This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on July 21, 2012 under the headline GROUNDBREAKING DAWNS….
We’ve all been there. Wandering the streets in the nearly-dawn, or sat on the bed in the darkest hour, wondering if we’re alone.
Now Scotland in the wee small hours is set to be mapped and celebrated via song, theatre, stories and film, thanks to musician, actor and director Cora Bissett, with playwright David Greig and Edinburgh band Swimmer One. Its cast of emerging and established artists includes Ricky Ross, Alan Bissett, Withered Hand, Annie Griffin, Rachel Sermanni, Kieran Hurley, Errors, Meursault, Kirstin Innes, Conquering Animal Sound and RM Hubbert.
Entitled Whatever Gets You Through The Night, the versatile multi-platform (ad)venture involves a live music and theatre show at Glasgow’s Arches, plus a book, an album and a film – all of which enliven, embrace and entwine around each other.
“We wanted to reflect Scotland as a whole, so the only parameters we gave the writers and musicians were that they had to create a piece of work set somewhere specifically in Scotland, between the hours of midnight and 4am,” says Cora Bissett. It was inspired by literary-pop collaboration Ballads of the Book and filmic anthology Paris Je T’Aime, and is supported by Creative Scotland’s Vital Spark initiative.
“It was fascinating to see what people came back with,” Bissett enthuses. “Eugene Kelly [The Vaselines] wrote an amazing song about chips and cheese, Rachel Sermanni wrote a beautiful song about walking in the highlands and Emma Pollock wrote about Galloway Forest Park.”
Such nocturnal pop arias will weave into theatrical vignettes, and vice versa. “Annie Griffin [writer / director and creator of The Book Group] wrote this brilliant scene about a woman in the Buddhist Centre in Lockerbie, and we created a club scene using only the human voice – just these gorgeous vocal loops from Wounded Knee and beat-boxing from Bigg Taj. I really wanted the music in this project to be centre stage.”
David Greig directed Bissett in Midsummer – the “play with songs” he wrote with Gordon McIntyre of indie-champions ballboy – and performs the role of dramaturg in Whatever Gets You Through The Night. “You’re looking for the moment where the song wakes up something in the scene or the scene wakes up something in the song that wouldn’t otherwise be there,” he says. “Is it avant-garde? Well, part of you could go, ‘Oh yeah, this is a crazy post-modern, hyper-linked thing’, or you could just go, ‘Here’s a group of musicians telling a story about a feeling that we all share.’”
Some of the artists will perform at The Arches, while others have been filmed on location in Orkney, Loch Lomond and Glasgow cabs.
“It was a case of striking a balance, of finding a dynamic between the music and text,” explains Bissett. “So you’ve got someone like Dan Willson [aka thrash-folk saviour Withered Hand], who’s such a beautiful songwriter, and such a beautiful storyteller, and we took some of his songs as the starting point. We’d go, ‘Okay, the actors aren’t allowed to speak other than with words from Dan’s songs,’ and we’d improvise these scenes just using his lyrics, so the song became part of the dialogue.”
The experience proved eye-opening for Willson. “It was mysterious,” he says of being approached to participate. “I had to meet a guy in a pub. I wasn’t really told what it was, just that it involved thespians. But being around other creative people in a place like The Arches has been good for me – I began to finish other new songs for the first time in ages. I learned that acting makes me laugh out loud, and it also makes me cry.” Willson identifies his highlight so far as, “Being in the development room watching a scene, and Cora and I trying to wipe tears from our faces without the others seeing us.”
Have the physical and physiological elements of night-time – darkness, quiet, disturbance, lucidity –impacted on the nature and themes of the emerging work? “Yeah, these songs are quite fragile,” Bissett nods. “There are robust songs, and there are funny ones, but there does seem to be this common thread – there’s isolation, loneliness, leaving, letting go of things. It’s quite a contemplative time, I think, rather than a party time.” Bissett also suggests that the performance’s narrative arc reflects a journey from dark into light.
If it’s tempting to discern a hint of political allegory in a new Scottish work that sees independent artists rallying together for a new dawn, then it is not intended. “We didn’t set out to do that, but maybe it’s there in spirit,” offers Bissett. “Obviously David and I have done overtly political work [notably Bissett’s award-winning Roadkill and Greig’s recent One Day In Spring], but I certainly don’t think there was any great mission for this to be political. It was about wanting to create a warm show and a show where people feel really together.
Bissett continues: “But actually, I suppose a coming-together, a building of bridges with people that are not quite in your camp is a political statement in its own way.”
Whatever Gets You Through The Night also makes connections with Bissett and Greig’s early careers. Bissett’s unsung, yet brilliant, 90s gypsy-punk band, Swelling Meg, had a heady feel for the nocturnal (“I wish the morning would open a parachute,” went one resonant lyric), while Greig’s experimental theatre company, Suspect Culture, explored between-times and between-places in productions like Timeless and Local.
“The phrase ‘the darkest hour’ is one that I’ve been fascinated with for a while,” offers Greig. “It comes up over and over again in art, and the darkest hour is just before the dawn. It’s the transitional moment; it’s the point in-between. It’s very rare to be with people at that time and if you are, you’re with them for a mad reason. You’re doing something unusual. And if you’re alone, you’re loneliest in the darkest hour.
“But then, there is the dawn,” Greig brightens. “You come through, and the world awakes. There’s another day. You start again.” Whatever Gets You Through The Night promises to be rare indeed.
Film Screening, Edinburgh Summerhall, Aug 23 2012.
Deacon Blue (Ricky Ross) interview, Sept 2012 (The Herald)
Withered Hand interview, Dec 2011 (The Herald); Withered Hand interview, Aug 2012 (The Quietus)
RM Hubbert interview, Sept 2010 (The Herald); RM Hubbert interview, Jan 2012 (The Quietus)
Meursault interview, June 2012 (The Herald)
Errors interview, Feb 2012 (The Herald)
Wounded Knee interview, Nov 2011 (The Herald)
Rachel Sermanni interview, Jan 2011 (The Herald)
Conquering Animal Sound album review, Feb 2011 (The List)
Scottish Pop Song of the Day #7: Swelling Meg (feat Cora Bissett)
(Whatever Gets You Through The Night photo by Stephanie Gibson)