Day 81: The Mainland

While I was making Tourism, my new album, I did a five-day online songwriting course run by Martin Sutton of the Songwriting Academy. Martin has written songs for Celine Dion, the Backstreet Boys, Gary Barlow, Pixie Lott and numerous others – ie: million-selling mainstream stars on major labels. I did the course because I hoped I might learn something. Also it was £5 for five days (Covid special offer!) so why not? 

Did I learn anything? Well, I made the beginning of Pulling Ragwort on the Sabbath slightly shorter so you get to the vocal quicker. But the song is still called Pulling Ragwort on the Sabbath, so maybe not.

Perversely, the song most shaped by the experience was The Mainland, which is probably also the song on this album least likely to be played on the radio. I’ll explain why later, assuming you make it that far.

Martin is a great motivational speaker and very likeable. He is passionate about what he does and kept reminding us throughout the week – in response to ambitious students’ insistent queries about how to write a hit – that if your motivation is money or fame rather than excitement about the artistic process then you’re in this for all the wrong reasons. 

It reminded me of a newspaper interview I once did with Pete Waterman, famous in the 1980s for writing and producing songs for Kylie Minogue, Bananarama and Rick Astley. As a teenager I’d thought of Waterman as a Thatcherite cynic, the Loadsamoney of pop, because his songs had seemed so deliberately, reductively formulaic and he called his studio the Hit Factory. When I met Waterman, though, I liked him a lot. It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me that he maybe really loved what he did and took his craft very seriously, but just happened to have very different and more conservative taste than me. We spent quite a bit of the interview talking about his love of model train sets, to which he seemed as sincerely, boyishly devoted as he was to pop music.

I thought I’d learned something important from my encounter with Waterman, but I realised during the Songwriting Academy course that I was still stubbornly clinging on to old prejudices. I’d assumed, for example, that the reason songs for major label acts are often written by teams of writers is to refine a product until it fits a very specific commercial formula. According to Martin it’s actually because songwriters are sociable creatures and enjoy collaborating and learning from each other whenever possible; apparently their publishers prefer them not to do this because it makes them less money. At another point I found myself cringing at Martin’s enthusiasm for a song he’d written for LeeAnn Rimes called Everybody’s Someone which I thought was trite and condescending. Months later the song was still stubbornly lodged in my head after one listen, which is why Martin has helped sell millions of records and I haven’t.

One of my favourite moments during the course was when producer Paul Statham created a series of loops for us to write ‘toplines’ (vocal melodies) to. Each one was based on an actual hit song. Among obvious things like Billie Jean was one by a hip Californian band I’d never heard of called Yacht. Paul picked apart the melody, phrase by phrase, line by line, explaining how Yacht were making little changes to conventional pop melodies to suit their style. Yes, they were subverting the rules of production line pop, but those rules were still their starting point.

In that moment I had a terrible realisation: it’s possible that my entire musical output has consisted of those little changes.

I remembered telling a friend once that I’d love to be in a cult band, and also her withering response. Nobody ever wants to be in a cult band, she replied, they want to be in a successful one. A cult band is what you end up being in if that doesn’t work. I suspect that part of where I’ve been going wrong as a songwriter over the years is that I’ve been trying to write cult music, making small alterations to the tried and tested pop formulas I learned as a child (from people like Pete Waterman) that make it less ‘pop’, when what I should have been doing is starting with an idea that’s new and weird and leftfield and making it more pop, like OMD or the Human League did, or Billie Eilish does now. And so I write songs that sound a bit like hits by people I like, but with deliberately obscure titles like The Balance Company, or Psychogeography, or This Club Is For Everybody, Even You that nobody can understand or relate to. 

Put another way, I often start my creative process by self-consciously eliminating things I don’t like rather than instinctively amplifying things that I do, and by critiquing existing music rather than trying to create something new. Word of advice to young songwriters – don’t do this. It might get you a few good reviews from geeky music journalists who appreciate that kind of attention to detail, but you’ll never have a hit.

My tendency to do this might have something to do with my own experience as a music journalist, all those years I spent picking other people’s songs apart line by line (although this clearly wasn’t a problem for Neil Tennant). I could also blame some of my musical influences, except that it was me who chose them. Whatever the reason, the Songwriting Academy course reminded me that the thing almost all the music I love has in common is that it doesn’t quite fit in the place where it seems like it should belong. It’s not radically different from the music that does, there’s just something slightly off kilter about it. 

An example. The first band I ever loved was A-ha. They were, on the surface, a 1980s boy band, but what made them stand out for me was that they were outsiders, arty, melancholy Norwegians awkwardly adjusting to a world of glossy, English-speaking pop. Scoundrel Days, their second album (and my favourite) is both incredibly bleak and full of odd turns of phrase that sound like people experimenting with a second language. A-ha became more conventional with age, musically and lyrically, and I drifted away from them as a result.

I’ve already written about my next favourite band, the Pet Shop Boys, far too much in this diary, so I’ll just say that while they are clearly a pop band and very good and successful at it, to me they always seemed to be at one remove from it – not smiling in photos, not dancing, not playing live, writing arch, bookish lyrics that critiqued pop as often as they embraced it. And that this was why I liked them. Most of my favourite PSB songs, tellingly, are their weird B-sides about dogs, Don Juan or splitting atoms. 

Prefab Sprout, my next favourite band, were also quite mainstream musically – you wouldn’t have to change that much about Cars and Girls or When Love Breaks Down to make them sound like a Gary Barlow song. But presented as they are, they’re something else (also, obviously, what aspiring pop star chooses to call themselves Prefab Sprout?). The same is true of my favourite female singer, Jane Siberry. Some of my favourite records of hers are actually her best-known ones – like Mimi on the BeachThe Walking or Calling All Angels – but in each case, again, there are strange little touches that a more conventional pop act would probably edit out. Mimi is seven minutes long. The Walking has a weird false start that sounds like a mistake and possibly was. Even Calling All Angels, her most famous song, has a very long intro consisting of a list of angels, then a lyric that seems deeply ambivalent about whether the angels are being of much help to anyone. And these are the parts I like most.

The more obscure a band is, the more I tend to like them, and I suspect this is because it’s the elements that hold bands back from mainstream success that I most relate to, rather than the elements that make them popular. For example, two of my favourite male singers are Mark Eitzel (of American Music Club) and Patrick Fitzgerald (of Kitchens of Distinction), both loved by critics and mostly ignored by the public. Interestingly, both stuck out from their genre of choice – country music and shoegaze indie respectively – partly because they were gay, which brought an outsider quality to everything they did (neither shoegaze nor country music are exactly famed for their gay sensibility). I got to interview Patrick once and I remember him complaining that music journalists were perplexed by Kitchens of Distinction because they were gay but didn’t sound gay, whatever that means (synthesisers and glitter?). As he put it bitterly, he was a ‘bad gay’. As a bad straight who has been much more influenced by Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey and Bat For Lashes than by whiny heterosexual male rock singers, I can relate. 

Obviously I’m not alone in my view that pop music is more interesting when it’s a bit weird and subversive, and when the hit songs seem like random, amateurish accidents rather than expertly and deliberately crafted. This worldview can lead to a lot of snobbery, much nonsense about ‘normies’ and ‘manufactured’ or ‘corporate’ pop, and I’ve long been baffled by people who sneer at pop music when the music they like/make is demonstrably also pop music, created according to the same musical rules but with minor differences. I want nothing to do with that and will defend pop music from snobs at every opportunity. For some reason I just find it personally difficult to commit to it myself.

