Although these days the term has been rendered virtually meaningless, there once was a time when “indie” held a good deal of cultural currency in regards to music. It signified not just a sound, but a way of operating that truly was independent. Should you have needed an example (or want one now, for that matter), you’d certainly be on the right track if you looked to Sarah Records. Operating out of Bristol, England for almost eight years, the small imprint epitomized the indie ideal, perhaps at times to the point of its own detriment.
Sarah came into being into being when fanzine publishers Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes met and eventually moved in together. The logical nextstep from the flexidiscs each had released, the label initially focused on 7-inches. (They were decidedly against 12-inch singles). Taking the DIY approach to heart and working economically, the pair did everything themselves, lending a personal touch to the label that extended not only to their releases, but the manner in which they interacted with the people buying them. Though they would end up working with an array of artists with diverse sounds, Sarah also became known for specializing in the “twee” end of the indie-pop spectrum. The label’s approach and aesthetic won the affections of a following devoted as much to the label as the artists it represented.
One such devotee was Michael White, a Canadian writer who is the senior editor of Vancouver Magazine and now the author of Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records (Bloomsbury Academic). White discovered Sarah as an Anglophilic teenager and this book is a labor of love as they say, begun before he even had a publisher. But passion won’t make a book worth reading, and in fact, may hinder the writer in many cases. White, fortunately, possesses the writing chops to match his ardor, making Popkiss one of the most well-written, not to mention fascinating, label histories I’ve had the pleasure of reading. (And I’ve probably read more than you’d think.)
White begins by giving context to Sarah Records’ creation. He touches on both Postcard Records, Sarah’s spiritual forefather in more ways than one, as well as the indie music of the mid-80s as encapsulated on the C86 compilation that shaped Wadd’s and Haynes’ tastes. The author quickly proves himself to be both knowledgeable and eloquent as he describes this fruitful period of British music before moving to on to the Sarah roster, which included such notable bands as The Field Mice, Heavenly, and The Wake.
Wadd and Haynes were interviewed extensively for the book, as were the vast majority of the artists who released records on the label. The challenge was that there wasn’t the drama inherent in Sarah’s story like there is with, say, Factory Records. Besides being somewhat shy, the labelheads were fairly normal, and in keeping with their approach to other aspects of the business, dealt with their artists in an open and personal manner. Aside from some differences of opinion, one gets the sense that the squabbles that seem inherent in the music industry never came into play in the somewhat insular Sarah universe. What makes the Sarah story compelling then is the conviction of the parties involved. In the face of fluctuating trends and a near constant slagging in the British music papers, Wadd and Haynes persevered, operating in the black while financing recording sessions and the pressing of an impressive amount of records. (They quit after Sarah #100.)
It’s impossible not to hear the impact Sarah Records has had on labels like Slumberland and bands ranging from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart to Death Cab for Cutie. White does this legacy justice and then some, relating the label’s history with just as much care as Wadd and Haynes invested in everything they did.