When people ask me what kind of music I like, or make, it’s very rare that I can get away with just saying indiepop. I still have to explain it as well.
Often I do this by saying it’s not just a kind of music – it’s a way of doing things. To a significant extent, it’s a set of principles, which impact upon production, design and distribution. So indiepop is an aesthetic, and perhaps a movement. And, even more than that, it’s a community.
(Granted, this is often a bit more detail than people really bargain for when they ask you what sort of music you like. Sometimes you’ll hit it off, and other times they’ll discover an unexpected but compelling need to walk to a different room.)
The most influential indiepop label is probably the near-infallible Sarah Records, which was run by two people in suburban Bristol from the late 1980s to the mid-90s.
As you placed a piece of Sarah vinyl onto your turntable you paused to admire its artwork. But before you even got that far, you would already have spotted the inserts tucked into the sleeve, telling you about other Sarah releases or forthcoming popshows. Either or both of these might feature wistful duotone photographs of the bus to Bedminster or a hot-air balloon drifting across the Severn estuary. (Or, in the case of East River Pipe, a lushly forlorn derelict railway station somewhere in the USA.)
If you’d ordered your records by post, your package would have included the Sarah newsletter. Through this semi-regular missive, on folded A4, the label’s founders would expound with conversational lyricism upon line-up changes, tour hijinks, or their refusal to embrace CD singles or barcodes. You’d also have received a handwritten note saying thankyou for your purchase, perhaps responding to something you’d scribbled with your order, or about the place where you lived.
The effect of all this was surprisingly powerful. Some fans could travel from Japan and the USA to see Blueboy or The Orchids play to 30 people in a tiny room above a pub. But if you were a long way from Bristol, with no way of making it to the shows, you still felt like a hand was being placed on your shoulder to welcome you in. You still felt part of something.
The aesthetics of DIY production and the building of a community across distant locations, then, were linked aspects of a single process. (This could be traced back through to the zine movement, I expect. Most things can.) At a time before the web and social media, this was immense.
Another artform, another community
In the mid-2010s, when I became interested in the output of Longbarrow Press, I was reminded fairly quickly of Sarah Records. The output was poetry rather than indiepop, and the location Sheffield rather than Bristol, but the parallels were striking. A distinctive aesthetic, a hand-crafted feel, a determination to make a physical object as beautiful and authentic as the artistic work that it mediates.
There was also a sense of the personal, and of a community surrounding the work. This sense ran through the inserts and handwritten notes that accompany a book purchase, through blogposts and sound recordings, and into the frequent readings, walks and events convened by Longbarrow.
The personal feel also extended to distribution. Just as Sarah products would sometimes be hand-delivered to Bristol addresses, Longbarrow customers based in Sheffield will often answer a knock to find the editor/publisher on their doorstep, their book or pamphlet in hand (sometimes on the same day they’d placed the order).
So it was that I felt myself becoming part of a community again. And this time it was one that I could be part of in person.
While I’d never stopped seeking out new indiepop, or listening to the old stuff, I’d had very little to do with poetry for a couple of decades. Discovering Longbarrow made me want to read poetry again. Becoming part of that community, and thereby seeing that the people creating this work were on the same planet as me, made me realise I could write poetry as well.
Before long I was sufficiently inspired to have started writing a poem called Sheffield Almanac, which eventually emerged as a pamphlet 36 pages long. It’s not unknown for people living in Sheffield who order a copy to find the editor/publisher delivering it to their doorstep – sometimes on the same day they place the order.
It turns out, in fact, that parallels is the wrong word to characterise these similarities, because these lines are starting to converge. In a couple of months’ time an all-dayer down south will bring together poetry and indiepop in a way that’s never been done before.
The organisers include Rob Pursey and Eithne Farry, one-time bandmates in the inspirational early indiepop band Talulah Gosh. On the music side the performers include Rob’s brilliant current band The Catenary Wires, and Calvin Johnson from the influential US act Beat Happening. Stephanie Burt is not just an outstanding poet and a noted literary critic but a long-time fan of Sarah Records and indiepop more generally. Likewise Amy Key, whose recent collection Isn’t Forever takes its title from a song by Sarah favourites The Field Mice. Two poets published by Longbarrow are on the line-up: Nancy Gaffield, whose new collection Meridian was issued by the press earlier this year, and me.
The event is called Words and Music at The Skep and takes place on Saturday 4 May at Frensham Manor, Kent. You should probably come. There are two friendly communities that it’s good to be around, and the overlap between them is very interesting indeed.