Russell Mills’ tale (Artist)

Russell Mills’ work features on album covers Mustt Mustt, Love Songs and Devotional Songs


I’d long admired Peter, not only for his own wonderful music and the underlying ethos of Real World, but also for his humanitarian and political stances. And of course I’d been aware of Real World trough the fabulously diverse albums that its label released. From a distance I’d always perceived Peter as being a kindred spirit in so many ways. I felt there was a connection on so many levels.

I was first introduced to Peter in about 1989-90, by Eno, who I’d known and had worked with since 1975. Brian invited me to a meeting with Peter and others – creatives from various disciplines – to brainstorm ideas towards a water-based theme park in Barcelona. I remember meeting every couple of weeks for a few months in a flat/office base that Peter had near to Paddington station. A series of ideas emerged that were drawn up into a proposal, which Peter asked me to design. I found Peter to be, like Brian, as I’d hoped, a kindred spirit; generous and open to ideas, ceaselessly thinking about possible new futures. A genuinely good person. A rare gem who actually cared and had the courage to follow his convictions.


During this time Peter commissioned me to provide art for Peter Gabriel 1-3 a 3 CD limited edition collector’s edition box set (1990). This was followed by commissions for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Mustt Mustt (1990), which was followed by his Devotional Songs (1992), Love Songs (1992) and Night Song (1996). These were the best kind of commissions as Peter and others at Real World had enough faith in me to simply allow me to follow my intuition with no directional interference, so that I could attempt to create visual responses to the music that I felt would convey its essence.

Peter was there working on his own material in his own studio, but would occasionally wander from studio to studio to touch base with everyone, to listen to works in progress and discuss music.

In 1996 I was working on a collaborative multimedia installation called Measured In Shadows for Tullie House Gallery and Museum in Carlisle and the Guinness Hopstore in Dublin. It was conceived to have at its core a complex contactually anchored sound work. At the time I didn’t have the facilities to mix and master the vast menu of sounds I needed to work with and although I had some funding from the Arts Council and other bodies, I couldn’t afford studio time to enable me to realise the work to the standard I was hoping for. I wrote to Peter outlining the ideas behind the installation and the importance of the sound work, and asked whether he might consider funding in kind by allowing me to work at Real World. This request was a pie-in-the-sky plea and I was quite prepared to be disappointed. Much to my surprise Peter got back to me to say that he liked the idea very much and he would let me use Real World at a much reduced rate. This extremely generous offer was made even more attractive by the fact that he would appoint one of Real World’s engineers, Russell Kearney, to work with us on the recording and mix.

The time at Real World was a joy. The place itself was/is beautiful and its location and ambience lent itself to focused work in a relaxed atmosphere. Everyone I met there was really helpful, supportive and genuinely interested. Musicians, producers and engineers from around the globe were on site beavering away in a variety of studios. Myriad languages and ideas were mingled and exchanged around the dining table in the house. Despite all the cultural divides music and sound united everyone. For me it felt like being part of a large extended family of kindred spirits. Peter was there working on his own material in his own studio, but would occasionally wander from studio to studio to touch base with everyone, to listen to works in progress and discuss music. I felt that his interest was always genuine and his feedback was gently supportive and wise. Peter’s generosity, vision and his light touch approach and receptivity to ideas has created an environment at Real World- akin to what art schools were like when I was a student – in which possible futures, not just for music and sound, but also wider cultural issues, may be explored in a genuinely exciting way. Thanks to Peter, Mike Large and Russell Kearney (who did such a great, careful job on my motley sound samples), those few days there were inspiring and revelatory.

Jo Frost’s tale (Songlines editor)


It was 1993 and I had just graduated and moved to France, where I started listening to FIP and other French radio stations, introducing me to a whole spectrum of new, unfamiliar sounds. The business of musical categorization seemed far less constrictive here than in the UK. It also coincided with my first encounter with Real World – a French friend played me an album with a striking skull on the front cover by Jam Nation. I had no idea who Jam Nation were, but before long, I was hooked on the version of ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, sung by Caroline Lavelle. After that I would keep a beady eye open for any releases with the telltale, multi-coloured strip on the spine that has become the distinctive trademark of the Real World catalogue. Even today, when I’m rifling through a stranger’s album collection, it’s always a reassuring sign to spot this marking on a CD shelf – a sure indication of a modicum of musical discernment, however naff the rest of their collection might be!

I’ve had so many favourite albums over the years – from the early Afro Celt releases picked up in the WOMAD shop; Passion, played so often it’s become the Songlines’ office soundtrack, and most recently The Gloaming, an album of so many musical textures that I’m sure it will become as durable as Passion has been. Congratulations and here’s looking to the next 25 years!

