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  • Ian Pemble

Sadie Fleming’s journey from dead-end roundabout to music fast lane

Before Christmas I saw Sadie Fleming do a set at The Stars and immediately bought a copy of her CD. The next day I was travelling down the M5 to Torquay, reached for a favourite Warren Zevon album… and then decided to give Sadie a chance instead.

I am a huge fan of Mr Zee (so are Bob Dylan and Bruce Springstein, come to that – they do his songs as covers), but I’m afraid that weekend he never got a look in. Sadie sang to me all the way to Devon – and all the way back.

As well as a fine songwriter, she is one of the most organised people I have ever met. She had made copious notes to refer to during the interview and confessed she was about to create a Gantt chart (a spreadsheet intent on world domination) to keep up with all her plots, plans and projects.

But, more importantly, she is an artist to keep an ear on. She produced that stunning, 12-track CD all by herself, before she’d even done her first, public gig…

“I was born in Studley, a really small village in Warwickshire, in 1985. My parents don’t really play – well my mum can play the recorder – but my grandmother used to be a classical pianist. She was amazing, she was really good.”

So it kind of skipped a generation? “Yeah, my parents were keen for me to learn the piano. I started when I was about three or four and then I was classically trained, I had piano lessons until I was 18 – and got to Grade 8. But piano wasn’t very cool when I was at school so I kind of taught myself to play guitar.

“I wasn’t ever a singer; I only really started singing a couple of years ago. I did an audition for a school play when I was at primary school – I think I had to sing Good King Wenceslas – and all the other kids laughed at me… It took a long time before I would sing in front of people after that!”

Was it songwriting that got you singing? “Yeah in a way. When I was at school all my teachers and my parents were saying that I should go to uni and do music. But the only way I could see of earning a living was as a teacher, and I didn’t want to do that. So I decided to be sensible – amazingly sensible for 18 – and I went up to Sheffield University and did a business degree. I stopped doing music completely. I took the keyboard and my guitar but I didn’t play for three years.

“Then I got a proper job after uni, working in a marketing agency, and I did that for a couple of years. I worked on a project for a whole year marketing roundabouts in Rochdale – it was a dead-end job. So I started doing more and more music in the evenings, doing classes and stuff.”

I’m not sure you can describe a roundabout as a dead end, but anyway… “I wasn’t gigging then, I was writing more. I did an evening course in composition and then a class in songwriting and realised I really enjoyed it. Then a relationship ended (isn’t this always the way?) and the job was going nowhere so I decided it had to be music. I applied for a Masters in Songwriting at Bath Spa University a couple of years ago. A whole year with the most amazing musicians, just writing songs, collaborating, recording, getting feedback from people…it was the best year of my life”

Talking of feedback, what about musical influences? “I was taught classical music but I didn’t really listen to it. My dad had a great record collection: it was all Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Captain Beefheart, and that kind of thing. Then I turned into a metal-head teenager for a while, had a little drum ‘n’ bass phase… went through all the different genres like you do when you’re growing up. And then Regina Spektor was my main influence. She’s brilliant. She started off doing open mics and now does massive stadiums.

“Then there’s an artist called Cat Power who does similar stuff to me. That was one of the reasons I started recording because I heard her CD and I thought, ‘I could sound a bit like this if I tried really hard’. Not that I want to sound like someone else – maybe somewhere between those two…

“The songwriting masters course was a year of just writing songs. We had to write a new song every week, bring it into class and play it in front of everybody, and it was the first time since I got laughed at that I had sung in front of people.

“But it was great discipline. You write some utter shit, but at least you’re writing something. It gets you in the frame of mind where you just sit and write, and the more you write the better the songs get.

“I did my first open mic night in Bath in The Porter. I did one song and I was literally shaking the whole way through. It was horrible. But it went down fairly well and I thought, ‘I could give this a go…’

“And it was on my list. I had a list of things I had to do before I am 30, and one was ‘do an open mic’.”

So the first gig was OK, how about the others? “Well, my first proper gig was when we moved to Bristol, at the Pilgrim – a Mark Venus acoustic night. By then I’d done a few open mics, and I was becoming less nervous, so I thought I’d give it a go. I loved it – I made a grown man cry (and it was a good cry).

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to play at some really lovely venues around the South West – Hall 2 at Colston Hall, The Golden Guinea, Bristol Zoo, The Subscription Rooms, Urban Wood, Brisfest, and of course The Seven Stars. I remember the first gig I played where no one was listening – they’re chatting and facing the other way – I nearly stopped there and then – it was heartbreaking. But after a while you realise you have to find the venues that suit your type of music.

