Day 48: Leave the stadium

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Hope’s the thing that kills you
Hope that someone else will change the rules
Time to leave the stadium…

I wrote Leave the Stadium seven years ago. Honestly though, it would probably feel like something from a different world if I’d written it a few weeks ago.

I’ve been procrastinating over whether to continue my ‘All of the Days’ song diary. On the one hand, I have more time to do it now we’re all in lockdown, even with three children constantly at home. On the other hand it feels ridiculously self-indulgent still to be writing wee think pieces about my musical back catalogue in the midst of a global medical emergency.

What is an appropriate artistic response to Coronavirus though, beyond trying to provide bored, scared and isolated people with some comfort food? For many of us, the immediate imperative response has just been to survive, move your livelihood online in the face of your entire income disappearing within days. People who commission art, meanwhile, are suddenly commissioning art inspired by the Coronavirus crisis, acting on the assumption that what arts commissioners should do right now is just keep on commissioning art. Is any of this going to result in good art? It might – some of the live-streamed shows I’ve seen so far have been lovely, communal experiences – but I keep thinking of a comment playwright David Greig once made, that the best new writing about the Scottish independence referendum would probably be done five or ten years after the referendum. In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to see what it is you’re living through.

Right now, I personally have no idea how to make something artistic about this strange, unsettling moment in human history. The ground beneath our feet is shifting so rapidly, day by day, that I can barely keep my balance. Every day some new event leaves you thinking “wow, really? THIS is who we are, who we’ve been, what we put up with, what we thought was ok?’ So many things about society that previously seemed impossible to change are suddenly up for discussion. I feel constantly dizzy. It’s exhilarating, in some ways – maybe Coronavirus is as much of an incredible opportunity for human evolution as it is a deadly emergency – but it’s also terrifying and overwhelming.

Does that mean I’m not a good enough artist? It’s occurred to me, and I’m sure a lot of people have experienced a similar anxiety. And it’s intimidating, watching a musical hero like Momus creating an entire album of witty, insightful rapid responses to life in lockdown within a matter of days while I’ve written absolutely nothing. But as a meme currently going round wisely puts it, “it’s ok not to be at your most productive in the middle of a global fucking pandemic”. And that applies even to those of us who are privileged enough not to be self-isolating somewhere cramped, claustrophobic or dangerous.

Anyway, perhaps a seven-year-old song can have as much to say about this moment as a song written in the middle of it. Leave the Stadium feels relevant just now, to me anyway. It was written not long after the 2012 London Olympics, a £9bn spectacle that seemed, in some ways, like a good metaphor for being seduced and abandoned by neoliberalism, encouraged to compete with each other for prizes but eventually realising we’re just running in circles, caught in a loop, “sold down a river of Coca-Cola”.

At the time I was still trying to process my feelings about Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, a celebration of British culture throughout history that Irvine Welsh later likened to “a Requiem mass for something that was lost”. Welsh told the Sunday Herald that it made him “really angry and really sad” and that Boyle had felt the same. As we publicly applaud the NHS from our windows each week, we would do well to remember that Boyle’s spectacular show was one of the biggest rounds of public applause the NHS has ever had. The sequence paying tribute to the NHS included hundreds of real nurses who had volunteered to be part of its cast of 10,000 volunteers, including staff and patients from Great Ormond Street Hospital. Boyle later claimed the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, put pressure on him to drop this part of the show. “They wanted us to reduce that or cut it or make them just walk around the ­stadium,” he told The Independent. The ceremony took place, of course, under a Conservative government. There have been three UK general elections since then, and each time Britain chose the political party that was, in all of its actions, least supportive of the NHS.

Leave the Stadium is a song that can feel hopeful or hopeless depending on what’s going on around you, especially the closing line, “time to leave the stadium”. In the short term, for me, that line meant abandoning my life-long support for the Labour party and instead campaigning for Scottish independence, which seemed to promise something different. After that campaign was lost, leaving the stadium sometimes represented giving up on politics completely. Now, I don’t know. We’re living in a moment of simultaneous emergency and opportunity. As Rebecca Solnit recently put it, “ideas that used to be seen as leftwing seem more reasonable to more people. There’s room for change that there wasn’t beforehand. It’s an opening.” In the UK the Labour party has a new leader who might actually make them electable again. Globally, this could be the wake up call that finally gets us to do something about climate change, after just a few days of lockdown transformed the skies above our cities beyond recognition. But it’s also an opening for people of all political persuasions, from US states using the lockdown to stop women having abortions to far right or religious organisations who benefit from spreading fear, confusion and apocalyptic stories.

