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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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: Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell


(Photo credit: Elaine Livingston)

This interview originally ran as the cover feature of the Herald Magazine on November 1st, 2014.

Helmsdale is not a place you can forget. The old fishing port on Sutherland’s east coast is welcoming and bright and calm: a quiet locale with a colourful past. Its castle ruins are long destroyed, but you can still trace its memories, presence and ghosts, while the river’s gilded tributaries hint at residual treasure from a past gold-rush. Row upon row of permanent cormorants gleam along the harbour wall, and the clatter of fishing boats echoes a time when Helmsdale spearheaded the herring boom, as chronicled in Neil Gunn’s Silver Darlings – a neighbouring tale of uprooted people, and lives hard won.

Edwyn Collins forgot about Helmsdale. He forgot about everything. His memory was wiped as a result of two catastrophic strokes in 2005 that also left him unable to walk, talk, read or write. Collins had no recollection of his legacy as a Scottish pop iconoclast – as Postcard Records’ beautiful poster-boy; Orange Juice’s bookish arch-frontman; the dapper, quiffed harbinger of 1990s classic ‘A Girl Like You’. Nor could he recall his home in London, his Dundee upbringing, his days as a young musician in Glasgow, or indeed his childhood summers (and adult retreats) on his clan’s Helmsdale croft. He had no idea who he was.

Collins’ remarkable, gradual recovery, and rediscovery of his beloved Helmsdale, is now the subject of an exquisite film by Edward Lovelace and James Hall, entitled The Possibilities Are Endless, which is one of only two phrases that Collins could utter in the wake of his illness. And the other phrase? Well, that suggests that although Collins came back from the brink as a man without moorings, bearings, a map – a man at sea, and in the dark – he never completely lost sight of his north star. At first, he could only say, “Grace Maxwell” – the name of his wife, manager and mother of their son. “Maybe she is my life,” he ponders in the film.

What’s most incredible is not that Collins recovered his memory, rebuilt the ruins of his mind, reanimated the ghosts of his past, or even returned to create some of his career’s most precious work. Rather, it is the fact that he is still with us at all. In Maxwell’s remarkable book, Falling and Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins, she writes that she feared Collins had died, and was advised to prepare for such an outcome. His uprooted life, too, has been hard won.

With all of this in mind, it is joyous, and unexpectedly moving, to climb the winding hill to their Helmsdale croft; to see them both standing there waving and smiling, calling and laughing, on top of the world.

Maxwell never left Collins’ side as he recovered, and among countless rehabilitative feats (“she set me free,” Collins says in the film), she encouraged him to finish her sentences, as a way of easing his ongoing aphasia – a stroke-related wrestle with language. As we settle round their farmhouse kitchen table, it quickly becomes evident that while Collins’ speech is much improved these days – his responses are characteristically flamboyant, archaic and whip-smart – the pair still operate as a double-act. Their tales of a life shared are told as such, with sentences passed like baton relays, and their conversations are directed at each other as much as they are toward us.

They’re a hugely welcoming, amiable couple, and it is a rare treat to spend time in their company, as they settle into home and working life in Helmsdale (they’re building an incredible-looking recording studio in their garden), after three decades together in London.

“Ah, London,” Collins muses, tucking into gingerbread, clad in plaid and vintage denim, ever the indie-pop rodeo Elvis. “I like London a lot. But Grace is bored with it.”

“It’s not so much that I’m bored of London, Edwyn,” interjects Maxwell, passing the sugar. “It’s just that I really love being here. And for me, that feeling of really, really wanting to be completely in Helmsdale meant I felt my life slipping away with every year that I wasn’t here,” she explains. “I was resenting it.”

“Oh yes, she really was,” Collins nods. “In London, Grace is – let me say – she’s cross,” he offers with a laugh. (He laughs a lot.) “But in Helmsdale? She’s not cross.”

“Aye, I’m not so bad-tempered here,” Maxwell concedes. “But what I did understand is that for Edwyn, work is everything. Especially since he’s come back from illness. He never likes to be away from work for very long, do you? It’s been so much a part of your recovery. Your continued improving. And you’re still getting better. So, as long as Edwyn has his work, and we can be in Helmsdale, then we’re all happy.”

Edwyn smiles and shrugs. “Yeah – why not? And I love Helmsdale too.”

The Helmsdale croft has been in Collins’ family for generations. A picture of his great-grandmother hangs in one room; a portrait of his grandfather, painted by his father, overlooks another (Collins’ parents were both artists). And you can’t help but notice a windowsill cluster of dodgy-looking ornaments that call to mind the tartan-kitsch aesthetic of Postcard Records. “Oh yeah, they’re Edwyn’s,” Maxwell groans. “They’re fairings – you used to get them free at the shows. That one, Burns and His Mary, that’s the worst.”

“I am an artiste, Grace, and that is to my taste, even if it is a load of shit,” Collins pipes up.

“Aye, you’re the interior decorator alright, Edwyn,” she fires back. “You do the fancy-dancy stuff. I deal with the septic tank.”

You wonder how much of the couple’s sparky dialogue is a result of Collins’ illness: there is a sense from their humour, and mutual warmth, that they’d be like that anyway. And they have lived and worked together for decades. In her book, Maxwell recalls the first time they met, in 1980, after a friend asked her to put Collins and fellow Postcard mastermind Alan Horne up for a few days in London.

“They looked great, particularly Edwyn, dressed in an old-fashioned and out-of-step-with-the-times tweedy style,” she writes. “They had brilliant manners and a brilliant way with an anecdote … a deadly eye for the absurd in every human sketch.”

