Today (September 11), Orange & Lemons drop a new single, ‘You Bring Out My Best’ – the first of a monthslong slate of releases from Lilystars Records, the label founded by the band’s chief songwriter Clem Castro.
It sports all the hallmarks of Orange & Lemons: an irresistible melody, a jangle in their jingle, pop-radio concision. This time around, they worked differently: Castro came to the table armed with “just a play of words and melody ideas,” leaving the rest up to collaboration.
That, in some respects, is the Lilystars story: one of play, abandon, and surrender.
In hindsight, Castro began the label as an alter ego of sorts, a reaction to vital upheavals in both his identity and creativity. In September 2007, Orange & Lemons called it quits after wrapping an ill-fated U.S. tour. Soon after, he formed a new band called The Camerawalls, and in its wake also unveiled the record label. He needed more than a place to house his new material – he needed somewhere “where it felt like home.”
“I experienced too much of the good and the bad of [being in a major label],” he tells NME, and anyway, what better way to build that home than with his own hands? Castro needed independence, he pined for control, and curiously enough, wanted to try his hand at administering the marketing and distribution of his own music.
Taking cues from labels that put out his choice indie pop, post-punk, and alternative releases – names such as Rough Trade, Labrador, Matador, Matinee, and Sarah Records – he asked himself, “What if I form an independent pop label – the kind of pop that I like –and support specific genres and eventually produce, develop, and record like-minded bands and musicians?”
It was a resounding “yes” for Castro, who also tips his hat to Manila label Terno Recordings, which O&L briefly called home. “My history with them added to that drive,” he admits, adding, “My long-term goal was to be the Sarah or Labrador Records of the Philippines, and put our nation on the map with the music we curate.”
The search seemed daunting, but the songwriter was ready to get to work. Apart from boasting of an encyclopedic grasp of indie, Castro was also a silent champion of local talent. And he wanted to be silent no more. From years in the club circuit, he knew there were like-minded creators; it was just a matter of wading through the chaff. “What I considered to be the most important [considerations] were sound, musical structure, and pop sensibility,” he says.
Lilystars’ initial yield included releases by electro-pop duo Turbo Goth, power pop outfit The Bernadettes, twee-pop band The Gentle Isolation, and alt-pop heavies Your Imaginary Friends (before they refashioned themselves as We Are Imaginary), among others. After a while the label started embracing a wider breadth of sounds, roping in artists like Pampanga-bred troubadour Ian Penn and Dumaguete-based indie folk artist Meagan Trees, even pulling overseas talents like Sydney singer-songwriter Bryan Estepa into the fray.
The label’s biggest draws up until recently, however, were Castro’s own bands. At first it was just The Camerawalls, whose 2008 debut ‘Pocket Guide To The Otherworld’ established him as a creative powerhouse. Then there was the more stripped-down solo project Dragonfly Collector (where Castro was credited under the mononym Clementine), whose debut ‘The World Is Your Oyster’ this writer personally ranked as the finest indie release of 2015. But in 2018, Lilystars unexpectedly heralded the return of Orange & Lemons, dropping a fresh rerecording of their debut, ‘Love In The Land of Rubber Shoes & Dirty Ice Cream’.
This year marks the label’s 12th year in the biz, and just like everybody else, their plans were foiled by the pandemic. A black-tie show at the Teatrino was going to take place in April, with everyone in the present roster performing and some even flying in from overseas. Castro’s own Dragonfly Collector tour of Western Canada was also cut short, and he was forced to live out of a suitcase for a couple of weeks while desperately booking a flight home.
But being a glass-half-full kind of guy, he got down to business as soon as he landed back home. “I had all the time to restructure the label, check on demo submissions, talk to industry professionals, sign a number of new artists, and encourage my current roster to record new music,” he shares ecstatically. Though still reeling from a protracted forced sabbatical from live shows, Lilystars is turning things around by unveiling a nearly three-month-long campaign of biweekly releases.
“My long-term goal was to be the Sarah or Labrador Records of the Philippines, and put our nation on the map with the music we curate”
This time, the sound and its architects come from places both oft-frequented and unchartered, each cut imbued with the jolt of wide-eyed discovery. Castro found himself looking back on e-mails, replying to strangers’ cold pitches, listening more closely to unfamiliar names on the radio, and devouring just about everything on streaming services. “I care less about who the artists are, where they are from, or how they look,” Castro says. “As long as the sound and the music connect with my palate – even in its raw stages – my interest is piqued.”
Lilystars will be releasing new material from singer-songwriter Dey Rose from Vancouver (“Lovely, powerful voice and an excellent live performer,” Castro says); dream-pop quartet Project Orange (whose first two singles have been getting radio airtime, and have even amassed a small following in Taiwan); synth-wave duo Dustybuns (whose earworm-inducing material is reminiscent of The Midnight and The Night Game); indie rockers The Geeks (“A hardworking band with a rabid cult following”); and indie pop act Parasouls ( for those on a steady diet of Diet Cig, Alvvays, and Frankie Cosmos).
The label’s Cebu contingent – composed of dream pop outfit The Midnight Greetings and psych rockers Kubra Commander – is also worth bookmarking. The former is cut from the same cloth as Mac Demarco, The Walters, Peach Pit, and Clairo, while the latter owes much to artists like Oasis, MGMT, and Wild Nothing.
There are a few mainstays, too, among them the aforementioned Bryan Estepa, a prolific tunesmith with six albums under his belt, and Meagan Trees, whose soothing music wouldn’t be out of place in the company of her heroes Jack Johnson, Lisa Hannigan and Norah Jones. Both have full LPs underway, with Estepa reportedly working with Josh Pyke, a fixture in Australian neo-folk.
The recent addition of Them Bloody Royals is also worth noting. The band – formerly called The Royal and fronted by former MTV VJ Sib Sibulo – has alums from The Charmes, Plane Divides The Sky, The Out Of Body Special and Boy Elroy in its ranks, so rock won’t be in short supply on the Lilystars release calendar. Another beautiful curiosity is the inclusion of actress Alessandra de Rossi in the roll call. She’s billed in the credits as ADR, and as NME can tell you from an advance listen, her ambient material is truly something else.
Shows are out of the question for now, but you’re sure to get your fix of Lilystars goodness for the next few months. See Lilystars’ complete calendar of releases below.
Lilystars Records’ upcoming 2020 releases are:
September 11 – Orange & Lemons, ‘You Bring Out My Best’ (single)
September 16 – Project Orange, ‘Play, Pretend’ (single)
September 18 – Bryan Estepa, ‘Admit Now, Pay Later’ (single and B-side)
September 23 – The Bernadettes, ‘Worthless Beautiful’ (single)
September 25 – The Geeks, ‘The First Time’ (single)
September 30 – Dey Rose, ‘Panting Heart’ (EP)
October 2 – ADR, ‘Make It Better’ (single)
October 7 – Parasouls, ‘Can We, Can We’ (single)
October 9 – Kubra Commander, ‘The Now’ (single)
October 14 – The Gentle Isolation, ‘Sound Wave’ (single)
October 16 – Dustybuns, ‘Seasons’ (single)
October 21 – The Camerawalls, ‘A Single Day’ (single)
October 23 – The Midnight Greetings, ‘Youth’ (single)
October 28 – Dragonfly Collector, ‘Invisible’ (single)
October 30 – Meagan Trees, ‘Take Me Away’ (single)
November 4 – Them Bloody Royals, ‘We Children Of The Night’ (single)