicians. This sits alongside an interview with Joe about the inner workings of the label.

Let’s start with an ice breaker, what’s your earliest musical memory?

This is a tough one! When I was a kid I grew up in Malaysia, in a part of East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. My mum loved the traditional music made by some folk around there, so we would go listen to gong and sape music whenever we could. Also around the same time, dad would play records on Saturday morning while making breakfast, things like Daryl Hall & John Oates, Bruce Springsteen. So I guess those are the two pillars of my musical education! 

Can you tell us a bit about where the idea came from to start Music In Exile? 

If we can be honest, the name Music in Exile comes straight from the Songhoy Blues album of the same name. It came after seeing a movie by Johanna Schwartz that was playing in Melbourne, They Will Have to Kill Us First, about musicians from Northern Mali relocating to Bamako in the south. The movie is kinda about making music in a place far from home, dealing with your new surroundings, being homesick, and bringing people together through music. I had been thinking for a long time about how my other record label, Bedroom Suck Records, could offer something back to musicians in Australia that might be struggling to access resources or meet people, so the idea came to reach out musicians from refugee and migrant communities, to see what we could offer. In the end there was such a huge response that we started a whole new label, Music in Exile.

What’s the philosophy behind it? How has that philosophy evolved since you launched?

The idea is about asking questions, getting out there and finding out: ‘Who is in my community, out there making music, wanting to reach people, but having trouble accessing resources and networks?’ The answer was that there are so many amazing musicians, living in my town of Melbourne, out there making incredible music but not necessarily tapping into the ‘mainstream’ music industry. So we sat down with people and asked what they wanted – often the answers were to record, to meet people, to play gigs, to earn money to support themselves. Our organisation is not-for-profit and artist first, we ask the artists what they want to do, and we make it happen. That hasn’t changed. 

Music In Exile is very much driven by the artists, how has that shaped the output?

Yeah it’s an interesting one! Something we struggle with is that we only have so much capacity to release music, the effort that goes into producing, distributing, marketing music, means we can’t really keep up with all the artists looking for support. That is something we’re still trying to figure out. 
A lot of our artists are migrant artists looking to reach audiences in their new home, and often this will involve wanting to collaborate on new tracks or remixes. This I think has really affected the output and made for some interesting results, as you’ll hear in this mix! 

Can you talk us through some of the projects you’ve worked on since Music In Exile began? 

At a young age I started playing drums in bands, mostly punk rock or hardcore bands, that was my first introduction into the DIY music scene. We needed a label and we didn’t have one, so I started a record label called Bedroom Suck Records when I was around 16/17. That has been going ever since, I dropped out of university, started putting on shows, releasing cassettes and records, and just kinda went with it. I still don’t really know what I’m doing, but it’s allowed me to meet some amazing people. I’d been doing that for about 10 years and always thinking about ways that the DIY label thing could give something back to disadvantaged communities – eventually we got to Music in Exile. Who knows what will come next! 

Are there any labels that you look up to or have inspired you along the way?

I guess all the independent labels around me growing up in Australia – Chapter Music, Tenth Court, Room40, Breakdance the Dawn, Aarght!, Anti-Fade, Negative Guest List. It’s always inspiring to see people release music from an absolutely pure place of just believing in the cultural and artistic value of that music, and nothing else. That’s nice. 

Since starting Music In Exile what has been the greatest difficulty you’ve had to overcome?

It’s been a ride! Previously I have always worked mostly solo, but Exile has rapidly grown into it’s own beast. We are a registered not-for-profit in Australia, we have all the relevant bureaucracy and paperwork that has to go along with that, and about eight team members across various roles, it’s been amazing!

We also quickly found that a lot of artists were looking for more than just a label, they were looking for someone to literally guide them into the Australian music industry, find their feet, make connections, learn how to book a gig or put together a band. Often English is a third or fourth language for some of our artists. So I think a lot of the hands-on, after hours phone calls, driving to people’s houses, meeting community members, that kinda thing. It’s not a simple job! But that’s the best part.  

And the greatest achievement?

Ah, everything I just said! Creating a team of people who are inspired by our artists and are working to service them. Meeting artists and building personal connections with them, feeling like you’ve actually made a difference. Gordon Koang has had amazing achievements over here in the past few years, and with plenty more to come. Now we’re starting to see other artist come up like Ausecuma Beats, Ajak Kwai, Mindy Meng Wang. It’s an exciting time. 

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about starting a label with a similar ethos to yours?

Do it! It’s scary, and your heart has to be in the right place. It’s a lot of work, and you need to be really thinking about the artists, about how your actions can affect them, about how they might be experiencing events. So it takes a lot of work and constantly rethinking your perceptions. But it’s worth it and I hope people with the right heart and the right intentions will make it through. 

This mix is comprised of 100% original Music In Exile material. Could you tell us a bit about it? Any tracks that are particularly special to you?

Man, this mix is a big drop! It’s scary putting this amount of material out there. We have new material from Gordon Koang, Ajak Kwai, Ausecuma Beats. But there are also some huge collaborations on here, things that have been works in progress for a long time. Listeners might recognise the amazing Allysha Joy in there alongside Ajak Kwai, and there is a track that features one of our favourite Melbourne locals, Rara Zulu, laying down heat over a tune which was put together by Ausecuma Beats in collaboration with Z*F*E*X. The keys by Lewis Moody on that are insane – he’s a London local now I think. 

What’s coming up on the label? Any releases we should know about?

Oh yeah! So we have the follow up album from Ausecuma Beats, it’s called Musso – Ausecuma Beats are a nine-piece band based in Melbourne, with members from Senegal, Mali, Cuba, Guinea – they are one to watch. We also have Gordon Koang’s follow up album, the last one was called Unity, and this one is called Community – it’s genius. And you might hear some vintage sounds on this mix – we are working with an Ethiopian vocalist Mulu Baqqalaa, who has relocated to Melbourne – she has some amazing things in the bag. Stay tuned, and thank you STW! 

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