From The Archive: Life Is Like A Box of Records

A few years back, the brilliant and endlessly inspiring Halina Rifai from (Glasgow) Podcart asked me to contribute to her series which celebrated songs and the way that they inform our lives. This is what I wrote…

Aneka – Japanese Boy

This faux-oriental disco-folk ode to a gigolo was the first single I ever bought. I was obsessed with the song when I was about five, and with its exotic heroine, Aneka – and I was stunned when a tabloid exposé revealed my beloved Casio-geisha to be a folk dowager from Fife called Mary Sandeman. To be fair, the clues were there for anyone who was not an infant and /or blindsided by pop’s smoke and mirrors: the pentatonic scale deployed in ‘Japanese Boy’ was more common to Chinese composition; the fold of Aneka’s kimono was customarily used on the dead for cremation; and the b-side to her seven-inch was Scots trad-folk ballad ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. You can probably trace everything I love about music – disco, folk, electro, melancholia, surrealism, surprises and a disregard for convention – back to this fantastic(al) song.

Erasure – The Circus

I loved Erasure when I was at primary school. I’d spend hours copying their artwork onto cassettes for my friends; replicating their record label and logo – Mute – and catalogue numbers onto the inlay spines. I saved up for ‘The Circus’ seven-inch, picked it up in Stirling Woolworths, and it’s still one of my favourite pop hits: who wouldn’t fall for an accordion-synth dirge that lamented corporations, unemployment and technology? Years later, I ended up working for Mute (and with Erasure) – promoting their logos and artists and catalogue numbers – and while on tour with one of the label’s pop stars (okay, it was Moby), I was offered a job as a stripper in Detroit, as ‘The Circus’ blared over the pole-dancing platform. I asked myself, as usual, “What would Kathleen Hanna do?” And I was tempted.

Deacon Blue – Raintown

Mention Deacon Blue when we’re in the pub, and watch the eyes around me roll. HERE SHE GOES. Several years back, I spent a page in The Herald trying to express my enduring love for the band (you can read it here) – and airtime on BBC Radio 4 attempting to do the same about ‘Raintown’, which sums up everything I love about them (familiar skies; yearning pop; a sense of home) – but I’m still no closer to adequately explaining, or even really understanding, the profound impact that Ricky Ross, Lorraine McIntosh and co had on me as a child, and then as a teenager. And so it goes on.

The Sugarcubes – Hit

I started finding ways to blag my way into gigs in second year at high school. This largely involved such dubious-sounding pursuits as painting drum-skins for the Kevin McDermott Orchestra, fiddling with the Humpff family, blowing eggs for The Pearlfishers, and plastering the walls of Wallace High with Xeroxed gig posters for Edinburgh grunge-folk heartbreakers The Lost Soul Band. Friendly promoters (notably the legendary Lisa Whytock) would put me on guest-lists for student union shows, which reduced the need for fake ID, and introduced me to the snakebite-addled paradise of the indie disco. The Sugarcubes’ ‘Hit’, in Dundee Student Union, did just that: it floored me. Stick Around For Joy became the soundtrack to homework and diary entries from there on in, and it’s still one of the albums that see me through deadlines, along with other key homework LPs from back in the day (because nothing really changes): Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, Wish by The Cure, and The Pixies’ Bossanova.

Arab Strap – The First Big Weekend

I heard this on John Peel in 1996, on my first night living in London, whereupon I immediately resolved to marry Aidan Moffat. (I settled for a “thumbs up” from him – not a euphemism – in Holborn rave basement The End soon thereafter.) I’d moved down South with my then-boyfriend, and set about importing and flogging Happy Hardcore from a bygone chocolate factory in Ladbroke Grove. (I promoted absurd sex-pop duo The Outhere Brothers and the back-catalogue of 80s MOR-fops Living in a Box on the side). But I became increasingly aware that everything exciting was happening back home, in no small part thanks to Chemikal Underground, whose Delgados / Arab Strap / Mogwai triple-threat felt like a revelation, and a revolution. It led me to myriad contemporaneous Glasgow DIY delights, including a brilliant feminista punk-folk band called Swelling Meg (fronted by actor / director Cora Bissett), whose album I went on to release, having hunted them down via Club Beatroot – a mid-late 90s seven-inch series part-helmed by sublime unplugged punk RM Hubbert. The First Big Weekend still sounds extraordinary. It reminds me how much I fixated on, and idealised, what was happening in Glasgow – and how far I felt from it all in London. It knocked me for six.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – 15 Feet of Pure White Snow

This is the only record to integrate my twin loves of Stock, Aitken and Waterman and crepuscular goth-rock, thanks to its amazing accompanying video, which stars bygone bedroom pin-up Jason Donovan among others (Jarvis Cocker, Noah Taylor). We shot it at Bethnal Green Town Hall (Nick Cave was signed to Mute), and the day’s unlikely events included having beans on toast with my beloved Jason on a double-decker bus, and ushering the video’s central protagonist from his dressing room with the words, “Nick, it’s time for your dancing lesson”. Around the same time (as depicted in the photo above), Nick Cave told me I should watch my drinking – counsel that I proudly wore, like a medal – and observed that I had the worst taste in men of any woman he’d ever met. (This may have had something to do with the unrequited crush I had on a septuagenarian roadie called Gunther, whose only words of English were, “I drove Bauhaus”.)

Destiny’s Child – Independent Women Part 1

The rock I’m rocking? I bought it. I fell hard for Destiny’s Child and their brand of fired-up, feminist R&B, and watching them discharge this blazing call-to-arms up-close at the 2001 BRIT Awards was a thrill: it felt like watching pop explode. Oh, Beyonce! But perhaps the song’s empowering / Charlie’s Angels vibe galvanised me a little too much (well, that and the aerosol lemon vodka), because later that night I tried to pull Graham Norton, temporarily blinded the A&R man who signed Shaggy, and accidentally pushed a man with a broken arm off a moving bus.

King Creosote – You’ve No Clue, Do You?

On my last night in London, my good pal Andy Inglis and I sat drinking rum in Kensal Rise, and conversation turned to The Fence Collective – a magical DIY cabal that Andy spoke about in uncharacteristically reverent tones. I resolved to investigate upon my return to the motherland, and swiftly fell under Fence’s spell, but it took me a while to realise that its ingenious ringleader, King Creosote, was the same Kenny Anderson I’d often seen fronting the Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra when I was at school. I’ve since ogled some of my favourite acts at Fence bashes – Withered Hand, Rob St John, FOUND, Kid Canaveral, Meursault, Errors, The Twilight Sad and RM Hubbert among them – and I’ve spent countless hours marvelling at, and trying to unravel, King Creosote’s songs (and occasionally writing his sleevenotes), only to find myself ever-more embroiled. I saw Kenny’s post-SDO troupe, Khartoum Heroes a few times too: their line-up included a young and (I think) pink-haired Vic Galloway, who many years later would write a wonderful book on the Fence Collective – and who would, from time-to-time, let me loose on his BBC radio show.

Irene Reid – I Must Be Doing Something Right

I walked down the aisle to this vintage soul anthem (that is to say, up hundreds of crumbling spiral steps in the Wallace Monument), which, on reflection, was monumentally immodest of me, a propos my bedside manner (“when it’s time for ‘sleeping’, he thinks I’m something outta sight”) – although it’s true I never comb my hair, so the lyrics are not completely aberrant. And better that this song salutes my stagger into matrimony than Electric Six’s ‘Danger! High! Voltage!’, which ended the evening and rendered my husband and I in a state of nigh-complete undress on the dance-floor.

Johnny Cash – Hurt

I had a casual chat with my midwife about Johnny Cash’s devastating take on this Nine Inch Nails psalm while she performed various, um – well, let’s just say “procedures” – on my nether regions, after I’d just given birth to my wee boy. Through sheer fluke, the amazing, and aptly-named, Joyce had also delivered my wee girl two years prior (God love the NHS), so this song has come to represent the moment they both came into the world (“you are someone else; I am still right here”). In turn it relates to my parents, family and loved-ones – it traces the connections we all have (and have to lose) – which means I can never listen to it in public, lest I start bawling. I learned that the hard way on the Alloa bus.

Boy Meets Girl – Waiting For A Star To Fall

My favourite song of all-time? This is the one.

* * *

Related articles:  Why I Heart: My Mum (or: All The Things My Mother Taught Me)

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Essay: Why I Heart: My Mum

This piece was commissioned by much-missed feminista pop collective TYCI, for International Women’s Day in 2015 – they asked me to write about a woman who inspired me. Their site has sadly closed now, so I’m posting it again here…

When I think of the things that my mother has taught me, here are some scenes that spring to mind:

Her being caught stealing; her charming policemen; her willing dodgy cars to drive, fuelled by fresh air and hope alone. Her getting us marooned up the Wallace Monument; her prolific use of celery salt; her glamorous sunbathing in Stirling, like it was the Costa Del Sol.

