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An Interview with Ian Hall from MHMG

We thought it would be nice to interview Ian Hall from 'Manley Hall Music Group' who works with artists behind the scenes within the UK country music scene. Here is what he had to say.....

Q - What made you decide to leave a job in the city and start your own record label?

A - In all honesty I got very tired of the daily corporate grind and after a particularly challenging period in my personal life I just wasn't prepared to waste another single day doing something I wasn't passionate about. My jobs in the city were in marketing, branding and people/relationship management so these really help MHMG with artist development and opportunity generation.

Q - How did you and Stephen Manley (on the left) meet and what made you decide to form MHMG?

A - I met Stephen through this very group! MHMG is very much a result of Forever British Country and your work connecting people. We are eternally grateful for the introduction. We began talking to one another and first and foremost I made a lifelong friend who I cherish very deeply, Stephen and I have a lot in common such as a love of 1980's nostalgia movies, a slightly dark sense of humour and of course our football team from L4! I find it very easy to work with him and its such a great place to be when you're working with a close friend.

MHMG began as an alliance of skills. Stephen is primarily a songwriter, myself an aspiring producer and mix engineer with a ton of people management experience. We figured that we could probably help artists progress their careers with a range of these services. I like to think we have done that and the feedback we get from our artists is really positive and I know they see and feel our value and support on a daily basis.

MHMG is more than just Stephen and I nowadays, we have our amazing artists and also a good array of professional and semi-professional musicians too. Our wider network has grown to incorporate venues, promoters and various other people in the arts and media. Generally people seem to like what we are trying to do and that's great for us.

Q - Tell us about your artists.

A - Well, we have 6 in total. Alan Finlan, Emma Jade Garbutt, Ashley Burke, Kira Mac, Georgia Barker and Stevie O'Connor.

All are unique in their own way. Alan and Emma we met at FSA last year. Alan played the festival but also just played and played all weekend and the more I heard him the more I just loved his voice and his personality. He is so humble and it's a very endearing quality. The moment I knew Alan and I would get along like a house on fire was standing outside the burger van at FSA and he started a impromptu busked version of 'Pretty fly for a white guy' which happened to be on the radio. We were soon joined by Sam Stoddard who plays guitar for Darcy and before long I was laughing so hard I couldn't sing anymore. The "passion" Alan and Sam put into that performance can't be underestimated. I think they should cover it together personally! Sam is also quite a nifty dancer which I feel was probably fuelled by some of the available beverages! I recently had Alan over for a week to record some of his EP and it was great to spend some time in his company again, we had a total blast. I only wish I had recorded his death metal version of Whiskey Eyes. It was actually quite good!

Emma is a powerhouse vocalist and an incredible writer. Very traditional sounding which is reflective of her influences. She has been involved with music for 10 years already which is hard to believe given she is still young. Some of her new songs are absolutely unreal. At the back end of last year I received a message from Emma saying "check this out". It was a video of her performing with Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers in Nashville. Not enough has been made of that video really. You should all watch it. When Emma sings, the world around stops. She has also laid claim to my beautiful Gretsch acoustic guitar these days. Thanks by the way Em, obviously I didn't really want it anyway! She is back out this summer with a brand new band and its sounding pretty amazing in rehearsals so we can't wait for everyone to hear that at the festivals.

Kira was recommended to us by our great friend Nick Cantwell from Belles and Gals. She had taken a bit of time off and wanted to get back into the scene. She is an incredible vocalist and a wonderful person to be around too with her positivity and can do attitude. Her songs have a real rocky edge and she is our Stevie Nicks really. I'm very excited that she will be coming into the studio to begin recording her second EP soon. Again, like Emma her new material is stunning. Nothing phases Kira, I think I could tell her she was playing the Pyramid Stage at Glasto and she would still reply 'cool, I'm excited, hey I wrote something new, wanna hear it?'

Georgia is our latest signing and we found her on YouTube after some careful research into a particular type of sound we wanted. Nick Cantwell congratulated us here actually as we managed to find a UK female country artist he didn't know about! Georgia has a stunning voice and she is quite a nifty guitar player too. Her own material has a pop country edge to it and she is hugely popular with younger fans. We are still working with Georgia to develop her plan but playing live a lot will feature heavily in that. She has a big non genre specific festival spot in the summer which will see her play to 1000 people. Easily the biggest crowd she will have ever faced. She is more than ready though, wait and see! The senior artists have really taken to her too which is nice. She has a really bright future.

Ashley is our one American artist. She is from Mount Vernon, Ohio and as her approach video she sent us a clip of her singing the American national anthem on her parents farm! She spent a period of time living in Nashville and recently returned to her native Ohio to have a little more family support and to enable her to follow both her passions, music and horses. She works harder than just about anyone I know and she could honestly read the phonebook and it would sound like a country song, her twang and delivery of anything musical is just a joy to listen to. She is a great writer and works closely with a co-writer on the majority of her material who we have been lucky enough to be introduced to. She has a wonderful CV of songs she has written for some quite large artists in the past and when her and Ashley get together great things happen. Ashley's sound varies as she has so many influences, everything from very traditional country to gospel and even bluegrass. She is fun to work with and she owns the most beautiful Martin guitar I think I've ever seen. A family instrument which has been passed to her through generations and is now finding its voice with a new artist. I love stories like that!

