In 1992, when Guy Blackman was 17 years old, he founded Chapter Music in his hometown of Perth, Australia. More than a quarter century later, the now Melbourne-based record label boasts a rich discography that is often gentle but rarely weak.
Chapter might be best known for adding to Australia’s considerable indie-rock legacy, having served as an international launching pad for homegrown bands like Beaches or the Twerps. But an 18-month stint that Blackman and his business partner Ben O’Connor spent abroad led to Chapter releasing a clutch of Japanese psychedelia as well. The label’s knack for unearthing old gems via compilations and reissues is also a significant part of its charm.
With the recent release of a delightful new album from rising label stars the Goon Sax, We’re Not Talking, we put together a beginner’s guide to the Chapter Music’s thoughtfully curated catalog.
The Goon Sax: “We Can’t Win” (2018)
From the Go-Betweens to Allo Darlin’ singer Elizabeth Morris, the Lucksmiths to Alex Lahey, Australia has long been a reliable exporter of artists who use jangling guitars as a backdrop for sharply rendered storytelling. The Goon Sax already made a strong case to join that lineage with their 2016 debut, Up to Anything, and they only help the cause with We’re Not Talking, released earlier this month (on Chapter down under, Wichita elsewhere). “We Can’t Win,” a quietly devastating duet that documents a relationship crumbling, is the band’s surest triumph yet.
Laura Jean: “Girls on the TV” (2018)
Melbourne singer-songwriter Laura Jean Englert has found in Chapter a home for her remarkable artistic evolution. She debuted with the lush, orchestrated folk of 2006’s Our Swan Song but “went electric” by the time of her third album, 2011’s A Fool Who’ll, ping-ponging back and forth since. Laura Jean keeps moving again on her new album Devotion, this time dipping into moody synth-based pop that has earned her praise from no less an expert than Lorde. “Girls on the TV,” a story-song that follows a young woman through the turbulence of adolescence, is a touching highlight.
Pikelet: “Dear Unimaginables” (2016)
One of the most compelling voices to emerge from Chapter’s orbit belongs to Evelyn Ida Morris. A former hardcore drummer, the artist known as Pikelet released four albums of heady, wonderful loop-based experimental pop on Chapter from 2007 to 2016. Morris is also a session musician who has worked with acts ranging from Ariel Pink to the Boredoms, and the co-founder of LISTEN, a gender-politics advocacy group. Morris’ latest album, the first not to use the Pikelet name and the first on which they’ve proudly identified as non-binary, was released via Courtney Barnett’s Milk! Records. A precursor to its piano-based introspection can be found on “Dear Unimaginables,” a song from Morris’ Chapter days, self-described as an “affirmation that it’s okay not to know everything all the time.” Whether you’ve been following Pikelet for a decade or are just starting fresh, it’s clear that Morris knows more than most of us.
Smokey: “Strong Love” (originally 1980, reissued 2012/2015)
Songs of pride have emerged as another one of Chapter’s defining characteristics. The label has released “Strong Love,” the swan song of ’70s/’80s queer pioneer Smokey, not once but twice—as the title track from the label’s highly recommended compilation Strong Love - Songs of Gay Liberation 1972-81, and on the first-ever collection of Smokey’s own music, 2015’s How Far Will You Go? The S&M Recordings, 1973-81. While less in-your-face than Smokey’s “Leather” (let alone his “Piss Slave”), “Strong Love” is a joyful LGBTQ anthem: as Eric Torres wrote of the song on this site, “you could see [it] being released today and still shifting the paradigm, at least a little bit.”
Beaches: “Distance” (2013)
This psych-rock quintet is arguably the most acclaimed band on the Chapter roster. Beaches’ self-titled debut album, originally released in 2008 on fellow Melbourne label Mistletone Records, was shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize and included in a 2010 book ranking the top 100 Aussie albums since 1960. Chapter signed them for their follow-up, 2013’s She Beats, where swirling freakouts such as “Distance,” which features krautrock icon Michael Rother, illustrate Chapter’s more hallucinatory side.
