There are undoubtedly a great many of us who’ve been sat on a train, bus or in another carriage of some description, with our headphones jammed over our ears to dull out the sounds of the rest of humanity. If not, picture it: a familiar local tract or view flits past the window, and your choice of music almost makes the scene romantic. Cinematically, you imagine a camera panning over your shoulder, and the shot eventually fades to black as the song you’re listening to ends. Soon enough, you’ve arrived at James Street, or Chester, or wherever it is you’re alighting and then it’s time to jump up, take off your headphones and enter the fray.
For the majority of passengers around the country, this is where your day’s soundtrack ends. You exit the platform, head out into the world, and carry on amongst the usual bustle. But in Merseyside, we do thing differently. Whether you find it in the underpass of Lime Street station, Southport station’s concourse, or in the atrium of Liverpool Central, it’s clear to see (and hear) that the North West is teeming with musical talent and, most importantly, potential. Singers, buskers, musicians of all kinds take to the pavements and streets of town centres, adding to the polyphony of an age-old musical tradition. But what is a city to do with it all? What can and should be done to nurture and protect such a tradition? Enter, Merseyrail Sound Station.
To sum it up, the Merseyrail Sound Station (MSS) is an initiative that brings together musical artists from all over Merseyside and offers, quite literally, a platform of exposure to those artists. The project exists to celebrate both the value and variety of local musical talent, whilst underlining the inherent relationship between a regional music scene and its transport infrastructure. Whether it’s a case of the latter being used by gig-goers to attend live shows, or by budding artists themselves to make it to their pre-show rehearsal or soundcheck, the synergy between Merseyside’s music scene and its travel network is clear.
Whilst a portion of the aforementioned artists may already be on their way to acclaim within the industry under their own steam, the project acts primarily as a ladder for many musicians from the grassroots of their local scene as they look for opportunities to be heard and get to the next stage of their career. For the past five years, the project has served artists and bands across Merseyside with opportunities to perform at a wide range of events, from high profile established events such as Africa Oyé and Sound City, to more busker-friendly events like the annual Tickle The Ivories in Liverpool One. The project’s own Live Tracks events also bring live artists into a train station to perform as the trains arrive or depart; by bringing the artist out of the more traditional live setting and into the public eye, both performer and spectator alike can enjoy original live music and a departure from the humdrum experience of cajoling for the next carriage.
Aside from these various opportunities afforded by the project throughout the year, there is a careful focus placed on artist development. Participants are also invited to enter the annual Merseyrail Sound Station Prize competition that, whilst giving acts the chance to bag a free year of Merseyrail travel, offers its winner a multitude of invaluable tools for development through industry mentoring. With festival slots at the likes of the renowned LIMF and Liverpool Sound City on offer, plus studio recording time and one-to-one advice from esteemed luminaries within the North West arts sphere, it is a competition which receives a flurry of entries each year. The competition culminates in a live festival final (to be held this year in Liverpool Central Station having moved from its original home of Moorfields) and is judged by a panel of representatives from the likes of Liverpool Sound City, Sentric Music, Arts Council England and Bido Lito! – it’s a testament to Merseyside’s scene that each year has seen the standard of the ten finalists raised higher than ever before.
Back in 2013, SOHO RIOTS were victorious, sufficiently impressing judges to take home the coveted prize. Lead vocalist Andy Woodhouse had this to say about the experience: “[Many] ‘Battle of the Bands’ seem to exist to extract as much money as possible in tickets sales from a band’s fans, but [Merseyrail Sound Station prize competition] was nothing of the sort. It felt like a genuine attempt to give a lift to artists that would benefit from the exposure. It was definitely one of our highlights and has led to some long-lasting connections and friendships [within] the Merseyside scene.”
Keeping up the tradition of remaining in contact with fellow Sound Station alumni, 2014 champion Daniel Sebuyange, AKA BLUE SAINT appeared at this year’s Hoylake’s Wirral Festival of Firsts alongside finalists Gazelle, The Shipbuilders and the winner of the 2015 prize Katy Alex. As a rapper, writer and producer, Sebuyange performed a head-turning set at the Moorfields festival in 2014, introducing the judges and commuters-come-punters to a restless creative whose impressive CV includes comic artistry, spoken word and performing at the Albert Hall with a heavy metal band(!) When catching up with the man behind the mic, Sebuyange told us that “Being a part of the MSS project has had a long-lasting and profound effect on [him], both as a person and as an artist.” Referring passionately to the industry mentoring aspect of the MSS prize and how it has informed his work, he also remarked that “Artistically [the mentoring] helped in further developing and honing [my] skills, by giving me the tools and resources necessary in order to do so, really pushing me to experiment and try different things I’d always thought about, but never actually applied.”
Another artist who appears to have lived and breathed the accolade, using the title as a stepping stone to ever more ambitious creative endeavours is Daniel Astles, known on stage as ASTLES. Having come full circle since winning the MSS prize competition in 2016, the Southport artist seems to have truly made the most of all that the project offers. From working with producer Michael Johnson (Joy Division, New Order) on his Live At The Nordic EP, to organising his own launch night in an independent cinema to celebrate the release of the record, ASTLES isn’t an artist you’ll find resting on his laurels. Whilst chatting to him about the amount of activity that he has managed to cram into his 12 months as a prize-winner, Astles reflected on the magnitude of his time within the project: “Without a doubt, [the Merseyrail Sound Station project] has taken me to the next level as an artist. It’s given me the chance to begin to think about what my records actually sound like in the studio, and how that’ll translate [into a] live setting. Really though, it’s been about having the time and support to do just that. I’ve had opportunities in the past year which have led to [writing] this new EP, Full of Wonder, which is a piece of art that means something to me and will hopefully mean something to others as well.”
As we eventually came to discuss the very nature of the project, and its aim to ratify the relationship between the Merseyrail network and your average muso, Astles was keen to note the role that his local Southport line has played in the grand scheme of his artistic journey. With reference to the 40-minute journey from Southport to Liverpool, Astles notes: “Getting the train to gigs and stuff has always been a big part of my actual experience of being an artist. You know, sometimes I’d be on my way into town feeling really nervous, and then other times I’d be buzzing on my way home having played a boss show… I’ve even written some songs on that train back, when it’s been an empty carriage and I’ve just gotten the guitar out.” It’s abundantly clear that Astles owes more than just something to the arduous but familiar journey, as he suspects that he has spent more time on the Liverpool-Southport train than anywhere else!
The long running podcast which has recently morphed into a video session and has featured guests such as Hooton Tennis Club, She Drew The Gun and The Vryll Society is another product of the project which aims to entertain train passengers while providing a space for the region’s brightest talent to do what they do best. Housed on the Sound Station website, which also serves to give fans the latest news on the project and provide a what’s on guide to gig-goers across Merseyside, the Merseyrail Sound Station Sessions are a key element to the initiative.
Over the half-decade it has been in existence, Merseyrail Sound Station has earned a special place in the hearts of up and coming artists plying their trade in the region. The romanticisation of the train journey by musicians harks back to the blues guitarists of the Mississippi, and Sound Station proudly follows that tradition by placing music alongside the transport mode. So, next time you’re about to pop those headphones of yours on, why not keep them stowed, and keep your eyes and ears alert. You’ll never know what you could be in for, or whom you will discover.
The Merseyrail Sound Station Festival takes place at Liverpool Central on Saturday 11th November from 1pm.