We have no such account of what Collins made of Maxwell back then, however. What does he recall of their nascent encounters?

Collins is atypically sheepish. “Well, maybe I fancied Grace,” he says with a conspirational chuckle.

Maxwell is incredulous. “Early on? I don’t think you did. Did you?”

“No. Well, I don’t know, Grace.” More sheepish laughter.

“Certainly, Edwyn fancied me before I fancied him,” Maxwell offers.

Did Collins have to indulge in some romancing to win Maxwell over?

“It was more like wheeling and dealing,” he quips.

Maxwell: “Aye, he had to give me a job. He asked me to be his manager.”

Collins realised she was a practical woman and he had to woo her in a practical way?

“Yes, exactly!” Collins says with a laugh. “That’s what I had to do.”

“And before we knew it, we were here, decades on. Decades!” Maxwell proclaims. “What’s amazing to me, when I think back on now, is that you were 24 when I started working for you, in 1984 – and you were about to complete your fourth album. You’d already had your own independent label, a major record deal, the band was about to split up, and you were ready to start your solo career. You were a seasoned cynic by that stage.”

“Yes, I was,” Collins nods. “I managed to alienate, in the Orange Juice days, many people. Many people. And Polydor Records,” he adds with a laugh.

Maxwell: “There were loads of folk you managed to alienate, Edwyn, with your smart-alecky patter and mockery.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact that Postcard Records, Orange Juice, and Edwyn Collins, had on pop. They challenged stereotypes of punk, rock, masculinity and Glasgow; upset and undermined the London-centric music industry; paved the way for The Smiths, Franz Ferdinand and almost every independent record label since – and all from the erudite confines of a tropical pop hook, a knowing wink and an impeccable quiff.

“I was terribly arrogant, back in Orange Juice days,” muses Collins. “But also quite shy. It’s a dilemma, being shy and arrogant at the same time. And maybe I had ambition.”

“Quite a lot of ambition,” Maxwell agrees. “But you worked hard at it. You still do. You need to be so tenacious to have a 30 year career like Edwyn’s. You have to completely fight for your art. It’s not for the faint-hearted. I do see how hard you’ve worked Edwyn, and how determined you’ve been.”

Collins feigns surprise; emits an arch and deadpan drawl. “Really, Grace? Go on…”

“And there are times when I’ve been lazy…” sighs Maxwell.

“Yes…” Collins sniggers.

“And off the boil…” she continues.

“Yes…” He is in hysterics under his breath.

“And Edwyn would have to really kick me into action and spur me on, because I’d feel a bit defeated at times,” she recalls. (It is impossible to conceive of Maxwell being remotely defeatist, it must be said.)

“I like hard work,” shrugs Collins. “Try, try again. If that doesn’t work – oh well. Next move. I like pushing barriers. I like writing songs. That’s driving me forward.”

Since his illness, Collins has lost the use of his (dominant) right hand – not that you’d know it from the beautiful, intricate pictures of birds he now draws with his left one – so he records song ideas onto cassette, or hammers out chords with an amped-up guitar. “The songs, the notes, are easy, but the lyrics are hard,” he says. “It’s not like back then, before I had a stroke. Losing Sleep, the [2010] album, let me say, it’s direct. Some people say it’s simple. But Understated, the album – I’m happy with the lyrics,” he says of his 2013 long-player, which was shortlisted for the Scottish Album of the Year Award.

“Take for instance the title track,” he suggests, and then he sings: “As the years go by / and I’m feeling my age / as the story unfolds / I’m a singer of sorts.” His voice resonates throughout their farmhouse. “I’m happy with those lyrics,” he nods. “It’s twisting the lyrics. Wordplay.”

His latest record is the soundtrack to The Possibilities Are Endless, which is out now via Collins’ AED imprint. From glimmering psalm ‘Quite Like Silver’ to an instrumental of ‘Leviathan’ (originally from 2007’s Home Again), it is a wonderful album – evocative of landscape, nature, the sea, home: Helmsdale.

What could Collins remember of Helmsdale when he was ill?

“I don’t know,” he says. “My memory was destroyed. Back in the hospital, I couldn’t even remember where I lived. But it was weird, I could remember my studio.”

Maxwell chastens him in mock offence. “Yes, Edwyn. You could remember the recording studio but not your own family home. There you go. It’s funny the things you could remember. It was fragmentary,” she says. “If you thought about Helmsdale, it wasn’t a whole picture, but if I zoomed in on something, you’d remember that. So I just told stories, which is what we’d do anyway – we’d relive all our life together – and you’d pipe up with the bits you remembered. Like when I talked about you and [Collins’ sister] Petra being up here in Helmsdale, in this house, making a comic as kids, you could remember that.

“That’s what’s been weird over the years of your recovery,” Maxwell continues. “Edwyn will have a door open every now and again, and a rush of memory will come back…”

“It’s like a eureka moment,” Collins adds. “It’s quite a good feeling. There used to be a lot of tears. But not so much now. It would sometimes … overwhelm me. It was like a huge part of me coming back, in a flood. And sometimes that was hard. Sometimes even with Helmsdale.”

“I think your experience of Helmsdale before the stroke was a really freeing thing,” Maxwell says quietly. “And maybe one of the sadnesses now – and you really don’t dwell on very much sadness – was remembering this place, or coming here and realising that you maybe can’t run up that hill the way you did before. That put it into sharp focus, what had happened to you, a wee bit to begin with. But we get around, don’t we?”

Collins smiles. “Oh yeah! I walk. Or I just about walk.”