I’m not going to start claiming this song was prescient or anything – I’m generally terrible at accurately predicting the future – but the lyrics in the climactic section of the song do seem quite timely in this era of ‘fake news’:

Since everything that we’ve been sold as a dream is just slogans and fakery
You’d think that by now we’d have got to a point where we don’t believe in anything
But somehow each day we still wake up and hope it will all amount to something.

Somehow each day I still wake up and hope it will all amount to something.

 

Day 47: This Road Won’t Build Itself

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The last days before Brexit seem like a fitting time to revisit a song about Scottish independence. This Road Won’t Build Itself was released in early 2014, a few months before that year’s referendum. To my surprise, it turned out to be one of very few new songs on the subject, even making it on to a ‘songs of the campaign’ poll run by Bella Caledonia – although it was easily defeated by the more rousing Son I Voted Yes by Stanley Odd. Otherwise most people seemed to be listening to Cap in Hand by the Proclaimers.

In fact there was a conspicuous absence of pro-Yes art in general that year. Alan Bissett had an explicitly pro-Yes play at the Edinburgh Fringe, crowd-funded by Yes supporters, but he was the exception rather than the rule. Even at nationalcollective.com – the website of an artist-led pro-independence campaign – there wasn’t much actual art. Instead, the site was mostly just a forum for debate.

My explanation for this at the time was that the independence movement bore almost no resemblance to the thing the No campaign was determined to paint it as – an army of sentimental nationalists – and that Scotland’s pro-Yes artists, knowing how the Unionist-dominated media operated, didn’t want to rise to the bait. Instead they were determined to win the campaign on the strength of its arguments – political, moral, and economic – rather than with rousing, emotional choruses. The year before the referendum I had a long chat with Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue, who was passionate about the cause but determined to engage with it in the right way – which, for him, meant talking to people individually and directly rather than preaching from a stadium. The playwright David Greig, one of Scotland’s most prominent pro-Yes voices, took a similarly low-key approach with projects like his Yes No Plays, and the Edinburgh Fringe show and podcast All Back To Bowie’s, all of which were designed to bring people from both sides together for lively discussion.

I like to think that This Road Won’t Build Itself represented a kind of middle way. It’s a partisan song, but it doesn’t hammer the point home. If you didn’t know it was about Scottish independence, you might not guess from listening to it. Even I didn’t realise at first what it was about – it happened subconsciously. It’s a song about raising children as much as politics. It’s about hope, defiance, and idealism, and about what people who feel those things find themselves up against. It could just as easily be about Barack Obama’s election campaign. The two were comparable politically – ‘the audacity of hope’ would have made a very good Yes slogan.

Five years on, and with calls for another referendum becoming louder by the week, I find myself wondering whether this time we need songs – and art as activism in general – a bit more. I’ve never felt less convinced that a political campaign can be won on compelling political arguments. In Britain the Conservative Party, led by a Prime Minister who is a proven and consistent liar, just won a huge majority following an election campaign in which his party lied consistently. The Brexit campaign was also won largely by lying, assisted by shadowy people like Cambridge Analytica who have been manipulating voters across the world. The new year began with Donald Trump ordering a political assassination in the Middle East which appears to have been completely illegal, and demonstrably lying about it, and his presidency is likely to become stronger, not weaker, as a result, regardless of any howls of protest from the left. In fact the White House seems to have barely bothered to try and justify it. How do you win political arguments with facts and figures if nobody seems to care what’s true anymore?

It’s strange looking back at the Scottish independence referendum now. The accusation constantly thrown at Yes supporters was that we were naive fantasists who thought an independent Scotland would be some sort of utopia. The extent to which that directly contradicted my experience was one of the main reasons why I felt so disillusioned with both politics – and journalism – after the result. What I’d experienced was a broad coalition of people – academics, economists, thinktanks and, yes, artists – who seemed genuinely passionate about making Scotland a better, fairer, more equal place to live, and were willing to work hard to make it happen. Talking to Yes campaigners, and reading their ideas, I was hearing exciting proposals for fairer tax systems, stronger communities, more inclusive education and childcare, green energy, and the abolition of nuclear weapons: a realistic, workable, tantalising alternative to neoliberalism. Not all of this was reflected in SNP policy, but a lot of it was, and it felt as if there was a growing grassroots movement that would work hard to ensure any future Scottish government (SNP, Labour, or whoever) lived up to this ‘early days of a better nation’ idealism – a movement that, I believed, would be more powerful and persuasive after independence simply by virtue of being geographically closer to the centre of power.

Faced with this, the No campaign mostly just jeered that it couldn’t be done because Scotland couldn’t afford it (despite plenty of economic evidence that it could), or because – hollow laughter – the European Union wouldn’t let it. Or, when it was trying to flatter us, it offered sentimental, nationalistic, patronising waffle about how wonderful the UK is.

