At just 21 years old, Oxfordshire saxophonist Joe Henwood has already achieved many things. Having been immersed in music from an early age, at just 16 Joe won the 2009 BBC Young Folk award with his sister, Megan. Subsequently he has written and recorded a range of music in a variety of genres and played with some of the UK's most talented musicians. And, by the time he was 18, Joe had launched his own successful recording studio – Henwood Studios at Oakley Farm near Benson, Oxfordshire.

Before I met him at his studio, Joe had been rehearsing for an appearance at Kelburn Castle in Scotland with his 12-piece band Nubiyan Twist who play a mix of jazz with an ultra-modern Afro-beat and some strong reggae and hip-hop influences.

“Although I've played all kinds of things, at heart I am a jazz player and I love to improvise,” Joe explained. “I enjoy melody and beautiful harmony but most of all I like the stuff that really goes out there – original and exciting – and with Nubiyan Twist there is scope to improvise a lot. We have large improvised sections and use odd-time signatures with far out harmony, all from our love of jazz. Nubiyan Twist are getting better all the time, and they have quite a following now in clubs around the country. We also played the Hideaway Festival at Fawley Hill near Henley this summer which went really well for us. The next big step will be the late autumn launch of the band's album – just called ‘Nubiyan Twist’ – at Richmix in Shoreditch, London on the 31st October. Quite a few of the tracks were recorded here at Henwood Studios, and we are very happy with what we have achieved.”

So, what persuaded Joe to start his own recording studio at an age when most of his peers were just heading off to university?

“Well, I had already done quite a bit by then,” Joe told me. “My mother Lucie had played folk music when she was young at the Nettlebed Folk Club and my sister Megan was interested in music too. So, there was always a background of music in our Henley home. From the age of seven or eight I played the drums. Then I learned the piano for a while with a wonderful Polish concert pianist teacher in Henley called Izabela Borzymowska. I loved jamming on the piano with friends and writing stuff on it, but I never got into the practice routine unfortunately. Then, when I was about eleven, I picked up a saxophone and took to it right away. I taught myself a bit, but then I was lucky that a brilliant teacher called Anatoliy Vyacheslavov from the Henley area encouraged me to play blues and work on improvisation and practice hard which I did.”

“By the time I was sixteen I had progressed enough to win a place at Leeds College of Music where I studied for a BTEC. There was a tradition of quality jazz at Leeds – with neo soul, funk, hip-hop, blues. People like Corinne Bailey Rae had recently been there. I soon found myself centring round some very capable players - Tommy Evans from Oxford was one – and I just learned so much. We were able to use the college's excellent recording facilities, and I found I enjoyed the whole process of music making...writing, live performance and recording.”

“Of course before that Megan and I had already won the BBC Young Folk Award, which had upset some folk purists who couldn't accept a sax as part of the folk scene,” Joe recalled. “Looking back, it was all quite funny...and in any case I'd been trying to play my alto sax like a fiddle. I thought I got pretty close!”

“Anyway, after college I decided not to go on to do a music degree at university - though I don't rule out doing that one day. I had been playing with several different bands and collaborating with all kinds of people. One was Tom Excell who is four years older - he's twenty-five – who had taken a degree and who is a very skilled classically- trained guitarist. We played in a three piece and, with vocalist Nubiya Brandon, we had started to put a band together...the three of us are still in Nubiyan Twist now. In fact Tom is the band's driving force and writes a lot of the material the band plays. We had been recording in the Leeds College studios which were technically very good. But, probably inevitably for a college, they were rather clinical and had a lot of rules - like no eating or drinking - and I just thought it would be good to create our own professional recording space where there's a positive vibe and musicians can really relax.”

“The dream was to offer all the facilities of a big fancy London studio in a barn in the countryside with space nearby where a band can stay overnight. And, gradually, this is what has been achieved at Henwood Studios. It is all digital and we do everything the most ergonomic, economic way. Instead of having giant mixing desks we record through simple digital boxes that amplify the sound from each microphone and send it straight into the computer where the mixing is done. For the technically minded, I should just say that we have top professional Nueman and AKG mikes, a 12 channel Neve desk plus Apogee Symphony 24 converter with Adam A7X monitors. And there's a great camera and lighting for making videos too. It is all low maintenance and uses little electricity, but the results are really good. People who record here value the fact that we, as young musicians, have built this place and run it ourselves. Tom who, like me, is still a working musician, is the in-house engineer and resident producer.”