On day one of the song-writing course we were set an exercise where we had to come up with ten ideas for pop songs and then try to develop three. I found this exercise incredibly difficult because it felt too much like school (a ridiculous position given that I had voluntarily gone to school but there we are). In the end I picked ten phrases used by Martin and his co-host Shelly Poole (of Alisha’s Attic) during the next lesson and tried to make song lyrics out of them. The one I was most pleased with was ‘We Could Do This All Night’, which was going to be a song about two people having a long argument then eventually deciding they were never going to resolve it and going out dancing instead. I thought it was quite a good idea, and perhaps it was, but it was still rooted in trying to subvert the whole process rather than go with the flow, and also by taking the piss out of the very people who were trying to teach me to write pop songs. 

If I could never fully commit to pop music it’s probably for the same reason that I could never fully commit to dancing in public, and also why I get terrible stage fright. It’s social awkwardness. The musicians I relate to are usually people who seem to feel the same way, who seem perplexed, amused, alienated or terrified by the prospect of commercial success – or just indifferent to it – rather than genuinely, unashamedly exhilarated by it like Martin and his Songwriting Academy friends. 

I think the moment I knew I wasn’t going to sign up to any more of Martin’s songwriting courses was when, in the final lesson, he talked about the thrill of hearing the Backstreet Boys sing one of his songs live to 17,000 people. He’d clearly been saving up this anecdote for the end of the course. This was, in his view, the pinnacle of what his students might achieve. It was his best pitch to us for signing up to the next course, the one that would be much more comprehensive but also cost hundreds of pounds rather than a fiver. And I was sat there thinking but the Backstreet Boys are really boring. Again, the numbers resoundingly demonstrate that Martin is right and I am wrong, but I can’t pretend to be something I’m not, so there we are.

I said I’d explain how my song The Mainland was shaped by this experience, so if that’s why you’re here then thank you for your patience. Like a lot of my songs it began as a joke. What if you described the mainland in the same way that people from the mainland routinely describe islands like the one I live on – as exotic, remote, mysterious, ‘mist-shrouded’, on the edge of the map, places of the imagination rather than places with actual people living ordinary lives? 

In recent years the mainland has felt increasingly alien to me, especially during the lockdown when I mostly experienced it in my imagination. Not long after moving to my wee village on the Isle of Lewis I drove back into Edinburgh at night and felt like I was in a scene from Blade Runner, which will probably sound ridiculous to most people who live there. I even developed a dislike for the glow in the sky that appears as you approach Inverness from Ullapool. The further I am from the mainland, the better I feel. 

As I worked on the song, though, I realised that this is also how I feel about the ‘mainstream’. It’s somewhere I’m drawn to, that fills my imagination, but which fundamentally I don’t understand, and can’t quite picture as a real place. This was very much on my mind when I was writing the lines ‘I’ll always be a tourist, a boat on the sea. Adrift from the mainland, but not of the island’, as I sought song-writing tips for my first Hebridean album from an Englishman who writes for the Backstreet Boys (while not quite committing to the process). 

In short, I’m really not sure where I belong musically. Nowhere, possibly. And that’s fine, I’m mostly happy to keep drifting around the ocean in my wee boat, watching giant ocean liners obliviously cruise by.

Day 80: Valhalla

In case anyone is wondering, I didn’t write Valhalla about John Stahl, who starred in a music video filmed by Laura only a week before he died. It is a song about facing death – something I’ve written about quite a bit in recent years – but when I wrote the lyrics in early 2021 I didn’t even know John had cancer, and neither did he.

It’s strange how things work out. By the time I asked John to star in the film, in January 2022, it was certainly clear that he might not be with us a lot longer. But honestly that’s not really why I asked him. I asked him because he was a brilliant actor and I thought he’d make a brilliant Viking. I did think the song might resonate with him given what he was going through, but we never explicitly discussed this and I would have asked him anyway. I’d grab any excuse to work with John, it was always a joy.

And then, between asking John to do the video (end of January) and actually shooting it (end of February), everything changed. 

In January we’d done a rehearsed reading with John – his last ever ensemble acting role, as it turned out – of an old John McGrath play called Random Happenings in the Hebrides. He was very fired up about it afterwards, talking about developing a full production of Random Happenings or revisiting other old Scottish plays in a similar way. This was typical of him. He lived for his work, and keeping busy gave him something to focus on once he was ill. In all honesty, it was the main reason we’d organised the event. The fact that it was the 20th anniversary of John McGrath’s death was a convenient excuse.

Buoyed by his enthusiasm, I pitched him the Viking film. I’d imagined a video in which an old Viking warrior turns up at Wee Studio in Stornoway, looms terrifyingly over everyone, and demands that they record him telling his life story. John and his wife Jane both loved this idea, and Jane found a fantastic Viking tattoo that she was going to put on John’s head. We set a date for filming, Wednesday 2 March. Enough time for John to grow his beard back for the role. The video was going to close with the Viking standing on a beach, looking out to sea, contemplating his life and his journey to the next world.

And then John’s health deteriorated further, even more rapidly than we’d feared. It quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to get John into town, or even out of the house. We almost dropped the idea entirely, but ultimately agreed with Jane that Laura and I would just visit him at home in Uig while we still could, bring cameras (and cake), and we’d see what happened. By this time John was so exhausted he could barely walk or talk and had to be helped out of bed (not an easy task – he was a big guy) and yet… when the camera started rolling he came to life. It was a remarkable thing to watch. He knew exactly what to do.

John died the following week, in the early hours of Wednesday 2 March. Laura had finished a first cut of the film on the Tuesday and Jane showed it to him later that day. How much of it he took in it’s difficult to say – Jane says he heard it more than watched it – but at least he got to experience it in some form. Just a few hours later he was gone.

Sometimes in this diary I go into a lot of self-indulgent detail about what my songs are about. But actually once they’re out in the world it doesn’t matter. Your intentions are irrelevant and the meaning belongs to whoever’s listening to it. That feels particularly true in this case, so I’m not going to say more about what I was trying to express with Valhalla because it belongs to John now, and also to Jane. In the end we didn’t make a music video for one of my songs at all. Instead the song became a soundtrack to a poignant short film about a man at the end of his life somehow still managing to do the thing he’s devoted most of that life to doing, supported by someone who loves him dearly. Even in his fragile state, you can still see the magnetism that brought to life characters as diverse as Rickard Karstark from Game of Thrones and Inverdarroch from High Road. A lot of people seem to be finding comfort and hope in that, which is a beautiful thing to see.

There are lots of moments in Laura’s film that I love. The subtle, symbolic addition of colour throughout. The small moments of intimacy between John and Jane. The opening shot which shows the outside and the inside of the house simultaneously, the interior world and the outside world. The way the waves glide over the rocks just as Scott C Park’s guitar glides through the chorus. But most of all I love the moment when John shakes his fist, in triumphant defiance. Still acting. Still alive. 

