At this point I’m going to cheat and write about eight songs – the whole of the second Seafieldroad album – in one go. It’s not that I’m not proud of these songs individually, it’s just that they’re all about the same thing. Basically Seafieldroad, the album, is an eight-song love letter to my wife Laura – or, as she was at the time, my fiance. And I’m not going to write eight blogs about that. Some things are private, even for a singer-songwriter.
The album opens with Cramond Island Causeway. For the benefit of readers who don’t know Edinburgh, just off the village of Cramond on the outskirts of the city there’s an island you can walk to at low tide, along a causeway of jagged triangular structures that look like the spine of an ancient sea creature. At high tide, though, the island is cut off from the mainland. People who don’t know this can get stranded there. One time I remember some teenagers had a massive party and ended up with their faces all over page three of the Scotsman after getting hypothermia and having to call the coastguard.
When I wrote this song we were living in Leith and would sometimes cycle to Cramond; it was inspired by one particular journey there, on Laura’s 31st birthday. My memory is a bit blurry now, but we were making an art project at the time that involved hiding secret messages in outdoor locations, so we probably did that. Lorn Macdonald made a very beautiful video for this song, in which Laura and I are played by two people much younger than us and the beach is in Orkney instead of near Leith. It’s like an arthouse film version of us, and actually much sadder than the song was intended to be. By sheer chance, Laura owns a summer dress exactly like the one the girl is wearing in the video, which freaked us out a bit when we first saw it.
Cramond appears again in The War Planes Are Blitzing The Town; in fact the song was originally called Cramond Island Causeway 2. I changed the title to avoid confusing people, but the new title probably ended up confusing people anyway, since the song is actually much more about Cramond than Cramond Island Causeway is. The lyrics refer to the war fortifications on the island, a series of concrete bunkers that had anti-aircraft guns on them during World War Two. It’s a song about emotional battles – the war planes are, obviously enough, not actual war planes, they’re all the things in life that make you feel under attack, or oppressed, or isolated. I liked the image of someone feeling lonely and lost, fighting off their own personal war planes from a metaphorical island, and someone who loves them swimming out to the island to be with them, shooting anti aircraft guns by their side. The line ‘Leith must be protected’ has a double meaning – it was the Leith shipyards that these guns were protecting during the war, and it was our home and our life in Leith that I was fighting to protect in the song, in what were stressful times for both of us.
What Became Of Pinky And Honker is a simple love song, deliberately so. The title comes from Laura calling me Honker. Not because I smell, but because when I have a cold I make a slight honking sound with my nose. I wanted to give her an equally silly nickname as revenge, but the only thing I could think of was that she was wearing a pink beret at the time. None of this has anything to do with the song really, I just liked the image of two characters called Pinky and Honker going off on some adventure and leaving their frustrating working lives behind, as we often wished we could. The title has a double meaning – Honker is imagining his old workmates wondering what became of Pinky and Honker, but he’s also feeling vulnerable and wondering whether Pinky is going to stay with him.
If Pinky and Honker did go on that adventure, it was probably to Siberia, as described in There Is A Train That Goes Thousands Of Miles Away, which was going to be called Trans Siberian Express until I remembered that Momus had already written a song called that. Early on in our relationship Laura and I talked a lot about saving up money in a jar so that one day we could go in this epic train trip, ending up in the Far East. Sadly we never managed to put enough in the jar to go to Siberia. We went to other, less expensive places instead, and eventually ended up in the Hebrides, which to a lot of people in the UK might as well be Siberia. Maybe one day we’ll still make that trip.
On the subject of cold places, I Just Want To Sledge With My Baby was a jokey title for a sad, sober song. It was written one incredibly cold, bleak winter, when the snow drove Scotland to a standstill – hence the line ‘the radio is saying make no journey you don’t need’. Musically this is probably my favourite moment on the album – there are shades of Steve Reich in the arrangement, an influence all the way back to Swimmer One’s first single. I remember feeling especially proud of the second section, where the line ‘we’re climbing up the hill’ is accompanied by an ascending chord sequence.
You Are The Only Place On The Map was a sequel to There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City from the first Seafieldroad album. As you can tell, I really like maps as a metaphor – finding routes through life, drawing your own emotional maps, that sort of thing. If There Are No Maps was about the beginning of a relationship, this rejoins the same couple a bit further down the line as they try to keep things together in challenging times, to find new routes through their lives and their relationship. There are references to various places we’d been together, from Turin to Aberfeldy and Manchester, subject of an earlier Seafieldroad song. The end is basically one big apology. I can’t actually remember what I was apologising about now, but thankfully it turned out ok.
The Coastal Path was originally called Seafield Road – after the street in Edinburgh – until it dawned on me that a song called Seafield Road, by Seafieldroad, would result in even more confusion than two songs called Cramond Island Causeway. Seafield Road is not a pretty road. It smells a bit from the nearby sewage works, and mostly consists of warehouses. It was, however, the quickest way to get from our home in Leith to one of our favourite places at the time, Portobello beach, so we would often cycle along it when we first got together, drinking fizzy wine and eating fish and chips on the beach when we got there. I thought this was a neat metaphor for the fact that the road to happiness isn’t always beautiful. Sometimes it is noisy and ugly and smells a bit. At the beginning of the song, Honker seems a bit worried that it’s not going to work out between him and Pinky. Perhaps there are too many emotional obstacles in their way, between them and the beach.
It’s strange listening back to this song now, knowing that not long after the album was released we would get married on that beach, and that for three years after that we would live in a flat two minutes’ walk from it, and that our first child would learn to walk on it. It’s also strange listening back to the album’s closing song, Walking On A Dream, knowing that it would later become the first dance at our wedding – the original Empire of the Sun version, not mine. A happy ending.
On the new album The Coastal Path has taken on a new meaning again. It has become a beginning, the opening section of a song cycle called The Path, The Beach, The Sea, the start of a new journey to the Hebrides. And it’s much more embellished than this simple, bare version, which feels like a sketch now, an enthusiastic first run at something ultimately deeper and richer, like the beginning of a relationship. At the end of this album though, Pinky and Honker haven’t got married yet. They are talking a lot, making plans, walking along the coastal path, by an old rail track, holding hands, the sound of the waves mixing with the sound of the city traffic, the beach just starting to emerge in the distance.