Articles written by Holly Hewitt

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'Hope' Album, Local Musicians & The Stratford Link Project

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Doug Armstrong tells me firmly that he's the not a musician. Those who know and work with him however know that's he's been instrumental,(excuse me) in making many musical projects happen by linking venues to acts and actively supporting the work of many local musicians. He's very much part of the musical community. I'll swiftly move on as Doug didn't want me to focus on him, but I wanted to mention that there are many people on the local music scene who are every bit as important to the making of the community as those who perform.

I met Doug to talk about a song writing project he's been working on with highly respected local musicians Wes Finch, Nigel Clarke (of 90's band, Dodgy) and Jack Blackman and most importantly, members of The Stratford Link Project.

The Stratford Link project primarily hosts a drop in for homeless, socially isolated and vulnerable people. Doug, Nigel, Wes and Jack began by encouraging some of the regular attendees to learn guitar. This moved to generating lyrics for their own songs. The group members were asked draw on their own feelings and experiences. The group then worked with the experienced musicians to craft songs. This became a very important part of everyone lives as it gave a voice to experiences, feelings and creativity the participants hadn't known how to articulate or had any one to share this with.

They were all really impressed by what was created and a recording project came together with help from Paul Johnson of Rhythm Studios. The group members performed their songs on the album and were helped to shape the songs with guidance and expertise of the musicians. Doug's role was very much about facilitating and helping those involve find a voice and confidence to put ideas and feelings forward.

The process was very bonding for all involved and created important relationships, some of which are still going strong. It was sometimes a slow and frustrating process and is described as follows, 'some weeks they struck gold other weeks didn't bear fruit.'

The project culminated in live performance and the album, 'Hope'. It is by any standards something very special, full of beauty, observation and the voices of those who are not often heard. It's a thoroughly enjoyable listen and I played it three times back to back when a I first got it.

The lyrics at times reminded me of the poetry of John Cooper Clarke, full of humour and honesty. Some songs are broad comments on society and difficulty, other focus on the small meaningful details and rituals of life.

The support of the professional musicians shows a great deal of understanding and respect for what was created by the participants. They beautifully elevate a simple tune without over complicating or taking away from the messages within the songs. Their input seems to embellish and enhance the lovely natural vocals and at times there's very Bob Dylanesque vibe.

There is still music being produced by this group and another live event look place at Stratford Playhouse in December. As is often the case funding to develop and move this forward will depend on how thing progress in the future.

You can follow the work of Stratford link Project or buy a CD by sending a message to their Facebook page.

https://m.facebook.com/StratfordLinkProject





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Interview With Saxophonist Dionne Sambrook

Interview

Dionne is a musician in demand, she's in two busy bands and regularly participates in Stratford's Jazz Jams as we'll as working  for Live and Local. This I see one of my my favouite interviews so far as she gives great insight into the passion needed along with the challenges and realities of committing to performing. 

Why did you decide to  play sax? 


I play sax because I simply like being noisy. As I small child, I would go and muck about for hours on the piano at my grandparent's house whenever we were visiting. I did teach myself to play piano and I didn't get to the sax until quite late (via clarinet and flute). I was at college in Coventry studying music and needed to choose a second woodwind instrument. I had ended up playing flute to grade 8 because it was the only instrument taught at my secondary school. When I could choose any instrument, I chose the sax. I love the sound – it is so versatile and can sing softly and gently or really scream out and it works in so many different genres and is visually a beautiful instrument.

Tell us about your key musical influences. 


My main influences are people I know and have performed with rather than famous musicians. I am much more interested in people's attitude to music, how they perform or their role or contribution to a band, than the sound they make or how successful they may be. I think you can learn something from everyone.
If you twisted my arm to make me narrow the massive list of influences, I would say: my stepdad who is a musician and the fact that I grew up in a house with lots of music and where making a noise on an instrument was supported and encouraged by my parents; my O-level music teacher at Aylesford School (Warwick) in the mid-1980s, Caroline Bentham – a super teacher who happened to be a concert pianist and shared her passion for music; and lastly my dear friend Jay Riley who I blame entirely for introducing me to jazz. I was recommended Jay almost ten years ago, when I wanted help with improvising and technique after I'd had a very long break from the sax (c.17 years – career and children get the blame for that) and I'd started playing in a band again. Jay introduced me to loads of new music and shared lots of great advice about how to be a musician. He certainly helped me get the confidence to just go and do it. 


You are so busy, tell us about your musical projects. 


