Football and Music have been a huge part of my life in Moscow and have introduced to many good friends and business contacts over the years. While my football playing years are pretty much over, Iâm still performing and writing music and that has given me an opportunity which could only happen in the Motherland!
I received a phone call from the British Embassy asking if I would be interested to travel to Saransk to take part in a FIFA Fan Festival and perform live in front of 10, 000 supporters in the cityâs main square. They had heard I had a British rock/pop music band in Moscow and were looking for someone to help fit the slot.
I was surprised, surprised first and foremost that the Embassy called me, but the first question that went through my head was: Where the hell is Saransk?
Saransk heard of it? Not many foreigners have, but this city with around 300 000 inhabitants will be the smallest city hosting some of the worlds finest footballers and their fans during the World Cup in 2018.
Saransk is the capital of Mordovia, an 8 hour drive east of Moscow and has been voted Russias ‘most comfortable city to live in’ 8 times – based on quality of housing, communal services and ecology. According to an Instagram statistic, Saransk people have the largest smile in the world, however, if you ask the average Russian about the city, they usually wont have too much to say, only that maybe a distant relative once lived there!
First trip to the city
After a couple of short telephone calls, I was booked up and set off on my first visit trip to the city in June 2014 with my band ‘October Sun’. There wasnât much time for sightseeing, but there was an instant feel that the city was very warm and welcoming. Most Russian cities always seem powerful in their design and stature, but Saransk seemed a little more ‘homely’.
We were treated like superstars, chauffeured around the city and fed like kings. Our performance was that afternoon after the band ‘Ottawan’ (you remember the song ‘Hands Up, Baby Hands Up?!’) and I as peaked out onto the main square from behind the stage, I saw the thousands of people enjoying the summer sun and there was a real party atmosphere.
We finally made it onto the stage and I approached the microphone I saw a sea of people. Filled with nerve and excitement, we started with a couple of well known âcrowd pleasersâ and then tested the water with our own material, which was well received.
After the gig, the organising committee thanked us and took us for dinner. The Head of the Committee told us how we fitted in so well and how the Saransk people enjoyed the performance, especially our material. At that point, he also asked whether we would write an official song for their city to be used for the World Cup in 2018.
There was no hesitation in accepting! I mean, World Cup, music, Russia’; pretty much all of the things which have been part of me for virtually all of my life.
Could these opportunities ever happen anywhere else in the world?
I was already engrossed in the details, and immediately asked what type of song would be appropriate. The reply was fairly simple ‘The main thing is that you like it’. We were shocked and excited!..so excited that we had written the song by the time we got back to Moscow that evening. That day is one that I will never forget.
Over the next few months, we sat in the studio, chopping and changing the song, composing and amending the lyrics. We invited a local Mordovian folk band to perform with us on the song to give it âcultural flavour’ and produced a demo. The song was baptised ‘Smile’ and was sent to the Organising Committee and FIFA for its approval.
We were given a green to present the song at an official presentation for all of the host cities, which was held in St P for a FIFA delegation, governors and celebrities including Gerard Depardieu (who actually is a Saransk resident!).
Performing at this event meant that the song received the Administration’s ‘seal of approval’, which opened up further opportunities. We were asked to perform at the region’s most significant Russian Premier League football match between FK Mordovia and CSKA. It also meant I had another chance to explore the city more and see some of the sites which I hadn’t seen during my first visit.
The match turned out to be the highest scoring game of the championship with FK Mordovia eventually losing 4 – 6. However, the game provided the city with valuable PR coverage and gave our band additional exposure to a stadium of 15 000 supporters.
Lights, camera, action
As you all probably know very well, in Russia things can often be very last minute.
I received a phone call to ask if I would like to be part of the official clip for the song, which was taking place the following week. Naturally, I wanted to be involved in the clip in some shape or form, as this was ‘my baby’ and wanted to make sure the video would fit the initial idea of the song. This was probably the moment, when I understood how U2, Lady Gaga, Coldplay and other artists probably felt when they wanted to protect their identity and ensure that their ideas were heard. I had no control over this process. I wasn’t the budget owner, I didn’t have equipment or an agency that could produce a clip of this level, but I knew that this was my only ticket to getting attention for the song from an audience wider than the Garden Ring. It was pretty paralysing to know this, but after a few heated discussions and brainstorms, I managed to cast myself as the lead role for the clip.
This meant another trip to Saransk and this time, I had 4 days straight of filming and a real chance to get a feel for the city and also see how people lived in the rural parts of the region. The most humbling part of the trip was how well known the single had become. It was played regularly on the main square to dancing fountains and in the main parks of the city. Competitions for best ‘Flash mobs’ across schools had been organised and people from all walks of life were involved. I can’t describe how I felt, but it confirmed how much the city believed in our group and wanted to show their support in our journey.
This unique journey still continues and will continue at least until the World Cup ends in 2018, where hopefully I will have a chance to be part of this chapter in Russia’s history and be a small part of a fantastic legacy for the city of Saransk involving my biggest passions.