From Hurtwood to Glastonbury in 4 years!
What strikes me when I meet up with Issy is the sheer freshness and energy of this talented and creative girl. What is different? We haven’t met up for a year or so; her remarkable grace is somehow altered, enhanced. It’s her fringe, she tells me. Self-cut initially, in order to cope with presenting a serviceable image on stage, on tour, for publicity, and since tidied up by a professional hairdresser, she adds. This sets the tone for a remarkable success story, one that pivots on a kind of ‘can-do, will-do, DIY attitude’ that has taken Issy in four short years since leaving Hurtwood from full-time nannying and part-time troubadour to fully paid-up song-writer and performer. And she is fresh back from Stateside success and on the line-up for this year’s Glastonbury. Phew. We need some brunch – and I certainly need some coffee.
It has taken quite a bit of organisation to finally meet up with Issy given her busy timetable. A more modest, less pretentious girl would be hard to find, so how has this big leap come about? Well from her first days at Hurtwood her talent as a singer-songwriter began to emerge alongside a real sensitivity to poetry and writing. However, nothing deterred her from the kind of hard and committed academic work that saw her leave in 2015 with a clutch of great A level grades in English, Theatre, History (with ironically only an AS in Music Tech). Not for her, however, further study; rather, taking on a day job in childcare, she moved herself to central London and began the slog of endless nightly gigs, working often thanklessly wherever the opportunity arose. It was a lonely and often frustrating time she tells me, but her quiet persistence paid off, with the big moment of change coming when she was invited to join a fellow musician Archie Sylvester on stage. Realising that both their music and ideas about music coincided on a number of levels it was not long before the two teamed up, both professionally and romantically. They began creating great music very quickly, a blend of Issy’s eclectic mix of folk leanings and powerful, enigmatic lyrics, and Archie’s strong blues and powerfully resonant guitar skills. Combining their surnames, ‘Ferris and Sylvester’ was born.
They turned their flat in Streatham into a recording space. They covered the walls and fridge with insulation and apologized to the neighbours, hired in equipment and often found themselves racing across town to return it to keep down costs. Friends various helped: with mixing, drumming, even clapping. Hectic, mad times, Issy tells me. ‘But then we had something’. Forming their own record label Archtop (named for their beloved Archtop guitars) ‘Made in Streatham’, their first EP, emerged in 2017. Okay - now they were definitely off the blocks.
Next on the list and ‘in the spirit of doing it on our own’, they found their own distributor, a company called Absolute, who they still use now. By the end of that year they had sent their music to everybody they could think of, and they drew breath and they waited. At this point the genre of the story changed: no fairy-tale offer turned up, and with little in the way of constructive response it was tempting to ask whether all their effort was worthwhile then? Absolutely, Issy replies. With a mature confidence she clarifies: ‘You’ve got to be true to yourself and if you believe in your stuff then you’ve got to let people hear it.’ This ‘proactive’ period was long but ultimately rewarding. Continuing to perform all over the country, they bought in a ‘radio plugger’, a facility, she explains, that comes automatically with the signing up to a big label dealing with PR, social media, international and more local supervision. Without that big label deal they had to invent and sustain all these things for themselves.
Meanwhile the plugger brought Marc Connor down to one of their live performances, and toward the end of 2017 they acquired finally a manager that felt ‘right’. With Jamie Cullum also one of his clients, they knew they were in good hands, and proud also to be still an independent act, touring and filling venues.
18 months down the line life is hectic. Signed now to an agency called Coda who are very much concerned with putting new acts out there, they have notched up an extraordinary number of gigs. The big break last year? British Summer Time in Hyde Park put them on the bill alongside Eric Clapton and Santana and was ‘fantastic’. But, Issy identifies an invitation last May supporting Robert Plant as even more of a thrill.
Continuing always to write and record, in early January 2018 they released London Blues as a single, which made New Music Friday on Spotify ‘which was brilliant, and went up to number 8, bringing in all kind of viral stuff,’ and increasing their ratings enormously. The fact that they had ‘recorded this by our fridge’, and that the clapping at the end belonged to their flatmate and his brother, only increased their pleasure in success. Off the back of this they decided to hire a venue and sell tickets themselves: Battersea Arts Centre was secured through an old child-care connection, sold out – without full-scale promotion, and suddenly ‘things started to feel a bit easier. Something was starting to happen.’
Did it get easier? Did they have time off? Doesn’t seem like they did. That good old Hurtwood work ethic continued and Issy tells me with enormous maturity: ‘It was just about getting out on the road. There is no secret. If you want people to listen to your music you’ve just got to get out there and play to them. It’s not a dark art.’
Rather mischievously she admits ‘It’s actually a bit of a slog.’ Adding ‘I love it, but it is hard work.’ Not something she was ever afraid of, I think. Lots of supporting tours around the UK followed, taking up almost every opportunity to get their music out there rather than waiting to create ‘the desirable audience’.
The drawbacks? ‘I’m not home a lot. I miss my friends.’ Without question the challenge of running themselves as a business is considerable: ‘We are at the centre still of every email and every decision, from numbers on the latest vinyl-run to whether we can make it to LA next month.’ But these are exciting times indeed, and Issy’s enjoyment of it all is palpable. So, in what way did Hurtwood help her along this journey? The number one thing she identifies at once is ‘Fundamentally, to work hard.’ She tells me that she always felt the school encouraged her to ‘always do something’, to get stuck in, and this is so helpful with her current focus. She also felt that ‘the relationships were all so grownup, talking with teachers on first-name terms. It taught me not to be afraid of (or apologetic for?) being a young girl.’ Meaning? Being intimidated by inexperience. ‘I learned how to talk to adults and how to interact with people creatively… Hurtwood was gruelling at times,’ she tells me, but they were, ‘two of the most intense but best years of my life.’ She also thoroughly enjoys the rich creative connections that still emanate from the old school. She loves the fact that they still recruit from her friendship group. ‘Alex Wadstein is now our drummer on the next tour’ she tells me, having helped them in all kinds of practical ways in previous gigs. He used to be the ‘cool kid’ in the year above at Hurtwood, and she loved asking, ‘Do you want to come on our tour?’ Clearly, yes.
So, what has been happening this year? Their first headline tour was followed pretty quickly by a trip to the States and a whole series of gigs as part of the ‘South by Southwest’ Festival in Austin, Texas. A 4500-mile tour of Europe followed and another round the UK… Phew. And then onto Glastonbury as part of the BBC Introducing trajectory, after being ‘picked up’ by Cerys Mathews. They are also booked on a couple of other stages, alongside the likes of The Cure, Kylie and Billie Eilish. Impressive, I think, in such a very short period.
Time has flown by and Issy needs to get back to what she loves best: turns out this week is that rare thing, one free of performance and therefore full of concentrated songwriting and experimentation. What does she love best? Without hesitation she tells me ‘The joy of sitting in a room and writing what I want to write, and listening to so, so much music. Taking inspiration from all over. The writing is the best bit.’ And without drawing breath she tells me ‘The next step is the album.’ Having released three singles from two EPs, there will soon be a comfortable collation with new additions.
With a headline tour in the offing after Glastonbury, there is no sign of a rest anytime soon, and clearly Issy is loving every minute. It has been great fun to hear the narrative so far, and we part with a sense that the story has many more layers to come. We have barely touched on her fascinating lyrics, the inspiration that she continues to draw from her literary studies, and her well-thumbed ‘Poems for the Day’ that she has told me about regularly. There is indeed much still to be said. Another day! Hurtwood has served her so well, says Issy. Now she is making us proud, I think. We have our own beautiful troubadour who is taking her music to the world and the future looks good.