Jack The Lad #2: You’ve gotta fight for your mike

If you were given a moment in the spotlight, how would you use it?

I'm certainly a "vocal hero" of my town at least!

I’m certainly a “vocal hero” of my town at least!

Cities offer an abundance of opportunities for emerging musicians and artists, but for youngsters in the small towns and villages dotted across the country, it’s a completely different picture. As I argue in my second column for my local newspaper the East Grinstead Courier, whenever the circumstances are in your favour, you have to use it and hope with all your might.

The lights flash on and you’re ready to go. Centre of the stage with a guitar in your hand, you step up to the microphone and find yourself staring out across a sea of bemused faces, all ready to be entertained. Forget who’s played before, forget any previous context; the atmosphere, if not the night itself, now rests on you. Does that fill you with horror? Dread? Or perhaps excitement?

If it’s the latter, then perhaps it’s time to start doing some vocal exercises; now has never been a better time to be a musician in East Grinstead. My teenage years in the mid-noughties were punctuated randomly by the occasional showcase of local bands… usually whenever someone could convince the Wallis Centre or the Parish Hall to give them a shot.

Real opportunities for adolescents to demonstrate their musical talents were a rare treat. Who knows how many hidden gems slipped under the radar? Sure, it’s to be expected with small towns and villages, but the sad result is an abundance of proficient youngsters who are unable to utilize their skills and learn the craft of the live setting. After all, there’s only so much magic that can be wrung out of garage rehearsals and bedroom demos.

But now, things are certainly on the up. The Crow’s Nest, already reputable for putting on a diverse assortment of live acts, hosts a weekly Open Jam Night on Tuesdays. You can bring a group, perform solo or even join the resident band; if you’ve got the enthusiasm, there’s nothing to stop you. Or how about The Sussex Arms? Often overlooked, the pub is becoming a prominent location for emerging acts to break in their boots.

And then, there’s Ashstock. Last September saw the inaugural edition of the festival, where over a thousand revelers descended on John Pears field in Ashurst Wood, to enjoy a packed schedule of local acts and twenty kinds of ale from the surrounding area, including a batch brewed especially for the event. Suddenly, a quiet corner of Ashurst Wood was transformed into the most enjoyable event in Sussex; sometimes, the simplest of ingredients work wonders.

But asides from bringing the local community together (and a bit more besides), Ashstock’s aims was to give local youngsters a much needed platform, to give them their own moment in the spotlight. How they use it is up to them; the point is that there was one there in the first place, actively encouraging youngsters to have a go. Now back for a second outing, Ashstock is looking to fill its roster as it did before, and it’s not a prospect to be sniffed at.

Everyone knows how hard it is to catch a break in the music industry, and none more so than the wannabe musicians themselves. But if you can captivate a group of passing strangers, then surely you can take on any crowd that comes your way? And you never know who is going to stumble across your set; maybe someone with just the right connections to help you on to the next step.

It’s a shame there aren’t more of these events often. The buzz Ashstock generated shows that there’s certainly the demand for it. You can never guarantee how long these events will be providing an open door for, or whether that sea of bemused faces will be there in the first place. So, whenever an opportunity like this comes along, you have to make the most of it.

Ady Suleiman: A Tale Of Two Cities

This is an article I originally wrote for the May issue of Bido Lito!, a monthly music magazine that uncovers the most exciting sounds from Merseyside, in particular Liverpool. Ady Suleiman is Nottingham born-and-bred, but there is no denying that his time as a student in Liverpool has greatly shaped him as a musician, carving his own unique style that mixes indie, reggae and electronic influences. It’s certainly a broad range, but the result is right on the mark. Check out my piece below!

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For his twenty-first birthday, ADY SULEIMAN found himself facing not only a crowd, but an immense opportunity of inconceivable fate. He was on a stage in Sète in the south of France, staring out to the sea from a magnificent amphitheatre called Théatre de la Mer. He was performing as part of Worldwide Festival, which fuses acoustic performances with club-oriented beats to form an enticing exuberance that carefully simmers under the scorching sun. Suleiman had been asked to play by the festival’s curator and BBC 6 Music multi-genre aficionado GILLES PETERSON, who had been pestered by the plucky LIPA graduate after his show in The Shipping Forecast.

“I remember telling him my name and he had actually heard of me through one of his friends- or at least that’s what he said!” laughs Suleiman, as he remembers the fortuitous encounter. “He said to send some stuff through by email. I didn’t think he would even get back to me, but then he replied saying he loved it and asked if I wanted to play his festival, completely out of the blue! It’s a weird feeling when you meet someone you have so much respect for, only to find out they respect what you’re doing- I mean I still listen to everything his label Brownswood puts out.” It’s fair to say his performance was a resounding success; Suleiman went on to win “Breakthrough Act of the Year” at Peterson’s Worldwide Awards.

