FLYER Q&A: Fayetteville expat Tony Presley laser-focused on growing Austin-based record label

Tony Presley / Courtesy photo

Austin-based record label Keeled Scales has started 2021 by releasing a few records that will surely be in Best-Of conversations at years end.

You might remember Label manager and co-founder Tony Presley from his time in Fayetteville, where he performed solo and full band shows as Real Live Tigers. He also promoted shows at various venues across town, at The Lightbulb Club, LaLaLand, The Dinosaur House, The New Deli, Nightbird Books and a few other venues that no longer exist. Presley started the label in 2014 with Seth Whaland. Last year, they released Tenci‘s excellent record My Heart Is An Open Field.

Keeled Scales has just released new records from Buck Meek (of Big Thief), Sun June, and Katy Kirby.

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Kirby’s record Cool Dry Place is officially out this Friday – it’s a stunning debut and my favorite of the year so far. One listen to her song “Traffic” will make you an instant fan.

This Spring, new records from Karima Walker and Renee Reed have been announced, and are available to pre-order. Locally, you can buy and order Keeled Scales releases at Block Street Records. If you like what you hear or are already sold, you can buy everything and get a label subscription at

I talked to Tony Presley about Keeled Scales, Fayetteville, and a few other things.

How are you? How’s everything looking in Austin right now?

I can’t complain. Austin is unseasonably cold right now. We’re expecting single digit temperatures next week, and obviously live music is on hold, so it feels like a very different city than normal. I’m just working from home and hanging out with my dog.

What’s been keeping you sane during the pandemic?

Honestly, just working on the label. It’s been good to keep my head down and focus on the tasks involved with releasing music. There was a “sky is falling” moment at the beginning of the pandemic when all of our artists’ tours were canceled, SXSW was canceled, and record stores closed their storefronts, where it was like are small labels even going to make it through this? I think after that initial panic subsided we kind of tried to figure out what we could do.

Do you remember your “I’m going to start a record label” moment?

I do. I was visiting my friend Seth Whaland while he was living in Philadelphia in 2013 and he asked me if I wanted to start a label with him called Keeled Scales. I said sure. It was never my idea! I’d been part of a couple collective labels before where it was each artist’s responsibility to pay for their own release, but I never had any sort of desire to start a label of my own until Seth asked me. Now it’s my entire life (laughs).

I have the new Sun June song “Everything I Had” stuck in my head permanently. How did you approach them about releasing their music? What have you learned through working with them?

“Everything I Had” is my favorite song on that album. I’m right there with you.

I approached them in this really roundabout way. When they were recording their first album I was living in this little apartment above my friend’s recording studio and could hear them through the floor doing overdubs and recording vocal parts. Even just hearing snippets through the floor I was intrigued. I texted my friend who was engineering and he told me who they were. I hadn’t heard them or seen them play live at that point, but they sent me the record when they were finished and I really loved it. They assured me our label was on their list of labels they were planning to send it to, but I think they were just saying that to be nice (laughs).

With Sun June, we really started from the ground up, which took a lot of work on everyone’s parts. The band was down to tour and they really embraced opportunities that came their way. Like, a booking agent in Italy wanted to book 18 shows for them, so they were like, sure, let’s go to Italy! I’ve been working with them for over 3 years now and I think if we’ve learned anything it’s when to say yes to things and when to sort of wait and be more selective about what things come our way. At some point in a band’s growth it just doesn’t make sense to say yes to everything.

Katy Kirby’s new record is out soon. It’s got to feel nice reading all the advanced praise. What comes to mind when you think of her record?

Definitely. I’m really excited about how well her album is being received ahead of release.

I think with a lot of stuff we release I think it’s good or I know it’s good, but the challenge is introducing it to other people and converting them into fans. I didn’t feel like that would be an obstacle at all with Katy’s album. I knew folks would fall in love with it instantly. I mean, Katy is a master songwriter. She knows exactly what she’s doing and this album is just incredible. I really expect it to be a springboard for her career and I think other folks recognize that too.

With Katy’s album and a few others we’ve released recently, like Tenci and Renée Reed, the thought comes to mind that this isn’t my experience, you know? Like, I can relate to where Twain and Buck and Will Johnson and David Dondero are coming from. Those are experiences that are very familiar to me. To be able to help share work from other songwriters who have lived very different lives and had different experiences to me feels special.

You’ve been working with Buck Meek of Big Thief for a while now. How did that come about, and how did he affect the label?

I was introduced to Buck by Mat Davidson of Twain in late 2017. I’d flown up to St. Louis to meet Mat and see Twain play live and they were opening for Big Thief on that tour. We all talked a bit before the show and a couple months later Buck sent me a record he was finishing up. I think that period of time was when we were really starting to figure out some things with the label, like bringing on PR and finding distribution. Twain and Buck were the first two artists we worked with who had managers and I think just realizing that we had to up our game to meet expectations was something that really affected how we ran the label. Buck’s record and the first Sun June record came out within a month of each other and that felt like a situation where the label was hitting a stride.

How have you adapted to the loss of touring?

It’s been interesting. Bandcamp has been a huge source of support for us and for our artists in lieu of touring, but also I think in general folks have gone out of their way to buy vinyl and merch from artists who aren’t on the road right now. There’s this amazing word-of-mouth thing that happens when bands are touring – thanks in part to regional press, but I feel like in this absence of touring lots of music fans have really gone out of their way to discover new music. We’ve also found it easier to pitch new artists to national press during this. I don’t know if it’s a vacuum created by all these bigger artists pushing their album releases back or if people just have more of an attention span right now or what, but it’s been really inspiring to see that artists can reach new fans in the absence of touring.

Are you still playing music and writing?

I’m not. I played two shows in 2018, none in 2019 and obviously none in 2020. It’s been something on the far back burner that I want to get back to at some point when the time is right, but lately I’ve been getting a lot out of working on this side of the music industry. I’d like to think I have one more album left in me.

What have you been reading lately?

I wish I could say that I’m reading a lot or watching lots of tv, but that would be lying. I’m just on my laptop all day every day. I went to journalism school and I still can’t shake that urge to be caught up on the news every day, even when it’s as anxiety-inducing as it’s been the past few years. I am slowly, slowly working my way through Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon, which was a gift from my friend Caitlin Kraus, who’s an incredible songwriter. It’s a travel memoir written in the 1970s very much in the spirit of Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. It makes me miss traveling and touring so much.

What do you miss about Fayetteville?

I miss Petra Cafe with all my heart. I miss the types of friendships and days that I had in Fayetteville where I could set out pretty aimlessly, drink coffee and read at the library, and run into five people I know. I miss working in the dark basement of Hugo’s and I miss living with Chris Clunk. Fayetteville’s a really magical place and I’m thankful for all the time I spent there. There’s a part of me that wonders if I’ll eventually find my way back.

What are your plans and hopes for 2021?

I’m pretty laser-focused on growing the label right now and getting it to a point where it’s a successful business. If I can look back at the end of the year and see that, I’ll be really happy. It’d be amazing if tours started happening later in the year and some of our artists could hit the road.

When live shows are safe again – who are you rushing to see? Fantasy lineups are allowed.

I still haven’t seen Tenci play live, which feels crazy to have worked with a band for over a year without meeting them in person or seeing their live set. I’d give up a lot for a Waxahatchee / Sun June / Tenci / Katy Kirby show. I’d also probably be a big puddle of tears by the end of it too.

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