One Man Army

31 March 2012 | 12:26 pm | Staff Writer

Six albums into his career, international folk sensation Seth Lakeman has ditched major labels.

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With a freshly brewed coffee in front of him, and pen at paper, UK singer/songwriter Seth Lakeman rises to the day with a muse for new material. “I'm writing a song about a lady, called a Bal maiden, who would have lived around here about 200 years ago,” Lakeman explains, on the line from his UK home. “It's a spinoff from my album; an idea that came from it,” he elaborates. The record in subject is Lakeman's sixth, Tales From The Barrel House, which was written in and around his residence in Devon and focuses on the hard-working miners, sailors and craftsmen who worked hard to build up his town for little reward. The area surrounding his humble abode, which has a rich heritage, also gave way to an unorthodox and unique recording method.

“I spent about a year writing the songs and the stories and there was a definite, concise concept to go for. I tried a few areas to record in, actually. An engineer and I went down to a heritage centre called Morwellham Quay and tried three rooms there and eventually found The Barrel House,” Lakeman recalls. “It's got a very tall ceiling and flagstone floors and all these old tools hanging around. It just felt like a perfect environment. Listening back to it, the acoustic instruments were coming alive in that room. When we started using percussion, it was a way of drawing the listener into those trades, using chains as a tambourine, a tool sharpener as a shaker and a pickaxe to emulate a snare drum. It was a very fascinating record to make,” he says.

“We went down the mine to record the first track on the record called More Than Money, and that was a pretty spooky affair. That song is all about miners and the conditions they work in. We went down there to try and get the spirit of the song. That was quite an experience. We ended up getting quite a ghostly laughter at the end of the record. We didn't leave it on the record because it was a bit freaky actually,” Lakeman says, laughing. “I probably wouldn't do another concept record,” he admits. “I certainly wouldn't do something quite as stripped-back and focused as Barrel House. It was almost like stripping everything back after leaving a major label and it's time to build it back up again.”

While being signed to EMI had its perks, the constraints placed around Lakeman whilst he was signed to them would have never allowed him to experiment and explore his creativity to such an extent. Thus, Lakeman gave birth to Honour Oak Records (named after an oak tree near his house), which signals new life in his career. “I like the fact that you've got more control. It's something I haven't done before. In a way you can steer it wherever you want it to go. Before it was more about compromising and making other people happy – especially when you're in a massive machine like EMI and other labels that I've been with before. It's obviously fantastic working with them because of the size of their wallets and the opportunities, but it's definitely more of a compromise. Whereas a small label feels far more controllable,” he says. “Thankfully I've been able to build up a big enough team, with a publicist and a great manager, who can keep the record and label floating. Having the right team is the key for any label and I was pretty much aware of that. So far, so good!” he laughs.

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The same time that his small team was working behind the scenes to keep things above water, an even smaller one was putting together Tales From The Barrel House. Keeping things as stripped-back as possible was a way of finding his feet in new territory and securing a milestone for his new beginning. This meant that he had to take on the role of songwriter, producer and musician all at the same time, playing every instrument on the recording. “I kept thinking about bringing other people in: girl singers, maybe some other musicians, but when I was chatting to people they thought it was just so strong, doing a concept record all produced and put together by one person. A singular vision, it was important keep that,” he explains. “It's tough to take the production hat and then start trying to be a songwriter as well, and trying to improve some of the writing when you're recording, and then performing on top of that. It was a tough one, but I have to say it was one of the most enjoyable in about four years for me to make,” he says.

“There's always the danger, when you're sitting in the studio mixing something, to start polishing it up. That sounds like a car going into a garage,” he laughs. “There's always the danger of doing that, but with this it was important to keep it raw and keep it rough and ready. I had to stand back quite a lot and just let moments that were captured within that workshop carry themselves.”

While the idea of such a strong concept album didn't originally conjure up images of popularity (thus the release at first being a limited edition pressing), Lakeman was pleasantly surprised by the reception it received. In fact, it was almost too popular for his liking in some ways. “The whole thing has done much better than I thought it would. As the left-field record that it started out as, it seems to have taken off really well and now it's getting some great reviews. People are really into it, which I wasn't expecting because it was an experiment,” he says, with a tone of satisfaction. “It sold out so quickly before Christmas and we had to make a decision because it was getting sold on eBay and people were making quite a lot of money out of the fact that it was limited, which is silly really. So we made the decision to release it.”

Starting fresh and trying out new ways of writing, recording and distributing music fits in well with touring countries he has never been to before, such as Australia. “We were invited to play the East Coast Blues [and Roots Festival], which opened the doors. The fact that we have the opportunity to do that has given us a great chance to go around the country and do other shows. Carus Thompson has very kindly helped us put that [the tour] together. It's all very exciting; it's almost like a holiday to us.

“[Thompson] has been on tour over here with us probably four, five times,” Lakeman says of the ex-Perth singer/songwriter, who's no stranger to visiting his old hometown, but this time will be bringing a friend. “He's a good mate of mine. He comes and stays at mine when he's over and I know him and his family quite well. I worked with him back in the day. Before I got popular over here in Europe I was working with him as a fiddle player. I did about two tours around Ireland and stuff, so that's how I first met him,” Lakeman pauses before laughing, “We were both looking for girls!”

Stickin' It To The Man

You might be sick of hearing about illegal downloads, iTunes, and the death of CDs, but for musicians it's shaking up their livelihood on a daily basis. The decline of CD sales and the increasing popularity of digital music consumption is proving that, in order to reach a large audience and make money, you don't need a big label behind you. Here are just a few of the many artists that have come to that realization and are now pumping out music through their own means:

John Butler

Fremantle fave John Butler started his record label Jarrah Records in 2002 in collaboration with The Waifs and Phil Stevens, their manager. Since then both acts have reached an enormous amount of success and proved that you don't need an army of suits behind you to make a living out of music.

Ok Go

OK Go parted ways with Capitol/EMI in 2010 and started their label Paracadute, which OK Go say is humanity's second most-fun word to say. A statement on the band's website reads “being OK Go just got a little bit easier”. They described their departure from EMI as a way to be themselves – it also meant that they didn't have anyone diving into their pockets.

Alkaline Trio

Because major labels tend to look at figures over anything else, certain genres can find it hard to be creative as well as keeping their labels happy. US punkers Alkaline Trio left Epic to create their own label, Heart & Skull, which gave birth to their seventh studio album This Addiction in 2010. On a press release on the Epitaph website, singer Matt Skiba said:Taking control of our own label situation was something we always wanted to do but never thought was possible.”

When an artist has their own label, it also means that they have easier access to their fans. They can decide how much they'll charge, if anything, and when/how their product is delivered. People are realising that downloading is becoming a part of the industry; once you remove the middle man you also remove a lot of the problems for the artist. Once bands such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails released music for free, it caught on like wildfire with others all over the world, big or small, following suit and finding other ways to make money as musicians.