I write and talk a lot about women who I think are amazing, in print and on the radio – Neneh Cherry, Sleater-Kinney, Joanna Newsom, PJ Harvey, Beyonce, Bikini Kill, St Vincent, Kim Gordon, Martha Reeves – I could (and do) go on. So this time, I figured I’d impart some wisdom from the one I’ve known the longest, and admire the most.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from my mum.

* Pretending to be brave is the same as being brave.

My memory of this is sketchy, but some time in the early 1980s, my mum took my wee brother and I to see my uncle in Australia. There was a bomb scare on the plane en route, I think it was in Abu Dhabi. I was five, my brother was two, my mum would have been around 30, and I cannot imagine the panic she must have felt when she was told that there was a problem.

We had to evacuate and move away from the aircraft, but all I can recall is my mum turning it into a great adventure and reassuring us that everything was fine – that we were, in fact, just stopping off for a picnic. So we sat on the ground, in the blinding heat, and it seemed like an odd place for a picnic – compared to, say, the Laighills in Dunblane – but otherwise I felt quite calm. I remember her smiling at us in the sun.

For years afterwards, I thought my mum was amazing for pretending to be brave like that, when she must have been terrified beyond words. It took me a lot longer to realise that being brave and pretending to be brave are pretty much one and the same. If anything, the latter is more impressive: it implies a lack of choice.

(See also: pretending to be confident; pretending to be sociable.)

* Never become entangled with someone whose principles offend you.

I spent a good part of the 1980s trying to encourage my mum to entertain at least one of her many suitors. She was having none of it. There was this one chap in particular of whom I approved, but when I pressed my mum as to her intentions, she flattened his chances, thus: “I could never get involved with a Tory.”

Many years later, in my 20s, in London, I became acquainted with a man who was Princess Diana’s cousin or some-such, replete with a Lordship (which may have been bought). I briefly flirted with the notion of being his bit of rough for a laugh – purely so I might subvert, infiltrate and argue with all that he stood for – before coming to my senses and recalling my mother’s words. (We met at a rave in a Dalston warehouse, incidentally – he probably didn’t need subverting).

* Epitomising a Roxy Music album is a righteous life goal.

Things I genuinely expected to happen when I magically turned into an adult overnight: I’d become sophisticated and wealthy; I’d drive a bright yellow Porsche; I’d look like Fallon out of Dynasty (NOT Emma Samms – Pamela Sue Martin, the original one). My entire sexy, high-powered life would play out like Roxy Music’s Avalon – all elegance, seductive lighting, black-ash furniture, stockings with seams up them, loosened tuxedos, neon geometric cocktails, balconies, sunsets and satin sheets. Jacuzzi life.

It bears noting that such ambitions were hatched while my mum was raising my brother and I in a one bedroom flat near Stirling, and that we watched Dynasty on a black and white portable telly a suitor (see above) had given her in exchange for a set of trestle tables.

Despite this, my childhood was instilled with glamour, and the potential thereof – from my mum’s use of exotic sun cream (Bergasol) as she swanned around the River Allan like it was the Riviera, to her copious use of the ultimate swish 1980s seasoning, celery salt – not to mention her insistence that I could be anything I wanted when I grew up, including a Roxy Music cliche, replete with yellow Porsche. She still points such cars out, encouragingly, every time we pass one.

The fact that I have yet to even learn to drive highlights the gulf between my adulthoods real and imagined. Thankfully, there’s room for both.

* Be kind.

This one was passed on by constant example. Be kind to people. We are all fragile. Even when we pretend to be brave.

* Always wear matching underwear.

“Even though no-one will see it.” (Thanks for the vote of confidence there.)

* Honesty, and the meaning of irony.

My mum often took my brother and I for a walk up the back of Bridge of Allan. She was always gathering lavender cuttings from the woods, pilfering bluebells, that sort of thing. But her “borrowing” from nature came to a head in a country lane called Coneyhill Road.

The cottages there don’t have front gardens, just window boxes. When my mum encountered a plant she’d been seeking for ages on one of said windowsills, she couldn’t resist: she took a surreptitious clipping. Its leaves were white and round, like tracing paper. She put it in her pocket.

The owner came out of her front door to enquire as to what my mum thought she was doing. And that is how my mother got caught stealing Honesty, and lied about it. I learned about irony that day too.

* Barbara Dickson is the greatest.

This is self-explanatory.

* * *

My mum also taught me that nobody’s perfect – and, with this in mind, herewith a few counter-arguments:

* Mothers are not always right about science.

Have you ever been in car that runs out of petrol? This was a recurring theme of my childhood. (If you don’t have any money, and you absolutely have to get somewhere, it’s worth a try, right? But sometimes the car wins.) Science can put the kibosh on hope. You cannot power a car on positive thinking alone.

(You can, of course, blag petrol from a fellow motorist, and accidentally set your car on fire, but that’s a story for the pub.)

Sometimes her old 2CV headlights wouldn’t work either, or the tax disc would be out of date, and so policemen would occasionally pull my mum over on the motorway, or turn up at the door, and every time she would somehow: a) get off the hook, and b) get their phone number.

* Mothers are not always right about geography.

A variation on the above scenario concerns the time she took us on an “adventure” up the Wallace Monument woods, guided only by her “instinct”. Suffice to say we got stuck in a landslide in the rain and had to cry for help.

Were were rescued by two handsome strangers with whom my mother and her legendary best friend – also a hero, and not just because of her water-bed – went gallivanting later that evening.

* Mothers are not always right about manners.

My mum spent my childhood trying to drum manners into me, which is fair enough (I now do the same with my own kids), but some of them were quite archaic – including her insistence that if I didn’t use cutlery properly (I’m right-handed but have always used my knife with my left hand), no one would ever take me out for dinner.

I have thought of this warning on several occasions. Like the time I was wined and dined in Cannes by the rock ‘n’ roll multi-millionaire who set up the Bowie Bonds. Or those culinary evenings in the Groucho Club with the pop star. Or that night on an Amsterdam canal boat that involved a 22-course meal served up by a famous TV chef. None of these characters (or the others) seemed unduly offended by the way I wield my cutlery.

(I was unimpressed by all of them, incidentally: I married an archaeologist I met in the Co-op in Killin.)

She was right about always saying please and thank you, though. It’s amazing what you can get in life if you ask nicely enough. (This philosophy has not, as yet, extended to a yellow Porsche.)

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Essay: Somewhere Only We Know (BBC Radio Scotland)

It’s funny, the way you remember things.

If you asked me what I thought I’d recall from a recent radio adventure that saw BBC producer Debbie McPhail and I embark on a sailing trip round the Morvern Peninsula with best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith, and an overnight stay by a Helmsdale croft with Scottish pop trailblazer Edwyn Collins, and a wander round Pittencrieff Park with theatre, folk and pop star Barbara Dickson – among others – I’d have guessed at the majestic sweep of the Glencoe valley; the idyllic Sutherland beaches; the quickening heavens above Dunfermline Abbey; the glorious sights, and scale, of the land.

Instead though, I remember lichen. I remember Sydney Devine’s wedding ring. I remember the kindness of scampi and chips. I remember Edwyn Collins singing Perry Como, and Barbara Dickson laughing by her childhood paddling pool, and actor Gavin Mitchell bagging us hot donuts at the Glasgow Barras. I remember Sandy McCall Smith clambering over his kitchen sink, crockery flying, valiantly trying to save a bee, and the way that Hollie McNish’s granny took my hand when she spoke to me, just like my nana used to do, but I haven’t felt that in 30 years, and so it took my breath away, and I nearly cried into my battenberg cake. I remember excellent battenberg cake.

I remember being in the middle of hanging out the washing last year, when I got a phonecall from Debbie McPhail. We’d worked together once before – she was producing BBC Radio Scotland’s Afternoon Show and I was sitting in for Janice Forsyth – and she was phoning me, she said, with an idea for a radio series…

It’s called Somewhere Only We Know, and it starts on Wednesday June 12th, at 1.30pm. Over the next six weeks, we’re visiting the places in Scotland that are closest to the hearts of Alexander McCall Smith, Barbara Dickson, Still Game’s Gavin Mitchell (“Boabby the Barman”), award-wining poet Hollie McNish, Edwyn Collins and his wife Grace Maxwell, and beloved rhinestone crooner Sydney Devine.

From the Highlands to the Barrowlands, from the Hebrides to a Fife peacock retreat, we’ll be given a guided radio tour of our brilliant guests’ personal histories, milestones, memories, and the landscapes that have shaped and inspired them. We spent hours, if not days, with each of them, so undoubtedly some tales will fall by the wayside, but their traces and ghosts will still be there, in the buildings and hillsides and waterfalls that witnessed them, somewhere among the airwaves and between the lines.

