Honesty matters: a conversation with Note

Small changes can have a huge impact…

Contrary to the typical D&B state of play, Note will never ever smash out the bangers for the sake of it.

A conceptual artist – who’s already established himself in the jazzier/ songwriter world under a whole other alias – fulfilment for the Manchester artist doesn’t come from knocking up club hitters, it comes from a much deeper place that takes time, thought and long creative journeys.

Every tune you hear from him comes with a strong sense of meaning and expression that’s articulated from the artwork through to the music. Last month’s Goldfat release Precious Tender Things is certainly no exception. Exploring his thoughts on drum & bass culture’s limited amount of safe spaces, and the scene’s drive to be more diverse and inclusive, Precious Tender Things sees him reflecting on his own personal mantras.

Keep It Simple, Learn To Speak, and Honesty Matters are all call-to-actions and mantras that I say to myself to help me be better at nurturing non-toxic spaces around me,” explains Note – real name Richard – in the promotional material that came with the release.

Empty Spaces‘ speaks to the feeling you get when a song hits different and for a split second everyone in the room loses their sense of self,” he also states. “That’s quite a unique and precious thing, and probably what draws people to this music. However, if our spaces aren’t inclusive the capacity to create moments like these dies very quickly.”

With notes as strong as Note’s in mind, 1 More Thing called him up to find out more. We caught him on his lunch break.

As I understand, you’ve got a really inspiring and interesting day job…

Yeah it can be cool. I manage a community music studio in a children’s art centre. It’s fun. I have a long history of music facilitation, but I managed to land this job at the end of lockdown.

Empowering the new generation and giving them the tools!

Big time.

Manchester has a really strong culture and history of this, a lot of people I interview have been teachers or came through a very community minded infrastructure…

You’re right. I think a lot of them came from the same spot. Chimpo, Truthtos Mustafa, Chunky all came through Contact. Skittles has facilitated. Fox has. Everyone knows each other as artists as well the work side of things.

Who gave you opportunities? Did you come from those hubs?

No. I’m quite passionate about this because they’re the communities I wish I had. My parents tried to give me music lessons but the reality was that they couldn’t afford it. I’m sure when I was in school there were projects available but I didn’t know about them, so I guess I’m now trying to offer what little Note would’ve wanted?

You’re a few years younger than those guys, so maybe there weren’t those projects available? You’ve spent a great deal of your life under terms of austerity…

Maybe. I’ve spoken to people about this. I’ve visited youth clubs that have amazing spaces and when I ask why they’re not using the space, they explain how they did things before austerity. It seems what’s happening now is a tiny flame compared to what happened before.

Hopefully that flame will grow in the future. So let’s get a flavour of Note…Your debut was on Goldfat. Was there an alias before that?

As a musician my main thing is as a singer songwriter. A lot of my musical life is spent in that world, the D&B is almost like a break from the emotional guitar world. Not to say I don’t put emotion in my drum & bass, of course! I’ve been producing, or practicing production, for years, making beats with my friend Jamal who you probably know as Kublai. He was taking things a lot more seriously than me. But when he sent demos to Goldfat he was sneakily sending my demos, too!

Oh wow. So you weren’t really thinking about sending your tracks to labels, you were much more focused on your songwriting?

Yeah. That’s about 80% of my musical focus. A big reason for this is simply down to the nature of that world; when you work with a band there’s a certain amount of organisation required that can be quite time consuming, and then you have the practicality of doing gigs, there are a lot of moving parts involved. Turning up to the club with USB is a lot easier!

Are you joining these dots between your fanbases, or are you keeping them separate so as not to alienate different fanbases?

I get asked this a lot. People ask if I’m going to remix my singer-songwriter songs as Note, but the two worlds feel very separate for me.

I imagine there’s pleasure from keeping them separate? Having different outlets and being able to wear different hats can be very helpful for keeping your workflow fresh and avoid stagnating, right?

In a big way yeah. It was never a conscious decision, they just feel like two very separate worlds. Maybe that will change in the future, but the way it is now suits me. Drum & bass allows me to tap into a world I’m not able to do with the singer/songwriter stuff so they’re naturally separate.

Did you take to production very naturally then? From what you’re saying it sounds like you were just having fun in the studio, but the tunes sound like you mean business!