Day 79: Tourist Information

‘Why is the world in love again?
Why are we marching hand in hand?
Why are the ocean levels rising up?
It’s a brand new record for 1990
They Might Be Giants’ brand new album Flood’

(from Theme from Flood by They Might Be Giants)

I’ve been thinking a lot about introduction songs lately, because I’ve just tried to write one, Tourist Information. The sad fact is that this song only exists because I thought it’d be funny to open an album called Tourism with a song called Tourist Information, it being the first place you go when you visit somewhere.

What is an introduction song? My favourite is Theme from Flood by They Might Be Giants, which is as literal as these things get – a 30 second track in which a choir sings “It’s a brand new record for 1990, They Might Be Giants’ brand new album, Flooood!” at the beginning of They Might Be Giants’ 1990 album Flood

I still remember the first time I heard Theme from Flood because I’d never experienced an album starting that way. I especially loved how time specific it was. Albums usually aspire to be something more enduring and substantial than a mere single. This one seemed to be cheerfully acknowledging, right from the off, that it would be obsolete by 1991. Ironically, the line about the ocean levels rising up makes it feel even more resonant three decades on.

I put a post on Facebook a few weeks ago, hoping friends would point me to other introduction songs, ones I hadn’t heard of or had forgotten. The responses suggested Theme From Flood is even more unusual than I thought. They were all thoughtful suggestions, but I would categorise most of them as great opening songs rather than introduction songs. The Fear by Pulp, Zoo Station by U2 and Sat in your Lap by Kate Bush all got nominated on the basis that each set the tone for everything that followed and immediately established that these albums (This is Hardcore, Achtung Baby and The Dreaming respectively) would be different to anything their creators had done before, so you should sit up and pay attention. Well sure, but that’s also what singles are for (and so Help the Aged, The Fly and Sat in Your Lap had already done that job as singles). And ultimately I’m not sure something quite counts as an introduction song unless it doesn’t quite work out of context. As a test case, who would listen to Theme from Flood on its own?

By that rule, I reckon More Songs about Chocolate and Girls by the Undertones – suggested by my oldest friend Martin – fits the definition, with its chorus of “Here’s more songs about chocolate and girls” which only makes any sense if it’s actually followed by more songs about chocolate and girls. I reckon Theme from McAlmont and Butler does too (thanks Paul ), just because everything about it makes you imagine the opening credits to a TV show called McAlmont and Butler, and to listen to something else afterwards would feel like rudely switching channels. I think Introducing the Band by Suede also counts (thanks Alan), partly for the conspicuous contrariness of opening with a song called Introducing the Band that doesn’t sound like anything else your band does for the next 40 minutes. Robbie Williams’ The Heavy Entertainment Show (“where Eminem meets Barry Manilow”) gets an honourable mention (thanks Gary) for taking the piss out of the whole genre. And I think my friend Gerry’s suggestion, Born in a Storm from Deacon Blue’s Raintown, also qualifies for the immediately obvious thematic link between song and album title, and also its brevity (one minute 33 seconds, before it segues into the title track – in other words it’s not a song you’re likely to listen to on its own.)

Part of the point of an introduction song is to indicate that what’s being introduced has some substance and depth. Why else would it need an introduction? When the Beatles pioneered the concept album with Sergeant Pepper, they largely did it with an introduction (the ‘concept’ is kind of abandoned later on) and a few prog rock albums unsurprisingly have introduction songs (my Facebook poll flagged up two by Pink Floyd – Pigs on the Wing from Animals and Speak to Me from Dark Side of the Moon).

The best place to look for introduction songs, though, is the genre that’s most focused on words – hip-hop, which has a long and quite distinct history of albums that open with short skits or other tracks that only really make sense as a warm-up for something else (thanks Hannah for reminding me of this); there are often interludes and outros too. I’m no expert on hip-hop so I’ll definitely defer to other people on this one, but I do like the hilariously dark intro to Ice T’s 1988 album Power, in which two fans get into a fight over the new Ice T album (‘How you got that tape man, it ain’t even out yet?’) before one of them shoots the other. (“I gotta call the paramedics man…. Wait, let me see what this tape sounds like…”). And Countdown to Armageddon by Public Enemy is just a brilliant intro to It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (it’s immediately followed by two classics, Bring The Noise and then Don’t Believe the Hype – what a way to open an album).

By my own rules, then, Tourist Information doesn’t actually qualify as an introduction song. My thinking was that it would act as both an advertisement and a kind of content warning (‘contains melancholy’) for anyone discovering my music for the first time via my new home, Wee Studio Records. Except that it also works perfectly well as a song in its own right – one about island life, mental health and wild weather, if you’re interested – and beyond the title the only way it really introduces the album is that it uses tourism as a metaphor, as a few other songs also do in different ways.

So maybe I need to have another go. But perhaps I don’t need to make a whole new album to do it. My friend Martin also reminded me of how, in the early days of CD singles, you might get up to five or six tracks as record companies experimented with a new format. So Erasure’s Victim of Love single starts with a short, introductory live track, and – albeit much later – Marc Almond’s The Days of Pearly Spencer single starts with a 55-second Debussy instrumental. 

Or, maybe an introduction song is a preposterous thing to be releasing in 2022, when most people listen to music on shuffle and (despite Adele’s best efforts) ignore musicians’ carefully chosen track lists entirely. Either way, it’d be fun to make a compilation (sorry, a playlist – showing my age there) of introduction songs, and if anyone has I’d quite like to listen to it. There might also be a book in it. A few years ago Alasdair Gray did it for literature with his Book of Prefaces, adding his own joyful and perceptive introduction to centuries of literary introductions. Who could write something similar for pop music? Momus, maybe? David Byrne? Brian Eno? If it’s not been done already then someone should.

Days 75-78: The Demented Poets EP

The Demented Poets EP is a collaborative project, a collection of songs adapted from poems about living with dementia. The idea was that each song would not only expand on the poem’s theme, it would also draw on the kind of music that’s most meaningful to each writer – songs from their childhood, or songs that make particular moments in their lives feel more vivid. It’s a project about memory, loss, and the role of music in our emotional lives.

I was keen to do this project for two reasons. Firstly, my mother had dementia; for three difficult years I watched her gradually decline from someone who was just muddled and forgetful to someone who barely left her bed and no longer recognised her children. Secondly, the offer to work on this project (from Ron Coleman, a Lewis-based mental health activist who has dementia himself) came at a time when I felt I’d run out of things to say lyrically. So the idea of writing music to other people’s words, in conversation with them, was very appealing. It now looks like I’ll be doing a lot more of this sort of thing – we’ve just got funding to create songs with another group of people who have dementia.

I’ve already written a long piece about this project for The Scotsman’s Saturday magazine, focusing on Ron and the other Demented Poets. So if you’re interested in the EP but haven’t read that, start there. This blog is a much more self-indulgent and really quite geeky piece about how each song was written. If you’re interested in that, do read on…

The EP opens with Going for a Walk by John Hole. John died before the project started so I never got to meet him, but I spent quite a bit of time talking to his family about his musical tastes (the Beatles, Elton John, The Who, rock musicals) and his life (most of which was devoted to making and producing theatre – he also wrote children’s books and a screenplay). John’s poem is a witty, whimsical snapshot of a time not long before he died, looking back on fond memories that he can’t quite place (a child he calls ‘thing’, a holiday that ‘must have been in Cyprus’ but was maybe in Capri,). ‘It’s years ago and far away but important it is not,’ he concludes. What matters is that, whoever ‘thing’ was, he knows he loved him. It’s a remarkably upbeat portrayal of dementia, not as a frightening degenerative disease but as a gentle slipping away.