Time will tell (on Debbie’s watch) if the yarn that Edwyn and Grace told us about Shakin’ Stevens and Foreigner over curry and wine will make the cut, and I can’t recall if the tape was still rolling when Edwyn sang Perry, or when we got donuts, or when I noticed the ring on Sydney’s finger: a diamond and gold-encrusted horseshoe; a tiny gilded monument to luck, and love.

Then there were the exploits that unfolded when we weren’t recording. We stayed overnight in Lochaline, in a bed and breakfast whose other guest, Nerys, had travelled all the way from Wales on account of her avid love for lichen. We arrived too late for the local shop, and the hotel kitchen was closed that day, so Debbie and I sat on a picnic bench, looking across the water to Mull, with wine from a box, and a three course bar meal of dry roasted peanuts, salted peanuts and a bag of crisps, but there was no need: the hotel landlord opened the kitchen, and served us both up scampi and chips.

If you’d asked me what I hoped this series might achieve before we started, I’d have said something about taking radio out of the studio, and into the landscapes – and lives – of some of our best-loved characters. But, on reflection, what I really hope is that we’ve celebrated the beauty, and breadth, and resonance of our rural, and (sub)urban stomping grounds; that we’ve explored intimate and communal monuments (real and imagined); and most of all, that we’ve conveyed the extraordinary warmth, and generosity, and kindness, of our unforgettable guests, who were as bright as sunshine, and as welcoming as home.

Somewhere Only We Know runs weekly on BBC Radio Scotland for six weeks, starting at 1.30pm on Wednesday June 12th. It’s repeated on Sundays at 6am and 3pm. You can listen to the episodes once they’re broadcast via BBC Sounds, here:

Related articles:

Barbara Dickson interview, The Herald:

Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell interview, The Herald:


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Interview: Barbara Dickson

This interview originally appeared in The Herald Magazine on February 2, 2019.

I can see two Barbara Dicksons in front of me. The first one’s drinking coffee on a winter’s day in Edinburgh’s New Town, reflecting on the sisterhood, pop stardom and political theatre – and looking forward to a career-spanning tour.

The other’s just outside our window, by the doorway of what was The Buffs – a sixties folk den which Dickson frequented as a prodigious folk singer, way back when. It’s so close that I can see her there: a teenager, guitar in hand, black boots, black polo neck, packet of Woodbines, regulation Levi’s 501s. That was before she packed in her day-job as a civil servant. Before she moved to London, became a pop star, stole the show as a theatre and TV actor, inspired John Lennon, Ray Charles and Bjorn from Abba to sing her praises – and bagged 17 gold and platinum albums (not to mention the hit singles), making her Scotland’s biggest-selling female artist of all time. As her life-long pal Billy Connolly puts it: “Barbara’s a one-off. Her voice just nails you to the wall.”

“I loved those 501s,” says Dickson, as we imagine her younger self across the road. “I shrunk them in this big old bath in my flat, round the corner from here, in Northumberland Street,” she recalls, and she draws a map in the morning light, charting the city’s sixties and seventies folk landmarks, half a century on. “I worked up there, by the Cafe Royal, at the Registrar General’s Department, and we’d walk to the Waverley Bar, off the High Street, and along to Sandy Bell’s. That place is so full of stories they’re stuck in the walls. People would just turn up. Martin Carthy, The McCalmans, Aly Bain, Hamish Henderson. We’d stand at the back, by the ladies’ toilets, all singing a cappella.”

Dickson was no stranger to unaccompanied vocal turns. Even as an infant in Dunfermline, “the bairn” would sing in her pram in the garden, much to the amazement of the local postman. She played piano from the age of five, picked up a guitar when she started high school, made her nervous local folk club debut a few years later, and moved to Edinburgh aged 17. “I’ve been everywhere since then, and experienced all sorts of music,” offers the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. “And I became an actress, and all that stuff, which I never would have dreamed of doing. People always say, ‘You must have had a plan’. But I didn’t have a plan at all.”

Her terrific autobiography, A Shirt Box Full Of Songs, testifies to that. It tells the tale of a girl from Fife who loved Calamity Jane, The Beatles and The Everly Brothers, and who always had a belief in her voice, if not in herself. She became a star of stage and screen, much to her surprise, although some of these pursuits caused extended periods of debilitating stagefright and nervous exhaustion. But other adventures sound like a wheeze. She starred in the finale of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film alongside Donovan and Jack Bruce; she and Elaine Paige hit it off righteously during their chart reign with I Know Him So Well; and she depicts her early-eighties courtship with moustachioed Grandstand heartthrob Des Lynam as great fun, albeit compromised by his preoccupation with sport. “We did seem to spend quite a lot of our short time together watching it on television when I’m sure there was something more interesting we could have been doing instead,” she writes.

Amid tales of her family, marriage, three sons, and love for Eminem (“to my mind one of the best musical storytellers since Bob Dylan”), A Shirt Box Full Of Songs celebrates a life of resilience and vulnerability; of seizing opportunities and taking risks. “Of lurching along!” Dickson adds, over her coffee. “And yes, being very, very scared all over the place.”

There’s a sense of seeking – and finding – courage, and freedom (from ourselves or others), in many of Barbara Dickson’s songs, not least two glorious Mike Batt classics: Run Like The Wind (“The more you try to keep me here, the less you will succeed”), and Caravan Song (“I need to breathe, I need to leave”). She nods. “Caravans has this kind of mythical thing with my audience, and I think it’s all to do with that line – ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going,’” she muses. “It has this hymnal, anthemic quality. People say to me, ‘It’s so wrapped up with memories’. Songs can mean so much to people. I think you have a responsibility to the audience to sing them.”

Her voice remains stunning. Singular yet warmly familiar; sad, and poignant, and uplifting. I’ve loved it since I was a child. She laughs. “That’s not your fault! I get great swathes of women coming to see me, lots of women who’ve all been friends for many years, and they’ll have brainwashed their whole families by playing and singing my songs, so you’ll get younger victims, just like you, being dragged along.” (All too willingly.) “And then – and this is really sweet, at my age, I’m 71 – you’ll get women who come up and talk to me after the show, and they’ll say, ‘My husband’s standing behind that pillar there, because he’s too nervous to say hello.’” A hearty chuckle. “And I go, ‘Right, let’s have a look at him! It might be worth trading the husband in!’

“But the loveliest thing of all,” Dickson continues, “Is that I get women who say, ‘For goodness’ sake, keep going – you’re an inspiration to us!’ And this is the thing. The sisterhood is very, very important to me. We women have enough of a problem with being consigned to the bin over the age of whatever it is now, so I want to be a funky old lady, and I want to keep my funky old ladies going as well. I’m not interested in being outrageous. I don’t want to stand there telling jokes. That’s not for me particularly, because I am from Dunfermline. And I am quite shy,” she says. “But I feel like I’m a sort of poster girl for these women who’ve made some terrible choices and some good choices, who came through the upheaval of the sixties and seventies, and I think that’s very important. I love being that woman. And I love being that woman in Scotland.”

She’s been away for over 40 years, living in London and Lincolnshire, but Dickson recently returned to Edinburgh, round the corner from her old flat. “I hit the ground running when I moved back – it was as if I’d never been away,” she smiles. “It’s been a fantastic experience to re-inhabit the boots that I left in the early seventies, and to start walking around in them again.”

That’s not to say she’s retreading old ground. From her earliest records in cahoots with long-standing friends Rab Noakes and Archie Fisher to her most recent albums, Dickson’s flair for the (re)interpretation of a song remains exceptional, and unshackled by genre conventions: there’s room for folk, pop, prog, rock, classical and more. But she’s never one to rest on her laurels, and is relishing the prospect of shaking things up on her forthcoming tour. She touches on a recent reinvention of her Evita classic Another Suitcase In Another Hall (later covered by Madonna), and a new take on Easy Terms that she’s rendering as a harmonium psalm. “I love that a song can have a life of its own, and that it can have many lives,” she says. “It means it’s a sort of shape-shifting thing.”

Her relationships change with those songs, too. After years of ambivalence towards it, Dickson has rekindled an affection for January, February, thanks to her musical collaborator Troy Donockley. “I just never knew how to revamp it,” she says. “And then, about three years ago, Troy said – ‘You know what? We could do January, February as a jig – because that’s what it is. If I play bazouki, suddenly it becomes folk music’. And that’s what we did.” An orchestral version on Through Line, her recent album with The Carducci Quartet, is also well worth hearing. “I’ve developed a new enthusiasm for January, February now,” she reflects. “That’s taken time. But I love being able to make my own choices when I want to. I love being independent [she has her own record label, Chariot], and not to have to toe any sort of musical line.”

