Rough Trade Records Expands Into Folk With New Label River Lea

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  • Friday, 08 February 2019 16:02
Published in Music  
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Lisa O'Neill was the first signing to folk imprint River Lea. Lisa O'Neill was the first signing to folk imprint River Lea.

Geoff Travis is best known for founding Rough Trade Records, the independent London record label that has played host to the releases of some huge names in its time.


From The Smiths and The Strokes, to Arcade Fire and The Libertines, Rough Trade is certainly something of a benchmark in the industry for being an independent label with substantial longevity. Now Geoff can boast the addition of folk label River Lea beneath the famous Ladbroke Grove establishment’s banner.

Emerging as a subset of Rough Trade, River Lea is dedicated to releasing beautiful and unknown music from the British Isles, something that Geoff felt couldn’t be done under what has already been established with Rough Trade. “We’ve always done a certain amount of music that has tended toward the genre of folk,” he says.

“We’ve worked with The Decemberists a long time who are almost like a folk band in a strange way – but in recent times we’ve been working with a group called Lankum from Dublin, a thrilling Irish four-piece from a punk background; they’ve been educating me into a whole world [sic] of traditional music and scholarly works by a man called Tom Minelli, it just opened my eyes and ears and Jeanette Lee – my partner at Rough Trade – we both fell in love with this music.”

There’s a dense, extensive history behind the origins of folk music in the mainstream, and an elaborate education to be had which Geoff is only to willing to share in order to better understand his reasons for establishing River Lea.

The guy is a legend and listening to him speak about the structure of the Beggars Banquet organisation indicates a colourful and long relationship, but one he doesn’t feel could accommodate this particular vision.

“The problem is, that [Rough Trade] grew up from the punk time in London and the people that populated it and worked for it are music fanatics and not really aware of this strain of folk music.

“People love to go into their ghettos where they like certain things, it becomes tribalism, and they close their ears and minds to things that exist outside their safe areas,” Geoff says. “So indie people don’t really know the history of folk music.”

What Geoff is getting at is more of a workplace issue, where the expertise of the Beggars group doesn’t tend toward the folk music River Lea addresses now. When they released the Lankum record, Geoff felt it needed different expertise to try and sell this kind of music to the mainstream.

“The dream is to have it all on Rough Trade, really, and you’d hope that somebody who bought a Strokes record would want to by a Lankum record, too. That’s what it was like when I was growing up in the '70s.

“You’d have Island Records for one thing, in a way the banner label and a model for what Rough Trade does – it dissolved artificial barriers. That’s the dream, but it’s not easy to get people to listen to folk artists like Lisa O’Neill [the first independent folk artist to be signed to River Lea].”

Lisa O’Neill is the first independent folk artist to be signed to River Lea. Listening to her first album ‘Heard A Long Gone Song’, hers isn’t a sound that can easily be placed under one of the more traditional record labels.


“We don’t want touristy folk,” Geoff says. “That just sounds nice and makes you think of sailing around an island in a boat eating an ice cream, we wanted something a bit deeper than that – Lisa’s one of those artists. Hard to categorise, yes, because a lot of the songs on her record that we love are her own songs but could easily be songs from a different time.”

Geoff wants to reassure that he’s in no way criticising Beggars Banquet for what it is, rather its structure. “Wonderful as it is!” he declares.

Geoff sees a potential in many independent and traditional folk artists, a beauty he wants to share which he felt didn’t have a dedicated crevice in the industry, so he’s just crafted one for himself and that’s that.

“It’s just a reflection of the world, isn’t it? So we thought we’d start another label and see if we can make some progress and sneak folk in there somehow!”

Lisa O'Neill's 'Heard A Long Gone Song' album is the first release by River Lea available now. The second release by the label is Brighde Chaimbeul's album 'The Reeling'.


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