Good Karma in Stereo

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This article is part of a package called “For the Love of Music.” For more, read Really Fresh Air and Play That Funky Vinyl.

I’ve been assigned to track down Andy Kaulkin, the man who runs Anti-, the most adventuresome indie record label in America. But there’s a problem. It seems that Kaulkin–the man who resuscitated the careers of Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette, who signed Neko Case and released her finest album–doesn’t like to talk about himself.

What’s up with that? Doesn’t Kaulkin live in Los Angeles, the world capital of brutal self-aggrandizement? Yes, but it seems that he is more interested in making great records than in grabbing all of the credit for them. In the music business, this is a case without precedent.

After much wheedling and pleading, Kaulkin agrees to talk to me on the phone late one night, but only to explain his position. “It’s just bad karma,” he says. “If I start talking about myself, I’m afraid that the label will suffer somehow.”

I’m irritated, but it’s hard to argue with Kaulkin’s accomplishments at Anti-, a label with an organizing principle that runs counter to just about every indie imprint in America. Anti-, which is basically a one-man show bankrolled by the punk label Epitaph, doesn’t discriminate against age, attitude, or genre. It’s a small label with a big-tent philosophy. Kaulkin will sign anything if it’s good.

Anti-‘s high-profile acts Neko Case and Tom Waits are two of the most respected singer-songwriters on the planet, but they plow different furrows. Case’s most recent album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, is a gorgeous, mostly acoustic rumination on doomed love and backwoods mythology, while Waits’ three-CD epic Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards is murky, art-damaged rock, a creepy trawl through Waits’ netherworld of reprobates and soused romantics. Both records appeared on numerous critics’ top 10 lists for 2007 and sold vigorously: 200,000 for Case and 146,000 for Waits, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Anti- also releases records by artists no other label would ever bother to nurture: mature performers who have run aground and have been left to scrape along the margins of the music business. Literate singer-songwriter Joe Henry kicked around various labels before finding an amenable home at Anti-; besides releasing his own records, he produced Solomon Burke’s glorious 2002 comeback Don’t Give Up on Me for the label. Once-obscure soul singer Bettye LaVette and soul legend Mavis Staples are also here. Funky protest singer Michael Franti, incendiary hip-hoppers the Coup, New Orleans party starters Galactic, the late Grand Ole Opry legend Porter Wagoner–they’ve all made some of the best music of their careers with Anti-.

Kaulkin is a former journeyman musician and microlabel owner whose empathetic ears and curatorial approach to Anti-‘s roster have won him the respect of anyone in the music business who still cares about good music. Kaulkin’s autonomy at Anti- makes the label an extension of his own sensibilities.

 “Andy is clearly a devoted fan,” says Peter Jesperson, a senior vice president of artists and repertoire at the roots music label New West Records, where he has found himself competing with Kaulkin for artists. “He’s also a musician, which gives him perspective and advantage. I feel a real kinship with him, as far as being passionate about the artists we work with and music in general.”

Kaulkin may be a music geek, but he knows how to run the business. A veteran of several small labels including one owned by former Stax Records president Al Bell, Kaulkin got his start at Epitaph handling its data management system and rose to become the label’s president from 1996 to 1998. He then started Anti- and devoted all his attention to the new label, which debuted in 1999 with Waits’ Mule Variations.

Because of Kaulkin’s singular focus and integrity, Anti- doesn’t resemble a typical indie label so much as it does a mainstream label from the early ’70s such as Elektra, embracing an ecumenical vision that doesn’t bother with narrowcasting to a specific slice of the market.

“The label is for artists who are not trying to do something that’s trendy,” Kaulkin told Reuters last year. “They’re following their own path, and they have an understanding of music history without being beholden to it. It doesn’t matter what genre it is. You can do that in any genre, and you can do that at any age.”

Kaulkin’s work with Solomon Burke, the majestic soul belter, is a prime example of the Anti- honcho’s instinct for recording musical greats without succumbing to a conservative or calculated approach. Kaulkin isn’t looking for the big score at the Starbucks display case. He just wants a good record out of the deal.

It seems that Burke was about to sign with Virgin in 2001 to make a lame record of duets with guest singers (think of the inevitable Willie Nelson cameo) when Kaulkin pitched him on the idea of making a vibrant album of original material.

Kaulkin handed Burke an advance check and vowed that he would commission a bunch of songwriters who were fans to write songs for him. Kaulkin aimed high: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Brian Wilson were among those who said yes. Burke signed on.

“Andy didn’t want the Burke album to be a nostalgia project,” says Joe Henry, who convinced Kaulkin to let him produce Don’t Give Up on Me. “We wanted it to be authentic but not a retread.” Instead of a blustery R&B workout, Kaulkin and Henry made a quiet, rootsy album using rock musicians, a record that might fit snugly on public radio station playlists. “These writers give Burke plenty of room to work his slow-cooked magic,” wrote Tom Moon in a four-star review for Rolling Stone, pointing out that the songs all “share one essential trait: They wouldn’t be nearly as rousing sung by anybody else.” Don’t Give Up on Me wound up selling upwards of 300,000 copies and appearing on countless year-end best-of lists. More important, Anti-, Burke, and Henry all saw a piece of the profits. Kaulkin had pulled off an improbable coup: He made a great record from an older artist that sold well.

“I’ve worked for music executives who don’t have one idea of how a record is made,” says Henry, whose latest album, Civilians, was released by Anti-. “Andy understands the mechanics of making a great record, and he also sticks to his original approach all the way through. Believe me, that’s a lot harder than anyone might think it is.”

In contrast to Burke, Bettye LaVette was virtually unknown when Kaulkin released her 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. Even Kaulkin didn’t know who LaVette was when he checked out a live date and offered her a deal on the spot. “I never thought I’d have another deal,” says LaVette. “It had taken 46 years for anyone to really listen to me.”

 For LaVette’s most recent album, The Scene of the Crime, Kaulkin hired the Drive-By Truckers from New West Records to provide accompaniment–a counterintuitive move, given the Truckers’ pedigree as neo-boogie rock band. “I didn’t know how it would work, and I was resistant to work with young people,” LaVette says. “But Andy encouraged them to listen to me, to my voice. It worked great.”

That’s the thing about Anti-. It just works very well, regardless of whether Kaulkin tells me so or not.

Marc Weingarten writes for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and is the author of The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight (Three Rivers, 2006), a history of New Journalism.

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