From the old bluesmen travelling around in boxcars, and dustbowl-balladeer Woody Guthrie’s carriage-blues obsession, through Elvis’s Mystery Train to Morrissey’s conflicted figure heading towards London Euston, there is a long history which entwines trains and music. It’s a history that’s especially true here on Merseyside too, most notably with the plaque at Widnes Station that recognises it as the place where Paul Simon penned Homeward Bound. Yet, another, altogether more modern, chapter is being added to this tradition with the MERSEYRAIL SOUND STATION project: a multi-faceted initiative which gives support to new music on Merseyside through regular events, a monthly podcast and an annual competition.
Now in its third year, Merseyrail Sound Station is a music development programme that involves some of the most influential musos on Merseyside and invites artists who are at the start of their musical journey to step onto the platform and get a one-way ticket to success (sorry, that’s the first and last one of those!). Previous winners of the annual Merseyrail Sound Station Prize – which rewards one artist each year with a suite of professional music industry mentoring in various aspects of live performance, promotion and working with the press, along with studio recording time – SOHO RIOTS and BLUE SAINT speak glowingly about the chances the competition gave them. “Winning the prize gave us a massive boost at just the right time,” says Andy Woodhouse, lead singer of inaugural prizewinners Soho Riots. “It put us in touch with contacts that we wouldn’t have otherwise made. And, most importantly, it gave us the opportunity to play some great festivals like LIMF, Farm Feast and Sound City.”
As with the Liverpool five-piece, Blue Saint (AKA Daniel Sebuyange) also capitalised on a fulfilling experience with Sound Station, which started with a performance at one of the competition upload days (where artists are invited along to film a song performed at a Merseyrail station and submit the video as their entry into the competition). Sebuyange then took part in the annual final – a full-blown gig at Moorfields Station – and then, after being crowned winner, went on a region-wide press junket, and recorded a live session and podcast at Tankfield Studios. It is from this latter experience that Sebuyange believes he has learned the most, but the Congolese-born hip hopper is most enthusiastic about the artistic freedom the prize has afforded him. “It’s allowed me to grow and try different things,” he says, in a spare moment between finishing work for the second year of his degree and getting on with preparing his second EP. “I haven’t played with a band before and that’s the route I’m going to go down next.”
The man known as Blue Saint (also the name of the protagonist in his EP series) excitedly tells me about the doors which have opened through Sound Station and the guidance he has received from the mentoring aspect of his prize. “It’s allowed me to get more recognition as I’ve performed in different places,” he enthuses, wide-eyed and obviously energised by the experience. “Because of me winning, I got to perform at Threshold festival and [producer] BeLOey saw me and said we should collaborate. I also got contacted by Jay [Hynd] at Juice FM and went on there – that was amazing. There are so many things I am thankful to Sound Station for.”
Juice FM and Bay TV personality Jay Hynd also hosts the monthly Merseyrail Sound Station podcast, which features breaking artists from across Merseyside as well as live sessions from handpicked acts. These sessions acts – who, this year alone have included She Drew The Gun, Merki and Holy Thursday – get the opportunity to lay down two live tracks with producer Michael Johnson (whose CV includes New Order’s Blue Monday and Pink Floyd’s The Wall) at Tankfield Studios in Wirral. As a platform for emerging music it’s a pretty comprehensive one, and Hynd enjoys the window onto bright local talent that Sound Station affords him: “It shows you how much there is here in the North West and it’s a great platform for this young talent which is coming through. Also, a lot of the musicians that we get on are genuinely excited to be part of Sound Station because it is quite well established now.”
It is tempting to write off projects which talk of championing local talent as vanity projects for businesses which perhaps give airtime to artists who could possibly use more time practising in their bedrooms rather than having such a well-publicised platform, but Hynd is genuinely impressed by the calibre of musicians who have appeared on the podcast: “I can’t actually name one that isn’t super talented. It’s not all been my type of music, but what you’re seeing is musicians who we had on twelve months ago, who are now highly-respected artists that are doing really well.”
Hynd’s claim bears out: past podcast participants include Natalie McCool (who has just finished recording her debut LP with Outfit’s Dave Berger), Amique (named as one of three Most Ready artists as part of the LIMF Academy this year), and Hooton Tennis Club, who are without doubt one of the hottest properties in music in the UK right now. It seems that Sound Station is fast becoming the place to find the next big thing on Merseyside (as well as yours truly, of course).
Michael Johnson, who records the live sessions and podcasts at his Tankfield Studios base, agrees about the high standard of performer they have dropping in through Sound Station, struggling to single out just one highlight: “The atmosphere that Natalie McCool generated just on her own was quite amazing, and Soho Riots I really enjoyed, but there’s been nobody I haven’t liked, so it’s hard to pick out a standout act. They’ve all had their good points.” Johnson’s involvement in the project does not stop at the podcasts: as well as garnering slots at high-profile festivals and a year’s worth of specific industry management, the winner of the Merseyrail Sound Station Prize is treated to studio time at Tankfield with the hugely experienced producer.
The combination of the three elements of the prize has obviously benefitted Sebuyange greatly. The rapper is positively beaming about his appreciation of how the prize is tailored to the individual or act that wins the prize, which is announced at an after-party following the Moorfields final. “When I won I remember thinking it allowed me to have more time to try things, and I’ve since found that it is about what you want to explore. So, if you didn’t want to do studio time and you’d rather concentrate on performing or other stuff, then they’d give you more places to perform in, so it depends on the person – where you want to go with it.”
Sebuyange has also benefitted from the wisdom and input of Bido Lito!’s own Craig G. Pennington, who lends his industry expertise to the mentoring element of the prize, and has presented a regular live guide on the monthly podcasts since its inception. “As an artist, I find Daniel really, really inspiring, especially for such a young guy, and it’s really enjoyable to help in a little way to get that vision realised,” says Pennington, clearly another big advocate of the programme. He is also keen to give the Merseyrail company credit for their support of such an important project: “I think it’s testament to them as an organisation that they invest in new music on a grassroots level. With all the challenges that grassroots creativity has in this city and the region, a large organisation like Merseyrail investing in it is incredibly positive. For them, I believe it’s more about them being involved in the city that they’ve got such a vested interest in, and having a creative role in the culture of the place that they’re involved in.”
If you’ve noticed something musically different about your daily rail commute over the past couple of years, chances are that the Merseyrail Sound Station initiative is behind it. From on-platform performances and pop-up events welcoming passengers at stations as they travel to large-scale events, to a ready access to the region’s breaking musical talent through the free monthly podcasts, it’s evident that Sound Station is far from a run-of-the-mill local music project. In just over two years, the initiative has spawned a wealth of incredible ideas, forged connections between people who are passionate about the help it gives young artists, and along the way has established itself as an important place on the cultural landscape of the city. Full steam ahead.