It took me ages to figure out what to do with it musically. John led such a rich and creative life, and his taste in music was so broad, that I could have started anywhere. So I thought maybe I should start everywhere – could the song be a miniature stage musical, divided into three acts like a play, a tribute to a life largely lived in theatre?

This conceit involved a bit of musical cheating. The first half of the poem is John looking back on his life, the second is him coming to terms with where is now (‘my mind can be a pain’). The song adds a third, instrumental section which revisits the melody from the first section. In my head, this part takes place in the afterlife, or at least in John’s absence (there’s a tolling bell just before it to signify his passing). One image in my head when writing it was the final section of the film Titanic, when Gloria Stuart’s character takes an imaginary walk through the ship and gets a round of applause from everyone on board. John also gets a round of applause, which seemed fitting for a song celebrating the life of someone from the theatre world. 

John also gets a big chorus of ‘love love love’ during this final section. This is, obviously, a homage to/blatant theft from the Beatles’ All You Need is Love. And once I’d decided to do that I thought I might as well pack in loads of other Beatles references. The opening  section is Penny Lane crossed with the Paul McCartney bit of A Day in the Life; listen closely and you’ll also hear homages to Strawberry Fields Forever and Blue Jay Wray (I even threw in a sitar for a wee George Harrison moment, while Stu Brown who did the live drums was instructed to ‘play like Ringo’). 

The middle section is 1970s Elton John. I spent quite a lot of time listening to Tiny Dancer and also Your Song, which was played at John’s funeral so felt like an appropriate reference point for a part of the song dealing with John’s decline and death. For a final 1960s flourish, we threw in a bit of the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not at all obvious (nor is it meant to be), but what I was referencing here was the film’s final scene, in which astronaut Dave Bowman is reincarnated as a star child, floating above the Earth. In other words, John has left this planet but is still with us.

I should point out that I couldn’t have done any of this without Hamish Brown, my former Swimmer One bandmate and a brilliant producer who knows me so well after almost 20 years of making music together that he can turn any mad idea I have into reality almost instantly. It took us less than a day to structure the whole song, although quite a lot longer for Hamish to mix it.

The Fighter, Ron’s song about his own dementia diagnosis, was the first track I started working on and the last one we finished. When we began discussing this project I wasn’t quite sure what Ron wanted – was it actual songs or spoken word pieces set to music? I don’t know if he was quite sure at that stage either, so I sent him two very different demos. One was an instrumental version of A Petrol Pump in the Cradle of Christianity by Swimmer One, which I thought was ambient but ominous enough to accompany a spoken version of his poem. The other was a recording of me singing The Fighter to an instrumental version of Largs Hum, doing my best to channel Phil Oakey on the Human League’s Empire State Human, which I also sent to Ron for reference. He preferred this second pitch, and the idea of doing dementia pop songs began to take shape.

On one level The Fighter is just a rewritten version of Largs Hum, but there are lots of new ideas too. The title made me think of a boxer who keeps getting knocked down then dragging himself back to his feet, so the very first idea I had was a note that keeps descending and descending until a loud snare drum punches it back up half a scale, like a memory suddenly returning, a moment of clarity in the fog. In the final section – “I am the demented poet, I cannot fall!” – everything ascends again. (In short, Ron gets knocked down, then he gets up again, you’re never gonna keep him down.)

I asked Hamish to make the whole thing sound as claustrophobic as he could, to reflect the fear and frustration expressed in the poem. Bury a Friend by Billie Eilish was a key reference point, being one of the most nightmarish, migraine-inducing songs I’ve ever heard on daytime Radio One. As usual Hamish did a great job. One part just wasn’t working though – my vocal. The song needed Ron, and I’m glad I persuaded him to do it because he transformed it completely. We recorded them in one day at Wee Studio in Stornoway; he was exhausted afterwards, but he brings an anger and an energy to it that suits the song, and his poem, perfectly. The backing vocals are by his wife Karen and daughter Francesca (who did the fantastic operatic high note in the middle eight). Before we recorded these I imagined them sounding something like the harmonies on 20th Century Boy by T Rex, all 1970s glam rock. The end result sounds more like This Corrosion by Sisters of Mercy, which I like even more.

Feelings was the song I enjoyed working on most, I think. Gerald King, who wrote the poem, is a 58-year-old from Fife who used to be in synth pop bands in the 1980s, a time when I was in my early teens and discovering pop music for the first time. When we first spoke, he reeled off a long list of bands and singers that he loves – The Primitives, The Stranglers, Transvision Vamp, Iggy Pop, Visage, Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode.  This was both exciting to hear and a bit daunting, since none of these people really sound anything like each other. Which direction should we go in? And would any of this music do justice to a poem describing the feeling of fear and dread Gerry went through when he was first diagnosed with dementia?

Luckily Hamish and I know our 1980s pop history, so what you get is half a decade of it (1981 to around 1986) in four and half minutes, with as many of Gerry’s reference points as possible plus a few more. The drums, in my head at least, are the drums from Take On Me by A-ha. The synth bassline is a throwback to Duran Duran’s first album. The middle section is Stripped (by Depeche Mode) and the finale is Enjoy the Silence, followed by the explosion at the end of the Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin (and yes, ours is an actual explosion, lifted from an archive of bomb sounds). For the vocals I did my best to channel Dave Gahan and Phil Oakey. Because if you’re going to sing about dark, deadly serious subjects to a 1980s pop soundtrack you need the singers that brought us Black Celebration and Being Boiled.

The part of this song I’m most proud of, though, is the part I had nothing to do with. When Gerry told us he had recordings of his 1980s band, Hotline to Moscow, I immediately wanted to hear them, and as soon as I heard them I wanted to use them. It was a neat solution to something the song lacked. In an ideal world I would have got Gerry to sing Feelings himself, but he politely declined and I wasn’t going to push it. But given his history it wouldn’t have felt right not to have him as a musical as well as lyrical presence on this song, so a fragment of Hotline to Moscow’s best song, The Evil in You, seemed like the way to do it. When we discovered it was in the same key as the song we’d just recorded it felt like fate. And perhaps it’s more powerful and poignant this way. A few seconds after it appears, Gerry’s old song dissolves into reverb, as if it’s disappearing from his memory.

The opening of Feelings is also a fragment from The Evil in You, but played backwards. At one point I’d planned to do something like this on all the songs on the EP, to represent memory and the past. There’s a backwards drum fill right at the start of Going for a Walk, another very Beatles-like touch, for the same reason. In the end though I was worried about overegging it and dropped the idea. I like this wee musical connection between Feelings and Going for a Walk though; it’s subtle enough that most people won’t even notice it, but I know it’s there.

I can claim very little credit for Farewell to the Demented Poet, the EP’s final track. The music was mostly written (and played) by Laura Cameron-Lewis, my wife, who also sings it as a duet with Karen, Ron’s wife. It’s a keening song – a lament for the dead – translated into Gaelic by Laura from another poem written by Ron, and intended to be played at Ron’s funeral. Since Ron has lived on the Isle of Lewis for many years now, he wanted the EP to reference the language and culture of the Hebrides, the place where it is likely he will spend his final days. 

