One day in 1975, Brian Eno, then in his late 20s, found himself stuck in Germany’s Cologne Bonn airport. Overwhelmed, Eno began conceiving a piece of music designed explicitly to combat the anxiety of the airport experience, which one can easily imagine was marked by the bright glare and persistent hum of fluorescent lights, an inevitable screaming child and the existential angst that comes from being cooped up and in limbo. The fruits of his labor, the glacially-paced, gorgeous Ambient 1: Music for Airports, was released in 1978 and has since become a cornerstone of the titular genre. Ambient music, Eno wrote in the album’s liner notes, “is intended to induce calm and a space to think.”
Now, look, I ain’t here to tell you that a shitty afternoon spent eating McDonalds in an airport terminal and living through a global pandemic are one and the same. Yet in the Venn diagram of existential dread, there is, I’d argue, quite a bit of overlap.
As I’ve struggled to keep my own head above water throughout the pandemic, I’ve found myself turning, with greater and greater frequency, to music generally classified as ambient, New Age or just, well, chill. Some of it’s upbeat and rhythmic, some offers little more than faint synth lines — some linger on for 10, 15, 20 minutes; much is driven by digital or digitally-manipulated instrumentation, and not much contains (what could be recognized as) the human voice. It’s music that fits a wide range of listening experiences: big speakers, headphones, long walks, doing yoga, cooking, being stoned, not being stoned but wanting to feel stoned. The music has been a balm — a tool in the therapeutic toolbox of dealing with an epically fucked-up set of circumstances. And much of it has come from the same place: the Los Angeles-based independent label LEAVING Records.
Founded in 2008 by Matthew “Matthewdavid” McQueen and visual artist Jesse Moretti, LEAVING has become a hub for a diverse clutch of artists whose art embraces many genres while generally existing in a space outside the conventions of pop, rock or hip-hop. The label has grown dramatically; after starting as a tape-based project. It eventually entered into a relationship with the venerable label Stones Throw, though at the start of this year, the two entities effectively parted ways.
Led by Matthewdavid, LEAVING records output is nothing short of prolific. The label has put two dozen releases on their Bandcamp page this year alone…at least of this writing. Beyond curating the label’s roster, he has also begun organizing — after a pandemic-induced pause — regular live shows for LEAVING-affiliated artists on the label and their peers, including a label showcase on July 27. He also handles mastering duties for many of the label’s releases.
“It’s a beautiful, immersive [opportunity] for me to get even deeper with the music,” Matthewdavid explained over the phone from LA. “I care so much about this music. It’s my blood; I breathe this shit.”
Among even seasoned industry veterans, Matthewdavid’s hyperproductivity is awe-inspiring.
“I don’t really know how he does what he does. He seemingly puts out about one release a week. It’s like a punk rock label in the 80s,” the virtuosic guitarist William Tyler told me. “There aren’t many labels like that.”
“It’s like he lives in a world with 36 hours in the day,” the lap steel guitarist Luke Schneider added.
Earlier this month, Tyler and Schneider released their collaborative Understand EP on LEAVING. Even though its long-form, psychedelic Americana compositions don’t sound like much else on the label, LEAVING was the first home they sought for it.
“Both of us felt like it was probably a longshot, but [we said] ‘let’s send it to Matthewdavid first anyway,’” Tyler explained. “He really dug it.”
Matthewdavid also releases music under his own name on the label. Consisting often of dramatic smears of synth, gentle rhythms and lurid, hazy soundscapes, it serves as a succinct cross-section of many of the musical strains running through the label’s roster. And it certainly fits within his own definition of the music LEAVING strives to showcase: “Left of center, therapeutic experimental art.”
Many LEAVING releases feature music explicitly tied to the natural world or specific places. Take each of the tracks on Habitat. The collaboration between Berlin-based composer Niklas Kramer and percussionist Joda Foerster is meant to represent, per their Bandcamp page, “a room in an imaginary building.” The effect is reminiscent of walking through one calming space to another, led by a bouquet of digitally-manipulated percussion instruments, like African log drum, Bolivian chajchas, vibraphone and kalimba.
This spring, the artist Olive Ardizoni, who performs as Green-House, released the whimsical and gorgeous Music for Living Spaces, which uses a wide array of synthesizers to “facilitate the connection between humans and nature,” as they write. “Instead of perceiving nature as something that’s separate from us, or outside of our homes, we can recognize nature as something that is within us and in everything we do in our daily lives.”
The list, like the music itself, goes on and on: the Indian-born artist Arushi Jain released her debut LP, Under the Lilac Sky, this year. It uses synths to reimagine traditional ragas as ambient compositions, explicitly intended for evening listening. Celia Hollander’s new album, Timekeeper, takes inspiration from the specific time of day each track was created.
LEAVING also fosters much less heady, but equally luxuriant, tunes. R&B artists like Muwosi and The Growth Eternal have recently released bangers that can go toe to toe with your favorite A-list pop stars, while the duo Sam Geldes and Sam Wilkes churn out down-tempo, nocturnal jazz, like on their new release, Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar More Songs.
While LEAVING Records embraces a wide range of music from across the country, the label is nonetheless grounded in, and a mirror of, Los Angeles.
“We’re here in LA. I really do believe that the city offers the frontier of new art and music.” Matthewdavid told me. “You can [build community] online or through a Discord server, but there’s nothing like a real life event space to meet and commune and share and play.”
The musician Celia Hollander, who played the label showcase on July 27, told me the return to live performance comes with its own unknowns and stresses, but that LEAVING events typically “are the perfect example of the type of camaraderie between artists and listeners.”
No matter whether you can attend one of their events or not, LEAVING Records gives us something singular, inviting and comforting in these rough times. As reasons to be afraid, anxious and concerned continue to spread like a weed through our collective psyche, do yourself a favor and check out one of these records. For me, they’ve been nothing short of medicine; hopefully you’ll feel their healing power, too.