The Puritan and the Hedonist

 

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I lived in New York City for ten months between 2004/5. I say ‘lived’ but I was a tourist on extended stay really. I had a visa from Capitol records so I could stay for a year. I didn’t do anything that you associate really & truly with living somewhere. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have any possessions really, other than a suitcase, some clothes, a few books and photographs. I didn’t know many people, and didn’t really try meet anyone, well I went out to socialise but always mostly came home on my own. I didn’t even really ever buy food and cook - i ate out all the time in diners (the 24hr Ukrainian diner on 12th street was my favourite). The room i rented was tiny, the size of a large cupboard. I think at one point it might actually have been used as a cupboard. At least it had a window, although no curtain. I was in-between Avenue A & B on 13th Street in the East Village, an area full of practicing boho, pseudo hipster poet rockers living in cupboards. I felt at home! It was a solitary and magical time.

Ultimately though, as anyone who has spent a length of time in a city where they don’t know many people and have no real sense of purpose will know - a homesickness creeps in. All the things about Scotland I’d mocked in years past seemed the things i wanted back. I started to appreciate tartan carpets. I dreamed about endless rain and potato scones. The smell of the breweries in Edinburgh, the smell of the Caledonian Pines in the highlands. I wanted to see my friends. Nostalgia is literally a craving, a longing to return to the home. My home sickness manifested itself in simple forms - I’d go and see any Scottish band playing in town, occasionally I’d go for a drink in a Scottish pub (they are always just full of Scottish tourists). I’d have conversations with America music fans about Scottish bands and loved how they would romanticise and idolise these groups and talk about them in similar ways to how I would about American bands.

American bands, singers and musicians tend to have dominated my listening since from my teens. At times this has frustrated me and led me onto discover music from other countries and continents Japan, Africa, Jamaica, New Zealand. But there is a sense of searching in American music that keeps the listener coming back - it is a huge place - you can go in search of yourself in America and get lost, and become somebody new in the process. The variety of experience on offer is immense, the diversity of people it’s possible to meet (and make music with) is intense. Of course you can go in search of yourself in Scotland too, but it won’t take that long, and most of the time you’ll be on your own in a remote glen, or knee deep in a bog. Groups like Funkadelic, The Beach Boys, or Sonic Youth could have come from nowhere else than America

The exotic and romantic is perhaps what has always been missing from Scottish music for me- but I suppose that is because I am Scottish and therefore the music has a familiarity, an omnipresence, like all these songs have always been hanging around. It’s comforting though - like my Grannies old house, with the usual selection of biscuits, familiar smells, and the fire on. Actually many of my favourite Scottish songs and singers are ones I heard around my Granny’s - Harry Lauder, Andy Stewart, Moria Anderson. All the Old songs.

A country has a collective soul as well as a collective history, and Scotland has a very worthy musical soul. In the 70’s and 80’s Scotland did a fine line in producing bands who could provide the anthems, all with suitable production values of the era. These provide some of my top Scottish musical moments, even if they’ve fallen in and out of favour over the decades with the taste police.

In my mid teens when Grunge hit and we were all disciples, Teenage Fanclub were our heroes. Everyone else thought they were American, and they toured with Nirvana, but they were from Bellshill in Lanarkshire, and that made them cooler. I saw the Jesus and Mary Chain around that time. Along with The Blue Nile and The Waterboys (introduced to me by way of my elder sister’s record collection) these were my favourite Scottish bands, and probably still are.

I tried to think about a lot of the bands that begun in Glasgow and Edinburgh around the time we did (mid Nineties) but the only ones I really liked that much - Gilded Lil, and Eska, only made a few singles and EP’s which aren’t online. Which is a shame as they were great and would’ve been included on my list. There was quite a healthy punk scene in Edinburgh in the early nineties too. I dipped into a bit although I was always a bit young & scared at the gigs to fully embrace it.

I’d have been more at home with Postcard records, Orange Juice and Josef K - proper Scottish art school punk rock, angular, and still so influential, sonically, stylistically. But I was 21 or 22 before I heard any of these great songs, so was 15 years late for the party.

Later in my twenties I started digging though all the folk songwriters - Dick Gaughan, Archie Fisher and the like - serious, authentic vocal skills and tales. All the drunken ceilidh’s I’d attended over the years in the Highlands & islands started to make sense - traditional music - it was the music for the puritan and the hedonist - Classic Scots dualism!

