December 3, 2018Feature

After selling out shows in Bristol, Manchester and London, Kojaque is returning to Ireland to play sold out performances in Cork and Dublin at the beginning of December. While the rapper, producer and director is certainly the poster boy, it's been a crew effort to get to this stage. Carla Jenkins gets to know Soft Boy Records.

“It’s an embrace of being soft… I guess, with great vulnerability comes great art, so there’s truth in that and insight into that that you won’t get if you’re all stiff and hard.”

In the quickest returns to Leaving Cert English, it was in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ that Harper Lee wrote the immortal phrase, “You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family”.

So far, in my experience, it has been Ireland and its people who have challenged every pre-conceived notion I had about art and life. The number of artists per square mile; the potential of art and the ability to make it without large sums of money; its all-encompassing transcendence of space and time to really make people feel, to make people think that everything you once knew was, somehow, just wrong.

It’s a funny thing to think, but I wonder what Harper Lee would make of Soft Boy Records. Would she change her mind about her once-solid belief that you cannot choose your family?

Because in every conversation I’ve had with the Soft boys and girls about Soft Boy Records, it was the prospect of family aspect that came up again and again. Whether it was the co-founders Kean Kavanagh and Kevin ‘Kojaque’ Smith, both musicians, producers and artists in their own right; or Luka Palm, the Dublin-based rapper on a star-studded trajectory recently signed to the label, who opened for slowthai in London and played the Fred Perry show this year; or Ellen Kirk, visual curator, the talent behind that soft sheen of sweetie coloured, baby-faced reels projected on stage that make every Kojaque show feel that bit more… Something, exciting, immersive, it was family that we spoke about, again and again.

“We always say that we produce in Studio Portlaoise, and Studio Portlaoise is a state of mind, it’s wherever you open up your laptop on a given day.”

While Luka describes the label as a “family of nice and funny men”, Kean divulges a bit deeper into the imprint’s familial essence.
“I think whenever we decide we’re going to take someone on or put out a project, it’s not something we jump into straight away. We want to meet people and see if we gel with them first. It feels familial because all the artists overlap… There are interconnections everywhere.”
The mutuality of experience and learning brings the artists together, it seems, and this in turn influences the immersive experience that comes through at every Soft Boy gig.

“It’s everyone bringing the skills that they have and sharing them around,” Kean continues. “Which just helps to elevate people’s individual projects. I think that for whatever reason, the people who end up on the label have been me and Kev’s people. They’re really funny and good people to hang out with… It feels really tight and wholesome.”

Like two glorified fathers who lovingly raise and care for a mighty brood [Luka Palm tells me that they’re like “my two step-dads”, and even though “half the time they want to kill me, I make them laugh so they love it”], Kean and Kevin have built the label from its faux-beginnings in 2015 to a serious, game-changing outfit changing the peaks and troughs of Ireland’s musical landscape.

Soft Boy Records was a label born from a sheer love of all music created by the hands of two men who have, for years, allowed it to dominate their minds.

“I was listening to a new album every day, devouring everything that I could find,” says Kean. “Through that I was getting into labels, putting out music where I could see the connections between the artists, creating that kind of vibe. I just thought that was a really cool thing.”

The love of music was there, but where was the real beginnings of Soft Boy. Kevin gave me the origin story.

“It was 2015, Kean had this idea for a while that he wanted to start a music label, and we both wanted to put out some tunes. I don’t think he really had an idea as to what it would be,” he admits.

Has that changed, I have to ask? Do the boys know now, what it was to start a label, and how big a task it would be? Kevin continues.

“A record label seems like this fancy idea. I mean, people asked how it works, but neither of us knew. All we knew was that we had this music to put out, and we were passionate. Both of us were just so super passionate about music.”

It’s a beautiful way of describing the genesis of a home.

Kean hops back in, “I thought that I’d love to start a label, so I just messaged Kevin on Facebook and was like, ‘I have this idea we could start a label, and it would be like a faux-label…’. A veneer from which we could do business with promoters or venues or bloggers… Just to put music out that way.”

Kevin drops a nugget of advice to anyone starting out.

“Get yourself an email address… It looks more professional and legitimate than it would if you were emailing from your college email. We started it to trick people into thinking that we were a legitimate outfit. We just kept plucking away, and somehow people still believe us.”

I think Kevin’s tone of incredulity at Soft Boy’s success is almost misplaced- of course we believe them. It’s quite incredible, really, to see two men driven by a passion for music build something like Soft Boy Records, which is now an entirely legitimate outfit.