Maxwell’s sense of home is clearly embedded in Helmsdale too. “Absolutely,” she nods. “I got the bug for this place when I first came with Edwyn in 1985. I fell completely under its spell. A lot of that was because of Edwyn and his stories of being here, and being taken to his childhood haunts by him and his grandfather. It was bewitching. We didn’t have anything like that growing up in working class Lanarkshire. And it was amazing to see you bounding up the hills Edwyn, because you’re not a fitness fanatic – at all.”

Collins looks outraged. “Pardon me! After my stroke it is of course an impossibility – but oh, how I was,” he wryly drawls. “My grandfather, I’d be eight or nine years old, and I’d be puffing away on the steep hill, and grandpa would tell me, ‘Och, you’re an awfy wee nuisance man! Come on! Be a man!’ So I puffed away. And I got stronger day by day.

“And then there was granny – she was, shall we say posh,” continues Collins, his voice raising an octave. As we wind down to the harbour to take photographs, he tells a childhood tale about his grandmother running him ragged in a scullery, coaxing him to find a mouse that didn’t exist. “Granny was a wee monkey,” he smiles.

“And you are her grandson,” Maxwell adds gently. “Of all the members of Edwyn’s family, I’d say there’s no-one he took after more in terms of his sense of humour, and his mischief, and his turn of phrase, than his granny.”

Maxwell turns him toward her at the harbour. “Now look at me Edwyn,” she orders. “Smile for the camera. Try and make it look as if we actually like each other.”

Collins doesn’t miss a beat. “No.”

There’s a scene in The Possibilities Are Endless, in which Maxwell recalls the grave days with Collins. “I was standing beside him, frozen to the spot, he’s deep in a coma and it was clear that his life was ebbing away,” she says in the film. “And I would go up close to his ear and say, ‘this will pass, love. This will end. And we’ll go to Helmsdale.’”

We leave them walking on a beach dappled with fossils and memories and treasure; admiring the airborne cormorants and robins, marvelling at their birdsong chorus, and they never seemed so free. They never sounded brighter.

Monorail Film Club presents The Possibilities are Endless at Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) – with acoustic set and Q&A – on November 2. The film is on general release from November 7.

Related article: Harry Papadopolous: What Presence! (The Herald, December 2011)

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From the archives: Donovan interview


This article first appeared in The Herald Arts magazine (Scotland) in May 2015

Donovan and I are holding hands over coffee in the Glasgow sun. We’re sat so close our legs entwine as he sings me a song he once wrote about sunshine, and spins me winding, colourful yarns about post-war Maryhill, transcendental super-vision, Pink Floyd, Billy Connolly, and how he influenced The Beatles.

The 1960s pop visionary blazed a trail for psychedelia, celtic rock and flower power, and inspired bands from Led Zeppelin to Belle and Sebastian. Such righteous feats secured his position at the heart of a canon that sometimes forgets him. Perhaps this is why he’s not slow in reminding us. At one point in our meandering discourse, he catalogues, “The heroic poets, the higher songwriters,” thus: “Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Donovan, Neil Young. I could go on,” he congenially offers. And so he does.

An interview with Donovan is an audience with Donovan. And this audience with Donovan is intimate indeed.

We meet in a suite in One Devonshire Gardens, a stone’s throw away from Maryhill, where he was born Donovan Leitch in 1946. We sit on sofas across from each other, but he gradually comes around, and pulls an armchair right up beside me. He educates me in the meaning of bliss (via meditation), and rarely seems happier than when he’s recalling the women from his infancy going dancing down the Barrowland. “They’d all be in furs – the mammy, the grannies, the aunties – and full of perfume, with that great red lipstick, and they’d lean down and kiss me as they left,” he says, a glint in his eye. “That was okay you know, being surrounded by seven women all the time.”

Women have had starring roles in Donovan’s songs and mythology since those days of dolled-up, scent-billowing matriarchs. We’ve grown to know and love Jennifer Juniper, Guinevere, Lady Of The Stars, Susan On The West Coast Waiting, Mellow Yellow’s Saffron, and Legend Of A Girl Child Linda, which is one of countless tributes to his enduring muse and partner, Linda Lawrence (when that song was written, she was still the girlfriend of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones). The dedication in his 2005 autobiography, The Hurdy Gurdy Man, simple reads, “For She…”

Donovan’s patchouli-loaded fables follow suit. He frequently invokes what he calls “The power of the feminine” – from ancient tales of women fighters and prehistoric dominant spirits, to quoting Billie Holiday, saluting Beyonce, and allying his Maryhill roots with Maggie Bell. “It’s all about the goddess, Nicola,” he sagely nods. He counts the chakras on my spine. He shares my cup and eats my biscuit.

It is 50 years since Donovan released his debut single, Catch The Wind. The loved-up folk psalm debuted on the UK singles chart on March 31, 1965 (it peaked at Number 4) – the same week that Bob Dylan, with whom he’d often find himself compared, also made his chart debut with The Times They Are A-Changin’ (it reached Number 9). Half a century on, the erstwhile “British Dylan” is returning with a brand-new single, One English Summer, a hand-selected career retrospective, and a Glasgow date which feels like a timely homecoming for the romantic outsider who has variously dwelt in London, Ireland and on higher planes.

Does he feel at home when he’s back in Glasgow? “It’s scary,” Donovan replies. “Why scary? Well, because my memories of those first ten years of my life when I lived here, in Maryhill and then in St Vincent Street – before we moved to Hertfordshire – were always dark and grey. It was granite stairs and the mammy washing them. It was me getting the polio when I was five. And it was after the war, so the city was bombed out – all the buildings, or a lot of them.”