Dickson’s knack for song interpretation led to her career in theatre. It was galvanised by dramatist, lyricist and composer Willy Russell, whom she first befriended in Sandy Bell’s. He cast her in his groundbreaking 1974 Liverpool theatre production John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert, which saw Dickson in her element: at a piano, re-configuring The Beatles. In the early eighties, Russell wrote the devastating Blood Brothers, and while Dickson was thrilled at the prospect of contributing vocals to his play-with-songs, Russell had other ideas: he persuaded her to accept her first-ever acting role, as the central protagonist, Mrs Johnstone. It bagged Dickson the first of two Best Actress In A Musical garlands at the Olivier Awards.

“A lot of people seeing Blood Brothers said, ‘Oh, it’s very Northern, it’s very gloomy,’” says Dickson. “Which it was. It was about Thatcher’s Britain. It was political theatre. But my mother was from Liverpool and I’m a working class person, and I felt very strongly about Mrs Johnstone and why did what she did. Why she had to give a child away. It’s such a very powerful piece of work. And so I see myself – without being pretentious – as having contributed something quite important to the theatre, from a left-wing point of view,” she offers. “Not that I bang on about left wing issues, but that is my background. I come from a mining area in Scotland. Even my own show, The Seven Ages of Woman, was a walk through the life of the ordinary everywoman – from a small person to an older person – celebrating the sisterhood in all of its diversity.”

The characters with whom she’s most closely associated in her acting career are diverse, too: destitute mother Mrs Johnstone; Anita Braithwaite from Band of Gold (Kay Mellor’s groundbreaking TV series about a group of sex workers in Bradford); and infamous Yorkshire woman Viv Nicholson, whose rags-to-riches-to-rags tale was depicted in Spend, Spend, Spend. But at heart, they all have common traits. They’re all strong, vulnerable, warm and complex working-class women. They’re all survivors. “Absolutely. There’s nothing of Noel Coward that I could bring much to,” Dickson suggests. “But if Bill Forsyth or Bill Bryden wanted me to play someone’s granny up a close, hanging out the washing, I’d be particularly happy to do that.”

Her celebration of the sisterhood extends to a melancholic power ballad that made her one half of the UK’s biggest-selling female duo of all time. Co-written for the musical Chess by Tim Rice and Abba’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, it saw Dickson join forces with Elaine Paige for a love song with twist: two women sing from different (but increasingly harmonic) perspectives about the same man. “Exactly – that’s why I wanted to do it,” she says. “That’s what was so interesting to me about the song.” Suffice to say, it struck a chord. It spent four weeks at number one in 1985, but its popularity has endured.

Dickson doesn’t sing it live – it is a duet, after all – but acknowledges its beloved appeal. “People will often say to me, ‘What don’t you sing it?’ And I say – ‘Do you know something, why don’t you sing it?’ she laughs. “I’m handing it over – it’s your song now. I love that everyone can sing it, and I love that it’s been done for charity. But it’s the most telling example of a song that I’ve done without having any idea of the life that it would have.” She looks out of the window. I imagine her younger self passing us by.

Looking back, she could have played it differently. Barbara Dickson could have kept her day-job in the civil service; turned down Willy Russell, Tim Rice, TV offers; remained a local folk linchpin; hung around in Sandy Bell’s. She could have been less scared. But in the end, that’s not how she explored the seven ages of woman. There are many ways to inhabit a strong and vulnerable character. There are many ways to sing a song.


Barbara Dickson plays Perth Concert Hall on February 6, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on February 7, Inverness Eden Court on February 8 and Edinburgh King’s Theatre on February 10.


Barbara Dickson has influenced generations of artists, but she looks to them, too, for inspiration. She’s a huge fan of singer-songwriter Emma Pollock and musician-composer Mairearad Green – connecting them with her abiding allies The Corries, Hamish Imlach, Charlie Dore, and her hugely-missed friend, Gerry Rafferty. “It’s important for me to be aware of what’s going on,” Dickson says. “Someone like Karine Polwart is a shining example of what you can do with a prodigious amount of talent. She adds more enlightenment to the musical scene in Scotland. I think it’s very important that we don’t get too tied up in our own music; that we speak to the world. Karine does that.”

Polwart, in turn, was inspired by Dickson. “I remember seeing Barbara on the Two Ronnies when I was at primary school, and my mum saying, with a degree of pride, ‘She’s from Dunfermline, you know’. Her voice was so effortlessly warm, earthy and smoky. She barely looked like she was trying,” Polwart offers. “In terms of Scottish women singers and musicians, only Annie Lennox and Sheena Easton were comparable in stature at the time. And they were more elusive somehow. Barbara seemed to be both elegant and a good laugh. Much later, I realised she’d emerged from folk clubs and hung out with all the amazing trad singers that influenced my early career. I like that she’s long since returned to singing folk songs as well as pop songs, and treats them as equal in value.”

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Interview: Karine Polwart

This interview originally ran in The Herald in November 2017…

Karine Polwart is sat at my kitchen table, cradling a cup of tea, while the wind burls the leaves in the garden beside us. Her granny used to live round the corner, and the writer, performer and singer-songwriter is shooting the breeze about family and forebears. She’s also reflecting on birds, bogs and childbirth; resistance, community, politics and witchy realms – and the prescient careers advice she was bequeathed at Denny High.

“Remember doing those Jiig-Cal things at school, where they spat out what you should do with your life?” she asks of a computer quiz that claimed to predict kids’ vocational prospects. “Well, I got a million different kinds of teacher, which isn’t any surprise, really. And then, in amongst all that, it also came up with archaeologist, investigative journalist, and archivist. And do you know what, actually? Fair play,” she laughs, giving technology credit where credit’s due.

Polwart’s latest work, the outstanding theatre meditation Wind Resistance, salutes technology, too, and the role it’s played in saving lives. A sell-out hit when it premiered at 2016’s Edinburgh International Festival (followed by hugely successful runs at Celtic Connections in January and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre just last week), Wind Resistance combines storytelling, folksong and physical theatre to weave and unravel yarns about motherhood, nature, healthcare, migration and the ways in which we can look out for each other. An accompanying album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance, was released yesterday.

Wind Resistance furthers Polwart’s exploration of history, ecology, social politics and family, and adds to an outstanding body of work that includes several award-winning LPs, the Songs of Separation project, a musical union with King Creosote and Emma Pollock (The Burns Unit), a duet with flamenco-punk heartbreaker RM Hubbert (Yew Tree), and the epic Pilgrimer – a Scots-tongue re-imagining of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, in cahoots with writer James Robertson and her brother, Steven, for Celtic Connections.

She mused on human migration for Martin Green’s Flit, delivered a jaw-dropping address on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, I Burn But I Am Not Consumed (“You build a tower, you build a wall, you live in fear that they will fall”), and Wind Resistance sees her wax lyrical on the NHS and bird lore and the remedial properties of sphagnum moss. A million different kinds of teacher.

Technology has its limits, though. The Jiig-cal neglected to flag up the magical sense of calm that Polwart commands in person, and in performance. It failed to foretell of her status as one of our most vital cultural voices: wise and warm and reassuring; provocative, stealthy, poetic and beautiful.

Still, it was bang-on about the archaeology. “I’ve always been interested in history,” Polwart says. “It’s never seemed very far away. I remember being a total bubonic plague buff at school. Seriously. In primary four, my special project was on the black death.” She’s wide-eyed and full of mirth at the memory. “So none of this is new, really. It all seems pretty consistent.”

Polwart’s vantage point for Wind Resistance is Fala Flow, a protected peatbog south-east of Edinburgh, near her Pathhead home. Its intertwining, time-travelling tales of mediaeval medicine, maternal mortality and goose skeins are deeply rooted in the area, but they strike a chord throughout the land. “One of the nice things about doing this has been getting feedback from people after the shows, and it’s amazing the connections they make for themselves,” she notes. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s just like in our woods’, or, ‘Let me tell you this about my childbirth…’ And there’s room for all that. Just because you’re telling a really particular story, it doesn’t mean you’re cutting other people’s stories out.”

Fala Flow and its surrounds are brought to remarkable life in Polwart’s hands, but perhaps everywhere has such stories to tell, if you’re minded to listen. “Exactly,” she says. “Wherever it is that I live, I don’t just want to know what’s going on – I want to know what’s gone on in the past, and why. It’s funny sitting talking to you here [in Bridge of Allan], right around the corner from where my granny lived, because I always spent a lot of time here with her,” she says. “In my 20s, I’d come and visit, and I’d stay over, and we would talk and talk. I wanted her view on global politics and technology and what was going on in the world.

“And part of Wind Resistance is borne of a kind of surrogate granny figure from where I live now, in this character Molly Kristensen, who was my neighbour,” she continues. Molly’s parents, Will and Roberta, are at the heart of Wind Resistance. “Molly was of my granny’s generation, and they had a very similar upbringing, and a lot of getting to know the place when I moved there was hanging out, talking to older people, and being outside, and noticing things, and wanting to make connections between them.”

