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.”
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.
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.