INTERVIEW FOR #IWD2018: Karen Pearson (founder and CEO of Folded Wing, producer of Jamie Cullum on BBC Radio 2)

Karen Pearson

KAREN PEARSON is the founder and CEO of Folded Wing, a leading UK independent radio production company. The company produces the most listened-to jazz radio show in the UK, Jamie Cullum’s Tuesday evening show on BBC Radio 2, which will celebrate its eighth anniversary next month. Interview by Sebastian for International Women’s Day 2018: 

LondonJazz News: What is your story/what was your  background in radio (and music) before you set up Folded Wing in 2006? And was there some particular moment when you knew you wanted to get into music radio?

Karen Pearson: A couple of things happened while I was growing up in Southend, Essex. There was a club called Saks at the bottom of my road. Around age 12 Snowboy used to play in the afternoons and I used to walk past and listen to the music. I couldn’t wait to go there when I was older… Plus, I guess, the same story people have around my age, listening to John Peel under the bedsheets when I was supposed to be asleep!

I also got into jazz though listening to hip hop mainly. From 15 onwards I worked front of house at the Cliffs Pavillon selling popcorn & showing people to their seats but the best place to be opened up to music: downstairs they would have jazz gigs, upstairs in the main space everyone from Cleo Laine to The Prodigy. I worked there all through college and university. The place still has a special place in my heart. A passion for radio and music was always there and I always knew I either wanted to work as a radio plugger or at a radio station but I found it so hard to get work experience or a foot in the door! I wrote letters and letters and got loads of rejection letters back. Then, out of the blue, Virgin called to say they had an internship in their promotions department. Wow – a dream! It was around 1996 I guess – Spice Girls and The Verve. I loved every minute of it but realised quickly that I would find it hard to promote music I wasn’t feeling!

But on my last day I got a tour of Radio 1 as a thank-you and met a producer there; I got his number and pestered him until he gave me work experience! I ended up staying there first as a freelancer working on every specialist show from Fabio & Grooverider to John Peel!

I went on a journey and ended up being Assistant Producer on Gilles Peterson’s show, my favourite show at the time. Benji B was the producer when I started, where I really learnt the art of making and crafting music radio. When Benji left to go to 1Xtra I stepped up as producer and worked with Gilles for around seven years. I learnt about all sides of radio syndication, I set up the Worldwide Awards with Gilles.

LJN: Why that name for your company?

KP: The name Folded Wing comes from a book called Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, which a teacher gave to me when I was in school around 10 years old after some girls were picking on me – kids can be cruel! It’s about a seagull who likes to do things differently and works out how to push himself then goes back to his flock to teach them. I found the story really inspiring and it pretty much sums up the concept of my company. Sharing knowledge and passion, etc..

LJN: What else does Folded Wing produce (esp in music/jazz)?

KP: We helped set up Red Bull Music Academy Radio when it launched over ten years ago, and we also work with brands on branded audio content, for example a series of podcasts we made with London superclub Fabric. We also helped to set up Roundhouse Radio at The Roundhouse in Camden, a training station for young people. We have worked with radio stations across the world and regularly collaborate with Japanese radio station J-Wave FM, Tokyo’s biggest FM radio station.

Other jazz projects we’ve made over the years include jazz documentaries for various BBC networks, such as our Radio 4 documentary A Love Supreme – 50 Years On, in which Courtney Pine looked back on John Coltrane’s legendary jazz album and its cultural significance. We also did a two-part special with Jamie Cullum, Jazz at the Movies, looking at his two favourite subjects – jazz and film.

On a weekly basis we produce The Selector for the British Council and Monki for BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra as well as Jamie Cullum on BBC Radio 2. We also make loads of podcasts, and have worked on podcasts for Nike, The National Portrait Gallery and have some really exciting podcast projects coming up in the next few months! Recently we also launched our own in-house podcast called Adventures In Sound, which we record and produce from our base here at The Premises Studios in East London. It’s a really significant musical and jazz space where we’re really lucky to have access to an amazing roster of established and emerging artists who pass through here. In the podcast we explore what goes on behind the sound-proofed doors of the studio, delving into the creative processes involved in all aspects of making music. You can catch up on all our episodes on iTunes – just search Adventures In Sound.

LJN: Has the company grown steadily or gone up and down with economic cycles/fashion trends?

KP: Yes we have been super steady over the last 10 years, and have grown organically and steadily without taking out any loans or using any other external investment! We only work on projects we love, and only pitch for projects we feel really passionate about.

LJN: You produce Jamie Cullum’s show…

KP: I’ve produced Jamie’s show since day one with an amazing team of people around me… This includes Ian Parkinson, our executive producer who has also been there since the start, Micky Curling our engineer/studio manager, and Tom Fuller who is currently our fantastic assistant producer. Working day to day on the show with Jamie is so important to me, my passion and what I love most. If I were just dealing with the business stuff I know I wouldn’t be happy!

LJN: I read that you are also a DJ?  What/where? 

