The revival of the Durham student music scene post-Covid has been a remarkable sight. At long last, songwriters are embracing the return to the stage they have been waiting for—with at least two years’ worth of pent-up material, ready to go. Rumour has it, events are so busy that securing a seat has even become a coveted commodity.
Despite the enduring consistency of Durham’s artistic culture, the stability of a platform for musicians has seen its share of fluctuations. As a singer-songwriter myself I have actively searched for anywhere who could spare 20 minutes to indulge my songs of teenage love. So having said this, Durham University’s Open Mic Society has remained my favourite, or more accurately, my crutch. It provides a unique medium for songwriters and composers to perform in a welcoming and friendly environment, hosting live sessions every Wednesday. Locations alternate between the snug quarters of The Holy GrAle and the more spacious Whiskey River. With a guitar on hand and a line-up of eager artists at The Holy GrAle, the limit is set at two songs per person. Over at Whiskey River, where both piano and guitar are at our disposal, performers can deliver up to three songs.
Regarding the latter, Open Mic Society collaborates with independent record label Canary Records, turning its performances into a gateway for artists to be scouted. Founded by Durham graduates Connor Rimell and Dan Black in the summer of 2022, Canary Records emerged from their student days, with the label being committed to providing a spotlight to those who otherwise would have little to no chance of gaining a platform, especially given the Covid-hiatus. One example is the Open Mic President, Grace Harvey. They assist musicians with their releases; they find live performance venues; they provide essential resources. Dedicated to organising open mics and gigs across not only Durham but the entire North East, trust that Canary Records are a light in the mine that is the music industry. The onus is on us, now, to simply pick a couple songs and put on a show. The transition from the bedroom to the stage does not need to be so daunting. Friends are welcome too!
For those intrigued by the art of songwriting, there is no need for apprehension. Drawing from personal experience, having composed over two hundred songs (all are good, trust me), one does not need to require exceptional instrumental skills to begin with. A lyricist needs no instrument, and a songwriter can commence with just a few chords. A basic grasp of piano and guitar, limited to no more than eight chords, has proven more than sufficient for me. Regarding technique, I usually reflect on past (or present) relationships, albeit quite probably to the disapproval of those involved. As evident from my tendency to overshare while introducing each of my songs, I have found these experiences to be excellent writing material (can you tell I am a Swiftie?). Notably, my songwriting journey was catalysed by attending Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’ concert, and my dedication since (to both songwriting …and Taylor) has been unwavering. Much like Taylor’s evolution from country to pop, mine has followed suit. While it has been enjoyable to explore her tapestry of genres, it is equally riveting to immerse in the diverse musical styles performed at The Holy GrAle and Whiskey River.
Durham, of course, inspires the moment one sees the cathedral spires. And emerging in that distinction is its music scene—its people, and the opportunities that come with it. Welcomed by audiences during open mic events, and met with laughter as I introduce the songs along with their storylines, the overall experience is joy.
With so many different voices and styles, in the words of Grace herself, ‘come along, share a song’.
Image: Isabella Weinstein