The label is home to nine resident artists and boasts a handful of collaborations, past and future tour dates, a portfolio of videos, artistic campaigns, merchandise and a large cult following that stretches to Dublin and beyond. I stand among the crowds of folk who believe that Soft Boy is more than just a label, it’s evidence that work, passion, ambitions and love can be enough, and that strong friendships and the effervescent talent of young artists in Ireland can make a difference. That, for me, is what bleeds through the music, the artwork, the events.

Of course, a homegrown feel is matched with a homegrown budget. Rather than allowing themselves to be hampered by the lack of money [although, I’m sure the soft boys would welcome any funding that could head their way, because what small business owner wouldn’t?], there is a certain freedom that has been allowed with working their way from bedroom productions and into legitimate studios.

Collaborations are sought with artists whose work Kean and Kevin respect; the guys in the label are free to produce and curate their own sound. Kevin is not scared to share with me, “I think in terms of how we brand ourselves is fairly transparent, we don’t have money”.

So without financial gain, what is left?

“The stuff that we put out will be working with people that we get on with or respect,” Kevin says. “We feel that they deserve a good platform, and that their work deserves to be rolled out to the highest standard it possibly can. The artists that we work with tend to be self-sufficient artists who have their own vision, know what their sound is. We can’t offer them the world, but we work close with any artist that we have.”

I didn’t realise how much Soft Boy’s genesis parallels the genesis of Kevin and Kean as musicians, producers, and label-heads. Maybe I should have – they are the original soft boys. Kevin tells me that they put it to their artists when initially approaching them, “Listen, we’re all in this together. We’re not trying to steal your money or anything, we’re just putting you to a larger audience”.

There is an understanding in these meetings that this is a shared learning experience, which I feel results in quite a beautiful sense of honesty and vulnerability in just admitting that they want to learn from the artists they sign, as much as they want to help them.

“Girls, put your music out there. Boys, look for it and if you’re in a position to, promote it."

We hear something and we’re like, ‘That’s amazing, how did they do that?’, usually, it’s out of respect and curiosity.

Sometimes were like, ‘Hey, can we help you out, and can you show me how you did that?’. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We’re all just progressing together, helping one another out.”

An unavoidable question I have for the pair behind Soft Boy Records is – where are the girls at? For such a progressive and important piquant of the Irish music scene, it’s at odds to not have some female voices on the bill. I’m reassured that the gender divide is not a preference of the label.

“It’s something that we’re looking into,” says Kevin. “We’ve put the call out once or twice.”

And was there a response? Did it fall to the ether?

“In three years of being a record label we’ve had two submissions from women… They didn’t fit the label, unfortunately, and we didn’t want to get into the realm of tokenism. We’re on the hunt for women to fit the label.”

In terms of Soft Boy their hesitancy to fit any women on the bill just to squash some claims is respectable, and they seem as aware of it as anyone else.

“It’s an all-male roster called Soft Boy, you know what I mean? It’s not the best from a marketing standpoint, in terms of the gender divide… It’s something we’re expanding into in 2018 and 2019.”
It’s not about reluctance to fit women in, or diluting a style. It’s about careful curation.

I asked Ellen Kirk, Soft Boy’s visual curator, how she felt as the only woman attached to the label [and a non-musical member at that].

“I’ve never felt different to the rest of them, I suppose,” she tells me. “I think it’s just systemic in the industry at the moment. There aren’t as many women putting themselves forward, which is really unfortunate. It’s quite saddening, but it’s not on the girls, it’s on the labels. I suppose labels bigger than Soft Boy and promoters should make women visible to make people think it’s a viable career option, and to put themselves out there.

“Girls, put your music out there. Boys, look for it and if you’re in a position to, promote it. It would be nice to work with women. But, in saying that, there are loads of brilliant women coming through in Ireland as well, which I’m very happy to see. I think it is changing. And you have things like Gash Collective and GRL crew…”

It’s quite unique in this day and age that a label needs to fit an artist as much as an artist needs to fit a label, and self- sufficiency seems key to any woman or man planning on submitting work to the soft boys. To Kean, this is how the roster is fit with individual artists making sounds true to form.

“That’s what I love about the other artists on Soft Boy… They’re more than just singers or rappers, they’re musicians, they have their own sounds. I couldn’t encourage more the idea of hearing more artists making their own music.”

Soft Boy Records is indicative of a new way of producing and releasing music. We’re in an era of the ‘bedroom musician’- talented people plugging along at making music in their bedrooms. There are no frills or laces; no fancy instruments or recording equipment. What do the Soft Boy heads think about this?

“I think the [studio] used to almost be a benchmark for making it,” says Kevin. “You would have an artist who would think, ‘Okay, I’m in a big studio and therefore I’m going to be successful. I’ve made it now’. I think that’s been demystified a bit. People are disillusioned with it.