And now? If anyone is being a naïve fantasist, surely, it’s the kind of Brexit voter who thinks that after January we will somehow be magically free from oppressive European bureaucracy rather than, well, enduring all the grim things that are actually going to happen.

Art often emerges from a place of helplessness – the only forum for expression for people who feel politically powerless. That was true of punk, in particular. I never felt like that during the Scottish independence referendum. If anything I felt empowered, emboldened. A lot of people I knew felt like that, at least for a while. David Greig fondly described it as a ‘summer of love’. And if you feel as if people can hear you speak, perhaps there’s no need to sing. Perhaps there wasn’t more art about independence, back then, because there was no need for it. Perhaps Scottish artists didn’t feel compelled to kick against an oppressive, unfair or just stale political system via their art because there was an enticing opportunity to challenge it in a more straightforward, practical way.

Now, I feel like singing. In fact I’m currently producing a theatre project inspired by keening, which is premiering next week, our final week in the European Union. I can’t think of anything more apt to be doing right now.

Day 46: Don’t Let The Winter Freeze Your Heart

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If I’m honest, Don’t Let The Winter Freeze Your Heart was mostly influenced by A Winter’s Tale by David Essex. In fact, when I look back at all the other music released in 1982 that had a big impact on my later life – The Dreaming by Kate Bush, Sulk by the Associates, Big Science by Laurie Anderson, The Lexicon of Love by ABC, – I have to admit that this one song may have influenced my songwriting more than any of it.

A Winter’s Tale made a big impression on me as a ten-year-old. In particular I remember thinking that ‘the snow has covered all your footsteps and I can follow you no more’ was a really beautiful metaphor. The older me would think it was a bit creepy that a man was following his ex-girlfriend around through the snow, but there we are. What struck me most, though, was the sense of absolute resignation about the whole thing – ‘Why should the world take notice of one more love that’s failed? On a worldwide scale we’re just another winter’s tale.” This was someone who had been deeply hurt, admitting that in the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter, that they didn’t matter. How often do you hear that kind of humility in pop music? More often, pop singers talk about love as if nobody has been heartbroken before them, and as if nobody’s heartbreak is more important than theirs.

A Winter’s Tale was the first Christmas song that stuck in my head, and so it had a formative influence on my idea of what a Christmas song was. To this day, the only Christmas songs I really like – the only ones I believe – are the sad ones, like Stop the Cavalry or Fairytale of New York, or the weird ones, like Santa’s Beard by They Might Be Giants. My first attempt at writing my own Christmas song was a teenage home recording called Santa Claus Fell in Love, a tragic tale about Santa falling in love ‘with a girl who looked like Rudolf’, having a summer-long romance, shaving his beard off, then having to leave her with no explanation in the autumn because he couldn’t bring himself to tell her his secret identity. It’s a deliberately ridiculous song, written as a joke, but on some level I think it was really about my inability to talk openly about my own experience of panic attacks and depression.

Don’t Let The Winter Freeze Your Heart was my first proper attempt to create a Christmas ‘hit’, except that, being me, I thought the way to do this was to write a song about death and suicidal thoughts. One of the key lines in the song is “you know to survive you’ve got to keep warm but you just want to give up, cry, and throw the doors open”. It was only this week that I noticed there’s a similar line right at the start of A Winter’s Tale – “The nights are colder now, maybe I should close the door.” I don’t think I’d noticed how bleak that line is until now. What is this man doing leaving his door open when, in the very next line, he tells you that it’s already cold enough outside for the snow to completely cover up someone’s footsteps? Yes mate, maybe you should close the door before you freeze to death. But the way the line is sung suggests he’s going to do no such thing. In some ways, A Winter’s Tale actually reads like a suicide note.

As ever, I’m really not selling myself very well here. I’ll try and put a more positive spin on it. Don’t Let The Winter Freeze Your Heart is also intended to be a song of comfort. I would genuinely like you to feel better, feel less sad, after listening to this song. As the lyrics say, ‘you need to remember that the weather’s just weather and the chill of this winter will not last forever, so if you do one thing between now and Spring, don’t let the winter freeze your heart.” If the song is about depression it’s also intended to offer hope that depression passes, that you’ll feel better soon, that summer will return. It feels fitting, then, that its most high profile public airing to date has been as the soundtrack to a trailer for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.

There are two versions of Don’t Let The Winter Freeze Your Heart. The original version was on the Seafieldroad album The Winter of 88. For the version on the new album we added drums and percussion by Stu Brown, and a real accordion part courtesy of Hamish’s friend Kim Tebble. Towards the end of the mixing process Hamish messaged me to say that he’d also added in sleigh bells and tubular bells to make it sound more festive. “Our kitchen radio has been tuned to a Christmas station since December 1st,” he wrote, “so this may have influenced things. Struck me that this is the ‘big’ production of the record and your chance to make the lucrative Christmas canon.” I thought about this for a wee while and then asked myself, what would David Essex do? Aye, alright, I replied.