Kristensen, who died in 2009, first appeared in a song called Salter’s Road, on Polwart’s glorious album, Traces (produced by Iain Cook of Chvrches). A variation, Molly Sime’s Welcome to Salter’s Road, is one of many stunning adaptations to feature on A Pocket of Wind Resistance, whose spoken-word narratives deftly carry the album’s chorales and warmly-drawn characters.

The record, says Polwart, was a happy accident. “It just kind of evolved from the show,” she says. “But then the whole thing’s had that element of happenstance. It started out as this scrappy rant about geese flying and looking after each other that I did in London, at this festival called Breathe, and then again at the Traverse bar in Edinburgh.” Royal Lyceum Artistic Director David Greig saw the latter performance and signed up Polwart. “He literally said, ‘Right, you’re on. We’ll make it a show.’” Six months later, it was an Edinburgh International Festival sell-out, with Greig as dramaturg.

Polwart has clearly loved spreading her wings. “I’ve really enjoyed creating something that’s got a big structure with so many incredible people behind the scenes – that’s so indulgent,” she says. “And having the freedom to be able to talk and sing and move has been amazing. I’d never really moved before. My normal performance style as a folk singer is pretty static, I’ve got my guitar or I’ll have the security of clinging to a mic stand, but I’ve realised I love to move, physically. The movement director on Wind Resistance, Janice Parker, was like – ‘You need to take up more space! Take up your space!’” She throws her head back, arms akimbo. “That’s been a joy. And it’s been pretty transformative, I think.”

She moves, alright. After a performance of Wind Resistance at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, which prompted a tear-stained standing ovation, I tried to decipher my crumpled notes, but could only make out two words: she flies. And there are other glimmers of magic in Wind Resistance – tinctures, spells and alchemy, and powerful things we cannot see. “Totally, it’s that thing about creating slightly witchy magical spaces,” Polwart nods. “The whole show starts on a sort of spangly vibe – you know, ‘What’s going on here, with all the chime-y sounds and everything?’ And then I blow into my hand and a sound appears… There’s a wee conjure-y thing going on.”

Musically, too, Wind Resistance is magical, as is evidenced on the album’s soundscapes, honed by composer Pippa Murphy. They variously summon peatbogs, sunsets and and hospital wards. “Pippa works like a painter, with a palette, and that’s been really brilliant,” Polwart says. “I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to structuring things, but Pippa would say, ‘Let’s just throw a few things in there, scatter them around, and we can structure afterwards’. So there’s lots of layers going on. You can catch something one time you listen, and something else when you listen again. That’s like a little bit of magic to me.”

Polwart and Murphy first worked together on James Robertson’s Pilgrimer, and they’ve new work in the pipeline for Spring. “It’s so rare, at this point in life, to make a new collaborative partnership like that – and to make a new pal whose circumstances are similar to mine. Hallelujah!” Polwart beams.

That kinship is crucial, she adds. “There’s a lot of stuff getting made in the world by people who don’t have any responsibilities for anyone else. They can stay up till four in the morning, they can jet off for four weeks at a time, and it’s a young person’s life – or it’s a guy’s life,” she says. “Culturally, even now, in my scene, the hard touring acts are predominantly guys. And we’re in a zone now where, to make a sustainable living as a musician, you have to be touring, or thinking really creatively about how you’re going to make it work, because your CDs aren’t going to cut it any more.

“Pippa’s got two kids the same age as mine, so does Inge [Thomson], so does my brother,” she continues. (She plays with the latter two in her trio). “So all the main collaborators in my life have very similar sets of constraints, but also very similar attitudes. It’s like, ‘Okay, this is the way this has to happen, and it has to happen slowly’. It’s five years since I made an album. But I’m a single mother. It takes time.”

It bears noting that Polwart has barely drawn breath since the release of Traces in 2012. From I Burn But I Am Not Consumed via Pilgrimer to Wind Resistance, she’s consistently sung the praises of resilience, humanity, healing, flight, air, love, music, hope. Invisible forces strong enough to carry the past and carry us forward, to bring us together, to knock down walls.


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Interview: Sacred Paws

This article originally ran in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on June 17, 2017. Sacred Paws have since won The Scottish Album of the Year Award, which was announced on June 28th…

IT WILL be a major surprise – and no little disappointment – if tropical pop duo Sacred Paws are not included on the shortlist for 2017’s Scottish Album of the Year Award, which was revealed last night.

Their debut album – a riot of day-glo, African-influenced jams – is among the brightest on this year’s 20-strong longlist, alongside LPs from collage-pop genius Ela Orleans, alt-rock duo Honeyblood, chamber-folk voyagers Modern Studies, and indie-pop sisterhood Teen Canteen. Their inclusion with the likes of Mogwai, Teenage Fanclub and the Jesus and Mary Chain underscores the SAY Award’s increasing recognition of brilliant, inventive female musicians – including Anna Meredith, who won last year’s award, and Kathryn Joseph, who lifted it in 2015.

Sacred Paws are Glasgow-based vocalist Eilidh Rodgers and London guitarist and vocalist Rachel Aggs. They make irresistible, vibrant post-punk that evokes The Raincoats, The Bhundu Boys, and Orange Juice. As with Orange Juice, the duo upturn the rainy greys and blues that often overshadow Scottish rock, in favour of a dazzling burst of colour, and their rhythmic guitar pop casts light and warmth. Their debut album, released on Mogwai’s Rock Action label, is aptly titled Strike A Match.

They recorded it in the depths of a Glasgow winter, in Mogwai’s recording studio – the brilliantly, if gloomily, designated Castle of Doom. It was a challenge, muses Rodgers, summoning their powers to kick out the blues. “Unfortunately, it was the winter. It was hard,” she says. “We were actually going to get a SAD [Seasonal Affective Disorder] lamp because we were really depressed. But we powered through.”

“It was in the deepest, darkest point of January,” Aggs recalls. “It was dark, and it was snowing, so it was actually really good to have to go into a studio every day and make music that’s uplifting.”

Their music is surprising, too. Sacred Paws’ long sold-out debut EP, Six Songs, was a thrilling drums and guitars affair, but their new album has bass, synthesisers and brass – the latter of which in particular underscores the band’s sense of celebration, and fun. Did they always have plans to bring fanfares to Sacred Paws?

“I think we had this vague idea that we might get someone to play the trumpet,” offers Aggs. “But sometimes we struggle to have the confidence to make decisions. The good thing was, Tony [Doogan, producer] was really encouraging. It wasn’t like he suggested things that seemed really weird to us, but he did encourage us to do things that we might have felt were a bit outrageous – like having a brass section,” she laughs.

“We were actually a bit worried about it though,” she continues, “because I remember Eilidh saying she’d had a conversation with someone, where she’d said to them, ‘Oh, you know, we’re adding some extra stuff this time, for the album.’ And the person she was telling made this joke, like – ‘What, are you getting a brass section in?’”

As if that was the most preposterous, flamboyant notion?


The album’s neat flourishes of trombone, saxophone and trumpet, on tracks like Rest and Strike A Match, are anything but overblown in fact. They’re gleaming and joyous, but never pompous. “It was pretty intense though,” offers Aggs. “It was the first time we’d worked with people who were actually professional session musicians. I didn’t know what it would be like at all. I mean, I kind of knew what I wanted it to sound like – I’d written the parts on Garageband on the really crappy Midi keyboard – but then someone from the brass section arranged it into proper parts. The time we had with them was so limited and I was so worried about knowing what it was going to sound like that I didn’t even want to go to the toilet,” she laughs.

Strike A Match charts the tale of Sacred Paws to date – from their early songs like chiming afro-rock chorale Nothing and harmonic post-punk wig-out Ride (first released as a split cassette with Grass Widow’s Hannah Lew in 2012), to electro-indie aria Voice, written just before they entered the studio.

“We weren’t sure about that song,” offers Aggs. “We were really into it when we wrote it, but then I think it was just the kind of panic of trying to finish it – we were really stressed about it. But then Lewis Cook [of psychedelic Glasgow duo Happy Meals] came in and did a really fun synth part on it. That kind of rescued it.”

Sacred Paws use the word “fun” a lot. Little wonder, perhaps, when their band was borne out of camaraderie. Rodgers and Aggs originally played together in riot-pop trio Golden Grrrls, and hit it off.

“It was more of a friendship to start,” says Rodgers. “But I also really loved Trash Kit [another Rachel Aggs outfit], so we were like, ‘Let’s do this, let’s start another band, it’ll be fun!’ It was really exciting, and at that point we had more energy, and it was nice to have a reason to hang out and make music.”

“I really love the way Eilidh plays drums,” Aggs adds. “I was always totally fascinated by her drumming, and I was like, ‘We really need to some more music together – music that’s really wild,’” she laughs.