The Oral tradition of passing down songs and stories was always strong in celtic (and nordic) countries - singing them to your friends and family members at night round the fire. I always wonder if these songs changed from year to year as they were past down - little pieces being forgotten, misinterpreted, re-arranged, new lines and verses made up - so that the songs ended up not making complete sense - in the best possible way. Surrealness was at work,  purposeful vagueness, darkly comic, nihilistic sometimes, all done with charm and character - a feeling that’s all through Scottish music still.

Scotland has always done a fine line in creating highly individual, slightly eccentric artists, musicians and writers with a sense of place, both ordinary and visionary - Ivor Cutler, Edwyn Collins, Mike Scott, Liz Fraser, Donovan, Stuart Murdoch, Paul Buchanan, Kathryn Joseph, are just a few of them.

 

Solo Drives & Journeys with Jazz Singers

Listen to the blog's accompanying Spotify playlist.


When Idlewild took a break from playing and recording in 2010, I concentrated on making my own albums. Based in the Scottish Hebrides, which I had been for several years by that point, I effectively tried to do as little as i needed to get by – it was cheap living. Staring at sunsets, pottering about with paintings, poems, growing potatoes, drinking red wine, hanging about with my infant son - these things took priority over the kind of touring work Idlewild had focussed on for the previous 12 years. Living a fairly straight & normal life (albeit in a fairly remote location) seemed more rock and roll than rock and roll.

I be-friended Gordon Maclean who ran the An Tobar arts centre in Tobermory which had a small studio in the attic - I’d started writing songs with Gordon’s son Sorren (one of the best guitarist i’d ever heard, and at at the time only aged 19) the three of us started working on songs - and we’d get any musician who was passing through involved. It was liberating and completely different to any musical working situation i’d been in before. There was no expectation and i could do what i wanted (and did) and the record we starting putting together became the most diverse thing i’d been involved in. It was released as ‘The Impossible Songs & Other Songs’ in 2011. Another,  record, ’Listen to keep’ followed in 2013 - that album was more straight, country influenced and live sounding, mainly because it was written to play (and sell) on tour.  By this point I had a new band - Sorren on guitar, Danny Grant on drums, Gavin fox on bass (later replaced by Craig Ainslie) and Seonaid Aitken on violin (later replaced by Hannah Fisher) - we had been playing everywhere visiting towns and areas that i’d never been to before, playing folk clubs, art centres, small theatres, anywhere really.

Music & memories -

When I think back about tours - often it’s actually the albums we listened to while we were travelling that define them. Travelling and listening are two things that go together well. I travelled a lot when I was younger and my Dads collection ‘best-of’ tapes that accompanied the journeys (Paul McCartney, Beatles, Beach boys, show-tunes) had a lasting influence on my music tastes and my memories. Many of my favourite records are intertwined with the memorable journeys I’ve made - Touring America a lot between 2001-2003 The Grateful Dead soundtracked the long drives through the plains and deserts .’American Beauty’ or ‘Live in 1972’ would be on the tourbus stereo, as we drank beer as stars appeared and the world sunk into shadows outside the bus windows.  Wilco’s ‘A Ghost Is Born’ - I listened to repeatedly on headphones in my tourbus bunk throughout 2005. Band dynamics had started to change, anxieties were creeping in, and it wasn’t a wholly happy time on tour. It’s still one of my favourite records though, and I still prefer listening to it while i’m moving. A little more recently, Tame Impala and their album ‘Lonerism’ - as the solo band drove between the folk clubs, and I wondered to myself if maybe playing folk music actually suited me. Kevin Parker and his pals seemed to be having more fun deconstructing their version of psychedelic pop. The Ulrich Schnauss album ‘A Strangely isolated place’ - we drove about 400 miles around Ireland in a hire car with only that CD as accompaniment. That record sounds much more like Ireland to me that anything by the Clancy Brothers.  Cass McCombs, Beach House, Hamilton Leithauser, Thundercat ,Dylan, Joni - they’ve all got their particular stories and places attached to them over the years of travelling and touring.  Solo drives & journeys with Jazz singers, hip hop & punk rock songs playing loudly, soundtracking the wild landscapes - both rural & urban. Yes, listening to music in a car, van, or tourbus - the ideas go in deep and influence thoughts & feelings. The world winds by and the album playing defines it temporarily.

My new album ‘The Deluder’ which is coming out on September 1st, I’ve had it on in the car recently - i think it’s a good driving record, certainly for me, hopefully for others. Its diverse, not folky, quite introspective I suppose, a midlife crisis record some suggest? hmmm, maybe, but if so it’s still got good tunes, and they work with well with the moving landscape. You can pre-order it now here.