Black Iris is a talented collective of musicians rooted in the independent music scene, providing original compositions and scores for advertising, tv, film and entertainment content. The collective has studio locations in Los Angeles and New York, with their home base located right here in Richmond, VA. The newly renovated warehouse at 321 West Broad Street is incredibly inspiring and well-designed, and the crew so graciously allowed us to use the location for October’s Short Run Shirting photo shoot. After the photo shoot, we caught up with Jonathan Fuller, Creative Director, about the organic growth and evolution of Black Iris.
How did Black Iris come to fruition?
The company started about 8 years ago. It was basically just a group of friends that grew up playing music together in bands – just folks that had known each other for years already. We started noticing that there was a void in the production music community where clients and agencies wanted a connection to authenticity. They wanted cool music and they didn’t want some “studio shark guys” trying to ape a band. Our goal was to bring that connection to the real indie music community and offer it to the people who were looking to validate it and make their projects more authentic. The company was started as a home for independent musicians, a home for artists to be able to create art but also make a living. As we’ve grown we’re tried to keep that model intact. The bands that we release also will compose for us on projects. It’s a collective vibe – that’s really the business model.
How did you all decide on the name “Black Iris”?
Similar to most decisions with the company – just like a band would kick around names before their first show, it was the one that everyone hated the least. It’s a great name! I really love that it’s vague enough that it could be about a flower, the iris in your eye, or the shutter on a camera… it could be all of these things, but it’s not necessarily any of them. It’s just this poetic phrase. Just like a band name, unless it’s phenomenally good or phenomenally bad, after you’ve heard it twice you stop thinking about it. You assign it to the thing that it describes rather than thinking about the words themselves. You agree to abandon the pursuit of a perfect name at a certain point.
How did the Black Iris studios in Los Angeles and New York begin?
It happened really naturally. Richmond was up and running and then one of our good friends and collaborators moved to LA, followed by Daron, the Executive Producer. So we stayed up and running in Richmond and they were the nucleus of what was at first an office and a little remote studio in Los Angeles. Similarly there, it just built and built and built. It began in Richmond and then expanded to Los Angeles, and now New York. New York is at the stage where we have an office and we have a few people who work with us, but we don’t have a proper studio – but that’s next.
Being in three different cities, how often do you all collaborate on projects?
We collaborate with the other locations on everything all of the time. At a certain point it makes sense to say, “You take this one over,” because the folks that we’re working with are in that time zone. But creatively, we’re all bouncing around ideas, and musically, people here in Richmond are generating music for a project that they’re working on in LA and vice versa. We’re really tight knit – the entire group talks once a day and we go through everything that’s going on. We’re hyper-connected, which is awesome. As a company, we’ve gotten to the point size-wise where we have to parcel things out. It’s not possible for everybody to be working on everything all the time – it’s just exhaustive. But I think everyone has a ground understanding on some level of all of the projects that are happening at a given time. Then they’re divvied up and we come back and talk about what’s going on with each project. And occasionally they get to come here and we get to go there, so it’s really fun.
How did you all come up with the name “White Iris” for your record label?
Initially it was just called “Black Iris Presents” for the first few releases, and a label came out of the woodwork and gave us a “cease and desist,” because apparently there was already a Black Iris Label. It didn’t interfere with the production music because they’re different things. It ended up being cool and serendipitous that we had to change the name because it sort of forced a creative decision to have these two different things that relate together very well. The label has grown and grown and it’s definitely it’s own thing now. It’s entirely funded obviously, and it makes a little bit of money. But mostly it’s labor of love and we want to continue to help give these smaller bands a platform.
Tell us a little bit about your new space and the idea behind the interior design.
Studios by nature have to have sonic security. They can’t be open and noisy. So most of them do feel like little mole tunnels. What we really tried to do with renovating this building is correct in the other direction – more big open spaces, lots of light, lots of areas to incubate creative ideas, and you go into the focused space to really dig in – which still has windows! It’s a game-changer. If you count the basement, it’s four times the amount of space than the old space that we were in.
How have you noticed the business evolving since being in the new building?
We really powered through in the old space. Per our business model, we stayed in that location until we were bursting at the seams – just saving and saving and saving. Being here on Broad Street, just across from Steady Sounds (a local record store) and right next door to 1708 Gallery is exciting and inspiring. We’re really excited about the space on the bottom floor and being able to host events. I think it’s going to really increase our connection to the city, the people, and all of the cool stuff that’s going on in the arts district.
What is your position at Black Iris?
Creative Director. In the beginning of the company, we all wore a lot of different hats. Everybody was doing everything. At this point, we’ve been able to hire enough people that we all don’t have to do everything. It’s not so mechanized and routine, which is really fun. My role entails being a liaison with the agency, or whoever our client is – listening to their needs and creative vision, interpreting that, turning that into executable musical technology, and then helping steer the process on our side. I sort of invented the position, and thankfully invented something that suits my personality well. We encourage everyone we hire to work here to bring their own passions.
What makes Richmond unique in terms of its culture and creativity?
It’s a great city in that it supports creative endeavors just by cost of living. If you live in a bigger city, you don’t have time to do your thing because you have to work so hard to make ends meet. Richmond is fantastic in that the pace of living, cost of living, and the general attitude supports the creative culture. What’s really exciting is that the city is starting to recognize this as an asset and really support it. Before, all of this cool stuff was going on, but there wasn’t really any recognition. And it was because there were old dilapidated buildings that were super cheap to rent and you could have an old loft and studio apartment for like… $46 a month. And now they’re realizing that actually does cool things. It’s a mentality of, “We let these weirdos come in and take over this whole building and all of the sudden it’s something worth seeing.”