Soundings of the Planet celebrates 40 YEARS
A look back, and what’s to come, with Dean and Dudley Evenson
interview by Brent Cole
While bands and labels come and go through a music scene, Bellingham’s Soundings of the Planet has been producing peaceful and mesmerizing music for four decades. Label owners Dean and Dudley Evenson have met the Dalai Lama, worked with music legends (including most recently Primus’s Tim Alexander) and have helped spread the message of peace all while flying under the radar in the local music scene. As they celebrate four decades and continue to produce music into their 70s, we enjoyed the chance to chat with Dean.
Soundings of the Planet is celebrating 40 years. Can you give a brief history of how the label started?
In the ‘70s my wife Dudley and I lived in a half-size school bus and were involved in the early portable video movement, documenting the new consciousness that was emerging at the time. However, it was difficult to distribute the videotapes as we pre-dated VCRs and DVDs. Then in 1979 in Tucson, Arizona, we recorded a lecture by Ram Dass (author of Be Here Now) and got 50 orders for cassette tapes. We realized people had cassette players at home and we decided to switch our focus from video to music which would be easier to distribute. Since I had played flute for years (classical, rock, folk, etc.) and had been a recording engineer in New York City, we had the skills to pull it off. We had also been exposed to Native American wisdom about Mother Earth and we wanted to make people aware of the issues our planet is facing. To create our first album, I recorded the birds at dawn in the desert and we added my silver flute and Dudley’s hand harp to the nature sounds. Our friend Jonathan Kramer joined with cello and we created our first album Desert Dawn Song. We named our label Soundings of the Planet as we wanted our music to be a voice of the Earth. From there, we added new music every year. We first sold our music at swap meets, then arts festivals, then we did spa, massage and yoga trade shows, and holistic wellness conferences. Over the past four decades we have collaborated with amazing musicians from around the world and we now have produced over 90 music albums and videos
Dean has a master’s degree in molecular biology. How did you get from there to full time musician?
My fascination with life itself prompted me to study biology deeply. In addition to that, my music teacher told me not to try to make my living as a musician because it was too difficult. However, in my last year of graduate school, I found myself spending most of my time playing in a folk musical group, a rock band and creating sound tracks for an art teacher working on a film. This happened even though I had a National Science Fellowship to just focus on Biology. So, in 1968 I ditched my graduate degree in science and off I went to New York City to become an audio engineer and learn about the music business. There in the East Village I moved in across the hall from Dudley and the rest is history.
Soundings began in 1979 in Tucson. When did you come to Bellingham and what brought you up here?
We were looking for better schools for our three kids and wanted to move from the desert and be closer to water. Our family moved to Bellingham in 1990 and about 10 years later we moved our whole business up here. Initially we had a large warehouse and growing number of employees. We have had various degrees of growth and belt-tightening and these days our music is more widely distributed than ever and enjoyed by millions of people on a daily basis thanks to streaming sites.
Of the albums you’ve worked on, what has been the most successful and what was the most spiritually rewarding? What were the keys to each?
That’s like asking which is our favorite child! Ha ha. We’ve had many albums win awards and reach best seller lists. We even had several hit the Billboard Charts. Our nature based albums and collaborations with harpist d’Rachael, like Ocean Dreams and Forest Rain were early successes. I loved making Ascension to Tibet because Dudley and I got to go to Tibet in the mid ‘90s to celebrate our 25th anniversary. (We’re now approaching our 50th wedding anniversary!) Healing Sanctuary was an album dedicated to victims and survivors of 9/11 and it is still popular. We even were able to get our music to combat veterans at Walter Reed who were suffering from PTSD and wounds of war. Chakra Healing has been very popular because the music is a great collaboration with trance guitarist Scott Huckabay, and also people are interested in chakras. Dudley’s album A Sound Sleep: Guided Meditations with Relaxing Music & Nature Sounds continues to be popular. Prayers on the Wind: Native American & Silver Flutes, my recent collaboration with Peter Ali, just won the Gold Visionary Award. Anyway, they just keep coming!
You recently put out an album with Tim Alexander, best known as the drummer of Primus. What was it like working with him?
Tim worked smoothly which wasn’t surprising since he had been listening to our music for 20 years. Even though we come from different musical genres, we were able to merge our instruments to create an album that seems to be a good cross over. Net of Indra features Tim’s vast array of percussion instruments, gongs, and Tibetan bowls. He has an interesting process of looping his tracks and playing against them. It was fun to have his whole kit set up in the Soundings studio and we really enjoyed getting to know each other.
Obviously you’ve seen dramatic shifts in the music industry over the years.