Stevie O'Connor. I met Stevie last summer during some recording sessions I did for you guys at FSA Festival. He walked in and was so thankful and grateful for everyone putting their time aside to record him. This is typical of him, he is one of the most humble people I've ever met in my life. That day I put on my headphones, clicked record, gave Stevie a thumbs up and he introduced his song 'Willow'. I don't think I even took a breath for 3 or 4 minutes I was utterly spellbound by that song. A few months later we reconnected and agreed that working together was the right thing for us both. He is an insanely good guitar and banjo player and his live shows have so much energy and passion he never fails to totally light up a room. He has an absolutely huge year approaching and I don't use that term lightly. We have some really special performances planned in this year with main stage appearances all over the place and especially Buckle and Boots and then later in the season a huge slot at Millport off the main Nashfield stage.

Q - Which other artists on the scene do you like?

A - That's a leading question! Obviously we all have our own personal tastes and that is a different thing entirely from who I might like professionally. When I recorded the acoustic sessions for you last summer I had around 17 artists come through the green room and not one made a single error or dropped a note. That's the quality we have, its really very high, so I admire all the artists on our scene and I'm still blown away by the sheer amount of talent we have.

I know you want me to call some people out by name here so I'm going to! I really like Elles Bailey, not just from a music perspective (which is amazing) but also from an industry perspective. Every time she writes or says something on social media, its sensible, well thought out and thoroughly intelligent. Aspiring artists should follow her page and watch what she does. You'll definitely learn something. I also really like Backwoods Creek, Lew Thomas, Gary Quinn and ever since watching the Buckle and Boots promo video from a couple of years ago I just can't get that Jess and the Bandits (I'm not going home) song out of my head! Like most people I love listening to Izzie Walsh and her amazing band. I could probably go on forever, we have a lot of great artists on our scene. Did I mention that already?

Q - You recently had your theatre showcase, how did that go and why did you choose to do it?

A - We love the theatre environment and we have a fantastic working relationship with a range of people in the arts so this was a natural step for us. We wanted a place where we could use lighting and video to create a fully immersive show and also an environment where we could black everything out to just a single spotlight and have our artists heard by 100% of the people in the room. The showcase was a huge success for us and I'm sure anyone that attended will testify to that.

We are going out again in October, but this time it will be a small theatre tour on a run of dates. I love curating these shows and the artists love playing them and I think that transfers to our audiences. I've always been captivated by the theatre environment. I watch a lot of theatre shows in my own time. I have huge admiration for anyone that is involved in this type of work as its far more involved than you might think. We have some good guys on our scene all doing amazing things in this space, Tom Wright with his touring work, Luke Thomas and his shows and of course Dominic Halpin and his touring show. All things I look in on and recognise a huge degree of expertise, professionalism and quality.

Q - Tell us what excites you about the British Country music scene.

Watching it grow and being able to actually influence that growth with our own activities.

We try our best to expand the scene as much as we can and I feel we have made some ripples, especially in my native Lincolnshire which was a country dead spot prior to MHMG. We fly the flag proudly here, putting on our theatre shows, placing our artists around the county in music venues, doing local radio shows and generally trying our best to open up the ears of the county to country music. We have now started to look to London too where we will be doing some shows and of course the Manchester area, which seems to be the epicentre of it all in the UK. We have been supported so well this year from the festivals with our artists featuring on lots of the new ones such as Country on the Coast and Dixie Fields plus the huge existing ones such as Buckle and Boots, FSA Presents and of course Millport up in Scotland.

One thing I hear regularly is 'I don't really like country, but hey I absolutely LOVE this'. That's exciting to me because it indicates that there is huge potential to grow audiences and an opportunity not only for our artists, but all artists in this genre to really make a name for themselves. I feel there are a number of key influencers in this space, we have one or two on our roster and there are a few more out there too, guys, girls and bands. I would absolutely love any of these to be given a shot at one of the big mainstream festivals. I'll smile when that happens whoever it is. We have a lot of potential country fans here in the UK that are still to discover the genre.

Q - What advice would you give to a new artist just coming up through the scene?

A - Work hard, be humble, be original and try to do as much listening as you can to other artists on the scene. Support them, go to their gigs, buy their CDs and if you like what someone is doing, tell them. Join groups such as FBC and contribute to discussions. Practice hard, be the best version of yourself you possibly can and treat every single live performance like its the last one you'll ever get the chance to do. When you strike your last chord or sing your last note, be confident you've left your heart and soul on the stage.

Q - What's next for MHMG?

A - Well, we have a busy summer with festivals and other gigs, plus we're recording new material for all our artists, then we move into the autumn theatre shows and finally end the year with our big Christmas bash which we're having at Gullivers in Manchester, so its going to be pretty full on for the next few months. There are bound to be other things that come up too. Certainly never a dull moment!

Q - How can people find you?

A - We're on Facebook and Instagram and you can also find out more about us on our website at - also we're quite old fashioned here, so you could always find us at one of the summer festivals and come over and have an actual chat, we like actual chats! I think we're planning a little exclusive camping area at Buckle and Boots. By that I mean, we're all pitching tents close to one another and by exclusive I mean anyone is welcome to come and join us! I think our campfire sing songs after hours will be quite good! Come say hi, we're a friendly bunch.

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