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Jeanette Lee and Geoff Travis, in the Rough Trade office, London

Who would start a record label right now? Who would be even more foolish and start a folk label? But wait, says Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, when one of your artists is Lisa O’Neill it all makes sense. Here’s how and why we have River Lea Records.


“I think my proudest possession is on my wall: the original artwork that John Squires did, there was going to be the original Stone Roses single. That never happened of course, but he sent me his original artwork which is a kind of lesson to me: how not to behave and how you mustn’t fail to sign a brilliant band when you have the opportunity.”

Geoff Travis, who founded firstly the Rough Trade record shop, and then the label which has been home for the likes of The Smiths, Antony & The Johnsons, Lucinda Williams and Warpaint, is no hoarder and barely even a collector. Which is rather different to his friend Mick Jones, who has garages full of Clash memorabilia and artefacts from his life, back to music magazines he bought as a teenager.

There is one thing Travis – who legend has it is the man being addressed in the Smiths song Frankly Mr Shankly - kept though, which is as much for amusement as historical record.

“I’ve got a letter from Morrissey where he said very nice things about me,” Travis says with a laugh. “Which I feel like waving around to people because it is in direct contrast to everything he said in his stupid book.”

Speaking of lessons learned – beyond, never expect Morrissey to think well of anyone but himself - if it’s true that the music industry, like the film industry, is a case of nobody knows anything about anything, to paraphrase the screenwriter William Goldman, there is a question now for Travis.

Remember this is a man who, with his partner Jeanette Lee, has endured significant success, then devastating failure, bankruptcy, recovery and more, and now with Lee and journalist Tim Chipping, has started an offshoot Rough Trade label called River Lea which will focus on folk music.

Yep, folk music, beginning with the stunning new record from Lisa O’Neill, recently reviewed here.

Obviously madness. But after four decades in the business, has Travis learnt enough so that the next time and the next time after that it’s better, or at least, as Samuel Beckett had it, he can fail again but fail better?

“There’s a lot to be said for the folly of youth,” he says. “And not knowing anything, and just doing things without any regard to the consequences. Which is how we got started. I don’t know what we’ve learnt. Jeanette and I, and Tim Chipping, are lucky in that like the John Peel thing, we still love new music and new things. And for some remarkable, strange historical reason, we are not jaded. That’s our guiding principle.”

Co-founder of River Lea Records, Tim Chipping

Well one of their principles. Backed by the relative strength and indie adventure of the Beggars Group [the distribution alignment of independent labels including Beggars Banquet and Rough Trade], River Lea can also live by some guidance from a fiercely independent filmmaker.

“I don’t know what we really learnt except maybe that thing you hear from people like Mike Leigh: don’t compromise, believing in what you believe in.”

Market research for example does not figure highly in River Lea plans: if they like something, they figure others might also. It works elsewhere after all. For example Rough Trade label recently signed Melbourne’s rough-edged rock band Amyl And The Sniffers with Travis saying “we love Amy [Taylor, the mulletted frontwoman], we think she’s a force of nature … that’s what living is about”.

So the next River Lea release is by two Dublin brothers, Brian and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn, playing a mix of Irish, Appalachian and ‘60s revival folk with close harmonies, as Ye Vagabonds.

Then a 19-year-old piper from the Isle Of Skye, Brighde Chambeaul, who Travis calls “just extraordinary” with an instrumental album which “sounds like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan”, the great Pakistani singer of Sufi devotional songs.

Taste matters, but so does timing. You could argue that the times are right for folk music. This past 5 to 10 years has turned into a period where folk music, songs of people not generally considered sexy enough for high concept pop and rock, done in a style which emphasises connection more than production, has felt right.

“Absolutely. It’s always protest music isn’t it, folk music? It’s always the voice of the underclass, chronicling what’s going on in social strata and inequities, chronicling, without romanticising, the beauty of the proletariat,” says Travis. “Lisa [O’Neill’s] Rock The Machine, one of the best songs on the record, sounds already like an all-time classic, about machines displacing workers on the Dublin docks. You can’t deny its force and it stirs people when she sings it. That’s what we need in these times.”

Celebratory and selfish music has its time and its place, but so does resistance and protest. Take a look at how someone like Taylor Swift, whose image control and messaging is high standard, for two years has seemed out of step with the world around her because she was resisting political commentary when nothing right now is untouched by politics.

Dublin duo, Ye Vagabonds

Folk music, or at least the principles of folk music, that one should hear the voice of the ordinary worker, the sidelined and repressed, is never more relevant. As is getting out the vote, as Swift now has done.

“My personal frustration is that it seems so little, what we’re doing,” says Travis. “But at least it feels like something. It’s been a bit of an uphill battle really but that was one of the motivational foundations for starting this label: we firmly believe that this is some of the best music being made on the planet and people need to hear it without dismissing it before they hear it.

“That’s the mission. That’s always been the mission really.”

Next week: an interview with Lisa O’Neill.

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