Ian Brown: Fordingbridge farmer to hit songwriter
PUBLISHED: 16:33 14 March 2016 | UPDATED: 16:33 14 March 2016
With his knees deep in mud on the farm, Ian Brown received a call that would change his life forever. Peter White hears how he went from humble farmer to hit songwriter when they met in Fordingbridge
It was a bold decision by Ian Brown to switch from pork to punk, but it subsequently proved to be one of the best moves of his life.
A former pig farmer, Ian decided one day he’d had enough of tending swine, milking cows and growing corn in the Hampshire countryside, so he gambled on trying to make a living out of his number one love, music.
He admits he wasn’t always in tune with what he wanted to achieve, but years of persistence finally paid off when he co-wrote the No1 smash hit in 2006 for Sandi Thom called ‘I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)’.
Since then Ian has built his own music empire as a label owner, consultant, manager and song writer. He has worked with Britain’s most successful folk act Fisherman’s Friends, as well as The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, and a chart topping album of poetry, ‘Words For You’, read by, among others, iconic actress Meryl Streep. Other top names he has worked with include Tom Jones, Jason Donovan, Show of Hands and Bellowhead, and he was even involved recently with a Christmas TV advert featuring Jessie J.
Ian has been writing songs for almost as long as he can remember, and not to be confused with namesake Ian Brown, lead singer of rock band ‘Stone Roses’, he reflected: “Being a farmer is a very strange world to enter the music business from. But farming is now very much a thing of the past, and I don’t miss it in the slightest.
“I was born into farming, but two of my aunts used to run a folk club and both my parents played guitar and sang a bit - so perhaps I was destined to go into music, although when I was younger it was never really a career option. It may sound strange but I believe farming was a good grounding for making a career in the music industry.”
Although he hasn’t yet made the step from ‘Eggs-Factor’ to ‘X-Factor’, he once wrote several songs for Simon Cowell’s Fanfare label, and is now releasing his first single at the age of 50, entitled ‘Me Too’.
Brought up near Oxford, Ian moved to Hampshire at the age of 20 when his parents began farming at Sherfield English, near Romsey. He gained a third class diploma in agriculture from The Royal Agriculture College in 1986, and recalled: “We specialised in pig farming, but in the end we sold the business. We had to get out of pig farming because like everyone else, we suffered a lot with the price of pork, so it was a case of trying to struggle on or do some-thing else. That was when then Prime Minister Tony Blair told struggling farmers to diversify.
“Although I started work on another farm near Fordingbridge, and enjoyed it, I wanted to do something on my own, and the music business is very bewitching once you’ve been in it.”
Ian, along with a friend he met at college, agreed to spend a year trying to make it in the music business, either in a band or as song writers. He smiled: “We found ourselves in a terrible reggae band called Stepping Out, and although we never troubled the charts, we were signed to a Jamaican label in Notting Hill, and made a single that got played a bit on pirate radio.
“Through that I got into Island Records in about 1987, and we had a few minor successes. I was also writing songs for Simon Cowell, none of which saw the light of day.”
He was beginning to convince himself his singing and writing toils were in vain, especially when someone played him songs by The Christians, and he ruefully accepted: “You have to be that good to make it, and I’m obviously not that good!”
Then one day, while he was milking cows, his wife received a call from Nashville saying they wanted to speak to him. He said: “There were no mobile phones in those days so my wife drove up to the farm to tell me, and after I finished milking the cows I got back in touch with them, and was told they were interested in one of my songs, called When Horsepower Meant What It Said.”
Despite the Nashville interest, Ian had to wait nearly 20 years for it to become a success, when it featured on an album by Scottish singer-songwriter singer Sandi Thom, who later took another of his songs, ‘Punk Rocker’, to the top of the charts. It was that song which earned him an Ivor Novello award nomination in 2007.
Before that however, Ian continued his song-writing, even humming tunes to himself while riding on his tractor around the family farm. He said: “I seemed to be having a lot of near misses, although I was still writing songs and playing my music in folk clubs.”
He spent a year selling records by mail order and working on PR accounts as diverse as a series of line dance albums to ex-Deep Purple guitarist Richie Blackmore’s medieval lute project, and the incredible Eva Cassidy, while still working part time on the farm.
Then in 2001 he set up a one-man record label in a converted garage in Ringwood and signed former King Crimson bassist Gordon Haskell. Their first single, ‘How Wonderful You Are’ was only kept off the 2001 Christmas No1 spot by Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman’s ‘Something Stupid’.
He revealed: “I’ve been writing pretty much every day since I as 11 and I’m 50 now. Part of my routine is playing my guitar and writing. When you consider how many hours I’ve spent at it, I can’t be that good. I’ve spent well over 10,000 hours to get this average! I still do it every day, and it is definitely five per cent inspiration and 95 per cent perspiration, but I love it.
“I have been very lucky, and a few years ago I began to play a few of the songs in folk clubs again, and tell a few stories about my career, which appeared to go down well because I keep being re-booked. Obviously some people have no taste!”
He continued: “It’s amazing when I hear something on the radio that I have been involved in. It was a great thrill when I heard ‘I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker’ being played on Radio One.”
Certainly one of his proudest moments was when he attended the opening night in the West End of the long–running West End musical ‘Dreamboats and Petticoats’ after co-writing the lead song in 2008 with Henry Priestman of The Christians, the group that made him think 20 years earlier that he would never make it.
He smiled: “I think being in the music business, staying sane, and being with my wife for 27 years are the biggest achievements. But I remember getting very excited about hearing a song I had written, ‘Line Dance Crazy’ being played on BBC Bristol.
“Also being associated with Fisherman’s Friends. I went down to a little village in Cornwall to meet them, and then six months later they are in the top 10 of the Album Charts and playing the main stage at Glastonbury. I’m really proud that I still have a great relationship with all the artists I’ve worked with over the years, and some of them are even still talking to me!
“But deep down I suppose the biggest achievement is having the No1 single in 2006. It doesn’t come easy… there’s a lot of pain involved, but in the end they can’t take it away from me.
“When I was nominated for the Ivor Novello the following year, I sat on the same table as Cat Stevens at the awards ceremony, and he told me he liked the song - and it doesn’t get much better than that!
“All the way through I’ve admired the people I’ve worked with. I still enjoy going out and singing in folk clubs, but I couldn’t make a living out of being just me.”
Ian is still a consultant for Universal Music and Sony Music, and despite the glamour and recognition that comes with the job, he enjoys the rural life around the little village near Fordingbridge where he and his family call home.
He may have rubbed shoulders with many famous people over the years, but says: “I’ve never had my photograph taken with any of them, because I have no intention of opening a restaurant, just to hang pictures on the walls.”
He added: “Hampshire is a fantastic place to live. I play in a folk club about once a week down here, and I did four festivals last summer. I still have an ambition, and that’s to win the Biggest Onion competition at my village fete - actually it’s probably easier to have a No1 single!”
See more of Ian’s work on www.mightyvillage.com
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