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Osea island: a creative hub off the Essex coast

Osea island: a creative hub off the Essex coast

This article originally appeared in The Guardian

The story of Osea is not well known, even to many Essex locals. Though people are known to have lived on this 152-hectare plot of land since the Neolithic era, in more recent years it has been described variously as an “artists’ commune”; a “ravers’ retreat”; and an exclusive getaway destination, depending on who you ask.

The island has been a place of sanctuary for many years: social reformer (and brewing heir) Frederick Charrington bought the island in 1903, and established a treatment centre for alcoholics and opiate addicts. In the 21st century, a private rehab clinic here hosted many famous guests, including the late Amy Winehouse.

For many musicians, the island’s main attraction is its acclaimed recording studio. The technology here is cutting-edge, but the real appeal of the place lies in it being both plugged into the modern world and remote from it.

Osea is less than a couple of hours’ drive from London, yet it is far removed from its pressures, accessible by road only at low tide, across an ancient Roman causeway that is covered by water for most of the day. At other times, transport comes in the form of river taxi, or for particularly rock’n’roll guests, helicopter.

The Who’s Pete Townshend took the old-fashioned route when he name-checked the island in a 1970 column for Melody Maker: “The most exciting thing about Osea island is probably the causeway that you have to drive over to reach it … the sea splashes the front of the car and you feel a bit like a sea captain at the bridge as starfish and crabs come hurtling through the windows.”

Osea in its 21st-century incarnation is the creative vision of its owner, music producer and studio boss Nigel Frieda and a savvy team including artist manager Mark Hargreaves.

Frieda, who has worked with the Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, and launched pop trio Sugababes, bought Osea island in 2000, struck by “the romance of discovering a hidden gem”.

Most of the contemporary music made here has centred on Osea’s recording and mixing facility, comprising two state-of-the-art studios operated by Frieda’s music company, Matrix Studios. The main studio is located in the light-drenched seafront Edwardian manor house, the grandest of the island’s accommodation options; it sleeps 20, and boasts a saltwater swimming pool.

Elsewhere on the island, holiday cottages have a quaint, quintessentially English look, yet also an otherworldly air, while a clubhouse offers recreational facilities including turntables and a record collection for vinyl junkies.

A magnet for musicians
Osea’s combination of low-key seclusion and high-tech expertise has attracted a range of award-winning artists, including London rapper Tinie Tempah; singer-songwriter and producer Labrinth; folky rockers Noah and the Whale; and pop belter Jessie J. Enigmatic masked British electronic producer SBTRKT (Aaron Jerome) was also inspired to create material in this hideaway setting for his highly rated last album, Wonder Where We Land; the final track list includes a suitably moody number titled Osea (featuring Koreless).

“It was totally out of anyone’s comfort zone,” recalls Jerome. “We brought a bunch of drum kits, synths and everything else, and set them up so we could just record all day long … Then we could see what came out of the sessions in a much more free-form way.”

As SBTRKT and his collaborators went with the creative flow on Osea, some of his guest vocalists were thrown by the unusual location; Caroline Polacheck – of Brooklyn synthpop outfit Chairlift – missed low tide and had to be rowed ashore by a fisherman.

Osea has also proved a favoured location for exceptionally cool parties. Canadian R&B singer-songwriter The Weeknd played an exclusive live set here for his record label (Island Records, aptly enough) last summer, and invited 450 competition winners to join them as part of a launch celebration for his latest album, Beauty Behind the Madness.

Last summer’s festival highlights on Osea included boutique bash the Drifters Festival, and the first British event for Lost In A Moment, the club night affiliated with Berlin-based dance label Innervisions. LIAM’s performances included sets from label co-founders Dixon and electronic duo Âme. Tickets were in high demand, given the relatively tight capacity of 500, and the island was transformed into a nightlife paradise.

And yes, Osea even has a cocktail named after it, flavoured with damson grown on the island. It’s best drunk as the sun sets and the tide rolls in, cutting the causeway off from the mainland for another night.