Stepping onto the grounds of Brandon Music feels, at first, a little like snooping. A couple of other cars are parked in the driveway, but there’s not a person in sight. The lights are out when you push through the door of a converted corncrib. Switch them on, and the walls come to life with radiant paintings of the sun. A guestbook and price list tip you off: These are the latest contemporary works from renowned local artist Warren Kimble.
Peek into the other corncrib, and you find a treasure trove of tea sets, arranged on shelves and lace-covered tables as if a swarm of proper English ladies just popped out to the kitchen to whip up scones and clotted cream for high tea. But still, no one to be seen.
Finally you make your way to the big red barn and step inside. It looks a bit like an office, and behind a low cubicle wall you find a white-haired man. He greets you, revealing a lilting English accent, and suddenly all those teapots make sense.
Meet Stephen Sutton, who runs Vermont’s only international classical-music label, Divine Art Recordings Group, based in Brandon and the UK. That’s the driving force behind his local business, Brandon Music, which consists of an English tearoom and tea-service gift shop, a performance space, and an art gallery.
Sutton, 56, hadn’t planned on becoming a record-company owner. Before starting his current enterprise, he was a commercial-property lawyer in northeast England who had a little obsession with collecting vintage records.
“It all came about, as most things in my life do, by chance,” Sutton says.
In 1993, he was living in the converted rectory of a 13th-century church in his remote Northumberland village. In an effort to restore the church’s old Walker organ, Sutton agreed to do a recording. He rustled up some musicians, recorded them in the church and put together a cassette — Divine Art’s first release. It was commercially packaged and distributed nationally and, to everyone’s surprise, sold nearly 800 copies.
From there the business just snowballed.
For the first 10 years, Sutton put out three or four CDs a year. Now he releases 30 to 35 annually. “Which is far too many,” he admits.
Sutton runs Divine Art almost single handedly; he does have a little help in England from a PR guy, a volunteer and his brother-in-law, who handles shipping and orders. But Sutton manages the album designs, the accounts and administration, and the website. “So, no holidays, no evenings off, no weekends,” he laments. “We work seven days a week.”
You don’t get any stress vibes in the calm tearoom upstairs. French Victorian flute music fills the room, which has a high, exposed-beam ceiling, elegant black tables and a grand piano by the impossibly tall windows. Manager Penny Powers floats upstairs with refreshments for Sutton and his guest, and then floats back down to the kitchen.
Beside the piano stands a 90-year-old Edison machine, part of Sutton’s ever-expanding collection of vintage phonographs. His obsession with record collecting started when he was a boy. Sutton’s half-brother, 12 years older, worked as a steward on a transatlantic ocean liner in the mid-’50s. Every time he returned to England, he brought home piles of 45s from American stars such as Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. “He kept coming back with bags of the little round things,” Sutton says.
As soon as he was big enough to reach the on/off button of the record player, Sutton was hooked. He loved the music, but loved even more the records as objects: their labels, their cover art, the way they moved — and emanated music — on the turntable.
From the age of 15, Sutton says, he spent every Saturday hitting the record shops in northeast England, coming home with arms full and getting in trouble for cluttering the house. “I’m still getting in trouble for it now,” he jokes, referring to his wife, Edna. Sutton’s nearly 20,000 78s fill four rooms of his house in England.
At the mention of iPods, he grimaces. “Can’t stand the things,” Sutton says, though his recordings are available on iTunes. “If it’s classical-music, I want the program notes. Even better, I like to handle an old vinyl album or the old 78s. It doesn’t matter about the sound quality, because you can filter that out after a while.”
So, how did an Englishman and his classical music record company end up in Brandon?
The Suttons had a vacation house in Rochester, Vt., for years. They’d talked about making a change in their lives: Edna would retire from her position as a school inspector in Northumberland, Stephen would expand his record company, and they would sell their house in England. “We wanted to do something completely different,” Sutton says.
In 2005, when they heard a place on Country Club Road in Brandon was for sale, they drove over the mountain to check it out. After half an hour, they knew it was what they’d been looking for.
It already had some serious creative energy; artist Kimble, the previous owner, had renovated the former barn. When he moved there in 1990, the building was on the verge of falling down, Kimble says in a phone call. “We had to put chains around it to hold it up for the winter.” He used the place as a studio, its massive windows offering the perfect light for painting, and added a retail shop and gallery.
Kimble still has a presence here, and not just on the gallery walls. Powers and three of Sutton’s other employees used to work for Kimble. The women like to joke that they came as a package deal with the building. Sutton is using Kimble’s old studio space for more than high tea with freshly baked scones and cakes; musical performances occasionally take place there, too.
But growing the business hasn’t been easy. It took the Suttons four years to get a business-owner visa, he notes. “We submitted our application a week before the recession hit in September of ’08,” Sutton says. “We knew we weren’t going to achieve the kind of growth we had imagined.” Plus, the couple didn’t have the capital they had anticipated, because their house in England wasn’t selling.
Sutton arrived in January 2009 with a revised plan. Edna would stay in their house in Northumberland until they could sell it and she could retire. She’s still there now, making regular visits to Brandon and helping out over video chat.
When his wife finally makes the move, Sutton says, she’ll bring along his 78s — plus the rest of her collection of vintage tea sets — so they can start up the next Brandon Music enterprise: a phonograph museum.
Sutton is hopeful about the future of Brandon Music, he says; it’s just taking a bit longer than he’d expected.
His CD sales have dropped, he confides, though not as much as they have for major labels. Sutton has the advantage of a customer base loyal to Divine Art’s niche. The company specializes in rare classical, jazz and contemporary “art music” — pretty much anything but pop. If the piece is already recorded elsewhere, Sutton isn’t interested. Most of the recordings are funded by the artists, who retain ownership and keep roughly 80 percent of the profits.
“We don’t make a lot of profit off of it,” Sutton says. “As long as we can break even helping artists to get into the market, that’s what it’s all about.” He’s released nearly 300 CDs since the company started, and says about 80 percent of them are not available anywhere else.
In the tearoom, Sutton scans the 800-CD stereo, which is loaded with the entire Divine Art catalog. He fades out the flute music and starts up one of his intriguing rare recordings, “The Rosslyn Motet,” performed by members of the Tallis Chamber Choir.
The room’s acoustics are awesome, the story of the 15th-century music’s mysterious origins even more so. It has to do with a phenomenon called cymatics, Sutton explains. Pour sand on a sheet of glass and make it vibrate with a violin bow, and the sand will settle into a geometric pattern. Depending on the note the bow plays, the sand will separate and create that same design every time.
These very patterns were discovered on the arches of the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, famously featured in The Da Vinci Code. Around its carved cubes are little sculptures of instruments, delineating where and when each part should be played. An entire piece of music is spelled out on the arches, and Sutton’s is the only recording of it performed inside the chapel.
Gazing out the barn’s massive windows as those voices sing a cryptic composition in a faraway church, you can’t help but feel a little swept away.