It is, in other words, a very different kind of track to anything else on the EP. This feels fitting, an acknowledgement that the inevitable end point of dementia is death and mourning. It’s a bleak way for the EP to end, perhaps, but an honest one. And while musically it’s nothing like Going for a Walk, it also brings the EP full circle thematically, given that both songs are farewells.

It’s been a really rewarding experience, making this EP, and I hope it finds an audience. I’m looking forward to the next stage of this project, whatever it ends up sounding like.

Days 70-74: Find the River / Anthem / Enchanted Alright / Walking on a Dream / What Happens Now

I’ve done a handful of cover versions over the years, and I tend to tie myself in knots trying to justify it, which is perhaps why I’ve done such a weird mix of covers. I’m not sure what Leonard Cohen, Empire of the Sun, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kate Bush and Kitchens of Distinction have in common other than me having recorded songs by all of them.

The most recent, Find the River, is straightforward enough. I was asked to do an R.E.M song by Bill Cummings from God is in the TV, who was putting together a compilation of 40 R.E.M covers to celebrate the band’s 40thanniversary. All the money from the album would go to the charity Help Musicians. Of course I was going to say yes.

A kind reviewer once likened my music to ‘minimalist classical composers working on adventurous ballads for R.E.M’ so this seemed like a good opportunity to try and live up to that – my version is basically Michael Nyman’s Find the River. I chose the song quite instinctively – my first thought was that it was less sacrilegious to cover it than to do something like Everybody Hurts or Man in the Moon – but in hindsight it chimes with where my life is at the moment. A big part of the reason why I moved to a village in the Hebrides three years ago was to try and slow down my life a bit, become less of a ‘speedyhead’ as the song puts it. Having lost both of my parents in the last few years, the line ‘there’s no one left to take the lead’ also has a lot of resonance for me. A lot of my songs these days are about growing older, confronting mortality, looking for some peace and stillness. Tourism, my new album for Wee Studio Records on the Isle of Lewis, is very much about that; Find the River was recorded early on in those sessions and has very much set the tone for how it’s going to sound. 

The first cover I ever properly released was Swimmer One’s cover of Cloudbusting by Kate Bush, which I’ve written about elsewhere. The second was What Happens Now by Kitchens of Distinction, which was hidden away as a Bandcamp only bonus track on the first Seafieldroad album. I have no elaborate excuse for this one. The Death of Cool is just one of my favourite albums of all time and I’ve sung along to its opening track so many times that I know all the words by heart.

The second Seafieldroad album includes a version of Walking on a Dream by Empire of the Sun, because it was a song Laura and I used to dance about to in our living room and which ended up being the first dance at our wedding – the original version, not mine. And then, for my last album, I recorded Enchanted / Alright, a medley of Some Enchanted Evening by Rodgers and Hammerstein and It’s Alright With Me by Cole Porter, two classic songs that meant a lot to my parents. I have a better excuse for this one. Some Enchanted Evening (from the musical South Pacific) is how my dad remembered the dance night when he met my mum. It’s Alright With Me is how my mum remembered the same evening.  It was a bit of a family joke that they had such different soundtracks to the same event. The story behind it is that he was falling in love for the first time, while she was recovering from the traumatic loss of an ex-boyfriend who had taken his own life shortly after breaking off their engagement.

To Dad, Mum was the beautiful stranger glimpsed across a crowded room, whose “laughter will sing in your dreams”. He took the advice in the song (“When you find your true love…. Fly to her side and make her your own”) very much to heart; he wrote to her every day the first Christmas they were apart, soon after they met. To Mum, by contrast, Dad was the wrong face, the wrong time, the wrong place, but he was so charming that my mum decided that, as the song concludes, “it’s alright with me”. The loss of her first fiancé haunted my mum for the rest of her life, but it was Dad’s love for her, in the end, that helped her get over it, and they were married for over 50 years.

The idea for Enchanted / Alright came to me shortly after my mum’s funeral. Partly it was a way of saying a last goodbye to them both. Partly I just liked the idea of juxtaposing two very different love songs, one naïve and idealistic, one coloured by experience of heartbreak.

The moral of this story is that songs can mean very different things depending on how, and also when, you sing them. That’s also true of Anthem, which I recorded in 2020 as a demo for a theatre project that was then abruptly cancelled by lockdown (it’s now being reimagined as a film). Even before that, though, we were already about to ditch the song – licensing it would have been a nightmare.  I decided to put it out anyway because I was quite pleased with it and because it seemed very fitting for the early days of lockdown, being one of those songs that resonates most strongly in the most difficult times, when people feel defeated, or frightened, or hopeless. If something is broken, the song says, you can either obsess over its brokenness, and all the cracks appearing in your life, or you can think of the cracks as places where the light is shining in, and instead focus on the light. Which felt like a very positive message to be sending out into the world at that moment. 

I already know what my next cover is going to be because I’ve already written about it. It’s  Country Boy by Peat and Diesel, which I had a first go at for an EP in 2020 but have now revisited for the Tourism album, where it takes on a new meaning again alongside nine songs that are essentially about a former city boy feeling like a tourist in his new life on a Hebridean island – looking for the river, but not quite finding it yet.

Days 68-69: All art is worthless / The winter of 88

My contribution to the Fatima meme – photograph by Krys Alex.

It’s just over two years since I began writing this song-by-song diary of all the music I’ve released since Swimmer One’s first single We Just Make Music For Ourselves, way back in 2002. It feels fitting to end things, for now, with All art is worthless and The winter of 88. Both are about the human compulsion to make and experience art. We Just Make Music For Ourselves was too, so I’ve come full circle.

All art is worthless was recorded just a few weeks ago and, in case it’s not obvious, titled ironically. I wrote it in the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, when everyone was conspicuously turning to art for comfort – social media was suddenly full of people’s favourite books/films/albums of all time lists – while thousands of actual artists were suddenly losing their entire livelihoods with no government support in sight. It was brutal and ironic and strange watching the thing that I and most people I know do for a living being simultaneously treasured and trashed. It still is. This week, #Fatima was trending on social media after people began sharing a government advert that crassly suggested a ballet dancer could retrain in cyber security. The advert predated the lockdown but the anger it’s generated is a sharp and necessary reminder of how bad things have become for art and artists.

All art is worthless emerged from this strangeness. It’s a song about the everyday ways in which art in general, and music in particular, impacts on our lives. A bittersweet call-back to a broken teenage heart. A funeral theme. An expression of solidarity. An anthem to spur you to political action. A warning. A reminder that you’re not alone. Is there any aspect of human life that isn’t shaped in some way by art? Is there any crisis in which we don’t turn to it for comfort and guidance?

The song finishes with a brief reference to my own compulsion to make art and my limited success at it – “I’ve only trod lightly, left a faint footprint, but it’s all that I can do”. This theme is explored more self-indulgently in The Winter of 88, written seven years before the lockdown. The song was named, in part, after the year I started recording music, 1988; there is evidence of this date online and it’s not pretty but whatever, I was fourteen years old. The number also refers to the 88 keys on a piano, the year 1888 – an obscure nod to when The Last House on Holland Island was built – and the 88 people who helped pay for the recording, whose names are listed out loud in the final section of the song as I raise a glass to each of them in turn.

