A year ago this October, Michael Linton and Chris McMurtry decided that a decade was long enough to wait to start a classical music label. The two figured it correctly.
After their first year of business, the music they’ve recorded on their Refinersfire label has landed its artists concerts at Carnegie Hall, and the two are hoping to earn a Grammy nomination. Their names are on the initial ballot.
McMurtry didn’t think his new business venture would take off so quickly, but he has found that it was well worth the wait.
“What we do is all very organic,” McMurtry said. “Part of the vision of Refinersfire is to communicate that great art exists all around us and communicate that classical music is art for all people. We are finding artists, and trying to help them realize their dreams.”
But before they could ever record one track, McMurtry and Linton had to decide on a name for their brainchild.
“You’re the king of bad names,” Karen Linton teased McMurtry. She is the label’s managing director and also Linton’s daughter.
McMurtry, playing with his coffee cup sleeve, decided she was right, laughing at himself, too.
“However, the name speaks to the grueling process of the artist,” McMurtry said. “Anyone who is an artist understands that they go to create and modify this thing, what it is you create, but when you are done, it’s you who is changed by it.”
During their first year as a label, the group has found some musical treasures among the mix. Linton finally finished composing 17 songs inspired by the poems of Cattulus, a Latin poet who lived in the Roman Republic. It’s this digital release, which Linton worked on for the last 20 years, that is on the short list for Grammy nominations.
All of it was recorded in the Linton’s living room in Murfreesboro. Refinersfire doesn’t have a studio, and they recruited sound engineers from Middle Tennessee State University to pitch in and help.
“You don’t need a physical location,” McMurtry said. “Just a large heart. Not having a physical location keeps the costs down. Plus, just like a hip-hop artist can record in their bedroom, so can classical artists. We just need a bigger room in the house.”
Although Karen Linton didn’t write anything on her dad’s album, she made her own big splash with the label after she met Ultra Violet, who was one of Andy Warhol’s superstars, a group of personalities Warhol championed in the 1960s and 1970s. Violet (French-born artist Isabelle Collin Dufresne, who died in 2014) had found some tapes she wanted digitized, and she allowed Refinersfire to do the job for her. Among those tapes were phone conversations between her and Warhol, along with 60 of her own original songs.
“Their conversations sound just like they were kids sitting in bed with nothing to do,” Linton said. “Their conversations are completely candid. It was completely worth digitizing and especially getting to know Ultra Violet.”
Violet’s collection of conversations and music are now sold as a box set called Self Portrait. They have also released music this year from Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Jason Paul Peterson and Daniel Shaw, who are classical and indie-rock musicians.
A Labor of Love
This business has become everything McMurtry does in his life, sometimes working up to 17 hours a day to make it function.
“I will say it never feels like 17 hours of work,” McMurtry said. “But when you are consistent with your boundaries, you get stuff done.”
Every day McMurtry wakes up at 4 a.m. He spends about an hour praying, reading and composing. By 7 a.m. he climbs the stairs to his home office to open emails from Karen, and, following the to-do list he made the night before, he divvies up the jobs between himself and Linton.
The three-person team has learned that providing a business for artists is more about the administration side than it is about creating their own art.
“We have learned a lot of interesting things about running a business, and none of us are businesspeople,” Linton said. “The world has never been set up to support artists, but we are trying to make it.”
They spend parts of some days keeping tabs on their recordings that are played on iTunes and Spotify, dealing with receipts and expenses, and answering lots and lots of email.
The two work together as a dynamic duo, usually emailing each other all day long and making jokes that “no one but them finds funny,” said Linton, who wore a red dress with a bleached jean jacket. They recognize they are quirky, but its part of what makes Refinersfire work as well as it has so far.
“The longer we go on through the day, the more and more delirious we become,” Karen Linton said, laughing. “We joke all the time this label is small, but mighty. But really, I think we are that.”
For more information on Refinersfire, visit refinersfire.us.