 

Day 45: A port in the storm

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A Port in the Storm is about walking along Portobello beach late at night, trying to lull my baby daughter to sleep. She didn’t sleep easily, and cried loudly and often, so I would put her in a sling or in the pushchair and head for the promenade, partly to give her mum a break, partly to steady my own nerves.

The sea seemed to soothe her, and I often wondered why. Perhaps she would have calmed down anyway, just from the walk, but I think the sea helped, its sound and its smell. It certainly helped me. It’s a primal experience, looking out at the place where life on earth began – probably – especially if the stars are out too, and especially if you have a baby in your arms. In the song there are various conflicting thoughts swirling around my head. The sea is comforting – I felt a strong sense of connection on those nights to the beginnings of the universe – but also frightening. We were always keenly aware in moving to Portobello that we were choosing a home that could be underwater in a few years’ time; on a stormy day at high tide the waves would crash dramatically on to the promenade. Portobello was becoming quite an aspirational place to live at the time, and the expensive new seafront homes being built on the prom, battered by saltwater even before they were finished, seemed like a textbook example of climate change denial; they reminded me of things I’d read about the madness of building more and more luxury homes on the Florida coast. We were in a wee flat in an old tenement block two streets away from the seafront, but still not far above sea level.

It’s interesting how your perspective on a song can change over time. A Port in the Storm was initially called When The Big Flood Comes until I decided this was too bleak, focusing on death and the end of humanity in a song that’s mostly about love. More recently it’s become simply The Beach, the middle section of a song cycle on the new album, called The Path, The Beach, The Sea. I like that a song written about the beginning and the end of life is now part of a bigger journey, just as our own beginnings and endings are only a small part of a bigger picture.

I also changed the lyrics in the final section. Originally it went ‘please give my daughters a port in the storm’, a plea addressed to the islands of the Forth – Inchcolm, Inchkeith, Inchgarvie – that you can see from the shore, and to whom I’d sometimes talk in the absence of other company. By the time I was making After All Of The Days We Will Disappear, though, I had two sons as well as two daughters, and it became ‘don’t be afraid of the ocean, we’re going home’.

By home I partly meant the ocean. I had an image in my head of humanity being swept away by floods but returning, in death, to the place where we started. But I also meant our new home in the Outer Hebrides, which faces the sea but from a much higher vantage point. Not that we’re immune from climate change here – the weather is famously fierce and likely to get fiercer, and who knows what will happen with the gulf stream? – but it feels more like home than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, and with an even bigger and more humbling view. Instead of Inchkeith, Inchcolm and Inchgarvie we now look out on the Flannan Islands and, on a very clear day, St Kilda. Beyond that the closest land to us is the Faroe Islands and Iceland. And you can see far more stars here than I ever could from Portobello.

The baby daughter of the song is seven years old now. Sometimes she asks me to play her ‘Beau to the beach’. She still doesn’t like sleeping.

Day 44: The Last House on Holland Island

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The Last House on Holland Island was inspired by a haunting photograph I found on the internet, of a house perched on the water like Noah’s ark, a flock of birds gathered on the roof. It was an incredibly evocative image. Sometimes when I looked at it I saw one of MC Escher’s impossible drawings, a building that could never exist. Sometimes it seemed Biblical. Sometimes it seemed apocalyptic, an alternate finale to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a man and his son finally reach the coast only to encounter further evidence of the end of the world. Most obviously it evoked a world ravaged by climate change, a vision of the near future – or the recent past if you live somewhere like Indonesia, or even my own former home city of Carlisle. The birds could easily be mistaken for humans desperately clinging to wreckage.

At the time the photograph, and the story behind it, also made me think of my dad, a stubborn man who had been ill for a long time but was refusing to accept it.

The last house on Holland Island was built in the winter of 1888, in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA. At that time the island was a thriving community of fishing and boatman families, with around 70 homes. But in 1914 it began to sink into the water, not as the result of climate change caused by humans but because of post-glacial rebound, a process in which land masses rise and fall over thousands of years, as the weight of glaciers created during the last ice age gradually lifts. The west side of the island disappeared first, eroded by the tides, pushing the residents eastwards. For the next four years they desperately tried to protect their homes by building stone walls, but it was no use. In 1918, after a storm damaged the church, the last family gave up and abandoned the island to the water. Nothing more could be done. In truth, there was never anything to be done. Even in the 17th century, when European colonists first settled there – including Daniel Holland, who would give the island its name – the forces that would destroy it were already moving slowly and silently into place.

