Following on from our article about the two showcases of Emerging Talent from Folkstock, featuring at this year’s London Folk and Roots Festival, we’ve had the fantastic opportunity of having Folkstock founder Helen Meissner chat to us about Folkstock, the artists, and the concerts.
EP: Tell us about Folkstock. How did it all come about? What’s the Folkstock story?
HM: Three years ago I was helping the band my daughter was in, and they had a folky vibe. When they moved on to work with a different manager I was initially relieved to ‘get my life back’ but after a while found myself really bored. I had noticed how many great acts there were out there who no one really knew about and decided I would like to try to set something up which would enable me to help as many acts as possible by sharing what I had picked up assisting my daughters’ band.
Folkstock Arts Foundation was born.
I worked with 16 acts at different stages of their musical journey and decided it would be a great idea to put on a festival at which they could showcase. I had attempted, but failed, to secure some Arts Council funding, but I decided to forge ahead anyway as I didn’t want to let people down. 9 months later, in September 2013, I was putting on 77 acts across four stages at Folkstock Acoustic Festival in South Herts. The experience was a personal financial disaster but extremely satisfying when I started receiving the feedback and then getting into the finals of the Best New Festival at the Festival Awards that year.
One of the acts I was particularly impressed by at the Festival, Kelly Oliver, lived nearby and had no recordings and had only recently decided to pursue a career in music. She was interested to see if we could work together when I approached her, and I ended up offering to manage her. I felt this would be an enormously productive opportunity, working with someone who didn’t even have recordings, so I asked my daughter if she could brush up her GCSE Music Tech to see if she could record some of Kelly’s songs. The reaction to these songs within the network of radio presenters I had been establishing, was overwhelmingly positive and so we ended up doing an EP. That’s how the label started in October 2013.
EP: You say your label has attracted many female singer-songwriters. Why do you think this is?
HM: You’ve probably gathered that I founded the label and my daughter is the producer. This is, I have found, extremely unusual. The music business attracts a lot of cynicism from people assuming that they are going to be taken advantage of in some way. Because there are many more men in the business, at every level, perhaps people feel uncomfortable when they are approached by someone they don’t know and assume it’s not going to end well. For some reason, perhaps because of the way I actively marketed the festival as well as all the acts who played, which benefitted everyone, people wanted to work with me. I’ve since been told by female artists that they feel more comfortable in an all female environment, which makes them feel less vulnerable, more relaxed and perhaps this means that the recordings end up being better quality.
It is a very homely set up, I work from my living room and everyone has to come through here to get to the studio in ‘The Den’ at the bottom of the garden. We have a chat and make a cup of tea…and when they get into the Den they are often astonished by the bright colours – all the ‘jewel’ colours on the walls, floor and furnishings – amethyst, ruby, citrine and a friendly space surrounded by sofas, guitars and equipment. Men seem to love it as much as the women it has to be said, and it isn’t usually long after they’ve arrived that I see a pic on their social media! Add to that Lauren’s patience with the acts, many of whom have never been into a studio before, and we seem to have a winning combination.
EP: Has it been a surprise to have such success in so short a time?
HM: I suppose you are referring to the BBC Radio 2, 3 and 6 plays, and things like the 4* reviews in The Telegraph and Sunday Times? Yes it has been a surprise. I think everyone is aware that regardless of how good they are, if no one knows about them, it’s a bit demoralising.
We like to think that the cream rises to the top, but we all know superb musicians who go woefully unnoticed. So how do you get heard? Personally I had only the contacts which I had developed in the previous year or so, the kind people who present acoustic and folk shows up and down the country, and so I continued to build on those relationships, supporting their shows and started to get ambitious. Why shouldn’t BBC Radio2, 3 and 6 play our artists? The only barrier was getting the songs in front of them surely? I think daring to dream big has been a massive contributing factor. Why shouldn’t The Sunday Times or The Telegraph rate our albums?..so I challenged myself to make contact with people I felt might be able to help.
