Addicted to conjuring something out of nothing.
Communicating Vessels is an independent record label with in-house studio and storefront nestled in the historic Woodlawn district in Birmingham, Alabama. CommVess officially began in the home of producer, writer, recording artist, and former Remy Zero guitarist Jeffrey Cain, but in a broader, and certainly more emotional and creative sense, CommVess has its origins in the port city of Mobile. It was there during the 1980s that Cain was recording music on a 4-track deck, making cassette-cover art with paper copier, and pasting fake record label names on tapes he distributed to classmates at school. According to Cain, he got addicted to conjuring something out of nothing.
That do-a-lot-with-a-little spirit served Cain and his like-minded friends well during the 1990s, when the very desire to make music was more important to them than even having a name for their band. A devoted R.E.M. fan deeply inspired by the scenes in Atlanta and Athens, Cain understood that he would have to leave Mobile in order to “be in an art band in the South and produce music.” He headed for Atlanta, admittedly without a back-up plan.
That step ultimately led to a career: Cain’s years with Remy Zero, touring with label mates Radiohead, more than a decade of life in the Los Angeles music scene, and Isidore, Cain’s lush collaboration with Steve Kilbey of The Church.
During that time, Cain wondered if an artist-built label—one that operated as a genuine home and foundation for recording artists—might be a means of, as he puts it, “keeping music in the spiritual space where it is born.” Cain stopped wondering in 2011, when he started Communicating Vessels.
A source of something valuable
During the summer of 2011, the label released a two-part, astonishingly eclectic 7-inch vinyl series that included Duquette Johnston, Sanders Bohlke, Preston Lovinggood, The Great Book of John, and the Green Seed.
What has followed since that first summer has been a minor miracle of creative and critical success. Among other triumphs for the label, The Green Seed’s Drapetomania landed a spot on CMJ’s Hip Hop Top 50; Sanders Bohlke’s “Serious” was a contender in mtvU’s “The Freshmen,” as were Shaheed and DJ Supreme; Wray took top prize in 2014. A casual observer of the music press, airplay, radio rankings, and critical analysis CommVess has enjoyed in a few short years might suspect that the label is part of some artistic revival in the South, and certainly in Birmingham. They would be correct.
Along with establishing a fertile environment for artists, CommVess has consistently functioned as a curatorial enterprise rooted in a fascination with, and appreciation for, the tangible artifacts that music fans cherish. Lovingly-crafted, double-vinyl releases, CDs, vinyl singles, posters, and sundry related material feature artwork by local and regional artists, graphic designers, and photographers. The collaborations of visual artists maintain not so much a single aesthetic vision as a unified spirit. Cain insists—as do the staff and artists and contributors who comprise the CommVess family—that in an era in which a glut of technology allows for simply “more” music, the label’s primary focus is in “making and sharing something valuable.”
A key component in the CommVess philosophy of value (and curatorial emphasis) is the work ethic that characterizes the label’s in-house studio, which was completed in 2013. Artists are encouraged to tell stories and share emotions, as opposed to concerning themselves with being amazing for a few hours. Cain is convinced that discretion, discipline, and time for ideas to gestate will inevitably lead to each artist making the best statement he or she can make. Essential to that end are the exacting and distinctive sonic characteristics of the studio Cain continues to tweak.
You can go farther when you aren’t alone
There’s not a mantra for Communicating Vessels, just three words that are invariably associated with every endeavor at the label: support, home, family.
The sidewalk outside the Woodlawn store window leads through an industrial area that, in spots, recalls England’s Sheffield or Manchester, yet just inside a laidback, communal vibe resonates throughout. (Blend Factory Records’ bleak location with the creative mood of Laurel Canyon of the early 1970s and you get something approaching Communicating Vessels.)
It’s not merely a vibe. The label’s founder, staff, and artists have exhibited a remarkable capacity to maintain what Cain, speaking as an artist and as a producer, refers to as “the purity of the artist’s first creative years.”
Each player, writer, singer, and contributing artist can count on support, whether in studio for a session or across the ocean on tour. There’s a family in place that nurtures and shares every experience. In turn, theses artists are safe to push themselves because they begin and end on a firm foundation. As Jeffrey Cain likes to say, “You can go farther when you aren’t alone.”