“I finished the masters course about a year and a half ago and towards the end there was this project, which was to record an album…”

Hang on – that beautifully produced album that made my car a happy place was a ‘project’? “Yeah, I had 30 or 40 songs from the course that I whittled down, but yes – I made that album before I’d ever done a gig. Which is kind of the wrong way round! I sat in my room for a whole summer recording, rewriting and programming all the instruments. I literally did everything myself. I then saved up for a year to get it printed up properly with loads of my dad’s lovely artwork…”

At this point, as usual, I interject with a story of my own and then lose the thread. But Sadie has her notes so that doesn’t matter. I ask if she’s always this organised – a control freak, even? “Not really honestly, but I did have a bit of a revelation yesterday. I went to a workshop about what you should be doing with your music, and I got back and I was overwhelmed with all the things I want to do. I make so many lists, my diary is just full. So I decided it was time for a Gantt chart.”

Then, after the masters course, Sadie moved to Bristol with some friends from the course, which almost brings us up to date. Is she hoping to make a living from music and how is it going money-wise? “It’s getting there – I’ve got another spreadsheet! I normally do two or three gigs a week and the money’s going up every month. I also work part-time at Bristol College in the marketing department and it’s a really nice job – the people are lovely – and I get the afternoons off to do music stuff. It’s just enough to pay the rent and the bills, but that pushes me to try to make more of a living from music.”

I’ve seen her play keyboards but earlier she mentioned playing guitar… “I tend to write most of my songs on guitar. It’s less distracting. With a piano there are so many keys, whereas with a guitar, because I’m not particularly good on a guitar, I focus on the song and the melody. Then I move most of my songs across to piano – although I do play a few on guitar.”

Any more CDs coming? “Yes! I’m working on an EP at the moment. I was going to do an album but of the 15 to 20 new songs I’ve written, there are only six that have really stuck and that I think would work as a collection. It’s a kind of journey through love and loss – it’s got the working title of Love Like You’ve Never Been Hurt.

“I’ll be working on that for the next few months. And this time, instead of programming instruments, I’m using live musicians. There’s this guy I know who runs a studio in Bath, and he’s offered to put it all together – get the musicians in and record it – for free. But I don’t want to release anything too soon – I want to get it spot on, and besides I’m still trying to promote the original album. I did the last one in my bedroom and had complete control over it, so passing some of that over to someone else is a little bit scary, but it will be great to have something that is more representative of what I’m doing now.”

So the future is? “I want to do music full time, I’m getting there. Play more gigs, work on the EP… I’d love to get a band together and go on tour – that would be amazing.

“I’ve done a couple of gigs with Susanna Waters’ band. She’s got loads of festival slots booked and because I’m playing with her I get to play my own sets as well.

“And I’ve started working with my two housemates, Lindsay Bullamore and Bex Cullen. They’re both incredible singer songwriters, we were on the same course at Bath Spa and now we live together. We did our first gig at The Louisiana a couple of weeks ago and it went really well. So we’re going to do more stuff together.”

Who does she rate on the music scene? “I’ve made a list because I knew I’d forget someone otherwise. Obviously, Lindsay, Bex and Susanna are all ace, but I’ve already mentioned them…. Pete Taylor, who does live looping, and is a wonderful human being, and The Flamenco Thief, of course.

“Other acts I like… Benny Sensus, a local band who are a combination of all sorts: acoustic, rap, classical – they’re amazing live. Then there’s Lewis Creaven, and of course Vapor – Mark Venus and Onika are awesome.

“Then there’s the Seven Stars crew. Back in January I recorded a song with Chris Stanley, with Tim Rice, Howard Sinclair, Geoff Pugh, Ant Noel… It was so nice to spend some music time with them instead of just seeing them occasionally in the pub.

“And Lonely Tourist – everyone says him, but his songs are great. I had a gig at the Golden Guinea (Sunday evenings in Redcliffe) a few weeks ago, and thought he’d be hosting the night with Alex (Furr) so decided on the day to work out one of his songs (Watch for the Sharks – it’s a classic). It’s surprisingly scary singing someone’s song at them, although there’s so many ridiculously talented musicians in Bristol, I’d love do more covers of local artists…”

Meanwhile, Sadie is organising a 24-hour gig in aid of MacmillanCancer Support after one of her best friends was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. “She is doing OK and has nearly finished chemotherapy, but it has been an incredibly tough few months for her, both physically and emotionally, and it’s such a long battle. We really wanted to do something, so I’ve been working with Lindsay and Bex, as well as Mark Venus, to get a load of local musicians to come along and play at this 24-hour gig. We’re working on getting sponsorship for running the gig – and staying awake – as well as raising money through donations on the day. We want to raise as much as possible for all the amazing work Macmillan do. If you could mention it, it would be great and I’ll update you as we go along.”

Consider it mentioned, Sadie…

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