I researched to find out what made them tick and what they would be likely to respond to in an email and contacted people including Jeff Smith, Music Controller for Radio 2. When he responded I was over the moon. He was very helpeful and encouraged me to believe that there was a level playing field and that if the music was right, that it would be played. He helped me realise that I didn’t have to play a plugger to get someone to listen to a track. Although I do rate the job pluggers do and it makes it a lot easier and more likely that something will happen, I just didn’t have the money to pay anyone. So I got stuck in. It is all consuming and I struggle to get any balance in my life at the moment. but my family are very supportive and my children have now grown up which helps. I imagine that the fact that I had breast cancer five years ago has effectively cut me a little slack, and they are just pleased I’ve found something so rewarding to embrace.
EP: Do you feel that Folkstock fills a niche? And do you feel that female singer-songwriters are under-represented in the music industry? How do you think this be remedied?
HM: Folkstock covers acoustic, folk and roots music, which is a pretty broad remit. It’s generally acts without a massive drum kit, that’s probably the most common defining feature. Percussion is fine, but not something that drowns out the vocals.
The mark of one of my acts is that you can usually hear all the lyrics, which generally tell a story, and that there is something unique and exquisite about their performance, musicianship, voice or both. I only work with people who write their own material.
The longer I continue, the more I realise that while there are lots of people all over the country actively helping the emerging music scene, that there’s not many people operating an altruistic community network in the way I do, covering the whole country. So I think we probably inhabit a niche which has a lot of supporters around the country, be they reviewers, radio presenters, promoters and festival bookers. When we all pull together great things can be achieved.
Regarding the female angle – only 16% of songs registered with PRS for Music are by women. Now whether this is because women are not taking themselves seriously enough, only regarding their songwriting as a ‘hobby’ rather than a potential career or whether there are actually more male songwriters I don’t know. I suspect the former and want to encourage women to do their own thing, and do it well. This is by a mixture of education – are they aware of PRS? – encouragement and mentorship.
There’s lots of pressures and blocks for musicians of any gender. Sometimes the people closest to you undermine by asking when you are going to get a ‘proper job’, when yet again you let them down because you’ve got a last minute gig opportunity, and this can wear people down. It seems a lot more socially acceptable for a man to be touring and women can get more than their fair share of assumptions and sexism when they are on the road. I want to help change the stereotypes and encourage people be more broadminded and see women as equal to men in every way.
The way I am approaching it is to focus more on the female element to make the point, and hopefully to raise the profile of unsigned female singer songwriters so that the statistics balance out and there will no longer be a need to say ‘female’ singer songwriter. I want to show that there are great role models out there, touring the country, making their own music and earning a living, and they are women as well as men.
EP: Tell us about the showcases. What can people expect, and how can they get tickets?
HM: I decided to make one of the showcases a female only event, and that one is Wednesday 11th November.
Four stunning female acts who all have a distinctive voice, style, are engaging and accessible. Kelly Oliver, whom I mentioned above, is headlining with Daria Kulesh, Zoe Wren and Minnie Birch completing the line up.
With music from 8pm to 10.30 – so not too late for a ‘school night’ they will be transported with quality songwriting and exceptional delivery. Here’s a video of clips from artists playing that night:
This coming Wednesday, 4th November, you will see acts featured who are more on the ‘Alt Country’ spectrum, with lively harmony band Fred’s House headlining. Frequently likened to Fleetwood Mac, this great band are completing an evening which also features Ben Smith, Marina Florance and Kaity Rae. With an age range of 18 – 57, there is something for everyone.
Here’s a video of clips from artists playing on 4th November:
Here’s the ticket link: http://dmpuk.com/live/events/4-nov-15-folkstock-emerging-talent-night–freds-house-the-islington/
Both events are at The Islington, near Angel tube, London N1. Tickets are £8.
It will be an intimate seated audience, and no need for ear plugs! Quality music from acts who you’ll hopefully want to see again and again.
More information can be found here :http://www.folkstockartsfoundation.com/events-awards-and-special-projects/
Everyone buying a ticket in advance can email me for a free download of an album I’m releasing, which features all eight acts from the two showcases. ‘DOWNTOWN’ is a wonderful compilation: If you email email@example.com with your proof of purchase, I will send you the tracks as a heartfelt thank you for supporting live music.
Here’s a link to listen to the album 🙂
Hope to see you there!