This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on Thursday Jan 3, 2013.
Rarely do pop interviews occur amid hen-keeping, fire-building and trough-knocking. But The Pictish Trail, alias Johnny Lynch, is not your regular pop artist. Based on a caravan on the Isle of Eigg, Lynch has co-run King Creosote’s Fence Records and its idyllic East Neuk festival, Homegame, for several years. In addition to The Pictish Trail’s radiant electro-folk, Lynch is one half of choral-disco outfit Silver Columns (in tandem with Adem), and a third of bygone improv-pop mob The Three Craws, in mirthful cahoots with King Creosote and James Yorkston.
Lynch was born in Edinburgh, spent his adolescence in Connecticut, moved to St Andrews as a student (lured by the indie-psych of locals The Beta Band) and relocated from Fife to Eigg in 2010. In between co-ordinating Fence and its live events (including the Hebridean Awaygame), recording a hyperactive collection of 50 30-second songs (In Rooms) and helping out with the odd bit of island farming, he made a second Pictish Trail album, Secret Soundz Vol 2, released this month.
Recorded on Eigg by deadpan Welsh troubadour and Euros Childs ally Sweet Baboo, it follows Lynch’s 2008 debut, Secret Soundz Vol 1. The albums share a balmy, skewed-pop aesthetic, good-humoured lyrics and chronologically-titled incidental tracks – inspired, like the album names, by Lynch’s favourite Connecticut record store, Secret Sounds. “The idea with the second record was to kind of mirror the first in some ways,” offers Lynch, “so there are little references throughout. Some of that happens by accident though – my song-writing is pretty fluid. I don’t think of sitting down and doing an album with clear themes, it’s more like I just keep writing and songs eventually gather together – even if they’ve been written five or six years apart.”
Secret Soundz Vol 2 was finished last winter, but its oldest song, Long In The Tooth, originates from 2005. A deceptively spry two-fingered swansong, Long In The Tooth signals a common wrong-footing tactic in Lynch’s work. “I’ve got this thing where the last song on the record shouldn’t really feel like the last one,” he says. “So with the first album, Into The Smoke should have been the finish, but then there’s a track afterwards [Secret Sound #5]. And on this one, I Will Pour It Down is like the big epic closer, so I thought, ‘I need another song after that’, which was Long In The Tooth. I’ve also got this hang-up that there has to be some weird balance in my records, so Long In The Tooth is meant to balance with Of Course You Exist – they’re two quite angry songs, on either side of the vinyl.”
There are also clear distinctions in Secret Soundz Vols 1 and 2. One of these is anatomical – “the records sound different to me because I had my tonsils out between them; I can hear the difference in my voice,” notes Lynch – but there is also considerable physical and emotional distance between them. The first was made in Fife and the second on Eigg, and Lynch’s move to a new environment coincided with the death of his mother.
“Moving to Eigg was a huge step in what happened with this record,” he reflects. “When mum passed, coming over here gave me the space and the time to sit down, with no distractions, and that shaped a lot of the songs.” Lynch identifies three songs at the heart of the album – Michael Rocket, Wait Until and current single The Handstand Crowd as being, “very much about that time. After that, I realised I had to record them on Eigg.”
The island’s indigenous musicians have also influenced Lynch’s live shows. Eigg’s searing thrash-metallers The Massacre Cave recently backed him at Aberfeldy Festival, and gave his hitherto jovial folk-pop songs a raucous spandex overhaul – a marked contrast to Lynch’s regular backing band, eagleowl, who bestow dreamy alt-rock magic upon his orphic psalms. Such divergent musical incarnations underscore the versatility and openness of Lynch’s songs – does he write them with myriad interpretations in mind? “I think it’s just that they’re relatively simple,” he suggests. “I’m totally self-taught as a musician, and I can’t play than many instruments, but the core of the song is written around the guitar, and I’m not that precious as to how they come across after that.
“Obviously I want my songs to sound good and exciting,” he continues, “and on record, I definitely have this thing where I want it to sound as close and intimate and weird in places as possible. But when I’m playing live with a band, there’s more of a thrill in doing something unexpected. I’ve always wanted to try and make my gigs different from the records, because all my favourite acts have done that,” he explains. “Like whenever I’ve seen Beck live, it’s always sounded completely different, and it’s always been really interesting to see how the music has changed from albums.”
Beck’s ingenuity is also echoed in Lynch’s take on recorded formats. While Beck recently issued an album on sheet music, The Pictish Trail released a single, Michael Rocket, on a sweatshirt (with download code). “I wanted to get some music out there, and I wanted to have something to attach it to,” says Lynch of the idea behind it. It is fitting that a DIY artist based on a blustery remote Scottish island does not just create warm-pop music; he wears it.
Secret Soundz Vol 2 (Fence) is out on January 21. The Pictish Trail plays Glasgow Art Club on Jan 24 as part of Celtic Connections, then tours.
Related articles: In Rooms album review, The List, November 2010.