They formed Sacred Paws around 2012, and by 2013 they’d joined forces with Mogwai’s Rock Action label. How did the record deal come about?

“I can’t really remember,” Rodgers says. “It was funny, because a friend of mine had said something about it to me before it actually happened, and I was like, ‘No, I don’t think they’re signing us, we haven’t heard anything [from Rock Action].’ And then we played this gig at Mono, and it was kind of ropey, and I remember looking up and seeing Stuart [Braithwaite, from Mogwai] and thinking – ‘Well there’s that opportunity gone,’” she laughs.

They signed to the label shortly thereafter. Which means that despite being a band jointly based in Glasgow and London, their label, record studio, producer and spiritual home (The Mono/Monorail cafe/bar and record shop, where Rodgers also works) are all in Glasgow. But perhaps that’s just a Scottish vantage point – when the band are in London, are they made to feel as warmly welcome? Is the DIY community in the big smoke as nurturing toward them?

“There is a really strong scene in London too, but it’s very different,” Aggs reflects. “So I think Sacred Paws does feel like a Glasgow band. We’ve had so much support from people here. And also, I enjoy having a reason to come up here, having a reason to visit. It’s like being on holiday.”

The same could be said for the timeless, far-flung sunshine pop of Sacred Paws.

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Interview: Shirley Collins

This interview originally ran as the cover feature of the Herald Arts Magazine on January 28, 2017, under the heading: THE RETURN OF FOLK’S GUIDING LIGHT…

For almost 40 years, it seemed as if Shirley Collins had gone to ground.

Hailed as England’s greatest folk singer, she spearheaded the 1960s and 1970s folk revival, and toured America with folklorist Alan Lomax, collecting songs that would be pivotal to Rolling Stones riffs, Moby hits and the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou. She released several canonic albums, including 1964’s Folk Roots, New Routes (with Davy Graham), and 1969’s Anthems in Eden, in cahoots with her sister Dolly.

But in 1978, she withdrew from performance, so traumatised by a marriage breakup that she suffered a debilitating vocal condition known as dysphonia. For decades, she was unable sing.

During Collins’ enforced absence, she raised a family and ran an Oxfam shop in Brighton. But her vital work as a folk conduit and pioneer carried through her songs: mapping our collective past, shining a light on our lives and our land. Her voice – always bright and beautiful, yet never eclipsing the song – found avid fans including Billy Bragg, Blur’s Graham Coxon and Current 93’s apocalyptic folk diviner David Tibet.

Tibet slowly encouraged Collins to find a way back to her voice, and the stage. In February 2014, almost four decades since she’d last sung in public, she performed at London’s Union Chapel. Now, she’s set to play in Glasgow, armed with a wonderful new album, Lodestar – her first LP for 38 years. It’s released on Domino, which makes Collins label-mates with the Arctic Monkeys, Buzzcocks and Franz Ferdinand. She was always quietly radical.

Shirley Collins was born in Hastings, East Sussex, in 1935. She and Dolly were discovered as teenagers by English folk chronicler Bob Copper, who became a life-long friend and champion. The first time they met him, however, these trailblazers of the English folk tradition regaled Copper not with a paean to Eden, but with a ballad from Scotland. Legend has it they even adopted Scottish accents for the occasion.

“Oh Nicola, that’s absolutely true,” says Collins down the landline, through hearty laughter. “I wrote to the BBC when I was 15, to let them know I wanted to be a folk singer. Luckily, Bob Copper was working there at the time, on field recording trips, and they passed the letter to him. When you think about that, it was a miracle. One day, Bob turned up on our doorstep.

“Dolly and I thought we ought to impress him,” Collins continues. “So instead of singing some of the songs that Mum and Aunt Grace and Granddad used to sing to us, we’d learned a song from the McEwen brothers, off the radio – The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray. We sang it as much like them as we could.” Her voice is full of kindness and mirth. “And yes, we tried to do the Scottish accents.”

What strikes most about this tale is that Collins was so clear-sighted at 15. Does she recall when she decided to be a folk singer? “Well yes,” she nods. “It’s a soppy teenage story. Dolly and I used to go down town in Hastings on Saturdays – we’d go to the pictures. And we saw this B-movie called Night Club Girl. It was the story of a Tennessee mountain girl, who was discovered by a talent scout, singing folk songs in the mountains. They whizzed her off to New York, and there she sang in night clubs in sweet frocks. She fell in love with the owner of the night club, and he was an actor I was rather crazy about. So I thought – ‘Oh, that’ll do for me. I shall be a folk singer.’”

An upcoming film, The Ballad of Shirley Collins, will celebrate how she did just that, and so much more. Collins became England’s best-loved voice – a national treasure – and she also played a cardinal role in upholding American folk traditions. In 1959, she sailed to the US with ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, collecting field recordings, as gloriously documented in her 2004 book, America Over The Water.

Their tape of Trouble So Hard, by Alabama washerwoman Vera Hall, would underpin Moby’s hit Natural Blues. Their work with blues guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell had a formative influence on the Rolling Stones. And James Carter and the Prisoners’ Po’ Lazarus featured on the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Lodestar includes two songs from that journey, including Pretty Polly, from Arkansas. “I recorded that myself, because Alan was in the next room with Ollie Gilbert’s husband, who was a moonshine maker, and they were having a very pleasant afternoon to themselves,” she recalls. “I was sent off to join the womenfolk in another room, and recorded songs from Ollie all afternoon.”

There are also songs collected by Copper, and from Collins’ childhood, on Lodestar. “They’re songs I’ve always wanted to record,” she says. “The Silver Swan goes back to my days as a teenager. We used to sing it at home – Mum and Dolly and me – trying to sing the five-part madrigal, never succeeding, and ending up with lots of laughter.”

Collins’ work resonates with such celebrations of women’s voices, women’s lives. Her first Glasgow concert in what she says is “centuries” (it’s certainly decades) at Celtic Connections will feature, among other thrills, a female Morris Dancing team. And she delights in recalling how she’d wind up patriarchal folk purists like Ewan MacColl back in the day. “He disapproved of me wearing nail varnish,” she tuts. “I had no time for MacColl. He was pompous. He was pretentious.” She chuckles under her breath. “And I didn’t like his singing. Or the rules he laid down for people.”

She defied the male gaze, too. Her frolicsome take on Hares on the Mountain, recorded with Davy Graham, sees her wryly objectify and lampoon the opposite sex. (“Young men are given to frisking and fooling / I’ll leave them alone and attend to my schooling,” she sagely concludes). “It’s sort of cheeky isn’t it?” Collins muses. “There’s a control in there, and [the sense] that actually we’re in charge, really. I sing several songs where women get the upper hand. That’s to sort of counteract the many more where they unfortunately don’t…”

The menfolk don’t come off great either, as is often the way in traditional song. Lodestar’s litany of woebegone fates was a source of amusement while making the record, as Collins attests. “We recorded everything in my cottage here, and one morning Ian Kearey, who’s the album’s major accompanist, producer and musical director, burst through the front door and said – ‘Right, what’s the body count today then?’” She bursts out laughing.

Recording in her Lewes home allowed Collins to rediscover her voice in her own space and time. “We took it as slowly as we needed to,” she says. “I hadn’t sung properly for a while, and I wanted it to be as good as possible. But I had to accept that my voice has got much lower, and it’s not as reliable. I had to learn to live with that.

“Except, I did get really worked up sometimes,” she adds. “I’d get cross with myself if I wasn’t doing things well. And so I’d start to swear rather a lot.” More laughter. “Finally, I decided to get a swear box. I said to Ian and Ossian and Steve, who were recording the album, ‘I’ve got a swear box on the table now. Every time I swear, you have to put in a pound.’”

Shirley Collins, turning the air blue.

There’s a comet in the night-sky on the cover art of Lodestar. It’s part of an eighteenth-century painting, and was brought to Collins’ attention around the time her daughter sent her an idea that became the album title. “There’s a sort of magic in that coincidence, isn’t there?” Collins beams. “When my daughter texted me that word – Lodestar – I looked at the dictionary, to make sure I knew what it really means.

“I read it was the guiding principle, the North Star, and I thought – ‘That’s absolutely right,’” she says. “Because music has been my lodestar for as long as I can remember. This music has meant that much to me, through all the years. Even though I wasn’t able to sing.” She recalls her shock (and tears) when David Tibet first phoned her during that time, to tell her how very well-loved she was. “I just had no idea,” she quietens. “I thought I’d been forgotten.”

Under the comet, Collins is pictured cradling a sextant, as she once did a banjo. It’s an archaic instrument, used for celestial navigation and reflecting on horizons. Collins, too, has long helped us find our place in the world. Almost 70 years since she first sang for Bob Copper, the voice she once lost is more precious than ever: old as time, warm as home and bold as starlight. She leads the way.


Shirley Collins plays Glasgow City Halls on February 4th as part of Celtic Connections. Lodestar is out now via Domino.

