Fully 20 years ago in London, after her time with Cheree and Che Records, Vinita Joshi was taking her first steps towards launching Rocket Girl Records. Down the decades, flying solo has meant a lot of personal sacrifice and commitment, but Rocket Girl is still soaring and releasing constantly eclectic and fascinating records. The label has released records by Robin Guthrie, Pieter Nooten, God Is An Astronaut, Ulrich Schnauss, Mogwai, A Place To Bury Strangers and Silver Apples, to skim the roster just a little.
Of course, you don’t just start releasing records without a deep seated love of music. This usually starts in our formative years. With a compilation album released to celebrate the label’s signings and pivotal moments to date, it seems relevant to find out just which record flipped the switch.
Take us back to the start.
I think the first record that had an impact on me was The Hurting by Tears For Fears. I loved the cover, the music. I would sit in my room and listen to it over and over. Back then you couldn’t listen on Spotify. There was all these 7” singles around when I was a kid, and listening to Saturday Night Fever or the Grease Soundtrack whatever was in the charts, I always enjoyed music, but that Tears For Fears album was the first time I got really obsessed.
Deciding to dedicate your life to music is very different to just obsessing about an album or a band – that would come a little later. But was it still something that came early on in your life?
When I was young, I grew up in Rugby and there was nothing going on. We didn’t have mobile phones and we didn’t have the internet. People now interact in a different way. For me, I wasn’t a loner, but just kind of felt that nobody understood me, so music was what I turned to. Just listening to music made it feel like somebody understood me. Morrissey was singing about how I felt and suddenly I found this comfort in music. I didn’t ever think “I have to work in music”. I moved to London at 18, and it just all started from there as a kind of hobby. It wasn’t something I planned to be honest. Music was just a universal language that bought a lot of people together. Music gave so much to me, I wanted to give something back to music.
The anniversary compilation is a beautiful summation of the Rocket Girl label. It’s also a wonderful artefact, coming complete with a 7” flexi, 7”single, CD, a host of artwork and a book that details your experiences in music. The book features a very detailed description of your life story – an inspirational and emotional tale that can reduce people to tears.
It’s weird you should say that. I’ve only read it twice. I cried twice myself – I thought “god I’m crying at my own story”. I know my own story, but it’s bought up a lot, and things used to really get to me when I was younger. I didn’t imagine that it would make other people emotional to be honest. I didn’t imagine that anyone would want to read my story. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, with this project, it just took a life of its own. With the CD I knew who I wanted on there, current bands and people that I’d worked with and there’s a couple that didn’t come through, but with the book – it just turned into this massive project that I didn’t imagine it would be. I’m glad though, it’s been 20 years, and it’s drawing a line under everything.
Your involvement with your artists transcends usual artist/label relationships, and your caring side shines through in the story of your life. Something else that becomes apparent is your determination to carry on in the face of tragedy, relationships failing and with your own personal wellbeing suffering.
You have to carry on. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger, and I broke a few times. It’s just life. Everyone has challenges in life, some people more than others. Giving up has a never been a part of who I am. I was very much driven by anger in the early days. “I’ll prove to them that a girl can do it…I’ll prove to them that I’m worthy and I know what I’m doing”. I wouldn’t say to people that it’s a good way to work, because it’s such a negative energy, but that changed after a while and I’ve had some amazing experiences with the bands. I think that the message I would want to get out there is “don’t give up at the first hurdle, you have to keep going.”.
Personal involvement is something that characterises Rocket Girl. From hands on manufacture and distribution, to handwritten correspondence, Rocket Girl is a label that tries to really connect. This is something that seems to be lacking elsewhere in the music world these days.
Yeah I think it is a bit detached these days. I read Music And The Mind, by Anthony Storr and he talks about the zeros and ones and that when you listen to digital music you’re not emotionally attached to it, but when you listen to analogue records you’re emotionally more attached. I thought that was a really amazing concept. I’m very lazy though so I listen to music on my computer, because my turntable is downstairs! I think it’s the same with letters. My life is one long email. All I do is sit at the computer. It’s so boring.
There’s something so special about letters even now. All the band that have got the book have been so excited to get it in the post. I used to be so desperate for letters. I wrote to so many people. I’d be looking out of my window at 7am waiting for the postman. I’d see him walking up with a jiffy bag and I’d be thinking “Oh my god it’s another cassette for me!” Getting a letter was more than just getting a letter. We’d send each other chocolate bars, or sweets… you could really stand out out from the norm. I made a tape for someone and put it in a washing up glove. I’d stuffed all the fingers with tissue so it was like a hand when it came through the letterbox. I used to do so many ridiculous things like that, and it seems like people just don’t have that anymore. It’s so sad. All the post is now is stuff from Amazon, there’s no personal touch anymore, it’s not creative.
Your commitment to the art and the personal side of music is something that makes Rocket Girl releases really stand out, but the eternal struggle between art and business is still very much in effect. Is it something that even Rocket Girl has to contend with?
It is tough when you run a business and it’s something you love. When you go away and you listen to music you’re thinking about it in a different way. In the same way that musicians criticise each other I suppose. Then you get to working with bands and you can get put off listening to them. Not falling out with artists, but they get on our nerves or they’re exhausting to work with. That’s horrible when that happens, because your love of music and the business side is clashing. It does make it difficult. Not so much any more, but when I was younger it felt like that. It’s always a battle. It doesn’t take the pleasure out of it though.
