This week sees the return of The Coffee Music Project, the world's most influential music artist competition. The finalists have been whittled down from hundreds of hopeful applicants and Wednesday 1st May sees the grand final take place at 229 The Venue in central London. It will be a night of live music, entertainment, and charity, as the event is in support of Project Waterfall: a charity initiative bringing clean drinking water, sanitation and education to coffee-growing communities.
The nine finalists will perform and a panel of expert judges (myself included) will be looking for vocal ability, originality, performance quality, stage presence, lyrical content and songwriting ability to select this year's winner, alongside an audience vote.
Last year saw singer- songwriter Daisy Chute come out on top so we caught up with her ahead of the event.
How did you find the process of the coffee music project last year?
Without wanting to sound clichéd, I found it to be challenging but rewarding! I hadn’t put myself in that kind of competitive situation for a while and so it definitely took some amount of guts to stand up and bare my soul in that way to be judged! Ultimately it was a great thing to have done, not just because I won, but because I met such great people through the project and it helped raise money and awareness for Project Waterfall. I also got a new song out of it which I love playing live now!
Why did you apply?
I originally applied because I wanted to have a deadline to write a new song – ironically so much of my week is spent doing non-musical things as a self-employed musician – writing emails, booking gigs, invoicing, having meetings and networking, updating social media and website etc etc – so it’s sometimes hard to actually set aside the time to do the thing I love most – write and play music!
I find deadlines help as it means I have to put that first instead of the various other things on my to do list! I also had heard of the competition through a few other artist friends who’d entered both in London and New York, and thought – well it’s free to enter so why not!
What can you tell one of the finalists of this years coffee music project?
I’d say to try and get some good practice in with your band if you’re playing with one to get the arrangements as tight as possible! Also make sure to tell your friends and fans to come support you – it’s nice to feel like the room is cheering you on and that helped me in the final when I knew there were people there for me! But I’d also say to not be disheartened if you don’t win or place – it’s only the opinion of 9 or 10 people on the judging panel and we all know music is subjective!
It’s an achievement to have got this far in the competition with the amount of talent out there in London and so try and think of it more like a gig with a bunch of other talented acts in a cool venue with a great audience hearing your music!
How has it helped your career?
It’s helped so many things both directly and indirectly! Directly the competition money helped towards my album recording costs and the trip to America helped me build my network and touring experience and fan base. And indirectly it was great for my confidence – knowing there were industry people out there who liked my music – it’s hard to have that confidence in what you’re doing sometimes and it boosted that for sure.
It also led to be being picked up by one of the judges Ray Jones to be on his Talentbanq roster, and also Pablo Ettinger to be playlisted by Caffè Nero around the world. It’s also led to many more performing and songwriting opportunities through the Seb Collective and continues to help build my network. Having the kudos of winning a competition like this seems to give other people more confidence in my abilities when they’re booking me for shows or sessions too.
How does your American and Scottish heritage feed into your music?
Growing up in Edinburgh with an American mother and Scottish father I was exposed to all sorts of music from the traditional folk in Scotland to American jazz songs that my mum would play in the house as she painted. As well as the trad stuff and jazz, I also started loving the music of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Nick Drake and other songwriters from the 70s and more recent artists like Laura Marling.
I also used to listen to/watch the BBC Transatlantic sessions where American and Celtic musicians would collaborate and loved hearing the talented multi-instrumentalists joining forces and finding common ground between the two continents. I started listening to americana, bluegrass and Appalachian music and was inspired by the various collaborations of mandolin player Chris Thile (Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek) and people like Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch and the multi-instrumentalist female artists in I’m With Her – Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins.
How did you transition from classical to folk?
I trained in classical and jazz at specialist music schools growing up (in Edinburgh and in Hertfordshire) but always loved listening to and playing folk music too. When I started writing that was the music that naturally came out but I still draw from my classical and jazz roots and find myself using that in my arrangements.