The Story of Real World 25

Beautifully packaged Clamshell Box with 3 CD wallets, 28 page booklet containing the story of 25 Years of Real World Records, and a collection of Real World Tales with contributions from musicians, producers, designer and managers.


How, then, to condense a quarter century? How to represent a record label that blazed trails, opened doors and introduced a whole new world of music? It was never going to be easy, or definitive. But with Real World 25 – a celebratory 3CD set boasting big names, hidden gems and tracks chosen by listeners – we’re giving it a go.

“We’ve always been vibrant, alive and kicking,” says Peter Gabriel of Real World Records, the label he launched in 1989, a few years after establishing the WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) Festival. “We worked hard to create an environment where the artists felt respected and supported, so that they were able to deliver extraordinary performances.”

The magic was there from the off: an old mill building, transformed into state-of-the-art studios, on the edge of a pond fringed with bulrushes, in landscaped gardens bordered by a river, in the village of Box in the southwest of England.

Nearby, the ancient standing stones of Avebury and Stonehenge. About the grounds, in cottages built from wood and warm Bath stone, a team of music enthusiasts with vision and know how.

Into this place of freedom and possibility, this mix of the handmade and the high-tech, came musicians from elsewhere. Says Gabriel: “I was thinking about this sort of music when we designed the studios” – where a large interactive space called The Big Room puts artists on a par with engineers and producers – “and eventually Thomas Brooman, WOMAD’s former artistic director, convinced me of the need to try a label.”


Armed with a philosophy that variously involved openness, interconnectedness and the right to fail, Real World Records was born. Its first release, Passion, Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ, duly won a Grammy. Passion’s follow up, Passion – Sources, gave a platform to the world class but lesser known artists who’d inspired the soundtrack. Albums by Sufi devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; Tabu Ley Rochereau, the Congolese vocalist and bandleader; and the popular Orquesta Revé, a son-changui outfit from Cuba, followed.

“We started out as a label driven by Peter’s passion for music other than rock and pop,” says label manager Amanda Jones. “In the Eighties it was a big revelation for him to discover he could be as excited about a pipa player from China or a singer from Pakistan as he was about a blues guitarist from America.”


Real World Records had no agenda. Perhaps the closest it came to a template was the maverick aesthetic of BBC DJ John Peel, who would follow a track by The Fall with a song by a Siberian throat singer – along with that of its unconventional elder sibling, the WOMAD Festival.

“We just knew we wanted to work with music that has real passion, atmosphere and grooves,” says Gabriel. “Music that would touch those open enough to listen.”

In exploring the relationship between Western producers and non-Western artists, Real World Records set a precedent. Nowhere was this more in evidence than during the three extraordinary Recording Weeks that took place in the summers of 1991, 1992 and 1995, when artists from all over the world converged on the village of Box to collaborate, create and investigate.

“It was a giant playpen, a bring-your-own studio party,” remembers Gabriel with a smile. “We were curators of this sort of living mass.”


While the likes of Tanzanian singer-guitarist Remmy Ongala, Sardinian vocal quartet Tenores di Bitti and Afro-Colombian singer Totó la Momposina, recorded entire albums, myriad collaborations went on elsewhere.

Big Blue Ball, a compilation built from all three Recording Weeks, features contributions by several artists who would make albums for Real World Records: Congolese soukous star Papa Wemba. American singer- songwriter Joseph Arthur. Tanzanian vocalist Hukwe Zawose. Irish sean nos singer Iarla Ó Lionáird – the voice of the phenomenal Afro Celt Sound System.

With more than one million albums sold, Afro Celt Sound System is one of the most successful world fusion acts, ever. The Blind Boys of Alabama have racked up three quarters of a million albums; other RWR bestsellers include Kenyan artist Ayub Ogada, Ugandan musician Geoffrey Oryema, South Indian singer Sheila Chandra and Mercury-nominated East London minimalists, Portico Quartet.

Such commercial heavyweight releases enabled releases by lesser-known artists: Afro-Brazilian diva Daudé, say, or Senegalese vocal duo Pape & Cheikh. Real World Records has released more than 200 albums to date. Each one still sounds freshly pressed. Every artist still feels relevant and compelling.


“Looking back we realise how lucky we were to be working with so many extraordinary artists from all over the world,” says Gabriel. “We have a rich, vibrant and varied catalogue of authentic and soulful music.”

