Rhythm & Values: Issy Hughes

R&V is a mixed series of long and short investigative reads focusing on those within the North West scene that are having to move to their own rhythm to make waves in the industry. Here we highlight the practices and experiences of these rulebreakers to show where the industry can change for the better, and why we should value what they’re doing.

Starting her career in the music industry at the age of 10, retiring by 18 and recently stepping back in at 23, I meet up with Issy Hughes to find out what it was that was worth coming out of retirement for, and how her experience has forced her to throw the rule book out, go with her gut and make history.

Hughes started broadcasting radio from her small bedroom in Chilwall using an interface called Spreaker, “like Audacity but worse” Hughes laughs. She played her favourite tracks from The Who to Led Zeppelin and even gave a frank review of Pete Townshend’s biography to anyone willing to listen. By the age of 14 going on 15, Hughes had joined her community radio station and started broadcasting on Froom FM, and within a matter of months had managed to gain 200,000 listeners from across the globe. With Mark Riley, Shaun Keaveny and Steve Lemacq of BBC Radio 6 Music all tweeting about her show, she decided to try her luck and boldly sent her interview with Sean Ryder to the BBC, almost in place of a CV.

The bright-eyed hit was invited down to the studios to meet the team which then effortlessly snowballed into Hughes packing up and moving to London to work in the music industry at just 16. Throughout the two years she spent there, Hughes worked with BBC Radio 6, Cherry Red Records and even worked on the newest album of her all-time favourite band, The Fall, titled ‘Sub-Lingual Tablet’. Visibly elated by the recollection of a memory, Hughes says “But, the ‘pinch me’ moment was, Morrisey was doing a 6 Music Live at Maida Vale and it was invitation only, and I was invited!”. Although there were likely many surreal and genuinely positive moments like this in Hughes’s two-year stint, ultimately the dizzying turbulence of London and the known vacuous and volatile nature of the music industry caught up with her. Hughes had to call it and stepped back to her roots here in Liverpool in 2020.

Hughes says, “It was like a homecoming, welcomed with open arms, and the music industry is so tight knit and familiar here it wasn’t difficult to step back in”. Though she carried on working in the industry from here in Liverpool, commuting twice a week to London, the industry had left her disenchanted with perhaps what she thought the world of music would be. The business’s laser focus on the aggressive capitalisation of the next highest grossing product until it’s bled dry is difficult for most to stomach, especially when those ‘products’ are people. Hughes says “musicians misunderstand what it is that they want to achieve in the various stages of their work, many think that once you get a record deal that’s it, they’ve made it! When in reality it’s the beginning of a career of ever-increasing expectancy from the labels to prove to them you’re still sellable”.

Understandably, Hughes wanted out, so she quit the industry altogether and got a “boring 9-5”. Though a personal relief, it also coincided with the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, sparking an indeterminate downward spiral of physical access to the arts. After numerous reflective lockdowns, once the airways opened back up in 2022 Hughes booked a four-day holiday to Tallinn in Estonia, simply on the advice of an episode of Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man, unaware, at this point, that she would stumble upon not only a band, but an entire country, that would ignite her need to get back into the industry. “The way that Estonians consume music just blew my mind, they would go to a gig and if they liked the music, they would buy the CD or the vinyl simple as that.” As cause for this valuation of music in Estonia, Hughes references the censorship of music in the Soviet times, paraphrasing stories of those in Estonia listening to Finnish pirate radio in cellars to get their fix of Western expression and rebellion. Once the red tape was removed, the wave of appreciation for arts absence was shown through its boom in sales and veracious consumption. Though technology has progressed and increased the ease of access to music through streaming platforms, the ownership aspect seemed to stick in Eastern Europe.

As luck would have it, as is often the case in music, whilst away Hughes befriended a vital name in Tallin’s music community, Sander Varusk. Varusk opened Terminal Records in uptown Tallinn in 2013 and his ear has been pinned to Tallinn’s ground for any new sound for more than a decade. Knowing this, Hughes took his recommendation to go see a band called Shelton San at EKKM. Trusting her gut, Hughes found herself later that evening trailing down a steep concrete slab into a stuffy basement, only to be met with the same feverish sonic spell the rest of the room was under, conducted by the grunge noise of none other than Shelton San. Having seen the band myself play here recently in Liverpool at Outpost, Hughes’s description of them was the tip of the iceberg, it’s not difficult to see what Hughes saw in them. A sound so visceral and an undeniable force, that as far as she was concerned, could not go unheard in the West.

The next morning, Hughes’s once dormant networking abilities were flexing in full force, speaking to those she trusted in the industry to get this band heard. Though, the phone call that would count would be to Roger Hill of Radio Merseyside, the longest serving Radio DJ in the UK, presenting the popular music show for 45 years. Hughes convinced Hill to meet Valter the lead singer in November of late last year which would result in Hill agreeing to have Shelton San perform a BBC Live Session from Tallinn. It is here that Hughes helped make history. On the 13th of January 2023, Shelton San became the first Eastern European band to play a BBC Live Session in 32 years, the last being Röövel Ööbik with John Peel in 1991. This event has given way to the future of a ground up project to link Eastern Europe’s music scene to the UK. Hughes says, “Because of the state of the UK money centric music scene, I think the industry needs a little bit of Tallinn in it.”

Though Liverpool and Nashville, TX are the only twin ‘music’ cities in the world, Hughes and Varusk would argue that Tallinn is a better fit. The long-term project in motion is to build a cultural bridge from East to West in the form of a record label starting right here in the North West. The purpose being to connect the two cities in a way that no others have been connected before, to give bands from either side a chance to perform and build fanbases further afield, and to ultimately reignite and instil the intrinsic base value of music and how we consume it. Hughes’s mission in her re-entry into the music industry is one of a more refined focus now upon reflection. Knowing what it is like in music’s fast lane, she is one of many who are tired of the stringent structures of the mainstream industry who are pushing back with projects just like these.

To keep up with Issy Hughes’s progress follow her at @isombardhooze
And to get to know Shelton San follow them on @sheltonsanofficial