Almost 80 years after the final family left Holland Island, a man made one last attempt to save it. In 1995, Stephen White, a Methodist minister who had grown up on the island, paid $70,000 for the 1888 house, now the last building standing, and then spent 15 years and $150,000 trying to hold back the water with rocks, wooden breakwaters, sandbags, even a sunken barge. It was an extraordinary act of defiance against nature. But just as in 1914, it proved futile. White became ill and had to abandon his efforts and leave the island. Sometimes I find myself wondering how much Stephen White’s faith gave him solace, and how much it was a source of torment. I also wonder what it might have been like to grow up in that household, watching your father devote his life to such a lost cause, watching it slowly kill him. The photo I found on the internet was taken not long after White finally abandoned the house – you can still see the sandbags scattered around it.

As my dad became more ill he developed a habit of insisting he was unable to stand up properly ‘at the moment’, or was unable to remember simple domestic details ‘at the moment’, as if this was all just a phase. He would irritably blame others for the black holes in his memory: ‘Nobody tells me anything!’ became something of a catchphrase as he gradually slipped away from us, into the water of Chesapeake Bay. He was, obviously, afraid. For every moment when he seemed to be in complete denial, there was another when he would awkwardly silence the room with some morbid, apparently throwaway remark about how in about five years he’d be dead. He was very much like a man looking anxiously out of the windows of his home, seeing water in every direction, and grumpily announcing that he didn’t feel like going for a walk today.

The first time I sang the song in front of an audience was in February 2014, less than a month after my dad died. Since the song is about being afraid of my dad dying, and I was still in shock that it had actually happened, I should probably have cancelled the gig. Looking back, I can’t figure out why I didn’t. It was uncomfortable for me and probably awkward for the people watching.

That gig was the launch of The Winter of 88, my final album as Seafieldroad. The album’s title is partly a reference to the winter in which the Holland Island house was built, partly to the winter – exactly one century later – when I began writing songs on a cheap Yamaha synthesiser my dad had bought me as a Christmas present. There are, of course, also 88 keys on a piano.

My dad bought me the keyboard on the condition that I got music lessons; I agreed, a little reluctantly. I was 15 years old. I bought two tiny microphones and a cassette recorder, and resolved to make futuristic music. My role models were the Pet Shop Boys, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Depeche Mode, the Human League, Kraftwerk, anyone else making music with machines. It became an obsession. Every few months I would record a cassette full of new songs. Some people would call these recordings demos. Being a teenage megalomaniac living in a fantasy world, I decided they were albums. Each had a title and its own hand-made cover artwork. Each was mixed, once it was finished, on to a C60 cassette, so was more or less an hour long. Sometimes I’d enlist friends to play bass, or guitar (as long as it wasn’t too ‘rock’) or to sing. But mostly I made them on my own, creating all the music on my cheap little machine, a little boy dreaming of the future. By album number 14 or 15 I was so pleased with my progress that I was starting to make best of compilations, remix albums and singles too (on slightly shorter cassettes). I kept up this weird behaviour for about six years. By the time I was in my twenties I had recorded almost 40 hours of music, most of which has still never been heard by anybody.

In other words, my teenage years were largely lost to a musical instrument my dad bought me. The great irony of this was that he always seemed indifferent to the music I was making, because, to be fair, it was so alien to him. He liked classical music and jazz, the kind of music he played himself on the cello or double bass. He would be lost without sheet music and was always baffled that my brother in law, a successful professional musician, couldn’t read it. He was bemused by drum machines and pop music in general. He would complain that he couldn’t hear the words, or that it was rhythmically monotonous, or that it had no proper tunes. If this was the future, he didn’t want it. Since I idolised him, I found this incredibly frustrating.

Years later, I formed a band and somehow managed to get played on daytime Radio One, an impossible dream for the 1988 me. There were features and reviews in national newspapers and magazines. One of the songs was used in a movie. I proudly presented Dad with a copy of our debut album, The Regional Variations. As far as I know he didn’t listen to this either. The year it was released he wrote a newsletter for various family members scattered across the country. The Regional Variations – five years in the making, ten more if you include all those teenage recordings, and the achievement I was most proud of in my life up to that point – merited no mention at all. I was furious with him.

It is ironic that the album of mine that my dad would be most likely to enjoy was the one I finished just after he died. The Winter of 88 had tunes that he would recognise as tunes, proper instruments (a trumpet!), no drum machines whatsoever, and choral singing not unlike the music he would listen to at church, which sounded the way it did partly because I grew up going to that church too, and it seeped into my brain. I’ve often wondered whether this album was, subconsciously, my final attempt to reach out to him, despite the fact that when I was writing and recording it he was at a point in his life when music, of any kind, meant less and less to him. Was I turning into Stephen White, revisiting the scene of my childhood, stubbornly trying to rebuild something that was clearly already lost?

