Judging Jeffries

Stephen Pennell meets Jo Jeffries, inspiration behind the upcoming Birmingham Music Awards.

Having taken the kids to school and with no work until the afternoon, I was taking a leisurely walk home with my favourite tunes in my headphones.

Today it was the Jam caressing my ears (just for a change), and their unofficial national anthem That’s Entertainment inspired me to do something constructive with my weekday. Days of speed and slow-time Mondays had been and gone, and now it was pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday, but when you’re an old boy about town with some free time and a new Jasper Conran raincoat to rock, it doesn’t have to be that way.

I fancied a stroll round town, there was a 97 bus going my way, and I decided to catch it and see what was going on in the city. I shared the journey with my old mate David George, author of Birmingham City hoolie-book Apex To Zulu, who was on his way to give a talk on the futility and horror of knife crime and gang violence to some youngsters.

Poacher turned gamekeeper perhaps, but his experience and credibility on the subject can sometimes be just what’s needed to gain the respect and attention of the hardest – and hardest to reach – kids. Two published authors from Chelmsley Wood on the same bus – what are the odds?

We went our separate ways on arrival in town, and with the rain still falling and 0121 my oyster, I opted for the fine fare and free wi-fi of Cafe Artum, a creative hot-spot that I’d been meaning to visit since it opened last year. Selling an unusual mix of coffee, tea, cakes, art and vinyl records, this cool independent venture is located in one of Brum’s most beautiful buildings, the buff-terracotta Coleridge Chambers, yet it hardly stands out.

Amongst its neighbours are the magnificent Methodist Central Hall and the equally stunning Victoria Law Courts, and I imagine this area has barely changed since Conan-Doyle wrote about it in one of his Sherlock Holmes adventures.

Even the steps outside are a work of art, and standing on them waiting for opening time, I was delighted to see the small frame and big personality of Jo Jeffries and her able assistant, social media whizz-kid Lucy Ballard. We went inside and sat down, and I got the teas in.

If you know Jo, you’ll also know that the last thing this blonde ball of energy needs is too much caffeine, even if it is locally sourced from the wonderful Quarter Horse Coffee Roasters in Bristol Street. I lit the blue touchpaper by asking about the Birmingham Music Awards that she co-founded, and Jo went off like a Catherine wheel.

“It’s hectic. I’m in constant contact with artists, finding out who’s coming, who’s performing etc. Some are contemplating flying back from touring to be here. We had a great night at the Glee Club last year but we couldn’t go again this year – we needed more capacity.

“This time we’ve got 750 coming to The Mill, at the old Rainbow Venues in Lower Trinity Street. There are 33 categories of awards and loads of live performances. It’s a lot to fit in between 6 and 10.30, but there’s always the after-party! Could be an all-nighter! The standard tickets are £25 and the VIP section, where you’re in your own booth with waitress service and champagne, is £85. There are also sponsor packages where you get to present an award and are given prominent positioning and exposure for your business or organisation.”

Any big names among the nominations?

“Loads. UB40, the Specials, Lady Leshurr, Mist, Jaykae, the Streets, Peace, DapzontheMap, who’s just signed to Sony. And Jorja Smith, who just won Best Female at the Brit Awards. The indie/alternative category is mad – Sugarthief, Ivory Wave, The Clause and Karkosa are all nominated, and the MCs and RnB categories are incredibly strong – Sanity, Vital, Safone, Lotto Boyz, Namiwa Jazz, Call Me Unique, Sicnis, Yatez, Stardom, Mayday – so many strong contenders. There are also some nice surprises that I can’t reveal yet.”

Who’s gonna win?

“Ha ha! Nobody knows! There’s a public vote on the Rising Star category, and the rest of the voting is next Friday, when all the judges and ambassadors are meeting up at ACM music school’s Birmingham Campus in the Jewellery Quarter, before going to UB40’s album signing at HMV in the Bull Ring. It will all be voted on by local artists, DJs, music industry professionals, journalists, what have you. They’ll be the ones to decide who wins, and they can vote in all the categories unless they’re nominated in them. We can’t have people voting for themselves!”

Fair enough. You co-founded the awards, what inspired you?

“I want Birmingham to become recognised as a world music city. We’ve definitely got the talent, but we hide our light behind a bushel too much. We also lack infrastructure, we need to tempt record company A&R people to the city. The aim is to grow the awards and make it something that national and even global media want to cover. But it’s also about giving recognition to the people working hard already to build the city’s reputation, be they artists, promoters, websites, labels, producers, venues, DJs, blogs, all sorts. And to reflect the incredible depth and diversity of the talent of course.”

What’s in it for the performers?

“The sky’s the limit. Last year Kioko performed and did a UB40 cover in their set. A couple of the UB40 lads crashed the stage and after the show offered them the support slot on their thirty-date tour. Kioko ended up playing at the Royal Albert Hall and their following on social media exploded from hundreds to thousands. It changed their lives.”

Breathe Jo. And put me down for a couple of tickets. I can’t wait.