Real World Records still eagerly looks forward, squinting into the blinding light of what lies ahead. 2014 has seen new working relationships develop with albums from Irish-American outfit The Gloaming and Welsh-language moodists 9Bach. The Gloaming project has been hugely successful in transforming the idea of what a traditional Irish sound could be, right now. 9Bach are a bright, very contemporary Welsh language band, whose recently released album Tincian is gaining rave reviews. Later in the year comes a superb new album from Garifuna singer, songwriter and guitarist, Aurelio. Looking forward to 2015, the wonderfully prolific Joseph Arthur will have a new album ready, and there are further additions to the re-issue series, Real World Gold.

Today, with much traditional music accessible in a click, Real World Records has adapted accordingly. The drive to discover and record quality music – music that is entertaining, exciting, obscure – is the same as it ever was; the commitment to getting it out there is just as fierce: “Whether it’s on vinyl, download, digital, cross-platform mobile apps,” says Jones, “or beaming in from outer space.”

Or by magic. Real World has always had that.

Real World 25 has it, too.

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Kevin Killen’s tale (producer & engineer)


When we drove onto the property, one immediately was taken by the size and grandeur of the main mill building. Its Bath stone was radiant in the winter light but its scale resonated with me as I had trained as an audio engineer in an old converted grain warehouse in the Dublin docklands – a studio named Windmill Lane. My immediate thought was that this building would make an ideal studio environment. The thickness of the walls and the manner of its construction would afford it a rich resonance. Despite the fact that it was being used as a “spare car parts depot” and was cut up into lots of small rooms, you could still feel how naturally reverberant the rooms were.

We then walked around the rest of the property and we were astonished to discover another five buildings. Our excitement was slightly tempered when the first intercity train whizzed by us en route to London but we all enthusiastic about its potential.

It seemed like anything was possible in these rooms

My next visit to the site was almost 18 months later, at the conclusion of the So tour. I had recorded the final shows of the tour in Athens, Greece and we were utilizing the almost completed facility to mix the songs for the upcoming POV video release. The site had changed dramatically, a nexus of activity between all of the buildings. The biggest addition was of course The Big Room which was about 80% completed. Its iconic shape jutted out from the back of the mill building and was hugely impressive. The open floor plan for recording “within” the control room had been taken to a radically new but intuitive destination. We worked in Peter’s Work Room upstairs which had a spectacular view of the surrounding valleys. The room was bathed in sunlight and had lots of unusual spaces and architectural details that distinguished the room and the overall site from your average studio environment.

Clearly embracing Peter’s ethos, all of the recording spaces had unique layouts, all of them interconnected. It seemed like anything was possible in these rooms and one could not fail to make a spectacular recording here, such was the creative and supportive nature of the whole environment. From the beautiful accommodations to the spectacular food and the ever-helpful staff and assistants, it was remarkable that Peter and his team had assembled such a cast of characters. One was just surrounded by excellence, warmth and creativity. It quickly became a home for all of us who worked there on a regular basis.

Despite its size, every musician just loved working there.

Many of the projects that I completed there were recorded in The Big Room. To say that this space shattered the old concept of studio design, was an understatement. Despite its size, every musician just loved working there. It drew out the most imaginative performances from one and all. You could lose yourself in the music while simultaneously watch the weather roll over the valley. Time seemed to float in that room and it was not unusual for 10 -12 hours to literally speed by. But being wrapped in daylight really allowed your body to adjust accordingly and despite many a long day, I never had that drained feeling that was so common with “black box” studios.


To me Real World was my home away from home, an oasis in the crazy world that we inhabited. Some of my most enduring friendships began at or through Real World. It is a testament to all that is great in our business, and somehow it manages to do it with a uniqueness all of its own.

Jonathan Romney’s tale


On an August afternoon in Box, Wiltshire, there’s a spot on the lawn where if you position yourself correctly, you can separate out the sounds arriving in perfect synch from five directions.

The delicate acoustic plucking to your left is Moroccan sintir player Hassan Hakmoun sunk in colloquy with Spanish flamenco guitarist Juan Martin. From a little further away comes the textured throb of African tuned percussion as Burkino Faso group Farafina rev up on the lawn for visiting TV cameras. The distinctly urban rattle-and-shriek from the side is Simon Emmerson, formerly of Working Week who has locked himself into a ground floor office with a machine full of rhythm tracks and is peeling off an endless yardage of frenzied wah-wah guitar. The less distinct thudding and scraping from the top floor of that quaint gable cottage is Nigel Kennedy getting to grips with his new incarnation as a fusion fiddler. And dominating the mix with a litigious spirit they’ve been displaying all day, the flock of ducks who make up the permanent genius loci of Real World Studios.


