One recent X-Mas, three, maybe four years ago, my then-BF/now very much ex-BF, and I were out gift shopping (aka escaping family time), and making our way through every thrift shop we could find in our hometown. I can’t remember the exact year this all went down, but I can say with certainty that it was long before rumors of a Twin Peaks remake were circulating. I distinctly remember this BF grabbing something off a dusty bookshelf and clutching it close to his chest like he’d come across a $1.99 bowling bag full of hundo stacks. Actually, it was beat-up old cassette tape, though not just any U2 or Bon Jovi piece of trash, but the soundtrack to Twin Peaks.
As we soon found out, that baby was worn out and nearly spent. (I refuse to insert a joke about Lara Flynn Boyle here.) Listening to it was an exercise in extreme denial– “Sure this sort of sounds like the music from the show, I mean, the distortion isn’t so terribly bad.” Or, “Surely if we play it enough times the tape will straighten itself out or snap back into shape.” None of these things were true, but eventually, the violent whirring and gravely screams that emanated from the tape player started to grow on us. Soon it became its own special soundtrack, albeit a bit panic attack-inducing at times, and finally, an irreplaceable thing in itself.
Call me crazy, or just plain weird, but Kerry Santullo and Rachel Barnhart, founders of a new tape label called Soap Library, know exactly what I’m talking about– they’re also charmed by the ephemeral nature of cassette tapes, which are about as fluid as the music that they contain. “The more you use it, the more it disintegrates,” Kerry explained. “This sort of permanence/ impermanence attracted us to the idea of making these tapes.”
The duo met working at Mexican Summer, a Greenpoint-based record label, where they learned the ins and outs of the music industry. “We were working in mostly vinyl and digital formats,” she explained. “And you know, we love vinyl and it sounds fantastic, but it’s expensive to produce.” The two had always wanted to go it alone and put together a small record label of their own, and tapes obviously made more sense financially– the format doesn’t require a large investment, and it’s possible to produce a very small run, or even a relatively substantial stack of tapes, without having to worry about turning a profit.
Money was just one consideration, but tapes are accessible in a bunch of other ways too. “If you’re at a show, unless you have a tote bag you’re not going to want to carry around a vinyl record,” Kerry said. (So true.) “But you can just slip a tape into your pocket.” Since most tapes are priced at or around the $10 range, their affordability hits both ways.
Ok, so these are things that every independent cassette tape label could agree on, but Soap Library is hardly your average purveyor of self-made tapes. “We didn’t necessarily want it to be a record label proper, we wanted to be able to expand the idea a little bit,” she explained. “We wanted to take it out of this mechanical world of releasing records, garnering publicity, doing events, and take it into more of a softer space.” And that’s not only in the metaphorical sense of the word– Soap Library presents itself as a “holistic” tape label that focuses on creating unique “multi-sensory” experiences with each of their very small-run releases (around 100 copies). “So we’ve paired each tape release with an object, just sort of this vessel that you can use to absorb the music and take it into a different sphere,” Kerry said.
Their very first release, a four-track EP called Some by Jeff Tobias– a dreamy instrumental drift down a lazy river– is accompanied by what Kerry describes as a “sniffer,” or an unassuming plastic tube infused with a refreshing and rather potent blast of eucalyptus. Holding the chapstick-shaped thing to your nose is a bit weird at first, and it might seem like a sort of odd thing to do in public. I mean, sitting on the subway, off in your own headphone-headspace, and dreamily huffing what looks like a tampon might actually get you arrested. Then again, Soap Library’s aesthetic offers a pretty clear hint that these tape and scent pairings are meant to be “relaxing”– translation: it’s probably best to draw yourself a piping-hot bath, light some (unscented) candles, and experience Soap Library’s products in the privacy of your own WC.
Even the album art–all of it the work of Jonathan Campolo, who you might know from bands-about-town PILL and Soft Spot–looks like it belongs in a magazine called Bewitching Bathrooms and Pristine Pool Patios. Jeff Tobias’s tape cover would be the centerfold, featuring the latest in all-natural foot pumices, beautifully staged in a solid-marble Turkish bathhouse. And the cover for the label’s second release, a “cassingle” from harpist Mary Lattimore called Returned to Earth– lush tropical greenery cast in a moody lighting that’s both shadowy and prismatic– would account for a travel section piece on “Rainforest Spas of the World.”
Lattimore’s release, Soap Library’s latest, also comes with a sniffer, but it whiffs of an entirely different mood than the Tobias tape. “It’s kind of a holiday blend,” Kerry said. “Lavender, rosemary, nutmeg, and sweet orange.” The smell was instantly recognizable to me, it just took me a minute to piece together where exactly this lovely stank was located in the dingy recesses of my memories. Suddenly, it came to me: gingerbread. It’s easy to forget how intense these associations with scent can really be– as you may or may not know, scents are a particularly effective means of accessing super potent, wildly vivid memories. Kerry couldn’t agree more. “I’ve always found scent to be this instant portal into memory,” she said. “If you can associate a scent with a memory, you can start to associate a scent with a sound. For me now, whenever I smell eucalyptus it’s this instant recognition of the music and other releases we’re working on.”
Unfortunately for me, the only scent that might be tied to my recollection of that Twin Peaks tape, now long gone, would be dust. If only I’d had some crazy David Lynch-flavored snuffing pen to hyperventilate over, I might have more vivid memories of the dang thing. But as Tommy Wright III said: “Ashes 2 ashes, dust 2 dust.”
There’s a common theme uniting all of Soap Library’s two releases so far (more on the way, TBA this Wednesday). The label seems most interested in creating transformative experiences– not only anticipating but embracing the inevitable disintegration of their tapes, and encouraging the formation of both new memories and new ways of experiencing music altogether.
When the label contacted Mary Lattimore in hopes of collaborating with her on a tape, the harpist was unable to speak– her jaw had been wired shut after surgery. Kerry explained that one track on the tape, “For Scott Kelly, Returned to Earth” speaks to this experience. “It’s a solo piece that Mary wrote for the astronaut, Scott Kelly, who spent like a year in space at the International Space Station.” Kelly was known for engaging on social media so that his followers were able to see what life in space was like in a way that they’d never before had access to. Even banal activities like gardening were fascinating to watch from the vantage point of an Earthling. “Mary felt really isolated, but she felt this kinship with Scott Kelly, in that they were both part of and removed from the world,” Kerry said.
So they came up with the idea of including a little packet of seeds along with the tape, and instructions for growing orange zinnia, the same flower Scott Kelly had grown in space (and the first flower ever to blossom in the space station’s vegetable garden, aka #spaceflower). What all this looks like from above is a strange sort of transfiguration: Mary got her jaw back, Scott Kelly came back to Earth. Mary created a tape that may very well break down in the near future. You can imagine what happened might happen to Scott Kelly’s flower since he’s said TTYL to the space station. But, if Soap Library listeners are incredibly careful and attentive plant mothers, fathers, and caregivers, they just might have a lovely blooming orange plant friend to remind them of Mary’s music.
“Pairing each tape with an object, it becomes just sort of this vessel that you can use to absorb the music and take it into a different sphere,” Kerry said. At the very least, Soap Library’s tapes will make for some pretty chilled-out tub-time soaks.