It’s a curious tale, this story of a sickly boy from post-war Glasgow whose lexicon became uniquely gilded in amber, yellow and gold. Traditionally, Scottish pop artists tend to reflect our gloomier skies – The Blue Nile, Deacon Blue, The Waterboys, Frightened Rabbit (Sing The Greys), Belle and Sebastian (The Blues Are Still Blue) – but Donovan’s work was always illuminated by the sun. And he, in turn, shone a light on life and love: Summer Day Reflection Song, Voyage Into The Golden Screen, Sun. You might wonder how such a bright idiom emerged from illness, rubble and darkness. You might even ask him. But Donovan is not one for direct answers.

He is, however, a consummate storyteller. So after deviations into the history of the British Isles, ages-old tribeswomen fostering offspring, and Glasgow’s unbeatable knack for culture and shipbuilding, Donovan hits on an explanation as to why his music radiated brightness. Art was a beacon. “At first it was quite dark, when I started looked back on Glasgow,” he explains. “But then I remembered the songs that the mammy sang, the aunties sang, the uncles sang. And then I realised that in all that darkness and oppression and poverty – so-called – it wasn’t really dark at all. There was music. There was poetry. There were songs. And that was everything.”

You can trace many of Donovan’s touchstones – folk, jazz, poetry, bohemian romanticism – back to his Glasgow childhood. “Everybody had a way of singing in my family,” he says. “And I don’t just mean folk songs. Mammy sang Frank Sinatra, an auntie sang Nat King Cole. So at the party – in the front room, in St Vincent Street, three floors up, the tram cars coming by – a slightly tipsy relative would be forced onto a chair – ‘Gies yer song!’ – and all the wee boys and girls under the table, with the shandy, would listen.

“Nobody played a musical instrument in Glasgow, except my Uncle Bill,” he continues. “He was a kind of bohemian. He played guitar. He died in a motorbike crash with a girl on the back. Many years later, Billy Connolly said to me, ‘Your uncle was Postie!’ – because he was a post-man, and he was quite well-known in Glasgow. Only later did I think about it and realised, this was the guy, that when I was a kid, must have first sat me in front of a guitar.”

And then there was Donovan’s father. “He’d stand up in the middle of the room, and recite poetry for half an hour,” he recalls. “And now we’re talking about the bardic tradition, and that’s why I am so powerful and skilled in my work – it’s because he taught me, from the age of five. Some of the poetry he’d read would be bawdy. Sexy. Funny,” he says with a laugh. “But other times, he’d read high poetry of noble thoughts. I think that’s where I got the idea that we’ve been here before – that belief in the ancient Irish / Scottish tradition of reincarnation. And that’s what eventually sent me to India. That’s why The Beatles and I became friends.”

Donovan and his enduring sidekick, Gypsy Dave, met The Beatles when they hitch-hiked from Hertfordshire to London in search of Bohemia. He later joined the Fab Four on their infamous 1968 trip to India, whereupon he taught Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison guitar finger picking techniques. Harrison was later quoted as saying, “Donovan is all over The White Album”, and Donovan tells me a story about helping John Lennon write the lyrics for Julia. But I’m slightly distracted because, as he relates this, he reaches across my lap, to my cup and saucer, helps himself to the shortbread that’s on it, gesticulates with the biscuit briefly – the better to delineate John Lennon’s tragic genius – and then he eats it.

“You’ve got to understand,” he continues, chewing. “We so-called spiritual songwriters of the 1960s were very well read. And why we were reading? To find out the answer to the question. When Gypsy Dave and I arrived in the pop community, we added something that they didn’t actually have at the time. Now, that wasn’t just how to make Sergeant Pepper, or how Pink Floyd would make Dark Side of the Moon – although Dave Gilmour’s told me that, and The Beatles have told me that – they said, ‘We watched really closely what you were doing, in Sunshine Superman.’

“So all that stuff is important,” he says. “But we also brought all the poetry my dad had read me, all that Gypsy and I had spoken about, and that added up to reflection, introspection and meditation. We had the idea that inside is the answer; outside is the question. Of course, there are many ways to look inside – a bit of hashish, can do that, or you can go in quick with LSD, mescaline, magic mushrooms – but you have to be careful on certain substances, because you don’t have a guide,” he cautions. “You need a guide. And then you can find the big secret of the whole thing. Which is that there is an invisible world. And everything comes out of that.”

That sounds not unlike music. Donovan nods. “Music is the invisible art. The other arts you can see. But music is magic. You can’t see it, but if it’s made in a certain way, and a human being receives it, it harmonises with the seven parts of the spinal chord, called the chakras [he gestures to them down my back], and then people feel at rest, at ease, and in control of their life.” He muses on the physical effects of music, and counsels me on super-conscious transcendental vision.

If Donovan’s philosophies were progressive, then so too were his tunes. His 1966 LP, Sunshine Superman, is widely credited as the first psychedelic pop album. Did he realise he’d created something so significant at the time? “I was the first one to hear that song,” he replies, with a typically charming non sequitur. “I picked up my guitar one morning in the flat in Maida Vale.” He strums an air guitar and starts singing. “Sunshine came softly a-through my a-window today…” He begins to annotate the lyrics. “That line was actually a statement because the sunshine was coming through, as I sat there,” he says. “’Could have tripped out easy’, meaning, I could have done anything – but I’m focused on this one gal that I really need, and it’ll take time. It’s a love song, but it’s also about many other things.”