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Essay: Building Memories

This essay was originally published in Score Tae The Toor: a book and CD project inspired by Concrete Antenna, an environmental art installation housed within an Edinburgh tower, conceived by Rob St John, Tommy Perman and Simon Kirby. Contributors included King Creosote, Hanna Tuulikki, Jonnie Common and Stacey Hunter.


My grandad was a builder and, perhaps because of that, I’ve always felt a certain sense of propriety over concrete things.

He built the swimming pool in Stirling, my dad helped him, and I knew that for as long as I knew anything. It was always there, with its walls and its water, and it was always ours: a source of belonging, ownership, pride, on account of the hands that put it together. Hands that came home in the afternoon, that were scrubbed in Fairy Liquid and sugar, that spooned up tripe and stewed us apples, picked us bluebells, burled us by the open fire.

In 1980, he built the ice rink. I remember it going up, brick by brick: the building site, the wet cement, in which I was encouraged to leave a trace – my tiny hand-print, set in stone – and when it was finished, one day after nursery, I was the first person to walk on the ice. I knew that building inside out, I recognised its every angle and sigh, and it made me feel like I was part of the landscape. Like I was connected. It made me feel strong.

These recreational landmarks became monuments to my grandfather long after he’d gone; long after it became apparent that concrete things were far more permanent than lungs.

Than life.

I thought.

Those buildings aren’t there any more.

They demolished the ice rink to put up a school. They razed the swimming pool to the ground. Or rather, they hauled it down, brick by brick, and I watched it vanish over days and months –fascinated, disempowered and haunted. Walls became space, loss. Ghosts.

The swimming pool’s a gap-site now, but every time I pass it by, I will the building back into existence. I reconstruct it in my mind, repopulate it with the bodies and water and noises that left a trace, however ephemeral. Close your eyes and they’re all still there – the echoing voices, the wakes, the walls.

Memory, that gap-site says, can be more robust and abiding than concrete. It can withstand the wrecking ball.


Imagine there was a concrete tower built out of memory.

Imagine an installation whose foundations were ideas, research and recall; a sky-high repository for our collective and personal myths and narratives; a physical conduit that assembled infinite histories, places and sounds, from the ground right up, and down again.

Imagine that.


I guess I was pretty much predisposed to fall for Concrete Antenna’s charms. Look at it, standing there, pulling us in, making the skyline all its own. It’s a landscape, landmark, canvas, environment, instrument, muse and central protagonist – the fourth collaborator alongside its co-creators Tommy Perman, Simon Kirby and Rob St John.

Its physical signposts, urban history / cartography, and songs from the city / songs from the sea are endlessly compelling – its sonic collage of bygone blacksmiths, railways, gas works, church bells, foghorns and fork-lift trucks is glorious (and ever-evolving) – but what strikes most is the tower’s warm and strangely human allure. It’s organic and industrial, abstract and solid, receptive and transmissive, made of memory and concrete. Those old friends. They feel like home.

Perman, Kirby and St John created the Concrete Antenna installation largely from recollections and vague ideas of the space over a six month period in 2014 / 2015, following a five-minute tour of the building site while the tower was still under construction.

It’s a monument to imagination – theirs, and also ours: what’s at the top of the tower? Whatever you like. There’s a window up there, but we’ll never see out of it. What is the building, anyway? It is not an ice rink. It is not a swimming pool. There is barely room to stand. It has no obvious function.

It does not seem concerned by this. Its voices, rhythms, tales and sounds speak volumes about what is there, and what is not, and what has gone before.

Have you heard the tower sing? It sings.

Have you heard its stories? It tells stories.

It told me this one, I suppose.


They kept one section of the swimming pool my grandad built. When they knocked it down, they preserved a mural that covered the front wall of the building, because, they explained, that element held significant value; it was, they said, art. The rest was just concrete, and so it is gone. But buildings (and the ghosts they leave) do not require a demonstrable purpose, to remind us what they mean to us; why they mean so much; what they stand for.


Related articles: Concrete Antenna feature, The Herald, Feb, 2016

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Interview: Teenage Fanclub

This article originally ran as a cover feature in the Herald Arts Magazine in December 2016, under the heading AIN’T THAT ENOUGH…

The transatlantic rock star’s life is one of rampant hedonism. Take Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, who recently visited his native Glasgow from his adopted home in Ontario. “I arrived and went straight to the Horseshoe bar, and had a quiet pint,” he reveals. “It was nice.” And after that, did the man behind Nirvana’s favourite band lurch into a night of debauchery? “Actually, my mum phoned and gave me an ear-bashing about half-past six. I stay with my parents when I come over. She was like, ‘Are you coming home? You’re not in the pub are you? Your dinner’s ready’. I’m 50 years old, but that was that. I got on the train and went back to Bellshill.”

Teenage Fanclub have been one of our best-loved bands for over 25 years. Two of the group’s core trio – Gerry Love and Raymond McGinley – hail from Motherwell and Maryhill respectively, but TFC were always aligned with fabled indie scene The Bellshill Beat, thanks to Blake’s connection with the town, and the intertwining musical lives of Blake and local cult-pop trailblazers Duglas Stewart (BMX Bandits) and The Soup Dragons’ Sean Dickson, who’ve made music together since their teens. Among other incarnations, they played as The Boy Hairdressers, whose debut EP was released by Stephen Pastel’s 53rd and 3rd label, and whose number included current drummer Francis Macdonald. (Their fifth member is keyboardist Dave McGowan, who also plays in Belle and Sebastian).

Over quarter of a century since their 1990 debut, A Catholic Education, Teenage Fanclub have bounced back with their tenth album, Here – a UK Top 10 – which was variously recorded in Scotland, Hamburg and Provence. “Yeah, there’s some irony in the fact that it’s called Here, when it was recorded in so many different places,” Blake says with a laugh. “There is no ‘here’”.

Here, perhaps, is a state of mind. The band have long explored our sense of place and direction in their songs, through a cosmic cartography of head and heart that spans their 1990 debut single Everything Flows, 1991’s Guiding Star, 2000’s I Need Direction, and Here’s hazy-pop epiphany It’s A Sign, among others. Their charms are bright and universal; their music as evocative of 1960s American pop (The Byrds, The Beach Boys) as contemporary Scottish indie rock. If you can’t pin them down in location or time, perhaps that is no accident: Teenage Fanclub make their music anywhere but home.

“We always like to go to a location that isn’t Glasgow to make records, because I think the environment that you’re in influences what you’re doing,” says Blake. “And when we record, we like it to be an event. We like to go somewhere that we’ve not been – to a new studio, with different equipment. This time, we went to a place in the south of France because they had a really amazing old EMI desk. And also, it was in Provence. It was beautiful. Lots of cheese and wine. That’ll do,” he laughs. “Same with Hamburg, we liked the equipment they had, and Hamburg’s a city where we’ve always had fun. It feels special when you get out of your regular environment, when you’re not clocking off and going back to your own bed. When we made Thirteen [1993], we did it in Glasgow, and it just took forever. I think we got too comfortable because we were at home. We decided we’d always get out of town after that.”

Here is also borne of several places in time. “We recorded the backing tracks in Provence about three-and-a-half years ago,” Blake recalls. “Then we all went our separate ways. I went back to Canada, everyone had a bit of DIY to do at home, so we all got on with that. Usual domestic stuff. Then maybe seven months later I flew back over, and we recorded the vocals at Raymond’s, and then we had another break before Hamburg. We like to do things and then take a step back, and have a look at what we’ve done. You just want to take your time.”

If Here’s lovely, unhurried songs have the sense of being given room to find themselves, then so too do the album’s themes of contentment, resilience, looking forward, looking back, getting on, darkness, light – and the shadows in-between. Often, it’s a love letter to the unsung pleasures of our day-to-day. As is traditional for TFC, Blake, Love and McGinley wrote four songs each, but the all the tracks on the album reinforce each other, and rekindle their past work – not least their recent balmy power-pop single I’m In Love (“It feels good when you’re next to me, that’s enough”), which echoes 1997’s beatific serenade Ain’t That Enough. (“Here is a sunrise, ain’t that enough?”)

All three compose melodies in advance, but their approach to lyrics is rather more ad-hoc. “We all kind of write our lyrics in the studio,” Blake offers. “We’ve always done it that way, so we probably influence each other as we’re writing. I think that helps consolidate the record and homogenise the themes, to give it a sound that’s us. But also, we’re all of a similar age, and I suppose people of our age have the same concerns. Mortality. How you’re going to pay the mortgage. Classic things like that.”

