Peter Gabriel: Welcome to my Real World

Peter Gabriel tells how, 20 years ago, he set up his pioneering label and studio dedicated to recording and releasing music from all over the globe
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The Independent Culture

Next Wednesday, 28 June, we're having a party to celebrate 20 years of Real World with a wonderful mixed bill of Little Axe, Daby Toure, Sevara Nazarkhan, Guo Yue, Charlie Winston and the DJ Adrian Sherwood.

Since the band Traffic announced they were going to "get it together in the country" in 1967, musicians have been trying to escape the temptations of city life to focus on their writing and recording in greener pastures. I emigrated to the West Country in 1974, tired of the regular evening rumble of my neighbours' fists on the walls of our Notting Hill bedsit as my songs crawled out of the piano. The first location was an old farm-shed in the southernmost valley of the Cotswolds. It was warm, well insulated and we managed to stick in a couple of picture windows, looking up the valley. The cows would sometimes come and lick the window panes while we were making music. This we would take as a sign of good fortune and good taste. I always wanted to buy more stuff, so the idea of renting the place out as a studio started to look like a fine thing to do.

I was very excited when artists such as Joni Mitchell and Robbie Robertson started to use the place, and the idea of turning it into a proper studio seemed like the next step. We spent some time looking for a new site until a friend introduced us to our present site, Box Mill, seven miles away.

At the time, most studios were cramped, disco-lit, underground padded cells as isolated as possible from the outside world. My vision was to set up a series of writing and recording rooms, all with windows overlooking water, fully connected to and serviced by a large hub that could house the brains and the enormous main control room. Our slogan was "handmade and high-tech' and the studio was built around both approaches. Great technical recording is worth nothing without a great performance. The studio was designed to create an open and free environment in which people from other cultures might feel comfortable enough to give great performances. The largest studio had two or three stages inside the control room so that the zoo-like separation between engineer, producer, and artist was eliminated.

The angst of the creative process manifested in different ways. Some would arrive with prayer mats, others with hookers. But, like hotelkeepers, a studio should not be in the business of preaching to its clients, and we were there to facilitate the creative process.

Today the costs of recording can be very low, and every major record company has its boutique "world" label, but at the beginning it wasn't like that. We could only fund Real World as a record company if it was really tightly managed. Simon Draper of Virgin had offered us 10 grand to make each record, covering advances to artists, recording costs, album art and the running of the label.

The first release on Real World was Passion - the soundtrack for the film The Last Temptation of Christ. It was also the first time I had recorded with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and perhaps the most extraordinary sessions to this day were when we were in the attic studio, which had a raised balcony at the back. The Indian violinist L Shankar stood up on the balcony and Nusrat was standing just behind the desk on the main floor. I think everyone had hairs standing on the backs of their necks as the music started. Both of them took the melody and made it their own. It was like tennis when you think the rally can't get any better but each player raises their game and it just goes up and up. Amazingly emotional: it was India and Pakistan working together for a film about Christ.

No music has gone out that we are not proud of in one way or another, but I've been particularly moved by some of the stuff Nusrat has done. Being part of the process that introduced him to a non-Asian audience is something we all feel good about. We've put out so much great stuff - Maryam Mursal, Yungchen Lhamo, the AfroCelts, Ozomatli, and Papa Wemba all come to mind. Sheila Chandra is another. Sheila's album ABoneCroneDrone is based around the idea that when you look at a rock all you see is a rock, until it starts revealing itself - a bit like lying on your back and looking up at the clouds. To me it's quite a new approach to music-making, and I don't think it got the recognition it deserved. I love Charlie Musselwhite's new record, Delta Hardware. He's an extraordinary harmonica player. On the first album he was a bit shy of taking the front spot as a singer, but I think he's like Johnny Cash in his approach to music.

Part of what I didn't like about how some music had been approached was this slightly fascistic attitude towards ethnic purity and that the "ethnic artists" had to be kept in their traditional, folk, ways. Our approach was that artists were artists and should be allowed to explore and experiment and follow whatever directions inspire them.

Many of the Womad festival artists loved hanging around the festivals and playing and writing. Partly as a result of this, we set up a recording week, usually around the time of Womad. They were some of the most incredible recording experiences of my life. It was like a giant dating agency. Quite a lot of people met up and then later went on to do their own recordings together. Everyone agrees it's just the best experience; it changes you and you learn so much. Not everything works, but when it catches fire it's extraordinary. It's a very commonplace idea now but it certainly wasn't then.

'Africa Calling: Live 8 At Eden', featuring Youssou N'Dour, Angélique Kidjo, Mariza, and many others, is out on EMI/Real World on Monday

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