We have managed to keep up with all the changes of technology and distribution that have happened since we made our first cassette tape in 1979. In the late ‘80s we started making CDs and sold literally millions. Eventually downloads came into play and now the streaming platforms have gained popularity. We just passed one billion streams on Pandora. And Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, and all streaming platforms are playing our music. You can search my name, Dean Evenson, and listen to just about anything for free. Our Soundings of the Planet YouTube channel is also a popular way for people to listen to our music and also to see the many nature videos I continue to make.
What is the key to keeping inspired after 40 years of running a label?
We have a strong sense of meaning and purpose in our work. Our mission is sharing Peace Through Music. We have received so much positive feedback over the years about the benefits of our music in the healing process. We know that stress is a key factor to many chronic conditions, diseases and mental and physical health issues people are facing so by providing an antidote to stress through our peaceful, relaxation music, we are contributing in our own way to making the world a better place.
Many of the Soundings records are a pairing of you and Dudley. How has that musical connection grown throughout the years?
The more we play together the better we get and we listen to each other more completely. We are fortunate that we can play together every day just for fun. Dudley’s harp is the perfect instrument to set the tone for my flute melodies. Even though we have played together so many decades, each time we play it is fresh and new. People seem to enjoy it when we play together.
What is your favorite story as a musician and record label owner?
Years ago, we wanted to get an 800 number with the word Peace in it. The operator I spoke to said there were none available as an insurance company had taken them all. A few weeks later, I got a call from the same operator who asked if we still wanted an 800 number with Peace in it. She said she had a dream that the number 800.93 PEACE had become available and I should call you to see if you still wanted it. Of course, I said yes, we definitely wanted it. When the phone operator has prophetic dreams about your business, you don’t have to wonder if you are on the right track.
What has drawn you to a meditative sound and how do you continue to find musical inspiration into your 70s?
I started playing flute when I was 10 years old so I have been playing flute for 65 years. Since flute relies on the power of the breath, I realize that’s a lot of breathing! Anyway, Dudley and I came of age in the ‘60s so Peace and Love is more than a cliché for us. In addition to wanting more peace on the planet, we were interested in music that supported inner peace. We have been practicing yoga and meditation for many years and were also influenced by the slow music and tones emanating from the East. Selling our music at art fairs and conferences allowed us to meet our public and receive direct feedback from listeners. We heard that our music was reaching even deeper levels of healing and that was a great bonus for us. Grammy award-winning country singer Naomi Judd even became a fan as the music helped her in dealing with her liver disease.
You and Dudley recently released the book, Quieting the Monkey Mind: How to Meditate with Music. Tell us what went into writing the book and why you were inspired to write it.
Naturally our music has been used as a background for meditation. For many years we taught workshops about using sound and music for meditation and healing. We did research about how the music can support wellness and we had been practicing yoga and meditation since 1970. We figured it was time to put our experience and learning into one place so it could benefit others and we decided to write a book about it. Dudley did most of the writing and we used many of her photographs to illustrate it. Our long time graphic designer Bob Paltrow did the layouts and it turned out to be a beautiful, award-winning guidebook that people find is very helpful whether they are experienced meditators or just beginning their process.
What will the next 10 years look like for Soundings?
These days we are as busy as ever. We have a great Soundings team helping with production, promotion, marketing, and all that goes into running a record label. Our granddaughter Cybele Olsen has even joined our team and we are benefiting from her marketing and video work. Her partner Daniel Harm is doing amazing work organizing our video archive and we are soon starting a new YouTube channel called ‘Soundings Mindful Media’. In addition to our music recordings, our video work will be shared much more going forward. At our concert on Sept. 28, we will be projecting a lot of those early videos and it’s fun to see our history coming together.
We want to leave a legacy of the media we have collected since first beginning our video work in 1970. The music will continue as well since we seem to be magnets for fabulous musicians. Our engineer and studio neighbor Phil Heaven helps us in running the business in so many ways and especially with all the digital processes involved these days. He also plays viola on many of our recordings and of course will be performing with us at the 40th Anniversary gala concert. Even though I’ll be 75 this year, I still have a lot of energy for creating. And with the help of the many young people in our lives, we will continue to produce and create for many years to come.
Soundings of the Planet 40th Anniversary Celebration Concert will be Saturday, Sept. 28 from 7-10 p.m. at The Majestic Ballroom, 1027 N. Forest, Bellingham. Advance Tickets $20. Includes free CD with ticket purchase. $25 at the door. Tickets are available via Brown Paper Tickets. For more information about Soundings of the Planet, see www.soundings.com/ptm40 or call 800/93 PEACE (800/937-3223).