Musicians José James and Taali, are cofounders of Rainbow Blonde, a NYC-based record label with a holistic approach to making music. They chatted with one another about their record label and what it took to get to where they are today. This interview originally appeared in PATTERN Magazine vol. 15 “The Identity Issue.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JANETTE BECKMAN
José James: So we’re sitting here today on the Lower East Side in our home where we’ve created many songs, written whole albums, and started Rainbow Blonde, a record label. I think if anybody would’ve said even five years ago that we would have our own label, I would have been pretty surprised.
Taali: Same. Although it does feel like a very natural progression of where you and I were both headed five years ago.
JJ: The goal has always been fostering community. We’ve done that in different ways, and now I think it’s come together with this label. What are your thoughts on community?
TB: My dad always told me that nothing happens with just one person, and I took that to heart deeply. So it’s always been my mission as a human and as a creator to include and celebrate other people’s visions. I don’t see anything as just mine, and so this label is really a dream come true, because it allows me to celebrate every single person in the process in a way that I haven’t been able to before. We tried to get there with the Orchard Sessions, and to some extent we did. For me, every single person that’s involved in a creation, down to the intern who’s getting coffee at a recording session, is equally important.
JJ: It’s important to mention that our third official founder is Brian Bender who started his studio, the Motherbrain, here in Brooklyn. I recorded my first Blue Note albums there. The studio is now in LA. Motherbrain West.
TB: Shout out to Brian Bender. He’s the core of actually putting these albums together.
JJ: Let me ask you: Having worked at a label before —Blue Note — and now running your own, how does it feel?
TB: I feel pretty triumphant. As difficult as it is, as strenuous as it is, and as much work as it is, programming our entire website and doing all of the administrative backend work that normally belongs to a team of thirty to 100 people, I love it. Working at Blue Note Records was great as well. I never felt like I wasn’t appreciated or celebrated there. I worked for the biggest music lover in the business — Bruce Lundvall — and Don Was came in and also became my mentor, an equally huge lover of music, and they were incredibly supportive. All my friends were on Blue Note, so Bruce and Don allowed me to be very involved on the creative end. Basically, I took all the best things from Blue Note and brought them over to Rainbow Blonde. I watched how a good team works, I watched how a good marketing plan gets made, I learned about touring. I always wanted to bring more to the artists as far as a sort of 360-degree vision and not a 360-degree profit take, and running Rainbow Blonde allows me to do that.
JJ: I think the genius you’ve brought to this label is the whole focus on community. I know that you’ve been calling it an “inside out label,” which I love, really showcasing the people who work with us; from our business manager Kristen Lee to Brian Bender, who also is an artist on the label with his project Bright + Guilty, to superstar photographer Janette Beckman and all these other people. Photographers, directors, graphic designers, fashion designers, etc. For me, as an artist who’s been through “the system,” it’s really refreshing, because a lot of these people I never used to have access to. It just felt like you were kind of putting your music into this machine. And hoping that it comes out the other end in a package you liked, but in reality, it’s like there are fifty to 300 people globally working on your music that you’ve never met and will never know.
TB: Exactly, and I want to know those people.
JJ: And they want to be known, and that’s, I think, the surprising thing. It’s just so much better when you can get on the phone or sit down and talk about logos or even like, the “why” of it. We talk about the “why” of things a lot. Like when we did our logo for our podcast. It ended up being very specific and instead of being annoying, which I think it would’ve been if it was a back and forth email with a corporate chain, it was a really gratifying experience.
TB: By the way Elena Flores designed that logo.
JJ: I think it’s really important for any creative person who is interacting with the marketplace to be able to see it with new eyes, to be able to see it with an expanded vision. Not just say, ‘I write songs, I put out songs. I put out an album every two years, I tour the circuit, I make this much money, and maybe I’ll make a little more as I go, if I get a Grammy or all these kind of traditional accolades.’ I think there’s, of course, space for that career, but now things are happening much faster and now you have people like Kanye West who has really opened a lot of doors for music artists to say, ‘I can also design clothes.’ Not just, ‘I’m going to get a sponsored brand and put my name on it.’ I think he’s opened a door for a whole new generation to say, ‘Yeah I’m a creative person, I can exist in all these ways, and I can interact at the highest level.’ I feel like that’s what’s new about Rainbow Blonde.
TB: I love that. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but that’s a really beautiful way to describe it and to bring it back to our community, that it sort of stretches our community to do things they might not necessarily have done otherwise. And, for lack of a better term, cross-pollinates and introduces people to each other. I’m so excited that Karston Tannis, who photographed our I Am Here trip, for example, met Janette Beckman last week.The idea of future collaborations under the umbrella of this collective excites me to no end.
JJ: Tell me about your album that’s about to come out. What was that like bringing it to life?
TB: It feels surreal but also completely natural, if that makes sense. I feel like for the last ten years I’ve been creating but not expressing myself in the truest sense, and it required an enormous amount of work, physically and emotionally, to get to a place where my creation lined up with my person and lined up with my culture and my history and my past, and that to me is this album. So we called it I Am Here, which is a translation of the Hebrew Hineni, which means I Am Here. And it feels a little terrifying, but really exciting to finally be able to meet people as what I feel is my truest self.
JJ: That’s beautiful.
TB:Thanks, you helped.
JJ: You’ve really grown as a songwriter, but also just growing into yourself, and that’s been cool to watch.