“The music that’s coming out of bedrooms now, with the technology that we have access to, in terms of fidelity, sounds as good, if not better, than some of the stuff that’s going onto mainstream radio or big studios… We always say that we produce in Studio Portlaoise, and Studio Portlaoise is a state of mind, it’s wherever you open up your laptop on a given day.”

We might see this form of production as new, but in reality, the methods of creative productivity have only gone in circles rather than redefining themselves. I regaled this concept to Kevin through an anecdote about James Joyce, who famously wrote a section of ‘Sirens’ from Ulysses whilst leaning on the back of his case in the middle of a hotel lobby.

Maybe Studio Portlaoise isn’t that far away from that? Perhaps we can compare this to Henry Earnest’s initial recording of ‘Caught Between the Moon and Dublin City’, recorded on a free trial of Fruity Loops, which meant that he couldn’t save and later edit any of the tracks, but had to learn to live with the final product.

“That’s a really interesting thing… It’s all about how a band would traditionally record a song with one take,” Kevin says. “You go in on the day, you make it, and we can’t change it after that. That’s what happened, and I just thought that was amazing.”

When I was explaining my theory of the ‘bedroom musician’ to Kean, it all aligned. One of the most wonderful things about Soft Boy Records is that it’s an antidote to the loneliness that comes hand in hand with this style of music production. Just as a family does, the label provides a home for these artists to come together and create, learn, hang out. It leaves room for the artists to be alone, but not lonely. And with the all- male roster as it currently stands, of course we should celebrate this: everyone is well aware of the statistics of rising issues in male mental health in Ireland. Without reading too much into it, Soft Boy Records has created a space for extremely talented young men to come together and just be. It’s turning the everything on its head – even down to the name.

“It was part of a joke, between me and Kev,” remembers Kean. “We would call each other soft boy or soft child.”
“Traditionally, to be called soft was akin to be called sissy,” admits Kevin. “The kind of music I was looking to make and I was into… So much of it is made through a veneer of hyper masculinity.”

Okay. With that in mind: what does it mean to be a Soft Boy?

“It means that I’m going to insult myself before you insult me. It takes away from that. It’s an embrace of being soft… I guess, with great vulnerability comes great art, so there’s truth in that and insight that you won’t get if you’re all stiff and hard.”

Soft Boy Records is changing the musical landscape of Ireland: not simply just the spheres of Irish hip hop, or jazz, or R&B – but the landscape of Irish music in its entirety. All the artists are from Ireland, and the label is based in Dublin. Kojaque raps in a Dub accent and the artist’s portfolios namecheck places and spaces within Ireland. Does Soft Boy wear a national character?

“It’s an Irish label,” answers Kevin. “We’d love to expand, we’re always looking for new artists… Ireland has always been this crazy bedrock of talent. But the issue is that there isn’t really an infrastructure for music that we’ve seen. We have our own identity and way of doing things. I think we’ve kept it very much who we are.”

“For me, there is so much good music that’s happening here that to focus our energy on something from another country just wouldn’t make sense for me,” says Kean. “That someone in Ireland who has talent is getting neglected, and that’s what I wanted to avoid. I think that what we’re doing is a really good thing for Irish music and culture here in Ireland, a way to support people locally and I think that Irish musicians and producers and singers deserve as much a shot as anyone else does.”

Soft Boy Records is doing something. It’s moving a static landscape, leaving a mark, bringing people together. It’s making a version of history, just for a quick while. You can see it in the crowds at the shows, the people wearing sold-out merch, or even just the parties where people are bopping, laughing, drinking, being happy. I moved to Dublin just over a year ago, having heard little whispers about Soft Boy. It defined my time there, my social life, my work, what I was listening to every day. It’s something that I think back on almost daily now, having left. The label is creating treasured memories of treasured times.

“We’ve seen the influence that we’ve had from live shows which is amazing,” says Kevin. “I think that comes from having the right perspective on what we wanna do, and that’s just putting great music out, and putting on great events. It’s like a cream rises to the top thing, chipping away at what is good. If you do that and work very hard then eventually people will catch on.”

Kean is a bit more apprehensive about Soft Boy’s influence. Or, perhaps, apprehensive isn’t the right word: it’s just a bit difficult to watch the view from the window and keep an eye on the road at the same time.

“It’s hard to see stuff like that happening in the present moment. In five years we might look back and think, ‘Oh shit… we’ve done something really interesting. Something that we can be proud of’. We’re just doing what feels natural to us. Going full steam ahead with our visions and ambitions.”

Kojaque plays The Academy on December 6.

Words: Carla Jenkins / Photography: Ellius Grace & George Voronov 
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