The Winter of 88’s physical release consisted of 88 CDs with handmade artwork – based on a collection of pebbles found by the seaside – not a million miles from the handmade sleeves of my 38 early ‘albums’. I had, in lots of ways, come full circle creatively. And like most musicians in middle age, I had stopped trying to write music that sounded like the future. Instead I was mining my own past, emulating the music that had stayed with me over the years, like Mark Eitzel’s 60 Watt Silver LiningTalk Talk’s Laughing Stockthe Blue Nile’s A Walk Across the Rooftops, and David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive.

When I realised this, I felt like I should give up writing songs. It had become my Holland Island, I thought – a lost cause, obsessively pursued with ever diminishing commercial and artistic returns. I thought I should let the island sink and look for a new one.

And then my wife reminded me that this was grief talking. I had become so preoccupied with endings that I’d forgotten to appreciate the process. The point of making music, after all, is just to do it, for fun and excitement and self-expression, regardless of the results. I had forgotten that the first single Swimmer One ever released was called We Just Make Music For Ourselves, and that we meant it.

There is another way of looking at Stephen White’s story, after all – not as tragedy but as triumph. In the end he may not have been able to hold back the tide, but for a while he did. And ultimately that’s all any of us can do. As Sufjan Stevens sings so beautifully, we’re all gonna die. The final lines of The Last House on Holland Island – ‘all these islands will sink, all these houses will fall, we’ll build new homes anyway’ – can be read in two ways. You can conclude that building those new homes is futile, or you can conclude that staying defiantly hopeful, despite the odds, is what keeps us alive.

Days 36-43: Cramond island to Portobello beach

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.

Day 35: Fucking Manchester

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It occurred to me this week that Fucking Manchester is the last song I ever wrote about being young. The song was inspired by an actual weekend Laura and I spent in Manchester, shortly after we got together. We drank a lot, stayed up late, and were so excited to be there that we strode around the streets shouting ‘FUCKING MANCHESTER’. In the daytime we went in search of the Hacienda and Canal Street. At night we looked for places to go dancing and, to our delight, ended up hanging out with a Liam Gallagher lookalike who called himself Dog and led us to a club that played New Order and the Happy Mondays.

Being me, I still managed to describe this hedonistic experience in a way that sounds a little bit sad, as summed up by one of my favourite ever write-ups, from Paul Lester in the Guardian: “Live Forever it is not, although in its evocation of youthful yearning and sense of nostalgia for a time yet to pass, maybe it’s not as far removed as we first assumed.”

I’m currently in Edinburgh for the festival, and I keep seeing couples who make me think of us in Manchester – stumbling around, wide-eyed and in love, thrilled to be there and with each other. It’s lovely to watch, but not something I miss. These days I am more excited by islands than by cities. I’m here to earn us money, and am writing this from a train home in the early evening, after one sensible glass of wine at the kind of reception where I would once have happily taken up all the free booze on offer. Laura is in the Hebrides renovating the house with a sense of purpose that fills me with awe. In our different ways, we are both laying the kind of life foundations referred to in verse two of this song but on a deeper level than I could have understood or aspired to when I was younger. We are no longer ‘floating high in the air’ like in verse two, but instead digging into the earth.

I wrote this song, quite deliberately, as a postcard to my future self. We’d had an amazing weekend and I wanted to create a souvenir, hence all the very specific Manchester references, from Factory Records to – again, typical of me to throw in something sad – the aftermath of the Manchester bombing. I sometimes wish I’d written more songs like this, about other trips we went on together to Turin, or Krakow, or Paris. If I hadn’t written Fucking Manchester I might have forgotten about the moment we had together in the John Rylands Library, gazing in wonder at the Rylands Library Papyrus, a ‘fragment of paper that is older than we’ll ever be’, and wondering how to make the most of our own tiny fragment of human history.

This is how it starts, with love and hope in our hearts. Fucking Manchester.

Day 34: Feeble Jesus

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‘I wonder how he’d take it if we all held him down
And drove nails right through him till he cried out loud.’

I haven’t written one of these in a while, but now that Boris is our Prime Minister – god help us – it feels like a fitting time to revisit Feeble Jesus, the next song on the list, since it’s about somebody who wants to be the Messiah not because he has any wisdom, principles, or obvious leadership skills to offer but because he wants to be adored and thinks he deserves it.

Feeble Jesus was actually inspired by David Cameron, a man who always seemed to me like somebody had built a robot based on a verbal description of Tony Blair – smooth-talking, good hair, talks in platitudes – hence the ‘show us some blood’ references and the desire to bang nails into him just to check if he’s actually human. I found him creepy, like one of those CGI characters in movies that slip into the uncanny valley because the animators couldn’t get the eyes or skin quite right. In my film of his life he’s played by Brent Spiner, channelling Data in Star Trek.

