From Memphis to the Mersey

by Elizabeth Cawein

On Monday afternoon, after I dropped off an exhausted group of Liverpool artists at Memphis International Airport, I fully intended to sit down and write about the first weekend of ‘From Memphis to the Mersey,’ our Liverpool-Memphis songwriters’ exchange co-produced with Liverpool-based Monkey Mind Productions. Turns out I was pretty exhausted myself, but I also realized quickly that I would need time to process before I could write anything that would capture the magnitude and the magic of this project.

‘From Memphis to the Mersey’ is a first for Music Export Memphis in several ways: it’s the first small, bespoke opportunity for artists; the first international opportunity; the first opportunity to also involve an import to Memphis; and the first songwriting-focused opportunity.

As with any first, we’ve learned quite a bit along the way. I met Emma Foxall of MMP in February of 2016 at the Americana Music Association UK conference and festival, and it’s not really an exaggeration to say that we’ve been working on this project ever since. It took a few months to give the idea shape and form — we knew we wanted to bring artists in both cities together for some sort of creative project, but what would that look like? Ultimately, we decided to focus on writing, selecting two songwriters from each city to work with two mentors from each city. After that, it took several more months to identify those mentors, make the asks, work with managers and booking agents and schedules to confirm dates and availability and ultimately set our schedule. In the midst of all of it, we were sorting out the budget and the funding (we were lucky to have fantastic and generous support from the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau and Arts Council England).

Some 18 months in to the planning of this project it’s probably not surprising that picking up Emma, our Liverpool mentors (Garry Christian and Joey Ankrah from chart-topping band The Christians) and our Liverpool emerging writers (Christopher Kearney and Reid Anderson) from the airport last week felt almost surreal. This massive undertaking was finally lifting off! Meanwhile, in my mind, there were still a lot of unknowns: How would they work together? How would the mentors (including Memphis mentors William Bell and Susan Marshall) approach the process? Would there be chemistry between Christopher and Reid and the two selected Memphis artists, Lanita Smith and Chris Milam?

On the first full day of activity, I took the artists and mentors to Sam Phillips Recording Service where they were greeted by Jerry (Sam Phillips’ son) and Halley (Jerry’s daughter, Sam’s granddaughter) who had generously agreed to allow us to have our inaugural co-writing session in Sam Phillips’ office. Every unknown vanished in the next two hours, as all eight songwriters collaborated to write a new song that beautifully reflected their own styles and our two music cities. Maybe it was being in the office of the man who invented rock’n’roll. Maybe it was the chemistry in the room or the unselfish way that each writer approached the process. Maybe it was luck. Likely it was a little bit of all of the above, but that session set the tone for an intense and dynamic 72 hours of music making.

 

Through the rest of the weekend, the songwriters collaborated in other sacred spaces of Memphis music like Royal and Sun Studios, had a chance to tour Ardent with Big Star’s Jody Stephens and had breakfast at the famous-in-film Arcade diner on South Main Street. They toured the Memphis Rock’n’Soul Museum and ate on Beale Street. They filmed an episode of the acclaimed PBS series The Sun Sessions. They were challenged and inspired creatively, and the Liverpool artists were overwhelmed at getting to spend time in the places that produced the music on which they were raised. I can’t wait to see how our Memphis artists take it all in when we’re in Liverpool in just a few weeks.

(Many thanks also go out to High Cotton Brewing, who donated beer for our finale event, ARCH’d for filming the event, and Ardent Studios for hosting us. We rehearsed at Music+Arts Studio.)

I recently posted a question on Facebook to artists who’ve moved away from Memphis. Dozens of my friends and contacts responded and tagged people in their networks, and I was able to reach out and collect quite a few responses. Some of the artists said their reason for leaving was something that no initiative or program could control or impact – like, “my husband/wife/partner was in another city” – and many more of the responses spoke to the mission of Music Export Memphis, citing a lack of opportunities.

But then there were a handful – enough to feel significant – who said that they hit a creative ceiling in Memphis. They simply felt like they’d reached a limit in terms of how the music community could challenge or push them creatively. I hope that projects like this can not only make connections for Memphis artists in the U.S. and abroad, but can also raise that creative ceiling by injecting new life into the ecosystem every once in a while. With several conversations already started to do similar projects with other U.S. and international cities, ‘From Memphis to the Mersey’ will certainly only be the beginning.

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