Joji Hirota’s tale (musician)


One day, probably the first day of Real World Recording Week, when I was relaxing in the Green Room with Guo Yue, Peter Gabriel came in and he said to me “Hello, I’m Peter.” I didn’t recognize him as I’d never met him before, and there are so many Peters and Johns around. So I didn’t introduce myself properly, I said just “Hi.” After he left, Guo Yue said to me “He is Peter!!” When I saw Peter again, and he said to me: “Hello I’m Peter Gabriel”, I greeted and saluted this time with big respect. I thought that Peter is a really nice and warm person, and I continue to admire and respect his work and personality.

Betto Arcos’s tale (Global Village, NPR & PRI-BBC’s The World)


The first Real World album I held in my hands was Orquesta Revé’s La Explosión del Momento. As it turns out, it was the same year the label had been launched by WOMAD and Peter Gabriel. Since 1987, I had been co-hosting a Latin music program at KGNU, a public radio station in Boulder, Colorado. Record labels such as Luaka Bop, Mango Records and Real World, began to release music from all over and opening a wide window into a world of music I’d only imagined.

As a native of Veracruz, Mexico, I was already familiar with a lot of Latin American popular music but when I heard Orquesta Revé’s classic tune ‘Ruñidera’, with the singer’s nasal voz de vieja, I knew the label was onto something different. Within a few years, I started listening to all kinds of African, Middle Eastern and Asian artists, and then Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan! Over the years, I collected and still have many of the Real World titles that I felt essential to have. Twenty-five years later, I’m still listening to them. Gracias por la música!”

Sheila Chandra’s tale (singer)


I only just got myself invited to the first Real World recording week. I’d approached Real World a month before with the suggestion that I work with them and with WOMAD and they invited me along. I’d no idea what to expect.

It was nothing short of a musician’s paradise. Glorious sunshine, too many studios to count and amazing sounds coming out of them all! You could meet other artists in Lulu’s Café which had been set up for the week, and chat over a delicious lunch. You could stroll around listening to all the amazing tracks being created and watch people discussing, learning each other’s musical language and collaborating. Real World had set up an extraordinary generous space for people to work together, and that generosity trickled down to the way everyone worked.

Perhaps the best thing was the way in which other people’s performances had the power to draw something out of you that you never knew you had to give. I’ve never been a ‘leap in there straightaway’ kind of improviser. I’m by nature a perfectionist and shy songwriter. But in the writing room one day, I heard a backing track which three drummers had laid down simultaneously.

These days, you almost never hear a track like that. Three styles of drumming on full kits recorded entirely ‘live’ instead of on a machine. It was exhilarating. Someone had added a couple of sets of chords which loosely delineated ‘verse’ and ‘chorus’ type structures. And Rupert Hine, the producer in charge of that session asked me if I’d like to lay a vocal over the top.

I said I’d work out which scale the chords suggested and that I’d need a drone. Someone said “Oh there’s always a drone, floating around at Real World” and pushed up a fader. And there was I perfectly in tune drone, which I think was left over from the previous session, just waiting to be used.

…having to get a take right in front of strangers tends to concentrate the mind!

I remember saying “Okay, I’ll have a go, but I don’t know if this will work” before the set the track running. All sorts of things run through your mind when you’re going for a take. Often they’re nervous distracting thoughts, but having to get a take right in front of strangers tends to concentrate the mind! I’d just got off a plane from Kazakhstan via Moscow. I hadn’t warmed up for days and my throat was completely dehydrated from all the flying. And, of course, I had no choice over the key as it was already set. I thought I’d start on the lower octave with my chosen scale (which was loosely based on the raga ‘Kafi’) and maybe work up to a few phrases in the octave higher towards the end, to give the track shape.

Well I sang the first phrase and realised that really wasn’t going to work. It was too hard to distinguish my voice from the chords and the vocal had no ‘excitement’. With a lurch in my stomach in the couple of beats I had to think, I realised I’d have to do the whole thing an octave up. I had no choice bu to just ‘throw’ my voice at it.

I heard this sound come out – more like an adolescent boy than my own tone. To my surprise, all the right sorts of phrases came to mind, and all inspired by the sound the track was forcing me into producing. Sometimes, stepping out of your comfort zone is exactly what you need.

So if you’ve never been to one, how would I sum up the experience of a Real World Recording Week for a musician taking part? Terrifying. Exhilarating. Awe-inspiring.

Jean-Michel Reusser’s tale (producer)


It was an effortless and humbling exchange…

It’s about 15 years ago but this is how it happened (at least in my memory)… I was working at Real World Studios, mixing an album with Hector Zazou. We had dinner with Peter one evening and I told him about the totally unexpected success of Songs Of Awakening, the first album of Lama Gyurme & Jean-Philippe Rykiel, released 4 years before. Read more

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