Universal Tree: Uniting the People
It’s impossible not to feel the love when Steve Edwards is in the room.
Whether you’re listening to the artist’s deep, soulful vocals on some of the biggest house tracks of the 21st century or he’s greeting you at a Nether Edge café with a keen handshake and embrace, the warmth and positivity that emanates from the man is alluringly infectious.
I’d assume, realistically, that he does have his bad days, but on the number of occasions I’ve dealt with him over the years, be it through previous projects such as Steve ‘Papa’ Edwards and The Big Strong Love or simply crossing paths at a local studio, he’s never been anything short of a true gentleman: polite, accommodating with his time and refreshingly honest.
It’s worth mentioning this because sometimes, when faced with the oft-grunted, mono-syllabic replies of bands and artists clinging onto a too-cool-for-school image (or maybe just entirely uninspired by the interviewer at hand), music journalism can feel depressingly like a “proper job”. But it’s the conversations with interesting characters like Steve which you go into knowing that you’re likely to leave with a new perspective, some fresh knowledge, or at least having had a bloody good chinwag.
He’s in good company today, too, being flanked by writer and saxophonist Michael Somerset Ward, a former member of Sheffield post-punk outfit Clock DVA and frequent collaborator with the likes of Crooked Man, Richard Hawley and I Monster, whose back-catalogue of writing credits include worldwide hits for Alison Moyet and Take That.
Sitting opposite Mick is Philippe Clegg, a talented young bassist and producer who Steve has christened “Ninja” – he doesn’t really explain why – and someone I’m told plays a pivotal role in the musical journey the trio have recently embarked on.
Introductions over, now to what brings us here, the journey alluded to. I’m sat with three members of Universal Tree, a project which originally started as a studio-based group back in 2016 but is now quickly becoming something of a live force to be reckoned with.
“Imagine a modern-day Sly & The Family Stone,” says Steve. “There’s a soulful 70s familiarity about the sound, but with contemporary flows and beats. In its infancy, it was more about good times music; however, it soon transformed into a lyrically harder-edged approach.”
A meeting between Steve, Mick and third co-founder Richard Barratt [DJ Parrot, Sweet Exorcist, Crooked Man] at Bragazzis cafe, Abbeydale Road, set the scene for a conversation about creating soul-based songs with a focus on beats, rhythms and lyrics. Universal Tree was born, originally with the view of just making an album, but upon seeing how well the formula worked, Steve was keen on bringing in friends and taking the band on the road.
“It had to be friends, no session players allowed. I also wanted to bring my love of hip-hop into the live show, which really just increases the excitement and energy of it all. It was about getting the right blend of the people who represent our ethos – ‘anti-hate, pro-love for the people’ – and with Phil, Joe, Matic Mouth, Nic, Rachel, Romi and Mr Somerset I think we’ve done just that.”
Delving behind the lyrics on their upcoming album, Rooted & Booted, songs packaged with joyous, swelling rhythms and mellow beats are often layered with darker, more pertinent themes. The easy-flowing ‘Clean Up’ deals with the perils of drug addiction and consequent damage done to the soul; ‘How Did We Get to This?’ is an unabashed two fingers to the state of things: war, corruption, fascism, protectionism, greed – the job lot; whereas ‘Promise of the Sun’ tells the story of a refugee escaping ISIS, coming to the UK and finding further hardship in our post-Brexit nation.
It’s funny how fate so regularly intervenes in music and causes new creative paths to be forged. Mick, the man behind the lyrics, tells of how a personal experience caused him to take stock and start bringing these bigger topics into the fold.
“It all started off with a dancey/retro feel, but it was through spending time in hospital that I became inspired to talk about more important issues: Trump, the refugee crisis, war, the state of the world today. It’s a protest album – it’s a plea for a better day.”
With such a vast wealth of musical experience behind the likes of Mick and Steve, it suffices to say they both have the ability to recognise a solid, well-structured body of music when they hear one. And when Mick speaks about Rooted & Booted as a “world-class record,” it doesn’t seem be a throwaway comment; it’s said with a genuine hint of excitement.
The signs so far are looking positive, with the mixture of established nous alongside raw, youthful talent creating an exciting concoction which has seen a series of rousing live shows resulting in flash mobs, encores and a hefty dose of feel-good vibes.
It’s this blissful inter-connectivity with live audiences which is touted as the band’s key pièce de résistance, and something that Sheffield audiences have arguably been starved of. As most people know, it’s a city seldom short of indie moshpits, but a case could be made for a deficit in diverse comings together celebrating a range of genres and preaching a one love message.
“We’re bringing people in,” Steve claims. “We don’t want people to ever feel like we’re simply playing to them, as they’re all just as much a part of it as we are. That’s the whole idea behind the name: a Universal Tree for everyone to come and gather under.”
And when it comes to musical gatherings, they don’t tend to come much bigger for Sheffield than at the Tramlines main stage, where the band will be playing on the Sunday and, in Steve’s words, “Spreading the love to thousands”.
While this article is being written they’re gearing up for a Picture House Social gig featuring Sheffield hip-hop artists Otis Mensah and Franz Von, while the album is complete with a 2018 release date and you’ll soon have an exclusive live session video on its way from Exposed to enjoy.
With a busy few months ahead, there’s a palatable sense of enthusiasm among the trio about the opportunity of bringing something truly fresh to the Steel City’s music scene.
“Even though it’s a bit different, this is actually as Sheffield as it gets,” says Mick enthusiastically. “It’s rebellious, innovative and inclusive. There’s a message here and we’d really like people to get onboard with it.”