For all their geographic perambulations, much of Teenage Fanclub’s aesthetic and history is embedded in domesticity. The vocals for the new album were laid down at McGinley’s home, and rumour has it that their 1990 calling card, A Catholic Education, was funded by the proceeds of some white goods left to McGinley from a kindly old neighbour. ”That’s absolutely true,” says Blake. “It was great – although it was a shame the lady had passed away, of course. She left Raymond a cooker and a washing machine. Or a fridge and a washing machine. A couple of large white domestic appliances anyway. That’s how we made the album.”

Their breakthrough LP, meanwhile –1991’s euphoric grunge masterpiece Bandwagonesque – was bankrolled by Creation Records’ Alan McGee, who remortgaged his house to cover the costs. He’s largely aligned with Oasis and The Libertines these days, but it bears recalling that in the 1980s and early 1990s, McGee and Creation offered huge support to myriad seminal Scottish acts, including The Pastels, BMX Bandits, Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Teenage Fanclub.

“Alan was amazing for us,” Blake offers. “Creation invested in their money, and time, and faith, in bands like us and Primal Scream when no-one else was willing to take a risk. While we were making Bandwagonesque, Primal Scream were making Screamadelica, and My Bloody Valentine were making Loveless. Creation remortgaged their houses to fund those records. And they had no idea if they were going to be successful – they could have bombed, and they’d have lost all of their personal money.

“Actually, do you know, I don’t even think we’d signed a contract when we were making Bandwagonesque,” continues Blake. “But Alan was paying the studio time. In theory, we could have made that album and said, ‘Thanks a lot Alan – see you later!’” he laughs. “It was amazing for us, to have his faith and trust like that.”

You wonder if we’d be here now had Raymond McGinley not inherited a washing machine; had Alan McGee not remortgaged his home. You wonder if Teenage Fanclub would have had the time and space and faith to keep making their glorious, heartening songs. You wonder if Blake would be sat on a tour bus, travelling to sold-out venues, trying to find the words for a record that faces up to loss and mortality, that ventures into shadows and darkness, that illuminates older loves and lives, and celebrates new dawns and new days and first lights. Here is a sunrise.


Related articles: Teenage Fanclub, Here album review, The List magazine, September 2016

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Interview: Pixies

This interview originally ran as the Herald Arts Magazine cover feature in September 2016…

There is a new photograph of The Pixies, in which they’re flanked by a baying wolf. You wonder whether the creature is fearful, or fiercely protective, of the band. Perhaps it represents their spirit animal: a symbol of feral cravings and instincts. Or maybe it is howling at them, as one might the moon – its cries not unlike those of Black Francis, their wild vocal thaumaturge.

Then again, it might just be a throwaway prop. “I’m afraid that’s all it is,” says Pixies founder member and drummer David Lovering, with an apologetic laugh. “We did those photos in Brooklyn prop house, and they kept wanting to put these things in beside us. Usually we object to having stuff like that, but this time we thought we’d just do it, for the hell of it.”

Whatever the reason, real or imagined, the wolf is not the first beast to rove across the ravaged alt-rock of the Boston, Massachusetts band, whose malevolent pop and surrealist punk has influenced David Bowie, Radiohead and Nirvana. Since they formed in 1986, they’ve been variously plagued by Caribou (on their 1987 debut EP, Come On Pilgrim), Snakes (2014’s Indie Cindy), and praying mantids (their brand new album Head Carrier) – not to mention a Monkey Gone to Heaven (1989’s seminal Doolittle) – over a tumultuous career that has weathered fractures, splits, reported brawls, reunions and the loss of a well-loved linchpin.

For 28 years (break-up notwithstanding), the indie alchemists’ line-up comprised guitarist and vocalist Black Francis (aka Frank Black, born Charles Thompson), guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist and vocalist Kim Deal, and drummer David Lovering (who famously turned down an offer to join Foo Fighters after The Pixies split). New bassist and vocalist Paz Lenchantin joined in 2014, following the sudden departure of Deal, who also made huge alt-rock waves with The Breeders.

Deal was nigh-on synonymous with The Pixies – her bass and vocal swagger at the heart of many of their best-loved songs – and if fans of the band felt lost when she left, then they were not alone. “We were lost as well,” says Lovering, who recalls her announcing she was leaving after a seemingly amicable band dinner. “It was a very hard time. I remember that. But there was no real reason why, or why not, and we all wish her really well.” True to this sentiment, there’s a shimmering girl-group ballad on Head Carrier, All I Think About Now, which the band have called a tribute to Deal.

That said, The Pixies are laughing in their lupine promo shot, and the new album sounds like they’re having a ball. Despite it being their first without Deal, Head Carrier feels like a celebratory affair, as it revels in religious esoterica (Plaster of Paris), Mesopotamian deities (Baal’s Back), and raucous Neil Young invocations (the title track). The drummer nods. “It was a great experience all over,” he says. “We had so much time to work out songs. We had six weeks of rehearsing as a band, and that was a luxury we haven’t had for a long time. Each Pixies album back in the day got quicker and quicker to make, so we were kind of re-living what it was like as a baby band in Boston. That was a joy.

“And working with Paz has been a whole new experience,” he says of The Pixies’ rewired (and ever-cardinal) rhythm section. “Having worked with Kim for so long, I didn’t know anything different. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – that was a wonderful thing, I thought. But having Paz? Well, that’s a new animal. And she’s such a good bass player, she’s making me play better, because I don’t want to get embarrassed,” he laughs.

The band have enjoyed a long and illustrious alliance with producer Gil Norton, who helmed their mid-period triple-header of Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990) and Trompe Le Monde (1991), and with whom they re-joined forces on Indie Cindy. For Head Carrier, however, they wanted to be less defined (or confined) by the band’s history and mythology, and more fired-up by the band itself. In its new incarnation, that required a radical approach – or, as they put it, “a punch in the face.” They hired a new producer, Tom Dalgety (Killing Joke, Royal Blood, Simple Minds).

“I think this has all really just been about change for us,” Lovering says. “It was all around. It was there while we were having fun in the studio, and with a new bassist, and it was there with Tom producing. His name and credentials were perfect when we looked him up. And also, he was able to say, ‘I don’t like that song – throw it away,’” Lovering laughs. “That’s pretty tough. I don’t think The Pixies had ever heard that before.”

The self-proclaimed “dysfunctional band” (Lovering’s words) first assembled in early 1986, after college friends Santiago and Thompson advertised for a bassist who was driven by a musical love of folk revivalists Peter, Paul and Mary and hardcore punk trailblazers Husker Du. They only received one reply – from Deal – who then brought Lovering on board.

“I had worked with Kim’s husband, and he knew I was a drummer, so that was how it originally came about,” Lovering recalls. “I hadn’t played drums in a long time when they asked me – I was going to school by then – so I was surprised that I even went along. It’s interesting looking back on it, now I’m really thinking about it, because I don’t remember that much about going to meet them.

“I remember they had an old square Linn Drum [machine] though, and Charles had this acoustic guitar, and he was just playing stuff, early songs,” he continues. “And I was trying to play along, with my fingers, on the Linn Drum. But that’s about it. Although, when I asked Joe about it later, he was like – ‘man, you were so stoned that day’. And I don’t rule that out. So I can’t tell you that much more about the day we formed. But we left on good terms, as far as I recall.”

And lo, that was the birth of The Pixies. Their initial tenure stretched from 1986 to 1993, they were split from then until 2004, and when they got back together, “through a series of phonecalls that were started by a joke Joey made on the radio”, they re-entered the studio, fired straight into Monkey Gone To Heaven, and never looked back.

It’s one thing to reform and play old favourites, but another thing to reboot your canon with a new album, as The Pixies did with Indie Cindy, their first new LP since Trompe Le Monde. When did the subject of new material first come up? “Well, when we reunited in 2004, and up until 2011, we played reunion shows, we played our old catalogue, we toured Doolittle, and after that, we realised we’d been back on the road for over seven years,” Lovering offers. “Which was surreal, because that was longer than we’d initially been a band, before the split. So that was surprising, and that was also the impetus of what came next. We thought, ‘we can do this, we know what we like to do as a band, we’re still viable, let’s write new songs’. And here we are now, with Head Carrier, another new album…”

But Lovering hadn’t counted on that. He never believed there was a chance The Pixies would get back together. Which is why, when they split, he became a professional magician. He called himself The Scientific Phenomenalist, and toured with Grant-Lee Phillips, The Breeders and Camper Van Beethoven. “If you’d told me I was going to be a magician when I was younger, I’d have rolled on the floor laughing,” he says. “But I went to a magic convention years ago, and I saw magic that I’d never seen, like really cool close-up magic, and I was fascinated. I just didn’t know how they did it. After that, I took classes, I read books, I joined clubs. I woke up many times in bed with packs of cards all strewn around me. I love magic. It has a sense of wonder. It suggests that somehow, the impossible is possible.

“I could have picked a better career choice though,” Lovering quips. I’m not so sure. Whether in magic, or in music, he has long summoned invisible forces, subverted reality, defied nigh-on impossible things.


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