Innova Recordings: The Twin Cities’ nationally-acclaimed home for off-the-beaten-path music


If Frank Zappa—without or without his Mothers of Invention—happened along today looking for a label, he’d be straight out of luck. The closest he ever came to being conventional was Freak Out with a good dozen songs of doo-wop-cum-rock-n-roll. Even they wouldn’t find a home, much less would Zappa find a home for the library of avant-garde fare he successfully followed with through 1993 and, with posthumous releases, beyond to as recently as last year. He would have to get very lucky and find himself an outfit like Innova Recordings.

Christopher Campbell has gone and made his own luck as operations manager for Innova. His album Sound the All-Clear, granted, is closer to percussionist Christopher Tree who, among other things, back in the 60s somehow swung a tour opening for Jefferson Airplane. All three, though, have in common that their music is, well, just plain weird—quite arguably landing in the area of acquired taste. The liner notes for Sound the All-Clear read, “These terse and potent sound poems are lean and economical, detailing rich ideas that float through spheres of memory.” Fair enough. The music also bears a strong resembles to the completely free-form style poetry of old world beatniks like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg. It makes enough sense to itself that whether you understand it or not, you have to respect the mind that put it together.

You also have to appreciate that the label, far from being Campbell’s personal hobby shop, is a nonprofit, professional haven for artists excluded by mainstream companies. The director is Philip Blackburn. In 1982, the label was founded by the Minnesota Composers Forum (now American Composers Forum, where Blackburn is director of artist services) to document McKnight Composer Fellowship winners. Blackburn is, publicity materials attest, “a guerilla sound sculptor, creating occasions for listening where the public least expects them.” For which he earned a 2003 Bush Foundation Artist Fellowship. Running things with Blackburn and Campbell is Steve McPherson, editor at the late Pulse of the Twin Cities, which for a time, filled the alternative press void left by the demise of the Twin Cities Reader. Campbell says, “I feel lucky to be running Innova with Philip and Steve. Honestly, it’s an honor to wake up in the morning and serve musicians and composers and hopefully do a great job getting their music out there. This is music that deserves to be heard, and Innova relishes in championing it.”

He’s not talking about just his own material: Innova has between 20 and 30 releases a year. Pooja Goswami Pavan, performer-composer of Hindustani (North Indian classical) music, a fascinating vocalist, recorded her highly acclaimed album kaise keh duuN (How Shall I Say?) for Innova. “I’m trying to think how she came to us,” says Campbell. “I mean, she’s in Minneapolis and I think it was one of those happy days where we got her submission to the label in the mail, sat and listened to it and were convinced we could do a good job working on it with her. Pooja is great.”

Christopher Campbell describes Sound the All-Clear as “basically a Gagaku, an old form of Japanese classical music, concept album—which sounds nerdy and esoteric. But hey, it was what I was hearing in my head at the time and it felt right. That’s where the writing led, and it came from [an] authentic place. It was an incredibly fun project. Very rigorous musically, but also really free and relaxed.” He says of his new album, currently being wrapped up, “[It] is all written and mostly all recorded. We recorded at the Hideaway in Minneapolis, which is a great space. I’m also putting together an EP with producer-songwriter Grant Cutler. The ‘Chris Campbell’ album is pretty different from the previous one. We got great players on it from different parts of the Twin Cities music scenes and again, it’s just a blast to be working with great musicians. I’m excited for it to come out.”

Innova Recordings albums and artists have been nominated for—and won—Pulitzers, Grammys, and Emmys. They have been raved about in publications ranging from the New York Times to the Czech Republic’s His Voice magazine and The Wire in London. Major grants over the years from the National Endowment for the Arts (2001, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2010) and the New York State Music Fund (2007) have boosted the label’s growth, reputation, and visibility.

All in all, a good thing for those whose creativity thrives outside convention.

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.