My band The Lounge Club came out of my desire to work on jazz tunes, having been a fairly recent convert. I came across a pretty decent jazz guitarist, Nick, in another band, so asked him if he fancied playing together regularly. We started off working on jazz standards in his sitting room -hence the band name- but now we gig regularly as a jazz quartet (sax, guitar, bass and percussion) and more often than not with the wonderful vocalist Rosie Harris. We play any tunes we like – jazz standards, funk, blues, Latin, pop and soul. Very occasionally we throw in some mad hardcore jazz tune – usually to stunned silence, so not often! Or a bit of Madness.
I've been involved in Stratford Jazz (www.stratfordjazz.org.uk) for a couple of years now. Officially I am the Secretary and Finance officer (Jay is El Presidente), but I also book some of the artists and help with promotion. The club has been going since the early 1980s and Jay took over running the club at my suggestion, so I offered to help him. We constituted the club as a not-for-profit organisation and we hold gigs on the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of each month at Stratford Playhouse and a jazz jam on the 3rd Thursday at RSC's The Other Place. We tend to book modern jazz and we do mix in some new up and coming musicians, local performers and international artists. The club is run on a shoe-string and it's hard to make it work financially, but we have a wonderful group of regular supporters who attend the gigs. And the quality of the performers and music makes it worthwhile - the musicianship is often impressive. I've learnt a lot from attending the gigs (and "borrowed" a few ideas for my own band).


This summer I joined a well-established ska outfit: The SKAlectrics (www.theskalectrics.com). I spotted an add on facebook and I had always enjoyed ska and 2-tone music, so went to a gig and thought, "blimey, there's a lot of drunk people dancing in here – that looks dangerous". But it is such fun. I've now played a good few gigs with them, but every one has been packed out, with people dancing and enjoying themselves. The band has a good following and we've had some fabulous gigs including at The Two-Tone Village in Coventry and recently supporting Bad Manners at The Assembly in Leamington.


What do you find to be the best and most Challenging things  about being in bands? 


The thing I love most, is that you get together with people from all different backgrounds and interests and you come together with this common purpose: to make music. If you do it well, you can bring loads of people along with you. I really enjoy it when people are dancing or singing along, because it means they are enjoying the music so much that it is having a physical effect on them. I get a massive high from a good gig or performing with amazing musicians and the buzz can last for days!
Sometimes it's like herding cats! A mix of people with different ideas and views can mean that it's tricky to find a consensus, let alone agree the finer detail. It's almost impossible to persuade everyone to stick to the plan when we all have different priorities, interests and so many other things in life pulling us all in different directions.

I am a bit of an introvert and can get very nervous before a gig. It's all the waiting around beforehand that can be a complete killer. And, oh my God - the terror of a microphone! It's something that has not come naturally to me and I've had to work on it. But the nerves usually quickly fade when I'm playing. I also find that I can become self-critical and focus on the negative aspects of my playing – what didn't work or what I can't do very well, despite generally being a positive and optimistic person. I'm always chuffed when someone tells me that they've enjoyed my playing.

Do you have a day job? How do you strike a balance?


I work part-time for Live & Local in Warwick managing community touring schemes across the Midlands. My job is to work with community groups, village halls and small art centres across Warwickshire & Worcestershire to bring professional drama, music, poetry and family shows into non-mainstream venues. The shows are subsidised so that community groups can book the best live performances with minimum financial risk. It is a really interesting job and is supporting live drama and music. Luckily there is a system of flexible working, so I can shift my work to suit my music commitments. Plus my boss is also a musician, so is pretty understanding.
It is really difficult to strike the right balance with home, work and music. I'm not sure I have ever got it right! I'm out most evenings, plus coming home at 2am, sweaty, starving and buzzing from a gig is knackering. Luckily, my husband is also my partner – he shares all the family stuff and is wonderfully tolerant of the time demands of my music. He is not much of a fan of music himself, I think that might be my fault. Sax practice can sound like strangling cats. I have two teenage sons who have a working Mum so they have been brought up to be independent and do their share (they can cook and operate the washing machine etc.).


5. Local Music Scene
I have mixed thoughts  – there are some great venues which are really struggling. There are some venues with regular music and do a fantastic job. In any of the local towns you are going to find a range of live music offerings on a weekend, which is a great thing. There are so many amazing musicians, singers, writers and bands out there, suggesting that the local scene is pretty buoyant. Although I have to say that being in a jazz outfit or a 7-piece really does cut down your options when trying to get gigs in local pubs. I think a lot of people shy away when the see something advertised as jazz (thinking of the excellent Fast Show Jazz Club spoof), but it is a massive genre with an enormous range of styles and music. Some of it I really don't like. At the last gig with The Lounge Club, a bloke said to me "I don't like jazz, so wasn't sure about coming tonight. But this music is fantastic".
Open mic nights seem to be the thing at the moment and are springing up everywhere, giving people the opportunity to have a go. And I urge anyone to go for it! A sneaky G&T beforehand might help (I often do before a jam).
I've been to gigs where fabulous talented musicians are performing to a tiny audience and it is obvious that someone is taking a financial hit. That can be really disheartening, whether you are the promotor, the venue manager, the artist or one of the audience.