Weirdly though, the song could just as easily be about Boris, or Donald Trump, or the other narcissistic monsters who have risen to positions of incredible power and influence recently by telling frightened people exactly what they want to hear, bullying everyone else, and lying so shamelessly that it’s galling to those who see through it and can’t understand why other people don’t or just don’t think it matters.

Feeble Jesus makes me think of Boris because of Max Hastings’ description of him as someone whose “graver vice is cowardice, reflected in a willingness to tell any audience whatever he thinks most likely to please, heedless of the inevitability of its contradiction an hour later”. The only explanation of Johnson and Trump that currently makes sense to me is that leaders like them are the result of a kind of ideological paralysis. Thanks to the internet, we know more about global problems than ever before and yet we feel powerless to do anything about it because it all seems so complicated and overwhelming. Leaders like Trump and Johnson are the result of people just giving up on believing that anyone can actually guide us through the mess that humanity is currently in and deciding that these men, with their simple, reassuring stories, their unshakeable sense of entitlement and their promises to make everything great again – whatever that means – are the next best thing. With them in charge we can switch off and pretend that none of it is happening. We’re cowards, so we end up with leaders who are cowards. There was a time when half-truths from politicians would cause outrage. Now they lie to us quite openly and we don’t even care.

It’s more complicated than that, obviously. Like the real Jesus, there’s a higher, cleverer power behind it all, whose motives are cloaked in mystery and not necessarily benevolent. The most frightening conspiracy theory I’ve heard lately is that the world’s super-rich have already collectively concluded – probably not together in some secret room but just individually, because it’s common sense – that a global temperature rise of three degrees or more is now inevitable and will be catastrophic, and that the only way forward is to let civilisation fall apart and attempt to clear up the mess afterwards, once half of us are dead – just not the better half, to quote a line from Titanic. So instead of wasting their time on renewable energy or other green initiatives that will just be sticking plasters on an untreatable wound, they’re investing money and influence into the kind of dangerous buffoons who are likely to push us over the cliff edge, while buying up property in places that might escape the worst of the weather, probably with bunkers.

In other words Boris is a useful idiot, and also the kind of leader we will eventually turn on, perhaps savagely, because it’s obvious he has nothing to offer.

I’m trying to be optimistic. In one of my favourite books, Soil and Soul – which I’m currently developing into a theatre show – Alastair McIntosh suggests that the best form of activism is to ‘dig where you stand’. So instead of raging against the world, as I’ve spent much of my life doing, I’m trying to be practical and positive and think small and local. There’s not a lot I can do about Boris, or Trump, or global heating probably, but I can learn how to croft – inspired by my amazing wife, who is much more of a visionary about these things than me – and try and play a positive and useful role in my community.

It’s now the middle of the night though, and because I’m exhausted from doing four jobs at once – one of the hazards of being an arts freelancer, particularly just before/during the Edinburgh festival – I come out with stuff like this.

Enjoy the hot weather.

Day 33: All I Wanted Was To Be a Gangster

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Songs can come from the strangest combinations of places. All I Wanted Was To Be a Gangster, for example, was inspired equally by Kylie Minogue and Martin Scorsese. I was trying to work out how to play I Should Be So Lucky on the piano and ended up changing some of the notes and writing a new song instead. I must have recently watched Goodfellas, and so Ray Liotta’s opening line from the film became, more or less, the title of the song.

It’s a pretty throwaway song, if you can describe a song about wanting to murder people as throwaway. It was prompted by a cliché I was weary of seeing in movies – the formerly violent man (gangster, soldier, professional hitman etc) who just wants a peaceful domestic life but is drawn back into violence against his will as a result of his wife/girlfriend/children being threatened or killed. The message of such films, often, is that a violent lifestyle is a natural thing for a man because our job is essentially to be the protector of vulnerable women and children. Often the violent death of the man’s wife/girlfriend is used to justify his return to violence. Sometimes there is a brief moment when he looks in horror at his bloody hands – is this what I am? – before he accepts that yes, this is what he is, and gets on with smashing in more heads. It’s macho, sexist nonsense, for the most part, even if some of the more intelligent takes on the trope do critique it a bit (Unforgiven, A History of Violence, The Bourne Supremacy, Blade Runner 2049 etc). Goodfellas, to its credit, is a bit more honest about how much men just enjoy being powerful and frightening. And then there is Breaking Bad, in which a man spends five seasons of a TV show pretending to himself that he’s embracing a life of crime and violence to protect his wife and children before finally admitting that it was actually because he liked it and was good at it.

All I Wanted Was To Be a Gangster was a slightly frivolous attempt to critique all this. It’s about a man travelling in the opposite direction; he yearns to be violent but keeps getting drawn back into a quiet job putting library books in alphabetical order, because that’s what comes most naturally to him.