TB: I’ve seen that with you as well. I know you quite well, and you take on things with a fervor that is admirable and amazing. And they become your thing, and often I’ve seen you almost burn out, but Rainbow Blonde is the first time I’ve seen you take on something so expansive that you have all the space you need. It’s like all of your skills are finding new ways to blossom in this label, and that’s been really beautiful to watch.
JJ: Wow, thank you.
TB: Yes it’s just an interview of us complimenting each other. I’m not mad. (laughs)
JJ: While we’re at it, these photos that Janette took of us are pretty cool! It’s an homage to Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith.
“There’s so much that goes into it, so many choices that the public is blissfully unaware of but now, having been on both sides, I think it is a very sacred bridge between the artist and the public, and getting that message right.”
TB: As far as I’m concerned, Janette Beckman is one of the greatest living documentarian photographers on earth. And it’s an honor and a privilege beyond words to be able to work with her. I love this photo and how it captures every part of us and Rainbow Blonde so well. Janette was able to capture this sort of established but artful but indie vibe that’s sort of the essences of our creation. You know? What do you think?
JJ: I think it’s fun. It’s unpretentious in a way that only Janette can bring out in people. But it’s also really serious you know? And it’s not a reach for us. We have lived our lives as artists for our entire adult lives. I love that kind of punk ethos of you’re the same on and offstage. And I feel like it’s all captured in the image, and also there’s something really playful and loving about our interaction that’s cool.
TB: How the photos were made is also true to the Rainbow Blonde ethos. We did the shoot inside Janette’s apartment, which is also her studio. We’re just against the one wall that was somewhat not covered in photos. We didn’t rent a studio, we didn’t get a makeup artist, and I feel like you can really see that. Janette has told me that’s her favorite way to shoot photos. I’m really honored that we’re showcasing that picture, because, without being arrogant, I think it’s pretty iconic.
JJ: I’m really excited about the future of the label. We’re in a time when so many things have been upended, and everyone is just trying to find something real. From my friends in Tokyo, to the States, and in Europe, everybody’s like, ‘I don’t know what to hold onto.’ It’s a difficult time, and I don’t mean just politically, but I feel like it’s also a huge opportunity for creative people. A lot of art is formed in these moments where you’re asking, ‘How do I figure this out?’ You know?
JJ: So it’s really exciting to have something that’s ours, without corporate strings telling us what to do or how to shape Taali or how to shape José James. And I love that. And so putting out my very first album — “The Dreamer” — from ten years ago, under the Rainbow Blonde label was huge. I got the rights back, and I was able to remix it, remaster it, repackage it, and release it and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ That’s like, the director’s cut. And that feels honestly like the first real taste of freedom I’ve had as an American.
TB: And I love that that was the genesis of Rainbow Blonde — to release your albums that were coming back to you. Once I realized what a beautiful freedom it afforded you, Rainbow Blonde was the only place I wanted to take “Hear You Now,” because I wanted to create a space where I and other people could have that same feeling of freedom from the jump. That freedom is a beautiful thing to be able to gift back to someone.
JJ: I’m really curious to see what happens in the next five to ten years, maybe we get into festivals, maybe we get into presenting salons or evenings or art exhibits. We have so many friends, all around the world who are doing visual art and fashion.
TB: That’s my dream! Because I don’t want our label to be just music. I don’t think it has to be that way. In the past, the music industry limited you to what a label was and could be. Just by nature of the fact that you were selling a product of music. It’s interesting listening to people speak so negatively about a streaming economy and about how people aren’t buying music anymore, and as a songwriter, I definitely know the effects of that on my income. But it has also opened up this whole different space for what a label can be, and I feel like we’re stepping into that in a way that’s really exciting and almost unparalleled in a way. We have this huge freedom to celebrate not just musicians, but an entire collective under the Rainbow Blonde name. And that’s pretty fabulous.
JJ: I find that to be incredibly inspiring. For me a label should ostensibly be a bridge between a pretty solitary art form — writing, composing, recording, those are all done in isolation — and other creatives, and then the rest of the world. Most people don’t get to go in a studio or see how many days, months, years, and agonizing moments and choices go into making a record. They just get the final product. So I think there’s something very sacred about a record label, because it helps shape this sort of very raw energy… like we’re currently working on Ben Williams’ new project, and right now it’s a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of ideas, and it exists only in his mind. Nothing’s been recorded yet, but our role is to help focus his ideas into this beautiful beam of light that’s digestible and holdable and playable, and you can have a picture and a concept. There’s so much that goes into it, so many choices that the public is blissfully unaware of but now, having been on both sides, I think it is a very sacred bridge between the artist and the public, and getting that message right.
TB: I agree. In this day and age, in this polarized, vitriolic world we live in, for me, Rainbow Blonde is a respite from that. It is a celebration of everyone we hold dear, and the best iteration of work that you, me, Bender, and everybody else at Rainbow Blonde has been doing or trying to do for the last few years. It offers that really special thing that only something like a collective can offer, which is the ability to make something so much bigger than any of us individually. So that to me is the essence of Rainbow Blonde. Rainbow Blonde’s founders are a Jewish woman, a mixed-race man, and a white man from Indiana, and I love all that’s already come from us and all that is set to come from us, and I especially love the things we haven’t created yet.
JJ: Beautiful, here’s to the future.