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Louise Parker, Bread & Roses

Louise Parker is Director of The Bread and Roses in Plymouth, a thriving cultural hub, of not only music, but all kinds of other creative arts.

Louise Parker is Director of The Bread and Roses in Plymouth. She and her ex-partner set up the venue after they became despondent with the live music scene in the city. Ten years later it continues to be a thriving cultural hub, of not only music, but all kinds of other creative arts. Louise herself was not stranger to the music scene having made a name for herself having performed all over the UK, including with Humphrey Lyttelton and at The Hammersmith Apollo. Here she tells Bracken Jelier about her work at The Bread and Roses and what makes it such a special and popular venue.

“Bread and Roses was originally conceived by myself, my partner, and a group of our friends. My partner in particular was getting pretty fed up with the lack of a ‘real music’ scene in Plymouth. 

We decided that we would name the pub after a poem that was written for female textile workers by James Oppenheim, called Bread and Roses. And it said, “Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.” So give us food for our soul and food for our bodies. So we just thought, we’re going to serve nice drinks and we’re going to put on all different types of not just music, but we’re going to try and make it a cultural centre where people can gather and feel part of something. 

We had knitting groups when we first opened – we still have a market every month. So people who want to sell their art or their jewellery or their clothing, they come here once a month. We have poetry groups, we have comedy. We’ve even got a chess club. We cater for all tastes and interests. 

We decided to make music a central thing. At that time when we opened in 2013, there was really not much going on on the music scene in Plymouth. So when I first came to Plymouth in ’88, there was a bit of a music scene through the nineties. It was quite cool. And you could even go to the academy and there was the Breakwater with lots of different things going on. But by the time it got to 2013, the scene was pretty dead.

The other thing we wanted to do was make it a bit wacky! My friend was a set designer, which was very handy. So she came in here and absolutely loved the building. I said, “Well, be bold, make it really interesting.” And when she first put this green on the wall I nearly had a heart attack, because I thought, “That’s very bold.” But people like it. They like the fact that it’s a bit eccentric and it goes, I think, with the late Victorian architecture. 

I think the people come here and they know they’re going to get something a bit different. But also we try to be really genuinely inclusive of all age groups. Some pubs focus on punk or they might focus on rock. We tend to be more on the jazzy, funky, reggae, prog rock kind of side of things, folk as well. 

We get a lot of women here. I think women feel safe here because the focus is not just on getting drunk, even though we try to provide good beer and nice drinks. But I think it’s about talking to people. Our focus was the only thing that goes on in here is conversation and music. And that’s how it is. People come in here, they don’t look at their phones, they mingle, they mix. There’s a lot of mixing going on with different generations and different groups of people. Although we have our regulars, a lot of new people come all the time. We’ve had some amazing music nights in here.

It’s a grassroots venue, which I think is really important. All musicians and performers need a small stage and a safe space where they can hone their craft. That’s why we got a grant; because they were trying to make sure that grassroots venues like this stay alive. Because without them, you don’t get a music scene. 

We’re really proud to have led the way too. Other places have taken this thing of making it a community space, giving artists and poets and people a platform, somewhere to go. So I think we helped to spark a regeneration of the cultural scene in Plymouth. I’d like to think that’s the case. 

My background has always been music. My father was white, and my mother was Jamaican, and they met in the jazz club and they fell in love instantly. They were married within about three months. The background in my house was just music. My father had an astonishing collection of Blue Note Records from Bix Bei to Beck, right the way through to Coltrane. So he was an absolute jazz fan. My mother was into opera, had a fantastic voice. She was also into folk. So music was just the background of my childhood really.

I remember saying to my father, “I’d like to be a ballet dancer.” And he said, “Don’t be ridiculous. You have to get a proper job.” So I became a nurse and a midwife, and they used to call me ‘the singing nurse’ because I did used to sing a lot. But I never actually started singing till so I was 36. And a friend just said, “Look, this band needs a singer. Do you fancy it?” And I was terrified, but I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll do it.” And I got pretty good quite quickly without actually sound bigheaded, but I ended up recording with Humphrey Lyttelton and he wanted to do a tour with me, and he invited me down to The Bull’s Head at Barnes about four times. And I played there.

And then I got another contact and I ended up playing in the Pizza on the Park, PizzaExpress, Dean Street, and started to get a little bit of momentum with my career. Recorded with Alan Barnes as well. But then Humphrey Lyttelton died shortly after I’d done a few gigs with him, but they were very kind. So his manager, Sue Da Costa, she invited me to play at the Hammersmith Apollo for his celebration concert. I’ve never played such a big gig. It was very, very scary. I do play all the jazz clubs in this part of the world. I’ve played up and down the country. I’ve played in lots and lots of venues. So being a performer myself, I suppose that helps. I understand the music business to a large extent. 

So what about the future for Bread and Roses? I just want to see it continue really to foster music for high-flying professionals, like we saw The Haggis Horns a couple of weeks ago, right through to somebody who’s doing their first gig. I’ve had really nervous, terrified singers. And then just going up to them and saying, “That was great. Would you like to come back for another gig?” And you can just see their eyes light up and they’re so happy to get that validation. And so I think I just want to continue doing what we’re doing, but I would like to draw in some bigger acts as well. It’s quite a small venue. We’ve probably got capacity of about a hundred, but I’ve had some pretty good people in here. And so in the autumn, we’re going to try and get a new lighting rig and a better PA. And that will encourage. So then we can get people down from Bristol and try and get some slightly bigger acts, in addition to the grassroots people.

The future looks great for The Bread and Roses.”


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