It takes no small measure of courage and a great deal of goodwill to start a grass roots musical movement, writes Andrew Cowen.
There’s been an awful lot of dancing on the grave of the record industry in the past few years. I know because I’m one of those happily bopping away like a cake-crazed kid at a wedding.
The major labels can no longer get away with charging £15 for a CD when the music is easily available for free, often before the album’s release.
Like it or not, the rise of superfast internet connections, mp3s, file-sharing software and blogs have had a democratising effect. With a little help from the social networks, anyone can find an audience.
While it’s handsomely gratifying to kick at the likes of multi-nationals EMI and Universal Records, think also of some of the great record labels of the past, Stax, Sun, Tamla Motown, early Virgin and Island, Stiff, Rough Trade, Two-Tone and Factory.
These were labels you could trust, with a strong visual image and a pretty watertight guarantee that any record they released would be a classic.
This was the thinking behind Spritely Records which launches this weekend.
Spritely is the creation of Hunt Emerson, Birmingham-based comics artist, and Stately Homes of England, a duo formed by myself and Manchester-based Tim Bowden.
Let me take you through our first nine months and the evolution of Josephine and Spritely.
Hunt’s a neighbour and friend of mine. I’ve been a fan of his cartoon strips in Fortean Times and books published by Knockabout Comics for years, so working with him has been a privilege. Getting to know him, though, the real revelation has been his musical brain.
He’s an instinctive musician from a musical family. He can belt out a tune, carry a harmony and has a canny repertoire of back garden summer evening bonfire singsongs.
Hunt also designed the one-eyed smiley motif that adorns Stately Homes of England’s first release, a picture disc of three post-rock hip-hop tunes, 10 years ago.
Since then, Stately Homes of England have released a full-length album, a couple of collections of remixes and an EP. We finished our second album in late summer last year, deciding to woodshed it in the hope of finding a proper home and a physical release on a real label.
Our earlier stuff is available to download for free or buy or stream on bandcamp, a superb service that lets artists promote and sell their work online.
We hit upon doing the idea of Josephine during one of those list-your-10-favourite-songs sessions that gentlemen of a certain age are want to indulge in. The song tells a fabulous story, has a great melody, killer chorus and chords that are in every guitarist’s gonzo repertoire.
Hunt practised it, writer John Otway emailed us his preferred set of words and we recorded the first version in about 20 minutes. It was too slow and too tentative but Hunt nailed it when he came back a few days later with an electric guitar.
I’ve had a home recording studio for 20 years now and always love recording real instruments and voices.
Hunt left a lead vocal, four harmony tracks and three guitar takes and I later added some drums and simple synthesiser bits.
It sounded great. We’d got the raggedy bar-band vibe we were after but all parties knew that it needed more.
Handsworth is full of jamming musicians. Louise Kilbride’s informal Acoustic Bites sessions, formerly at The Public in West Bromwich, now relocated to town, has seen a skiffly collection of scratch bands duking it out with some of the best acoustic combos in town.
We knew we wanted Micky Jeynes to play bass and having Ron Collins on percussion and Dermot Walker on lead guitar was obvious, as Hunt has been playing with them for years.
We also knew we wanted a massive chorus of our friends’ voices at the end, like Hey Jude, but louder. Louise Kilbride’s voice was always a natural choice to lead the chorus, but we found more singers amongst our friends who all swore they “couldn’t sing a note”, but who sang admirably at the midwinter singaround in Hunt’s kitchen, gathered round as many microphones as we could muster to join in the final choruses.
The sessions came together quickly. Ron first with his duffel bag full of esoteric hitty things and bongos, then Micky, who provided solid McCartney slides and dubby lopes, Hunt came up with a primitive, but crucial, piano part and, finally, Dermot supplied classic British licks and superlative guitar solo.
The final version, the first one on the EP, is the result of hours spent chipping away at the raw material from these sessions, in order to do justice to John Otway’s classic.
But we couldn’t just leave it there.
>>Next page: exclusive remixes of Josephine
The offcuts, out-takes and bum notes from the sessions would go into a folder on a hard drive and late at night, the Stately Homes of England imps would take bits from the pile and make strange remixes.
By now, Hunt had completed a few drawings based on the song.
Otway’s song summons pictures of shamanic May Day jollies on the village green, folkloric revels that continue to this day in some rural spurs of Old England.
Hunt drew Josephine, a rambunctious band of soused musicians and a jolly green man, bounding benignly across the stage with all the whizz of the first days of spring.
We could have left it there, but we had a record, some beautiful art and the notion that, if we could sell enough copies of what we’d done, we could do it all again.
With a budget of around £1,500, we hit on the idea of releasing Josephine in several editions, from a £2 digital download of the eight songs to a deluxe package packed with extras such as a unique one-off mix, an individual watercolour by Hunt and a hard-wearing Spritely Records apron.
In the middle is a £20 set that includes a CD and four beautiful signed prints depicting characters and sprites from the sleeve.
It was always our intention to have as much of the content either home-made or manufactured as close to home as possible.
We also wanted to make each package as generous as we could by keeping the price down and the content bountiful and of a high standard.
Manufacturing of the CD sleeves and their printing was handled by Mission Print in Digbeth. They also made the art prints and screen-printed the aprons.
The aprons were made in a small industrial unit in Nechells and we had a Spritely Records stamp tooled in the Jewellery Quarter to emboss the envelopes containing the finished items.
As well as showcasing local craft, we wanted, in our own small way, to keep any money spent within the region.
The strategy seems to be working. We have sold eight of the £100 editions, recouping a large percentage of the initial costs, and interest in the CDs and prints is high.
Friends are spreading the word through facebook and twitter and Rhubarb Radio, broadcasting online from the Custard Factory, is playing the song on regular rotation.
The MAC in Cannon Hill Park has allowed us to set up a table to sell our wares at a May Day Morris event on Sunday, organised by the Moseley Folk Festival team.
We seem to have hit a wave of goodwill by being open, honest and generous, while maintaining a high standard of work.
It may seem a strange time to launch a new enterprise. Coalition cuts are directly hitting and hurting regional arts and much of the old support network for new creative industries has gone.
However, at Spritely Records, we believe that art is more important than ever, especially at a hyper-local level.
Handsworth has always had a strong and supportive creative community and its streets are packed with talent.
Painters, musicians, cartoonists and administrators all live around here and we hope to be able to work and create with them to boost our local arts scene over the next two or three years.
What we have achieved has been hard work but anyone could have done the same. There’s a thrill in seeing a project through from its first chords to finished product.
The important lesson we have learned is to have a strong vision of where you’re going, be prepared to compromise, but never lose sight of quality.
Future projects for Spritely include the second Stately Homes of England album, a second song from Hunt’s repertoire and, as soon as May Day is over, a concerted drive to land the Christmas number one.
We are in talks with Birmingham Chamber of Commerce about setting up as a social enterprise to attract match funding and find premises and the studio is due to get an overhaul in late summer to make the recording process faster and of a higher quality.
The long-term goal is to find a space that can contain the recording studio, with space for photographers, artists, multimedia specialists, web and new media gurus.
By keeping it all in-house, we can support each other and offer a full service to new artists, whatever their discipline.
There’s never been a better time to return to the ideals of cottage industry. We hope you will join us for the ride.
Spritely Records will also be at the MAC on Sunday, May 1 from 1pm to 3pm, selling copies of Josephine and other one-off items.
Stately Homes of England have also provided the Birmingham Post with these two exclusive remixes, below. The 'Birmingham Post Chunky Mix' and the 'Kerplunk' mix.