St. John’s ambience

I wasn’t expecting this. By which I mean I wasn’t expecting 2011 to introduce so much new music into my life. Nor was I expecting Rob St. John’s debut album Weald to arrive, halfway through November, and make a meaningful claim on my Top 5 albums of the year. Song, By Toad is just one small label I have been introduced to in 2011. (Visit their website if you like.) Edinburgh-based, it grew out of a blog and seems to throb at the centre of a whole DIY scene, putting many of its releases out on vinyl. You may have heard Meursault – they’re on Song, By Toad. Rob St. John makes melancholy, pastoral folk-blues, his voice as deep and meaningful as Ian Curtis’s, or Stuart Staples’, and Weald seems to be something of a concept album linking his Lancashire birthplace with his adopted Edinburgh. It’s haunting and elegaic and sad, and I can’t stop playing it. It’s out now, on vinyl, but you can hear two tracks, among others, on the label’s Soundcloud.

The blame for this reawakening of my appetite for new music on small labels can be pretty much laid exclusively at the doorstep of Josie Long. Ever since being thrown together by 6 Music, Blind Date style, in June, I freely admit to being infected with her enthusiasm for independent music from the fringes. It’s not that I ever forsook indie, but this century has beaten a lot of that previously cherished bias towards the independent sector out of me. As “indie” has mutated from a state of mind, an ideology, into a catch-all term for guitar music by young men who don’t shave, I have grown weary of it. Meanwhile, I’ve found getting to the end of a whole album increasingly difficult. I’m sure it’s me and not music, but since the turn of the millennium I’ve become more and more picky about what I’ll listen to. But this year, my whole attitude to the 6 Music pigeonhole has changed: I now sift through all the advance CDs I get sent and make a concerted effort to select up to a dozen to take home, usually the ones from small labels. That’s affirmative action. If something has a sleeve, or a photo, I’ll often overlook it. A handwritten note will catch my eye and earn at least three minutes of my time. This is how I’ve discovered Jonnie Common, Ian Humberstone and Rob St. John on Song, By Toad. And Lymes on Mollusc records. It’s how I ended up listening to Death Valley Screamers, We Have Band, Tom Eno, Mint Julep, Fireworks Night, The Lovely Eggs, Martin John Henry, Letting Up Despite Great Faults, Heart Kills Giant and, only this week, Naomi Hates Humans. (I also listened to countless others that I didn’t like. There’s still a door policy.)

Hey, my tastes are pretty vanilla in other respects. You know I like Adele, and she’s one of the biggest selling artists of the year. I also hold a torch for Elbow, and Manic Street Preachers, who are played on Radio 2. And Metronomy, Ghostpoet, the Horrors and Anna Calvi are all straight off the Mercury Prize nominations list. But I will say that letting the output of small labels into my life has coloured it in a bit. And Rob St. John’s Weald is just one of those colours.

I am of an age where cynicism is a way of life. I have a tendency towards grumpiness that is definitely index-linked with my advancing years. I am in many ways blasé and jaded. But adolescent excitement is, it seems, still a possibility.

Josie and I will be on until December 17. After that, we don’t know. But it’s been an enjoyable run that has done my greying soul the world of good.

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3 thoughts on “St. John’s ambience

  1. Hi Andrew. First off, thanks so much for being so nice about the label. It really means a lot, especially because this job can feel like bashing your head against a brick wall at times.

    I really do agree with you about the recent rejuvenation of the ‘indie’ spirit. I tend to use ‘DIY’ these days, because as you say, indie seems to have become a sort of generic catch-all term for guitar pop and has rather lost its meaning.

    The democratisation of the internet has done a lot of harm to music, but it has done a lot of good as well, and the reinvigorating of the DIY spirit is amongst them. Music feels, to me at least, a lot more like something you can take part in now, rather than something that is delivered to you. It feels like if you just have a go at something and do it as well as you can, then you actually do have a chance of getting somewhere with it.

    Obviously, places like 6Music are a godsend to us. Gideon Coe, Stuart Maconie and I think Steve Lamacq played the first thing I ever sent them, back before either we as a label or any of our bands had any shred of a reputation whatsoever. That kind of openness is a really precious thing.

    From my own point of view, when reviewing for the blog, I now pay far more attention to the scruffy, hand-written, personal stuff from small labels and self-releases than I do to the professional PR releases which I receive by the ton. I honestly find the music from the smaller places tend to be better. Or more to my taste at least.

    A combination of the X-Factor, the awful hype cycle perpetuated by the likes of the NME and a fair few hyperventilating blogs, and the cult of celebrity means I have lost pretty much all interest in popular music, I have to confess. Well, apart from some of the oldies. Ask me what’s popular at the moment though, and I genuinely have no idea. But there really does seem to be an energy and a vitality in the DIY music scene at the moment, and it is both enormous amounts of fun to be involved with, as well as incredibly rewarding.

    And blimey it’s nice when you get someone writing nice things like this about you as well. You know, Rob recorded 90% of that album in our living room in the space of about two days in February. We were all giddy as fuck because we were absolutely delighted, even with the first rough mixes off the desk.

    Good luck with the show, I very much hope it gets another run. And thanks again for saying such nice things about what we’re up to up here. It really does mean a great deal.

  2. It’s interesting that you mention your cynicism. I sometimes ask myself how I arrived at my record collection. Do I really think this set of records is somehow intrinsically better than some other set of records I might have ended up with? Why do I like the records I do? And I can’t answer those questions. There are Revolver and Sgt Pepper, which I’ve been listening to since I was three, and which are so intertwined with my life (particularly Revolver) that they kind of *are* my life. And there are some other records (some of Miriam Makeba’s stuff, say), where there’s a physical reaction to a voice or a sound – hairs on the back of the neck stuff – that is inexplicable but absolutely self-evident. But the other stuff? The bulk of the stuff? I don’t know. I think these are the sort of questions you start to ask when the certainties of youth are dissolving away. But those certainties were limiting. There’s great music to be found in all kinds of places and there always has been. But I haven’t got a clue what great music is. And I suspect it’s not just about what the music does to you; it’s about the baggage you bring to it, and what you’re prepared to let it do to you. We’re not passive listening devices. Open your ears and sometimes your heart will follow. And for some reason, at that point, and utterly ridiculously, I feel the need to send out my most heartfelt best wishes to George Michael.

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