That man, if I’m honest, was partly me, vicariously enjoying all those movies about violent men while sitting at a desk editing things for a living. Hang on, though. Was I fooling myself just then when I said I was critiquing violent movies with this song? Was I actually doing something much more straightforward – expressing my own subconscious fantasy of being a gangster? Is this song my Fight Club? Do I secretly want to spend my evenings punching other men in basements in order to feel less emasculated, more alive? I don’t think so, given that I wrote it while trying to work out how to play a Kylie Minogue song, but who knows? Men are weird.

Day 32: Advocate’s Close/Stamped Addressed Envelope

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Advocate’s Close and Stamped Addressed Envelope represent two extremes of my songwriting. The first is a throwaway instrumental whose title has no significance beyond being named after the place where it was recorded. The second is so personal that I’m not going to say anything more about it here.

I was always quite pleased by the way one segues into the other though, the almost jaunty piano melody of the first track slowing down until it matches the slow, melancholy pace of the second. It actually sounds like they’re two sections of the same song, but that’s all down to sequencing. They were written and recorded at different times.

The reason this pleased me is because I’m nerdishly obsessed with track-listing. I’m one of those people who spent years making compilations, sometimes for myself, sometimes for other people (whether they asked for them or not). I was, in short, one of those men who read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and thought, oh god, that’s me. I do think it’s an art though – a great compilation, or just a great album, should take you on an emotional journey, and it’s jarring when track-listing is done thoughtlessly. The order in which songs appear can change the whole meaning of an album, after all. Think of Let It Be…. Naked, which transformed the original Let It Be, partly by taking out Phil Spector’s strings but partly just by putting the songs in a different order. Opening the album with Get Back, for example, suggests from the off that this was the Beatles getting back to the basics of being a live band after the studio experiments of Sgt Pepper and the White Album (they broke up instead, but still).

So I would set myself lots of compiling rules – similar to the rules of script-writing in many ways – based on the idea that an album should tell some kind of story. An opening song should either grab you immediately, and establish a mood, musically and lyrically, setting the scene, or it should work as a short prologue, which is then built on or undercut by the second song (chapter one). Your choice of the penultimate and final song is very important too, this being the end of the story. My ideal scenario is something quite epic as your penultimate song, a dramatic finale, followed by an epilogue-style closer. And I was always very pleased with myself when the final song on a compilation revisited the themes of the opening song in some way, bringing you full circle.

Ok Computer by Radiohead is a classic example of an album by one artist doing this – it begins with a car crash and ends with someone saying ‘idiot, slow down’ – I like to think that the closing song is a premonition of the opening song, and everything in between is Thom Yorke’s life flashing before his eyes as the car tumbles off the road. Another favourite example is Carbon Glacier by Laura Veirs, whose opening and closing songs, Ether Sings and Riptide, mirror each other in their descriptions of people coming back from the dead, either through their children – “souls lost into the ether of death come back wise in the eyes and the arms of newborns” or by a narrow escape from drowning. Both songs were a big influence on Dead Orchestras.

Inspired by albums like these, I went on to obsess over the track-listing for every album I have released, spending almost as much time thinking about what order the songs would be in as I did about the songs themselves. I was particularly pleased with the tracklisting on The Winter of 88, which begins with an island sinking and ends with a ferry journey to a new one.

I wonder if people brought up in the age of downloads still think like this. Has the carefully sequenced album become a lost art? Now you have playlists, on Spotify or iTunes or your phone, that go on for hours, mood-setting music to fill an entire evening rather than 45 minutes. That’s a different kind of journey, one without a clear beginning, middle or end, one more likely to interrupted at any point, by a drunk friend taking over the DJing, or a train arriving at a station. Playlists like these are probably more in tune with the 21st century, and its ambivalent relationship with narrative. Younger generations have been brought up in a post- post-modernist culture that endlessly picks storytelling apart, questioning whose story is being told, why that person gets to tell the story, what prejudices they bring to it, what assumptions are being made about the audience, whether the ending is really the ending etc.

Not that I lacked self-awareness when making my youthful compilations. Among the hundreds of home recordings I made as a teenager was a song about making compilations, in which a boy falls in love and begins making a compilation tape that will perfectly capture every stage of the relationship he’s in – a happy and excited song to capture the first flush of infatuation, an angry song to soundtrack their first fight etc. Listening back over his unfinished project, the boy decides that what the compilation needs is to finish with a sad, reflective song. And so he abruptly ends the relationship. I’m not quite sure why I wrote this song, perhaps as a reminder to myself never to be as horrible as this, to remember to value people and relationships over music. Given that I spent most of my teenage years in my bedroom writing music, I’m not sure I took this advice to heart.