I recorded The Winter of 88, the song and the album, at a point when it had become clear to me that my musical ‘career’ was going nowhere, after a decade of consistently good reviews, consistently minimal radio play, and negligible sales. An enthusiastic write-up in the Guardian or the Independent won’t pay the rental on your humble flat, but I figured there were surely enough people out there who liked my music enough to crowd-source an inexpensive album by pre-ordering it. If you’re reading this, perhaps you are the owner of a CD in a hand-drawn numbered sleeve, a thank you letter from me, an album on which your name features in the title track, and one of the 88 stones featured in the cover art, all retrieved from a beach in Croatia. If so, thank you again. I was incredibly grateful for your support and I hope you liked your stone.

Lyrically, the song is typically cheery Andrew stuff, one line even pointing out how we’ll all be dead by 2088. But actually I was trying to come to terms with my artistic and commercial irrelevance as much as my mortality. I wasn’t quite there yet and I’m embarrassed by some of the lyrics. “If no-one remembers we were ever here there’ll be echoes, there’ll be traces” was presumably supposed to sound philosophical but to the older me it just sounds desperate. ‘OH GOD SURELY SOMEONE WILL REMEMBER ME’ is the subtext. And the self-pity evident in “I’ll keep on singing into the void” is not flattering. I’m prouder of it musically, even if it steals ideas a bit too blatantly from the Blue Nile, but I kind of wish I’d written my funders a better song.

Perhaps that song is All art is worthless. Musically it was inspired, although it’s probably not obvious, by Thom Yorke’s The Dawn Chorus, a song that somehow conjures something incredibly poignant and powerful from a completely monosyllabic vocal and a series of short ambiguous statements. The Dawn Chorus makes me cry for reasons I don’t fully understand, and so I went on to write a piano melody which is more or less exactly the same all the way through, a vocal line that doesn’t vary much either, and, well, a series of short ambiguous statements.

Am I a better songwriter than I was in 2002, or in 2014 when I wrote The Winter of 88? I think so. In fact, I think All art is worthless might be one of my best songs, or at least one of my best Thom Yorke songs. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I’ll ever be completely ok with my lack of commercial success. But I’m also aware of how petty and self-absorbed that is, especially at a time when so many musicians are struggling to make any kind of living at all. I’m also fairly sure that success wouldn’t have been very good for me anyway.

And, in the end, I was never doing this for the sake of a career. I was doing it because, as All art is worthless concludes, ‘nothing else gets you through’. Writing songs is part of what makes me feel alive. It’s the imagining of possibilities. It’s how I pay tribute to people I love and have loved. It’s the preservation of memories. It’s how I experience and respond to and understand other people’s art. If I’d somehow managed to turn that into a career it would ultimately have been down to blind luck, and I’m not sure I would have had any clue how to sustain it, any more than I had any clue what to do when Swimmer One were briefly courted by a London record label almost two decades ago.

Thanks for reading, and for listening. I mostly just wrote this diary for me, but if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus.

Days 62-67: The robbery / Hear this sing / No running, no smoking, no bombing EP

“There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”  Synecdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman.

The internet has made it loads easier to track down musicians’ demos, rarities and ‘bonus tracks’ – or B sides as old people call them. I’m not obsessive enough about any musician to bother, mostly, but I occasionally make an exception to nostalgically revisit my teenage Pet Shop Boys fandom. I loved that so many of their B sides felt like daring artistic experiments rather than leftovers, suggesting not only that they were bursting with ideas but that they were also quite canny when it came to choosing which songs to be single.

My own musical output is so obscure that it’s all rareties really. But to paraphrase Charlie Kaufman, perhaps no song is a bonus track and each one should get its moment as an A side. Also, I’ve already committed myself to an epic, song-by-song diary of my entire back catalogue and I’ve almost at the finish line, so let’s plough on.

Hear This Sing would later become The Last House on Holland Island, on the third Seafieldroad album. I’m not entirely sure what the original song is about since I didn’t write the lyrics; it’s a poem by Jennifer Williams, my flatmate at the time. It’s quite evocative though. I released it as a B-side to a single called There is no authority that we won’t argue with, and Gideon Coe, who had already played The Last House on Holland Island on his 6 Music show, played this version too instead of the A side, which suggests to me that either he really really liked the song or he just didn’t like anything else on the album. I was happy to get airplay either way.

The robbery is a song that didn’t quite make it on to the first Seafieldroad album. It’s about someone trying to convince their partner that the reason they have come home late to find everything smashed to pieces is not because they were having a jealous, paranoid tantrum but because a stranger broke in and did it. It’s clearly a lie, but as the narrator puts it, “aim for rock bottom and you might hit low”. It was supposed to be funny but in hindsight is actually a bit weird and bleak, which is probably why it didn’t make the cut.

If I’m going to be thorough, I should also mention Swimmer One’s first EP, No running, no smoking, no bombing, recorded in 2001, our first ever visit to a  recording studio. The title was based on a swimming pool sign aimed at unruly teenagers, which is a bit of an obscure joke but it made me laugh. The opening of the EP was also a joke. The first thing you hear is a slow, chiming guitar, suggesting this is yet another doomy, Mogwai soundalike band from Scotland, before the same guitar part is suddenly repeated but at twice the speed with a Motown-style rhythm section. The joke doesn’t work now but I remember thinking it was hilarious at the time, and was quite looking forward to wrong-footing music journalists with it. In the end though we decided the four songs didn’t quite achieve the standards we’d set for ourselves, sounding like demos rather than a finished product. So we decided not to release it, went back to the drawing board, and a few months later came up with our debut single, We Just Make Music For Ourselves. But it’s now on Bandcamp if anyone is desperate to hear it.

We later re-recorded the EP’s second song, How Could Something Like That Be Love, for our second single. And if you’re paying very close attention, you’ll spot that part of the lyric for Here, the opening song, was later reused in Regional on our debut album, The Regional Variations. I’m still a bit sad that we never got around to re-recording the closing song, Throwing Ideas in the Air Like Bouquets, which I loved. 

If I’m going to be really, really, dogmatically thorough, I should also mention the 38 hours of home recordings I made, between the ages of 14 and about 23, on an old reel to reel four track machine given to me by my German brother-in-law. Most people would call these recordings ‘demos’. Being a spotty teenage megalomaniac living in a fantasy world, I decided they were ‘albums’ – in which case I have recorded more albums than David Bowie and only slightly fewer than Cliff Richard.

Each ‘album’ was mixed, once it was finished, on to a C60 cassette, so is more or less an hour long. Each had a title (Boogie Atrocities, Boop Boop a Doop and Post Modern Ironing being three of my favourites) and its own cover artwork. Sometimes I’d enlist friends to play bass, or guitar, or to sing. But mostly I made them on my own. Each ‘album’ was quite different. Medicine was an acoustic guitar album recorded while stoned. Subtitles was weird, experimental soundtrack-style music. Others (quite a lot of them) were early attempts at synthpop. Some songs were two minutes long. Others were 12-minute epics. 

The first couple of cassettes are pretty much unlistenable. The next 11 or 12 are not very good. By album number 14 or 15, though, I was starting to get somewhere. I was so pleased with my progress, in fact, that I was starting to make best of compilations, remix albums and singles too (on slightly shorter cassettes). Who listened to this stuff? My friend Martin, sometimes. My mum, who had no idea what to make of them but smiled indulgently. My art class at school, on one occasion. But mostly just me. In short, rareties do not come much more rare than this. Or perhaps they do. I made so much music during this time that my unreleased output also includes bonus tracks and rareties, in an ever-decreasing circle of obscurity.