When I was studying classical guitar I played a lot of Spanish music and that has fed into my music now too. My first album was a jazz record that I recorded at age 15, and that led to me being signed to Universal Records to be part of vocal classical crossover quartet All Angels with whom I recorded 3 albums and toured in my late teens and early 20s. I was always writing through that time but didn’t have an outlet until the group stopped being active and I finished studying music at university.
Around that time I was writing a lot more and entered a few songwriting competitions and won places on some writing retreats, including one with Sir Ray Davies of The Kinks who later mentored me. That really grew my experience and confidence and I started performing my own material live – it was more nerve-wracking than anything else I’d ever done! More-so than singing at Wembley or for The Queen! Standing up and singing your own songs to 50 people in a room was a lot scarier to me, as it’s so much more intimate and exposing, but over time it’s got easier and more enjoyable and I haven’t looked back since!
Tell me about how you came to feature on a Radiohead song?
After my All Angels days, as well as writing songs and performing on my own I started doing session vocals and orchestrations for film/tv scores and band albums. I first started working with the London Metropolitan Orchestra at places like Abbey Road Studios, and then started working with the London Contemporary Orchestra too who have played most of Johnny Greenwood’s film scores, which led to them also being asked to play on the Radiohead album A Moon Shaped Pool recorded at Rak studios.
It was a totally top secret session and I had no idea what I’d been asked to come work on until that morning! As well as singing on it, I did some work preparing the scores for the strings and also booked about half the choir of 12 female singers. That’s where I actually met my bandmate Cerian who then became the co-founder of an all-female collective we started last year called HEARD Collective.
Can you tell us anything about the debut album you've been working on?
The album has been a long time coming – the last album I made and released was more than 5 years ago – since then I’ve released singles and EPs but this will mark quite a change in direction to the other albums I’ve released so far.
I’ve been getting these songs together with my producer and co-writing partner Tim Baxter and the various band members I’ve been playing with for the past few years, featuring instruments like double bass, cello, drums, pedal steel and me playing everything from banjo and mandolin to harmonium and Omnichord and layering plenty of vocal harmonies!
It’s been a joy to create the songs and recordings in Tim’s studio in Kent and occasionally in London at my home set up and places like Konk Studios (Sir Ray Davies’ studio). I can’t wait to release it and share the songs with everyone! They’re very much storytelling songs in the folk/Americana genre but they draw on all my influences in jazz, classical, Celtic, American and Latin music.
How did it feel to have Paul McCartney giving you the thumbs up?
Amazing! Though I didn’t really experience it first hand! I met him briefly after my old band All Angels performed at the Classical Brit Awards at the Royal Albert Hall. We were up for the same award of Album of the Year funnily enough (though Sir Paul won of course!).
When we were introduced to him, an old pal of mine from Scotland who’s a fellow artist came up to me to say hello, so I missed it when he asked who was the one singing the low notes (I usually was the lowest singer in the a capella arrangements for the group) and so apparently gave me a thumbs up then! The others were kind enough to pass on the compliment to me! We got a picture with him but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere.
What would you say to someone who is starting out in the industry?
It’s a tough old industry and is constantly changing but what always stays the same is the joy you get from making and sharing music and meeting likeminded souls. So if you can focus on continuing to do what you love to do the rest should follow more easily. Chasing fame and riches doesn’t really lead to either, not in a lasting way anyway.
People usually can see through the fake so the best thing you can do is to make music you yourself love and not try to be anything you’re not! I’d also say be open to opportunities and new collaborations – you never know what they may bring and it’s good to be able to offer people your skills and talents and time, and in return, you learn so much from working with others and can expand your network that way.
It’s a hugely collaborative industry and the more you are open to meeting people and working with others the more you get in return I find! Yes, you can set up a bedroom studio and do so much on your own these days, but I’ve found the collaborations to be the most fruitful and enjoyable part of being a full-time musician.
Want to be there? Tickets are £10 plus booking fee and 100% of the price will go directly to Project Waterfall. Get tickets here:
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