Days 64-65: All the things that make you want to disappear/The palace of light

I’ve been trying to write this song-by-song diary more or less chronologically, but I just realised I’ve ballsed that up by missing out two songs I recorded eight years ago for Whatever Gets You Through The Night. I also just spotted that I changed my numbering system half-way through. OMG, the whole thing is ruined now.

Ah well. Nothing ever works out perfectly, including success. Apart from that Ashton Kutcher filmWhatever Gets You Through The Night is the most high profile thing I’ve worked on as a musician, but turned out to be the end of a phase in my musical life more than a beginning. It was a big, ambitious project – a live show, a film, a book and an album, all featuring about two dozen Scottish writers and musicians brought together by theatre director Cora Bissett, my band Swimmer One, and the playwright David Greig, and all telling stories set between midnight and 4am. The show premiered at the Arches in Glasgow in 2012 and was revived at the Queen’s Hall for the following year’s Edinburgh Fringe. In between, the film toured Scotland and the album received very good reviews from Mojo, the BBC and elsewhere. The book, designed by StudioLR in Edinburgh, was a beautiful thing too.

I have fond memories of it all, despite having forgotten about it obviously. I loved the way the songs and pieces of writing all took on different meanings across the four different parts of the project. I loved editing the book and putting the tracklist together for the album, a dream job for a compilation nerd. And I loved being part of the show’s house band, playing piano for Rachel Sermanni and Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue – who was incredibly sweet and unassuming and brought his whole family along –  and on a hilarious Eugene Kelly song called Chips and Cheese, for which the whole cast did hammy dance moves and a brass section marched through the audience. A particular highlight was my one-year-old daughter joining us for the show’s Edinburgh Fringe run and being carried on stage each night for a brief moment of scene-stealing mid-show cuteness and narrative poignancy. Whatever Gets You Through The Night also temporarily cured my chronic stage fright. If you’re going to be performing alongside RM Hubbert, Ricky Ross, Withered Hand and Emma Pollock – that’s us all above at the Arches curtain call – then you’d better raise your game.

The Swimmer One song, All the things that make you want to disappear, was the show’s opening number – a decision that, if I’m honest, I had sneakily hoped to engineer by writing a lyric that sounded like an introduction, a journey into the night. I only wrote some of the lyric though. The rest, a vivid description of a dream, was written and sung by Laura, whose own song closed the show and also appeared on the album. All the things that make you want to disappear turned out to be the last song Swimmer One recorded, so the title is oddly appropriate even though that wasn’t the intention. What actually made us disappear was mostly just a lack of time; two members of a band having a baby together tends to make getting everyone in the same rehearsal room tricky. If there had been huge public demand for a new Swimmer One record we might have found a way, but there wasn’t, and our actual lives felt a bit more important.

My other contribution was a solo effort called The Palace of Light. Cora, who was directing the show, had wanted to use There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City, but since I was going to be sharing album space with some big names I was determined to write something new despite having very little time to do it. I sometimes wish we’d just gone with Cora’s plan, given that There are no maps is both a better song and a better recording. Apart from anything else, The Palace of Light ’s lyrics don’t really make sense. The song was inspired by a brief reference, in an article Peter Ross had written about a karaoke bar in Glasgow, to an underground toilet block that was apparently a popular cottaging spot. Because it had a glass roof that the sun would stream through, it was known as ‘the palace of light’, which struck me as a surprisingly poetic name for somewhere people went to have sex with strangers, and the phrase had stuck in my head ever since. The problem was that the song I ended up writing is set late at night, ‘after the clubs have all closed’, meaning that not only would the palace of light be completely dark, it would presumably be locked. The string arrangement is lovely though – it was a brass arrangement in the live show, which worked even better – and it was a safer bet for performing live, given that I’ve never once made it through There are no maps on stage without screwing it up, and it’s best not to do that in front of your biggest ever crowd.

At the time there was ambitious talk of Whatever Gets You Through The Night evolving into something else – an international franchise, perhaps, with us curating new gatherings of writers and musicians from all over the world – but instead the project came to an end soon after the show’s Edinburgh Fringe run, largely because we could never figure out a practical, affordable way to continue with something that relied on bringing together so many busy people. I was fine with this, which surprised me given how excited I’d initially been about its potential. Putting the whole thing together had been a wonderful creative experiment with multiple art forms and voices and felt really special. I enjoyed the show’s Fringe run too but ultimately it didn’t have quite the same thrill as the premiere at the Arches, partly because three sections I loved were cut. I understood why – the show was too long and probably too uneven in tone for an international sales pitch – but I had a nagging feeling that we’d lost something along the way. I learned that I’m not always great at the creative compromises required to make something properly successful. I also learned that it’s sometimes healthier to enjoy special things and then let them go and move on than it is to cling on to them.

Whatever Gets You Through The Night has had a couple of slight returns since. The original creative team briefly reunited for a project dreaming up imaginary shows for posters around Glasgow – ours was a Roald Dahl inspired site-specific theatre show in the Tunnock’s tea cake factory, with Momus as Willy Wonka, which I’d still love to do in real life. This year David adapted his opening piece for Whatever Gets You Through The Night as Bees, a short film for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival series. And last year I created a one-off Hebridean version of the show with Emma Pollock, the Sea Atlas, Gaelic singer Ceitlin Smith, a Ricky Ross cover by me, and some of Daniel Warren’s films from the original project, which was a lot of fun to do. It wasn’t theatre – it was Cora’s magic touch that made the original show work and I wouldn’t have dared try to replicate that – but it was a good night. It’d also be fun to do a proper revival, for its tenth anniversary perhaps, with a new generation of Scottish writers and musicians.

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