Who would you collaborate with out of any one in music? 


My dream is to collaborate with Michael League - the leader of Snarky Puppy. He is an award-winning composer and instrumentalist who leads a super-group of the very highest calibre, so to work with Michael would actually require me to be a world-class musician. As I said, in my dreams

Where can we see you over the next few months? 

Stratford Jazz : Stratford Playhouse, Rother Street, Stratford (www.stratfordjazz.org.uk)
Wednesdays: 9th Jan, 23rd Jan etc.
Stratford Jazz Jam: The Other Place, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon (www.stratfordjazz.org.uk)
Thursdays 20th Dec etc.
The Lounge Club (Facebook @loungersjazz)
12th & 27th Dec The Bread Collection Spiga Bistro, Knowle
The SKAlectrics (www.theskalectrics.com)
8th Dec The Dublin Castle, Camden, London
15th Dec Dog & Gun Banbury
22nd Dec The Bell Bicester
16th Feb Banbury United FC

Give us 3 three tracks we should listen to

(check these out - some of my favourite sax solos!)

Tower of Power – Back On The Streets Again
Snarky Puppy – Binky​
Skatalites - ​Wood and Water

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Interview with Rachel Reynolds from Room 17 by Holly Hewitt

Interview

It was great to check in with lead vocalist of Room 17,  Rachel Reynolds. Our kids went to school together and we started performing around the same time. Her straight forward attitude and powerful vocals make her a popular face on the local scene. 

Rachel, tell us about your musical influences and what lead you to want to sing and perform.

''Growing up, my Mum was always singing! She had the radio playing all day long! As I got into my teenage years, I'd record the Top 40 every Sunday, listen to it all week, learn lyrics to my favourite songs of the week and sing! I auditioned for Stars in Their Eyes twice, both times as Belinda Carlisle, then I auditioned for X Factor. I always wished I could be in a band, but didn't know where to start. I just wasn't confident enough!

Tell us about Room 17 and any other musical projects you are  involved in. What are the best and the more challenging things about being in the band.

Room 17 actually happened by accident. My husband Steve had taken up learning to play the drums and got into a newly formed band. My father in law Rob was the guitarist for another band and wanted Steve's band to do a little support act at one of their gigs but the band didn't really get going and they called it quits, much to Rob's disappointment! He'd heard me singing around the house so asked Steve if he thought I'd sing, and long story short, here we are! What I love is how we take any song, all learn our bit, take it to rehearsal and put it together with our own rock feel to it. Rehearsals are always massively productive and great fun! Going out on a weekend and doing what we absolutely love to do is just the best feeling! People dancing whilst we perform is still surreal to me! Local gigs where we know lots of people are always really special to us.
What can be challenging is finding new venues to perform at. Pubs can often have restrictions on noise levels, and being predominantly rock, we're pretty loud! Fitting all our gear into the playing area can be tricky sometimes too, but, it's amazing what you can get into a small space when you have to!

 I know you have another job as many musicians do. Tell us about that and how you strike a balance between your musical projects and other elements in your life.

I work as a Teaching Assistant at a Primary School. I'm always singing at work, and some of the kids think I'm a rock star - I'm happy with that! Striking a balance between that and my band commitments is easy because working in a school means I only work during the day and weekends are never scheduled into my working week; although I think some of the children think I live there! Rehearsals happen in a room in my garden, so I don't have to travel; I literally get home, eat and walk down the garden - it doesn't get any easier than that!

What are your thoughts and feelings about the music scene locally?

I think the music scene locally is great! There's live music on somewhere in the area every weekend, so if we're not gigging ourselves, you'll almost certainly find us supporting someone else! I'm constantly seeing advertisements for local open mic nights, which are great for people just starting out in music and want to gain confidence, or people who just love music so much they want to do it all the time! It's a really great way for like minded people to get together and socialise too.

If you could collaborate with any artist ever, who would it be and why?

If he were alive today, I would love to collaborate with Freddie Mercury. He wrote such brilliant songs and he performed them perfectly for the world to see what a great showman really he was. Also, Pink. She's just so super cool! I love her, I love her songs and I love her live performances. She uses all of her talents to their full potential, all in one show. Brilliant

Leave us with three top songs you love and we should listen to.

I just love so many different songs and genres, so three very different songs I'll give to you.

Electric Worry by Clutch. A bluesy rock song introduced to me quite recently by a friend. I love it!

Penguin by Christina Perri. Such a lovely song that my husband and I chose to have playing in church while signing the register on our wedding day.

