Any culturally savvy University of Nottingham fresher should consider themselves lucky to be part of a community now regarded as the East Midlands’ beacon of music. Joe Hughes offers a handy guide to the eclectic mix of musicians who coalesce to create the sound of Nottingham.
Historically, Nottingham has not been somewhere artists come from, but come to, as it boasts an impressive directory of diverse venues, perhaps only rivalled by the capital. A quirk in the history book is the inadvertent formation of iconic disco collective, CHIC, in 1972- a chance meeting between founders Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, in the building that is now Rock City, led to the spontaneous inception of the band.
Nevertheless, in the last decade, the city has witnessed a remarkable transformation into the regional hub for emerging talent, sparked when former poster-boy of Nottingham folk-rock Jake Bugg reinvigorated the scene. Bugg’s 2012 self-titled debut album, typified the one-man-and-his-guitar trend of the early part of the last decade, and its bluesy, toe-tapping track listing received critical acclaim. His subsequent albums, Shangri La, On My One, and Heart that Strains followed suit as catalogues of pleasant acoustic melodies, but his debut remains his best work.
Collaboration with Tinie Tempah in 2017 and more recently, CamelPhat on Be Someone, can be seen as a conscious effort by Bugg to break free from his acoustic straight-jacket. After a short hiatus, the singer returned to his solo roots earlier this year, releasing two singles ahead of his upcoming fifth album.
Despite being penned last year, Rabbit Hole and Saviours of the City have renewed resonance in current global circumstances and are promising teasers of a long-awaited album; Bugg deserves plaudits for his contribution to putting Nottingham on the musical map.
[Bailey’s] chart-topping collaborations include co-writing on Chase & Status’ drum and bass hit Blind Faith, and vocals on Shy FX’s reggae groove Soon Come
Other genres have also seen a new pool of talent emerge, not least from soulful son and daughter of the city Liam Bailey and Yazmin Lacey. Stalwart of the soul scene, Bailey is a real success story – having been scouted by Lioness (Amy Winehouse’s record label), he released his debut EP, 2am Rough Tracks in 2010 – a collection of touching renditions of soul standards.
His repertoire has since expanded to include reggae – the single When Will They Learn being a particularly stunning example – and blues on his record Definitely Now. Chart-topping collaborations include co-writing on Chase & Status’ drum and bass hit Blind Faith, and vocals on Shy FX’s reggae groove Soon Come. A raft of single releases this year indicate that Bailey has settled into his mellow reggae sound.
Lacey, admittedly non-native to Nottingham, stormed onto the UK jazz scene with the release of her debut EP Black Moon in 2017, soon after moving to the city. Recent hits Morning Matters and On Your Own effortlessly channel the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, but Lacey has carved out her own style and in much of her work a fusion of jazz and R&B produces a distinctly hazy sound on paired-back records; her recent COLORSXSTUDIOS performance showcased the rawness of her vocal talent.
At other points in her discography, most notably on the title tracks of her two EPs, Black Moon and 90 Degrees, Lacey provides punchy vocals set to vibrant, repetitive instrumentals. The warmth which resonates off each and every track would be the perfect antidote to brisk, autumnal walks to campus.
Wigflex brings together scores of electro artists across several Nottingham venues in a celebration of music and art, proving that the city’s garage and techno scene is alive and well
Lacey’s most recent release, a cover of Dodo Greene’s I’ll Never Stop Loving You, comes as part of an innovative project curated by Blue Note Records to revisit the label’s most popular jazz hits and pair them with the UK’s new wave of young jazz artists. The project sees Lacey and her contemporaries, such as Jorja Smith, Ezra Collective and Jordan Rakei, modernise classic jazz standards.
Having carved her own niche, rising star Ella Knight has also marked herself out as one to watch, following in Lacey’s R&B footsteps – check out Q&A for an introduction. Nottingham’s leading jazz songstress is due to perform at the Wigflex City Festival in October, masterminded by local DJ Lukas Cole (AKA Lukas Wigflex).
The festival brings together scores of electro artists across several Nottingham venues in a celebration of music and art, proving that the city’s garage and techno scene is alive and well. Despite a practically barren popular music landscape pre-millennium, Nottingham had an established underground rave movement; as Thatcherite ideology stalked the acid house scene in the late-eighties, Nottingham based collective DiY Sound System brought counter-culture to the masses.
The group’s subterranean and anarchist activism clashed with the suburban sensibilities of middle England as their illegal raves helped to cement the city’s culture of rebelliousness. This mantle has been taken up most successfully by native punk duo Sleaford Mods who pair explicit and politically-charged lyrics with incessant electronic beats. After several albums of acerbic, and sometimes poetic, commentary on austerity-era Britain, recently released compilation album All That Glue seeks to articulate a contemporary sense of “pent-up working-class rage” and growing resentment for the establishment in the wake of the pandemic.
A plethora of punk and indie bands have also flooded Nottingham’s stages, but chief among them are Do Nothing who provide head-banging tunes and thought-provoking lyrics in equal measure
Altogether easier on the ear are London Grammar’s catalogue of transcendent indie ballads. In spite of their namesake, the prevalence of indie acts at local venues no doubt helped cultivate the group’s unique and evocative sound as band members supplemented their studies at the University of Nottingham with song writing. Across albums If You Wait and Truth Is A Beautiful Thing, lead singer Hannah Reid’s operatic vocals pierce through backing tracks of “ambient soundscape” on countless dreamy records.
Oh Woman, Oh Man stands out as an archetypal track, its melancholic tone revived by Reid’s towering voice. The three-piece released new single Baby It’s You last month, which, whilst still retaining the group’s delicate tonal quality but with an intense electronic riff, potentially signals the emergence of a refreshing, new sound.
A plethora of punk and indie bands also flood Nottingham’s stages, but chief among them are Do Nothing who provide head-banging tunes and thought- provoking lyrics in equal measure, and are by all accounts, stellar live performers. Psychedelic melodies and “groovy hooks” are served up by Soft Girls & Boys Club who consistently produce quality indie-rock fare. As do Nottingham staple, Kagoule, who boast an impressive portfolio of clean-cut, no-frills alt-rock.
Notwithstanding the fact that Nottingham was somewhat of a musical late-bloomer, it is now home to some of the nation’s most promising acts across a variety of genres. It has also played host to the recent recovery of the music industry; DiY would be proud that Nottingham threw the first socially-distanced rave post-lockdown. The city is finally being recognised as one with a ceaseless youthful energy and unique musical spirit.
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