KP: Yes, I started a club night called Broad Casting at Cargo, which was a genre-defying event that I curated with DJs and live music. It was all about bringing the great energy of live music into an intimate venue, and we broadcasted it on Red Bull Music Academy Radio. Some of the acts who appeared included Tony Allen, The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Build An Ark, Joe Bataan and James Pants. From the night my highlight was bringing Mulatu Astatke over to London for his first gig in London for 15 years and getting the Heliocentrics to back him – that went on to have a life of his own and a couple of albums which I did A&R on.

I love playing in between bands to connect them, or set the scene – rather than playing in banging clubs! With the business and starting a family in the last couple of years I’ve mainly just been playing at home, at friends’ parties and to my daughter! I would love to bring back Broad Casting in some capacity soon!

LJN: What do you see as the distinctive flavour/purpose/character of the Jamie Cullum show?

KP: The show provides a really accessible platform for listeners to get into jazz – we make a conscious effort to include guests who might not necessarily be considered to be jazz fans, like Colin Murray, Adam Buxton and Guy Garvey, and Jamie’s warm presenting style really gets across his personal connection to the music. We’ve got the amazing Martin Freeman coming in for an interview at the end of March and we can’t wait for listeners to hear about his love for jazz.

Karen Pearson with Jamie Cullum recording the show from Cheltenham Jazz Festival

It’s also really important for us that we platform new music, and we use our platform on a mainstream channel with such a large audience to support emerging artists in the scene – for example, some of our favourite artists we’ve featured over the past year have included Anoushka Lucas, Nérija and Laura Jurd, helping to promote younger musicians and in turn make jazz more accessible to younger audiences. We also make the Radio 2 Jazz Playlist show which gives us another chance to profile a particular aspect of jazz or hand over the reigns to an artist to curate it – recently we’ve had Ashley Henry, Courtney Pine and Guy Garvey select their favourite music as guest curators.

LJN: It is a mix of his home studio and BBC studio, and pre-record and live. Is that deliberate – or just unavoidable?  

KP: Jamie is a touring musician who makes a big effort to record the show around his busy schedule and own music career. When he’s out on the road we use that as an opportunity to connect the show with jazz and music festivals around the world – over the years Jamie has broadcast from Newport Jazz Festival, Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Montreal Jazz Festival, which has been a fantastic opportunity to showcase jazz acts from across the globe. The brilliant thing about Jamie and the show is that he has all the equipment with him so when he is on tour he can record from wherever he is… the back of the tour bus, hotel rooms, etc.

LJN: There have been some times when he has broadcast direct from other countries. Any danger moments? 

KP: There was a time when Jamie got stuck in Australia because of the ash cloud that grounded lots of flights a few years ago.We still managed to record the show. We went into the BBC in the early hours of the morning to record ISDN from BBC studios from there. That’s what I love about radio you can be flexible and even in crazy circumstances get things on air!

LJN: Who was the funniest studio guest?

KP: Funny guests that I can remember: Clare Teal a couple or years ago and Jasper Høiby. The best shows have been when we have had guests that have come on to talk about their love of jazz that don’t usually get the chance: Clint Eastwood and I would say Lars Ulrich from Metallica in 2011 was the most random! His godfather was Dexter Gordon.

Dave Brubeck was the most touching as he and Jamie had so much respect for each other. So many beautiful stories were told that we ended up making the interview into a two-hour, two-part special in the end!

LJN: When is the actual eighth anniversary show and what are the plans for it?

KP: The anniversary is the first week of April. We never make a massive deal about anniversaries but we might play some super early session tracks. Polar Bear was our first ever session on first show, still one of my favourite sessions we have ever done.

We are planning a new event that we will launch later in the year – London Jazz will be the first to know!

LJN: This interview is for International Women’s Day. The emergence into prominence of a generation of jazz women in jazz in the UK feels like a major trend at the moment – any thoughts?

KP: There have always been amazing women in jazz. From Zoe Rahman to Gwyneth Herbert, Norma Winstone to Eska, but I think there are more platforms for them now so they are reaching the mainstream quicker! But in the last two years they have been coming thick and fast… for example, Nérija going into the mainstream and getting signed to Domino – that’s just amazing!

I also love Zara McFarlane and Yazz Ahmed. Platforms like Gilles Peterson on Worldwide FM and Jazz FM’s more diverse stuff as well as online radio shows and podcasts like Burning Ambulance have helped to promote these artists. Blogs and now people are taking note internationally – for example, you see them in articles in Rolling Stone and the New York Times.

LJN: And the Cullum show has played its part in that story too..?

KP: Yes, I guess we are one of those brilliant platforms, as we are able to play jazz to a mainstream audience on BBC Radio 2 – it’s a complete dream! In fact it was so lovely to hear Zoe Rahman thank Jamie for introducing her to loads of female instrumentalists when she came on and was interviewed recently.

We have one of my favourite UK jazz artists on Jamie’s show on 13 March – jazz singer Liane Carroll. We recorded a lovely interview when they met last week; fingers crossed we will get them together again to do something live!

Other bits coming up on the show: Martin Freeman alongside Eddie Pillar on 27 March. In April we also have the wonderful Lizz Wright in session.

Thanks again to Sebastian & LondonJazz News for all of the support for the show from day one!

LINKS: Jamie Cullum’s BBC Radio 2 show

Folded Wing website 

Categories: miscellaneous

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