Songs From the Shed

We have a love affair with awesome things that come from simple places. Every Olympics there is a story of an athlete who comes from a modest background. A person with a dream to be an Olympian but who does not have access to high tech training facilities. So they make due with what they have in the environment in which they live and manage to make it big. Against the odds. We never want these stories to stop coming. In part they are a validation of the human spirit. If there is a will there is a way.

These stories are also a reassuring reminder that maybe there is a touch of magic in these places where great things start. Something intangible, that science can’t explain, and that just needs to be accepted. It leaves us to scan the horizon with a hopeful eye knowing there are more magical places out there waiting to be discovered.

Five minutes from junction 20 off the M5 in England is a small garden shed that has become a place of pilgrimage for musicians. Musical cubs and famous veterans are all making their way to an aging shack near the west coast of England to record an acoustic session in a space that is not much bigger than a child’s bedroom.

Jon Earl had intended his backyard shed to be the meeting place for a cheese and cider club. He decorated the inside of the shed with a collection of eclectic tchotchke like World war era gas masks, vintage signs and other cool curiosities. Some were left over from the shed’s previous owners, some were brought in by Earl.

When the Cheese and Cider Society met for the first time at the nearby Royal Oak pub one of the members suggested they get some musicians to play at the first get together in the shed. When Earl heard that, he was struck with and idea. The Cheese and Cider Society was shut down before it opened, and Songs from the Shed was born.

The first session was local musicians that often played at the pub. Soon after a band from Portland, Oregon named the Water Tower Bucket Boys contacted Earl to say they were on tour in the area, would it be alright if they played in the shed. It was the shed’s fifth session, and the moment Earl realized he had something much bigger than he dreamed. Earl still doesn’t know how the Water Tower Bucket Boys found him.

Almost overnight Songs from the Shed started getting more attention. It didn’t take long for well known professionals to get in touch and ask for session time. Word started to spread rapidly. Currently Jon Earl receives over a hundred emails a day, and the shed is booked almost a year in advance.

Earl initially deployed decidedly low tech gear to capture the musical sessions. A midrange Canon video camera to record audio and video combined with a common sense approach to placement of the musical instruments. Louder elements in the back, softer ones up front. Later Earl started to experiment with nicer cameras with better microphones, but, ironically, they were too clean. A warmth was lost with the better equipment. When Earl investigated further he found that the older microphone technology of his original camera is not as sensitive. It also doesn’t try to electronically compensate for the acoustics of ambient surroundings. It was almost as if acoustics of the shed itself was dictating the terms in which music could be played and recorded within its walls.

Not one to change what was working, Earl scoured Ebay for additional cameras like the one that he owned to have as backup. The simpler, lo-fi camera was clearly a critical part of the formula for recording in the shed.

Jon Earl doesn’t get paid for the 30-35 hours a week that are required to manage the responsibilities of the shed. It’s a labor of love that he does on top of his full time day job. Earl said his wife is understanding of the commitment…most of the time. When a session contains a lot of musicians around the garden and walking into the house to use the facilities, Mrs. Earl has been known to occasionally raise an eye brow in the direction of her husband. However, Earl maintains that that only happens on rare occasion.

Part of the romance and atmosphere of the shed is its age. But that’s also a challenge. At one point the shed was in desperate need of repairs due to wood damage. Repairs that were going to cost more than just passion. Earl reached out to musicians for help, they respond by donating tracks to Earl so he could sell a compilation CD to raise money.

Songs from the Shed now enjoys a world wide audience along with a loyal community that gather around the web site. I asked Mr. Earl why he thought that musicians like playing in the shed so much. He told me that it was the simplicity of it, show up and play. A notion is bolstered by Alabama 3′s lead singer Larry Love when he opened his session saying, “…I would like to say to young people everywhere get off you garage band, get off your Pro Tools, get off your cubies, get off your logic, get down to the shed to do some real deal ’cause that’s where the front line people are hanging out.”

I asked Mr. Earl if he had any criteria for choosing which bands get to play in the shed. He said that it’s an organic process. The band has to have something that he likes and they have to be able to perform their music acoustically. “Any favorites,” I asked. His answer started diplomatically and then voice got a little more excited. “I love the band Alabama 3, and when I got to record their session, I felt like I fulfilled what I set out to do.”

Good acoustic music recorded simply in a uncomplicated environment. That’s the allure that drives musicians to play at the shed. It is a precious oasis from our over produced, technology saturated world. A place where raw talent reigns in a location that was discovered to have just a little magic.

This story originally appeared in National Geographic Assignment.

Photo: Courtesy of Jon Earl