Having worked at Real World Records since it emerged out of the Womad organisation at the end of the 80s, Label Manager Amanda Jones was the ideal person to compile Real World 25. Amanda has lived and breathed every one of the 200 plus records released, but with a huge catalogue built up, it was never going to be easy to condense the Real World’s history into so slim a set, but the results are stunning. The resulting three CD collection combines an amazing array of artists and musical style, demonstrating the extraordinary achievements of a record label that has been at the forefront of the world music explosion. The original philosophy of encapsulating the highest production values with a pioneering passion for discovery remains intact, and the legacy lives on. Here Amanda takes us through her own history with the label, while paying tribute to Peter Gabriel, Thomas Brooman and others who have shared in and realised the vision.
[pullquote]It’s hard to remember what the landscape was like back then, when there was no internet of course.[/pullquote]“I first worked for Womad, just as the festival had started to successfully rebuild itself in 1985. It was there that I started Womad Records and we did a series of compilation albums of music from different parts of the world. It’s hard to remember what the landscape was like back then, when there was no internet of course. The only access to music from some countries was via libraries or museums, or perhaps via a small French esoteric, musicological label. The music just wasn’t accessible and hardly ever played on the radio, although John Peel’s programme was probably the exception as the only place you’d hear it. It was very hard to put together a compilation of African music or broader European music, which is what we started doing.”
The series, all released on vinyl with gatefold sleeves that held a booklet inside, with information about the artists and more background, creating a magazine style series. It proved successful and the timing was good as Amanda continues, “As the label grew, Thomas Brooman who was the director of Womad and the team of us contacted Peter Gabriel, who had just finished building his Real World Studio here in Box. Firstly we told Peter that we had these great artists coming through the festival and asked if we could come and record them in the studio, as there’s a really big live room, which we thought would be perfect. He agreed and was also keen to start a label, but didn’t want to be in charge as he was worried about the sometimes difficult relationship between artists and their label, not wanting to become, ‘The poacher turned gamekeeper,’ as he puts it.”
The team duly moved to Box and Womad Records morphed into Real World Records, with Amanda continuing to run things much as she had previously. But as she explains, there was one more piece of good fortune, “Through Peter’s contacts we were able to secure a distribution agreement with Virgin Records, which was completely transformative for the label.” The initial plan involved a tight hand on the purse string, but Amanda laughs, “Of course that very soon went out of the window.” She laughs again, “We were happy just to have money.” More fundamentally she remembers great support from Virgin Records, who at the time were desperate to hang on to their reputation for releasing challenging and ground breaking records. Amanda recalls, “When Simon Napier heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan he said, ‘If this is the sort of music that you plan to release, then I totally get that.’ We enjoyed total A & R freedom from the start.”
I ask Amanda where her own interest in the wider world of music stems from and she reveals, “Well I was an English graduate form Bristol University and had been working in the theatre, so was very interested in the performance side. But I got the job at Womad as editor of The Talking Book series, which naturally involved compiling music, pictures and text.” She admits, “When I started I wasn’t knowledgeable about what became world music at all and I really spent the first year or so in libraries and museums researching, and also travelling to France to meet with Charles Duvelle, who had set up Ocora Records.
Ocora records was actually set up out of Radio France in the late 50s by Charles and Pierre Schaefer and specialised in field recordings of ethnic music. They may have proved a useful sounding board and source of inspiration for Amanda, but as she makes clear, “I didn’t have that ethno-musicological training and frankly that was never the way that Real World was going to go, either for Thomas or for Peter. What was more important was that we shared a passion for the music we discovered.” It’s something that I covered in my review of the Real World 25 CD set (read it here)and right from the start, Real World set about recording the artists they discovered utilising western production techniques and studio technology, in a bold fusion of limitless potential and ultimately reward.
I steer Amanda towards the release and wonder whether that work compiling the Talking Book series gave her a head start with this compilation, she laughs, “Well it has been a real journey back in time.” She continues, “Actually it was also enormous fun to get to create the space to delve back into listening to all of the records, spending time working out which tracks we regarded as the most important for the label and also those that were ripe for rediscovery.” She also acknowledges, “I have always enjoyed putting compilations together, but I think the fact that we’ve never been purist, we’ve never tried to be the Smithsonian institute, means that we’re not precious about the running order. Some might choose to argue with it, but it’s compiled with passion and the joy of the music rather that any kind of academic intention.” For these ears at least that certainly shows through and the way that different musical styles rub shoulders allows you to discover then on your own terms.