Except that, technically, this music is not ‘unreleased’ either, because I’ve since released some of it on Bandcamp – it’s free to download if you can be bothered. As embarrassing as much of my teenage output is to me now, I thought it would be nice to document the early experimentation that led to Swimmer One and Seafieldroad before the original tapes all wore out. You can hear traces of my ‘properly’ released work in a lot of it, even in the first one I ever made, Destination Fore, recorded when I was 14 and featuring lyrics by my friend Martin. In my teenage head it sounded like the Human League. In reality it sounded like a schoolboy shouting to a tinny Yamaha keyboard backing track. Definitely a B-side.

Days 60-61: 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.

Day 59: Sad Country Boy

Sad Country Boy is a cover of Country Boy by Peat & Diesel, with a wee bit of another P&D song, Plate Full of Sgadan, thrown in at the end. I love Peat & Diesel, but I’m particularly obsessed with Plate Full of Sgadan so I mostly want to write about that instead of Country Boy.

Plate Full of Sgadan is also a cover, kind of. Musically it’s Brimful of Asha by Cornershop but the lyrics are completely different. I’ve been told that younger listeners have occasionally got confused when they hear the original, perhaps assuming it’s some sort of strange tribute by Peat & Diesel fans.

In some ways Plate Full of Sgadan is a typical Peat & Diesel song, in that the band quite often cherrypick from other people’s music – usually it’s Scottish folk tunes, but the opening of Lovely Stornoway is clearly Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams and I hope his lawyers never hear it or they might be in trouble. What’s interesting to me about Plate Full of Sgadan though is that, culturally, it does something very similar to the Cornershop song.

Brimful of Asha is full of very specific Indian references. It’s named after Asha Bhoslie, a ‘playback singer’ for Indian films, who sang thousands of songs that would then be lip synced by the films’ stars. The song refers to her as ‘sada rani’, which I’m told is Punjabi for ‘our queen’; the lyrics also mention Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi, two other playback singers. If you didn’t know all this, the song won’t make a huge amount of sense but, crucially, it doesn’t attempt to explain itself. It exists on its own terms, and if you don’t know what it’s about then you can go look it up.

Brimful of Asha was released in 1997, the year Tony Blair won his first general election victory, partly by piggybacking on Britpop, which by that time had evolved into a widespread, nostalgic and quite conservative celebration of British culture. When it comes to Britpop I’m generally with Tracey Thorn, who has pointed out how, in the eyes of politicians and the media, “the white boys with guitars were the Norm, and deviations from that were the Other, and certainly not the main story”. Ask most people to name a ‘Britpop’ musician and they’ll say Blur or Oasis, maybe Elastica or Pulp if they’re trying to impress you. But not many people would namecheck Tricky, Goldie, or Massive Attack, at least not if they’re white. So Brimful of Asha felt significant, especially after Norman Cook remixed it and made it a proper hit. It was still boys with guitars but one of them was a British Asian boy and the song stood out because of the way it casually blended these dual identities together.  It was a different, more inclusive kind of Britpop.

Part of the reason I liked this was my own mixed heritage. I am half Scottish and it was always a source of irritation to me that something called ‘Britpop’ was so overwhelmingly English. Even Trainspotting, the 1996 film adaptation of a hugely significant Scottish book, had a soundtrack dominated by English musicians – Blur, Sleeper, Pulp, Elastica, Underworld etc – with room for only one Scottish band, Primal Scream.

In the years since, though, something transformative happened in Scottish pop music, beginning in 1996 with Arab Strap’s The First Big Weekend. I still remember the first time I heard that song. Like a lot of people of my generation, I associated Scottish accents in pop with politics and the Proclaimers. This was something different, a song in which a young guy from Falkirk basically just blethered for a while about ordinary stuff – dancing, drinking with his pals, watching a football game and the Simpsons – and, just by doing it in a Scottish accent, with a throwaway reference to the Arches in Glasgow, made it feel exciting and subversive, especially in the midst of a big English cultural moment that was being sold to us as British. What was striking, again, was the casualness of it. Why would you not talk about your life in this way, with your own distinct cultural references alongside ones from the ‘mainstream’, dominant culture? I heard the same quality in Cornershop a year later, and I hear it in Peat & Diesel now when they sing about herring and Big Macs.

These days, of course, it would be conspicuous if a Scottish band didn’t sing in their own accent. The bands that followed in Arab Strap’s wake – Frightened Rabbit, the Twilight Sad etc – have made it normal. And The Proclaimers, notably, are considered to be much cooler than they once were. (It feels culturally significant that, when Trainspotting 2 finally came out, Young Fathers were by far the most prominent band on the soundtrack. Young Fathers are, in lots of ways, a checklist of all the things that were missing from Britpop and that first Trainspotting soundtrack. They’re from Edinburgh, two of their line-up are black,  and none of them plays guitar. They have also collaborated with Massive Attack. I doubt the choice to put them on the soundtrack was that calculated – they’re also one of the most thrilling bands of any kind in Scotland – but Tracey Thorn would surely approve.)

In some ways, then, Peat & Diesel are nothing new. But they are doing for Scottish pop music what both Arab Strap and Cornershop once did for Britpop, in that, with their distinctly Hebridean (and also working class) references, they give a voice to a different kind of Scottishness. Instead of Asha Bhoslie and Lata Mangeshkar, Plate Full of Sgadan namechecks marag dhubh, the local minister, and “Shauny Beag from Carloway”. And the opening lines about Sunday dinner with Granny before church will have a particular resonance for anyone who grew up on Lewis. But like Brimful of Asha, Peat & Diesel songs don’t feel the need to explain themselves, they just are what they are. If you get the references, great. If you don’t, you can go look them up. It’s been lovely to see people all over the UK discovering and embracing Lewis culture through this band, and it was gutting that the lockdown happened just as Peat & Diesel were on the point of properly breaking through.

What, you might ask, has any of this got to do with me recording a Peat & Diesel song that isn’t even Plate Full of Sgadan? The best answer I can come up with is that all this history was very much on my mind when I decided to cover Country Boy, the opening song on Peat & Diesel’s first album. The reason I wouldn’t cover Plate Full of Sgadan, my favourite Peat & Diesel song, is that I couldn’t possibly cover it as cleverly as Peat & Diesel covered Cornershop. But I did feel like I could bring something new to Country Boy.

It was the lyrics that drew me to the song, especially this bit towards the end: “I know it isn’t normal and I know it isn’t right, any average man would get a fright. My head is in the clouds and my guts are on the deck, it’s seven hours to go until I lose the sweats.” Firstly, that’s a fantastic lyric, like something Morrissey would write in the glory days of The Smiths (and yes I’m well aware of the irony of name checking Morrissey here, given what he later became). But secondly I had many questions. Why seven hours specifically? At very least it suggests a long relationship with comedowns. But what is he hiding from in his granny’s loft? What is he running away from with those magic mushrooms? Did something bad happen in the city that made him not like it? Is there a deep melancholy at the heart of Peat & Diesel that isn’t being talked about, and that someone who mostly writes sad songs could tease out?