Honestly no, it’s something I’ve been working quite hard on, but it’s helped a lot having Jamal as a friend encouraging me and showing me things, setting the bar so high. I’m sure you’ve heard his stuff – he’s constantly pushing the level higher. I ask him a lot of questions too. Like, ‘What the hell did you do with those drums?’ I hear a lot of new producers and the first track they make is amazing. That is definitely not my story!

I guess you see them come through in your day job?

Big time. It’s scary. I have a kid who came to the studio having never touched a DAW and two weeks later it’s like, ‘Wow, how did you do that?’ It’s really cool.

Your job to fulfil that and feed that fire!

Yeah, I try to stretch young people’s minds as much as possible. The further outside the box they go, the more exciting and powerful their music is. It’s incredible to watch that happen.

Totally! So back to you… I was really intrigued by your write up that came with the latest single. You explain how “there’s a lot about the way this scene operates that makes it very uncomfortable for those who don’t look, think or behave in a particular way. Maybe because drum and bass is an underground movement some people (mainly cis men) don’t consider that the social issues that effect wider society such as queer-phobia, sexism, racism, etc. also exists within our tiny community, and that this has a profound affect on the music that comes out of this scene.” Let’s talk about that.

Yeah. So, as a musician, I’ve often done things instinctively and at my own pace. It’s been very interesting to be part of the D&B scene and witness some of the ways you are expected to work and it’s clear that some parts of the industry aren’t suited to particular people. One simple example of this is that my workflow is quite slow, yet there’s this expectation for producers to smash out tune after tune after tune. I personally can’t do that, but there are those who can and they get rewarded for doing that.

So I was thinking about the ways that these expectations play into the diversity of the scene, or lack thereof. It came to my attention that if we’re trying to encourage diversity, and we mean it, then we should review certain processes or expectations and ways of working to make it more inclusive for people. Although I’ve met some real wonderful humans in the D&B world, the community I feel safe with is much smaller here. I’m lucky in that I’ve got a really good and supportive network in my other musical life. If I needed to, I could walk away from the genre. I don’t want to, but I know I could.

I guess that creates an extra sense of security? Even if you didn’t want to leave, you know you can…

Yeah. But I have friends who only express themselves through D&B but they don’t feel safe in the space. And that’s such a shame.

That’s a huge shame! Is that because of toxic masculinity or racism or misogyny?

Yeah and certain attitudes and behaviours we’re used to. I saw some interesting quotes from Gyrofield saying they don’t feel safe in clubs, for example. I know some women don’t feel safe behind the decks, too. You go to the club and there’s a huge group of men standing by the decks. Even if no one is harming any one, there needs to be an awareness that that kind of energy might not feel very comfortable for a woman to work in.

That’s the type of example I’m talking about. There are steps that can be taken to make people feel safer and I wanted to articulate these thoughts. I don’t feel I fit in certain drum & bass dynamics. I’m quite introverted so when people come to me with this big energy, I can’t give that back… Then they look at me funny and I feel more anxious because of that.

Yeah I get that completely. That just breeds this awful loop of anxiety in your head doesn’t it? It goes round and around and it gets very uncomfortable.

Yeah and I go home thinking about that, instead of the actual show.

I know that feeling! So the track titles are mantras you’ve told yourself…

Yeah I’m not a very vocal person. I need to learn to speak and share things. That’s hard! Even this interview. I’m quite nervous and anxious. Even sharing my thoughts on where the music came from was a big step for me. I had this mantra telling myself to ‘learn to speak’ but then I’m given a platform and it’s like, ‘Ahhh crap!’

I’ve said this to myself so now I have to do it. It’s those things where I do it at a level where it’s safe for me, but I’m pushing myself. That said, the statements I made about the inspiration for the music wasn’t an attack, just some observations based on what I had experienced. Some of the first steps of making less toxic spaces are very simple and cost nothing. Just your average club promoter or producer can make tiny little adjustments in their practice that can make a huge difference.

So, for example, giving people space, not crowding around the DJ booth. Showing empathy. Understanding that big energy isn’t always met with big energy and that’s okay and shouldn’t be an awkward thing.

