Tales Of The Unexpected Spectrum: Part Two
I love vinyl. It was my way into music when my elder brother put a pair of massive headphones over my five-year-old head in 1980. The needle dropped on a song that made me grin when the words ‘Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow’ popped into my head.
From 2005, I learnt how to make CDs, and I’m used to uploading my albums to digital stores. But making a vinyl album is new to me. With my latest album Super Connected, it’s been one of the most beautiful experiences in my journey through music, and that’s been a result of working with Teesside vinyl heroes, Press On Vinyl.
From DIY to Vinyl
I’ve worked alone on the artwork, manufacture and distribution of my albums for twenty years. It’s an annual, ritual process that chains me to the same workstation I make the music on. My autism plays a large part in the creation of my albums. I have to get it right in my head, and I have to explore every single thing that a record label would traditionally do with an album for an artist who is signed. So I do an impersonation of my favourite record labels, until I get the record sounding and looking right.
From the start of the writing process, Super Connected was conceived to become a physical format with two sides. I wanted this album to feel like theatre to a listener, giving them an interval between the two acts.
The album explores the fictional story of a tech company that promises the public an ‘enhanced experience of sound’ with a new device.
The songs come from my frustration with ads revenue supported streaming services like Spotify, that use music to collect our personal data. That, and social media sites implementing the convention that when you are scrolling, you’re expected to watch, without listening. The world of captions and ‘mute button’ defaults are as difficult for me as walking on the cracks of pavements. So releasing this album through the very digital realms it was condemning, didn’t sit well with me. I needed to connect with the process that the songs on this album were actually yearning for.
Start A Conversation
My partner Kate told me about Press on Vinyl via Teeside Rising founder, Lisa Lovebucket who, like Press On Vinyl, is leading a rich, cultural and creative resurgence in Teeside.
I got in touch by phone. That’s the best way of communicating for me. If I can’t hear what someone sounds like, my neurodivergent brain fills in who they are with imagined backstories, as broadly as a prolific playwright. This always results in communication breakdown.
Karen Pierce is chief of staff at Press On Vinyl. I knew immediately from her voice that this wasn’t a company who wanted to meet clients in the impersonal boxes of emails. These were people who loved music and wanted to know who they were working and collaborating with before a creative process began. I then spoke to the company’s founder Danny Lowe, and from that chat, it snowballed into meeting all the creative individuals who oversaw the completion of Super Connected.
Whilst working with Press On Vinyl, I received my autism diagnosis. It explained the intense and rigid approach I have always had in my creative projects. Not a bad thing for a compulsive maker of albums. However, due to my long history of communication challenges, my doctor advised me to begin letting people know about my autism, especially people I work with.
The amazing people at Press On Vinyl were among the first people I told. It was pretty nerve wracking for me. I didn’t want to upset the creative relationship that had begun between us. But with so much communication to get everything for the album completed, I thought I should let them know how my brain actually works, in case my communications caused confusion, as it often has in the past with people I’ve worked with.
I’ve been an advocate for celebrating neurodiversity in the workplace. But it was before I knew I was autistic. So now I had to advocate for myself.
We all have our own ways of understanding and communicating. It was time to see if it was okay to mention mine, for the first time in my life.
The acceptance and understanding that came from their team was overwhelming, and contributed to the healing experience I’ve experienced since I found out I was autistic.
Music and connection. These have been the twin pillars of my life’s passions and struggles. Sharing the news of my autism diagnosis with Press On Vinyl was the first step towards ending those struggles.
The Art of Vinyl
At the start of 2023 I travelled to Middlesborough to meet the Press On Vinyl team and collect the album I had been working on for seven years. I also performed a song from the album for the team. I sang music from the album, stood in front of the albums as they were being pressed. The performance literally met the recording. It was a transformational trip.
Not only does the factory at Press On Vinyl look like Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka factory, but it makes you feel like a kid who’s got their hands on an everlasting gobstopper. It’s a magical space. Similar to the reasons I spent most of my thirties campaigning, writing and singing about Soho, press On Vinyl is also all about the people behind the place.
Press On Vinyl do everything in house — the master cutting, making the stamp through an electroform process, and the pressing. They’ve even launched a new platform designed to remove financial barriers for artists & labels when producing vinyl called FairSound. It’s a pre-order system, with an artist’s record going into production as soon as enough fans have supported the artist’s project.
I got to see every step of the process and meet each individual working in their specialised area. Looking around the pressing plant, I noticed that each member of the team crafts a unique component of a container for music that can be held. And that’s been my sole preoccupation, research and study for the Super Connected album since I began working on it. A deep wound about the disappearing musical containers that you could touch. I mostly listen to the music I love on records, cassettes and an iPod Classic from 2007.
Vinyl’s Multisensory Experience
The intense sensations of touch can lead some autistic people to shape their “touchscape,” resulting in their craving or cringing from physical contact. When it comes to music, I crave to touch it’s container.
How does this affect me with Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and a hundred other streaming services? It leaves me feeling lost and disconnected from the music. It’s taken me years to understand why my response to the digital revolution and it’s flagship companies has been so dramatic.
The songs on Super Connected are condemning Big Tech companies by searching for real connections, as opposed to super ones.
As a child, I collected records from charity shops, recorded them onto cassettes and self soothed my undiagnosed autism by painstakingly recreating the artwork from all the records on the little TDK D90 cassette inlay cards.
Technology has put absolutely everything we love on one device in our pocket and it’s incredibly convenient. But I would rather have what I can carry in my hands. I might have less songs, but having what I love embodied in something I can touch, feels like more.
Music Choices: A Reflection of Self
There’s no right or wrong to these difference approaches, and of course, being on the spectrum puts me in a minority, so my preference isn’t going to work for everyone. And this really is what neurodiversity is about. We all have differences, and although Big Tech companies would have us believe there is only one way to listen to music, each of us have a different relationship to music and should follow that beat, if we can hear it.
Music will never be in danger of getting lost. It will always find its way to people’s hearts and minds. But it’s vital we keep questioning how enriching our unique experience of music is, as the containers for music evolve.
Every one of us deserves to connect with music via the route that works most naturally. I’m grateful to Press On Vinyl for helping me with mine.
Pre-order the Limited Edition Vinyl of Super Connected here.