Where did his ideas for the album’s far-flung arrangements originate – the exotic baroque flourishes, the sitars? In seeking an answer, I inadvertently upturn my palms, and without breaking eye contact, he takes both my hands. He seems unfazed and I am speechless, so we sit like that for quite some time. “Musically, when I first heard Sunshine Superman, I heard harpsichord,” he offers. Then he launches into a verbal trip that veers across Ravi Shankar, producer Mickie Most, the anatomical kinship between humans and saxophones, and touches down in his Glasgow tenement. “My dad played me jazz,” he reminisces. “Billie Holiday”. He sings Strange Fruit.

Donovan sold millions of records and epitomised hippy-era pop, but he dropped out of music and shrugged off its attendant shackles in the 1970s. If music is magic, the invisible art, then Donovan cast the ultimate spell. He made himself disappear.

There have been rare and welcome revivals since: as the unseen inspiration for Vashti Bunyan’s 2008 film, From Here To Before, which documents her 1969 journey from London to Skye in a horse-drawn cart (her goal was to join Donovan in his Hebridean commune, but he’d left by the time she arrived); as the Happy Mondays’ spirit guide on Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches (they quote him at length on a wig-out named after him); and now with a new song and career retrospective.

There’s something heartening in seeing Donovan embrace invisible wonders, half a century since the Glasgow beatnik tried to Catch The Wind. I’m dazed as I leave him there, waving and smiling, bathed in the sunshine. A super man.

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Interview: Chvrches

An edited version of this feature ran in The Herald Arts Magazine (Scotland) on March 26, 2016, under the heading: CHVRCHES: MIRACLES DONE IN 45 MINUTES…

There’s an old picture of Chvrches where they’re under a neon sign that promises: There Will Be No Miracles Here.

You have to wonder though.

The Glasgow electro icons have dedicated the last five years to conquering continents, roaring their gospel – a rapturous, enlightening doctrine that draws on industrial synth-pop, feminist punk, epic post-rock, dance-floor anthems and immaculate R&B. Their home-recorded second album, Every Open Eye, tore up charts across the world when it was released last autumn (Top 10 in the US, Top Five in the UK, Number One in Scotland); its 2013 predecessor, The Bones Of What You Believe, is edging toward one million sales; and they headline Glasgow enormodome SSE Hydro next weekend – despite having only played around 10 shows in Scotland to date.

Such achievements are extraordinary, if not miraculous, as is their knack for concurrently coming across as stadium-filling international pop stars and a well-loved local indie act. It’s a brilliant trick of the light, or quantum physics, or black magic, or – most likely – ingenious cyber nous. And it’s crucial to Chvrches’ exceptional charms. They’re a grassroots band with global reach.

All of which means that they’re rarely back in their home-town, let alone all at once. And so it is that vocalist Lauren Mayberry takes time out to talk on the phone during a week’s holiday in New York, while her synth-brandishing colleagues Martin Doherty and Iain Cook suggest an interview in a Glasgow pub that spirals into nigh-on eight hours and covers – among other marvels – Wasabi Kit-Kats, reggae, typography; their alleged alignment with cryptic cult The Illuminati; sportswear, capes and Quincy Jones; and whether Lionel Blair invented the pas-de-basque.

Heavy metal looms large, too. “I feel like we’ve spent most of this interview talking about Iron Maiden,” muses Cook about three hours in, and flaunts the band’s cut-throat commercial instinct by shifting the conversation not to Chvrches’ latest single or tour, but rather to his bygone Christian rock troupe, Ephis Dammim. “It’s Hebrew for boundaries of blood,” he says, as a scarlet votive is placed on our table.

“The candle of shame,” says Doherty, shaking his head. “Day turns to night.”

“It’s night-time now,” Cook declares, in what feels like a Kelvinbridge out-take from The Lost Boys. “More drinks?”

In the beginning, there were Chvrches: a secret cabal who were born on the internet. There were few clues in the early days as to the trio’s Scottish indie lineage (Blue Sky Archives, Aereogramme, The Unwinding Hours, Julia Thirteen, The Twilight Sad); there was simply a thrilling synth-dirge, Lies (2012), anonymously dispatched online. It exploded, spectacularly, everywhere at once – Europe, America, Asia, Australia. Its title resonated across The Bones of What You Believe, then rebounded in the opening salvo of Every Open Eye – “Throw me no bones, and I will tell you no lies, this time…”

If their debut was fixated on anatomy (Lungs, By The Throat) and hidden depths (We Sink, Under The Tide), then Every Open Eye feels more outward-looking, and landscape-focused (perfect storms and turning tides; myriad references to leaving traces, drawing lines in the sand, and burying entities – memories? Bones?). There is a sense of distance. Perhaps of letting go.

Taking a step back was crucial for their second album, says Mayberry, down a long line from America. “Having the space to figure out what we wanted to do this time was really important,” she offers. “Part of that, for me, was finding an aspect of the band that felt more comfortable, because although I’m really proud of what we achieved with the first album, it did all feel like a bit of a sh**storm,” she says with a laugh. “I was pretty exhausted from feeling I was fighting my corner all the time” – Mayberry’s righteous take-downs of online misogynists have been well-documented – “and I wanted to find a better more positive way to frame things.

“I wanted to put a bit more distance between the real life and the band versions of me,” she continues. “But I also started thinking – what is it I actually like about being in a band? What is it I like about writing? And I think it’s about communication, at the end of the day.” This ethos is echoed in Chvrches’ Fanclvb community, and in Mayberry’s feminist collective, TYCI.

Mayberry reassessed her approach to performance, too. “A lot of people have a lot of opinions on a lot of stuff – and that can feel quite overwhelming when you’re on the receiving end of it,” she says. “When I had time to step back from it all, I thought, okay, I didn’t do all the things that some people would project [on me] – but how do I want to do it? Rather than thinking – how would someone want me to front the band? It’s a band of three people, but ultimately there is a front person, and I think that rather than getting caught under the weight of that, I needed to think about what I wanted to do.”