All of that. It’s all really simple things. Like considering the safety of an artist getting home. If you book someone, particularly vulnerable people, ask them if they have a safe way of getting home. Those conversations can change a lot of things.

And become part of the process very quickly

Exactly. Recently there has been a lot of push back against the various calls for social change (once again mostly from cis men), maybe this is because sometimes it all feels too difficult and we’re not looking at the small steps we could be taking. It may also be because we can’t quite agree on how to go about making these changes. There’s an expectation for change to be tidy but there’s historical anger and discomfort. It’s going to be untidy and noisy. And though I might not always agree with the way people are trying to change things, the focus should be the end goal.

And now, with the cost of living crisis, the stakes feel super high and this is leading to a lot less compassion. Like, it’s even harder to put on events. It’s very risky so people are slipping back into bad habits; booking the same kind of people, not paying people right, etc. It’s super important that we still keep supporting inclusivity now and there are cost free ways of doing that. I’ve had promoters who have approached me being super honest and transparent about their budget and we’ve had conversations about how we can help each other find a solution. When someone is saying, ‘We care about you, we know your value even when we’re struggling,’ that can go a long way. I think promoters sometimes can get caught up in their own struggle. As a result they end up pushing people away.

Including ravers. You’re right about change being messy, but it will be worth it

Yes. And I think another change that can happen very easily and won’t cost anything is for people to stop being the barrier and the gatekeeper. Everyone will have their own ideas about how to make our community better and sometimes other people’s methods will rub us the wrong way. Before kicking off we need to stop and check ourselves to see if our response is actually helpful or is just another way of being a gatekeeper.

Yeah definitely. I think it’s very easy for people to put those barriers up, or be defensive, when they know they could have done better in the past. Being honest with yourself I think can very uncomfortable sometimes and defensiveness is easier than accepting you can do better. I know I’ve experienced this before and it takes some personal work…

In a big way. Taking those hard pills isn’t easy. It’s a hard but beautiful journey to be on. You come out the other end to a community that’s diverse and vibrant. All because of the inner work that’s happened.

It’s happening right now too. It’s a long way to go but we are on that journey. So tell me about the artwork, as it links to your previous release on Goldfat doesn’t it?

Yes. It’s by Luca Shaw who is a good friend, I love her work and I’ve wanted to work with her for years, but it’s not come together until recently. When my first Goldfat single came out, it was the right time. Things Fall Apart was inspired by the book by Chinua Achebe. Grant (Mr. Porter) had this idea about reflecting the artwork of the original book which I really loved and I knew that Luca would be the perfect person to ask for that job. Now with this artwork there was a lot of imagery and ideas going on. I’m massively inspired by paintings and recently I’ve been really into the works of an American artist Jacob Lawrence. His use of colour and shapes are really cool and he does a lot of series of grouped paintings with a big story going on. I like that idea so I messaged Luca again and we had a conversation about the inspiration behind the music and my love for Jacob Lawrence. She had a few ideas and sent me sketches and it felt like a continuation of the ideas in from the previous artwork.

Could this be an ongoing series?

If I’m lucky! She’s very busy but I would love to explore something like that. Artwork is very important for me, it’s another way for me to express myself.

It adds value and meaning to the release. And, of course, another reason why you don’t just bash out tonnes of singles…

Yeah big time. I assumed this is what all musicians do; you spend ages on a concept and then work out how to bring that to life and articulate it in the best possible way. For me it has to be conceptual. It takes time and a lot of music that gets made won’t get used but it’s part of the journey of getting to the destination you need to be at. You’re problem solving in a way, and the whole process takes me a lot of time to get to that moment of ‘okay I know what I need to do’. That’s when the clarity appears.

That’s when the goosebumps appear!

It feels so much more satisfying to release music in that way. Something I’ve really thought about that’s finally clicked and come together. I want to take my time, so I’m making music that fits for me and it’s more rewarding from a listening perspective, there’s more depth. When you listen back over and over again you hear more things.

That’s why I need to do this properly, at my own pace. If I am going to be making drum & bass – and I do want to continue doing this – I need to make sure I’m doing it in this way. And if that means going a whole year between releases then so be it. I need that time.

Note – Tender Precious Things is out now on Goldfat Records

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