But what was it about Suleiman that made Peterson so enamoured with the twenty-something songwriter? Perhaps it’s the sincerity of his stirring melodies that harmonize dabs of soul, jazz and even hip hop? Maybe it’s the carefully subdued production that compliments the overall sound rather than overriding it? Or maybe it’s the sense of honesty that permeates Suleiman’s lyrics, drawing on his own experiences or that of his family and friends? It’s likely Peterson has seen all of this, considering the following Suleiman has built up since graduating last year. It’s been quite a transformation, as Suleiman used to hate one of his biggest influences, JIMI HENDRIX.

“My dad really encouraged me to listen to him, but the psychedelic vibe just wasn’t doing anything for me,” confesses Suleiman. “But I was on a family holiday and listening to Axis: Bold as Love, and when I got to Little Wing, everything clicked. After all the manufactured pop I was hearing on the radio, I finally understood where the music was coming from, and its sense of purpose.” From there, Suleiman was determined to explore artists whose music strove for a genuine connection with its listeners, and he immersed himself in acts that have defined their genre, from LAURYN HILL to STEVIE WONDER and RAY CHARLES, all of which have influenced him to some degree.

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However, it was AMY WINEHOUSE’S status in the mid-noughties that hit him at full force and aroused his dedication to the cause. “I was listening to a lot of her first album Frank, where she was mixing hip hop and jazz into her own style, and then how she drew on soul more for Back To Black; vocally, it was just incredible. I couldn’t believe she was doing music like that and being successful from it, truly changing the landscape of British popular music in the process. Before seeing her, I never really thought I could make music I wanted to make and be successful from it.”

Half Tanzanian on his father’s side, Suleiman grew up in the market town of Grantham outside of Nottingham, and only ventured into the city for the occasional gig. Rather than stay close to home, he chose LIPA because of the emphasis the course placed on performing. “A lot of the courses I applied for asked for Grade 5 theory at least, and I was a bit apprehensive to study music at University anyway because I thought I would be out of my depth! With the course at LIPA, I felt comfortable with what it wanted to achieve with me.”

The sheer variety of sounds that characterized the city’s music scene also caught Suleiman’s ear, particularly the more alternative bands. He became good friends with former NINETAILS frontman ED BLACK, who now performs with Suleiman’s band. Sumptuous sets at the Kazimier and Mello Mello prompted him to explore his old roots, and after contacting an old school friend he found himself on a train back home to attend a gig in Nottingham. “The line-up included NATALIE DUNCAN, LIAM BAILEY and HARLEY BLUE- local acts celebrating Nottingham’s blossoming soul and hip-hop scene, and their emphasis on utilizing vocals was similar to what I was trying achieve!”

Suleiman emphasizes the importance of using your origins to find inspiration for your music, and a set he performed at Nottingham’s Rock City remains one of his favourite live shows as a personal achievement, but his music does not feel confined to a particular location. The ominous lyrics on So Lost which are unashamedly direct with their sense of hopelessness and the despair of being hooked to medication are even more striking against the gentle bounce of funky horns and buoyant beats that transform it into a delightfully playful number.

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Ease your ears into Suleiman’s other material and you realize each track is focused on the direction it wants to take. Take State Of Mind, which questions the motivation behind religion and political alliances, or Out Of Luck, with its bleak account of drug addiction. “I wrote that about a friend from back home,” Suleiman recalls, “because I remember so vividly how everyone felt about it at the time; it truly became the talk of the town. I find it really difficult to write about things that I haven’t experienced or heard from first hand because your opinion’s probably not going to be right, so it’s difficult to put something out there and stand behind it.”

What’s interesting though is that Suleiman does not equate having a message in music with having to tell people what to do. He prefers to simply offer a commentary on his own experiences in the hope that others can relate to it. He points to garage authority MIKE SKINNER’S work as THE STREETS as a fantastic example. “He was amazing at representing a specific era of the UK, and some people who listen to it can appreciate that there is music talking directly to them. It’s nice to crank on a tune that does that- it’s not specifically telling me I need to change my life, but it shows a sense of understanding about how I’m living.”

Asides from his new EP State Of Mind out in May, Suleiman’s aim for 2015 is to refine his writing technique- lately he has been spotted in the studio with spoken word mind-boggler GEORGE THE POET- and more importantly, bring his live sound up to the same standard as his recorded material. “It’s a completely different kettle of fish for me,” admits Suleiman with a slight hesitation, “but I’ve already got a few live shows coming up so I need to work on perfecting my sound. You want both the live show and the recorded material to be at a level when they can rival each other!”

With an aim that is so specifically on target, Suleiman’s determination is highly encouraging because it all points to an understanding of longevity. As long as events around him spur on his creativity, his music will continue to have a strong narrative, and in being so specific about the details, his music only becomes more attractive to listeners, fascinated by what he has to say. If a few years at university have taken him to the south of France, we can only wonder at what direction he’ll take for the rest of 2015.

soundcloud.com/adysuleiman