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Saturday, 2 July 2011

Songs from a Somerset shed

I would think that musicians get Jon Earl and his Songs from the Shed because in many ways he's doing what they're doing. 

Granted, to the naked eye if looks as if he has turned his garden shed into an impromptu and very low tech recording studio for acoustic sessions. Professional musicians - or sometimes would-be professional musicians, if he likes what they do - rock up to his home near Yatton in Somerset to perform. He records them in one take per song with a handheld digital video camera that looks like something you might take on holiday for snaps - but smaller. (It's a Canon Ixus, an older one because the newer ones do something fussy and automatic to the sound levels.) The result is a growing online archive of music: a shedly YouTube for acoustic music lovers. It's been going for two years, it's had 375,000 viewings and there a susurration of media attention that is, I think, about to become a roar.

But on another level - a more personal one - he has decided to spend his time and energy on music, only realising while he was doing it that he has to find a way to make it pay otherwise - oh bugger - he's going to have to stop when someone notices that he's enjoying himself too much. He just likes music, and the simplicity and alacrity of his approach demonstrate this beyond any reasonable doubt. My point is that he is in a very similar position to the musicians he records and they like him and his shed for it. Increasingly they're not the only ones.

"The genesis of it was that my wife and I bought this house and the shed that came with it had all sorts of things in it," he says. "I tidied it up, kept some of the old stuff (see below for his most consistently attentive audience) and put it on a big dresser that my dad gave us but which was too big for the house. Initially three friends and I wanted the shed for a kind of cheese and cider society, where we could do as men do: sit in the shed, eat cheese, drink cider and talk rubbish." I like the idea that this is what men do in Somerset.

"But one of them said 'Let's get a musician in for the first meeting'. We did, I recorded it and I just thought 'Oh. That's what I'm going to do. I'll be videoing musicians in the shed then'."

He made his own website, using a software package that guided him through the process and started putting sessions online. Then - stand back, chaps, this could be dangerous - the internet magicked him.

"I was thinking that I'd just do local musicians, but then I was contacted by the Water Tower Bucket Boys, who were from Portland in Oregon, to say that they'd found the site, loved it and could they come and do a session?" He says that this has turned into a noticeable pattern: that the music industry, and particularly the portion of it known as alt-country in the US, cottoned on to the potential of his shed even before he had much of an audience. He's had a stream of American musicians on UK tours passing through his delightfully well-tended garden, sent at the suggestion of their wily agents. During my visit yesterday I met Jan Bell and Will Scott (below), from Brooklyn, partners in life who also share the same agent. They did a session each, giving them something neatly and honestly produced to which they can point people online if they're considering hiring them.

The Water Tower Bucket Boys became session number five of 112 so far in the actual shed, although he also recorded 52 in a replica of the shed at the Bristol Folk Festival in May, where I met him, including Seth Lakeman, Show of Hands and Belshazzar's Feast. He has a backlog of 30 waiting to go online and a maximum of 99 that can be up at any one time due to software limitations, though everything remains available on YouTube. All songs must be original, although he's applied for a Performing Rights Society licence that will allow the recording of covers.

"I'm telling people at the moment that it could be six weeks before their session goes up, although if they've got an album launch or something I try to be accommodating. My son, Joe, has said he'll help over the summer holiday, so perhaps by September the backlog will have gone."

In addition to the 99-at-a-time restriction there are two other limiting factors. Firstly, time. Earl's day job is a family-run copy shop, which means that the shed and the extent to which it is a hobby or a business is, not unreasonably, the subject of discussion between himself and his wife.

And then there is technology. Each session takes four or five hours to put online because they first have to be edited (though not much), ripped into a usable format (which takes the most time) and then - BT please get your act together - it takes about 25 minutes to upload because, believes Earl, of the distance between the house and the telephone exchange. Each shed song finds its way onto the internet through a wire between two poles, on which birds perch, singing a song of their own. "When I went to Bristol they only took five minutes to upload," he says, looking a bit wistful.

On the one hand it is precisely these kinds of obstacles that makes Songs from the Shed the unique proposition that it is. Personally I'm a little sceptical about the quest for "authenticity" that grips many people these days. But there is no denying that there is a simplicity to Earl's idea that is very appealing. It would work for any band or musician who can actually play or sing, regardless of whether they ordinarily use gigantic amps for stadium appearances or just sit on a stool and hold forth.

Among those who are rapidly coming to appreciate Earl's shed is the media, who have made a great deal so far out of how watching music recorded in a shed is the Next Big Thing. An announcement that the recently de-woodwormed shed has been shortlisted in Cuprinol's Shed of the Year competition (and, perhaps felicitously, that one of the judges is DJ Simon Mayo) has meant a flurry of interest and a learning curve in media relations for Earl*. "There was a feature in the Western Daily Press the other weekend. I'm just learning to swallow it when people make stuff up," he says. The local journalist had taken some speculation about the shed's history, firmed it up into fact and then added some more for his own amusement. "But on the whole it was a very good piece," Earl says, looking irritated. (Sorry I can't link to it: oddly, the paper doesn't seem to have a website.)

"Whispering" Bob Harris, from Radio Two, has been much more helpful, championing the shed on air and passing musicians Earl's way. And with the media interest have come sniffs from potential sponsors, one of whom - a beer company - sounded quite promising before it materialised that they wanted to turn the shed into some kind of Tolkien-esque delight, installing a magical creature, or a non-magical one in a costume at any rate, to caper around. I'm not making this up, honestly.

For it struck me that whatever comes next, there is already something about the shed that is worth preserving - and I'm not talking about its collection of marmalade jars, elderly hard-back books and first-in-show certificates. Spending time around the shed is a very calming experience. "It's often described as being 'zen'," says Earl, making me wonder whether the people who say that have been subliminally affected by the Buddhist paraphernalia with which Earl's house is decorated.

Each song is preceded online by a short clip of his garden, complete with birdsong and his daughter, Georgia, who is running through it, pursued by some chickens. "She was quite impressed when someone who's supported Justin Bieber asked to come and record - I can't tell you about that yet because it's not confirmed. But she wants me to take that clip down, now she's three years older and thinks it's not cool," he says.

I think that if he gives it another three years he may find that she's changed her mind.

** If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page.

* It was announced on Monday July 4 that the shed has, in fact, won Shed of the Year.


  1. Thats such cool story!! Its amazing what people do with their spare time!

  2. post more information of best shed...

  3. Kudos to you for being thoughtful about the ecological footprint while constructing a Shed and a rain garden. Hope your blog inspires other people out there too. Cheers!

  4. I have a shed house which I use sometimes, but will be able to use much more when i have a holiday.Few days ago i called en expert to repair the shed house because it's been long that it had been repaired. So i made it repair and paint it with royal blue. Now it looks good.


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