In leading the compilation Amanda could of course call on a detailed knowledge of and appreciation for the catalogue, having worked with the label since its inception. As she explains, “It was certainly easy with disc one, because it represents iconic releases in the catalogue, but for the third CD we invited users of the Real World website to make their choices. We posted a question asking, ‘What have you loved about Real World, what have you discovered and what do you want to share with others.’ There were no preconceptions, it could be a well known track or something obscure, but we got 100s of replies and picked from those.” She pauses before adding with a sense of pride and also a touch of good humour, “You could say that disc three of the compilation is, ‘The people’s choice of Real World.’”
Amanda admits to some difficult choices and agonising over some of the things that were left off and confides, “It was terrible to turn some things away.” She even apologises to those artists that didn’t make the cut, although assures that no slight was ever intended. Besides, as she explains, “We had to make some practical decisions about the presentation, what the release was going to be and having made the choice, then had to stick to the discipline of a three CD set. Real World has an incredible catalogue of over 200 records, so we couldn’t possibly represent them all.” She thinks for a moment and continues, “In some cases we just had to rule that a particular style had been covered by one track and thus rule out another. It was really tough to do.”
I ask Amanda if she can pick a golden era for the label and she’s clear, “Certainly commercially the 90s was incredible, people were buying a lot of records and CDs back then. It simple meant we had far more resources to work with, so were able to put Michael Brook with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Stephen Haig with Papa Wemba. To be really honest, we had more flexibility simply because we had more funds. As a counter to that of course, to record music to a high quality back then was expensive. It was before the digital age and just the tape was expensive. Of course we now recognise that it’s far easer for an artists to do a very good job of recording themselves, so there’s a democratisation of the process of making records. I’d still passionately argue for the role of the record label in working with and nurturing their talent to get the most from it.”
Amanda name-checks a number of the biggest sellers, including Nusrat, Sheila Chandra, Blind Boys, more recently Joseph Arthur and others. She recalls with fondness the signing of Afro Celts and once more pays generous tribute to Virgin, who recognised and backed their potential, with spectacular results all round. In terms of approach and the melting pot of influences and sounds that Afro Celts combined, they seem a prefect match for Real World’s philosophy and have repaid their investment several times over.
But then Real World’s roster has always been eclectic, much like the Womad festival that lies at the label’s foundation. Not all acts have come through that route however and Amanda delights in informing me, “Some of the artists we signed came the old fashioned way from cassette tapes sent to us. Sevarah Navarkhan and Dabe Toure were both signed after they sent us demo tapes. We quickly built up a network of contacts and people would bring us things. I still remember Danny Thompson telling us we had to hear the songs he’d been working on with the Blind Boys Of Alabama. Iarla Ó’ Lionárd is another who sent us a tape of sean nos songs and he’s someone we continue to work with. He’s been in the Afro Celts, we’ve worked with him solo and now he’s part of the Gloaming. We’ll continue to work with him on other things, just because he has so many interesting things going on.”
It’s a sure sign that the founding philosophy and the passion remain intact within Real World and Amanda also remains upbeat, although admits that the current climate isn’t so commercially robust. She concludes, “Real World 25 is a celebration, but it’s also a sampler. It would be perfect if it inspires people to once more make their own discoveries.” She also clearly has a passion for this release and also for the current roster of the label, reminding me of four recent releases from 9Bach, Joseph Arthur, The Gloaming and most recently Aurelio that have all featured here and remind us that the label is still musically proactive. There are more releases to come over the next few months, but to each of those in their time. Right now, there are three CDs that chart an incredible journey, but most importantly contain some incredible music, so whether Real World 25 simply sparks happy memories or a whole new series of discoveries, well that’s up to you.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Real World 25 is Out Now
Read more about Real World 25 including interviews, feature and videos on the new Real World 25 Dedicated site here: http://25.realworldrecords.com/