Ghostly International’s Sam Valenti on His Herb Sundays Project

The record label founder invites fellow music nerds to reveal their vulnerable side

It’s not altogether surprising that Sam Valenti IV—founder of the independent record label, Ghostly International—spent the pandemic lockdown listening to a lot of music. However, his housebound hobby went beyond professional research or entertainment value. To help ease anxiety at the NYC home he shares with his wife, a doctor, Valenti began “connecting and reconnecting with a lot of music, both current and past, and appreciating it without the usual lens of critique or comparison, just looking for a direct feeling.” Not every one of the 10,000+ records Valenti has on his shelves is of the artistic integrity his own label achieves. Some, he says, are “maybe uncool but definitely great.” Valenti began celebrating these songs by sharing them on Twitter along with the hashtag #herbsundays, a nod to the slang term for someone nerdy—”def an insult, and I love ripping on myself and my friends as a ‘love language’ so it just felt good,” he says.

by Michael Cina

The tweets soon turned into a series of weekly playlists called Herb Sundays, which then morphed into a Substack of the same name. There, Valenti sheds light on each week’s curator with an editorial backstory that’s both informative and personal. The curators he’s called upon are varied—a mix of musicians, DJs, journalists, and art- and fashion-adjacent people—but they’re all, in Valenti’s eyes, “individuals with a strong perspective when it comes to music.” As for the tunes, the brief is simple: “a Sunday playlist for when no one is looking.”

by Michael Cina

For someone like the Turner-prize winning conceptual artist Jeremy Deller, that includes Willie Nelson’s cover of “The Harder They Come” by Jamaican musician Jimmy Cliff. Music supervisor Jocelyn Michelle Brown recommends pairing her Sunday assortment with oolong tea while Luaka Bop co-owner Yale Evelev simply offers up a playlist of songs chosen in pairs. Now at 55 playlists and counting, Herb Sundays has something for everyone’s euphonic palate—although, even in their herbiest moments, the selections veer wonderfully far from the mainstream.

by Michael Cina

Ghostly enthusiasts will know that Valenti has a penchant for thinking holistically about projects, and Herb Sundays is no different. In addition to the extensive Substack stories, each playlist also gets its own cover art created by longtime Ghostly collaborator Michael Cina. The project gives them a “low-stress way to geek out” while oftentimes further highlighting the personality behind each curator. “I never show the curator the cover in advance,” Valenti says, “so it’s sort of a surprise of sorts, but we do our best to make them interesting. There’s def a lot of easter eggs and double meanings in the covers.”

by Tim Saccenti and Dina Chang for Setta Studio

So far, Valenti says he has no plans to take Herb Sundays into the physical realm by pressing parts of the series on vinyl, but he would like to establish an archive of the mixes—”even if just in text form.” The reason? “The nature of DSPs like Apple and Spotify is that distribution and territory rights often change, so these playlists will sort of erode with time (or get better if we add stuff to them),” he says. “So there’s another layer of meaning here about the fallacy of consistency, these playlists aren’t really owned by anyone, it’s merely a map.”

For now it’s easy enough to appreciate Herb Sundays for exactly what it is: musical intrigue sent to your inbox each week. Join in by subscribing to the Herb Sundays newsletter and take a spin through the archives for an immediate fix of playlists, available on Spotify and Apple Music.

Hero image courtesy Michael Cina/Herb Sundays