The result, she suggests, means the shows they play now feel a lot more fun. “I like being able to play music that we made, that we love – that’s this kind of emotional bass-y, synth-y pop music – but conducting the show like I’m still in a punk rock band. I like that juxtaposition, and it feels genuine to us.”

Like the band themselves, Every Open Eye has a knack for feeling intimate yet universal; for appearing near and faraway at once. (Much of the album chimes with Rebecca Solnit’s meditation on loss and landscape, A Field Guide To Getting Lost – specifically, her chapters on The Blue of Distance.) But, says Mayberry, there was no over-arching lyrical theme for the record.

It just needed space.

“For me, I guess I need a bit of time to pass, so I can think about things to write about and build up a bank of ideas,” she offers. “I’m not really very good at writing abstract narratives about characters. It has to come from a personal place. So then you actually have to have the experiences in order to write about them.

“But I got to the point of over-analysis – I got caught up in wondering what I wanted the lyrical themes on the record to be,” she continues. “And I never approach writing like that. Ever. In the end, I wrote Never Ending Circles in about 45 minutes on a train – it was just a rough stream-of-consciousness thing. Taking a step back like that ended up being the way I wrote lyrically for this record, and that all started with Never Ending Circles.”

Light years (well, three thousand miles) back in Glasgow, talk revolves round that cardinal song – which opens Every Open Eye – as the candle burns. “It was really important to us to try and capture the same dynamic we had on album one with this record,” says Doherty. “Same studio, us producing, same set up. Day one, we all went in, and just like that: Never Ending Circles.”

Cook elaborates. “Day one, Martin walks straight up to one of our new synths and goes – [mimics the album’s ripping, rippling opening hook]. I was like that – ‘Martin, that is absolute shite,’” he laughs. “I came round to it eventually.”

Doherty grins. “I was trying to write the world’s most annoying riff.”

Cook: “It worked.”

There’s a meticulous precision to Every Open Eye – a hi-octane minimalism that evokes the ultra-pop productions of Quincy Jones. There’s plenty space, but it’s never empty. “That’s something that was really in our minds making the second record,” Cook offers. “Minimalism – specifically, Quincy Jones minimalism. There’s not a lot in those mixes. There’s a few elements, maybe four, but it sounds huge. It sounds massive.”

“We were obsessed with that on this record,” nods Doherty. “We were constantly like – ‘Can we take anything else out? Are there any elements that are working against the DNA or the economy of the song?’ We thought we could do a lot more with less this time,” he says. “Sounds and ideas have to stand up for themselves if they’re more exposed.”

For all that, Every Open Eye is full of warmth. “We’re pretty warm people generally,” Doherty offers. “We’re used to being in bands that wrote directly from their psyche. The whole ethos of indie music was about being a human being, and that’s still an intrinsic part of what we do. It’s like we’re a rock band who play electronic instruments. And write pop songs. We’re always thinking of ways to relate to the more human element of electronic music.”

“Because it gets a bad rap for being cold,” adds Cook. “And while pop in general has almost always been regarded as lowbrow, that tide is starting to turn. I think that one of the reasons things are going well for us is because there’s been that cultural shift, in perception, of seeing pop as high art; as art at all. Look at Beyonce. She’s making relevant, gritty, important music, and challenging political norms. Pop music can have depth. Of course it can.”

“The time I realised how extreme that shift was, was when I heard Shutdown by Skepta,” says Doherty. “That song was ubiquitous, and I suddenly realised that counter-culture and the mainstream were converging. Then I heard Bitch Better Have My Money by Rihanna, and I was like, okay – times have changed. Then, that Weeknd record dropped [Can’t Feel My Face], a deeply subversive, dark song about sex and drugs. That’s the mainstream, man. That’s brilliant.”

“Isn’t that great?” enthuses Cook. “Isn’t that a great time to be making music?

And doing it their way. For album two, Chvrches returned to Cook’s basement studio in Glasgow, where they made The Bones Of What You Believe. “I love that space,” Doherty says. “It feels like home to me now. Whenever we come back, or we’ve got something to do, and we sit in that room, it’s like… snapshots. The first time we sat there, properly, we’d done nothing, and all that we talked about was things that we could maybe do or maybe write. The second time, for this album, we were trying to follow up this perceived huge success. The next time, I don’t even know where we’ll be at, because for me we’re in completely uncharted territory now.

“We’ve already gone past what I ever thought a band who retained total credibility could achieve – and I really feel we have done that, I don’t think we’ve sacrificed anything,” Doherty adds. “We’re getting bigger in front of my eyes, we’re selling more tickets in America than we’ve ever done, we’re selling more records than we ever have. And it’s the same in Glasgow, in our home town…”

The main difference in terms of the studio set up between albums one and two is a redoubled trove of synthesisers. “On the first album, we had three synthesisers, and we stacked them up and did it that way,” explains Cook. “For this album, we were able to afford the shopping list of our teenage dreams. We had it really streamlined, and as a result we discovered a lot of sounds and built new sounds that inspired the music. That’s always been a key thing for us: the technology inspires the writing. New sound, new song.”

“Yeah, and that’s a expensive way to work,” laughs Doherty. “But it was a fortunate by-product of being self-sufficient. We had the budget to record the album, like anyone else does, but instead of spending it on studio time, or Rick Rubin, we reinvested it in ourselves. That was important.”