Sandstorm by Darude. I still love this Trance track. It was my eldest son's favourite when he was four, he used to ask me to play the ‘bang song'.

local gigs coming up:
24th November Golden Cross Coventry
30th November Lamplighter Stratford
1st December Montys Bar
31st December The Lion KenilworthC

Check out our page on Facebook  @room17band

  1. Next interview - Saxophonist, Dionne Sambrooke 

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Rosa Francesca chats to Holly Hewitt

Interview

Rosa is a musician who has taken a really exciting path using technology. Her music forms part of a wider performing arts experience these days. Thanks for doing this Rosa Francesca.

1. Tell us about your early influences and what lead you to want to create music

I come from a very musical family, so as a kid I was always surrounded by instruments and my parents encouraged me to pursue a career in music. I got into folk and alternative music as a teenager and started listening to people like Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens, and fell in love with the maximalism and density of their arrangements and became obsessed with learning obscure instruments. This influenced my style greatly and led me to work on more intricate lyrics with complex themes.

2. Your current work and use of technology is really exciting and fascinating. You appear to have moved your music in new directions. Tell us more about this.

I recently teamed up with digital artist Edie Jo Murray, who works with mixed reality, digital collages and most notably CGI 3D art. We formed an art collective called Geminae, looking at cyberfeminism, biofeedback and neurodiversity, as we are both neurodivergent. We received a grant to purchase a brain sensing headband that picks up EEG data, and created a performance piece called Luna Affect which premiered at the Black Hole Club for Lumen's show Stellar in April and May. It consisted of me wearing the headband and controlling electronic music and video playback of NASA footage of the phases of the moon, and I'm so proud of how it turned out. In order to carry it out I had to learn visual programming in a very short space of time, and I quickly realised that I love the world of digial art and music and wanted to explore it more, so I started looking into some of the techniques I had learned on my degree involving the program Max MSP and started composing electronic music and sound art pieces.

I used to perform as a singer-songwriter, playing guitar, piano and harp and singing, but had become increasingly bored of this genre since graduating, and furthermore found it difficult to break into the Leamington music scene once I moved back into town (whereas in Lancaster I had been fairly successful and had several gigs per week, playing exciting venues such as Blackpool Tower). I stopped performing in January of this year after deciding it wasn't for me anymore, but am glad that I have found digital performance art as a new way to put my stuff out there!

3. You are going to train in music therapy. What particular projects and elements interest you most in this field?

I've always been interested in Music Therapy as my dad taught at a specialist school for the disabled and I loved performing at their music events there. At university I took a few modules in Psychology of Music and Arts, Health & Wellbeing (which is a field a bit more general and less clinical than Music Therapy). After graduating I wasn't sure if I still wanted to become a Music Therapist, so I started volunteering with a local dementia singing group and attended an experiential course at the Birmingham Centre for Arts Therapies where I learned more about the career and training process, and realised that I was still in love with the world of Music Therapy and definitely wanted to get involved. What I find magical about this form of therapy is that even people with very limited communication can still have profound reactions to music and it can really give them a new lease of life- at the dementia group, nonverbal members were often still able to sing, it's really amazing. I've applied for a Masters and am currently waiting to hear if I'll be able to train, but if I don't get on I still plan to volunteer as an Arts in Health practitioner because it is a very rewarding job.

4. What are your thoughts and feelings about the music scene locally?

I have mixed feelings about the Leamington music scene. On the one hand, I think the quality of music is very high and it means you're never disappointed at an open mic. However, this does mean it becomes a bit elitist. In Lancaster the open mics were open to people of all abilities, and you'd often get people who'd turned to music late in life and were just doing something simple on the ukelele or a silly song, but you don't get that so much here. I'm also disappointed in the fact that it's a very male-dominated scene here, and often of one particular genre of acoustic guitar folk-influenced music. I'd love to go to an open mic where there wasn't a line-up entirely of white-guys-with-guitars, but I think that's half the reason I'm not in that scene anymore anyway. I think the availability of music technology means that it's a lot more diverse scene and more people feel able to get into it.

5. If you could collaborate with any artist ever, who would it be and why?

I would love to work with the violinist Owen Pallett. He does incredible string arrangements for people like Kimbra, Arcade Fire, and The Last Shadow Puppets. I saw him live a few years back and he did some very innovative stuff with loop pedals and synths, and I like that blend of acoustic instruments and electronic music.

6. Where can people see / hear your work.

https://soundcloud.com/rosafrancesca
https://www.youtube.com/rosafrancescamusic
https://www.patreon.com/rosafrancesca

I also have a new album called Bidomain coming out on Friday 29th July which will be available at https://rosafrancesca.bandcamp.com/.

7. Leave us with three top songs you love and we should listen to.


1. Kimbra – Version of Me
2. Joanna Newsom – Leaving the City
3. St Vincent – Fast Slow Disco


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