A few break ups eventually led to you starting Rocket Girl. Not just with bands but with the labels you’d worked with previously as part of a team – Cheree and Che. Going it alone might have been daunting?
It’s definitely been easier. I felt a bit pushed out at the end of the Che days. A little bit I wanted to go my own way a little bit I felt pushed out. There’s positives and negatives. We got a single of the week in Melody Maker and I was ecstatic, but there was nobody to share it with, apart from the band. So it did feel a bit isolated. Likewise if a band upset me. But then around 2002 I had lots of helpers, and it was really busy and exciting. Because of the past experiences, I’ve never been able to grow because I don’t trust anyone. So I’d rather put out one album out every two months than five in one go because I’d have to take on more staff. Once bitten twice shy… don’t trust anyone.
Starting a label 20 years ago must have been difficult, but in today’s climate with the rise of home digital recording and sites like Bandcamp, starting a label would be a very different experience.
Are labels even needed anymore? You still need someone to sift through all that music. It’s quite easy to upload your own album on Bandcamp or one of the big aggregators. But you need the contacts, you need a story to do your own label. I wouldn’t say don’t do it, but I think it would be pretty boring to do a digital label. The aesthetic is really important, the artwork, the look of it. That’s always been important to Rocket Girl. You need to make a product appealing. There’s so much stuff out there and only so much disposable income. You’re fighting against computer games, the cinema, the pub, records. If you’ve got the money and you’ve found an amazing band, go for it, but know what you’re doing! Get advice. I know when we started Cheree we would ask Lazy records, who had The Primitives, for advice. I think it is nice to have someone to turn to if you don’t know what you’re doing. You need a plan, otherwise you’re going to manufacture a bunch of stock and it’s going to sit under your bed. I have a lot of that too, and I supposedly know what I’m doing.
With such a varied and interesting back catalogue, picking bands and songs for this anniversary collection must have been difficult.
I approached all the bands and asked them what they had. I really wanted exclusive tracks, so the first point was finding bands that were happy to be involved. Mogwai offered me a track that no-one could find in the end, but they couldn’t locate it. In the end they gave me this track that was only available on a Japanese CD, so although it’s been released, it’s kind of exclusive. God Is An Astronaut sent me this alternative version that I just loved, it shows a different side of them.
With Television Personalities I had a couple of songs on my phone. When I saw Daniel in the care home last year, I played it to him and he was laughing and saying “I remember this” and sang along to it, it was lovely to see. He’s such a brilliant songwriter, it’s heartbreaking to see him now, he just stays in bed all day, or he’s in a wheelchair. He remembers the past really well but his sister will say “did you see Vinita?” and he’ll go “Nooooo”. His memory is just terrible. I put out an album (Television Personalities) called A Memory Is Better Than Nothing, which is crazy now. It’s great to have Daniel as a part of it. His sister’s got the book and she’s so happy, she’s going to show it to Dan and play him the track.
With A Place To Bury Strangers, the manager sent me three tracks and said “choose one”, and this one reminded me of an old Primitives song. I just really liked it, it felt a bit different to the stuff that I’d put out by them. I really wanted Simian (Silver Apples) to do something because that was the first Rocket Girl release. Jack who looks after Simian said to leave it with him and he came back with a “Rocket Mix”, I was like “that’s great, he’s called it Rocket Mix” and he made it specially for the compilation.
I was really happy to have Robin (Guthrie) on it, he’s such a lovely guy and so talented. I think we’re all fed up with the idea that it’s Cocteau Twins without Liz. He’s just a bit lost sometimes, he’s in France and I think he feels a bit disconnected but I think more bands should approach him about doing mixes and production work and he’s got such a good ear. I’m so grateful to all the bands who gave me a track.
It’s hard to pick favourites, but we can’t help but wonder if there’s been a specific Rocket Girl release you love above all the others. Given the way you run the label and look after your bands, it’s a little like asking to pick your favourite child…
It’s so difficult! I really, really love my Spacemen 3 tribute. It was the first release (Joshi doesn’t consider the Silver Apples 7” to be a proper first release), I did 1,000 copies in a box with a silver logo and it looked so amazing. I designed everything, I complied all that tracks, I approached all the bands, I did the PR myself. The vinyl was clear and glittery, and it looked so great. It was kind of my thank you to Rugby, my thank-you to Spacemen 3. It just felt really special and I’ve always been really proud of it because I’d gone solo. Leaving everything behind, it was a really great start to the label.
So with the first 20 years behind her and a line drawn, what else can there possibly be for you to achieve? Perhaps another 20 years?
I’ll be approaching 70 by then! Another 20, let’s hope so. Let’s see where the industry is in 20 years. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever detach myself from it completely, even if I’m just doing it as a hobby when I’m older or giving bands pep talks or something. I imagine I’ll be picking up the yoga stuff a bit more and balancing it with Rocket Girl. I’m a qualified yoga teacher, I’ve just never taught. I’d like to help people, and I’d like to help music people to realise they can destress from all the touring and stuff – combine music and yoga. I don’t want to be putting out tons of releases and stressing myself out.
Rocket Girl 20 is out now. It features music by Mogwai, A Place To Bury Strangers, Bell Gardens, God Is An Astronaut and many more, and is available from Rocket Girl.