Twerps: “Dreamin” (2011)
There’s almost a whole separate outline to be written on Chapter’s best jangle pop (check out the Stevens and Dick Diver, starting with Twerps. The Melbourne quartet has since signed with American indie faithful Merge and broken out internationally, but its sound was never more mesmerizing than on debut opener “Dreamin’,” a gleaming guitar reverie. Sure, a few years later, Twerps leader Martin Frawley would complain, “I don’t want to sing ‘Dreamin’/It’s lost every single meaning,” but that just goes to show the song’s unusually strong grip.
Kath Bloom: “Come Here” (1984, reissue 2005/2009)
Bill Callahan: “The Breeze / My Baby Cries” (Kath Bloom cover, 2009)
Few artists embody Chapter’s ethos like Kath Bloom. Her private-press recordings from the early 1980s, best known for “Come Here” from the Richard Linklater film Before Sunrise, are so stark and piercing, it’s confounding to know they were overlooked in their own time. In the mid-2000s, Chapter began an extensive reissue campaign of Bloom’s classic material (including her vital collaborations with avant-garde guitarist Loren Connors) and released a couple of new albums from the folk singer (2015’s Pass Through Here, where spectral synths and choruses color in winding melodies, is her latest). Bloom’s work will reward the time you spend with it, but neophytes may find that the most natural entrypoint is the 2009 tribute compilation Loving Takes Its Course, with cover versions by Josephine Foster, Scout Niblett, Devendra Banhart, Mark Kozelek, and the Dodos. Best of all is Bill Callahan’s sublime rendition of Bloom and Connors’ 1982 “The Breeze / My Baby Cries,” an already devastating medley paired with Callahan’s typically stoic performance.
Frida Hyvönen: “You Never Got Me Right” (2006)
The parallels between Australian indie pop and the better-known Swedish variety are clear enough: The first mention of Chapter on this website came from Gothenburg troubadour Jens Lekman, who has toured with Blackman and once lived down under. The debut from multifaceted Swedish singer-songwriter Hyvönen, 2006’s Until Death Comes, arrived in America on Secretly Canadian (Lekman’s longtime label home) and in Australia through—you guessed it—Chapter. Hyvönen’s cerebral piano-pop vignettes make even more sense a dozen years later, especially this whisper-to-a-scream kiss-off: “And then you intellectualized my emotion/And called me baby baby baby baby in a wrong way/Oh such a lack of taste!”
Crayon Fields: “Helicopters” (2006)
Melbourne musician Geoffrey O’Connor is always up to something, whether under his Sly Hats alter ego or his given name, and before that as the frontman for rapturous four-piece Crayon Fields. With its childlike instrumentation, the sunny, ’60s-style indie pop of Crayon Fields’ 2006 debut, Animal Bells, felt like a salve at the time—a throwback to innocent wonder in the face of a world that seemed incomprehensibly corporate and slick (little did we know). Revisiting it now, the whirring uplift of “Helicopters” still works wonders.
Tenniscoats: “Rapid Rally (Live)” (2005)
An 18-month stay in Tokyo beginning in 2002 introduced Chapter label heads Blackman and O'Connor to a thriving Japanese scene that shared their shambolic sense of adventure. Chapter encapsulated that moment on a 2005 compilation, Songs for Nao, and went on to release new music by two of its artists, Maher Shalal Haz Baz and Tenniscoats. The latter, essentially the duo of keyboardist/vocalist Saya and guitarist Takashi Ueno, inhabit their own delightful psych-folk universe across numerous albums, where they shimmer and sigh alongside assorted indie-pop luminaries. From the earlier of their two Chapter full-lengths, Live Wanderus, “Rapid Rally (Live)” captures one of Tenniscoats’ very first songs in all its ragged onstage intensity. It’s a glorious fist-pumper from a band more prone to wide-eyed chin-strokers.
Sulk: “Motormouth” (1994)
Chapter began as an outlet for Blackman to release small runs of cassette releases, particularly compilations; his own music naturally found a home there from the start as well. Before going solo, Blackman played in a variety of lo-fi bands, starting in 1992 with Sulk. Their whispery bedroom-pop delicacy “Motormouth,” from the early Chapter comp Too Much Ash, wouldn’t have been out of place on a Sarah Records release. What the labels share is the proof that tiny, far-flung organizations can still have a strong influence on indie-pop history.