I’m possibly reading far too much into this. Keith, Peat & Diesel’s producer, told me people are always asking him questions about details in the band’s lyrics and that the answer is quite often ‘because it rhymes’. But I thought it would be fun to find the sadness in the Peats, and so, while bored in the middle of lockdown, I posted a very sketchy version of the song online. Since Lewis is a small place it got noticed by the band quite quickly. One response from a Peat & Diesel fan stuck in my mind: “He sounds like he needs a whisky.” And they were right. It was too sad. Teasing out the melancholy in a Peat & Diesel song is one thing; making it depressing is another.

IMG_4257

For the final recording, then, I added a rousing, anthemic second half with stamps, hand claps, and a completely different tune that I wrote myself. I like to think this is in the spirit of a band who take such cheeky liberties with other people’s music. I added a wee bit of Plate Full of Sgadan at the end, a tribute to their tribute. I hope they like it. I also hope they don’t mind that I recorded it in the same studio, with the same producer, where they made their first two albums. I got a bit of a kick out of that, I admit, and couldn’t resist taking a wee selfie in front of their tour poster.

(Update: I am also now signed to Peat & Diesel’s label, Wee Studio; it’s funny how things turn out. I’m not expecting a support slot any time soon though; that would be a terrible idea for all concerned).

For the record, I don’t think Sad Country Boy is anywhere near as good a cover version as Plate Full of Sgadan is. It’s probably another example of my tendency to critique pop music – at some length, as you may have noticed – rather than fully embrace it. But I’m quite pleased with it, especially the stamping and the handclaps, a multi-tracked me, jumping up and down and feeling very happy.

Days 55-58: Medicine / Findhorn / The world is just noise / The song that says they’re gone

A few weeks ago I had a tricky conversation with my children about death. We had watched Onward, Pixar’s latest film, followed a couple of days later by kids’ classic The Land Before Time. They were quite angry with me. Onward is about a dead dad who is briefly reanimated but only from the waist down; they were just about ok with the weirdness of this but not the ending, which – mild spoiler – doesn’t quite offer the proper reunion it seems to promise, a bold creative decision which I admired but they hated. I thought The Land Before Time might fix things, being a cute, sentimental classic about adorable dinosaurs, but I’d forgotten that the mum dinosaur gets killed off early on and just upset them again. Afterwards they demanded I find them a film to watch in which NOBODY DIES.

Except it turns out there are hardly any children’s films like this. After struggling for a while to find an option, I pointed this awkward fact out to them by listing some of their favourite films. The Lion King: dead dad. Finding Nemo: dead mum. Frozen: both parents dead. Paddington: dead uncle. Ice Age – dead mum. ‘ICE AGE?’ they exclaimed. They hadn’t even noticed, because it is subtly and sensitively implied rather than shown, but yes, the entire plot hinges on a dying woman handing over her baby to three animal saviours before she drowns in a river. ‘She’s gone,’ gasps Sid the sloth, as if the woman has magically got up and breezed off while nobody was looking for no reason whatsoever, but it’s very clear what’s happened.

Having got this far, I then attempted to explain that something sad or scary needs to happen at some point otherwise there’s really no story. Even when there’s no death in a children’s film there is an absence, usually of a parental figure, like the ill mother in My Neighbour Totoro or the missing father in ET. Most stories are about facing your biggest fears. They’re tools to help you grow up. They got it, kind of, but still wanted to see a film with no death in it.

If this sounds a bit much for a conversation with children, bear in mind that these ones lost two of their grandparents very early in their lives and have already had to process this, which was often a remarkable thing to witness. ‘Your dad is dead,’ my older son would often say, while I was in the middle of getting him dressed or pouring him some cereal. ‘When I’m a grown-up you will be dead,’ he would occasionally add, trying out the idea for size, testing my reaction. Sometimes he would experiment with different ways of saying it. ‘After all of the days we will disappear,’ he announced one day. Which is how my new album, and this website, got its name.

I mention all this because I’ve realised, while doing this song-by-song diary, that the thing I write about more often than anything else is death.  At first I told myself this must be to do with the death of my parents. Medicine, the opening song on the new album, was written immediately after my mum’s funeral and sets the tone for much of what follows. Much of my last album, The Winter of 88, was a response to my dad’s deteriorating health and, in hindsight, emotional preparation for losing him. This is most apparent on The World is Just Noise, a song about the impossibility of resolving old differences with someone whose memory is fading as they approach death, and Findhorn, an imaginary journey to the north of Scotland to scatter someone’s ashes, narrated by the person who’s just died. It’s also addressed symbolically on the album’s opening song, The Last House on Holland Island, which I’ve already written about elsewhere.

Actually though, I’ve been writing about death right from the beginning. In the press release for Swimmer One’s first single, We Just Make Music For Ourselves, I described it as something like a ‘euphoric pop song about the pointlessness of life and the crushing inevitability of death’. It was a joke, but also a reasonably accurate description of the song. Drowning Nightmare One, the opening song on Swimmer One’s first album, was set on a sinking ship whose passengers are all doomed. Dead Orchestras, which opened the second album, was about what we leave behind for our children when we’re gone. I could list lots more, but you get the idea. Death death death. In fact I could probably pick a song I’ve written at random and it would turn out to be about death in some way.

When I realised this I was tempted to do a death inventory of other people’s songs for comparison. It can’t be that unusual, surely? Instead I found some reassurance in the fact that, if I’m obsessed with death, then so are the people who wrote Frozen and Ice Age.

What matters, I think, is how you write about death. Ideally you should do it in a way that makes your audience want to hold more tightly onto every moment of their lives, to live them to the full. I’m not sure I always succeed in that, but I’d like to think I have my moments. However, if, like my kids at one particular moment in time, you’d rather not hear those kinds of songs at all, then fair enough, I have a Kate Bush cover you might like.

If you’re up for it though, The song that says they’re gone perhaps pushes the subject as far as it can go, in that it’s about human extinction. ‘The song that says they’re gone’ is the silence in the absence of all human activity, which, if you’ve spent any length of time in the countryside, you know is not silence at all but the hundreds of sounds you hear when you let your mind become quiet – animals, insects, plants, water and rock. I wrote this song over a decade ago but it resonates all the more with me now that I live in one of the quietest places in Scotland. I think of it, in particular, when I’m on the shore below our village, on a beach of countless stones that has been shaped, over millions of years, by the cliffs on either side of it slowly crumbling into the sea, the tiny fragments of rock gradually smoothed out by the water. When it’s warm enough I like to leave my bedroom window open at night and listen to this beach, the mighty crackle as the tide pushes the stones back and forth, sometimes damming the river that flows down to it, sometimes clearing a path for the water to rush through. Musically speaking, any sound made by humans during our existence here is just a tiny fragment of this infinitely bigger hymn, less than a single note.

A few months ago I made a wee video for the song while walking the dog up on the cliffs. The abandoned RAF base that’s up there seemed like the perfect setting for it. It’s a beautiful place, somehow all the more beautiful for the concrete structures spread across it, small monuments to human activity that has now ceased. Sometimes I think they look like gravestones, other times like skyscrapers, the biggest buildings people have ever made,  but seen from the air so they look tiny, dwarfed by a vast landscape. The RAF base was a radar station, a place designed for watching and listening. It still is, but now people come here to look out for eagles and whales, and the only sound is the wind, the sea, and the birds.