Bang in the middle of their self-produced record, there’s a euphoric, melancholic anthem called Clearest Blue, whose lyrics give the album its title. It’s bold and bright and exquisite. “Clearest Blue was one of those moments in the studio where you get that flash of light,” recalls Cook. “You can see the crowd, you can see how it’s going to pan out. You don’t get many of those moments in a career, let alone on an album.”

Doherty had a similar revelation as Clearest Blue materialised. “To go from that first day of playing it and jumping around the studio, to seeing 10 thousand people bouncing at the same time to that song at [London’s] Alexandra Palace – that’s serious,” he says. “That’s amazing.”

The day we meet, Clearest Blue has prompted another ardent response – this time in the guise of a YouTube film that suggests the song proves Chvrches’ alliance with an infamous mystic faction. “We’ve just had our first Illuminati exposé online,” beams Cook. “I got half way through it and started believing it myself.”

The YouTube revelation is incredible in its depth and detail, and underscores the extent to which fans clamour to get inside Chvrches’ songs.

“Oh man, totally – that’s a life goal,” Cook nods. “When people start writing about your band in terms of mythology and symbolism it’s like, okay, I feel like I’ve achieved something. And the myths in rock ‘n’ roll are always more interesting than the truth. The truth is, I got out my bed this morning and had a bagel.”

Doherty looks thoughtful. “I think people feel like we’re connected to the internet; that we’re almost synonymous with it,” he says. “And when the lines of communication between us are so short, and so clear, that maybe breeds a higher level of engagement and fanaticism to some extent.”

“It’s that idea of finding a sense of belonging and identity in music,” Cook notes. “That’s something that I grew up with, as a metal kid, but it still exists – bands like Iron Maiden, they go to India or South America and play stadiums, multiple nights. That’s not something I thought I’d ever achieve in any band I played in, that level of dedication.”

Chvrches have long induced such fevered communal exultation – online, in live arenas, and on the dancefloor. As with their debut, Every Open Eye plays out as two perfectly-crafted sides of vinyl – and simultaneously as a glorious 11-track club set. “It was sequenced for vinyl, but I love the club thing, although I hadn’t thought of it before,” says Cook. “I also read that someone’s done a blog about how the album follows the dramatic arc of a John Hughes movie. Maybe there’s something universal about that narrative form.”

It’s a formidable illusion though, conjuring so many distinct narratives in parallel. How do they do it? “I’ll tell you how you do it,” Doherty deadpans. “Eighty or 100 revisions of a tracklist.”

Cook buries his head in his hands.

“Oh well,” Doherty brightens. “On album three, we can relax a bit. We can do whatever we want. I don’t mean this in a flippant way, but a lot of people have successful first albums and the second record, so very often, is a disappointment for fans, or a disappointment for people that the band are in business with, and ultimately it becomes a disappointment for the band themselves. We were obsessed with not making that mistake,” he says. “We had to make sure everything was right and we wanted to put out a great record and focus on the music completely. Now that’s done, the ship is out to sea, so to speak, and we’ve got a genuine career – and we really do feel like we have a genuine career – so now’s the time to have some fun with that. To really explore the creativity a bit more. I think we might even take more than six weeks off between this album and the next one.”

Cook nods. “I might even be willing to relax my 45 minute rule on album three. The double album rule still stands though. No double albums.”

“What about the no shorts on stage rule?” Doherty ventures.

Cook looks through him. “Come on, man. That stays”.

Given their escalating banks of synths, how about capes, a la Rick Wakeman?

“Capes are fine,” shrugs Cook. “I love capes. Wizard hats, that’s cool. But sportswear? Not good.”

Chvrches wear their fortunes lightly. They bear the weight of their pop miracles well.

Chvrches play Glasgow SSE Hydro (with support from The Twilight Sad) on April 2.

Related article: CHVRCHES interview, The Herald, Dec 13

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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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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: King Creosote

This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on August 25, 2016.

Elton John was bang on, as usual. It really is lonely out in space. Take Major Tom’s solitary tin-can odyssey, or Lou Reed’s forlorn Satellite of Love. Or take the new album from King Creosote, which sees our astral pop swashbuckler, aka Fife’s Kenny Anderson, navigate the vagaries of the cosmos – its isolation, obscurity, absence; its uncertainty and darkness; its light and stars and shadows – and reflect upon the distance between us.

Astronaut Meets Appleman, released next month, is the official follow-up to 2014’s celebrated From Scotland With Love, and may be KC’s most celestial and earthly album to date. If From Scotland With Love was a stunning epistle to (and from) our collective past, and 2011’s Mercury-shortlisted Diamond Mine was a love letter to the East Neuk of Fife, then Astronaut Meets Appleman is a series of postcards from the edges – of emotion, time, the coast, the sky, the underground, patience, silence and hope.

It’s a wilfully disoriented record, but it’s never alienating. Chamber-pop lullaby Betelgeuse locates him all at sea in the universe (“My ship has set course for the space in between Orion’s Belt and Betelgeuse, and I may not back”), bluegrass lament Wake Up To This finds him dealing with a leaky roof and / or biblical penance (“I deserve the flood”), and calypso serenade Love Life calls forth Flashdance and Scarlett Johansson before crashing back to earth (“she’ll have you ground down”).

We usually meet at Anderson’s house, do interviews over Earl Grey tea and macaroni pies at his Crail kitchen table. But Astronaut Meets Appleman sees KC depart his comfort zone – musically, lyrically, geographically – so this time, he journeys to the Central Belt. We meet in a Bridge of Allan pub, put the world and neighbouring planets to rights, surrounded by late-afternoon locals, two dogs, and a handful of men in their sixties who seem disinterested until Anderson makes to leave – at which point they accost him, tell him they love him, sing the praises of Bats in the Attic (from his Diamond Mine collaboration with Jon Hopkins), and continue to rave about his “magical” voice long after he has pulled down his hat, huddled into his jacket, and headed for home.

