(Photograph by Neale Smith)
This interview originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on April 10, 2014.
Lately, Aidan Moffat has remodelled himself as Tom Weir. The Scottish cult-pop makar has swapped indie garb for fair-isle threads as part of Where You’re Meant To Be – a road trip, tour and ensuing film, conceived in cahoots with film-maker Paul Fegan, which kicks off with a series of ceilidh-style gigs round the country later this month.
Moffat will debut a new body of work inspired by our oral tradition, backed by James Graham (The Twilight Sad), Jenny Reeve (Bdy_Prts) and Stevie Jones (Alasdair Roberts). The gatherings span Port Ness Social Club, Faslane Peace Camp, Glasgow Barrowland and beyond, and will welcome local folk-singers and storytellers – plus unplugged-punk poet Wounded Knee, championship bothy balladeers Geordie Murison and Joe Aitken, and travelling folk torch-bearer Sheila Stewart.
Footage from the shows, the trips, and the characters they meet en route will provide the groundwork for a feature-length film, directed by Fegan (ere of Triptych festival), to be premiered after the close of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games in late August.
Where You’re Meant To Be is part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme, and its exploration of Scottish folklore and identity resonates as the independence referendum approaches – but the project’s roots go deeper than that. “I had the idea to do a ceilidh-style gig with spoken word stuff years ago, and I asked Paul to promote it,” Moffat recalls. “Then we forgot all about it for ages – I did the album with Bill [Wells, which bagged 2012's Scottish Album of the Year Award] and there just wasn’t the time.
“When I had some free time, and started thinking about it again, we were in the pub with Stewart Henderson [of Moffat's label, Chemikal Underground] and he came up with the idea of trying to get funding. So it went from talk of doing a few gigs, to re-writing an album’s worth of songs, making a film and touring all over the shop. It’s become this massive cultural event,” Moffat says with a laugh. It’s popular too: free tickets for the eight-date tour were snapped up in a couple of hours.
Where You’re Meant To Be transcends time, and current events, in many ways – it excavates and updates forgotten songs, celebrates traditions before they are lost (Sheila Stewart is the sole surviving speaker of local travellers’ language, Perthshire Cant), and looks set to uncover many a yarn on its 21st century journey. “There’s lots of stories too,” says Fegan, who received numerous awards for his 2012 short documentary, Pouters. “Whether they’re about Faslane protesters, or a crofter in Skye swimming his cattle, or the Loch Ness monster, we want to display these stories, and characters, and characteristics … of contemporary Scotland.”
Moffat’s trad-folk reworkings are similarly forward-looking. “There’s a song I do called The City Tonight, which takes its melody from Bonnie Glenshee, but I didn’t like the words,” he says. “In Bonnie Glenshee, there’s a man and a woman breaking up underneath the beautiful scenery of the hills, and I just thought, ‘I feel the same way about the city’ – the Kingston Bridge at half five in the morning is as exciting to me as any hill. So I transposed the action to the city.”
The project’s title track, Where You’re Meant To Be, locates its protagonist in Moffat’s beloved Glasgow local, Nice N Sleazy. The narrative also features WYMTB player James Graham (“he’s the Jim in the song,” says Moffat), but the synchronicity doesn’t end there: its melody was inspired by a ballad sung by Sheila Stewart’s mother, Belle (of Blairgowrie’s “Travelling Stewarts”).
“It was actually Belle Stewart who sparked this whole idea,” says Moffat. “I was listening to an album of her [unaccompanied] stuff, and that’s when I started to think more about the storytelling thing, because that’s what her songs do. You have to concentrate. And I like the challenge of it – trying to hold people’s attention when there’s nothing else is quite difficult,” he says. “It’s like stand-up comedy in a way, which is kind of what the live set’s turned out like. Most of these old traditional songs are hilarious.”
Despite the (erroneous) “miserabilist” tag that dogged his former band Arab Strap, Moffat’s approach to Where You’re Meant To Be has been anything but. “I knew there was going to be a film of this, a portrayal of Scotland, before I wrote a lot of the songs, and I thought, ‘I don’t want Scotland to be seen as this miserable place’,” he offers. “I’m sick of Scotland being portrayed as a cesspit of violence and bigotry – especially now, in this year, when we’re supposed to be discussing its future. I want to be seen having a laugh. I mean, it can be a dark, miserable place – look at those clouds today – but it’s a beautiful country. And it’s a hilarious country.”
Fegan shares Moffat’s outlook and aesthetic, and hopes the film will find its own path around the tour; that the tales will tell themselves. “Because we’re not coming from a conventional film background in terms of approach, any aesthetic element has to work around a set schedule,” he offers. “We’re not only going to shoot on sunny days, or wet days – we need to shoot with what we get. It’s possible that all we’ll get is rain shots, but that can be quite beautiful too.
“For me, the focus is on getting as much material out of the tour as possible,” continues Fegan. “We’re trying to avoid making a fly-on-the-wall rock-doc, so it’s finding a balance between Aidan, and his process, and the picture of Scotland he’s taken and reinterpreted. A lot of the characters in the film will reflect an older part of Scotland and those traditions. It’s not going to be a wild road movie.”
So there won’t be any filmic shots of Aidan flashing his bum out the car window? “Oh, that might happen,” deadpans Moffat. “In fact, I’d say that’s quite likely.”
Where You’re Meant To Be starts in Port of Ness Social Club, Lewis, on April 19, then tours.
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