Sunday, 10 November 2013

Sofar Birmingham: Songs from a Birmingham Room with Cannon Street

Pop-up gigs in strange spaces. Who's on? Don't know. Take a sense of adventure with you

There's a great story in here, about doing the right thing. The story takes in a folk festival, sharp idealistic new talent, several up and coming folk bands, putting it out there and getting something back, some very solid principles - like showing some respect and really listening to performers - and a lot of people who just do what should be done. 

I love watching new talent emerge. There’s a buzz to catching someone fresh and exciting for the first time. If they're good, you almost have to support them. Interestingly, there are a surprising number of people who feel the same way, and are dedicated to helping this process along: Paul Murphy’s wonderful Songwriters Café sessions, hopefully soon to return, Sophie Handy’s Muzikstan and Tom Martin’s Tower of Song are three West Midlands examples; there are many more.

That great story? You may have heard of Cannon Street: they are Nadi and Rukaiayah Qazi. If you haven’t listened to them yet, you should, so there’s a couple of Soundcloud links further down this post.

Cannon Street on the Moseley Folk Lunar Stage, 2013
Cannon Street are enthusiastic and inventive. They write lovely songs, pick interesting covers, and deliver all of this with charm and passion. I did a tiny piece about them in this blog post
, after their debut last summer at Moseley Folk.

And here's the really great bit of that great story: Two years ago, they volunteered at the festival: you do two shifts and catch the rest of the festival for free; maybe you do a bit of schmoozing and networking. Oxford’s Stornoway were a main attraction. Radio 2’s Janice Long, as usual, was compering, and listening out for new talent, as she always does.
Nadi: 2011 was the year we volunteered! We got talking to Janice Long who very kindly introduced us to Stornoway after we told her we were big fans and that we sang a cover of one of their songs... We then found ourselves singing it to them backstage in their dressing room tent! Pretty surreal really! Stornoway have kept in touch ever since – Ollie (Steadman) has been an amazing supporter. 
You never know wno's listening. You never know who will react to what you put out. One thing leads to another. 

Sofar Sao Paulo: pic from blog
It turns out that Ollie Steadman is the Oxford organiser for Sofar SoundsSofar? It stands for Songs From A Room. It is grassroots music making, co-ordinated globally through a pretty slick website. Organisers put on ‘secret’ gigs in living rooms worldwide. These are then shared and streamed to music-lovers on the web. If you sign up for a gig, you won’t know who is playing, or where the gig is – just the date. The rest is revealed when you get there. So you’re trusting the organisers. You might think it’s an iffy proposition, but it’s not. Paul Murphy works the same way, and the Songwriters Café never lets you down.
Nadi: We were asked to play at the first Oxford Sofar – our first or second ever gig. Ollie Steadman runs it in Oxford. So then we volunteered to do one in Birmingham. We hosted it in our living room. Four bands – ourselves, Goodnight Lenin, Count Drachma (Ollie Steadmans’ side project) and To Kill A King. It was lovely. From there, Sofar asked us to carry on… 

We host secret events in popup gigs – unusual spaces, different venues. They’re really small, intimate events. We have three to five artists at each event. Everyone plays unplugged. Percussion is stripped back – brushes or muted with cloth, and minimal amplification – maybe just a bass amp. So bands can play. The idea is that you attend the whole gig. You sit on a sofa, or on the floor. 
So this is small-scale – thirty to forty people? 
If it’s a living room, which it often is, that’s right. 
That implies some serious thinking going on here about how performers and audiences can interreact. When it’s that intimate, you can get some special moments. 
It can be incredible – just that moment where you’re captivated by what’s going on in front of you. There can be a really broad mix. 
How do you pick the artists who appear? It must be very tricky to decide who’s going to play. 
It is. It’s our role to book artists. We also have a team of film makers and engineers who shoot and stream the events. We can see who is playing at other events, and request them to come and play at ours. We contact artists directly, and artists also get in touch online, offering to play. There is a waiting list. We slot them in where we think it the best fit for a really nice mix. 
In Berlin, from the Sofar Sounds Berlin Facebook page
Nadi, this is secret, but it’s not that secret, or we wouldn’t be talking. How do people hear about your gigs? How do they get in touch? 
We have a mailing list. If you check out our videos online, or our Soundcloud, there are links allowing you to subscribe. Or you can go to the Sofar website and subscribe. Then you are notified about the events that take place close to you. The location is revealed only the night before the event. 
You’re asking for a commitment, aren’t you? 
Yes, We want the best possible audience for the artist. We ask that people don’t talk during the performances unless they’re singing along, and that they don’t use their phones unless it’s to talk on Twitter, or Facebook, about what’s going on. 
I like that. You’re using all the trappings of 21st century social media to go back to the very essence of live performance. Lots of work though? 
Yes, but it’s worth it when you see the event take place. I think I’m quite spoiled now. 
If you dig around the Sofar website, it’s clear that a lot of time has gone into developing the concept so it can seed itself in new cities. The trick is always going to be to allow enough local autonomy to encourage grassroots growth, harnessing local idealism and savvy to a solid support and advice network. Nadi and Rukaiya have leant heavily on this support. 

Now tell me about your own music operation… How are you guys doing? 
We’re working on our first EP. We’re always exploring. We’re working out how we’re going to progress form being an acoustic act – two voices, one guitar - to having other instruments and extra musicians. Rukaiyah bought a really cool electric guitar the other day! We’ll be doing a video soon. We’re shooting next week, but I don’t know when that will be ready. 
I’ll stick it up on this blog post when it’s done...

I told you it was a great story. It touches on so many of the right things. I’m interested in the relationship between the audience and the song or the performer. You’re a performer, sending some ideas out. Who’s listening? Who’s reacting? Is anything getting in the way?

Pop and corporate mega acts can be fun, but that stuff doesn’t feed your soul. And it can not, ever, compare with the conversation that goes on when a person steps up and sings and plays, to you, live. When you’re ten feet away from a performer with something to say, it’s rare and special. It takes more than performance magic to make that happen. It takes a framework and an attitude – respect for performers and a welcoming open mind to listen with. I salute the people who make this happen. 

Cannon Street
Sofar Sounds

See also
Six acts latecomers missed at Moseley Folk 2013 

Tom Martin and the Tower of Song
Songwriters Cafe 2012: feeding the five hundred

More music and venues posts on Radio To Go

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