When he, however, first established Henwood studios, Joe had inevitably faced all the challenges usually associated with starting a new business and, at just eighteen, it was sometimes harder to be taken seriously.

“It is true that some people were surprised I was so young and a bit dubious. But once they realised I had a clear vision of what I was trying to do with a practical plan of how I would do it, most were very accepting. My dad Colin has always run his own business - he builds traditional Thames boats - and so I always knew running a business can be done; it is not some impossible dream. But there have been some difficult moments,” Joe agrees. “I did a lot of the actual construction work here myself to convert the old agricultural buildings into a studio. And I do recall one particular February day when I was trying to plaster the internal walls. I had twelve tons of sand outside and lots of horrible corrosive lime and mixed everything up and wheeled it in, a barrow load at a time. It was a week's work and initially a team of four friends helped, but because of the hard labour and the way the lime hurt their hands they'd all left me to it after Day One. And I was all alone here, trying to slap on the plaster mix, but each time I put a load on the wall and moved along I could hear it falling off on to the floor behind me. I was almost crying with fatigue and frustration.”

“That was definitely the lowest point. But the landlords have been excellent - so supportive - as have many other people. We also had the boost of a £7500 EU rural industries grant which helped us buy better equipment – and two officials from Defra were very helpful with that, though the process was bureaucratic. Actually it was interesting talking to other small business owners at meetings I attended prior to being awarded the EU grant. I was surprised by the similarity of some of the obstacles we had all faced, regardless of the kinds of business we were running.”

“Another positive thing was that we came up with a novel way to sound-proof the studio cheaply after all the professional quotes proved prohibitive,” Joe added. “I'd played in a straw bale studio at Glastonbury and decided to use straw insulation here. I bought 580 straw bales from a farmer in Princes Risborough and, with help from some friends, installed this in the studio walls. It has worked brilliantly. So far I haven't had to spend anything on marketing; the studio is already proving popular just through word of mouth. I have had to learn to plan my time carefully. Sadly, I decided to quit playing with one band - The Drop, who I really enjoyed being with - just to have the capacity to keep appearing with Nubiyan Twist, continue writing music and run the studio.”

How does Joe see the way ahead?

“At Henwood Studios we aim to appeal to bands who want to make albums here, stay for a week or two and really engross themselves in the process with a team of in-house engineers and producers...people who all share a similar ethos and who enjoy being here. One band in, one band out, all making records and YouTube videos here. Quite a bit of that has been happening. I enjoyed making my sister Megan's latest album, ‘Head, Heart, Hand’ which will be released soon. She brought in some wonderful session musicians – like Matt Holborn from a band called Tantz. And I had a great time recording here with Nubiyan Twist with their five piece horn section. Another artist who was a pleasure to work with here is Kweku from Ghana who is based in Sheffield. He has worked at the studio a lot over the last eighteen months, making his album.”

“Personally I don't especially want to become a session player or a producer. I see how much expertise Tom Excell has as a producer - and Pete Brown who we are increasingly collaborating with and who is absolutely in the top league, having recorded so many household names. I just don't think I can ever match that, and I'm not sure I have the right temperament either. As a musician I like creativity - writing, innovation - far too much to want to just do sessions. Of course, you never stop learning in music. I am fortunate to have met some inspirational people, many not necessarily big names. Examples include Barrie Barlow (the ex-Jethro Tull drummer), bassist Andy Crowdy, jazz guitarist Hugh Turner all of whom I have been lucky enough to play with. And sax players Pete Wareham and Rob Mitchell, trumpet player Johnny Murray, pianist and music director Tom Barnes and Dave Kane, an Irish bass player who taught me about Indian time in music, have all been inspiring in different ways. I also like the New Zealand band Fat Freddy’s Drop, who have definitely had an influence on my music.”

“Already there have been some great performing moments. With the Drop I played a stage called The Lion's Den at Winchester's Boomtown festival and the sheer epic scale there was awesome. Some of the gigs with my sister Megan have been incredibly intense and beautiful too - especially at Nettlebed Folk Club or the Crooked Billet pub in Stoke Row. I hope the future will bring many more times like those!”


Photos by Vicki Evans.

For more about Joe Henwood's studio see info@henwoodstudios.com. Details of Nubiyan Twist's performances are at www.nubiyantwist.co.uk and for the latest news about Megan Henwood visit www.meganhenwood.co.uk.











Related Links:

http://www.meganhenwood.co.uk
http://www.nubiyantwist.co.uk


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