That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. Anderson has been amassing a DIY trove of intergalactic ballads and squeezebox shanties since the early 90s – not to mention his bluegrass punk peregrinations in the Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra and Khartoum Heroes, his beloved Fence Collective cabal (James Yorkston, KT Tunstall et al), and a mid-2000s major-label deal with Warners – but Diamond Mine and From Scotland With Love are the records that have quietly, slowly captured wider public affection.

Diamond Mine’s excavation and re-honing of songs from Anderson’s prodigious back catalogue (a conservative estimate might put it at 100 albums) shines light on a timeless body of work full of hidden gems, and his recent albums follow a similar trajectory: historic favourites like My Favourite Girl and Pauper’s Dough were revisited on 2014’s hit From Scotland With Love along with original specially written works, and Astronaut Meets Appleman transforms and re-contextualises older recordings alongside new songs. Stunning orchestral-pop hymn Faux Call was a b-side almost 10 years ago; several tracks had a low-key outing on last year’s Smavulgar LP. Anderson’s songs seem to have their own time zones, life-spans and circuitous flight paths. People find him in their own time.

Now that they’ve done so, he seems to be trying to get lost again. He ventured into remote spaces making Astronaut Meets Appleman, which was variously recorded at Analogue Catalogue in Ireland’s County Down, and An Tobar on the Isle of Mull – although his spiritual home, Glasgow’s Chem19 studios, still played a part, as did its stellar foreman, Paul Savage, who co-produced the album. “I love Chem 19, I love Paul, we’ve done loads together, but I have to say, having places with views for a change – that was just stunning,” Anderson offers.

The music, too, evokes picturesque terrain, thanks to Catriona McKay’s exquisite harp, Hannah Fisher’s swoon-inducing fiddle, and the thrilling bagpipes of Mairearad Green, alongside KC’s stunning big band ensemble. “I thought it would be great to make a record that was musically Scottish after From Scotland With Love, which wasn’t really that Scottish at all,” he says, with trademark good-natured contrariness. “But I didn’t want this to be a traditional album. Like that Hendrix thing that Mairearad busts out, it totally grabs you.” He plays air bagpipes in the pub.

Green contributes to an anti-wind turbine song called Melin Wynt, named after a Welsh town called windmill, despite there being no windmills there. This clearly appeals to Anderson’s humour. His lyrical modus operandi has long been brilliant, cryptic wordplay – his protagonists and subject matter disguised in allusion, ambiguity and landscape – as best exemplified, perhaps, by You’ve No Clue Do You, the lead single from 2007’s major-label opus, Bombshell. The song unravels itself like a crossword puzzle (you’ll note the word Cluedo within the title, and the drive-rock whodunnit is populated by Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum, et al). It contains one of KC’s most telling lines: “That’s yet another wrong guess.” We can but try.

But on Astronaut Meets Appleman, his words, on occasion, seem more straightforward than usual. Anderson nods. “There was the dislocation of getting out of the usual city and using other instruments with this record, but I also wanted to push myself songwriting wise,” he says. “I wanted to try and get some naivety back. If I’d done this record three years ago, there are lines that I’d never have left like this. I’d have kept on twisting words, I’d have kept on overthinking it. But here, I’ve let that go a bit. Sometimes you just have to take it on the chin and accept that you say daft sh*t.”

It’s hard not to suspect that this is a double-bluff; that such lyrics are deceptively simple – and therefore twice as complex as usual – but Anderson laughs off the suggestion. “I’m not always being cryptic here. And that’s allowed me to try and assert myself as someone who’s not as good as even I sometimes think I am. I can be banal. Everyone can. To allow yourself to be average, that’s what I’m aiming for.”

To what extent has writing for From Scotland With Love – which was largely composed in response to a brief – impacted on Anderson’s new material? “I think writing to rote for From Scotland With Love, and that whole idea of taking myself out of the equation, has freed me up a bit,” he offers. “I’d never done anything like that before. And I like that now, if I want, I can just go with the first couplet, and move on. The song can work anyway.

“The other thing is that taking the cleverness away from the words makes you concentrate on what’s going on with the music a bit more,” he continues. “The songs are getting longer and longer to accommodate everybody. There’s all these instruments. There’s all these singers.” It’s a beautiful record as a result – the unhurried arrangements of Faux Call and Rules of Engagement in particular are breathtaking, and will delight fans of Diamond Mine and From Scotland With Love. But KC is not one to rest. “I actually almost feel I’ve stretched that big band idea as far as I can now,” he says. “I already hear this as a stepping stone to the next thing, even though I don’t know what that is yet.”

The album title similarly grapples with the unknown. “It’s a reality check,” says our DIY rocket man. “It’s an illustration of what my life’s like. This record wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for emailing WAV files around, and yet it doesn’t matter how much we strive for this digital utopia, there’s always this other thing that bites us in the ass, and it’s real life. It’s people. It’s mistakes. And then there’s the fact that I feel like I’m always reaching for something. I feel like I always have been. And I never get there.”

There’s a song about the moon on Astronaut Meets Appleman. Or rather, there’s a song called Surface, about losing sight of ourselves (and each other); about being eclipsed and taking cover; about seeking light and glimmering hope and finding a way when darkness falls. “It’s a heady descent,” King Creosote sings, and he’s right of course. But the sun also rises.


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